"Signs and Wonders"
The patter of small feet clattered over the cobblestones. Children laughed and ran, waving to their friends as they flocked toward a particular alley.
"Hurry up!" One young boy waved his friend along. "She's already started!"
At the eastern courtyard, across from the docks, a young woman sat on a crate, watching tiny figures leap and bound over each other. In a clear voice, she began her tale.
"There was once a noble elk who ruled the forest. He was fair and wise, ensuring that all the animals were treated fairly, and if any of them had a problem, they could go to the elk and he would help them reach a solution." Her fingers fluttered, and the figures changed. Now a third figure joined the pair of elk and aimed a weapon at them. The tiny elk crumpled as the girl continued. "One day, a man came into the forest and shot the elk with his gun, wounding him terribly. His son was not yet old enough to understand the law of the forest, and so a group of other animals, birds and squirrels and even a wise owl or two, decided to lead the forest animals until the young buck grew older. But being such different animals, and all seeking the interests of his own kind, the Forest Authorities could not agree."
She had quite a crowd now; children stared at the glowing, swirling images, enthralled by their realism, but a bit overwhelmed by the story. Their parents observed with dubious expressions, reluctant to pull too close, yet unable to look away.
The girl bent over her table, watching the figures materialize out of thin streams of light issuing from her fingertips. Ever since she was a small child, barely able to speak, she had been able to communicate and to entertain herself with these illusions. She had no idea where this ability came from, or how it worked; it was far more strange to her that other people did not have this ability. She didn't see anything special about herself.
"During this time, the Young Buck disappeared, and the forest fell into turmoil. Just when all hope of a happy forest seemed lost, as each attempt of the Authorities to control and restrict failed more and more," she gave a little twist with her wrist for theatrical effect, "two foxes came out of the deep part of the woods, and offered to represent the other woodland creatures from within the Authorities, setting themselves as a balancing voice and a people's advocate to combat the Authorities' self-interest. The other woodland creatures agreed—but with the foxes now in charge, life grew worse than it had before, as the cunning foxes and the stubborn Authorities vied for control of the populace." The foxes began chasing the other animals, and the young storyteller frowned to see her story taking a dark twist yet again. Parents began pulling their children away, whispering about her treason and disrespect. She tried to persevere with the story.
"The foxes soon set themselves up as equal to the elk, thought their policies and decisions were definitely not as fair and equitable to the animals."
"Speak for yourself, you freak!" Someone shouted from the back of the crowd.
The storyteller stood, as the animals in her hands expanded to life-size and scurrying over the ground.
"They favored some species while oppressing and disparaging others as weak or disgraceful!" She cried, as the indignant foxes turned up their noses at the gentle unicorns, and batted the innocent squirrels away.
"What do you think you're doing?" Cried a woman with frilly clothes, clutching her lacy parasol in her upraised fists. "You're crazy and your stupid stories make no sense!"
Her screeching sent a murmur through the crowd as the dissent swelled louder.
She couldn't help it; the words came as easily as the images.
"The forest creatures did their best to survive in spite of the foxes, for one day, the Young Buck would return and rule as his father did—"
"Enough!" A burly trader at the front of the crowd shoved aside the people around him and lunged for the illusions. They wafted like smoke under his arms. He glared at the young storyteller. "We've heard enough of your stories! You're a fool and no good to this realm! It's time one of us stood up to your sort and put an end to this plague!" He lunged for the white-haired storyteller.
She screamed and threw up her hands. People gasped, and the man groped at the air just above her head. She stumbled back out of his reach as people pressed closer, whispering.
"Where did she go!"
"It's as if she was never there!"
She looked down at her hands. She seemed visible enough; why did they speak as if she were not?
"All right, what's this, then?" A strong, easy voice boomed from the corner of the market. The crowd parted as a soldier wearing the uniform of a Regency Peacekeeping Officer entered the courtyard.
Several voices tried to explain the situation, complain about the instigator, or blame the Outcasts for the unsanctioned gathering—but he merely waved them all away. They took the hint and dispersed, while the officer took a sentry stance, his hand resting lightly on the haft of his weapon. Once the noise and activity died down, his eyes glided to the corner on the opposite side, where a stack of crates blocked a disused alley.
"Back to your tricks again, Aurelle?" He asked the air.
At his words, she felt the subtle shift of coming into view again. The change in his stance confirmed she was visible.
Aurelle gave a shy smile. "I didn't mean to start a riot," she began, but the officer shook his head.
"That wasn't a riot, young lady; merely a disgruntled audience. And after what they just witnessed, you may find it hard to continue as innocently as you have been."
Aurelle sighed and ran deft fingers through her milk-white locks. "I didn't mean to; the illusions change before I realize what they are doing. It's more than just entertaining children, Rayne," she gazed at him earnestly. "I'm not just a fortune-teller. These are real issues, raising real questions and hopes—"
"And causing real problems and putting you in real danger," Officer Rayne warned.
"What else was I supposed to do?" Aurelle exploded. "You don't know what it's like when I try to ignore the stories, keep them bottled up. I've tried keeping my head down and keeping silent like you told me to." She raised her palms toward him. "Both my arms were nearly numb from the pressure! I needed to let them out!"
Rayne raised an eyebrow. "And the vanishing act?"
Aurelle couldn't suppress an embarrassed smirk. "That was—he was about to break my neck. Would you rather I had let him grab me?" She stared at him, catching him in a direct gaze. Those vibrant eyes drew him in, held him in a way that made him feel—
Rayne forced his willpower to overwhelm his mind and turn his head, cutting the moment short.
"Just stick to telling fortunes and entertaining children, Aurelle," he muttered.
She sighed. "All right." She moved to straighten her booth again.
"Not here," Rayne stopped her. "It's—"
"Ah! Madam Aurelle Devir," rumbled a booming bass voice. "I thought it might be you; good catch, Officer Rayne!"
Behind him, a whole detachment of Peacekeepers, led by a wiry man with a tight grin, fanned out along the edges of the courtyard. His serpent eyes slithered toward the young woman. "I don't imagine Officer Rayne has told you yet, Miss Devir, but I am afraid you'll have to close down your little operation."
Aurelle frowned. "On what pretense? I've paid all the fees; I carry a license—"
"Which has just been revoked," the sergeant interrupted. "As of this moment, Miss Devir, you are hereby ordered to refrain from any activity related to your status as an Illusionist."
"Refrain?" Aurelle echoed as Rayne obeyed the short hand signal from his sergeant to join the file of Peacekeepers. "For how long?"
The sergeant smiled. "Indefinitely. If at any time you are observed engaging in any activity beyond the sanctioned Regency Broadcasts, you will be regarded is a dissident and arrested." The sergeant smiled at her again, and turned his heel.
Aurelle stared at the back of his head. Rayne was the only one looking at her face.
"Aurelle," he whispered desperately. "Don't—"
She wasn't listening. "You cannot suppress the truth so easily, Sergeant!" Aurelle announced, extending her hand. A ball of swirling light rose from her palm.
He turned at the cries of alarm from his men. His eyebrows raised and his hands came up in alarm. "Stop! I order you to desist!" He commanded.
Aurelle smirked. "Catch me if you can!" She spun in a circle on one foot, and used the momentum to hurl the ball of light at the ground with all her might. It exploded in a blinding flash, stunning the onlookers. When their eyes adjusted, she was nowhere to be found.
Everyone assured me the headdress was beautiful—but nobody was honest enough to realize how much it hurt to actually wear the thing. It took six servants just to carry my train with enough support so I could walk around. Even in the courtyard, amid the banners proclaiming my name and my image as the ultimate desire, I could feel Their stares. Sure, I was pretty enough, but my greatest asset also contained my fatal flaw: everyone was so obsessed with my appearance that nobody took the time to explain any sort of politics or leadership strategies. My own beauty—the one thing they could use to secure a following for me—They quickly turned into a farce, a vain, shallow concept with no room for intelligence or amiability. I had plenty of both, but with no voice beyond what the Council told me to say, I quickly lost the favor of the people. They needed someone who could demand fealty and keep it. Of course they found a woman who could give them the spectacle they needed, but it seemed only I could tell just by looking at her that this woman might not be able to work the effect they sought. She had ambition, cunning, and a bold, unwavering gaze that could search your soul at a glance. She made no secret about her desire to be the ultimate pinnacle of absolutely everything—including the standard of beauty in the realm.
I am afraid of her; if I am cursed to be the most beautiful person in the realm—what wouldn't she do to take it from me and for herself?
Even in slumber, Velora sensed movement in their little camp. When she opened her eyes, the light of dawn had barely cracked the horizon—and Harlock was already leaving.
She sat up, and Jay chimed a warning.
Harlock whirled around to see Velora watching him.
"What are you doing?" She asked.
"Leaving," he answered.
Velora bared her teeth. "We had a plan!" She hissed.
"And it's a great plan," he answered. "You and Aurelle are perfectly capable of carrying it out without me."
"We need you to cover our tracks!"
"Not necessarily; you two are resourceful, I am sure Aurelle already knows how to do that." He shouldered the small pack he brought. "I have business at the castle."
Velora sneered. "Business? What business? You don't even remember who you are, what business could you possibly—" she lurched backward as Jay broke away and flew straight at Velora's face.
Harlock shrugged. "Jay says it's important. I need to be gone when the Hunter arrives."
"Why?" Velora demanded.
He threw up his hands. "She won't say! Trust me, I want to have my fun with this Hunter as much as you two, but apparently I have—"
"What, better things to do?" Velora rolled her eyes. "Fine then, Mystery Man—go off on your super important business, follow your fairy right to the very doorstep of the people who hate us." She turned away and scuffed at the ground with her feet. "I guess you aren't one of us, after all."
She heard him shuffle, shift his position like he wanted to say something—but at last she heard nothing, and when she turned around, he was gone.
Aurelle awoke to the sound of Velora raking the trees with her claws, but when she finally got the young Wolf to calm down enough to tell her what happened, she seemed to handle the news with far more understanding.
"How can you be so calm?" Velora exploded. "We've faced the Hunter before, she'll be ready for us this time—Harlock was our best chance at the element of surprise!"
Aurelle flexed her hand, and a puddle of water appeared in her palm. Carefully, she cupped it, and the droplets rose to form a trickling fountain. Velora watched in amazement, distracted from her frustration by the sight.
Aurelle smiled. "Maybe we don't need Harlock after all." She flicked her wrist, sending the jet of water streaking toward Velora's face—but though she flinched, the wet sting never came. The water dissipated like all of Aurelle's illusions. The Illusionist laughed at the stunned look on Velora's face.
"I think we stand a pretty good chance," said Aurelle. "As long as we follow the same plan: distract them all, and pick them off one by one before they realize what's happening."
Velora extended her claws. Finally, a fight! "And then what?" She asked. "Scare the Hunter off? Send her running back to the castle?"
Aurelle tilted her head as the illusions spun in her hands. "I was thinking of getting her far out of the way—like maybe the Wilderness. I'm sure Korsan will have a welcome or two to keep her busy." She cast a keen eye toward Velora. "Does this please you?"
Velora grinned. "Does it ever!" She cried.
An hour later, the Hunter and her band of Thugs entered the forest. Everyone wore armor with thick leather reinforcing the vulnerable chinks. She had seen what the enemy did to the soldiers she left behind, and she wasn't going to take that chance again. Everyone carried a bell, and the Dennahlia had trained herself to know the sound of each one as it clanked. She would know where her soldiers were, and whether one went missing at any given moment.
Such as now.
Dennahlia stiffened; one bell had missed a step. She almost didn't notice, because as soon as she flinched, it had rung again—but there was something artificial about the sound.
"Hold!" She barked, and all noise ceased. "Sound off!"
The bells clanked one by one; sure enough, the errant bell still rang when it was supposed to... But it wasn't the same ring. Dennahlia waited till the last ring died down, and then raised her hand. A concealed pistol unfolded around her wrist and discharged—
The "missing" Thug fell down dead. The Thug standing next to him stared at the Hunter in confusion and horror. "What'd ye do that fer?" He muttered.
Dennahlia was still trying to figure out what had happened. He still wore the bell—why had the sound changed? How had she come to believe that this one was out of place?
"They're here!" She cried. "Spread out and find them! Look to the trees, don't trust the shadows!"
The Thugs growled happily at the thought of a cunning enemy; they loved knocking over the smart ones.
Dennahlia herself climbed a tree for a better vantage point. She had been fooled on the ground, so it was time for unpredictable. She listened for shouts and looked for speed amid the lumbering bodies. She could see her whole crew from here. She counted twelve—but how could she still have twelve if one was already dead? She narrowed her eye, and the bodies below her glowed bright red. They all looked very similar in size—till one of the red bodies stretched out blue claws and felled his neighbor.
"WOLF!" Dennahlia shrieked. The red faded to the green of her night-vision, and Dennahlia scurried forward in the pandemonium. She followed the forest path. The moon shone in the western sky. She kept it's light over her right shoulder, heading north toward the capital city. The edge of the treeline lay just ahead, the Huntress broke though the trees—and ended up in an open clearing lined with craggy rocks. She looked up toward the moon—but it hung solemnly in the sky behind her. She stood at the edge of the Wasteland, heading due east and further than ever from the castle.
Behind her, a howl resonated across the sky. Dennahlia quickly retracted the tiny concealed pistol and drew her twin handguns. She would be ready for whatever came.
Black dots swam on the horizon, bobbing around the crags. Her green night vision slipped back into place, and Dennahlia felt the dread creeping up.
Wolves, scores of them, all racing toward her position. There was no way she could fend them off with just her arsenal. They would converge on her in a manner of minutes. She heard crashing in the bushes as more emerged from the forest, growling threateningly. There was only one thing left to do.
She crouch low and gripped the edges of her cloak. Building momentum in her feet, she launched into the air. As soon as her feet landed she ran. She could run fast, faster than any animal alive. She would outrun the wolves. She raced northward, still keeping her original destination of the castle. As long as she kept moving, the wolves could not drag her down. She let off a few shots, but it didn't seem to deter them any. She ran so fast that her eyes could not keep track of her surroundings—
One moment she was running at full speed, the next, she tumbled sideways into a slope full of pain a knives. Darkness overtook her, and the pain stopped—
Part 8: "Scales" >>>>>
Part 8: "Scales" >>>>>