For years since Balwyn Seramis ascended the throne with Gracelle at his side, Erlis had sought out healers from all over the world, to learn their techniques and apply them to keeping the rulers fit and healthy. So many wars, famines, even a plague or two had swept the nation, but the King always looked upon the young Healer with complete faith in her abilities, despite her young age. At his request, she never touched the famed "elixirs of immortality" guzzled by other rulers, nor any of the miraculous drugs hawked by wizened, bug-eyed charlatans. A broad base of study and an ardent spirit gave Erlis Irrya the discernment she needed to develop her healer's instinct: she could see a single blemish on the patient's skin, or hear the softest breath, and not only assess the problem, but evaluate exactly what was needed to fix it.
Why couldn't the Council trust her, then?
Queen Gracelle was expecting a child, and Erlis was allowed to serve as her midwife—but when King Balwyn took gravely ill right next to her, she was ordered to stand aside.
"Your duty is to the Queen and ensuring the safe birth of the new Crown Prince!" The councilor had snapped at her when she resented a petition to diagnose King Balwyn and prepare a medicine for him, in addition to caring for his very pregnant wife.
The declaration had filled the young healer with dread. New Crown Prince? Why, had they given up on the King's other son so easily? But the Council had been formed by the King, and given jurisdiction to run the kingdom in his stead until he was fit to resume his duties. Never mind that Balwyn had added the phrase "as I would"—there was not a man or woman in that whole group capable of leading in the manner of King Balwyn. They ruled as they saw fit; Erlis could do nothing but keep her head down and focus all her energy on the tiny King-to-be, praying that his father may yet survive long enough to pass his wisdom on to his son.
Tonight, the Queen sounded restless, so Erlis gathered some warm cloths and scented oils and hurried to the bedroom. She crept softly in and stood by the queen's bed, placing the towels on her patient's sweat-drenched forehead and around her swollen belly. Even in the brief touch, Erlis could feel the frantic activity of the baby within the womb. She reached for the first vial of oil.
A shadow moved, and Erlis' hand shook, sending the vial crash in to the floor. The shadow by the king's bed turned and glared at her with dark, dull eyes.
"Do you mind?" The man grunted. He turned back to the King and held his hands over the regal chest, muttering and groaning to himself.
Erlis attempted to be friendly. "My name is Erlis," she greeted the stranger as she smoothed another dose of soothing oils into the Queen's belly. "What is yours?"
The man's muttering broke off, and he huffed. "They call me Chelom," he snapped. "Now if you don't mind, I have important work to do!"
Erlis felt the creeping suspicion—had the Council hired Chelom to try and heal the King? "What sort of work?" She asked innocently. "Are you a healer too?"
"Healer? By Hecate!" The man reached into a satchel at his side and pulled out a talisman and some old branches. "Nothing so trivial as that; I am a Healing Mage."
Mage! They were trying to use magic to heal the King? After refusing Erlis' offer of medicinal aid? Chelom began droning again. Erlis felt the Queen relax and the baby still inside her, but curiosity wouldn't let her leave. She crept forward as Chelom lit a bronze salver and began waving it over the king.
A strange odor stole over the smell of soothing oil still on her hands. Erlis sniffed; something feral wafted from the salver, and a distinct sensation of danger alerted the rest of her being. In the light of the flame, she saw him pinch a small sprig laid carefully on the king's chest. He sprinkled the herb in the burning, reeking substance, and spread some of the mixture on the King's forehead.
Chelom's voice rose, as he spoke a spell that brought flashes of brilliant light swirling from his fingers. He moved to place his glowing hand over the king's face—
"NO!" Erlis leaped forward and grabbed the wrist that held the salver. She knew what it was! The viscous blackness splashed out on her hand. Dragon's blood—and the herb was definitely quickbane. This Mage was no healer!
"Stop!" She cried. "MURDER!"
Chelom flung her away, but the movement disrupted the flow of magic. Erlis barely had a chance to get her balance before the blast of the spell knocked her right off her feet. She felt like the stream of light had burned a hole in her chest.
"Idiot girl!" Chelom growled, standing over her. "Look what you've done!"
Erlis coughed and scooted up against the wall behind her. The Dragon's blood still coated her hand. Just then, the door burst open and soldiers poured in. Erlis fought to speak; the magic affected her insides, but she had a duty to her King and Queen.
"Dragon's Blood and quickbane?" She gasped. "You were not trying to heal him! You were trying to kill the King!"
Chelom thrashed, but the soldiers gripped him tighter. "You don't know that! Mages are experimenting with it now; without knowing his illness, it might have done some good!"
Erlis coughed as her stomach roiled, making it difficult to draw breath. "You're no healer, you're a traitor!"
The soldiers dragged him away, but not before Chelom shouted over his shoulder. "They're coming for you next!"
Erlis struggled to her feet. She couldn't stay in the castle. Her whole body burned, more on the right side where the Dragon's Blood fell. She ran as her vision faded in and out. The moon barely reached through the darkness—yet something gave light to her path. Erlis looked down.
Glowing hands waved in her air before her—hands attached to her arms, yet so detached from her. Erlis moaned and collapsed against a wall as a wave of pain washed over her, pain that seemed to widen her eyes and pour from her ears. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, splaying her hands against her sides. Immediately, she could picture in her mind just what her own insides looked like, and exactly how to fix what was wrong. She squeezed tighter as the adamant spell pushed back, giving the sensation that she actually wrestled a dragon within her body. Her skin burned and stretched on the right side. The agony increased until blessed blackness swept it all away.
When consciousness returned, Erlis felt a heaviness on her right side—a peculiar kind of strength that did not match the rest of her body. She opened her eyes. A vivid sheen lay over everything. When she held her right eye closed, everything looked small, bland, and even a little fuzzy. Erlis tried closing her left eye. Instantly, every detail leaped out in the most amazing, vibrant color she had ever seen. She could practically see from one end of the city to the other. She looked at her hands. The glow had faded, but the right hand had changed. Erlis gazed at one normal-looking hand, and one clawed, scaled appendage. Her whole arm bore ridged scales all the way up to the shoulder, where the hard ridges also covered clear to the left side of her chest. Further exploration with her human hand upon her neck and her right cheek confirmed that her face had also been half-changed. Erlis shook her head. Her tongue wasn't forked, so there was some relief–but she could taste every scent, no matter how strong or weak, of everything within the city. She needed to get back and see the King.
Erlis stopped by the city apothecary she ran occasionally to pick up her heavy winter cloak. It was still the warm season, just before harvest, so the thick wool made her human skin practically melt with sweat, but she knew that if anyone outside the palace saw her like this, it would mean trouble. She arrived back at the western gate and knocked.
"Who goes there?" A voice barked.
"Erlis Irrya, the Healer," she answered.
The guard opened the gate; so she hadn't been implicated at all in the death of the king. She kept the cloak wrapped around her right side all the way up to the royal chambers. There in the privacy of the room, she took a deep breath and almost choked.
Death hung like a pungent black pitch in the air. Death—and new life.
The Queen stirred.
"Balwyn..." She murmured. "Balwyn—"
Erlis heard a distinct shift in her voice, and she placed a hand over the Queen's womb. Everything was in readiness; a child would be born within the hour.
"Balwyn!" Gracelle's voice rose in pitch and urgency as the contractions swelled. "BALWYN!"
The king would not answer. His spirit had already left.
Erlis took off her cloak and moved quickly to shift the queen's legs into position.
Gracelle screamed. "WHAT ARE YOU? HELP! MONSTER!"
"Your majesty, be calm!" Erlis reached out with her scaly right hand to caress the queen's cheek.
The tips of the clawed fingers glowed briefly, and the Queen relaxed in the same moment. Erlis drew her hand back in surprise; she had commanded the queen to be calm, and it was so. A mighty contraction of the belly reminded Erlis why she had returned. Gently, she rested her scaled hand—by far the more sensitive one—against the womb and used the other to gently guide the baby out of the birth canal. When it was done, Erlis swaddled the baby boy and handed him to his mother. Gracelle still would not look at her.
"Thank you," she whispered, "but you need to leave. NOW." Finally, the Queen looked up at the Healer—but with fear and loathing. Erlis knew she would find no acceptance here.
Sure enough, a message from the Council greeted her at the door of her palace lodgings.
"Erlis Irrya," it read, "For your crimes against the Crown and the ordinance of the Council, you are hereby stripped of your position as Royal Healer and banished from the palace. By order of the Royal Council."
Erlis tried the handle, but found it locked. The cloak would be the only thing she would be taking from the castle.
Wandering through the streets over the next few days, she heard the story being passed around by the Council: the Healer had attempted an unsanctioned cure for the King and had ended up killing him in his sleep. The Queen had borne a prince, but her grief at the loss of her husband brought about her death as well. The Council had declared themselves the interim government over the realm, till the infant Prince would come of age and take the throne—or so they said. There was never any mention of Chelom the Healing Mage.
Erlis, meanwhile, found a private little hovel on the edge of the harbor to live in, where she whiled away the years, honing her new skills in solitude, hoping one day to see the Seramis family restored to their rightful place, and the Outcasts once again accepted into common society...
Jaran slunk through the door and flopped onto his cot. "Sweet freedom!" He sighed.
The yellow lizard eye flicked over to him, and Erlis might have been about to say something, when a heavy clatter of shattered pottery broke the peace outside.
Jaran jumped back to his feet as Erlis stared out the open door.
"I hope that's Harlock," he muttered.
"I smell blood," Erlis replied after a short sniff. "Lots of it."
"Then again, maybe I don't hope it's Harlock—now what's he done?"
They both slowly peeked out the door, watching carefully for an ambush before venturing across the threshold.
A body clad in black lay amid broken pots and discarded bricks. Many deep gashes still seeped freshly, and the limbs splayed at discomfiting angles. The bright-magenta hair gave her away.
"The Hunter?" Jaran spluttered as Erlis reached a glowing hand to her. "But we just saw her leave town yesterday! How did she get back here? Where did she come from? Why come to us?"
The Healer relented with a sigh. "We might not know the answers to these things till she awakes—help me bring her inside."
"Inside?" Jaran spluttered, even as he moved to support the limp legs while Erlis handled the shoulders. "You want the person committed to wiping us out IN YOUR HOUSE?"
They lifted the Hunter onto the only table in the room. Erlis removed her cloak, and Jaran could not decide which sight was more grisly, the mangled body on the table, or the half-mutated hybrid standing over it. Just the way that her dark hair grew out of one side of her head, while thick chitinous plates covered the other side—
"Are you going to help me or not?" Erlis demanded as she splayed her glowing hands six inches above the Hunter's body.
Jaran balked. "I don't think—"
Erlis lowered her hands and turned to him. "If I had chosen to defy my own feelings and opinions about certain people and help where it was needed, your father would still be alive," she snapped, as a low growl rumbled through her scaly throat. "I have regretted it every day since the night you were born, and I swore to myself that no one—no matter how evil or despicable—would ever witness me turn away from them. I don't know how she came to us, but she did; perhaps this will be an opportunity to sway her to our cause, perhaps not. But I will not abandon my duty as a Healer, so I ask again: WILL. YOU. HELP. ME?"
Jaran sighed. "Fine; what do you need me to do?"
"I'm going to try healing her from the inside out, but I don't want her to bleed out before I can repair all the wounds. Get some clean towels and a bowl of water and staunch her wounds till I can attend to them." Erlis resumed her "hovering," closing her eyes and flexing her fingers as the energy seeped from them.
Jaran retrieved a clean towel as she asked, and commenced wiping the cuts and dirt off her legs. The deep lacerations, at impossible angles, puzzled him. He had a passable knowledge of using blades, though the force, angle, and momentum needed to inflict these kinds of wounds and shred tough tendons to mere threads mystified him. The only explanation is if the Hunter battled someone who could create a veritable cyclone of knives—but how could such a thing be possible?
Beside him, Erlis held her eyes closed. Jaran paused to watch the incredible sight of the bones reforming in the brilliant light, the gashes closing, the skin knitting itself back together. He was so engrossed in what she was doing with the fractures in the Hunter's skull that he nearly missed the creeping fingers closing around the grip of a nearby scalpel. The gleaming razor blade headed right for Erlis' exposed shoulder.
"ERLIS, LOOK OUT!" Jars snatched the arm back, but the other hand clouted him in the face. The Hunter's gleaming eyes fixed on him as Erlis failed to respond. The nearly recovered patient raised the blade to strike again, and Jaran struck. He raised a hand and flared, sending a bolt of lightning arcing right to the metal blade. The Hunter's body gave a violent convulsion and lay still.
Erlis finally broke away, panting heavily. Some of the bolt had smacked her in the shoulder, breaking her concentration. She looked at the unconscious Hunter, at the scalpel still in her mildly-singed hand, and at the wide-eyes, frantic Prince.
"What happened?" She asked.
"What happened?" Jaran exploded. "She woke up and tried to kill you! That's what happened! I had to shock her or she would have stabbed you. Didn't you hear my warning?"
Erlis shook her head. "No, I heard nothing at all. Perhaps it is a side effect of my enhanced ability to heal: while I am healing, I hear and see nothing of what is going on." She sighed and looked down at the body of the Hunter, only half-healed. "Apparently that makes me vulnerable."
Jaran took the cloths and began ripping them into smaller strips, which he twisted together into ropes.
"What are you doing?" Erlis asked as Jaran grabbed the Hunter's freshly-repaired wrists.
"Taking no chances, that's what!" He replied as he bound her wrists together. He used the excess "rope" to further bind the Hunter to the table.
Erlis sighed again, but resumed healing. Whatever happened, Jaran would be there to protect her.
"Blast!" Velora snapped, "Where did she go?" She scanned the shadows carefully, wondering briefly who was leading whom on a wild goose chase.
Aurelle shook her head, panting heavily to get her breath back. "Knowing what little I do of Korsan? She could be anywhere in the realm. Only he knows where his traps lead."
Velora stopped wandering and came back to stand close to Aurelle. "The Mage?" She said, looking all around the unfamiliar landscape. "Where is he, if he did all this? He didn't booby trap the whole Wilderness, did he?"
Aurelle shook her head. "Just the area around the cave. We aren't that far from it, actually. He's just cloaked it so it cannot be seen from outside the barrier."
Velora glanced up and down. "What barrier?"
Aurelle pointed ahead of them, and tossed a stone over another sigil nearly invisible in the sand. The stone, like the Hunter, vanished on contact. "A transportation barrier is his favorite sort. Anything that crosses the barrier without touching the correct sigil gets transported to another random location, and often badly damaged in the process."
Velora looked at the random sigils scattered all over the area and shuddered. "So that stone..."
"Is most likely gravel spraying in someone's face right now," Aurelle answered with a tone that said she was picturing someone in particular who no doubt deserved that fate.
Velora almost felt the closest she'd come to sympathy for an enemy since becoming an Alpha Wolf. "And the Hunter?"
Aurelle shrugged. "Probably not much better."
Velora huffed and flopped onto a nearby dune. "Great, so how are we going to let Korsan know we've come back and he can let down his barrier of death now?"
Aurelle smiled and glanced down. Suddenly, she was holding a cooing pigeon in her hand. "We send him a message." She answered. She let the pigeon illusion fly through the barrier. It did not disappear like the other things had, but remained visible, flying gently till it reached an empty spot with tufts of grass. It hovered there for a moment, then seemed to land in midair. A few moments later, the entire area glittered with magic and then faded, revealing the old cave just a few dozen yards away.
Damaris burst out ahead of the old Mage. "Did it work? What did you find? How many soldiers did you fight? Can I go with you next time?"
Korsan regarded Aurelle. "How is she?"
"Not bad; I think we should follow soon, in case something important should happen."
Korsan considered for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Agreed; it is high time I returned from my exile. The realm stirs; the Outcasts must unite."
Velora wasn't entirely sure she understood the exchange, but she knew it meant finding more of these Gifted people. "So where do we go from here?"
Aurelle nodded at her. "You said it yourself, Wolf: the predator becomes prey."
"We follow the Hunter," Korsan confirmed. "Based on the sigil she crossed, she should have landed at the harbor." He stopped and smiled. "I have an old friend there who we might inquire after. She could help us."
"Sounds good to me!" Agreed Damaris. "Let's go to the harbor!"
Part 9: "Rebel">>>>>
Part 9: "Rebel">>>>>