The words burned hotter and deeper than the three fresh wounds on her face. Captain Edri Rodan caught herself questioning her actions—had she taken the right course after all? She shook her head. A good soldier didn't second-guess herself.
A palace guard, Justin, scooted off his bunk to intercept her on the way to hers.
"Is it true?" He asked. "What they're saying? Did you actually interrupt a circus?"
Edri pursed her lips. "I did what was necessary," she said.
"You're saying that was necessary?" Justin snorted. "That man deserved to die; now because of you the Council has been forced to assign him janitorial duties to keep him out of sight!"
Edri huffed. "If they intended him to die, they should have left off the armor!" She sneered at the cowardice of the Ruling Council. Everyone knew that the Twin Regents held the real power—but the Council had been around since the start of King Balwyn's reign, and they would do what it took to maintain power over the people.
Justin still regarded her carefully. "They say he walked away without a scratch, yet everyone saw him get hurt multiple times."
Edri swallowed; she definitely would have preferred facing down the lion again, if it meant avoiding questions like these. "So? Maybe it's his Gift; you know they only sacrifice Gifted people in the circus."
"It's not a sacrifice!" Justin retorted.
"What else would you call it?" Edri demanded. "They broke no law, goodness knows they did not volunteer, they are given no weapons—"
"He's lucky the Council allows the provision of armor nowadays," Justin offered this weak defense as Edri let her unfinished remark hang between them. She remained silent and went about adjusting her boots.
Edri brought up her head. "Excuse me?"
"The Gifted man could make flowers; everybody saw him doing it when the lion attacked. Everything was just flowers and blood. Then you stepped in, and his wounds were gone." He never said it directly, but she saw the knowledge in his eyes.
"People with gifts just need to learn to hide them," she quipped, and tried to walk away.
Justin's voice chased her. "Aye," he said. "They do."
Edri shivered as she went out of the barracks, checking the cuff of her left glove as she moved toward the assignments post. She hoped to be on Wall duty; she needed the solitude.
She searched for her name, but none of the areas bore it. Edri frowned as she approached the courier. If any soldier missed their assignment, it was the courier's duty to know all the positions and rotations, and a soldier had only to ask him.
"Edri Rodan, Sixth Battalion, reporting for duty," she announced.
The courier let a small smile twitch across his face. "No you're not," he said, producing a folded paper. "This is for you."
Edri accepted the note and stepped aside to read it. The seal bore an unfamiliar crest—but then again, the Twin Regents had only recently claimed authority. If any seal were unfamiliar to a soldier of the realm, it would be theirs.
"To Captain Edri Rodan of the Sixth Battalion," it began. "Your brilliant display of bravery during today's circus has brought your name into our regard. We are agreed that it was certainly by your hand that this man was saved today. Our castle could definitely use such a one as you, with the skill you carry in your hands. We await no other response than for you to present yourself to us. You are hereby assigned special duties of patrolling the castle grounds for as long as you choose to remain a soldier. The choice is yours. By all means, continue in your marvelous service to the realm."
Edri stared at the flourishing signatures underneath. Words like "brilliant display", "hand", and "peculiar skill" jumped out at her. In time with her thoughts, her hand burned and throbbed.
It was over; they knew, and they were letting her know that they knew. She was probably saved from being pressed into the circus purely because such a brutal demonstration would not get rid of her like they wanted. No, this method of keeping her forever within sight of the palace was a much crueler fate, Edri thought. Still... As long as they assumed she was not a threat, perhaps they could coexist in their mutual non-disclosure—particularly as it seemed she had a skill they needed. Edri sighed and prepared to report to her new post.
Twenty paces to the arch, twenty more to the corner; wheel right, ten paces, then down the corridor to repeat the process. Captain Rodan knew her route by heart. She timed her paces to the rumbling thunder as the rain poured outside. This storm had rolled in early the previous day, and it had not reduced intensity since it began.
Edri's ears hummed and her left hand seemed to throb and swell; the Prince was using his gift. Those who had been around during King Balwyn's rule spread rumors that the Prince had a special gift like the Outcasts, that he could produce lightning from his hands—and, in political spite in the face of the Outcast Ordinance, the Council kept him hidden and protected from the Twin Regents, using the lightning for their own mysterious scientific "experiments" rather than shunning him like all the others. Being so close to the tower now, the sensation bothered her, but she wondered if she would actually be there long enough to get used to it.
She had just turned the corner for the hundredth time, when several things happened all at once.
Someone shouted up on the wall.
A terrific explosion rent the sky and nearly threw Edri off her feet, armor and all.
In the confusion, the young soldier heard a cry for help. She couldn't be certain; the terrific crash left her ears ringing—but then, in the stunned silence afterward, she heard it again: a confusion of shouting and wailing coming from high in the tower. The sounds of people in pain reached her ears. Edri Rodan the palace guard abandoned her post and raced up the long corkscrew staircase to the tower chamber.
"Stop! Please stop!"
High-pitched cackling. "Dance, my minions! Don't stop!"
She reached the corridor outside the antechamber. A few of the more scientific Council members stood by the door, quaking with fear. They looked to Edri immediately when she appeared.
"Don't go in there!" One cried. "She's quite mad!"
More cackling issued from inside the room, and the noise of metal clashing.
"What happened?" She asked.
Another scientist gulped. "We tried everything; it was never supposed to be this way—"
He broke off as the voice shrieked, "NOW LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE! DID I SAY YOU COULD CHOP HIS HAND OFF? WE DON'T WANT HIM ANY MORE! YOU HAD BETTER START GROVELING NOW!"
Edri didn't know who spoke, but she felt an odd pull and twist of her stomach at the voice.
She recalled the explosion just a few minutes ago. "Where is the Prince?" She asked.
The man squinted at her. "You know of him?" He caught himself. "Oh, I mean, the Prince has vanished."
Edri frowned. "Into the storm? He can't have gone far—"
"Never mind that!" Another councilor spoke to the first. "What are we going to do about Her?"
Edri gestured to the door. "Who is she?"
The scientists were all shuffling awkwardly and muttering. "Should have told... Should never have turned out... Needs to be stopped..."
Edri rolled her eyes. "Well, if none of you are going to do anything about this hoyden, I will!" She burst through the door—
And stopped in amazement and horror.
A young woman jumped on the voluminous feather bed like a child; her silken gown hung in tatters from her body. A group of soldiers gathered in the middle of the room. Edri spotted a severed hand on the floor, but no sign of the soldier it belonged to. The strangest sight of all were the hardened guards and burly soldiers engaged in jigging in time with her movements.
"Eenie-meenie-meinie-mo!" The woman sang, as the soldiers danced before her. "Who will chop your neighbor's toe?"
She stopped and pointed, and Edri watched in horror as the man, shaking with fear, slowly drew his sword and drove it deep into the boot of the man next to him.
She lunged. "Stop!" She cried as the victim cried out in pain. She stared at the wild-haired woman. "Are you doing this?" But how?
The woman trained her weird gaze on Edri.
"Didn't you hear?" She lolled her head back and whispered, "I am the queen—" now she shrieked, "I AM THE QUEEEEEN! I DO WHAT I WANT, AND EVERYONE DOES WHAT I PLEASE!" She hopped down onto the back of the soldier curled up in abject obeisance on the floor. "Look at me!" She demanded.
He raised his gaze.
"Bark like a puppy!" She said.
He gave three enthusiastic yelps.
Edri stared at the fantastic scene unfolding before her. "But how?" She cried. "No one person has that much power!"
"Of course I do!" Snapped the self-appointed Queen. "Now BOW TO ME!"
Edri listened, but her own body betrayed her training, as she bowed low to this woman who could have been nothing but a commoner like herself.
The Queen stared at her as she stood, apparently seeking some other command of this stranger.
"You are different," she mused, peering closely. Finally, she stepped back. "I know what you are!" She scowled upon the young soldier. "You're UGLY!" she pronounced.
Edri fought the tightness in her chest as the word seemed to reach out of the woman's mouth to choke her.
"You should just stab yourself!"
It made sense when she said it. Edri barely noticed the dagger in her right hand.
"Do it!" The woman cheered.
At the first bite of steel in skin, Edri felt the urge to continue just as strongly as her body screamed at her to stop. Those were someone else's hands, someone else's side the dagger pierced—but when she was done, she had three new scars, and blood on the blade.
The queen's eyes bulged. "Do that again!" She cried.
Edri moved again, this time slashing at the meat of her leg, but still, nothing came of it.
She felt the heated stares of the men standing at the edges of the room. It was now or never. She slipped off her glove and held her left hand for all to see. The skin there glowed with a bright blue light. Edri stood without moving.
"What is it?" Asked the Queen.
"My gift," Edri answered. "I can touch people and animals, and heal their wounds." She turned to the man who had been stabbed in the foot. "May I?"
He nodded, his face already ashen-grey from blood loss. The red liquid bubbled out of the slit in the leather as he hobbled forward. Edri bent down and placed her glowing hand on the boot. She held it for a few seconds as the entire room held still and watched. Finally she pulled away.
"Does it hurt anymore?" She asked.
The man stared at his boot, confusion twisting his features. "No," he stammered. Abruptly he stood, putting weight on the foot; then, as his eyes widened in surprise, he slowly pulled his foot out. Everyone counted five toes; there was not even a slight scar on his skin.
The Queen pulled her lips together in a pinch. "Leave us!" She announced.
Edri didn't feel the strange compulsion, but at the same time, the entire group shuffled out of the room. When they were alone, the half-dressed woman sat on the stained and tattered couch, staring intently at Edri.
"My name is Zayra, what is yours?" She asked.
"Edri Rodan," Edri answered.
"You have a gift, Edri Rodan," Zayra mused—but the way she said it sent chills down Edri's spine. "I have a gift too," Zayra continued. "It's not very popular among others. Sometimes I lose my memories."
Edri saw the madness hovering at the edges of Zayra's gaze. "You want me to try healing your mind?"
Zayra grinned coldly. "Yes! Make me better, more controlled—that must be the way!"
Edri gulped. "I don't know if I—"
"DO IT!" Zayra shrieked, grabbing Edri's wrist and placing it on her head.
Both women screamed. Edri's ears rang with a cacophony of voices, disturbing images full of darkness and horror. Just as suddenly as it began, the noise and the visions ceased. Zayra slumped over in a dead faint.
Edri leaped to her feet.
"Help!" She called. "She's fainted!"
A flash of red on her shoulder caught her eye. She stopped and peered at it; somewhere during the attempt to heal Zarya's mind, he hair had gone from blonde to a deep scarlet color.
There was no time to think about this, as those gathered in the hall swarmed the room, with the one remaining council member shouting out orders.
"Quickly now, the room must be repaired! Take away the soiled linens and bring fresh ones. She must continue believing that she is a queen!"
Edri slipped on her glove and approached the man. "Why is this important?"
His eyes bulged. "How dare you question! You must never do so again. She trusts you as her protector, so you will act as her personal guard. This kingdom needs a ruler, so we're doing everything we can to give them one!"
From castle grounds to within the tower itself. To anyone else, it might feel like a promotion. To Edri Rodan, and (if the visions were any indication) to Zayra, all these trappings were no more than a lovely noose, a scarlet brand they could not escape.
Erlis the Healer regained consciousness without opening her eyes. She slid the tip of her tongue between her lips, tasting the scent of her two house guests on the air.
One guest; the other scent was already cold.
Erlis sat up quickly and stared into the shadows, which seemed to brighten with her focused gaze.
"Jaran!" She hissed. "Wake up!"
The young prince stirred and rolled over slowly. "'Mmph, what is it?"
"Harlock is missing."
Jaran's eyes popped open and he jerked upright. "Blast! Where could he have gone?" Wasn't it just yesterday that he had tried to recall any memory of his former life, and pronounced all attempts utter failure?
Erlis curled her lips in a pensive smirk. "Apparently he may have remembered more than he admitted to us."
"That's not fair!" Jaran protested. "Why wouldn't he trust us, after all we did for him?"
Erlis tilted her head. "Do not look at me, Highness; it was not my actions that caused him pain yesterday."
Jaran flushed and shrugged. "I was trying..."
"I know." Erlis nodded. "Stay here, I'll gather some things for breakfast and see if I can find any sign of him." She put on her thick black robe and slipped out of the house. As she turned, a thin object fluttered to the ground. Jaran waited till he could not hear her footsteps before stopping to pick it up.
Shining red against the black material that matched the cape Erlis wore was an embroidered crest—not just any crest, but the one belonging to his family. Erlis came from the palace! Was she a plant, intended to intercept him on purpose and return him to the council?
"I have not actually worn that patch for some time."
Jaran flinched so hard that he pulsed, but Erlis ducked out of the bolt's trajectory. She picked up the patch when he dropped it.
"You!" He spluttered. "You once served in the palace?"
Erlis nodded. "I was a healer when your parents were alive. Until—" she stopped, pressing her lips too late as she wished the word unsaid.
Jaran pressed her. "Until what?"
She fixed him with a glare that radiated from her golden dragon eye.
"Until they weren't," she stated, and swept past him into the house.
Jaran didn't take the hint to drop the matter. "I never really knew my parents. Everyone treats their death as some big secret."
Erlis took a seat near the fire, but her body was still tense and rigid. "Enough, Jaran," she warned.
He kept talking. "I know they were both very ill, but I could never find out more than that. Do you know what happened?"
Erlis was staring out the window, concern etched into her face. "Be silent, Jaran," she insisted.
He huffed. "No! I mean it! If you were a healer, couldn't you help them? Tell me how they died! Why are you keeping this from me?"
"QUIET!" A rumble of dragon roar underlaid her voice as she yelled at him.
Jaran finally turned to see what she was looking at.
A Hunter—The Hunter—stalked down the lane, a furious scowl on her face. She gestured to the palace soldiers—wearing the black livery of the Twin Regents—and pointed down the alleys. "Find whatever Thugs you can; bring them to the edge of the Wilderness. We'll find him if it's the last big hunt of my career!"
When Jaran turned to look at Erlis, she was already staring at him.
"Your parents' death is a mistake I will have to live with the rest of my life," she said quietly. "That is all you need to know."
Jaran felt an uneasiness settle in the pit of his stomach. "What is the Hunter doing here in the harbor?" He asked. "Whom is she hunting?"
Erlis raised an eyebrow. "Whom do you think, dear runaway prince?"
"The Hunter is coming," said the milk-haired person.
Velora grinned and tapped the tips of her claws against each other. "Let him come," she's seethed. "My pack will take care of him."
The newcomer cast her a withering look, but did not reply. Instead, she nodded to Damaris. "And what will you do?" She observed the tongues of fire wreathing his wrists. "Burn the Hunter to a crisp?" Before he could reply, she approached Korsan. "Seriously? This is all you could enlist? A cub and a two-legged matchstick?"
"Hey!" Both Damaris and Velora lunged for her, but they collided with each other, as the woman with the white hair observed them while leaning casually on the opposite wall.
The Mage shrugged. "I did no recruiting; these were already here when I returned from foraging, Aurelle." He winked at her. "One could reasonably suspect you of planning something."
Aurelle snorted. "If I did, I would have chosen better allies." She stood and walked back among the group. She glared at Velora.
"The Hunter is no ordinary woodsman. She is the single biggest threat to the continued existence of the Outcasts. If she's tracking any of you, she will find you. If she loses a fight, she has a way of escaping, only to return with an even bigger army. Do not make the mistake of underestimating her."
Velora huffed. "I'm read—" before she had finished speaking, Aurelle lunged forward, bumping against Velora's breastplate. Velora involuntarily looked down to see a handle protruding from her breastplate, blood seeping down the hilt. It had been so sudden, she didn't even feel it. The keen edge of a knife pressed against her throat and Aurelle hissed in her ear from behind, "You were saying?"
Velora reached up to her throat—and felt her neck, unscathed. She looked down at her chest again, and the knife had vanished, taking the grisly wound with it. The armor was not even scratched.
Aurelle regarded her. "I'd say you have a ways to go, young pup." She sighed and walked right past the stunned Velora.
"So, Korsan, if these are all we have, we best get them trained before the Hunter shows up."
Korsan chuckled. "I assume you bought us some time?"
Aurelle smiled. "A little; but she'll be back, and with a fresh army." She nodded back at Velora. "That's nice armor; I'm assuming you picked it up on your way out of the forest?"
Velora sniffed. "How did you—"
"You and your pack left a mess and plenty of trail for the Hunter to find. You need to learn about covering your tracks. You might assume that you're invincible enough to withstand anything that follows you—but unless you are the most powerful being in the world, you are better off just not leaving a trail."
Korsan stood and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I will stay here and train Damaris to control his flames."
"Barricade the cave after we leave, won't you?" Aurelle recommended.
"Don't get caught," Korsan replied.
Velora followed the woman out to a dune just outside the cave. "Where are we going?"
"Back to your mess," Aurelle replied. "No doubt the Hunter left troops behind to guard the area. We'll just give them some motivation."
Velora groaned. "But it's going to take a whole day, maybe more, to get there!"
Aurelle smiled. "Not the way I travel." She gripped Velora's arm. "Hold tight!"~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~
Velora felt smothered in darkness till it suddenly dissipated, and she stood in a thicket of trees. She looked around for the gleam of white hair, but not even her keen, wolfish eyes could discern anything.
She opened her mouth to call for Aurelle, when she felt a hand tighten on her wrist.
"I'm right here," said a voice. "Don't. Say. Anything."
Velora squinted at her wrist, but all she could make out were the soft indentations of fingers on her skin.
"How are you doing that?" She asked the air.
Light shifted softly till it formed the shape of a person. "Part of my Gift," Aurelle whispered. "I can create the illusion of invisibility by bending light around me, or making you believe that all you can see is empty forest." She tugged on Velora's wrist, forcing the young woman to crouch low in the bushes. Finally, Velora could see her, concealed in the undergrowth and watching something else carefully. Aurelle beckoned to Velora. "Come see the consequence of leaving your mess behind."
Velora crept forward, peering between branches to see a blazing bonfire at the center of a camp teeming with castle soldiers.
"The Hunter would have brought them, leaving them behind in case the quarry shows up, meanwhile she's probably gathering a bunch of Thugs to come back and overpower the person she's after."
Velora had to agree that it was definitely not a good situation.
No less than twenty soldiers gathered around the campfire. At any given time, five of them carefully watched the perimeter of the camp, while the rest ate and slept as they waited for their rotation.
"So tell me, Wolf," Aurelle mused. "Would your method be to invite your wolves out for a snack and try to overpower the men before you lifted a finger?"
Velora glared at her. "Of course I would!"
"What if your pack was back in the wilderness and there's not enough time for them to get here?"
Velora's eyes narrowed even further. Her claws bit into the branch she held. She took a deep sniff, the heavy scent of sweaty, unwashed men and old food bolstering her frustration.
"Then what would you suggest?" She growled at the aggravating woman.
Aurelle only smiled, and her image faded into the shadows of the forest. "You become the Wolf. Use your senses to weed out the easy prey, use your claws to silence them. We take them out one by one until there are none left."
Velora scowled. "What exactly is your gift, anyway?"
Aurelle raised her eyebrows. "I'm an illusionist; I can make people see things that aren't there."
Velora sensed a shift in the wind. Her instincts triggered a moment before she noticed a spark hovering over the fire—hovering, and not moving. She peered closer as the spark slowly moved in lazy whorls, up to the shoulder of the soldier on the far side of the camp.
Finally, Velora pointed. "Things like that?" She asked.
Aurelle, who had just been in the act of vanishing, abruptly became solid again as the soldier noticed the glowing "ember" on his shoulder.
"That's not me," she murmured.
Pandemonium erupted in the camp.
"Fairies!" Screamed one of the soldiers. "It's fairies attacking us!"
Weapons materialized and blasted in all directions as the little ball of light dodged easily among the frenzied men.
"Move or be discovered!" Aurelle's voice rang, galvanizing Velora into action. The two women joined the frenzy, taking down the soldiers one by one as they scrambled in blind panic. When the last soldier fell, Aurelle and Velora stood in the middle of the clearing, with the fairy between them.
A body of a slain soldier—a sniper, by the looks of it—dropped out of the treetops, and a second followed it, this one landing on his feet.
Velora and Aurelle stared as the man reached out and cupped the fairy in his hands. He was dressed like a sailor, with dingy trousers and wearing no shirt, his dark hair loosely tied back at the nape of his neck. Velora noted that he had broken the sniper's neck before tossing him down. He glanced warily from the claws to Aurelle's glowing eyes.
"Who are you?" Aurelle demanded.
The man opened his hands and let the fairy fly up to burrow in his hair. "My name is Harlock," he answered, "and I'm afraid that's all I can tell you. I would have offered help sooner but I didn't know you were there until you attacked." He grinned. "So who might you be, and what possessed you to attack armed soldiers in the woods?"
Part 6: "Prey">>>>>
Part 6: "Prey">>>>>