|Korsan Nasrok, "The Mage"|
He wasn't opposed to waiting. Being a Mage meant knowing what was going to happen much later, and finding contentment in letting the present pass until it did. This time should not have been any different.
Except he had not foreseen this particular event.
His guards announced his name—part of it—as they dragged him into the court. The Royal Council in their silver-grey robes nearly blended into the marble furnishings. They kept their hoods over their faces, the illusion of an impartial, impassive governing body.
"You stand accused of blasphemy, of false prophecies to undermine the authority of this kingdom," said one of the councilors. "How do you plead?"
Korsan held his head high. They still feared him, feared the power he held if they had dared say his full name.
"I stand in support of the True King and his descendants!" He declared in a clear voice.
"The King is dead." The cold voice cut from the side of the room. "His family is scattered. The Royal Council rules the land."
"A serpent with two heads straining in opposing directions will risk devouring itself," Korsan replied. "How can a governing body lead as one, when they are so divided amongst each other?"
"Do not question our competence!" Screamed a portly cloaked shape on the other side.
Korsan kept his hands folded, fingering the talisman hanging from his belt. The cool blue gem kept him from losing his temper entirely. "If it pleases the court," he said slowly, "may I know of what I am being accused?"
A murmur rippled through the assembly.
"You have long dissented against the policies of civic order instituted by this Council," droned another grey-robed individual, "and your outrageous claims against the crown—not to mention your failed attempts at prophecy—have prompted an inquiry into the true extent of your patriotism."
The Mage raised an eyebrow. "And my effectiveness as a Mage, apparently."
The presiding Councillor sniffed. "Yes, well, the late King Balwyn—angels rest his soul—did engage in the propagation of questionable practices. His faith in you was clearly misplaced—"
Korsan snorted. "Clearly! Since the plague that swept the land did not harm those who took my advice and sought the King's Healer—"
"She poisoned the King and Queen!"
"No!" Korsan raised his hand and pointed, causing the councilors in the front row to shrink backend cry out in alarm. "Your own Mage did this!"
"YOU STAND ACCUSED OF TREASON AND YOU WOULD SPEAK THUS?" The Chief Councillor bounded to his feet, his hands clenched and purple at his sides, his body quivering.
Korsan felt the talisman surge in warning; it would not do to enrage the high-strung council. Perhaps he could eventually make them see reason. "Forgive me," he said, "it was not my place—"
The High Councillor made an impatient gesture with his hands. "Take him away!" He spat.
The guards surged forward and grabbed Korsan by the arms. Once outside the main courts, they shoved him roughly forward.
Korsan winced as the rough flagstones cut into his hands. Struggling to his feet, he trudged toward his quarters in the tower to contemplate this turn of events.
The Mage they hired to cure the Royal Couple ends up killing them—nothing could convince him of the widespread belief that the Healer was at fault—and now somehow this implicated him as well? He had only prophesied according to his visions; the King had heeded them wisely and well, changing his legislation according to the projected effect Korsan would predict. King Balwyn had done everything he could to ensure the people under his rule were healthy and happy. The Royal Council, with all their formalities and bluster, could never manage that level of leadership, nor even find it within themselves to maintain the generous policies instituted by the king. That left them ripe for being overtaken by other leaders, more ruthless ones.
Speaking of other leaders...
Korsan went to his window as the clatter of carriage wheels echoed in the courtyard. Two young adults dressed in black emerged, and Korsan felt his talisman pulse a warning. These two were bad news. He only hoped that the Council would call him in so that he could see firsthand what they wanted and perhaps negotiate to avoid any undue hostility.
Korsan waited several hours, but no one came. Finally, late that night, just before Korsan blew out the candle, he heard the heavy stomp of boots and the creak of armor. A gauntleted fist pounded on the door.
"Mage Korsan, open up!"
Korsan stood, but before he had taken two paces, the soldiers threw open the door. He counted three of them.
"Korsan Nasrok, you are under arrest for the use of dangerous abilities which have been deemed a threat to the realm..."
Korsan felt his knees buckle as the second soldier dragged his arms behind him and the third clapped irons over his wrists. Arrested? Dangerous magic? A threat?
Korsan looked up at the soldier dragging him from the room. "On whose authority—"
He didn't see the mailed fist before it clouted him across the face. "Silence! We have been warned of your silver tongue. You will not be permitted to speak."
The soldier behind him coughed, and Korsan felt the warm spittle strike his neck as they hauled him to his feet.
"On the authority of the Twin Regents!" He gloated as they marched their prisoner down the hall.
Twins! Korsan recalled the prophecy he had received last season, but he had not understood it:
"Two will rise and Two will fall;
Brothers become outcasts, all;
The crown is lost, when crownless, Two,
The Regents take counsel from you."
He'd seen it coming, and done nothing. Korsan hung his head; he'd known all along, and yet he had believed the realm was not at risk. The word was not "counsel" but "Council." The Royal Council now bowed to the wishes of the crownless Regents—and the true Crown Prince had been missing for some time.
Korsan emerged from his stupor when he heard the moans of others. He looked up. They had passed the courtyard, and now they were heading toward the back, lower levels of the castle: the dungeons. Korsan watched as soldiers escorted whole groups of people—citizens of the realm—toward the black hallway. Brothers being cast out; why? Surely these people did not pose a threat like a real Mage did?
Korsan stumbled forward as a boot caught him in the back. The prison guards stepped forward to haul him back to his feet.
"Korsan Nasrok," the lead guard announced. "Former Mage in the court of King Balwyn. Take him to the cells."
Korsan saw his talisman pulse with light, then remain steadily bright. The light seemed to enter his vision and course through his whole body.
Of course! The soldier had no idea what he had just done; so far as he knew, he had given the jailer the name of a high-profile prisoner. For recording purposes, it had to be his full name.
The full name of a wizard.
Korsan closed his eyes and pictured the locking mechanism on his cuffs. As the guard hefted him by his shoulder, Korsan twisted the tumblers in the lock. The heavy metal cuffs crashed to the ground. As the soldiers hesitated in disbelief, it was enough time for Korsan to twist out of their grip, sweeping his leg across theirs, sending them tumbling into one another with a clash of armor. The noise stilled as Korsan made a break for the castle gate. He had only to reach the top of the stairs—
Korsan stiffened and halted in his tracks.
Standing in the courtyard, just beyond sight of the doorway leading to the dungeons, were the Twin Regents! A boy and a girl, dressed in deep black, staring at him.
"Captain!" Shouted the girl, after a moment of silence. "It appears one of your prisoners has escaped!"
The captain of the guard huffed up behind him and grabbed him. Korsan ceased struggling, as the lady continued to stare at him.
"You know, brother," she addressed her pale twin, "this is just exactly the sort of person we don't want in prison with the others." She giggled. "Rather counter-intuitive to provide the outcasts with their very own rebel instigator!"
Korsan felt his confidence surge. "I have seen my death, Lady; you cannot execute me."
A smile played around her pale lips. "Who said that was my only option?" She nailed the captain with her red eyes. "Escort the Mage to the midst of the Wilderness. See that he is lost there. The Mage and all his kind are hereby banished from the realm."
The twins turned and continued on to the throne room.
They loaded Korsan into a windowless wagon after that. The only indication of travel he had was the sound of the horses' harnesses and the sway of the wagon. When they let him out, he stood in a corner of the kingdom he'd forgotten existed. Fog lay thick, and cliffs ran high.
"Good riddance," growled the captain. Korsan watched the wagon retreat till the fog swallowed it up. He was alone.
"Alone," Korsan repeated to the awestruck faces before him, "but not powerless. I dreamed that night, and in my dream, I saw many people with strange and wonderful powers, outcasts like you and me, shunned and forced into hiding—but someday, when the Crown Prince returns to the castle, these people will come forth and rise up, defying the stigma placed on them and receiving acceptance in society."
Velora sat back and clacked her claws together. "So..." She mused slowly, "where is the Crown Prince, then?"
Korsan opened his mouth to answer, but a moth fluttered into the cave. The boy jumped back as if he had never seen one before, and even Korsan examined it. This sort of moth should be out of season... He gently cupped his hand around it. When he opened his fingers, he stared at his empty palm.
Suddenly Velora was on her feet too, teeth bared in a growl. "How did you get past my wolves? Who are you?" She demanded of the shadows at the cave mouth.
One of the shadows peeled away, revealing a woman with straight hair, white as milk.
"I have come to warn you," she said.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Breathe in, pulse; breathe out, flicker.
Breathe in; breathe out.
"Sorry!" Jaran let his head sag as Harlock rubbed his singed rump. He'd been trying to master his control of the lightning all day, and had only succeeded in making his charges too weak or too strong.
"I can't help that the only time I ever used my power, the Council was trying to get me to use stronger and stronger charges!"
Harlock growled some profanity and looked at the rope in his hands. The string of perfect knots had of course burned away in the flash, leaving him with smoking, charred ends in either hand.
Erlis the Healer came to sit next to the young man. "When you think of your charge, what do you picture?"
Jalan rubbed his eyes. "The storm," he muttered hollowly. "The way the electricity spread out from my fingers and went everywhere—" he waved his hand and a spark flew over Harlock's head to strike a tree.
"HEY!" He roared, throwing up his hands.
A jet of water came with them, streaming straight at the flaming branches. The fire extinguished as soon as it began. The trio stared at the dripping branches.
Harlock stared at his hands. The fairy hovered over his shoulder, chattering away in her gentle bell noises.
"Well, that's new," Harlock stammered.
Jaran stared at him with wide eyes. "Do it again!" He cried.
Harlock spread his hand, palm up, over the side of the dock. Slowly, a thin string of water rose from the surface, swirling and winding upward to caress his hand. Harlock moved it back toward himself, and with a gentle flick of his fingers, the pool in his hand rose up in a trickling fountain.
Erlis nodded. "Water manipulation," she mused. "You are gifted after all."
Jaran stared at him with wide eyes. "You mean there are more like me?"
Erlis eyed him carefully. "Did no one ever tell you?"
Jaran shook his head. "They treated me like a biological anomaly; they restricted my movements so no one would ever know there was something wrong."
Erlis nodded. "It was easier to control you that way. The truth is that there are many of us scattered throughout the realm, gifted people with ability to do things beyond the scope of normal human ability."
Harlock twisted his hand, and the water separated from the stream, hovering over his palm in a round globe. "Or ones that don't look normal," he cast a quick glance toward the scales on her face.
Erlis nodded. "Those who didn't fit the mold were relegated to lowly, hidden positions, away from the public eye. Some were even turned into science experiments, their rights as citizens and people forfeited because of their difference."
"Science experiments?" Jaran felt a spark snake up his arm and burrow into his neck. "The night I left... There was a woman... They told me she was just a beacon, a test subject..." More sparks arced over his chest and arms. "I caused her such pain!"
"Jaran!" Erlis warned, as Harlock edged away. "No doubt if she was empowered as you are, her gift protected her. Calm down!"
Jaran found his pulse racing in time with the pulsing arcs. His breath came in choppy gasps. He fought to control it, to slow it down. The arcs of lightning thickened and slowed. Jaran clenched his fists and concentrated on holding the charge in, grasping it tightly in himself, pulling it back. The lightning responded, receding back into his body like glowing worms. When he finally released his breath, the lightning was gone, and he had not hurt or destroyed anything!
Erlis nodded in approval. "You learn fast, young prince. Yes, that woman was probably discarded by the Council as a nothing and nobody."
Harlock listened to the fairy, and nodded. "Then maybe it's time to prove them wrong."
The boots still showed clearly, even in the midst of dozens of wolf prints. They followed the boots, never wavering—almost as if the one wearing the boots were their alpha. She pictured a tall man, carrying the suit of woman's armor, marching at the head of a wolf pack. She shook her head. It didn't fit. The next idea offered a young boy, one small enough to wear the armor. It was less awkward than trying to picture a full-grown man, but then that discredited the notion of Boots becoming an alpha. There was no way a young boy could tame an entire pack, yet maintain their savagery enough to obliterate an entire camp of innocents like that. What if—
She stopped. The boots vanished from in front of her. Standing over the last apparent pair, she gazed all around for any kind of lift, or available surface within reach that did not hold a print. Nothing even she could reach, and she doubted her quarry could be more agile than she. She glanced back to see how her troop fared. They crashed through the bracken some distance back, she could hear them, but they were too far back to see.
"Captain!" She called.
The crashing continued, but no voices among it.
She retraced a few steps. "Captain!" She bellowed. Why wouldn't he answer.
"Madam Hunter!" She whirled as the call came from a completely different direction. She turned back the way she came—
But the path of boot and wolf prints now stretched in a different direction. The trees crossed in different directions than she expected. She groaned and moved to the same spot she stopped at. Still, the trees swayed and twigs snapped behind her. She stopped and closed her eyes and listened. The steady pant of a wolf huffed below the crashing. She opened her eyes and turned in that direction. Boots was still in the forest? What luck! She leaped toward the sound of panting, rewarded with the flurry of movement erupting in the bushes. She raised her eyes, narrowing them to compress her field of vision. There in the shadows, a hooded figure stood.
"Got you!" She snarled, lunging forward.
The moment she landed, all sound ceased. There were no shadows, no rustling bushes—worst of all, no prints. The very light was considerably darker than it had been. She blinked very purposefully, and everything flickered to life, a green daylight illuminating the black night. Standing against the shape of a tree, she glimpsed a figure with white hair. The Hunter lunged, catching the figure by surprise. Lights too bright for her night vision danced over the stranger's fingers. An Illusionist! The Hunter wheeled back too late. The Illusionist cast the lights directly in her face, and when the Hunter's vision cleared, the white-haired woman and her illusions were gone.
"NOOOO!" She screamed her rage to the moon. Frustrated, she turned back to rendezvous with her team.