Saturday, May 6, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 2 Part 6--"Bluefire"

Tadaaa!! New character, Lizeth Ellora!
Part 6

Dawn barely cracked the fog down in the belly of the Cascade. Soldiers milled about the campfires, checking their chain-maille for any last-minute flaws from the previous six skirmishes, scanning the lofty crags against the dark sky for any signs of preemptive spies--in case their adversaries decided to strike before the planned attack at dawn.

A young cadet with magenta hair stomped into view and slumped onto a stump near the fire.
"Medic!" she growled, holding her arm aloft, the sleeve around it hanging in ribbons and oozing with blood. 
Her request drew chuckles from the knot of soldiers loitering nearby.
"Ho, there, Nahlia! Find a bear to wrestle while you were waiting for the sunrise?" one jibed.
"Must be marvelous, having no armor or equipment to maintain!" groused another.
The young woman scowled at the verbal barbs. "Better bears than the village maids you've been wrestling every night since we left the Forest!" she shot back.
The cheers and laughter that followed clearly denoted the victor of the spat. Nahlia smiled smugly and barked again, "Medic!"
"Coming!" The short woman in the blue cloak elbowed her way through the gathered onlookers, a basket clutched against her side. She knelt beside the patient and immediately began pouring on disinfectants and daubing the wound with sterile cloths.
"What was it this time?" she muttered, examining the gashes closely with practiced eyes, even as her hands fluttered rapidly on and around the limb. "These aren't bear claws--"
"Why does it always have to be bears?" Nahlia grunted at her. "Dumb can-heads have no idea--"
"Then what was it?" The medic's blue eyes fixed keenly on those of her patient.
"Just a few brambles I crossed, that's all."
Nahlia scowled. She didn't like meeting the medic's gaze. "Well, that's all the truth you're getting out of me, so there!"
"What was it?" The irritating girl never raised her voice, but she wouldn't leave well enough alone, either.
The cadet hesitated only a moment. "Wolf," she responded bluntly. "Big one. Just waiting over on the east side. Still can't get used to the lack of depth perception in the red eyes."
The woman finished tucking the last bandage securely and looked up at the cadet. "Red eyes?" she echoed. "What are you--"
"Agent Denahlia!" The rich, rolling voice carried on a temperate breeze. "I was hoping you would return, but I didn't expect you so soon."
Denahlia shrugged, flexing her fist and twisting her arm to test the bandage, and stood. "I found what I was looking for." As an afterthought, she bowed low to the bearded man standing before her. "Your Majesty."
King Balwyn Seramis nodded to the arm. "I see you found a bit more besides," he remarked.
A teasing murmur rippled through the camp.
Denahlia tried to shrug, but the wound still smarted a little. "Who said this wasn't my target?" she pointed to her wounded arm.
A stiff gust whistled between the canyon walls as King Balwyn laughed. "Ah, Denahlia, it is truly refreshing to find one in my kingdom who is both willing to serve and not to mince words around me!"
Denahlia bowed. "I owe you a debt, my King," she said. "And I do anything to repay what I owe."
The King removed his gauntlet and clapped Denahlia on her good shoulder with an open, friendly hand. "The Realm is indeed fortunate to have a league of defenders with such a capable spy as yourself." He turned to the young medic. "Lizeth, I am afraid Denahlia's arrival diverted you from giving your report of the perimeter. What did you see?"
Lizeth made a point of bowing to the king before she spoke. "Your Highness, the guards at the south side seem a bit more anxious than the others--but they wouldn't tell me what they saw. I advanced just outside the perimeter, as you requested, and I saw two men standing next to the foremost oak, and what looked like a thicket of aborram near the blind spot on the north side."
"Impossible!" Cried the squadron leader, standing just beside the main pavilion tent. "Aborram isn't native to this region; are you sure this is what you saw?"
Lizeth turned from the king to focus on the speaker, but he aimed his gaze just over her right shoulder. "I am always sure of what I see," she replied simply, inclining her head just enough to break into his line of sight.
The sergeant gave a shudder and slunk away. Lizeth turned back to the King to finish her report.

Over by the fire, a young soldier with a shock of red hair plopped onto the grass next to Denahlia. 
The spy didn't flinch. "Go away, Allen," she groaned.
Allen didn't budge. "Don't you want to hear what they're saying, Nolly?"
Denahlia sighed. "I always know what they're saying," she grumbled. "I'm a daredevil and a rebel, I am a child doing a man's work--"
"You're no good as a spy."
Denahlia glared at him sharply. "What?" she snapped.
Allen shrugged like it was common knowledge. "All the hogwash about going red-eye and being able to see by the light of the new moon," he replied. "People think you make that stuff up, to cover your mistakes and make you look special."
"I'm not special, I'm bloody good at my job!"
Allen sighed, too confident in Denahlia's professionalism in the presence of the king to worry about her tearing into him then and there. "I'm just saying--even the best spies aren't able to predict how many people occupy a locked room the way you do. Don't shoot the messenger," he mumbled, hopping off the seat and wandering to the other side of the camp, toward the medical tent.
The first thing he noticed was the cloudy haze of steam wafting out of the vent at the top of the tent. Inside, the air was fresh, only barely hinting at a variety of wholesome scents. Lizeth carefully examined an array of vials before her, each containing some kind of substance, and all shrouded in condensation that usually accompanied extreme heat--but Allen still shivered. The tent itself wasn't any warmer than the night air outside it. He let the tent flap fall silently behind him.

"Go away, Allen."

He snorted. "Everybody keeps saying that! Whatever happened to Greetings or Well Met?"
Lizeth turned from the vials to look at him. He locked eyes with her before he could stop himself.
"Anyone who meets you is never well," Lizeth remarked. She resumed her work, preparing rolls of bandages and carefully packing the vials in her kit.
Allen plopped down on the bench nearby. "Can I help you do that?"
Lizeth paused and looked at him. "What is it exactly that you believe I do?"
The soldier shrugged. "I don't know; I mean, I know you are a very skilled medic, and you tend wounds and sicknesses and stuff. I want to help with that." He moved to pick up the next vial, but she snatched it quicker than he did. "What is all this stuff used for, anyway?"
Lizeth sniffed. "That would depend on the wound. Some are used for curing, some for preventing infection--some," she lifted a vial of dark liquid so he could see, "are used to encourage the flow of blood, in cases where the infection is already inside and I need to get it out."
He read the label on one of the jars before she could take it away. "Borrisium; huh, looks like a bunch of mud to me."
"To the untrained medic," Lizeth replied, taking the jar from him, "it is. Borrisium must be heated to a very high temperature to activate it as a healing agent. It's very rare. I'll thank you never to touch it again."
Allen stayed right where he was. "But how do you heat it up on the battlefield? Why do you carry it if you can't use it?"
Lizeth whirled around and grabbed a small apparatus from behind some other equipment. It looked like a gentleman's pipe made of glass with a large, deep bowl. "I use this and some refraction pieces to concentrate enough heat to activate it." She popped the clasp on her kit and dropped it in. "I am prepared for anything that goes on."

Just then, the King's horn sounded. It was time to assemble on the battlefield.
Allen followed Lizeth out of the tent.
"So can I help you?"
"No. Go check in with your unit."

King Balwyn and his army marched out to the Field of Zapheira.
Denahlia, mounted, slid into position behind the King's horse.
"What do you see, King's Eye?" Balwyn asked.
Denahlia blinked, and her vision reddened, cutting through the fog and outlining the shapes of the army within it.
"They are here, and ready," she answered.
Balwyn lifted his sword. "Then let's not keep them waiting any longer! Chaarge!"

Present day.....

Jaran grimaced as the charge burst out of his wrists and trickled down the wire. As an experiment run by the Royal Council, he had control of his charge, and they would still give him time to rebuild between pulses.

"AGAIN!" Zayra shrieked, on the other end of the wire. "MORE!"
Jaran groaned as the electricity arced through him again. Under Zayra's thrall, she could force the charge out of him, pulling the lightning into the crown on her head. Sometimes she would pull for so long, he would feel dizzy and feverish. It kept him weak.
Jaran felt his stomach heave as the charge fizzled out, and his knees buckled.
"Please," he rasped. "No more!"
"Keep going!" He felt her influence twist and jerk—but no spark ignited.
"There isn't anymore!" Korsan yelled at her, as Jaran curled on the floor, too weak almost to breathe. He bent down, briefly reaching to touch the frayed cord on his belt at the same time he remembered where his talisman was. He could only hope that one of his new friends had recovered it.

"I can still see it, you know. It's somewhere in the south, headed eastward."
Korsan still couldn't get used to the voice. He hid the startled flinch from the Queen and directed his thoughts in answer.
"Never mind that just now. Get us out of here. She will kill him!"
"I'm trying—"
"What are you thinking?" Zayra frowned and leaned forward. "Is there another telepath? Oh, I remember!" She clapped her hands and pointed to another corner in the dull-grey room. "My caged beauty! I thought she'd escaped in the big fight." She tapped a pale finger against ruby lips.
"So where is she now?" She stared weirdly at Korsan, almost as if she could try to read his mind. Remnants of Jaran's lightning still flickered around the curling filigree of her crown.
Korsan felt the fog on his mind becoming clearer. Small moments of his usual premonitions were coming through.
"I've almost got it," Azelie spoke in his mind. "I can stop her influence in you, then Aurelle will create a cover diversion so you can escape."
Korsan sat quietly, not answering Zayra as she muttered to herself, pacing furiously, calling various soldiers in to report: no one had found her escapees, the people (and beasts) she had sent out had not returned—things weren't altogether going as planned.
"Not me," he thought in reply to Azelie. "Save the Prince!"
"It's harder," Amelie admitted. "I am trying, but her thrall is too much attached."
Korsan watched the wires dragging between the Queen's crown and Jaran's wrists. "What if I disconnected the wires?" He suggested in his mind.
"That might help."

The door to the castle banged open, and the vaulted ceiling rang with much shouting.
Zayra bounded to her feet as the magenta-haired Hunter stalked in, dragging behind her two figures in black, with dark hoods over their heads.
"What do you want?" Demanded the Queen. 
Denahlia dropped her quarry on the floor at the foot of the dais.
"I want justice for the Realm!" She declared. "These are the two false Regents who recently escaped custody of the King—they were caught trying to book passage out of the Realm."
One of the figures squirmed violently and let out a muffled wail, but the prisoner stilled when Denahlia gave a jab with her boot. "I took the liberty of gagging and hooding them to negate the effects of their Gift."

Zayra snorted. "Your initiative is duly noted. Very well, take them to the dungeons to await sentencing.." she paused to consider, "when I feel like sentencing them."
Denahlia handed the chain lead over to the palace guards, and in that moment, Korsan felt the Queen's focus shift completely, and he was his own master. The old Mage burst into action.
He bounded to his feet and lunges for the place right in front of Jaran. Without his talisman he couldn't work solely magic, but the knife he grabbed off a guard's thigh gave him something to funnel his magic through. The wires parted easily under the enchanted blade, and he yelled out, "NOW!"

Zayra shrieked as millions of hissing, black beetles erupted from the cracks between the bricks. They skittered down the marble columns and toward the people.
Denahlia stomped on a few before she realized how pointless it was. She switched to red-eye vision, and at once the insects vanished, proving what they were. At the back of the room, two figures close together scurried for the doorway. Denahlia went for them, managing to grab the cold wrist with broken wire still wrapped around it.
"STOP!" Zayra screamed, still seeing the beetles crawling up her skirts, at the same time noticing the Mage and the prince trying to escape. "I ORDER YOU TO COME BACK."
Korsan thought a silent thanks as he realized that Azelie's work had not only broken Zayra's thrall on him, but she could no longer reach him. 
Jaran, on the other hand, still stopped when she bade and began turning around like a puppet on a string.
"Azelie!" He yelled into the great hall, "Do something!" Now the Hunter held Jaran's free hand, and dragged him away as well.
"Korsan, get out of there!" The telepath warned. "Her influence is too strong. I can't get both of you out, and if you fall back under, I don't think I would be able to break in a second time!"
Korsan felt his loyal heart breaking. "King Balwyn would never forgive me for abandoning his son a second time!" He cried.
"Do it now!" Azelie repeated. "Quick, before the Hunter tries something!"
Korsan let go and dashed out of the castle under an illusion of screaming black bats sent by Aurelle. Their shrieks hid the sound of his own remorse. Azelie caught him in her arms as he made it to the tower where they hid.
"There, you're safe," she thought. "It's all right."
Korsan lifted tear-filled eyes to her. "But what about Jaran?"

Back in the royal court, Denahlia led the young prince by the hand, like a sheep willing for slaughter.
"The other one escaped," Denahlia mentally cursed at herself. The one man she had been commissioned to pursue, and once again, he slips through her fingers.
The Queen looked happy enough, though. She smiled at Denahlia. "Your assistance to me is acknowledged, and I will see you richly rewarded." She stood and began walking toward Denahlia, her eyes fixed on those of the Hunter. 
"I am missing my Lion, but I would feel very safe indeed with someone of your expert caliber at my si—"
Denahlia blinked and the heaviness in her mind receded. She scowled. "Stop right there, missy!" Denahlia snapped. "I've heard of your nasty thrall and I won't have any part of it!"
Zayra frowned and crossed her arms in a pout. 
"Then the least you can do is bring me my Lion! I sent her to get me the Mage anyway—I want her back."
Denahlia snorted, giving a mocking, theatrical bow. "That, at least, I can do, Your Royal Petulance!"
Zayra was already leading the docile Jaran back up the dais toward an empty chair next to her throne, clinging to his arm and ruffling his hair. 
Denahlia left the throne room and blinked until she could use the x-ray vision that was part of her upgrades. A lone skeleton picked its way tentatively among the hallways on the north side. Denahlia positioned herself to intercept it, blinking back to night vision in the unlit passageway.

Aurelle didn't even see her coming. One moment, she was making her way past all the guard stations to rendezvous with Korsan and Azelie on the other side, and the next, she felt a searing blow to the back of her head, and two strange eyes absorbed her vision.
"Show me the Lion!" Growled a low voice.
Aurelle didn't even think she could comprehend the command; what Lion? Who was this person? 
Her Gift responded of its own accord, and Aurelle saw a glimpse of the forest just south of the city surrounding the castle, where a young woman tended to a host of wounds on a massive lion. The woman stood, her hands wreathed in a strange flame. Aurelle heard the person gasp, "Bluefire? Impossible!"
Then the eyes vanished, and Aurelle was alone. She shook her head and continued on her way.

"Kill him! Kill him!" The frenzied screams of the crowd reached her ear with surprising clarity. There was the poor man, innocent of any wrongdoing, and very obviously incapable. He stood frozen in the middle of the arena as flowers and vines unfolded from the ground around his feet like a green and blooming fountain. The lion advanced on him, lean and hungry. In her mind's eye, they switched places. Now she was the one, scared and alone, standing in the middle of the springtime thicket, as the lion snarled at her, and paced closer and closer. With a running charge, it leaped through the remaining distance between them, its extended claws raking over her head and down her body, flaying her in a single blow...

The lion's roar still resounded in her ears as Edri came awake with a scream.
The red-haired woman sitting beside her dodged the angry swipe of paws.
"All right, sorry!" she cried. "Just trying to help."
Edri let her head flop back to the ground. The woman approached slowly, giving Edri ample time to warn her away if she needed to. The former captain lay as still as she could as the woman returned to running her fingers over the wounds in her side.  
The woman made no sudden movements. "May I?" she asked. "You're not going to just attack me, are you?" 
"No! Of course not!" Edri wanted to shout. She knew better than to beat off the medics when wounded. As a healer herself, she knew that infection was often a silent, painless killer, that just because it didn't hurt, didn't mean that you weren't just minutes away from a sudden, horrible death at the hands of microscopic organisms.
But she had turned into a lion. Somehow, arguing with Justin and being out in the forest with the Wolf had awakened a similar ability in her, and now she was every bit as trapped as the woman she had attempted to heal. She glanced up and met the gaze of this other woman, this strange healer. The woman's eyes held her gaze, and Edri felt a sudden kinship with her--not the kind of overpowering, pulling, dragging thrall that she felt for Zayra, but a mutual understanding.
The woman nodded. "Very well; thank you."
She lifted her hand, glancing warily at the lion in front of her.
"Don't be afraid," she said to Edri.
Edri didn't know what she had to fear till a jet of blue flame unfolded around the woman's upraised hand. Edri let a low, sustained growl fill her throat, but she mastered her willpower and didn't budge, even when the woman touched her with the blue-fired hand, closing and cauterizing the clean gashes with its heat.
"I'll admit, I've never tried healing a lion before," the woman spoke low and conversationally, stroking her hand over Edri's fur. "It's been a long time since I've been called on to heal anybody. Not since the last time King Balwyn rode into battle."
Edri inclined her head. King Balwyn? Was she another healer like Erlis, then?
The woman noticed. "Oh, you recognize the King, do you?" she paused and extinguished the blue fire. "I wouldn't be surprised if you were one of the creatures used in those circuses the Council would run in his name."
Edri let out a low, angry growl at the insinuation.
The woman nodded. "I felt the same way, when I heard of them." She leaned back. "There, all patched up."
Edri lifted her head. Now, instead of bleeding gashes, a series of neat little scars streaked her side. She tried to roll over and stand, but the movement made her head spin. She staggered a bit on her feet.
"Oh." The woman's eyes stared at a place right above Edri's line of sight. "I didn't notice the head wound. Here." She lit the fire in her hands again, and placed her palms over the wound on Edri's head. "This one's deep," said the healer. "But I think I can reach--"
A shooting pain lanced through Edri's head, and as she closed her eyes to wince, she could see a glowing image of herself, the same color as the healer's eyes. She drew away from the touch, and saw that the healer had actually stumbled backward, presumably from the same stimulus.
The healer panted heavily, staring wide-eyed at the lion. "You're not actually a lion," she stammered slowly, "are you?"
Edri wagged her head. Grunting softly, she nodded toward the healer's hands.
"What," said the woman, "This? My Gift, you mean? Oh! Your Gift is that you can turn into a Lion--"
Edri shook her head. She grunted and nodded again. How else could she make her understand?
The connection they shared seemed to work. The woman grinned. "You're a healer too, then?"
Edri met her gaze. Yes, she thought.
The woman gasped. "I can hear your voice!" She tilted her head. "My name is Lizeth Ellora; what is yours?"
Edri could have laughed with relief. Only one day without the power of speech, and she had felt disconnected from the rest of the world! How that Paragon Queen Zayra cursed could have survived till now without speaking was beyond her. Finally, she could communicate everything that needed to be said.
My name is Edri Rodan. Did you serve the royal family?
Lizeth smiled and ruffled the lion's mane. "Pleasure to meet you, Edri. No, I wasn't the palace healer--that position went to someone else. Back in my day, the Gifts weren't as widely recognized. In fact, it was the Battle of Zapheira that brought the Gifts into public knowledge--though not quite in the way that I am sure King Balwyn hoped they would." She sighed.
Edri slowly sat down next to her, the lion's tail flipping idly. What happened?
Lizeth wagged her head. "I was caught, by my best friend, no less. She didn't really understand Gifts, and she didn't like it when anybody made fun of the way she used hers. I tried to make her feel as normal as possible--but when she saw me healing the king with bluefire," she illustrated her point by letting the flame flare up and vanish once more, "she got scared." Lizeth pursed her lips at the memory. "That was probably the single most ill-fated battle of King Balwyn's rule. It was certainly the last time he rode out to battle."
Edri did recall her early days in the garrison, wondering why the Realm would have so many soldiers when all they did was patrol the city streets and hunt down animals to unleash upon the Outcasts.
Why was it ill-fated? she asked in her thoughts.
Lizeth shuddered. "We fought an enemy who was far more clever than we anticipated," she said softly. "These were King Balwyn's greatest and most skilled troops--we didn't know it at the time, but more than half of us were Gifted. We mowed through about half of the opposing army before they sounded the retreat. We would have run them down still, but Balwyn called it off. The fog was too thick, and he didn't want to risk us getting lost in it. We waited till a strong wind blew the clouds away--and then we saw what we had done." She frowned, pulling her knees up under her chin.
Edri kept watching her till she finally admitted, "There was a village our scouting parties hadn't noticed, in the direction the retreating army had taken. They got their revenge on us by killing all of the villagers as they went through, and leaving messages in blood saying Long Live The King and The King's Gift and the like." Her frown deepened into a scowl. "The gossip moved faster than we did, so that by the time King Balwyn returned to the castle to announce the victory, it was already tainted, and people were frantic to know what the King's Gift was, and who among his army had endorsed the slaughter of so many villagers." Lizeth reached out and resumed stroking Edri's mane as she spoke. "Somehow, the Council already knew how to pick out the Gifted ones, and they found excuses to get us stripped of our posts and sent home--even my friend Denahlia, who was the King's most trusted spy."
Edri picked up her head. The Hunter? she asked.
Lizeth gasped. "How do you--" she shook her head. "Never mind. We aren't friends anymore, really." She gave a wry smirk. "When King Balwyn fell ill just after that, she was the one who blamed me. She'd seen the enchanted fires I'd placed in him, she said, and cursed him with a sickness that would eventually kill him. Not even a special proclamation from King Balwyn himself, telling everybody about the Gifts and how they could be useful, would save us from the fear of the people."
Edri pondered over this story. It was certainly an angle on being Gifted that she hadn't heard before. In the heavy silence, she felt the old surge and return of an influence she hadn't felt in a while.
"What is it?" Lizeth asked, and Edri realized that she had risen to her feet without thinking.
We need to return to the castle, she thought.
Lizeth hesitated. "I don't think that's such a good--"
Much has changed. You will see.
The Gifted healer nodded. "Very well, I will come."

"Are we there yet?" Damaris whined as they slipped down another alley that looked just as forlorn and unkempt as the last one. He had too many painful memories attached to the harbor to ever enjoy it again.
"Nearly there," Erlis glided smoothly ahead of them, as one who had lived many years on these streets, and knew them all like the tracing of veins on the back of her hand.
Damaris took some slight comfort that even Jade had trouble keeping up, on account of her large white wings that insisted on brushing up against walls and getting caught in the odd break as they meandered down narrow alleyways.
"Can we please hurry?" she begged. "One of the flaws of being Abnormal is that I cannot conceal my inhumanity as well as a Gifted person can--and there is nothing more enticing to an unsavory harbor-dweller than the sight of large Angel wings."
Erlis cast her voice over her shoulder without slacking her pace. "I am going as fast as I can; it's you lot that need to keep up with me! Ah," she paused at a door. "Here it is, just like the old times." She knocked twice.

A man's voice called. "Come in, all of you!"
Erlis balked, and Beren noticed. "What is it?" he asked.
"That's not my friend," Erlis murmured.
The door creaked open. A wizened old man bending over a crutch stood inside the room, beckoning to them. "I said come in," he said. "I'll explain."
Erlis stepped inside, followed by Beren and Damaris, and last of all Jade. Her Angel wings took up nearly half the space--but that wasn't a problem, considering there wasn't much in the way of furniture in the other half.
"Who are you?" Erlis demanded. "What have you done with--"
"Relax!" The man held up gnarled hands. "I have known Lizeth since before you worked at the palace. And you--" He stopped and bowed low to Beren. "I would know the Heir of King Balwyn anywhere." He glanced up and smiled. "You have your father's eyes."
It was a common enough compliment, but Beren could feel the sincerity of it. "You knew my father?"
"Knew him?" the man cried. "I bloody well fought under him till that horrible, bloody day in Zapheira."
"Zapheira?" Jade repeated. "You were there that day?"
The man nodded. "Me, Lizeth, King Balwyn and a whole army specially hand-picked by His Highness. We were his best and brightest--though I will admit to not conducting myself very well in those early years."
Erlis still regarded the strange man with considerable skepticism. "That still doesn't explain why you're living in her house."
The man waved his hand. "I'm getting to that!" he cried. "Let's begin again. My name is Allen, and I have the Gift of intuitive premonition."
"Premonition?" Beren echoed.
"I knew you all would be coming here, and I knew Lizeth would be gone, because I saw us meeting a long time ago. So I found her place, moved in, and waited till the rest of time caught up."
"If you could really see the future," Erlis objected, "and you were at Zapheira--"
Allen tilted his head at her. "How come I didn't warn the King that he was about to die?"
Beren tensed. "You knew my father would die?"
Allen turned to him with eyes full of pity. "I am sorry, Your Highness; if there had been a chance I could have stopped it, I wouldn't have seen it happen."
"Huh?" Damaris scratched his head.
Allen sighed deeply. "It's the way my Gift works. I can see glimpses of the future, the fates of other people--but there is always something that I cannot foresee that will prevent me from being there in time to change the outcome. Sort of a balancing 'curse' to my 'blessing.' I was far on the eastern edge of the Wilderness when I saw Lizeth leaving her house, so I knew she would be gone already by the time I arrived here. I saw the King dying in his bed long before I was ever drafted into his private army--so when we arrived at the Cascade, I knew that something terrible would happen there that would lead to his death and that I would be too far away to prevent it."
Erlis shook her head. "Couldn't you have at least warned someone else what was going to happen?"
Allen shrugged. "I tried to tell Lizeth. The enemy had made it look like we were the ones responsible for the slaughter of an entire village. I remember saying to her, 'This is how it starts. First they kill innocent people, then the rumors will start flying, and people will forget that we ever fought anyone else because they'll think we killed our own citizens.' I remember telling her those exact words--but she was too busy trying to heal the wounds with her Gift, while at the same time hiding it from everybody else."
"Hiding it?" Beren shook his head. "I thought being Gifted was commonplace under my father's rule. You're saying that the Gifted were feared even then?"
Allen chuckled. "I'm saying we didn't even know what it was we had! Lizeth and her bluefire--boy, she was a tough one! She wouldn't even come close to admitting it to me--Denahlia and whatever that red-eye thing she could do..."
"Denahlia?" Erlis picked up the name. "The Hunter fought for King Balwyn?"
Allen nodded. "Are you kidding? She was his favorite spy. Durned pixie could see things in places too dark for any other man to see his hand in front of his face!" He frowned. "Why do you call her The Hunter?"
Damaris snorted. "Maybe because she is the one person in the Realm responsible for apprehending the greatest number of Gifted people and kissing up to the Regents who turned the Gifted into Outcasts!"
Allen nodded slowly. "Hmm, that's true; I'd wondered what it meant--but I knew that if I tried to encounter her, I wouldn't be able to stop her anyway." He paused, his eyes glinting as he seemed to be listening to a slow scraping noise passing by outside. "Speaking of encountering..." He gestured to Erlis. "That should be our next guest, and I think you'll be the one he's after."
In the next instant, a heavy fist pounded on the door. "Healer!" A thunderous voice growled. "I need a healer!"
Erlis opened the door. A brawny, stubble-faced man in tattered clothing stood outside, his arm and leg sorely wounded and half his face purple. He wore a pouch at his belt printed with the royal seal--equipment typically issued to the city Peacekeepers, though this man didn't look very equipped for any kind of respectable duty.
He squinted at her with his good eye. "You a healer?" he grunted through swollen lips.
Erlis glanced at Allen. The old man nodded.
"I am," Erlis said, backing away, "Come in."
The man shambled through the door and plopped onto the floor--but very nearly scrambled to his feet again when he saw who else occupied the small, dark space.
"Angel!" He spat it like a curse, pointing to the wide white wings pressed against the ceiling.
"Never mind!" Erlis snatched his wrist to hold him down again. "Hold still while I'm working!"
Beren stepped forward. "What's your name, soldier?"
The man's body jerked with the involuntary motion of coming to attention, even though he lay on the floor. "Captain Rayne Volenti, of the--er," he faltered. "I guess it's just Rayne now. I'm not a Peacekeeper anymore." He squinted at the young man. "Who're you?"
Erlis whirled around and shot him a warning stare. "Don't say anything," she said. "We don't know who we can trust yet."
Rayne snorted as she moved from repairing his arm to mending the damage done to his face. "Trust, eh? Think I've been trusting the wrong people." He sneered bitterly.
"Like who?" Beren asked.
Rayne shrugged. "Well, the bloody Council for one; I trusted that blasted Black Man and went along with the Hunter and look where that got me!"
"Hunter?" Erlis paused just short of finishing his black eye.
"Black Man?" Jade added. "Who is this Black Man?"
Rayne smirked. "Calls himself Troy or summat. He ain't Gifted, he says, but I seen Denahlia shoot him at point-blank and he just keeps right on talking as if she's throwing spit wads at him!" He gave a chuckle. "He sure messed her up good, though; I don't blame her a bit. He's a devil, that one!"
"Hold up!" Allen waved his hand. "How did this Black Troy mess up Denahlia? What did he do to her?"
Rayne rolled his head. "I dunno, but he did something called upgrades--said they would only work on a Gifted--but it only made things worse for her. Well, he got all up in her business when she was trying to run off with the Twin Regents, and it was like all of a sudden she's got an army of unGifted rising up, and the last I seen her, she's dragging them two back to the castle by their red hair! And him," Rayne waved his hand. "He's all up and gone in a cloud of black smoke, and I don't think he's going to bother her anymore!"
Beren clenched his fists. "We need to get back to the castle," he said. "As long as I'm away, and they're in there, the Realm is not safe."
"But what about the army of unGifted Denahlia has?" Erlis pointed out. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Rayne, meanwhile, squinted hard at Beren. "Who're you, exactly?"
Beren stared back equally as hard. "If indeed you were once a Peacekeeper, then that would make me your commander-in-chief. I am King Beren, your rightful ruler."
Rayne bounded to his feet with an oath, and abruptly, a fireball sprang to life in the hand of the boy standing beside him, while the healer's arms lengthened and broadened, ending with hard scales and claws. Beren skipped producing any water and went straight for his ice powers, lowering the temperature in the room by several degrees.
"I definitely saw that coming," muttered Allen.

Rayne glanced from one to the other, wild-eyed. "Why do I always have to be the only unGifted in the room?" he whined.
Jade stepped forward, beckoning for the others to back off. "You don't have to be afraid," she said softly. "I don't have a Gift, but I can--"
"Aww, is it a party and nobody thought to invite me?" A voice interrupted her from a dark corner of the already-dim room. A shadow so thick that not even light from Damaris' fire could reach it congealed into the shape of a man. He grinned at them.
"Troy!" Jade breathed.
He waved a black-gloved hand. "Hiya, sis! What say we kick it up a notch?"
Jade lunged for him as he gestured toward the group. "NO!"

Beren felt his whole body grow stiff and numb as the ice powers went from "uncomfortable" to "deep freeze" in a single breath. In addition to freezing the moisture in the air around him, Beren himself turned into a solid block of frozen man. Erlis shrieked as her body yet again elongated into her dragon form. Damaris regretted keeping the flame in his hand as he saw it expand and engulf his body without any direction from him.
"It's happening again!" he screamed, in case anyone could help him.
Erlis the dragon roared and grabbed Beren--protected from the inferno by his frozen exterior--and burst from the building as it collapsed. Troy himself escaped, and brought Jade with him, but the two were still locked in combat.
"What do you think you're doing?" She snarled at him.
"Who says you get to have all the fun with your 'fair and balanced' delusions?" Troy fired back, deflecting a blow from her fist. "I'm giving these people what they want!"
"You're killing them!"
Troy hesitated to reply as the building they had been in collapsed in a burning heap.
Jade looked down in horror. "Damaris!" she cried.
"He'll be fine!" Troy waved her off.
Jade glared at him, tears glistening in her eyes. "And what about Rayne, the unGifted? Or Allen? Wouldn't you have wanted to recruit him for your precious Cleansing?"
Troy shrugged. "Um, as for the one--unGifted aren't really my thing, you know? And second..." He grinned maliciously. "He totally saw it coming, you have to admit!"
Secure in Erlis' grasp, Beren revived just in time to witness the two siblings hovering in midair, staring each other down.
"This needs to end!" Jade declared.
"Oh honey," Troy laughed, "I'm just getting started!" He motioned with his arm as if tossing something at her, and Beren saw her vanish in a burst of white light.
"No!" he screamed, and frantically thrust his arm toward the shadow. A giant icicle formed off the end of his palm, and shot straight for Troy's back, piercing him clean through in the same place Rayne had put his sword not long ago.
Troy looked at the frozen point protruding from his chest, red with his blood. Spitting a curse, he dropped out of the sky and landed hard on the street below. Erlis slowly came to land next to him, keeping a heavy foot-claw pressed on his battered body. She let Beren go, and he collapsed next to the smoking, blackened heap that was once a building with people inside--at least two of which he counted as friends.
A familiar chiming sound reached his ear, and Beren looked up. A glowing, winged, star-like figure hovered in front of his face.
"Jade?" he gasped.
"I'm sorry," she responded in her fairy voice. "He did it again because he thinks it weakens me."
Beren sighed. "So what are we going to do this time? I'm already King, so it can't be that way--"
"Beren." Jade floated over to stand on his shoulder, facing the building. "We can't worry about that now. Like you said, we need to get back to the castle. At the very least, you should be able to take your rightful place without anyone trying to take you away again. If it means I always remain a fairy, then so be it."
Beren watched the fire. "So... what about Damaris?" he glanced at Erlis. "He survived, right?"
Erlis bobbed her head. She could sense him, though the rubble was too deep for her to reach him.
Beren glanced at Jade. "Do you think maybe you could--"
She flew in a circle. "I'm too small to carry him out, but maybe..." She flew into the dark heap and disappeared.
Beren heard Erlis grunt, and it prompted him to glance back to where she had trapped Troy. As was typical, he had managed to disappear, leaving behind a gleaming trail of blood showing exactly where he went. Beren patted Erlis on the foreleg. "Leave him," he said. "His time will come."
"I've got it!" Jade chimed from inside the building. She emerged a little later, her gold light mixed with a blue one. She flew over and dropped Korsan's talisman into Beren's hand. "Damaris is still alive, but the force of the collapse knocked him unconscious. I think it's time for the Mage to become whole again."
Beren nodded. "There's no telling what Zayra has tried to do to him while we've been separated!" He handed the talisman back to Jade. "You'll get there faster if you fly alone. Take this to him, and Erlis and I will follow you."
Jade landed in his palm next to the totem, almost as big as she was. "Are you sure we should be separate like this?" 
Beren nodded. "You can defend yourself. I think that if things keep progressing the way they are, nobody--Gifted or unGifted--should be left vulnerable."
The little fairy picked up the fiery blue talisman and flew off into the night.
Beren climbed up Erlis' foreleg and onto her shoulders. "Let's fly!" he said.

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