|The Abnormals--Jade "The Angel" and Troy "The Shadow"|
The squadron of soldiers milled uneasily about the camp.
"Trust no one," the Hunter had said. "Don't trust each other... not even your own eyes!"
Justin sighed and took a seat next to the fire. He had two hours before his shift on watch. The Hunter had not yet returned from recruiting Thugs at the Harbor, and they wanted to be ready when she did.
"Hey," a voice grunted, and a bowl of soup appeared at his elbow. Justin glanced up at the person who offered it. Pallon, his eyes sparkling in the firelight, stared at Justin with a blank, worn expression. No attempt at congeniality, Justin thought to himself. He accepted the cup of soup, the Hunter's admonishment ringing in his ears.
"Trust no one... Trust nothing... Not even your own eyes...."
He never got to taste the soup.
Pallon bounded to his feet and screamed, "FAIRIES!"
Before Justin could comprehend what he meant, somebody slammed into his back, sending the bowl tumbling and splashing to the ground.
A howl resounded through the air, and suddenly the camp seemed full of rushing, striking bodies. Justin didn't even have room to draw his sword as one after another of his comrades fell, covered in blood. He tried to see what was happening, tried to distinguish friend from foe—
Till a sharp blow to the head knocked him to the ground, and it no longer mattered for him to distinguish anything.
Warmth. Comfort. A soothing melody.
These things tugged Justin back to consciousness. He opened his eyes.
A fire stood nearby, but well-controlled and not too warm. There was a bowl near his head, and the walls and roof of a small hovel beyond that. He turned his head—slowly, because every twitch of his muscles sent waves of pain into the very core of his being.
Sitting by his side, crooning a gentle tune, was a woman dressed entirely in white. It had to be his fevered brain hallucinating, or perhaps a trick of the light, but something over the woman's shoulder gave the appearance of wings on her back.
She finished wrapping the bandage around his chest and noticed him staring.
"Good morning," she said softly. "How do you feel?"
That wasn't important right now. Justin tried desperately to convince his mouth to move. "What—who are... You?"
The woman smiled. "My name is Jade. What is yours?"
By now, he had regained enough of his faculties to realize that he was not lying down, but sitting in a reclined position. He tried to speak again, but all that came out was a weak cough.
The "wings" behind Jade's back flinched, and she reached over to retrieve something. "Here." She offered him a white rag. He could sense the coolness of it near his lips. He took the rag in his mouth and let the moisture saturate his tongue and throat.
"Better?" Jade asked.
Justin nodded. "Justin," he said, stronger this time. "My name is Justin."
Jade nodded. "Pleased to meet you."
Justin took a deep breath. He had no recent memory of entering any hovel. He couldn't even picture what the outside of this place looked like.
"Where am I?" He asked.
"The Forest," Jade responded, watching him carefully.
"The forest?" Echoed the soldier. "Then how did I get—" Even as he asked it, the sparse memories came flooding back: he once worked as a palace guard, but he had been assigned to accompany a Hunter, and their camp had been ambushed—
His eyes, keen now, returned to the mysterious woman with the silvery hair. "How did I get here?"
Jade's smile never wavered. "I brought you, of course."
"But..." There were too many gaps in his memory, too many events all crossed and muddled together. He remembered blood and pain. He blinked at the strange woman. "You saved me?" He whispered. "Why?"
Jade blinked. "I need your help," she stated soberly.
Now that Justin was more aware, he noticed little things around the hut: a pitcher of water on the table, a broom in the corner, a second cot. "What do you need my help for?"
Jade seemed to relax. The things behind her back moved too, spreading thicker and looking more than ever like large wings—but that would be impossible!
"You know of the people called Gifted, correct?"
Justin's mind leaped back to Edri Rodan, a captain in his unit—and the only Gifted person he actually knew. "We were directed to identify them as Outcasts," he remarked.
Jade nodded. "When King Balwyn ruled, he wanted to implement a plan that would integrate the Gifted into society as citizens who use their gifts as they were designed, to help people."
Justin frowned. "The King is dead. The Regents and the Royal Council vie for supremacy."
Jade shook her head and chuckled. "The Crown Prince has returned and claimed his throne. Beren Seramis once again sits on the throne in the White Castle."
Justin wagged his head and put his hand up to feel the bandage across his brow. "How long was I unconscious?" He asked.
Jade shrugged. "A few days."
"Few days?" Justin sat forward and threw up his hands.
As soon as the words left his mouth, the pitcher of water toppled over, sending its contents spilling off the table and onto the floor.
Jade immediately leaped up to clean the mess, and that's when Justin saw: white, feathery wings, unmistakably attached to Jade's own shoulders. He went for his sword, but his scabbard no longer hung at his side.
"Justin," Jade murmured, mopping up the water on the table. "You need to stay calm—"
The soldier caught sight of his sword leaning against the wall, just beyond his reach. If he could just stretch a little further—
The sword seemed to jump off the ground and slide out of the scabbard, coming to rest gently in his outstretched palm.
Jade whirled around to find the angry, frightened young man pointing the tip of his blade at her throat.
"What are you?" He growled, even as his hands trembled in fear at what he had just witnessed. "What have you done to me?"
Jade didn't flinch. "I am an Angel," she said, gesturing to her wings. "I gave you a small gift, the Gift of Telekinesis. You can move things with your mind."
Somehow, she could reach past the sword and close her soft, pale hands around his rough, grimy ones. She released his death-grip on the sword, and Justin stared at it, hanging in the air between them. He turned the blade sideways and brought it to rest across his knees—all without touching it. He couldn't take his eyes off the sword, as his mind scrambled madly to make sense of what seemed to be an alternate reality he had somehow slipped into.
"Why?" He choked.
Jade kept her voice low and calm. "I told you. I need your help. My brother is somewhere in the Realm, and I need to find him and stop him before he causes trouble." She glanced out the window. "It's almost time," she said, looking back at the stricken Justin. "Can you stand?"
It took him several minutes to comprehend what she asked. "I don't know—" He slowly inched his body to the edge of the bed, swinging his feet to the floor. Easing his weight onto them, he stood, and the dull aches faded almost completely. Jade handed him a fresh tunic to wear, and his sword-belt. Justin paused once he was dressed, and experimentally thrust his hand out toward the table. The empty pitcher slowly levitated, and Justin could almost feel its weight in his hands long before it actually rested there.
"I... I don't understand," he stammered.
Jade took the pitcher. "Trust me, you will," she said. "But right now there are two people you need to meet who will help you. Go! Tell them of my brother!" She prodded him toward the door of the hut.
Justin stumbled into the open forest. He whirled back to the Angel. "Tell them what?"
Jade and her hovel were gone. When Justin turned back to the path before him, he saw two people heading toward him: an old man with a staff and a talisman, and a young woman wearing a black suit of fitted armor.
The Dockside Tavern rang with the chink of glassware and the murmur of slurred, intemperate voices, filled to the brim with thick smoke and the heavy stench of unwashed bodies.
Hardly anyone noticed the drunken soldier slouched over the table in the corner. He seemed a permanent fixture of the place, though nobody could tell if or when he ever left or arrived.
Sir Rayne grunted and drained his latest stein. Ten minutes of conversation, that's all it took for his whole world to come crashing down. Ten minutes with that Outcast instigator, Aurelle—Rayne kicked the table leg petulantly. Why did he ever imagine that befriending one of those weird Gifted people would be exactly the same as his other normal friendships? Nothing about those people were the same as the unGifted population.
He had been so close to getting through to her; if only she had disappeared or run—or, Fate forbid, complied, even, Rayne might have kept his position and his friends and his livelihood. One dishonorable discharge later, and he was nothing but a washed-up, friendless, penniless drunkard.
Damn those Outcasts!
"Careful, my friend," said a silky, deep voice. "You'll hurt yourself on the pieces."
Rayne blinked at the scattered shards of pottery that used to be his mug. When had that happened?
He looked up, but all he could see was black. Blackness in the shape of a man, with a man's face, grinning at him.
"Whazzuwant?" Rayne slurred, pushing the broken shards to the floor.
"Simple," the Man in Black stated. "I have a mission and it needs some muscle. I assume you are still armed, correct?"
Rayne slumped back in his seat, resting his chin upon his chest. "Don'wanna," he mumbled.
The grinning stranger chuckled. "My dear man, you don't have a choice." He slid a piece of paper into Rayne's field of vision.
With cloudy eyes and swirling vision, Rayne read a list of expenses that seemed to stretch on and on. Most of them comprised the tab he had run up at the bar, but other, larger debts were those from several creditors and gambling houses whom he had managed to avoid.
Rayne blinked. His vision cleared somewhat as the cold shock of impossible debt slammed into him. He glanced up at the man. "What's this?" He spoke a little more clearly now.
The man still smiled at him. "This has been your life till now, I'm afraid. Pulled in so many different directions, driven by the desire to escape one," he gestured to the gambling debts kept at bay with small sums while he worked as a peacekeeper, "only to land squarely in the clutches of another." This time, the finger slid down to the as-yet-unpaid alehouse tab.
Rayne shook his head. "What's it to you?" He groused.
The man set the paper down and folded his hands. "Like I said, I have a mission, and you are my chosen recruit. I've made thing easier for both of us by assuming all of your debt. Now instead of owing twenty men, you owe just one: me."
Rayne found it humorous; any one of those creditors had a claim on him worth more than he could make in a lifetime. This stranger had just assumed a debt that would never be paid.
"That's one way of looking at it," the man remarked calmly.
Rayne stiffened, clapping a hand to his lips; had he spoken out loud? He was not entirely aware of himself just yet.
"Or, if you really want to put it into perspective," the man continued, "you, in fact, owe me not just the money, but your life. Therefore, the only way out of this debt," he tapped the long, damning paper, "is for you to do as I say, and only what I say, for as long as I deem necessary. Only when I am completely satisfied that the debt is paid, will you be released from my service."
Had Rayne been possessed with all of his faculties, he reassured himself that he would figure out some sort of loophole.
"Unfortunately," the man seemed to reply to his thoughts a second time, "there is no loophole."
Rayne scowled; he didn't even know the man's name, and he hated him. "You can't do this!" He snarled.
The man waved his hand. "Be that as it may," he said, "the fact is, I already have." He paused, grinning at the defeated drunk across from him. "By the way, you may call me Troy. We are going to have such fun together!" He giggled. "All three of us... right, Miss Firron?" Troy twisted to look straight at an upright person who had been leaning against the wall for so long, people naturally assumed the patron to be sleeping. The form nearly looked masculine, with much of its features obscured, but when Troy addressed it, the figure stood, revealing a woman with bright-purple hair.
She glared at Troy, mimicking Rayne's own expression. "All right, you caught me. What's this job you need a Hunter and a knight for?"
Troy persisted in grinning. "Well, the mission should be obvious enough: I want to catch a dragon, and so I am going to use the best pair in the Realm to do it!" He winked at the Hunter. "Haven't you ever wanted to catch a dragon, Denahlia?"
She remained unmoving, tight-lipped. "I'll tell you when you can use my first name," she seethed. "And what makes you think you could pay me enough to convince me to join your little phony hunt?" She sneered with a snort. "Dragons don't exist in the Realm. Besides, I track people, not animals." Denahlia folded her arms and squinted at the enigmatic Troy.
He still smiled, showing all his teeth. "Oh trust me, you'll want this one!"
"It came from the Laboratory Tower!"
Damaris followed the two Seramis brothers as they dashed down the halls. A thunderous crash and a ferocious roar halted them briefly, as one of the walls caved in, but when the dust settled, they saw the two women huddled by a wall in a newly-exposed room. Beyond them, a gaping hole in the side of the tower let in sunlight—and the large, winged shape rapidly disappearing in the distance.
"Aurelle!" Damaris cried, dashing forward.
The Illusionist had her arms wrapped around a soldier with three thick scars on her face, and long crimson hair. Both were crying.
"What happened?" Beren asked.
Aurelle swallowed her sobs and answered shakily, "it was the Queen; she lured Erlis and I here because she knew that Erlis knew Edri—and that Erlis was a more powerful healer."
Jaran glanced around the room, but there didn't seem to be any other bodies. "Erlis? Where is she?"
"Queen Zayra," the soldier sat up, sniffled a bit, and answered. "She was going to use me to try and heal her insanity, but Erlis convinced her to receive a transfusion of Dragon's Blood to save me."
She squinted at the crowned man before her. "I know you..." she remarked, but Beren waved her off.
"So Queen Zayra gets a transfusion of Dragon's Blood," he summarized. "What happened to Erlis?" He glanced at the broken troughs and the hoses still caked with blood hanging between them.
Aurelle shuddered. "One moment, Zayra was raving about feeling the power, and then the next..." she choked and began trembling all over. Jaran had never seen the self-assured Illusionist so shaken. "In the next," Aurelle continued. "Erlis gave this long, loud scream, and started writhing so hard it looked like her body was breaking apart, and then—"
"The scales," Edri continued, as Aurelle lapsed into silence. "I had been unconscious for a while, under Queen Zayra's thrall, but the power surge woke me up just in time to watch the scales on Erlis' body seem to wrap around her completely, and her face changed, she sprouted wings, and—"
Jaran and Beren shared a horrified stare.
"She's a full dragon now," Beren mused hollowly.
"What is more," Aurelle found her voice again, "I don't know if Zayra was actually cured. She and Erlis share a connection, because of the Dragon's Blood. Zayra immediately claimed her as a pet, and they just flew away together!"
So much blood... Beren didn't like it. He splayed his hand over the streaks and let the water wash it away.
Edri's keen eyes focused on him. "Water..." she mused.
Meanwhile, Damaris filled Aurelle in on what had transpired in the throne room. "We left the Regents in the throne room with Azelie, the mute InterFace," he said. "She's really pretty. So Beren is King of the Realm now."
Edri gasped. "Wait! The water!" She turned from staring at Beren to glaring at Aurelle. "And you're the Illusionist in the forest! I should have known!"
Aurelle squinted at her sudden change of demeanor. "Known what?" She asked.
"And you should be showing respect for the king!" Jaran declared.
Edri clenched her fist as her right hand glowed blue. "The only friend I had in the barracks was a soldier named Justin—and he was killed in the forest two days ago, with the rest of his unit!"
Aurelle gasped as she recalled that night in the forest with Velora and Beren—only then, he'd had a fairy companion and went by the name Harlock. "Edri, I'm sorry," she said, reaching out to her, "we didn't know—"
"That's no excuse!" Edri jerked away, moving toward the edge of the hole in the tower wall. The ledge stood about twelve feet off the ground. "You killed the only person who understood and accepted me!"
"Captain," Beren stepped forward, "you are not alone; we are all Gifted. Out there, you're still an Outcast; your place is with us—"
Edri stood on the narrow ledge, her jaw set in defiance. "My place is with my queen," she snapped, and stepped into thin air.
Aurelle lunged, but too late. "No!"
Beren grabbed her hand, as she looked about ready to dive out there after the soldier. "Aurelle, don't!"
They peered over the edge. Edri lay sprawled on the pavement in a small splatter of blood, her limbs at odd angles, but as they watched, her body glowed blue and healed itself. A minute later, Edri stood and limped off toward the Wilderness, the same direction they had seen Erlis the dragon heading.
"Let her go," Beren murmured quietly.
Aurelle gazed earnestly at the two brothers. "After all Erlis has done for all of us," she said, "we owe it to her not to leave her at the mercy of that madwoman!"
"And we will!" Beren assured her. "But right now, we need to put this crumbling kingdom back together again."
Just then, a gentle voice reached their ears, seeming to come from inside their heads simultaneously. "King Beren! Prince Jaran! Come quick! They're escaping!"
Aurelle frowned, "Who is that?"
The brothers were already running down the hall, Gifts at the ready.
They reached the throne room too late. The dethroned usurpers, twins Kaidan and Javira Clissander, had vanished, leaving Azelie alone in the room, weeping.
"I tried," she mourned telepathically.
Jaran's shoulders slumped and he gave his brother a wan expression. "Are you sure we are the leaders this Realm needs?" He asked.
"Trust me, brother," Beren said with a deep sigh. "Things are going to get a lot better now that I am in charge."
"Hurry, Javira!" Kaidan chided his sister. It was nearly nightfall, and they needed to find shelter amid the cliffs before it got too dark to travel. A large mountain cast a shadow that looked deep enough. Javira clung to her brother's hand as they raced toward the cliff.
An enormous plume of fire exploded in front of them, sending the siblings cowering in the sand.
"That's far enough!" A woman's voice called to them.
Kaidan blinked rapidly to clear his vision. In the dim glow of the flaming vegetation, the twins beheld a young woman in a tattered silk gown, staring at them while leaning against the side of a dark-scaled dragon.
"Well, well!" The woman cried, staring at the pair with a mad gleam in her eye, "if it isn't my old nemeses who tried to depose me as ruler of the White Castle!"
"We did not depose you!" Javira retorted. "You never had any real power to begin with!"
Zayra glared, and the dragon's head twisted around to peer closely at Javira. "I had more power than you know!" She pointed imperiously at the twins. "You will both kneel in my presence!"
Kaidan glanced at Javira, but neither of them moved.
Zayra stamped her foot. "I WANT YOU TO BOW BEFORE ME!" She screamed.
Kaidan folded his arms, tightening his expression as if exerting great effort against some unseen force.
"No," he said.
The dragon ducked its head and growled in warning.
"I don't understand..." Zayra whimpered, cowering against its body. "How... You can't... You aren't—"
"Oh, but we are." Javira held Zayra's mind in check as she glided forward.
The former queen cringed and sniveled as tears trickled down her face.
"We are not the enemy," Javira crooned softly. "We are not so different as you have been led to believe." She stopped a respectful distance away. "In fact, we share a common enemy, so in that case, we really should be friends."
"But I don't understand!" Cried Zayra. "My Gift should work, even on other Gifted people. I had plenty of control over the Outcasts at the palace!"
Javira nodded. "Such as the telepath?"
Zayra gave a shudder and her face twisted in a sneer. "Yes, especially that one," she muttered. She folded her arms and rubbed her shoulders. "Ugh, I can still feel her presence in my mind sometimes."
Javira blinked wide-eyed. "You can? Would you be able to reach her from here?"
Zayra tilted her head to one side. The dragon fidgeted and stretched its head toward the castle.
"Not very well," Zayra complained. "It's very faint, and spotty. I would have to be closer to the city to reach her mind."
Kaidan and Javira shared a glance. They thought the same thing.
"Your Majesty," Javira said in her sweetest voice, "my brother and I can get you the ultimate power you desire."
Zayra's weird gaze fixed on her. "You can?" She gasped.
"If," Javira raised a finger, "you can reach that girl's mind, and turn her against the others."
Kaidan nodded. "The Prince knows her, and both he and the King trust her—they have no idea that she is not infallible."
"Yes! And," Javira jumped in, "if we can listen in through her senses, we will be able to know what they are planning, and without her voice, she will not be able to expose us!"
Zayra looked between the siblings, the tension slowly relaxing in her face as she began to believe in what her new allies were saying. "Perhaps..." she sniffed.
"Trust us," Kaidan assured the young queen. "Getting control of the mute is the first step in returning to the castle. Once we're in, you can have your power back to do whatever you want."
Zayra felt the warm surge as she thought about unlimited power. She leaned forward and stroked Erlis' scales. "And I will have a dragon," she murmured.
Javira stepped forward and placed her hand over Zayra's.
"Trust me," she said, and Zayra did.
The Clan of Outcasts Series: