Saturday, March 11, 2017

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts," Season 2 Part 2: "Strategic Maneuvers"

And the character with the most nominations for the week is...
Aurelle Divir, "The Illusionist"
 Season 2, Part 2
"Strategic Maneuvers"
"Beren!" Aurelle cried, "Help!"

 Beren sent a blast of water to engulf the white-haired woman. Her panic dissipated, sending the books and scrolls crashing to the floor.
Aurelle spluttered and wiped the water from her face. Beren hesitated at her new, regal look. The long blue coat she had been wearing before was simple enough to make her easily overlooked. In this new dress, with items shining bodice and the silver circlet around her head, she commanded attention by her very bearing.
"Sorry," he blurted when she stared at him.
She shook her head, surveying with disappointment the mess she had made. "Don't be; I couldn't have stopped that on my own."
"What was it?" Beren glanced at the scroll piled at his feet. Words filled it from edge to edge. He recognized some as quotes from books he had read—but what were the others? Where did the scroll come from?
Aurelle slipped it from his hands, an expression of consternation on her face. "I don't know; one moment I was reading, and the next—" she shuddered. "It felt like one who expects to sip from a goblet suddenly falling into the ocean."
"Like a power surge in your Gift?" Beren guessed.
Aurelle frowned and reached up to touch the circlet on her head. She winced and dropped her hand. "I have never heard of such a thing—and are you saying that this new outfit is part of my Gift?"
Beren shrugged. "Try using your Gift now. Do you remember any of the books you were reading?" He bent down and picked up the scroll at their feet. 
Aurelle snorted. "You mean the ones that were flying at my head?" She groused. "A little. Here, let me—" She opened her hand, the way she did when making her illusions. In a flash of brilliance, the words themselves appeared in the air before them, and Aurelle began speaking them aloud. 
Beren referred to the scroll. He could instantly see each passage illuminated on the paper as Aurelle read it. When she stopped, the ink on the scroll faded till it was blank again. He stared at her in wide-eyes astonishment. 
"You got all that in an instant?" He gasped.
Aurelle shrugged. "It's there in my head, like something I know—but I didn't even really read it. I guess I sort of absorbed it."
Beren nodded. "Like the incidents you would observe that would prompt your stories; you see something and it comes out in an illusion." He glanced around the massive library. "Do you think you could do that with all the information from these books?"
Aurelle followed his gaze, a bit more wistful than the prince. "I don't know how much information I can hold without taxing myself; this is all very new to me."
Beren grinned and handed her the scroll, "If you could, it would make you my most invaluable counselor, since you wouldn't need to be carrying tomes and parchments with you all the time."
Aurelle bowed low. "I will do my best, your Highness."

An explosion in the eastern wing shook the ground, and both the prince and the illusionist hastened to investigate.

The throne room lay in ruins. Black soot coated the marble, and all that remained of the wooden furniture and fixings were charred heaps.
At the center, a glowing figure huddled, his light increasing by the moment.
Damaris raised his head, though his skin shone so brightly that it was hard to distinguish his face. 
"Help!" A voice rasped from the man-shaped inferno. "I can't stop it!"
Beren let loose a torrent of ice and water from his hands, but the minute it reached the flames, every last drop evaporated into steam. Soon, the smoke and steam clouded the whole room—and Damaris still glowed at its center. Beren could see the cracks in the marble floor glowing molten-hot.
"Tauranium!" Aurelle cried, producing an image of it in her hands. "It's strong enough to resist the most extreme temperatures. We could enclose him in a case of tauranium!"
Beren coughed. "But Aurelle, where are we going to get—"
"Augh!" Aurelle suddenly flailed her arms, and the round projection giving above her hands congealed into a shining, silvery color and rolled away from her, toward the boy. A hatch flopped open. 
Beren didn't stop to think about it. "Damaris!" He cried as the smoke burned his throat and the floor buckled and swayed beneath him. "Get inside!"
Damaris flung his burning body through the hole, and instantly, the room plunged into darkness without the brilliant light to illuminate it. The marble floor faded back to cold stone, and Beren and Aurelle both sighed with relief.
Approaching the round fixture, Beren could feel the heat radiating off it—but, true to what Aurelle had said, the metal didn't melt or warp.
Beren coated the ground around it with ice, cooling the room further, and after many minutes, he could cause a layer of frost to form on parts of the orb, save the areas where Damaris moved. At last, it was cool enough to draw near.
"Damaris?" Beren called, but neither of them heard any reply.
Footsteps echoed down the hallway outside. "Beren?" Jaran called. "Are you—WHAT THE BLAZES???"
Beren glanced at Aurelle. "Watch over Damaris, will you?"
She nodded. "I suppose this means you're moving the coronation to the courtyard," noted the illusionist with some of her old, wry demeanor.
Jaran still stood stunned in the doorway, gazing around the pitch-black interior. "What happened here?" He squawked.
Beren patted him on the back. "I'll explain everything, just let the servants know that we're moving out-of-doors."
Jaran blinked several times before he could coax his body into movement. "H-h-how.... What—Where is Damaris?" He followed his brother automatically. 
"I said I would tell you later," Beren stated. "Now we need to find the Chief Steward and—" he stopped as he arrived at the outer gate. 

Servants were already hard at work, cleaning and decorating the courtyard fit for a coronation. 

"No need to order anyone," laughed a voice. "I have it all under control."
Beren stared dumbfounded at the young woman standing in the doorway. Finally stripped of her finery and dressed in simple fabrics, Azelie looked no less stunning—even more so, since her natural beauty was not over-glossed with glittering shams. 
She watched the tableau before her with a calculating eye.
"Everything will be in readiness by the time the sun reaches the horizon, your highness."
Beren gave himself a little shake and muttered, "Ah, er, thank you, Azelie. I'll, um, go prepare my, ah, coronation speech, I guess..."

Jaran whistled when they reached the steps of the west tower. "Wow!" He cried. "I wonder how long it took her to get all that together?"
Beren wagged his head. "Probably she noticed Damaris was having a problem and figured it out while I was still dealing with—" he stopped talking and stopped moving as the notion slammed into his brain. Aurelle, Damaris, and Azelie, all having surges roughly at the same time; it fit! But what did it mean? Why weren't he and Jaran affected? What caused it? Beren shook his head and forced himself to write a speech worthy of a king of the Realm.

These questions bothered him all through the coronation gala, all through the ceremony at the nadir of sunset, and into his speech, so carefully prepared. Azelie helped by reminding him of what he planned to say, and he was met with applause, but the questions still returned as he walked with Jaran to their rooms in the west tower.

"Um... Beren?" Jaran had stepped ahead of him and now called back to him. Beren ascended the last few steps to join his brother.
His bedroom door swung gently in the breeze from his window.
Beren shared a glance with Jaran. "I closed this door when I left, didn't I?"
The two brothers crept forward cautiously. Beren flexed his hand, and a thin sheen of frost spread over his skin. Jaran did the same, and a glowing arc of light spanned his fingers. 
At a nod from Beren, the two crashed through the door, Gifts at the ready.
A whirl of white unfurled before them, and a voice cried, "No, wait!"

Jaran regarded the intruder dubiously. She dressed all in white, with golden hair, and had a pair of white wings attached at her shoulders.
Beren, however, looked like he'd just had the shock of his life. Horror and surprise laced his features.
"JAY?!?!" He coughed hoarsely.
She smiled. "Hello, Harlock," she used his false name. "Or should I say," she swept her wings aside in a reverent bow, "your highness, King Beren. That was a good speech, by the way."
Beren remained exactly as he was. "B-but... but you—" he spluttered. "Jay, I thought you were a fairy!" A red flush flamed across his features as he said it.
She chuckled and shrugged. "I was," she acknowledged, "for a time. Actually, I am an Angel. And my name is Jade, not Jay."
"Your Gift is wings?" Jaran queried skeptically, still standing behind his brother.
Jade flexed her wings. "Not in the sense you understand, Jaran. I'm not Gifted, I'm—"
"Sorry to interrupt," said Azelie's voice. "But I've just heard a voice calling for help, and I think it's Erlis!"

Inky blackness, everywhere. It filled his mouth, blocked his eyes and ears—Rayne had just made up his mind to struggle when he found solid ground under his feet and stumbled forward, gasping real air as he fought to get his bearings.
Beside him, the Hunter flopped on the ground much like him, and the strange man who had laid claim on his life stepped out of thin air as if walking through a doorway. Outcast prick! Rayne struggled to his feet. The sun, at the full brightness of midday, shone bleakly through thin clouds. The city-bred soldier took one look at the rocky crags around them knew exactly where they stood: the Wilderness, the naked expanse along the eastern border of the Realm.
The trouble was, he had been standing on the complete opposite end of the Realm only moments ago. How did this happen?

An animal shriek tore him from his musings. The Hunter sailed through the air, her body slamming into Troy, flattening him against the cliffside. 
"YOU SCUM!" She screamed, knife clenched in her fist. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"
A curious thing happened. One moment, it looked as if the shadows around Troy deepened, till he was almost shrouded in black. Then the Hunter dropped to the ground, slumping against bare rock as she did.
Troy faded back into existence, standing just behind her, brushing a bit of rock dust off his cape.
"Now then, Miss Firron," he mused calmly. "Let's not get too—" 
She sprang at him again, and once more, he propelled himself backward in a wisp of black smoke. 
"Calm dow—"
Again, lunge and dodge. 
"Miss Fi—"
Around and around they went, Troy doing his utmost to remain out of reach, but still very much present. Denahlia wasn't having any of it, though. She leaped and bounded tirelessly, twisting and watching carefully, till at last, Troy made one jump too many—and this time, when he appeared, Denahlia had her pistol out, and pulled the trigger the instant he appeared.
A glistening, black wound unfolded on Troy's forehead, and he staggered back, shock frozen on his features. He gasped, gurgled, flopped back—and regained his footing with a hearty laugh. Denahlia still held the pistol's trigger down, so tight was her grip, and she stared as the "wound" vanished, leaving whole skin, as Troy—the stranger she had shot at point-blank range—smiled at her. Laughed in her face.
"I must say, you are nothing if not tenacious!" He declared with admiration, as if she had just given a stunning performance. Hardly the demeanor of a man toward the person who tried to kill him.
"WHAT THE BLAZES ARE YOU?" She shrieked, tossing away her gun in disgust. "You cannot be human. I saw that." She scowled at him. "You're not Gifted; no Gift can do what we have seen you do."
Rayne glanced down at the Hunter's empty gun at his feet. She had tried bullets and Troy had evaded each one.
The stranger himself gave a flourishing, theatrical bow. "You are right," he admitted, "I am not Gifted, though my abilities are tied to the Gifts. I am what is called an Abnormal; I am a Shadow. I can blend in to my surroundings and travel anywhere I want in the Realm, via the shadows I draw to myself."
Rayne stared at Troy. Abnormal? First there were the Gifted humans, and now there were Abnormals who weren't human at all? Where did they come from, then?
Troy went on. "Nice to see you've calmed down a bit. Now, let me explain the upgrades I've given you. You can see through most materials, no matter how thick. That's x-ray vision."
Denahlia blinked three times and squinted. Rayne heard her gasp. 
Troy nodded, "Also, I have given you magnification."
"Huh?" Denahlia blinked again, and Rayne could see her lips moving as if reading something. She raised a finger in front of her face and made a tapping motion. Suddenly, Denahlia flung her body prone with a yelp. Dust kicked up around her as she threw her arms up protectively and thrashed to avoid some invisible peril.
"Denahlia, stop!" Troy barked at her. "Blink again!"
The Hunter ignored the fact that he'd used her first name and blinked, allowing her hands to flop against the ground as she panted heavily.
"I saw... I s-s-saw... I saw—"
"Grains of sand," Troy supplied calmly. "Magnified a thousand times."
"Sand?" The Hunter picked a tiny grain off her sleeve. 
"It'll take some getting used to," Troy mused. "Anyway, there's more. I've also given you a few other tricks..."
A ringing developed in Rayne's ears, a high-pitched whine that drowned out the Shadow's voice. He winced and clamped his eyes shut, but the squeal only intensified. He felt his hand clamp on the hilt of his sword. Rayne opened his eyes to see if either of his companions noticed—almost immediately, he locked eyes with the Hunter. Her glowing turquoise gaze held him, as the whine only subsided a very little. He stood just behind Troy, so she could be possibly looking at the arrogant Abnormal when she really wasn't. Rayne could see his lips still moving. He had no idea—for that matter, neither did Rayne. What was the female doing?

As abruptly as it began, the ringing stopped. Rayne blinked. Denahlia had stood, brushing the dust off herself. Troy was no longer babbling—in fact, he was choking on his own blood as Rayne's sword protruded from his torso. Rayne cursed and released the bloody hilt, letting the body slump to its knees. 
Troy stared at the Hunter. She smiled.
"You think we are just toys to play with?" She growled, "Mechanisms for you to tinker and reprogram?" She reached over his head and grabbed the sword, doing even more damage as she yanked it out. "Think again."
Troy's body didn't dematerialize like it had before. Rayne stared at it, unmoving as Denahlia offered the bloody sword to him.
"Let's go," she said.
"Go where?" Rayne stammered, wiping the sword on the ragged edge of his tunic. He would need water and clean rags to get it ready for use again.
Denahlia shrugged and gestured to the forest. "Back to the harbor, I guess. Anywhere but with him and his kind—and I definitely have no interest in chasing down a dragon, of all things!"
Rayne stumbled after the lithe woman, still glancing over his shoulder and expecting to see a black cloud rise up and chase after them. "Do you think he's really dead?" He asked.
Denahlia scowled. "I don't doubt it, but I am done caring, either. He used us, Rayne—"
"You used me," he pointed out.
Denahlia shook her head. "Whatever; we get back, we part ways, and we can forget this whole thing ever happened."
Rayne snorted. "Well, except that now you have amazing things that your Gift can do. I will only need a few tankards of the strongest ale to wash my conscience clean."
Denahlia didn't reply.

Justin sighed and reached out his hand as they passed under some wild apple trees. He chuckled to himself as the smooth skin of a ripe apple slapped against his palm.
Velora sighed behind him. Justin ignored her. The truce between them was an uneasy one. He knew full well that she wasn't happy about his presence, but when an Angel speaks, there isn't much one can do. He liked Korsan, though. He'd heard stories of the King's Mage back in the heyday of King Balwyn, of the incredible feats of magic this young man was able to perform in service to his King and the Realm. He wasn't so young now, but his power surely had waxed rather than waned. Still, he maintained an honest and approachable air about him, unassuming and deeply connected to the world around him. Justin could feel the Mage watching him, and dared not turn around, lest he make eye contact and allow the Mage to read his mind, as magic users were wont to do. 
The branches overhead rustled with a light breeze. Justin glanced up in time to see two objects descend from the canopy.
"Ow!" Velora snarled as an apple thunked her on the armor-plated shoulder. She glared at Korsan, and Justin welcomed the response. Apparently the young Alpha Wolf harbored resentment toward just about everybody, not just him.
"What was that for?" She seethed as Korsan calmly picked up the bruised apple and offered her his unblemished one.
"If you spent less time nursing your wounded pride and focused more on your surroundings," the Mage advised, "you would find the journey that much more pleasant."
She snatched the apple from him, slicing it into perfect sections with a rake of her savage claws. "I don't have much use for pleasant journeys or a comfortable life," she grumbled. "We need to get to the castle and warn the others about this shadow-being." Her body tensed as soon as she finished speaking, and she whirled to her left. "Look out!"

A long, barbed tail snaked out from behind a screen of trees, knocking down half a dozen in one blow. In the clearing now exposed to them sat a dragon. On the dragon's back, two women sat, one in a tattered silk dress, the other in armor bearing the crest of the White Castle. Both had three scars on the right temple, and bright-crimson hair swept over to one side.
Justin raised his hand and squinted. "Edri!" He called.
The woman in armor leaned over the dragon's shoulder to peer at him. "Justin?"
"Well, well!" Cried the other woman. "If it isn't the Banished Heretic who got himself exiled for his foolish ravings!"
Korsan stood firm and merely gave a courteous nod. "Greetings to the false Queen Zayra. I did not recognize your appearance."
She did not seem to catch the slight, but stroked her scarlet hair with a self-conscious smile. "You like it?" She asked shyly. "I wanted to look just like my Guardian."
Two more figures emerged from the trees behind the dragon.
"So!" cried Kaidan, eyeing the trio, "We meet again, Mage!"
Korsan's expression hardened. "So it would seem, young Kaidan."
Javira sidled forward, and Justin saw Velora tense. She turned her strange gaze on him, though, and he felt his thoughts scramble over in his head. "What might you three be doing in the woods just now?" She asked innocently.
Justin knew that these two were responsible for oppressing the Gifted population after the death of King Balwyn. The fact that they were here in the forest instead of the castle meant that, possibly, they had been overthrown. If there really was a King Beren now, perhaps the Crown Prince had really returned, and things were finally okay.
Justin felt his thoughts aligning. He was going to tell these newcomers about their mission, about their friends, about everything—but just then, he felt Korsan move to stand beside him, and the compulsion broke.
"Javira," the Mage warned softly, "leave the poor boy alone. One might also ask what you are doing so far from the castle."
"Don't remind me!" Zayra snapped as Edri slipped off the dragon's back. "My castle was stolen from me, and I want to get it back!" She jerked on the dragon's neck, and its head swung around to stare at the three. "Don't even think about getting in my way!"

Edri reached Justin and threw her arms around him. He welcomed the embrace. 
"When you were summoned to work in the castle, I never thought I'd see you again," he whispered. 
"They told me your entire unit was slaughtered by the Outcasts," she murmured. "I lost all hope after that!"
Justin drew back to look at the earnest face before him. "They weren't completely wrong, but Edri, so much has happened since then! And these Outcasts, these Gifted ones, they are friends, not threats. Why, even I have a Gift now!"
The former captain blinked. "You what?"
Justin stretched out his hand to gently pluck a flower from a nearby plant. Edri watched in astonishment as the flower floated toward her—only to shrivel and die just inches from her hand.
Zayra glared at them. "I have had enough of you three. We are leaving and you cannot stop us. Come, Edri!"
The captain felt the familiar pull of the Queen's thrall. It tugged her away from Justin, but she kept a hold on his hand. "Your Majesty," she begged. "These are friends. They are not the enemy we thought! At least let us bring Justin along—"
Dragon and rider whirled upon her suddenly. "HOW DARE YOU DEFY ME!" Zayra screamed. "THEY HAVE INSINUATED THEMSELVES BETWEEN US, AND TURNED YOU AGAINST ME!"
Edri shook her head, dropping Justin's hand. "No, I am not against you—"

"Awooooo!!" A long howl split the air, and suddenly, Velora bounded over the heads of those in front of her, to land, claws flexed, in front of the Queen riding the Dragon.
"Of course we're going to stop you!" She snarled. "You're not fit to rule! Your reign has ended!"
"NOOO!" Zayra pounded the dragon scales in front of her with a delicate white fist. The scaled tail whipped around, smacking into Velora and sending her flying. "YOU WILL ALL DIE!!"
Korsan focused on his staff, muttering a spell and increasing it's power. 
"No, wait!" Edri yelled at him. "Don't hurt the dragon, it's Erlis!"
Justin grabbed for Edri's hand again, but Velora had just recovered from smashing into the tree, and once again launched herself at the dragon. It growled a warning, and smoke issued out of its nostrils. Fire would soon follow.
Justin saw the smiles worn by the Twins. Somehow, they were responsible for the mayhem; he had to stop them. But how?
"Hey, ginger!" He shouted, charging toward Kaidan.
The dragon lifted a claw and smacked Velora against the ground, causing a tremor that made Justin stumble a bit.
"Kaidan!" Javira cried. "She's wearing my armor!"
Justin watched Velora cough a bit, and slowly struggle to her feet. Just then, the dragon sent a jet of flame over her head, igniting the tree behind her. Korsan shouted a spell, and a fluffy blue cloud enveloped the blaze, extinguishing the fire before it had much time to spread.
Zayra wailed as the dragon reared, and when it came down, a claw wrapped around Korsan, trapping him.
"I CAN'T!" Zayra gripped her head with both hands as the dragon spread its wings and prepared to lift off. "MY HEAD! IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN! MAKE IT STOP!"
"My Queen!" Edri cried, whipping off her glove and running toward the dragon, but it was too late. The dragon ascended into the deepening night, the Mage in its claws and the suffering Queen on its back. 
Edri dropped to her knees, tears welling in her eyes. "She left me..." she whimpered. "How could she leave me behind?"
Justin stepped forward to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, but Captain Edri smacked it away as she stood. "No!" She snapped, whirling on him. "This is your fault! You drove her away!"
"Edri, I'm sorry!"
Movement in the bushes caused him to stop and stretch out his hand. Kaidan and Javira bobbed up into the air, in the very act of sneaking away while no one watched them. "And just where do you think you're going?" Justin demanded.
Javira fixed her weird gaze on him again. "Let us go, good knight," she cajoled him. "Our quarrel is not with you."
Justin shook his head. He wasn't about to fall for whatever trick she tried on him a second time. 
"No, but I am sure the King would be very anxious to have the two of you back in custody—especially with a mad Queen hell-bent on attacking the castle with a dragon. You're coming with us." He used his free hand to draw thick vines out of the trees, and wrap them tightly around the two siblings. A swath of fabric from the edge of his tunic served as gags for the pair.
"You are under arrest, in the name of King Beren of the White Castle," Justin announced. 
Kaidan and Javira squirmed against their bonds, but they could do nothing. Satisfied, Justin turned back to check on Velora. She was still breathing, the armor had at least preserved her life, but the pressure and the blows definitely left their mark. Justin glanced back to Edri, standing with her glove clutched in her right hand, while her left glowed faintly in the moonlight.
"Edri," he said softly. "Will you help me?"
She scowled and did not move. "I don't want to," she answered flatly.
Justin stared until she met his gaze. "Please?" He begged.
Edri let out a deep sigh, but pressed her healing hand against Velora's neck. Seconds later, Velora gasped and coughed as her body righted itself. Justin helped her to her feet. 
The Wolf glanced at the two prisoners, and the young captain glaring at her as she slipped her glove back on her glowing hand.
Velora turned to Justin with a raised eyebrow. "Aren't you going to arrest her too, for treason and conspiracy against the crown?"
Edri sniffed and her lips tightened.
Justin shook his head. "That's no way to treat somebody who just saved your life, Velora." He gave her a significant nod. "We have more important things to worry about, remember?"
The Wolf nodded. "Let's get to that castle before it's too late!"

The Clan of Outcasts Series

Episode 1: "Upgrades"