For a brief moment, nobody moved. Zayra approached the group and glanced around as if there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, even offering a smile. “Why is everyone staring? I have come to help.”
Denahlia didn’t take her eyes off the woman. “We don’t want your help,” She muttered. “For all we know, you’re here to kill us—“
“Stop!” Azelie stood in front of the Hunter. She turned back to the former Queen. “She means what she says, and she isn’t using her thrall.”
“How is that possible?” Kaidan spoke up. “I saw her memories; Troy made her Gift insatiable and immutable, and the science doctors broke her mind! She has no control over her Gift!”
Zayra tilted her head and regarded him. “Perhaps it was the sight of the memories that the doctors hid that gave me the control I needed.” She glanced between them all. “I don’t want to rule anymore. That was something imposed on me, a bastardization of the motivation I have to use my Gift to make the world a better place. I am here to join the fight against Troy, for the good of the Realm.”
No one moved to welcome her. Zayra stepped closer to Azelie. “Just watch,” she said, “I can prove it.” She turned to the young Paragon. “I want you to have your voice back.”
Azelie stared at her, wide-eyed. A thrill ran through the group, as none of them had ever heard this woman’s physical voice.
“I... I can...” Azelie stopped and clapped a hand over her mouth. The curt, raspy whispers grated over her throat. She winced at the feeling, even as tears welled in her eyes at the realization that at last, she could speak!
Lizeth stepped forward, cradling a single blue flame in the tips of her fingers.
“Here,” she offered, “let me help you with that.” She touched the flame to Azelie’s throat, and the young woman gave a deep gasp.
“Thank you...” Azelie spoke in clear tones now, a strange accent overlaying the voice they had grown used to hearing and conversing with in their thoughts. But by the ecstatic grin on her face, there could be no doubt that this voice was well and truly hers.
Zayra grinned at Erlis.
“Have I proven myself?” She asked.
The old healer maintained an icy glare.
The screaming outside grew more intense as the sounds inside the throne room died.
Edri curled her lip in disgust. “We don’t have time for a stand-off,” she growled. “We have a fiend to catch, before he destroys everything!”
Jade gave a pained grunt, and slumped against the nearest pillar.
“Can’t... move...” she moaned.
Lizeth came around to stand next to her, even as Edri yanked off her left glove to expose her brilliant-blue hand.
“I’ve got this,” the soldier grunted. She gripped the wing, feeling the joints and muscles knit themselves back together. Jade couldn’t restrain a cry of pain, so Lizeth diffused the agony with a spurt of bluefire. At last, the pair pulled away. Jade stood up, waggling her newly-repaired wing experimentally.
“How does it feel?” Damaris asked.
Jade flung her wings wide, bracing for the jab of pain that would tell her if the wings could not bear her weight; it never came.
“It feels all right,” she answered.
Azelie winced, raising a hand to her head. “I’m glad we were able to resolve that,” she said. “Because it sounds like Troy has just discovered Aurelle’s deception, and the others are in danger!”
“What are we waiting for, then?” Velora growled. “Let’s get back out there!”
The group arrived at the entrance to the castle, in full view of total chaos.
The angry villagers were vainly attempting to set fire to the mound of twining branches spewing from Javira’s side of the courtyard, while the glacier overtaking the other side of the courtyard spread a thick layer of ice over the flagstone ground, while the archways glittered with vicious icicles.
“What do we do first?” Denahlia asked, glancing between the two. She recognized some of the villagers facing the threat of flame and root, but at the same time, she could see Beren trapped within the glacier, nearly frozen solid himself, while his power grew far beyond his control.
“Where is King Beren?” Zayra pushed to the front of the group, scanning the frozen surface. “I want to help the king.”
Erlis nodded toward the frozen side. “It might be more prudent for those of us with fire powers to help him, highness,” she glanced toward Damaris and Lizeth.
Damaris spread his hands, willing the balls of flame to consume his arms past the elbow. Those within arm’s reach of him stepped back at the flash of heat.
“Way ahead of you,” he declared.
Kaidan nodded. “I will try to calm my sister.”
Velora flexed her claws. “I will go with you.”
“As will I,” Edri stepped forward.
Velora scowled at her; the memory of the captain’s betrayal still hung fresh in her mind.
Edri merely sneered. “We are both armored; we stand the best chance of surviving those roots.”
Zayra stepped closer to Azelie. “The two of us will work on calming the crowd, see if we can’t wrest thrall away from Troy.”
“And I will fly up the tower to see what I can do for Korsan and Aurelle,” Jade said, spreading her wings and lifting off.
In the middle of the courtyard, Troy was busy shadow-hopping, even in his physical form. He couldn’t quite float as freely as he once could, but at least jumping from window to window up the tower where the illusionist and the mage hid wasn’t so very difficult. He glanced down from his high perch halfway up the tower, just in time to see the group scatter in separate directions. Jade headed right for him.
“Not today, sister,” Troy muttered, hopping to another window, one in the covered walkway just above the ice wall. Grinning to himself, he focused his jacking ability on the young Phoenix and cranked it up.
Down below, Damaris felt the fire coursing through his whole body like his skin might explode.
“Oh no…” he murmured, before the flames covered his whole body, and still grew.
“Damaris,” Erlis noticed his condition and stared at him with concern. The dragon scales unfolded over her arms as she reached for him. “Calm down.”
“I can’t!” Cried the boy made of flame. “It’s not me! I can’t control it!”
Lizeth set her mouth. “Troy,” she muttered, glancing around at the shadows, as if he might appear. She couldn’t distinguish his shape in any of them. “At least he’s melting the ice,” she pointed at the massive dent in the glacier, clarifying and widening by the moment.
“If we don’t get him calmed down before he reaches Beren, Damaris will start melting him!” Erlis declared, trying to grasp the boy’s hand and finding only flame. “Damaris,” she tried again. “Listen to me! You’ve got to let go of your fire; the more you struggle, the more hold Troy has over you!”
“I’m trying!” Damaris screeched. “It won’t let me! It’s pulling me apart!”
Lizeth could see them approaching the dull, solidified form of King Beren. “I’ve seen this before,” she told Erlis. “When I first began manifesting my Gift, I didn’t know what it was, either, and it felt totally beyond my control.” She turned to the nexus of flame before them. “Damaris.” She called to him softly. “Breathe.”
“It’ll burn me! I’ll die!”
“Look at my flame,” Lizeth held her palm out, a bubble of flame the size of her head dancing and swirling over it. “My flame is your flame. Now watch what I do.” Concentrating on the ball, she reduced it till it was no bigger than her eye. She clenched her fist, and it went out.
“How did you do that?” Damaris wailed, even as his flames spiked higher, dangerously close to the frozen king.
“Breathe, Damaris,” Lizeth said again. “My flame is your flame. You can make it smaller. Picture its size, and picture it getting small enough to fit in your hand.”
“Are you sure I’m not just unlucky?” Damaris stopped, inches away from Beren’s body. He wasn’t as frantic, and the flames didn’t escalate as much as they had.
“You have control over this, Damaris. Troy can reach you in your fear, but if you put away your fear, you put away his power over you.”
“Okay,” Damaris replied. “Breathe.”
The flames reduced, down to about the boy’s own height.
“Breathe,” he told himself again, and the fire receded from his head and feet, concentrating on his arms.
“Breathe.” The third time, it slowed until he held two orbs of spinning, swirling fire in his hands. He looked up at the two women, flames dancing in his eyes. “I did it!”
Lizeth nodded to him with a grin. “Now let’s free the king!” Blue and gold mingled in steady concentration, while Erlis plunged her dragon’s claws into the ice to scrape it away.
On the other side of the courtyard, Velora, Kaidan, and Edri could barely see anyone through the mass of roots blocking the way and furthermore barring any exits along the outer wall. Edri drew her sword and began hacking away at the vicious branches, but for every one she cut, three more grew and twisted into its place.
“Javira!” Kaidan called. “Where are you?”
“Kaidan!” they could hear her voice over behind the corner, where a new mass of tangled roots sprang up. “Help me! It won’t stop!”
The trio fought their way back to her, but the closer they got, the more frustrated Kaidan became. He winced as his hand brushed over the branch.
“What’s the matter?” Velora asked, yanking a root out of the way to widen the path.
“It’s my Gift,” Kaidan muttered. “I haven’t had the time to get used to it, so whenever I touch a root, I get a little bit of Javira’s memories coming to me.”
Edri reached up to swing at a thick overhead root, when it suddenly shifted away from her blade. “What the—“
All three of them froze as the roots seemed to peel away before them, forming a clear path. Justin clambered down from the top of the pile and joined them, moving the roots with his mind. “Please,” he said, “allow me.”
Velora watched with mild interest as a red-faced Edri sheathed her sword, and the four of them walked comfortably amid the twisting, curling roots to Javira, who sat on a throne of roots while fresh ones curled out from under her hands. The longer they grew, the more she amassed around her person.
“Help me,” she begged her brother.
Kaidan wagged his head. “How?”
“You can reach into my mind, can’t you? That’s how your Gift works; perhaps you can turn off my thoughts, knock me unconscious or something!”
Kaidan sighed. More roots curled and spiraled around them, but Justin kept them from overwhelming completely.
“I’ll try,” he said, gritting his teeth and preparing to climb up toward his sister.
Velora saw the root headed for him almost too late. “Look out!” She lunged for him, boosting his position out of the root’s way. Kaidan flailed to regain his balance, and his hand brushed the exposed part of Velora’s wrist. She fell back with a cry as an entire wall of roots crowded between them.
“Velora!” Justin cried, crouching beside her as she covered her head with her hands. Roots surrounded them completely, cutting them off from the Twins.
Edri waited for the young woman to stand up, but Velora continued to writhe on the ground. “What’s happening to her?” she asked, drawing her sword to cut away the roots.
“I don’t—“ Justin backed up as Velora bounded to her feet with a snarl.
“Soldiers!” she shrieked, glaring at both Justin and Edri. “Everybody scatter! It’s an ambush!” She threw back her head and howled before charging straight at Edri, claws outstretched.
“No!” Justin lunged between them, throwing up his hands to push Velora away. Her strike caught him across the face, leaving three long scars across his forehead not unlike Edri’s own. As the young Wolf reeled, Justin explained. “She touched Kaidan; it sounds like she’s stuck in a memory of being a hunted refugee in the woods.”
“Make a break for it,” Velora growled, crouching in an aggressive stance. “I’ll hold them off!”
“Velora, stop!” Edri cried. “You’re not an Outcast anymore! We’re trying to work together!”
“She can’t hear you,” Justin said, glancing in her direction.
That brief space of time was the window Velora needed. She lunged, catching Justin in the throat with her claws. A spray of red erupted below his face, and he sank without a sound.
“One down,” Velora growled, her claws dripping as she stared at Edri with a feral gleam in her eye. “I’ve saved the best for last.”
Edri felt her breath harden in her lungs, as the lion surged forward within her, eager to put this young pup in her place. She firmed her stance and flourished her sword.
“You should not have done that!” she growled, and the two women collided with mighty screams.
Aurelle ducked behind the wall, doing her best to stay within the patch of sunlight streaming through the hole in the roof. The shadows weren’t safe anymore.
Korsan swept in, weaving spells behind him as he went. His talisman flashed as he scraped his staff along the stones, tracing runes and wards around the door and especially around the bright spot in the room. Coming to stand next to Aurelle, he closed the circle, sealing them both in as best he could. Only then did he allow his body to sag, leaning heavily on his staff as he gasped for breath.
“There,” he breathed, “that should hold him.”
As if to test his words, a dark cloud swept across the light, and a solid object connected with the door.
“Ah-ha!” Troy’s voice seeped through the wood. “I’ve found you!” The door shook as he rammed it again and again. “I can do this for the rest of eternity if I wanted to!” screamed the Shadow. “You, on the other hand, won’t last forever!”
Aurelle shivered, clinging to Korsan’s shoulder. “He’s insane,” she whispered. “How are we ever going to stop him?”
Korsan slid his arm around her shoulders and stroked her milk-white hair with gnarled fingers. “We can only hope the others figure something out.”
Outside in the hallway, Troy flared his Shadow again and again, searching every crack and seam for some way past the wards. It was easy enough to jack the Illusionist, once he made eye contact with her in the window. He squelched her power, shrinking it to almost nothing, and the dragon he’d been fighting disappeared.
The Mage, however, was a different story altogether. Troy ceased his fruitless activity and turned his energy to thinking. He should have been able to mute the Mage; after all, weren’t his Magic abilities fueled by his Gift? Yet even as Troy negated that Gift, the old Mage had knocked him flat with a spell and escaped with the Illusionist. Where did his power come from, if not a Gift? Could it be that he had acquired some organic skill? That would explain why he was stuck out in the hallway, while the room seemed well-barricaded against him.
“Hey!” a familiar voice snapped at him from the end of the hallway. Troy pasted on a smile and turned.
“Well, Miss Denah—“
She moved faster than anyone he had ever seen. Her fist clouted him across the face almost as soon as he saw her.
“I told you never to call me that!” she growled at him.
Troy chuckled and rubbed his face. “Ever the charmer,” he gushed. “Thanks for helping get my body back, by the way.” This time, he saw the blow coming, and shadow-jumped out of the way, laughing to see her over-balance and stumble into thin air. “I’m sure you had everyone convinced that you were here to stop me!”
He saw her blink; which vision would she switch to this time?
“I do intend to stop you,” she grunted, stalking forward with a strange gleam in her eye. “Seems to me that having a body makes you quite punch-able.” She swung, and he dodged—but she met him there, too, sinking her fist into his torso as if she expected to go right through it as she could with his shadow-form.
Pain radiated through Troy’s body, making it difficult to breathe and keep his balance.
“Aww, what was that?” Denahlia taunted. “No witty reply as you melt back into your little black cloud?” She grinned and pulled out her guns. “Let’s see how well you catch a bullet this time around!”
Troy timed his jump for the exact moment she pulled the trigger. He reappeared in the blackness behind her. “You forget, Hunter,” he said, grabbing the back of her neck as she couldn’t defend herself with her hands full of empty guns. “You can punch me—but I can also punch back.” He tossed her toward the wall, willing her face to smack against the stone, but she tucked her feet under herself quicker than that, and pivoted to face him. She tossed the guns aside and balled her fists.
“Fight me, coward,” she snarled.
Troy scowled at her. He nearly jumped, but Denahlia lunged for him and grabbed his wrist.
“Oh no you don’t!” she said. “We’re doing this without powers. I’ve had more than enough of them anyway. We scuffle for real.”
Troy smiled at her; just how weak did she think he was beyond the shadow-jumping?
“Winner take all,” he agreed, and flipped his hand around to grab her wrist, yanking her over his shoulder.
The Hunter and the Shadow wrestled in the hallway at the top of the tower, back and forth. Denahlia could keep her balance fairly well, but the longer she fought, the more she realized that her opponent took his blows without wearying as she did. She could match him in strength for only so long, but he recovered far too easily from having his face smashed into the wall or his limbs broken and dislocated.
Seeing his constant, maniacal grin only made her more and more angry, though she knew better than to let her guard down even a little.
“I said,” she snarled at him, punctuating her words with blows to the vulnerable parts of his body, “No. Using. Powers!” She bounded off the wall for a two-footed kick, shoving him through the wooden railing and down the center of the spiral staircase, a drop that should have taken him all the way down to the floor of the tower. She raced down the stairs to catch his body on the ground—only to encounter him just in the act of swinging himself back onto the staircase through a similar gap further down!
“Don’t worry, honey,” he purred, clapping both hands around her neck with iron-like fury. “This is all-natural for me.” He squeezed tighter, and blackness seeped on the edge of her vision. “No powers,” he whispered in her ear as her sight faded faster than her hearing and her body went limp. “Only Shadow.”
Troy stepped over the unconscious body. The two self-committed prisoners upstairs could rot in terror for all he cared. There was just one more angle to try.
TO BE CONTINUED....
SEASON 2:Episode 1: "Upgrades"
Episode 2: "Strategic Maneuvers"
Episode 8: "Damaris and the Dragon"
Episode 10: "The Zodiac at Zero Hour"
Season Finale: >Part 1< >Part 2< >Part 3<