Saturday, October 23, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part Final-- "Once a Queen..." (1 of 2)

FINALE (Part 1)
"Once A Queen..."

Mallory stepped out of the thick mass of shadows at the edge of the cavern. Behind her, Polaris absorbed the shadows back into himself and hung back, his eyes fixed on the floor. He could not bear to see the faces of the ones he betrayed. Where was Juros at a time like this, when his enemies were about to consolidate their power against him?

Mallory stood in front of the Gate, her eyes gleaming as she caressed the lock with her fingers. "I can almost feel its power," she murmured. "Power that will soon be mine, for when this lock is opened, mortals will be able to pass freely into Paradise, and not even Juros can stop them!"

Polaris' lips twitched. "You may have gotten the dagger," he said, "but you still need the Key; there will be no opening of the Gate without it."

Unfortunately, Mallory wasn't as disappointed as he'd hoped. She lifted her hand, and a gleaming pendant dropped out. "What, you mean this Key? I had Kamau lift it for me when he retrieved the dagger. Don't worry, little shadow--I've got everything I need, and by the time your merry band of misfits arrive, it will be too late!"

The scream of a dragon rent the air, answered by the thundering roar of another. Mallory looked up to see two dragons circling overhead, one very large and the other slightly smaller. Both of them carried riders upon their backs.

"I see her!" called the rider from the second dragon. "Mallory... and she's got the star in the cavern with her!"
Mallory frowned at the pair. She gestured to Polaris. "Now, do your duty, Shadow! Get after them and don't let them enter the cavern!"

Polaris would rather have stood back and let Markus and Denahlia have their way with the mad Queen, but she flourished the Dagger, and Polaris felt the shadows within him respond in a concussive blast, aimed toward the mouth of the cavern.

The blast hit the smaller dragon, sending Hadrian wheeling through the air. Erlis managed to hold her position, and dove toward the cavern. Polaris brought the cloud of shadows in front of him like a wall, barricading the opening. Not even fire from Erlis' jaws could penetrate the blackness. Polaris watched the dragons hover for a while, as if waiting for the shadows to dissipate like fog. When they would not, the two cousins directed their dragons away.

"Finally, some peace!" Mallory sighed, returning to the Gate as if her actions weren't about to unleash a whole chaos of colliding realities upon the mortal world. "Now--to commence the establishment of my kingdom!" She laid the pendant in the shaped groove at the center of the lock. Pressing it into place, she turned the disc at the center of the mechanism.

Polaris cringed and braced himself for the glory of Justicia pouring forth... but no such outpouring came. Mallory frowned and kept twisting the Key, but after a quarter-turn, it locked into place and would not move further.

"What's wrong?" she huffed, slamming her fist against the lock. "It's the Key! It's supposed to work!" She scowled and whirled upon Polaris. "Bring me Kamau!" she ordered.

Polaris nodded, stepping through his veil of shadows to leap back to the Roque where Mallory's henchman waited.
He returned moments later, accompanied by the small, dark-skinned man.

Mallory loomed over him, her arms folded and her countenance stormy. "Well?" She snarled. "What have you to say for yourself? You told me all I would need is the Key, and that would be the one thing that would unlock the Gate!"

Kamau trembled, his glowing snakes hissing protectively as they curled around his arms and shoulders. "Milady," he stammered. "All the information I have gathered has confirmed this. No one may unlock the Gate without the Key."

"Did you not hear me?" Mallory shrieked. "The Key doesn't work! I put it into the lock, but it's not open! You missed something!"

Kamau cringed before her ire. "Please, Milady!" he begged. "I tell you everything I know! I have hidden nothing from you!"

"You're a liar, Kamau!" Mallory swung her hand and slapped him across the face, sending the man prostrate on the floor. "A liar, and a fool! There's something else that this Gate needs--something I need, and you know I'm going to do whatever it takes to get it!"

"Queen Mallory!" boomed a deep and penetrating voice.

Polaris felt the cold surge of ethereal energy racing through him, and he floated into the air at the sound of the voice he recognized--but Mallory only watched as a single soldier in the livery of the White Castle climbed up to the cavern level. He was an older man, with many wrinkles, scars, and a roughness in his carriage that spoke of many years of hard training and service in battle. His armor bore the scars of combat, stains from dirt and grass and blood, and spots of dull tarnish all over.

The soldier placed a hand on the hilt of his sword resting at his side, but kept his distance. He nodded to Mallory, briefly glanced at Kamau, and just barely acknowledged Polaris. "What seems to be the problem, your majesty?" he asked.

Her lips twitched and her eyes narrowed. "Why do you ask? You think you can stop me?" She waved her hand, and the soldier remained rooted to the spot, unable to move. "Fool! I have already perceived your thoughts. You are the one they call Sir Roger--an old relic of the Realm's bygone past. You came alone, that is your mistake. Now you can stand by with all these statues as I open the way to Justicia, the domain of Juros!"

Sir Roger's body didn't move, but his mouth still worked, and he asked, "Do you intend to allow Juros to rule over the mortals, then? There are those who believe that the Gifts were designed by Him to allow humans to benefit each other in powerful ways, not to set himself over them."

"Hmph!" Mallory snorted, returning to inspecting the Gate to see if any part was missing and preventing the mechanism from turning. "Shows what you know. Juros has hoodwinked his followers, lulling them into a sense of greater purpose with the Gifts--but if those things are supposed to be so beneficial, then explain to me how a psychic connection and ability to attract and control birds is supposed to help a young farm girl?" She left off fussing with the Gate and began pacing as her agitation grew. "If he really had the mortal Realm's best interests at heart, then why does he get to consolidate this awesome power in a separate reality from our own, away from all of us?" She stopped and pointed to the Gate with an accusing finger. "If he is really so open and noble and accepting of all of us mortals, that we should be worthy of his Gifts, then why does he hide behind a locked Gate? Why not allow mortals direct and unfettered access to Justicia, and all the wonders and blessings Juros has to offer?"

Sir Roger blinked his eyes. "I don't understand what is so unfair about Juros' treatment of the mortals. Are you not standing in front of a Gate that will allow direct access to his throne? Do you not have the very Key that is the only physical means of unlocking said Gate? Why then do you not enter and seize that which you believe is due to you?"

Mallory clenched her fists and whirled on the man, blasting him with enough telekinetic energy to shake the pedestals beside him--yet the old soldier didn't move. "Don't you think I've been trying?" She seethed. "The Key doesn't work! It's a farce, perpetrated by Juros himself--he's been taunting us all along, knowing that he is untouchable and safe as along as the puny mortals think they can just waltz in!" She gestured toward a pile of boulders at the side of the cavern, and they rose easily into the air, just as if they'd been made of foam. Mallory flicked her wrist toward the Gate, and the boulders collided upon it with earth-shaking force. Kamau crouched and covered his head as the cavern quivered, large cracks appearing along the walls and floor at the tremendous impact, but everything stood.

"Everyone lies to me--Juros has cursed me!" Mallory railed. "Everything I have, I've given to myself--and it's never enough to get what I want!" She reached toward the sheath at her side, drawing out the enchanted Dagger.

Polaris felt the air around him thicken at the sudden gleam in her eye.
"At least there's one way to absolutely have my way, Key or no Key!" She raised the Dagger, but before she could say anything, Sir Roger blurted, "Wait! An Abnormal wouldn't be able to help you. Especially not that one."

Mallory frowned and tilted her head at him. "How did you know--oh, never mind! Why wouldn't it work? He still has a connection to Justicia himself, doesn't he?"

Sir Roger actually moved then, a simple shrug of his shoulders. "That may be... but that Gate was built to withstand just about anybody happening upon it."

The suspicion never left Mallory's face. She lowered her arms and peered at Sir Roger. "What would a mere soldier such as yourself know about this Gate?"

Sir Roger bobbed his head. "I know only this: that in order to activate the Key within the lock, the Gate requires one thing more, that few mortals are willing to give."

Mallory rolled her eyes. "Tell me what it is, before I rip it from your mind!" She growled.

Sir Roger fixed her with a serious gaze. "It requires a sacrifice."

Her lips twitched into a scowl. "Have I not given up everything to reach this cavern? Have I not sacrificed all that I could possibly give to attain unlimited power?"

Sir Roger wagged his head. "I meant a sacrifice... of blood."

Silence hung in the cavern as Mallory studied the blade in her hand. Her eyes flicked to the two men cowering under one of the Angel statues.
"Kamau," she said softly. "Come hither."

The swarthy man staggered forward on reluctant legs, as if dragged into the presence of his mistress by his own snakes.

"What does my lady require?" he choked in a trembling voice, both of them knowing exactly what her answer would be.

Mallory laid a tender hand on his shoulder. "You have served me well, my minion," she murmured. "Know that your sacrifice will not go unrewarded in the next life." As she uttered the last words, Mallory drove the blade into his chest.

Polaris felt a sudden weight cling to his body, and he dropped from his hovering position near the heads of the statues, to the ground below. His hands and knees smarted where the connected with the hard stone surface. As he gazed at his firm limbs and felt the pounding of his pulse radiating through his body, he barely noticed Mallory watching him as she withdrew the blood-soaked Dagger from Kamau's lifeless body.

"Interesting..." she mused. "Killing with the blade has given you a corporeal body. I wonder if it's temporary." She shook herself with a short sniff. "Oh well, experiments later. Right now, I have more important things to do." She wiped the blood from the Dagger's blade onto her hand, and smeared it over the Key still resting in the lock.

A faint glow stole over the gem, spreading a quick flash of brilliance in the darkness of the cavern, but when she tried to turn it again, it made another quarter turn and stopped.

In the midst of so much attention being focused on the Gate, Polaris barely noticed the way the blood seeping from Kamau's wound seemed to pool and trickle toward the statuesque Angels. Thin cracks appeared at the bottom of their stone feet, but not much more.

"Argh!" Mallory snarled in frustration. She grabbed the knife in her bloody hand and whirled upon Sir Roger. "It didn't work! Maybe I didn't get enough blood--you're next, soldier!"

"Mallory, wait!"

Polaris felt a second surge of energy, and a second mass of shadows appeared, depositing Trevon in their midst.
Mallory's eyes still gleamed with murderous intent. "Well, if it isn't my traitor brother!" She spat. "Come to stop me again?"

Trevon waited, watching with the keen insight of psychic energy. He looked at Kamau's body, up at the Angel statues, the Gate with smears of blood upon it, and asked, "What have you done?"

Mallory pointed at Sir Roger with the blood-stained Dagger. "He told me the Gate needed a blood sacrifice, and so I slaughtered my closest assistant to get it, but it didn't work."

Trevon sighed and glanced over his shoulder at the grizzled old knight. "I see," he said. "Perhaps the necessary sacrifice needs a more important personal connection than just someone who is devoted to your cause," he gestured to Kamau. "Or someone you would like to see dead," he pointed over his shoulder to Sir Roger.

Mallory tilted her head back to look Trevon in the face. "What's your point, then?"

He tipped his chin down and looked right into her eyes. "I will be your sacrifice, if it means you are able to open the Gate. You've needed me all along, that's why you bothered to seek me out when I was lost, and you've worked so hard to keep me close by your side, and given me powers similar to yours. Take my blood, and may it be of use to you."

Mallory actually let out a small, dry laugh at this. "My, how noble of you, brother!" she spat the word with so much scorn. "You know, I've never actually needed you as much as you've let yourself believe! All that mind-Jacking and power-Jacking I did was just my way of trying to make use of something that didn't belong here in the Realm--something that would have been a tool for Juros, otherwise. That's all you are, Trevon--a tool!" She pointed toward the mouth of the cavern. "That city? I know that you realize that it was supposed to be your city, and it was, once upon a time--but now you come in here with your piety and martyrdom, begging me to kill you because I'm supposed to sacrifice something I care about... Well, too bad, because I don't actually care about you at all!" She snapped with a mad cackle. "I used whatever I could get out of you, and I made you care about me, I gave you abilities and memories and feelings that would make you devoted to me--I did that! But that was never who you were--I hate everything about who you really are, and from where I'm standing, you seem to be doing all those things that would drag you back into being that person, and undoing all the work I've put into you!"

"Mallory! Stop what you're doing at once!" Called a high voice, and Polaris felt a lurch in his gut as Princess Zayra appeared at the mouth of the cavern, a sword in her hand and determination on her face.

"You!" Mallory lunged forward in fury, and Polaris saw Zayra brandish her sword with an eager smile. That smile soon vanished as something from Mallory lashed out and seized the Princess, wrenching her arm to cause her to drop her sword.

"How annoying and tiresome can one person get!" Mallory shouted. "Of all the people destined to foil me at every turn, you're the worst! I tried everything I could to ruin you and the others, but you just wouldn't quit! Ever since I tried to eliminate the only person who would ever be able to communicate with the poor dumb Gybralltan my parents raised--"

"So that was you who sent Raedyn to kill Azelie!" Zayra interrupted in surprise. She regarded Mallory with a firm set in her jaw. "She wasn't the only one with a Gift that could reach a telepath, you know." Zayra closed the distance between herself and Mallory, and Polaris could feel the hairs on his arm standing as Zayra's power-leaching Gift radiated from her. "You were so obsessed with eliminating your competition that you failed to even recognize that telepathy wasn't the only method of connection we had with Tyrven."

Polaris straightened. Tyrven was the name the Angels had given to the abandoned Gybralltan boy! Out of the corner of his eye, Polaris saw Sir Roger smile from his position, trapped in the shadows. Even Trevon watched the exchange more keenly at the sound of his old name.

Mallory seemed to lose her composure, and the Knife dropped from her hand as Zayra continued.
"Even if you had succeeded, and we didn't have Azelie to hear and understand when Tyrven tried to reach out from his hiding place under the Castle, then Aurelle could have found him, with her Illusionary abilities, or Risyn would have located him with his Magic Gift. If not them, then others that you tried to take from us, using that pirate crew you conscripted into your service. Don't you see?" Zayra advanced a step, and Polaris noticed when Mallory backed away at the same pace. "It doesn't matter who you try to believe is the most important--the truth is that we are all a team together, we've learned to rely on one another as equals, as a community. That is why we have always found so many ways to triumph over you and others like you, again and again." She glanced at Polaris and wagged her head. "Even when a deceptive Shadow tried to turn us all against each other, we banded together and found a way to cooperate instead. That is what makes the Gifts effective and worthwhile: when they can be used to bring people together, not split them apart."

Mallory had stood, frozen, while Zayra spoke, but as she finished, and at the mention of Gifts, her vitriol returned. She seized Zayra's own sword and brandished it.

"How stupid do you think I am?" Mallory waved the sword in Zayra's face. "All this sanctimonious talk about cooperation and community being Juros' intended outcome from his precious Gifts--where was all that community when I was being hidden away and chastised by my own parents for using my Gift? Where was the cooperation when my own village rejected me because they thought it was witchcraft that brought the birds to me? Juros gave me a useless Gift because he doesn't care--well guess what?" She whirled on the Gate, as if she thought the ruler of Justicia waited just on the other side. "I don't want it! You hear me, Juros? Come down from your high-and-mighty throne and just take it away from me! I don't want any of your Gifts, I don't need any help from you, and I certainly don't want to be obligated to someone so capricious and arbitrary and demanding and--oooohhhh!!"

Mallory ceased speaking and let out a pained gasp as the point of the enchanted Knife appeared from a bleeding wound just below her neck.

Sir Roger and Trevon looked on in horror as Zayra gave the knife in her hand an extra shove, ensuring that it had made it all the way through Mallory's back. Sir Roger recognized the hungry gleam in her face at the influx of power from being so close to Mallory.

"Oh, child," he murmured softly. "What have you done?"

At the gentle voice, a shadow passed over Zayra's face, and she blinked. "Oh!" She gasped, pulling the Knife out and letting Mallory's body sink to her feet. "Oh no! I didn't mean..." Her voice broke, and her chin trembled as she watched the dark, malicious blood now coating the blade.

Polaris crumpled to his knees with a cry. Zayra watched him as his limbs seemed to shrink and wither, and blood seeped from his nose.

"What's wrong with him?" she asked Sir Roger.

Before the old knight could answer, Mallory's body gave a jerk, and she let out a wet, gurgling chuckle. 

"It's your fault," she rasped through the mouthful of blood. "My last bit of revenge... for all the pain you caused me. Don't you see? You got the Knife because... I wanted you to stab me. I made you do it--I pulled on your Gift... Jacked it up so that you would do whatever it took to get more of my power... And as my blood covered that Knife, so it carried with it the stolen Abnormal powers I manufactured myself--and now... your precious trapped Knight is going to die... before any of you have the chance to save him!"

"NO!" Zayra wailed, as Mallory released her last breath and perished.


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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 36: "The Boy With All The Gifts"

Part 36
"The Boy With All The Gifts"

Trevon stepped on the cool stone surface of the old cavern, a strange familiarity nagging at the back of his mind. In particular, he noticed the urge to stare up at the towering stone figures lining the walls. Unbidden, the memory came to mind of the very same faces as living beings, their skin darkening to hues of tan and brownish-pink, and, ever so slightly, even speaking to him... but how? This city had been deserted for ages, it seemed. Since when did statues come to life?

His mind warned, and Trevon shook off the befuddling mystery to focus on the goal ahead of him: the Gate itself. There was the gap at the center for the Key he did not have. Trevon looked down at his hands. What did he have when it came to opening the Gate? He willed his hand into another form, watching it shift and glisten as if it were made of some malleable, metallic material. Tucking all but his pointer finger back, he pushed it into the gap designed for the Key, feeling the gleaming material seep and twist and tuck, filling all the facets. He turned his hand, as if his finger was the Key--but the lock didn't budge.

Trevon tried fire, water, ice, air, earth--even secreting substances from his skin that would combust on contact with the metal, or acid that could have eaten away at it, the way it ate through the floor when he let some drip off his fingertip as he watched the Gate standing unscathed. Not even a Gift that could produce white-hot and pin-precise laser beams from his fingertips could penetrate the mechanism barring him from his objective.

Trevon sank back in defeat, slumping against a nearby pedestal. He detected the approach of another person before the man entered the cavern, a grizzled soldier with a bushy, fair beard dressed in light armor. 
He seemed to disregard the awesome statues of the Angels as well, in favor of frowning at Trevon. "What are you doing here?"

Trevon gestured impatiently at the mess that lay before him, the rubble his Gifts had dislodged in the process of trying to get the Gate open. "What does it look like I'm doing?" he retorted. "I must find a way to open the Gate!"

The old soldier stopped about twenty paces away from Trevon. He gazed at the massive Gate in quiet surprise, nodding sagely. "I can see that you are trying," he admitted. "But I think I'd like to know why."

Trevon frowned. "Why I am trying to open the Gate?"
The soldier nodded.

The Crow Prince scoffed. "I am opening the Gate so that my sister can set up her throne right on the doorstep of the gods. They play such cruel tricks with us mortals, and it is high time we teach them a lesson!"

The soldier took one pace closer, and his eyes transfixed Trevon's gaze. "No," he said. "That's not it."

Trevon squinted. "What do you mean? That's the whole reason I'm here without the Key--my sister says it's the only thing that can open the Gate after it's been hidden for so long."

The old soldier snorted. "Your sister seems to say a lot of things, but I think it is ultimately up to you."

Trevon scowled at the audacity of this stranger. "What do you mean, up to me? What are you even talking about? Who are you?"

The man raised a hand in salute. "Sir Roger is what most call me. I am in service to the King and his family and friends. Who is it that you serve, young man?"

The young man's face twisted into a sneer, and he unleashed an earthquake that was so strong, the floor of the cavern split in half down the length of it. "I serve my sister, the Crow Queen, She of unparalleled power and matchless cunning."

Sir Roger shook his head. "No, I do not think so. If that were true, you would have waited for her, or at least tried to get the actual Key. Why are you really here, alone and trying to breach the Gate by your own abilities?" He leaned against the column behind him and folded his arms over his armored chest. "You're here of your own accord, aren't you?"

Trevon's face darkened further, and he raised his hand, producing a ball of crackling energy. "Enough of this. Begone!" He launched the orb toward Sir Roger, but it deflected almost immediately, fizzling into nothing right in front of the man.

The grizzled old soldier shook his head. "I'm afraid your ill-gotten Gifts can't touch me. All you have is your honesty. Tell me, young Prince--what is your true reason for being here?"

Trevon's face darkened, and the shadows gathered close around him, flailing and reaching out their curling tendrils and yet shying away from touching Sir Roger.

The old knight didn't move. "I want the truth... Tyrven," he said softly.

At the sound of the name that sounded more like a mispronunciation than another language, Trevon's arms went slack, and he stared at the cavern floor for a long time. The shadows receded, even if only a little bit.

"I... I remember," he stammered in a small voice. His eyes wandered out of the mouth of the cavern, toward the ruined city. "They weren't all slaughtered, you know," he whispered. "I saw a great many of them leave, they went through the Gate... I suppose that perhaps I was hoping... if there could be any chance... If I could just manage to crack it enough to get through... maybe I could find them again... I didn't want to set myself up as their leader, I just wanted--"
"To be in the place you feel you most belong," Sir Roger finished, nodding his head.

Trevon fell silent, caught between the moment of vulnerability and the orders he'd been given by the one he'd entrusted his life to.

Sir Roger reached up to clap him on the shoulder. "You know that the only way the Gate will open is to whomever holds the Key," he declared somberly. "There's no way around that."
Trevon nodded. "I know," he said.

"So why not use the power of Shadows to compel whoever's holding it to come here and give it to you? Not even your great and powerful sister could stand in your way."

Trevon shook his head. "No, I know exactly where the Key is, and I could very easily walk in and get it myself, but I promised myself I'd never go back there, after what happened last time."

Sir Roger tilted his head. "Last time?" he echoed. "What happened the last time you were at The Roque?"

Trevon winced. "It's the place where everything went wrong," he answered.

Sir Roger stood aside, giving Trevon a clear view of the mansion's uppermost spires. "But it is also the place where you can make everything right again, Tyrven," he replied. "The choice is yours."

The stretch of land between the city limits and the Roque wasn't so much a battlefield anymore--it was a sparse and pitted forest, strewn with barriers of fallen trees, dead bodies, and uneven landmasses. Mallory called upon another circling flock to be her eyes in the sky--but they could only view her forces once they had gotten below the canopy, and once they were below the canopy, they were targets for the opposition.

Not to mention that it was becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly where her fighters stood. Something was drawing their minds out of her grasp, blocking her telepathic control somehow. At least as crows it was easier, since her natural Gift was stronger on birds than on humans--but they weren't much use to her as birds, and if she had too many of them in flight at once, they would just flock in swirling circles, having lost all sense of direction outside of what she could tell them. And with all these infernal trees in the way, she couldn't tell them much!

A river of hissing purple light trickled toward her, and a man dressed in a tunic of black feathers pulled toward her from the shadows.
"Please tell me you've found the Prince!" Mallory snarled.

Kamau shook his head. "I am sorry, Milady--but I'm still looking. I came to tell you that I have found the source of the influence that is turning your men away from you: it is the young queen whom you targeted before."

"I knew she was going to be trouble!" Mallory howled, flinging her arms out. The force of her telekinesis leveled several trees closest to her. "Where is she?" Mallory gripped Kamau's arm with enough force to leave pale marks on his skin.

To his credit, Kamau didn't even wince. "My intelligence tells me she is inside the castle--but that the fighting has worn down the uppermost defenses. If you enter from the top, you will be able to get inside, where you will find the Key... and the Cursed Blade."

Mallory flinched. "That Blade! I saw them waving it about earlier--they are still convinced it might stop me!" She cackled and released her servant. "Meet me inside, Kamau."

The man nodded and gave a low bow. "Your wish is my command, Milady." He folded back into the shadows, drawing his glowing snakes toward him, until he emerged, himself a very large and shadow-black snake crawling almost invisibly through the grass.

Meanwhile, a new crow joined the weakened wanderers of the sky--a larger bird than most of the ones, but stuck on the same aimless path... or so it seemed. If any of the fighters now hunting the tree-strewn grounds for any remaining black-garbed soldiers had thought to watch the swirling flocks overhead, they might have easily spotted the giant crow looping its way through the masses, mimicking their flight pattern, yet on its own path; one that curved closer and closer to the unprotected towers of The Roque...

The Roque was nearly full-to-bursting with people when Nyella entered, using a potent dose of telekinesis from Seline to carry four more stretchers of wounded soldiers along behind her. She passed by the parlor, where Velora and Brinley lounged with Bronn and the surviving wolf pack. In the study, Beren and Jaran stood with their wives, poring over maps and doing their almighty best to convince Zayra that going out and personally challenging Queen Mallory was a bad idea. The headstrong princess wouldn't hear it, and she stormed out of the room and up the stairs, shouting protests over her shoulder all the way.

Nyella dragged the stretchers into the ballroom, which had been converted into the unofficial infirmary, since the Great Hall was now the base of operations and the place where most people gathered to eat, rest, refresh themselves, and basically wait out the last of the fighting as Mallory's forces dwindled, and she ran out of fighters to attack, since they were no longer outside the protective runes, and there was no way for her to get in.

Quilla received the injured parties, shielding them until Edri or Lizeth was available to heal them. She nodded to her friend. "Are there any more, do you think?"

Nyella sighed and slumped into a nearby chair as the telekinesis wore off, leaving her body aching all over. "At this point, there's more birds in the sky than boots on the ground," she answered. "I'm guessing that if there are any more of our fighters still on the loose, there are few enough of Mallory's soldiers that they'd be able to hold their own." She accepted the cup of water Quilla offered, and took a long sip. "Besides, Markus and Denahlia have all the intelligence about everyone on the ground. If there was anybody, they'd let us know."

Just as she finished speaking, Nyella's shoulder spasmed. She rolled her eyes and groaned. "Speaking of which... I better get back out there."

Quilla nodded, and some parting words were on her tongue--when the ghostly, silver-haired form approached her, looking very disturbed about something.

"Have you seen Seline?" Polaris asked, completely ignoring Nyella, who was among those unGifted who couldn't see him anyway.

Quilla shook her head. "You might try the upstairs rooms," she said. "I know she was working with the Mages to try and replace the damage done to the runes Rysin made."
Polaris nodded brusquely and faded from view. Quilla sighed and returned to the arduous task of keeping the wounded alive.

Out in the corridor, Damaris and Anahita emerged from the kitchen with a basket of bread and a pot of soup. Not long after they pulled back into the Roque, the pair were back in their element: working together in the kitchen to cook up a tasty meal. The meager stores had been dramatically depleted with all of the people suddenly dependent on Tessa's hospitality, but they found enough to use in creative ways to keep the meals coming. Anahita carried the basket of bread, while Damaris kept a pot of soup piping hot all the way to the table--right at the moment Polaris coasted over their heads, causing Anahita to stumble and lose her grip on the basket as she cried out in surprise. "Oh, goodness!"

Polaris paused to acknowledge his mistake. "I'm sorry," he said, powerless to assist in recovering the bread. "I keep forgetting that so many of you can see me as I'm moving around, although you can't feel me."
"No harm done," Anahita muttered, dusting herself off and picking up the basket again.

"Where's Jaran?" Damaris asked. "I thought you were bound to his side as long as he bore the Knife."

Polaris nodded. "He told me that as soon as the last soldiers are recovered from the battlefield, he's going to return the Knife to Tessa--he's got it safely secured, and while he's not wearing it, I can wander around the Roque, at least." The ethereal figure glanced back toward the Great Hall, and Damaris could almost see him sigh with longing.
"Well, don't let us keep you from... whatever you're doing," Damaris responded, urging Anahita forward.

Polaris continued on toward the main hall of the house, where the stairwells connected to open balconies on each floor. From there, he saw Seline herself fly down to the second-floor balcony, where the argument between the four royals still went round and round.

"Please just wait a bit longer," Beren begged his wife. "Let us make a plan! We saved Erlis and gained Korsan to help fight for us and defend us, she's lost just about every advantage she originally had--"

"All the more reason I should be out there, hunting her down!" Zayra insisted. "You all can't possibly understand what it's like for me--I can feel her power drawing me, like a compass pointing north! If I allow my Gift to draw me to her, I can also use it to pull her power away from her, allowing Jaran the leeway he needs to get in there and kill her with the Knife!"

"For what it's worth," Jaran grumbled, "I don't want to be near either of the two of you when you're engaged in some cosmic tug-of-war. I've already been there, when Troy encouraged you to use my own Gift against me, and--enchanted knife or not--I'm not going through that again!"

"Zayra, just think about what you're asking," Azelie inserted, reaching for the Princess' hand. "How can you be certain that once you start drawing Mallory's ability, you won't also attract the Gifts from anyone else who comes with you?"

The fair-haired woman stiffened and pulled her hand out of the telepath's grip. "Well then... Give me the Knife, and I'll go, myself!"
"Not without a plan!" Jaran insisted. "The moment that Knife leaves the Roque, we're all vulnerable--Polaris most of all." He glanced up as the ethereal ghost entered the room, noticing Seline's arrival as well.

The Angel settled in the corner of the room, the light from the chandelier overhead playing over her long locks. Ever since taking on her Angelic form, the short-cropped hair had disappeared with the Elvish disguise, growing longer over her shoulders and completely changing her appearance even more than just the addition of wings.

Said wings, she tucked close against her shoulders and said, "Korsan mentioned that you four were arguing about something--what is wrong?"

Azelie spoke first. "Zayra has gotten it into her head that she wants to march out there and challenge Mallory before the woman cooks up a terrible scheme."

"I can do it!" Zayra insisted. "The rest of you don't stand a chance with her, because she is powerful enough to override your Gifts. My Gift draws its strength from the power of others--the more powerful they are, the more strength my Gift can draw!"

"Dearest," Beren cajoled her, "You have already barely escaped danger with your life when you wore the Key out onto the battlefield," he reminded her. "If Juros hadn't sent Raedyn and given him the Gifts he needed to protect you, we wouldn't be having this conversation! Would you really want to flaunt such protection?"

"They can come with me, if they like!" Zayra protested. "Raedyn already told me that Juros made him pledge to be my protector for life, and as such, he would be uniquely safeguarded against my Gift!"

All eyes wandered toward Seline. The Angel tugged on a lock of her her hair as she considered the problem before her.

"I think that if such a challenge were to be made--I said if, your Majesty," she spoke slowly. "It would surely need agreement from all parties involved." She looked at each face in turn. "I would advise you all to include Raedyn in the discussion, and the King is right, you ought to work out a plan rather than just leaving the protection we have here and exposing yourself and all of us to danger. Use your friends outside to locate her, assess what other threats you might encounter, and work out escape routes all along the way. We have come so far, and are so close to defeating her, it wouldn't do to let down our guard and be too impulsive now!"

Four heads nodded, and the couples filed out of the room. Seline waited, noticing how Polaris hadn't left yet, either.

She tilted her head at him. "What is it? Do you disagree with my decision?"

Polaris shook his head. "Not that," he stammered. "It's just... I have something else I wanted to ask you. It's about Tessa."

Seline smiled, pulling her hair back from her face. "Yes? What can I do?"

Polaris steadied himself. Here was his moment! "I think it's time... I mean, I am ready to ask you if... give her a--" As he spoke, his voice and his figure faded in and out again.

Seline frowned, reaching toward him as if she could touch his shape. "Polaris, what's wrong? What are you trying to say?"

Polaris hadn't realized anything was amiss. He frowned and tried again. "I'm trying to-- if you would... Tessa... be with--"

It was getting worse. Almost every other word vanished in blank silence. Seline glanced toward the hallway, where Jaran's room contained the enchanted Dagger that held the bulk of Polaris' essence. "Polaris, something's wrong," she said. "You're fading--"

"I'm fa--" Polaris disappeared completely after this, and a terrible shout went up from downstairs. Seline raced out of the room and launched toward the ceiling, terrified at what she saw:

Queen Mallory herself, standing on a cloudbank in the main hall of The Roque, with the Dagger of Polaris in her hand.

Everyone had come out to see what was the matter, but no one dared move against her.

"So this is your secret weapon you wanted to use against me?" she taunted them, twirling the Knife in her hand. "Just sitting there in an empty room--you fools! You thought you would be protected in here, you thought your precious magic would hold against the likes of me!" She threw her head back and cackled.

Damaris burst into flames and leaped toward her, but Mallory made a striking motion with her hand, and he slammed back onto the floor with his flames extinguished.

"Oh, by the way--don't bother attacking me just now. Anyone who tries will find their Gift Jacked--and not in the good way." She grinned. "I hear you have the Key as well--but now that I have this dagger, I suppose I don't need it." She smiled as she flourished the blade again. "You won't be able to stop me, and I really won't need the Key if I've got one of Juros' own Knights to open the door for me!"

"No!" Azelie shouted, but everyone remained frozen in place.

"Mallory, stop this at once!" commanded a booming voice, and just below Mallory's elevated cloud bank, a black shadow coalesced, and Prince Trevon stepped out.

Mallory sneered. "Ah! My little brother finally decides to show up! Aren't you here to help me, little brother?"

"Put down the knife, Mallory," Trevon replied. "Your army is scattered, the Mages have finished their spells to keep us both trapped in here--you've done everything you could to defeat them, but they're still standing."

"Traitor!" Mallory seethed. "What, you've thrown your lot in with them again? After all I've done for you? All that I've given you--why, when I met you, you were a spineless, voiceless little dishrag--I've made you fit to rule by my side!"

"You're wrong, Mallory," Trevon responded, using his shadows to rise to an equal level with the Crow Queen. "You didn't give me a voice; I already had one, even though I didn't use it very much. You might have unlocked the ability to speak in me, but my words are my own." He folded his arms. "I am done with your influence, you have lost control, and you have lost the battle. You should yield."

"No!" Mallory snarled. "I haven't lost anything, you great, lumbering fool! I'm about to finish this once and for all--and you can kiss your joint throne goodbye, for all I care!" She raised the Knife high over her head. "Polaris, turn out the lights and take me to the Gate!"

Immediately, the entire mansion plunged into darkness, and several people cried out. Lizeth lit the bluefire in her hands, and Jaran sent up a pulse to recharge all the glowlamps in the vicinity.

The great door lay open with half its hinges blown. Mallory had vanished, but Trevon still stood in their midst. Azelie blinked against the bright lights and looked around her, but only the Seramis brothers stood nearby. She gasped. "Where's Zayra?"

"There!" Beren pointed, as his wife marched right out the door of The Roque, and outside the boundary of protection. "Zayra! Come back!" He yelled, but she kept right on walking. Once she crossed the boundary, she took off running toward the ruined city.
"Somebody stop her!" Jaran commanded.

"We'll go after her!" Raedyn announced, followed closely by Edri.
"Don't let her out of your sight!" Jaran shouted after them.
Beren added his own caution. "And don't you dare let anything happen to her!" he warned.

Edri turned to acknowledge with a resolute nod. "We will lay down our own lives before that happens," she promised. The pair disappeared, borne away by Raedyn's teleportation Gift.

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