Chapter One – Update and Comparison

Short Stories

A few weeks ago, I posted the first chapter of my WIP, Tales of Drynic. The first post (found here) was a celebration of completing the first draft and first round of developmental edits. I really wanted to show the progress made between the first and second drafts in an effort to encourage young or new/unpublished writers — myself included — to keep pushing through. The first draft is always a mess. So is the second draft. But you learn so much with each pass through your work. So let’s talk a little bit about what has changed.

The draft below is the results of my first round of Critique Partner (CP) readthroughs. While I don’t want to explain too much terminology in this introduction, suffice it to say I swapped full manuscripts with a few other writers, and we commented on and made suggestions on the clarity of each other’s work. It’s a pretty vital step on the path to publication as these are the first outside eyes to ever see your manuscript. It’s necessary to ask other people to critique your work so that you can see what is and isn’t working once translated to the page.

A good critique partner will tell you both sides of the coin. Example: my biggest strength is character (if you’re surprised by this, you haven’t seen the library of content I’ve post here.) All of my CPs commented on their connection to my core characters and the clarity they are reading with. Conversely, I have two big weaknesses: clarity in my magic system and describing setting. It is important to remember the positive comments as equally as negative ones; positives build you up and help battle impostor syndrome and self-doubt, and negatives point to ways you can improve your craft.

This draft focused a lot on those changes — trying to immerse the reader in the scene and finding ways to more thoroughly explain the shapeshifting magic that exists in universe. Without any further adieu, I present the new-and-improved Chapter One of Tales of Drynic.

Stay safe,

Rena Grace

-|-

Synopsis: Abryn and her estranged older sister, Reislyn, were raised as some of the only dryfters in all of Ridgate. When Highborns from the East request the assistance of a mechanic and a medic, the two are forced to travel together with a group of strangers. The party continues west on a diplomatic mission to offer aid to a struggling city of non-dryfters — a place painfully reminiscent of their hometown.

-|-

Chapter 1; Draft 3

Abryn didn’t like working on weekends, yet she couldn’t remember the last one she’d taken fully off. This week, the request — supposedly urgent — was delivered rain-day morning while she and Wells fixed lunch. The messenger, a dark-skinned man with white patches on his face, had insisted they needed the job done by noon the next day. Before Abryn could get too many details, Wells had told him, in the politest way possible, to shove off. He didn’t mention it over lunch or for the rest of the day.

But there he was, propped up on the couch, disappointed black eyes watching for her early the next morning. Apparently, she was predictable. “You worked last weekend,” he said, leaning farther into the cushions.

“That was a two hour job. They just needed me to–”

“You were the only one working.” He seemed to know she’d stopped asking the firav to help work overtime, even if he wouldn’t come out and say it. “You skipped dinner to stand in the mud.” 

“Lucky me, noon is long before dinner.” 

He gave her a look and heaved off into the kitchen. She always felt worse when Wells gave up an argument. She emphasized that she’d be back for lunch and shut the door behind her. None of these requests were ever that difficult. There was really no reason to go bothering anyone else when she was fully capable of just fixing up whatever had broken down. 

Shaking his disbelieving gaze from her mind, Abryn jogged across town. Or at least she tried. While she could’ve waited for one of the trains that connected the Downtown to West Station, only two ran on sun-days. On top of that, they were in such bad shape even Abryn, built more for lifting than hustling, could outrun them. She heaved across the damp cobblestone streets, telling herself it was training for the next time Wells invited her on one of his jogs.

She made it to West Station, flicked on the warning signals for both the east and westbound tracks, and took a moment to catch her breath in the dark, dumpy control room. It was unlikely the signals were necessary; weekend deliveries weren’t common, and very few passenger trains travelled through Ridgate. She didn’t understand what made this urgent, but here she was. 

Abryn made it to the abandoned train by late morning. It was a beaten down engine cart with an empty cargo trailer behind it. Must’ve been part of a larger west-bound caravan. There was no sign of what or who was previously being transported. 

The engine cart had slipped an axle and leaned heavily to the left. The mechanism itself seemed fine; it could use a tune up, but it should make it back to the shop, no problem. The enclosed trailer behind it wasn’t attached when she examined it. The hitch was bent, and the socket had twisted open. Three of the cheap metal wheels had doubled over or snapped completely off. It must’ve been nearly slung off the tracks when the engine lurched down. The carts that the city of Leanns sent to smaller towns were always cheap and in terrible condition. Abryn took a firm stance and straightened the hitch back out, but there was little she could do for the socket. It wrapped unconvincingly around the ball and crushed it a bit, but the train would have to rely heavily on the chains to stay connected. 

She stood in front of the damaged side of the engine, considering her options. Heaving the frame onto her knee, she tried repositioning the axel but didn’t have the reach or the angle. The gravel mound the tracks were built on did not make for stable footing for long. She set the engine down as carefully as possible before letting her feet slide down to the still-fresh mud. It wasn’t going to be easy to get back to the shop like this, but if any one person could get it back, it was Abryn. She was the only dryfter in Ridgate that worked as a mechanic. They’d have needed six-or-so firav to get this job done, and that’s more hassle than the Militia cared to put into it.

She cranked the machine and put it in reverse on its lowest setting. It was another mile out of town to the next connection onto the inbound tracks, and she had no interest in going that far to come all the way back in the correct direction. The warning lights should stop all trains at West Station. If another train was coming she’d hear them before they’d even decided to ignore the signals. Standing between the two carts, Abryn lifted the inner left corners of each and fell into the engine’s pace, heading back to Ridgate. She knew that she had to be getting close to the shop when the cargo trailer lost another cheap wheel. It lurched hard to the right, and Abryn dropped the engine cart to keep the trailer from toppling off the tracks. Metal wailed as the engine continued to scrape town the rail. She jerked to stabilize both and dashed to shut off the motor. 

Dropping the engine had caused even more damage to the frame. Just another thing.

In the adrenaline rush, her hands had dryfted into dark leathery claws without prompting. She only noticed when she saw the fresh gashes in the wooden siding. She slid down the gravel mound, chewing her tongue in irritation. Dryfting her hands slowly back, Abryn stretched out her fingers and wrists. Hands were the most likely to cramp up after impulse dryfts. She wiped the little spots of blood from the soft skin between the fingers and cracked her knuckles, considering leaving the stupid train there until the workday started tomorrow morning. One day wouldn’t kill them. If she left the warning signals up, surely people would stay off the tracks. Who would need to come through Ridgate anyway? 

But someone needed her to get it done. West Station was within sight. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

Abryn glanced back at the shop one last time and saw a thin, light-haired Militia boy, maybe a half a foot shorter and sixty pounds lighter than she was. No rank markings on a green vest; he was a Private. The black trim around the bottom meant he was part of Ridgate’s civic Militia. But she didn’t recognize him. Commandant Major Gentry had recently requested additional transfers, he must’ve been one of them. 

He noticed her look at him and timidly waved her over. With a deep, resentful breath, Abryn hiked back to the shop at West Station. She halfheartedly extended her hand, palm down in greeting; he examined her tattoos. He was definitely new. Ridgate’s whole civic Militia knew she was a dryfter, specifically tigruca. There were so few dryfters to keep up with here. After a few more moments, he cautiously responded, placing his palm on the back of her hand. As with all Militia officers, his hands were wrapped hiding whether or not he could dryft. His skittish nature implied he couldn’t, meaning he was a firav. 

“Lady Bryn, you’ve been summoned to the Central.”

“Tell Kaler that is not my name and that I’m busy,” she crossed the shop and grabbed their biggest dolly.

“Er… Ma’am, he says I’m not supposed to leave until you come with me.”

She strode back down the tracks. “I have things to do here.”

He pleaded again, following her to the abandoned carts. She shoved the dolly under the engine cart and wrestled the finicky tool into place. The rusty old dolly just barely lifted the engine cart off its broken axle. It wasn’t meant to hold that much weight, but with the station so close, it’d save her a lot of trouble, struggling to move it herself. She checked the connection again before striding to the back-end of the cargo trailer. She turned to face West Station and lifted the end of the trailer. He stepped back in apprehension. Abryn was right: definitely firav. 

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “this is an important matter. There are Highborns in town he needs you to speak to.”

“This is going to sound mean, but if it was that important, Kaler would have sent someone more important.”

“Ma’am, these are very important guests. He wanted the Central well-manned.”

Abryn gave him a blank stare and a fake smile. “Tell him I have my hands full. Literally, if you have to. It is supposed to be my day off, and I will not spend it playing games.”

The Private stood for a few more moments before retreating back to the shop and disappearing out the door. Abryn exhaled heavily and refocused on the task at hand. With the slick tracks, she needed better footing. She dryfted partially, letting the bones and muscles in her legs readjust. Her feet shifted, elongating under thickening skin. Claws and thicker foot pads would help with traction. Changing the joint location of her knees and ankles made it easier to lift and pull the cart behind her. The first few steps, the two carts didn’t want to move. The chains rattled and metal ground on metal. With a small grunt, the trailer jolted forward. The ball hitch had left the socket. Chains snapped tight in the middle, giving the assembly some momentum. Clawing into the gravel between the ballasts, Abryn got up to a heavy run sustaining it just long enough to coast into the shop.

She had just dropped it inside when the Private returned. She dryfted her feet slowly back to their human state, walking to the far side of the train to disconnect the chains and haul the engine cart onto a lift. Moments later, a lanky, black-haired figure joined her.

It was unlike Wells to be dressed before noon, much less out of the house. Yet he was here wearing a carefully subdued face of concern. Abryn studied an uncharacteristic urgency in his dark, hooded eyes. He kept most of the emotion from his voice, but it wasn’t completely hidden from her. “I was called into work this morning maybe an hour after you left. The Commandant Major is dead.”

“Gentry…” Abryn blinked slowly. “Does that mean Kaler is –”

“Yes, he’s Commandant now.”

“I see,” she pursed her lips and bit her tongue. Her heart beat a little faster. “He summoned me.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“He sent you?”

“Yes; there are Highborns in Ridgate –”

“There really are Highborns here?” She stopped herself and calmed her tone, “Multiple Highborns?”

“Yes!” Wells hissed. “I passed one — almost my height — when Kaler summoned me to summon you. Said there was another one across town.”

She ran her fingers through her hair, “Well, what did he say?” 

“Nothing.” 

“What does this have to do with me?” 

“How would I know?” Contemplative silence trailed his words. He shook his head, his voice calmer, “I have to get back to the morgue and take care of my side of this mess. They should be near done draining him.”

“Do you think they had anything to do with the Commandant?”

“The Highborns? I don’t know. The timing is unusual if they aren’t involved. But then again, since when do they care about the hierarchy of the civic Militia?”

“When was the last time we had a Highborn in Ridgate?”

Again, he shook his head. “It was that older Cutov woman, wasn’t it? The one that promised to send more working-class dryfters from the capitol.” 

Abryn rolled her eyes, “I remember now. It’s a waste of my time to go sit pretty on Kaler’s arm and play politics.”

“You should go see this guy.”

“I have a job–”

“I can have bags packed tonight,” he cut in. 

Her fingers twitched at her sides, “That’s a big leap.”

“Is it? After all these years of swearing you’d leave if he promoted?”

“Do you see this frame?” she thunked the hollow cart. “Who else could straighten that out right?”

He narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t your primary shop. The semantics aren’t your problem.”

She set her jaw. “Well, what about Reislyn? Do you plan on leaving her with him in charge?”

“If it makes you feel better, go get her before we leave.”

“Because that would go well. I haven’t seen her in years. Why don’t you go–” 

“Quit dodging me,” he pulled his shoulders back. “Things are happening. I’m not sure I want to be around to see where this goes. I’d guess you have that same instinct, too.”

She dismissed the idea, “We can talk later.” Abryn shouldered by Wells and accompanied the young officer back to the Central.

-|-

The Private didn’t leave her side until the Central was in sight. It was a single story building — Ridgate had the only Central she knew of that didn’t have at least a second floor. Its grey shiplapped boards didn’t look great but were better maintained than most, even compared to the houses and shops Downtown. The deep green embellishments were repainted every decade-or-so, though the rest of the building had never been painted white, as was supposed to be regulation.

Kaler was waiting for her in the entrance hall. His auburn hair was distinct through the distorted glass in the windows, so she had time to find her most distrusting expression as they stomped up the bowing wooden steps. 

There was something off about him. She had never seen him disheveled. Not like this. They were subtle keys. He stood a distance from their officer friends. His brown eyes were restless; his arms crossed in front of his new, green-and-black Commandant vest. There was a stiff edge to his movements. He almost seemed nervous that those polished brass triangles might jab him if he shifted wrong. She wished she found satisfaction in his anxiety, but instead, it was unsettling.

With a deep breath, he put on a smile and reached out to touch her arm. She stopped out of his range. “What is going on?”

“Not in the mood to make new friends?”

“I never seem to like your friends.”

“You should probably get along with this one,” he said, maintaining his typical playful tone. “Either way, I’ve gone through quite a bit of trouble to get you an audience with some pretty important people. You could at least thank your Commandant, Bryn.” She held her blank expression, biting her tongue. He waited for a moment before brushing his unnaturally unruly hair away from his face. “You can quit reading so far into this summon. The Highborns have some engineering needs that you’re going to help them with. Ignore me, fine, but I know you’re too smart to decline their request.” He gestured to the Commandant’s office. His office now. “Well, you’ve kept them long enough. You learned common etiquette, didn’t you?”

Abryn didn’t give him the satisfaction of a withering glare. “Of course. I save it for people worth respecting.” 

Anticipation tied a knot in her stomach. She fixed her hair as best she could. Her fingers twitched softly at her side, but she cocked an eyebrow and straightened her posture. It was difficult to block out the whispers from officers across the entrance hall. Two Lieutenants pulled the heavy double doors open toward her. She walked lightly into the room, consciously reminding herself to breathe. Apart from a few civic officers — all women she knew to be dryfters — there was only a man inside leaning confidently against the desk. Abryn’s eyes immediately rested on the Cutov Highborn tattoos displayed on his neck under a heavy mane of hair. She gave a short, subtle bow and extended her hand in greeting. With a crooked smile, the man approached her. There was an almost aggressive bounce in his step — he wasn’t like that stiff, reserved woman she’d met a few years ago. Instead of returning the gesture, he brought her hand up to kiss it. 

She fought hard against the urge to jerk away, blushing. “Oh, so you’re a kisser,” she tried to play it off.

It was a risky first impression, but her gut reaction was right. His grin widened, and he straightened up and placed his palm on the top of her hand. “Your Commandant warned me about that quick wit. I knew I would like you.”

She recentered with a deep breath, taking this time to get a good look at him. His hand marked him as a dryfter — specifically a tigruca, like Abryn. He was a few inches taller than she was and wore a full-length maroon Highborn’s cloak open to his bare chest which, like his neck, bore several delicate tattoos. He had tan, olive skin and dark brown hair, straight and long down his back. There were a number of small, haphazard braids pulling unruly hairs back. He had a sharp face but chose to wear short facial hair that gave him a rugged look. He was thin for a tigruca with more of a swimmer’s build like Wells. 

“My name is Kerrix,” he said. “And you’re Abryn the engineer, yes?”

“Yes,” she replied, “but ‘mechanic’ is a more accurate description, Lord Cutov.”

“Don’t do that,” he waved his hands dismissively. “Titles are stupid. Just Kerrix. Anyway, I hear you’re the best in Ridge Gate. They also say you and your sister are some of the only drynic left in town. I imagine that makes you pretty invaluable.”

“Be useful or be forgotten,” Abryn nodded. “There are a few other dryfters — er, drynic — outside of the Militia. The only one I know personally runs the morgue for all of the Midland region.”

“By your logic, he won’t be forgotten either,” Kerrix nodded and flashed another crooked grin. “Let me get straight to the point, and we can talk details over dinner. I need your help with the train we’ve been using to get around the island. It’s been having engine troubles on and off since we left the Coast, and I’m afraid we’re on an incredibly tight schedule. We’ve put off fixing it as long as we could.”

She nodded with a smile, “Of course. I can help with whatever you need.” 

“Deal,” Kerrix said, guiding her out. 

As she passed, Abryn refused to look at Kaler, only nodding to officers who stood a short distance from him. Her stubbornness prevented her from reading his expression, but he carefully watched her leave. 

Strolling into the roughly paved courtyard, Kerrix described an efficiency problem and listed off a few circumstances when the machine would quit running altogether. Apparently, he and another — Bryst — had to roll the train into Ridgate when they couldn’t get it to start back up. She sympathized with that effort. 

The Highborn didn’t seem to notice how foreign he looked, walking from the fairly regulated blocks near the Central into the arbitrary construction found in the overcrowded neighborhoods that made up most of Ridgate. He waved off her suggestion of taking the tram, occasionally commenting on a homegrown garden or an artisan’s furniture stand built onto the front of someone’s home. Though he never mentioned anything negative, he seemed to be making mental notes about the small tenements, dingy bathhouses, and crowded communal wells. 

Across town, Kerrix’s train sat in the boarding lane of West Station. Abryn would have never believed it, but apparently Highborns travel on weekends. It was likely their request to take care of the blockage west of the city.

The Highborn train was beautiful: four sleek, black-and-maroon, luxury carts held together with bright silver frames and polished connections. It looked like a sleeping carriage and a dining car between two engine carts facing opposite directions. The windows — aside from the dark, reflective glass of the sleeping cart — were clearer than any in all of Ridgate. It seemed that its connection to the powerline above was purely optional. Abryn had never seen a battery-powered engine up close before, much less tinkered with one. These machines were made to be faster with higher-quality materials and maintained by real, trained engineers. Confident it couldn’t be that hard, she stepped into the engine cart to learn a few things. With a basic understanding of the power source, she checked for the issues Kerrix had mentioned and hopped out to look at the mechanism.

“So,” Kerrix perched himself on the edge of the platform, hanging his feet over the side, “tell me about Ridge Gate. You must like it here if you chose to stay.”

Abryn considered the best answer to give. “I’ve been here my whole life. These people really need all the dryfters they can get to stay. Only ever visited other firav towns in the area; almost always on job requests. Spent a few years in Leanns, but I was pretty young.” He waited for her to say more. “It’s difficult to make a real comparison to other places on the island. We’re a small town. Not many travellers come through, so I don’t hear much about other places.”

“Should it get more travellers?”

“No,” she said a little too quickly. “I mean, we’re glad you came through, Lord Kerrix–” 

“I told you, Kerrix is literally fine. You and I aren’t that different.” 

She refrained from outright agreeing with him. “Well, Kerrix, there’s just not much to do here other than work.”

“Doesn’t sound ideal.” 

She pulled hard on a slipped belt which snapped and crumbled in her hand. She was a little heartbroken. This engine wasn’t nearly as well-maintained as she had expected. “It’s not that bad.” She stuffed the broken belt into one of her many self-stitched pockets. She had a few available replacements in the repair section. She was sure there would be one the same length.

He chucked, “That wasn’t even a little convincing. You’re not being honest. Do you like it here? I’ve heard some call it ‘Death Valley.’”

He wanted honesty, huh? “What do you really expect from Midland’s main cemetery?” Her voice echoed slightly off the interior of the train. “Half our land is devoted to dead people other towns cart in. A quarter of the remaining is devoted to taking care of the carts they use, and the rest, we have to cram as many houses on as we can, yet the Militia still refuse to let firav live in Downtown. I’m sure you’ve noticed our lack of palaces.”

He had a boisterous laugh. “Sounds terrible. I hear palaces are very desirable these days,” he said. “Without palaces, why does anyone stay?” 

“Where else would they go?” Abryn asked back, her tone remained even, but the humor had faded some. She thought of her earlier conversation with Wells. “Reislyn, Wells, and I — dryfters could relocate, easy. I don’t know about the East, but around here, it’s much harder for firav to just move.” 

“And if they had the option, do you think they would leave?”

“Some of them, I’m sure,” she replied. “Maybe even most.”

“Would you have enough trains for that kind of move?”

She peered out from under the cart to find him looking at her. His face was impassive. Like that was a normal question to ask. “Not really; I keep a lot of available, but mostly trailers, not passenger carts. You never know when some firav plague could wipe out a quarter of Pinewood or Dupesville. That becomes our problem very quickly. And if we’re saddled with a bunch of useless, broken-down carts, that’s on me. They need me and my mechanics to keep trains running to keep them safe.”

He smirked, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Highborns understand that sentiment. Keeping people safe. You just want what’s best for every person out there.” He shrugged his distant expression away, shifting to a kneel. “Well, listen, don’t work through lunch or anything. We’d like to leave by nightfall, but as long as we’re out of town today, we’ll stay on schedule. I’m going to find my travelling companions and look for food. Any suggestions?”

“All the good food is near the Central, just outside Downtown,” she said. “There’s a sweet older woman in shop 607. She serves great soups and gives great life advice.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

“Of course not; she learned it all from me.”

He laughed again and told her he’d see her later.

Abryn worked for a little while after his footsteps faded away. The remaining adjustments wouldn’t take long, and she wanted to get more information from Wells. Hopping back to the platform, she jogged into town. Slightly winded, Abryn walked the rest of the way to the morgue, a pale blue building that didn’t feel appropriate for its function. The back door was always locked, but, lifting on the handle while pushing at the top, the bolt could be maneuvered out of it’s socket. She scrubbed oil and grease off as best she could and checked for any cuts or scrapes before slipping into one of the sanitation gowns. Though the tiny tears on her hands had long-since healed, she maneuvered into a pair of tight gloves before entering the cold room. 

Sure enough, Relmot Gentry — former Commandant of Ridgate — lay lifeless on the autopsy table. He had been a respectable man, distant and professional but kind. Most importantly, Gentry had held high standards for his officers, especially command staff. She looked away quickly, already feeling squeamish. 

Wells glanced up from the gaping hole in the dead man’s chest and dismissed his assistant. Even though one of the firav would have drained Gentry’s blood as soon as he arrived, Abryn impulsively touched the mask over her face, keeping back from the body and sending Wells an expectant look. 

“He was definitely murdered. Absolutely brutalized. I see no signs of drugs or poison; he was just overpowered. And you won’t be surprised to hear that the bruises were significantly worse on his right side.” Kaler was left-handed. Wells looked at her, his hooded eyes tired and resigned. “What did he want from you this time?”

“He gloated a little,” she leaned back on the wall and focused on keeping her voice steady. “Puffed up real big trying to fit that new vest of his. But it was mostly about the Highborns; they need me to fix some issues with their train.”

“And what do they want?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Abryn shrugged. “The one I was with kept asking me about Ridgate. What it’s like, whether I like it here, if I wanted to leave, if others wanted to leave. I didn’t ask why he cared, but I got the feeling he didn’t want to talk about himself.” Wells gave a thoughtful hum. “He was odd,” she added. “He had some odd questions.”

“I would imagine we seem odd to him,” Wells said, ” the dryfters that choose to live here.” 

She agreed with a sigh. “Anyway, I came by to get lunch. Are you close to finishing up with this?”

He looked at his disgusting gloves and shook his head. “You should go talk to Reislyn instead. Get lunch with her — she works nights these days.”

“We’ll have time to talk about this after I finish up with the Highborns. Who knows, they could give me some kind of medal if I do a good job. ‘For services to home and country.’ Or the ‘I’m sorry you live here’ award.”

Wells rolled his eyes and gave her a knowing glance before going back to work. 

“I’ll be at the house if you change your mind.” She sighed and let herself out. 

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