Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Reader's Review: "Song" by Jesse Teller

Synopsis from Amazon:

Magic and Mayhem. Deception and Lore.

This gritty dark fantasy ushers you into a dangerous world of tarnished heroes and magic-slinging fugitives.

Some of the darkest minds in Perilisc attacked Mending Keep, releasing all its prisoners.

Despite his strained relationship with the crown, Rayph Ivoryfist calls old friends to his aid in a subversive attempt to protect King Nardoc and thwart terrorist plots to ruin the Festival of Blossoms. But someone else is targeting Rayph, and even his fellow Manhunters might not be enough to save him.

Dive into the stunning exploits of this bold and daring crew! 

My Review:

The foreword starts with "So, what if there was a fantasy equivalent of the Avengers?"
The moment I read that, I was sold. I'm a Marvel movie fan, and I am absolutely a fan of twisting up the fantasy genre into new and unexpected things (see: the whole series of The Clan of Outcasts) and thanks to Mark Lawrence, I'm slowly developing a tolerance for gritty, gory, disturbing, occasionally raunchy, grimdark fantasy--and this one is no exception.

Unlike Lawrence, Teller doesn't quite seem to have the gift for prose or intellectual observations in his narrative... but the world-building is absolutely solid, and I found plenty of characters I could root for as I read their exploits in the pages, while others could go take a long walk off a short cliff, if you get my meaning! I'll admit, the dual point of view was a little disorienting at first. The tale is told from the perspective of two characters: Rayph Ivoryfist, the legendary warrior who first launches the group of fighters known as Manhunters; and Konnon Crillian, a ruthless mercenary who teams up with his brother to hunt down a job that will get him the money he needs to help his ailing child. Basic enough, right?

Get ready for all the twists and turns. First, the build-up is such that the beginning tends to feel a little slow, punctuated with scenes here and there that actually get your attention, tug your heartstrings, or set your imagination buzzing. A few times, I found the plot dwelling on one character for a long time, when I really would have preferred knowing what happened to the other character, or the narrative spent a lot of time on one character, by the time it switched perspectives, I would have to take a moment to "reorient" myself and remember where that other character last left off! That being said, once the characters arrived in the titular city of Song, and you knew they were both in the same area, and interacting with some of the same side characters--that's when things started to get really interesting, and I found it easier to just keep reading, and much much harder to stop!

Song is a fantastic start to a series in a world that has plenty of scope for expansion and all manner of sidequests! I'm giving this a *****5 STAR***** rating because I really feel like it was executed very well, and I enjoyed it--not loved, per se, but it was a great time! I know exactly which characters I want to see more of, I'm not sure what other twists Teller might have in store for these characters, but I'm definitely looking forward to them all!

Further Reading: (Grimdark Fantasy/Epic World-building/Deep Intrigue/Intense Peril)
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 
        -They Must Be Stopped 
The Red Dog Conspiracy--Patricia Loofbourrow
       -The Alcatraz Coup 
       -Jacq of Spades 
       -Queen of Diamonds 
       -Ace of Clubs 
The Grave Reports--R. R. Virdi
        -Grave Beginnings 
        -Grave Measures 
        -Grave Tidings (novella) 
        -Grave Dealings
Stories of Togas, Daggers And Magic--Assaph Mehr
       -Murder in Absentia 
Tales of the Fallen--Katika Schneider

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 6

Part 6
"The Lion's Share"
Three Years Ago...

Edri Rodan breathed deeply and checked the straps of her armor again, trying to bide enough time for her nerves to relax so her hands would stop trembling. It wouldn't do to present herself as some kind of authority over these seasoned warriors if she was quaking like a distressed damsel!
She exited the Commander's office, attached to the garrison on the western side of the castle. Beckoning a runner, she gave her first order as Commander of the King's Guard: "Tell the men to fall in."

The runner nodded and took off around the parade grounds, darting in and out of the barracks and armory, shouting, "Fall in! Fall in! Commander's orders! Fall in!"
Edri stood at the front of the parade grounds, watching the soldiers--young, old, wiry, brawny, scarred, unscathed--shambling out to the field in front of her. Nearly every one of them managed to look around without even seeing her, searching for this new Commander that they would answer to, after the massive coup that had just been quashed. She watched them jostling against each other, laughing, chatting, and slouching in place, and her ire focused on the singular goal: establish her authority, and get these men on a regular regimen of training and patrol.
"ATTENTION!" she barked.

A few of the soldiers automatically flinched up straight at the command. Others didn't even stop conversing with their mates, and a few squinted at her in disbelief, more that this female was giving orders, than the fact that such a small person had such a big voice.
She motioned to a runner and he handed her the massive cone that enabled a man to be heard over the ranks of hundreds. There were barely fifty men before her now, but she needed the amplification to overcome the noise already in place, and shout, "I SAID, ATTENTION!"
Silence fell over the parade ground, as three straight rows of soldiers snapped straight and silent. All eyes focused on her.

Edri continued speaking through the megaphone, albeit with a more normal tone of voice, since in the silence she didn't actually have to shout.
"I am your new Commander," she announced. "And from here on out, you will refer to me as such."
"Yeah, right!" someone shouted back, and laughter unfolded about halfway through the regiment.
Edri's keen ears picked out exactly who had spoken, but for good measure, she indicated four or five others as well. "You six, I want you on the march around the perimeter. Do not cease until I give the command."
Some of the ones who laughed dared to gasp at this, and the group themselves hesitated, unsure if she really meant the strange order.

The longer Edri drew out the silence, the more the soldiers around them began subtly pulling away, distancing themselves from the troublemakers.
She stared right at them, holding onto her fury to keep from caving to their defiance. "Why do you stand there?" She raised her voice through the megaphone. "I said MARCH!"

The six soldiers grouped up in a double-row, and set off for the edge of the grounds. Their unison footsteps accompanied the rest of Edri's words.
"I know that some of you are not accustomed to seeing women as soldiers," she acknowledged as the ranks reformed to fill in the gaps left by the punished soldiers. "And still more of you are not at all comfortable with the idea of answering to one as your superior officer--although you had enough respect for yourselves not to let the idea slip out as that unfortunate detachment did." Her quick ears heard a chorus of laughter behind, and a distinct jumble in the rhythm of the steps. So! They thought that they could cheat their way out of a just punishment? She whirled around and put the megaphone to her lips. "KEEP MARCHING!" she bellowed, and the steady thump-thump, thump-thump resumed.
She turned back to address the group.

"Be that as it may, King Jaran--or, he will be King when he's formally crowned next week--has appointed me Captain of the King's Guard--which places me in a position of command over you all."

"Boo!!" Someone shouted, and an uproar began, spreading so quickly through the ranks that Edri couldn't be heard, and didn't have a prayer of stopping it.
They lobbed insults at her, chiding her to "get back to her post", as if she were still a menial guard.
Edri felt like she was back in her old regiment of Peacekeepers, awaiting her turn against the lions--frankly, she'd rather face the lions than try and assert herself over these men. Perhaps she should take the Lion form, show them that she was not just a meek and delicate lady.

"Wait a moment!" Called a voice, and the jeering hesitated. Edri watched the hardened, swarthy men shift aside as a stout, grizzled man with a bushy grey beard and plenty of scars and dents in his armor pushed his way forward. At the front of the crowd, he pointed at Edri. "Aren't you one of those Gifted ones, with special powers and such?"
Edri nodded.

"Impossible!" grunted another soldier with wispy white hair and a thin white mustache. "The Gifted ones were Outcasts and enemies of the Realm! How could this one be a soldier in the Realm, much less a Commander?"
Edri opened her mouth to fire off her own volley of insults, but the big bearded knight winked at her and turned the conversation in her favor, "I think it might have something to do with the fact that the heir of Balwyn--Hail to the King--now sits upon the throne, and those who oppose him have been taken down, does it not?"

Edri felt a swell of hope at the mention of the King, and still more when the soldiers all echoed the pledge of honor. These men might balk at the idea of taking orders from someone younger, less experienced, and a woman, but at least she could capitalize on the fact that they were, at their core, loyal to the Crown.

"Indeed," she said. "I was part of the group of former Outcasts," she placed especial emphasis on the word, "responsible for restoring King Balwyn's sons to their rightful place in the palace--no matter which one of them ends up on the throne. I am Gifted, it is true--but I use the Gift in service to maintaining order in the Realm." Her words rang in a composed silence, and the rowdy soldiers seemed to settle into the idea that Edri was going to be their leader and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
She lifted her chin and continued. "That is what I wanted to speak to you all about. For many years, while Crown Prince Beren was missing and King Balwyn--Hail to him--you served the whims of masters who wanted to control the Realm's citizens, who wanted to impress upon the people that those with Gifts were to be feared and treated as threats to the safety of those around them, monsters to be eradicated wherever they were found." she raised her hand. "No more! We serve a Gifted King now, and he desires to turn the Realm into a thriving, functioning community that welcomes and integrates the Gifted insofar as it is possible to do so."

The grizzled soldier stroked his bristling beard. "How does the King intend to do that?" he asked, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "And what role would we play in making that happen?"
Edri found a spark of confidence growing in her as she looked out at the sea of faces. She saw an ally in this one soldier, and resolved to know his name before everyone was dismissed. "The King, as a Gifted himself, understands the necessity for Gifted ones to have a safe place in which to live and learn to control and utilize their unique Gifts--but also that there are some Gifts which make coexisting among unGifted people somewhat of a challenge, if not impossible!"

She saw several sideways glances, and elbows jostling, and whispers of Mad Queen between the soldiers. Her lion-nature bristled at the insolence, and a part of her still longed to rage in defense of Princess Zayra--but she breathed deeply, quelled the urge, and went on. "Thus the King ratified plans to turn the barren Wilderness into a community specifically for Gifted people, to live among one another in a safe and understanding environment. As soldiers and protectors of The Realm, it will be among our duties to protect Wildhaven with the same ardor as we defend the city from criminals and troublemakers who would seek to stir up unrest. I will see to it that your commanders are made aware of the variety of known Gifts that already exist in the Realm, and they will be responsible for drilling you all in methods that will enable you to interact safely with these Gifts. Should any problems arise concerning a Gifted person, we are to mitigate the threat as quickly as possible, and that could very well involve bearing the brunt of someone's Gift, so we should all be equipped and prepared. If the danger is such that unGifted people are put at risk, it will be our responsibility to transport that person safely to Wildhaven. Should we encounter criminals who are using their Gifts to break the law, we will set in place special protocols for restraining such a one, so that they will not be able to use their Gifts to escape the consequences of their offense." She leveled her gaze at each one of them, infusing her expression with as much determination as she could muster. "We will once again be the arms that hold the shield that protects the whole Realm, and the feet of the King to reach the furthest of his subjects and ensure that they are secure. No longer will we be pawns in the machinations of political grabs for power, nor tools for the suppression of one group against another. We serve the Realm, and we serve King Jaran Seramis!" She raised her fist in salute. "Huzzah!"
"Huzzah!" chorused the men, as her enthusiasm spread through them.
Edri waved her hand as she lowered it. "Dismissed!" she declared, and watched the unit disperse.

On their way out, she caught sight of the bearded captain who'd effectively swayed the Guardsmen in her favor. "You there!" She singled him out and stopped right in front of him. "What's your name, soldier?"
The bearded man towered over her, but he saluted and answered, "Sir Roger, my Commander."
"Thank you for your assistance, Sir Roger," Edri said. "I take it you've served the Seramis monarchy for some time?"
Sir Roger chuckled. "You could say that. Ever since King Balwyn took the throne, at least." He tapped the hilt of his sword hanging by his side. "A word of advice, Commander?"
Edri nodded. "I welcome it."
The burly captain grinned and flexed his gloved hand. "There are a few of these men who are set in their own ideas and their own ways of how things ought to be done, and they may put up a front when changes come around," he shrugged and gestured to the soldiers all arranging into their groups and units. "But there is not one of them who takes their responsibility as the Realm's first defense and last bastion lightly, and if you show them a consistent hand, and firm, clear direction, there is not a one who would not willingly fly in the face of mortal danger for the sake of the Realm and its citizens."
Edri nodded. He had described her very sentiments. "Duly noted, Captain. Dismissed!"
Sir Roger marched away to join his fellow captains.

A lone person applauded her as she walked back toward her offices. Edri glanced toward the sound, and gave a courteous nod to Princess Zayra standing at the edge of the parade ground.
"A marvelous speech!" the golden-haired princess gushed. "Jaran would be proud."

Edri wagged her head. "It is their fealty to King Balwyn that drives them, not anything of me. I don't know what Jaran was thinking--" she bit off her words and colored deeply. "Meaning no disrespect!" she stammered. "I just--I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be Commander of the whole bloody Guard!" She could feel the old ache throbbing in her scars, as it did when she was nervous.

Zayra chuckled. "You're an excellent soldier, Edri," she reassured her. "Sure, you might not have the wartime experience of half these men, but you've fought battles and won."

Edri pinched her lips and huffed out her nose. "But..." her voice came out small and frail, "I can't shake the feeling that no matter what I do..." she trailed off and slumped against the short wall beside the outbuilding.
Zayra nodded. "It's true, we've all been through a lot--you and I, more than most. I know that nagging feeling that clings to you like your own shadow..." Her hands trailed over the embroidery on her dress. "The things I did under Troy's influence still haunt me to this day, as well. I can't imagine what the thrall of my Gift must have done to you!"
"Zayra." Edri slipped an arm around the woman's shoulder. "I don't fault you for any of that, you know. Even when everyone else said you were stark-raving mad, I could still reach you, and I knew I could be the one to keep you grounded."

Zayra chuckled. "You did! My faithful Lion," she teased with the name she'd used when Edri was her personal bodyguard. "You have the strength within you to handle whatever challenges you face. I could always count on acceptance from you, no matter which way my mind tilts sometimes!"

Edri smiled, feeling the weight and pressure to perform a certain way and uphold a certain standard lift from her shoulders for the first time that day. Speaking of acceptance... the small voice at the back of her mind conjured up visions of the person she most consistently received acceptance from--the one who could have come alongside her to face the regiment, as a second Gifted soldier whom the men would actually respect... She reached into her pocket and felt for the smooth, blue stone tucked there. Edri pinched the rounded corners between her fingers, and let all the feelings go with a shaky sigh. "I'm not the only one who accepts you anymore, though," she remarked. "You're lucky to have someone who chooses to love you anyway."
Zayra toyed with Beren's ring on her finger and smiled. "Oh, he loves me all right--but..." she huffed. "He can be so oblivious sometimes!"

Edri squinted, wondering to what Zayra might be referring--but just then, the rhythmic beat of armored boots on the ground reached her ears. She pushed herself up to a standing position. "Well," she said, "if you'll excuse me, I've got some soldiers to address."
Zayra nodded. "Lead your men well, Captain."

Edri jogged across the grounds toward the marching soldiers. Perhaps their sore muscles and stiff joints would teach them twice about crossing her!

Present Day....

Edri made it across the parade ground in record time, but hardly anyone noticed. Every eye was upon her, except the ones she wanted. No one dared stir or make a sound. “Stand away!”

Finally the man looked up. He had his share of ugly bruises, but he was in no way as bad a shape as the man he was currently beating. The beater spat a bloody glob at the ground. “Jus’ givin’ ‘is rat wot ‘e deserves,” he growled. “I don’t take orders from a girl!”

The Lion surged, and with one hand Edri grabbed the man just under his shoulder and hefted him several feet into the air. He went tumbling head-over heels, while she knelt by the victim’s side.
"Landis," she murmured under her breath, "Why is it always you?"

Removing her left glove, Edri laid her glowing hand over the absolute wreck of the man’s shoulder, feeling the pull of her healing Gift working, knitting bone together and regrowing tissue and skin.
The murmur rippled through the crowd.
“Freak... doing it again ... One o’ them! She’s not even touching him. It’s unnatural, that is!”
She shut out the unfriendly voices and focused on fixing Sir Landis' injuries.

Once she’d taken care of most of the wounds on his face, she stood between the two men. Their statuses had flipped, with the white-haired soldier now sporting very few wounds, while the aggressor depended on the support of two friends to hold him upright. She crossed her arms, her left hand glowing bright blue in the sunlight.
“Now then,” she began. “I want to know why exactly is it that you two seem to be exempt from drills today.”
Landis coughed into his mailed glove. “I was running combat drills when Sir Monte came up and punched me across the face for no reason.”

Monte thrashed against the men holding him, stilling only when Edri held up her blue hand. “Not true! This pipsqueak insulted me! He needed to be reminded of his place!” He glared under the swelling cut over his eye. “Guardsmen get first pick over garrison soldiers!”

Edri stepped forward, holding out her hand. “No soldier in the King’s army is more important than any other, unless I assign him charge of a detachment. Here, let me heal that for you—“
“Don’t touch me!” Monte reeled back several paces. “Just ‘cause you’re one o’ them freaks doesn’t mean you can lord it over the rest of us! We’re veterans of real combat—we don’t take orders from you!”
“But you take orders from the king,” interjected a voice behind Edri, “do you not?”

Edri felt a wave of relief as she turned to acknowledge Sir Roger, one of the older knights in the Royal guard. Being appointed Commander of the King’s Guard was a very different position than just being the Queen’s Hand, but Roger was the first to throw his support behind Edri, and others who admired and heeded him soon followed.

Now, Sir Roger placed himself in front of Monte, stroking his beard. The scar along the side of his face proclaimed that he was not a man to be trifled with. “I ask again,” he said as Monte continued to sulk rather than continue railing against Sir Roger, “Do you and your fellow Guardsmen serve the King?”
Monte set his jaw and muttered, “We do.”

Sir Roger pointed a gloved hand in Edri’s direction. “The King saw fit to appoint this soldier as your Commander,” he declared. “Are you saying the King has chosen unwisely?”
Monte’s face grew more tense, and his reply was almost unintelligible.
“What was that?” Roger leaned in, his thick eyebrows bristling as his stare intensified.
“I said the King may choose as he likes!” Monte snapped.

Sir Roger nodded. “And what is your duty to the King, as his Guardsmen?” The knight stepped aside, drawing attention straight back to Edri.

Monte looked right in her face and responded, “A Guard’s duty is to follow orders from the Captain to maintain the security of the Castle and the Realm and everyone in it.”

Edri waited for Sir Roger to continue to make his point, but when she glanced at the burly knight, he nodded to her. She held her ground before Monte and said, "As your Commander, I've seen fit to give the same orders to you that I've given to everyone else on these parade grounds: drill with your regiment, engage in combat training with your regiment until further notice--which I'm giving now!"

She signaled the watchmen posted in their towers, and the series of klaxons ringing out over the fields brought all activity to a crashing halt.
"Company to attention!" bellowed Sir Roger and his fellow commanders. "Fall in and hold!"

The knights of the White Castle obediently arranged themselves in straight rows before Captain Edri. A pair of soldiers wheeled in a set of stairs so she could elevate herself to be seen and heard by the entire company. They stood silently and watched her.

Edri cleared her throat and announced, "I've just received word that there is a conspiracy to attempt an assassination at work among the enemies of the King. We don't know when it will happen, nor who is responsible for such a threat, but it is our duty to protect the White Castle, and protect it, we shall! At the day's end, report to your regiment commanders for your designations for time and location of shifts on watch. Groups and shifts will be orchestrated so that the whole palace may be watched, and all of you are hereby on full alert! Be prepared for anything, and do not neglect the smallest square inch of your assigned area. The smallest disregard could mean the difference between life and death, so any insubordination--" here she narrowed her gaze to Monte's regiment, "will be likened to treason. Are there traitors among you?"

As one the company answered, "No, Captain!"
"Dismissed! Return to your drills until evening."

Edri descended the steps and took a deep breath. She had only a few hours in which to divide up the assignments. There needed to be enough men to watch all quadrants of each area, so that there would be no part of the castle grounds left unseen. Perhaps she should also assign some of them within the castle itself. Would the royals object to being followed about by pairs of guards at all times? Just how long did "imminent" mean they had? How many were involved in this threat? Were they watching for one lone assassin or a dozen? Would the killer strike before the party on the overmorrow, or after? How many Gifted prisoners were they holding just now? Were there enough safeguards in place that they wouldn't have to worry about a jailbreak at the same time as an assassination attempt?

Edri stopped and turned as Sir Roger approached. She couldn't quite manage to clear the consternation from her face. "Forgive me, Captain--but I have a lot on my mind just now."

He nodded. "I know; you might want to know--Captains Graven and Roland are highly experienced with watchtower assignments, and I have it on good authority that Sir Landis' instincts when it comes to close-quarter patrols are second to none--he would be a good soldier to have on patrol of the castle interior, if I may be so bold as to suggest." Sir Roger grinned and gestured in the direction of the young knight, currently engaged in sparring with others from his unit. "Should you assign him to interior, you might also allow him to choose trusted companions from his regiment as well. They will all be good soldiers, dedicated and ready for anything."

That was a large section of small details taken off her list of worries. Edri's face cleared and she smiled. "Thank you for your advice, Sir Roger."
Sir Roger bowed deeply. "Hail to the King," he said.
Edri nodded. "Hail to the King," she agreed.

High up in the Science Tower, Lizeth the Potions Master carefully measured a small dose of the tincture she was working on into a vial. So far, so good.
"All right, Nyella," she said to the young blonde assistant beside her. "This is our moment of truth. Are you ready?"

"Ready," Nyella answered, accepting the vial. She downed the contents, while Lizeth watched her closely.
"How are you feeling?" Asked the former apothecary.

Nyella raised her eyes in thought. "I feel a sort of tickling in my arms," she mused. "Like an itch that's under my skin, and I--" She raised her hand to scratch it, and flinched when a burst of green flame erupted from it. "Yipes!"

Lizeth raised her eyebrows and started scribbling down notes in her Book of Trials. "Greenflame--amazing!"

Nyella clenched her fists, and the flame went out. When she opened her hands again, carefully peeling one finger at a time, the flame did not reappear. She studied her empty hand. "Hmm," she remarked, "the itch is gone."

Lizeth finished writing. "Well, that's at least one Gift we've been able to synthesize--and now we know it works, albeit temporarily." She glanced at her assistant. "Do you think you could summon the greenflame again, if you really thought about it?"

Nyella tried staring at her hand, tensing until it trembled--but nothing happened. She sighed. "Guess it's only a one-time thing, then."

Lizeth pursed her lips. "Perhaps... unless we tried a larger dose? What if the use of the Gift burns out by small increments, so if one consumed sufficient amounts, one could conceivably use a Gift multiple times before it ran out?"

Nyella shrugged. "I guess that would be the next phase of testing!" She grinned.

Lizeth chuckled. She'd come a long way from being dismissed as a mere "medicine woman." King Jaran had allowed her to experiment with Gifts, coming up with the right sort of mixture to invoke reactions that functioned like Gifts when interacting with a person's biological systems. To find an UnGifted girl with just as much enthusiasm for both the scientific method and a viable use for Gifts was rare indeed, but she thrived on teaching Nyella more about the Gifted side of things, while Nyella willingly entered into trials and explored hypotheses alongside her.

For now, her young, impressionable assistant cleansed her hands thoroughly before walking to the row of beakers on the other side of the laboratory. "What about the other experiments, the ones with the Elvish cures? How is that going?"

Lizeth sighed as she walked over to the set of experimental slides on which she had attempted to reverse-engineer or possibly duplicate the variety of "cures" and "medicines" they'd received from the Elves. "They still separate," she answered, "and I can't figure out what combination can effectively bond them together." She took a pipette and lifted a few drops of Elvish infusion, and dropped it into a plate with a few drops of donated blood from a Gifted person. Studying the reaction through a large magnifying glass, she watched as the Elvish solution began enveloping the blood, consuming it and multiplying, until only the Elvish part remained, in exactly the same amount as the two liquids combined. "The Elvish solutions just reproduce so fast, and dominate the Gift--or if they can't, then the Elvish solution evaporates completely, and the Gifted blood remains."

Nyella pressed her lips. "So--still no answer for Lady Erlis, then?"

Lizeth wagged her head. Erlis had been the most confounding case of all, the intense sickness essentially requiring the use of an Elvish cure made from her blood... And, like the blood on the plate, her Gifted side slowly being consumed by the Elvish blood. Using the healing Gift kept her systems from being overwhelmed by the Elvish blood, but the more she resisted shifting into a dragon, the more the Elvish blood began fundamentally altering her physiology--and if Lizeth couldn't figure out how to get the two to coincide with one another, then there would come a day when Erlis would have to choose: be a dragon for an extended period and flush the Elvish cure completely from her system (and thus risk being a dragon forever), or turn completely into an Elf, and lose her ability to heal. Neither situation was optimal for someone as adept and drawn to healing as Erlis--but then again, there didn't seem to be any other answer for her.
"None for Erlis," she said, "but at least we were able to help Zayra last night, right?"

Nyella sighed away the disappointment, and cheered up a little at the idea. "Oh, you're right! At least we can do some good with all our experiments, then. I just wish..." She stopped and glanced away.
Lizeth chuckled. "Don't be afraid to pursue your ideas, in case they might be beneficial, Nyella," she encouraged. "Go on, what were you thinking?"

Nyella shrugged her shoulders, playing with the array of stoppers strewn over her worktable. "Well, we've figured out how to Gift an UnGifted person temporarily," she said. "But I wonder if it might be more helpful for someone like Princess Zayra if we were to be able to temporarily unGift her, like the same thing, but in reverse."

Lizeth tensed, a host of memories from three years ago rising up in her mind. "It's a fine sentiment, and I get where you're coming from," she replied, "but you must understand, Nyella, that these Gifts from Juros are intended for the person they were given to, and it is up to each person to find that benefit, rather than seeking ways to avoid or suppress it. The only time I ever saw Gifts being suppressed was by the wicked Shadow, Troy, and it nearly enabled him to destroy the Realm, because he could unGift anyone who was trying to stop him."

Nyella's eyes widened, and her fair skin paled even further. "Oh! I didn't mean--it wasn't like that!" she stammered. From his first day on the throne, King Jaran sought to ensure that all citizens of the Realm knew exactly what had just happened, so that no one would have to worry about rumors, conflicting accounts, tall tales, legends, or outright misinformation. He called for all those involved with the entire conflict between Jade and Troy--everyone they interacted with, Gifted by them, or enlisted by them--to give their side of the story, and with the help of Kaidan and Lady Aurelle, had the whole of it written into public record, so that everyone would understand the role that Gifts played in the lives of the Realmish citizens, and how important it was for the people to trust each other.

Lizeth patted Nyella's shoulder. "It's all right, I understand. We'll find something to help our friends. We just have to keep at it!"

Gavin slumped at the table pushed up against the wall of Velora’s office. He had Erlis to thank for the fact that he was now out of doors instead of staying cooped up in her stuffy workspace.

“The Wyrmling will need exposure to as much of nature as possible, as soon as it’s hatched,” the knowledgeable healer had explained. Velora had directed that the egg be moved as carefully as possible, to the area just outside the headquarters building. It sat under the shelter of several bushes, but she made sure that it was not beyond the reach of the sun, should it require any kind of warmth. She then repeated her instructions to Gavin, that he would sit and watch the egg, and inform her of any changes as they happened.

He twiddled his thumbs, glancing every so often at the egg. He did find a sort of beauty in the way that it caught the sunlight and scattered it in flecks of light all over the ground. In a few places, the alignment of the facets along its surface focused part of the sunbeam intensely on one particular area, so that a few patches of grass around the base of the egg had caught fire and burnt to ash--but after the third attempt at summoning Velora, she'd amended her words, saying, "The egg's prismatic properties altering its surroundings does not constitute a change to the egg. When the egg begins to change or hatch or move or whatever it's going to do, then you call for me."

Gavin sighed, letting his heavy eyelids droop. Surely a long blink, or a moment of resting his eyes wouldn't hurt. He could still hear everything that went on around the egg--if it cracked, he'd know it.

Gavin alternated staring for three heartbeats, and holding his eyes closed for three heartbeats. A few times he missed counting and had to start again, but who cared?

Crack. Gavin jerked upright as the sharp snapping sound seemed to activate every nerve in his body. He remained ramrod-straight for a very long time, hardly daring to breathe, barely noticing his own heart beating, as his eyes focused on the egg.


Another sound, louder and more tonal than the first. His gaze combed every inch of the crystalized surface, but he couldn't see any definite gaps. Was it cracking, or just making noise? Should he alert Velora, or make sure that the egg was really hatching before he did?


This time, he saw it--the end of the egg sheared off, just a corner. The egg itself began to wobble, and Gavin scrambled to his feet. His voice came out a few pained whimpers at first, and then-- "Lady Velora! LADY VELORA!"

She burst out of the building. "What?" she snapped.

Gavin could only point to the egg, which very clearly rocked back and forth, snapping and cracking like kindling in a fire.

Velora gasped. "Oh!"

The two forest wardens crouched beside the egg as the halves of the shell fell away, revealing a stubby, blue, ridge-backed body squirming and wriggling its way from between them.

Gavin detected a smile pulling at Velora's lips, and he himself felt a swell of pride, seeing the new life brought into the world.

Velora clapped him on the shoulder. "That's great news for us. Watch the Wyrmling while I retrieve the Crossing Token Spruce gave me. We'll take it across the boundary once it's all hatched, and Aspen doesn't have to sic the Elven Army on us!"

Gavin nodded, absorbed in studying the unexpected creature not five yards away. It planted its stumpy claws, but there seemed to be too many folds of skin on its soft body, like a baby with the rolls of fat on its arms and legs. After a few meager croaks--probably as much of an actual dragon-cry as it could manage, having just been born--the Wyrmling took its first staggering steps. It crawled forward two paces, but missed the third, toppling over onto its side. Gavin restrained the urge to reach out and help it--but that was to his misfortune, because as it fell, two orange-hued wings unfolded from its back, just under its forelegs, and in one smooth motion, gained enough altitude to flop right over the stone wall surrounding the place!

"Oh no you don't!" Gavin gasped, darting forward. "Get back in there--" He actually scooped up the Wyrmling with both hands to toss it back into the enclosure, but it flapped its wings again, nearly smacking Gavin in the face, and somehow the dragon no bigger than a puppy had enough strength to drag Gavin off-balance!

"Lady Velora!" He called. "Come quickly!" Why did it take her so long to retrieve a simple token?

"Gavin?" He heard her voice, still inside her office. "Hold on... Message... through... Can't get... Just hang on!"

The rest of her words were drowned out under the Wyrmling's terrified screech as it attempted to fly away again, but found itself anchored by the human currently holding it by the ankles.

"Here now!" Gavin tried to be as commanding as he could. "Hold still, why don't you! We're trying to help!"

The Wyrmling wailed and thrashed, gaining strength in its wings that gave it a surprising amount of momentum, for its small size. One last desperate shake broke Gavin's hold, and he could only stare in horror as the Wyrmling that could mean the difference between an Elvish invasion and a continued truce between the Realm and Elvendom plopped to the ground and scampered off on all four legs!

Gavin heard Velora reaching the doorway of the headquarters--in a matter of seconds she would know that he'd failed at the one duty she gave him.

"Not on my watch!" He said, whistling for Sable. She bounded to his side, still wearing her pack. Gavin reached into it and grabbed Sable's lead, which he used only when going through areas in which he didn't want to lose track of her. He could still see the Wyrmling, veering off into the forest, and he told his wolf, "Head it off!"

Sable flicked her tail in an affirmative response, and took off into the undergrowth. Gavin followed her, knowing that his wolf was skilled enough to stop the Wyrmling in its mad dash, and herd it back to where he could catch it.

He didn't have far to go. Just a short dash into the trees, and he saw Sable crouched and intensely guarding something. The Wyrmling sat across from her, bellowing angrily that his movements were so hampered. Gavin swiftly undid the clasp on the collar, slinking forward while Sable distracted their quarry. The Wyrmling appeared to be more terrified of Sable than of Gavin, as it allowed him to get close enough to reach out and clasp the collar around its neck.

"Gotcha!" crowed Gavin.

The Wyrmling seemed to think otherwise, as it unfolded its wings a second time and took off into the trees--dragging Gavin on the end of the leash along with it!

"Whoa!" he yelled. "Whoa!"

Sable did her best to trot alongside him, nipping at him in an attempt to pull him back from being dragged away, but it was no use. The newborn dragon was incredibly strong, and determined, to boot! Very soon, Gavin lost Sable in the chaos, but on the Wyrmling plunged, farther and deeper, taking a haphazard path through the forest that disoriented the ranger, in spite of how many times he'd been over every inch of that place!

A shimmer of golden light washed over him, and Gavin felt the leash snap as the dragging weight stopped pulling on his arms--but when he finally worked himself back to his feet, he looked around and found himself in a portion of the forest that he didn't recognize at all.

What was more, a trio of Elves dropped down from the trees right in front of the terrified Wyrmling. Each held a spear, pointed right at the screaming creature.

Gavin raised his hands. "Don't hurt it!" He screamed. "We mean no harm!"

As if in direct contradiction to his words, a ferocious roar cut through the sky, and a fireball ignited the bushes standing next to them. The Elves recoiled in alarm, and Gavin experienced the terrifying sight of an adult dragon--about the size of a small horse--descending toward them.

"You have got to be kidding me!" he moaned as the dragon descended right for the Wyrmling. The little blue rascal squeaked happily as it settled in the arms of the larger dragon, an offspring reunited with its parent.

"Heads up!" called a voice behind him, and Gavin had no time to react before a man came charging into the area behind him. Sunlight glinted off something covering the man's shoulder--Gavin thought he saw a metal arm... Dragons and spears and metal and Elves all jumbled together in a noisy scramble...

And then everything was still, and the stranger was gone, along with both dragons. Gavin lay crumpled in the dirt before the three Elves.

"Feeliss!" A voice commanded.

Gavin didn't dare move as a fourth Elf entered the space--this one with white hair and the special lines on his forehead that Velora had said was the way they customarily marked their Royalty, as a sign of the purity of their bloodline. He gestured to the Elvish hunters, and they immediately bowed. The silver-haired Elf turned his gaze on the unfortunate forester.

"Well?" he prompted. "You are here on Elvish land, having crossed our magic border without the use of a Crossing Token. I can only assume that you would have done that only if you were returning to us the stolen dragon." He paused to scan the entire area before returning his stern glare to the terrified young man. "So where is it?"

Gavin, himself, was still trying to work out what had just happened. One moment, he was doing his best to follow orders and let everything play out exactly as instructed--and the next, absolute madness.

"I... Well, you see, the Wyrmling was here--"

"Cafka!" The Royal Elf dealt the command, and before Gavin could say anything more, the Elvish hunters had grabbed him tightly by the arms.

The Royal crossed his arms and scowled. "So, this is how Warden Velora deigns to treat the High Prince of Elvendom? With parlor tricks and lies?"

Gavin shook his head. "N-n-no, sir! We were trying to get--"

"Silence!" The High Prince struck him full across the mouth. "I will make Warden Velora pay for trying to steal from me!" He nodded to the hunters. "Take him to the prison."

They dragged Gavin away, ignoring his string of protests.


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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 5

Part 5
"Family Matters"

Twenty Years Ago....

The sun had not yet risen, but the eerie green glow of her shadow-vision helped her navigate the house without running into things. She needed to be gone before anyone in the family awoke. The dark-clothed young girl covered her magenta-colored hair with a black cowl, and checked to make sure she’d left nothing behind.
Next it was onto the kitchen, where she slipped into the larder and lifted one of the cheese wheels, along with a loaf of bread. A jug of cider wouldn’t be missed. She slid herself in the narrow space between door and lintel.

A metal claw reached out from the shadows and grabbed her arm.
“Take me with you!”
The girl bit back a scream as the cheese plopped out of her arms and rolled across the floor.
“Plague take you, Markus!” she swore under her breath. “What are you doing there?”
The lanky form of a young man shifted into view with a creaking thud. He was more or less normal-looking: shaggy hair, keen eyes, sharp features, standing half a head taller than her. The only difference was that the whole left side of his body, from his shoulder to his sole, was made of metal, constructed special by a friend of his father’s.
Markus tapped the left side of his head. “Motion detected,” he murmured, mimicking the voice implanted there. “The real question is, what are you doing, Denni?”
She sighed, trying her best not to let her eyes focus too closely on what they called his prosthetics. They functioned more or less like the real thing—although with so many tiny moving parts, and unexplained machinery, that they were about as much of a Gift as her own Sight.
“I told the family at dinner,” she muttered. “I’ve got a job in The Citadel.”
Markus followed her out of the kitchen, and up the back stairwell to the roof, high amid the skyline of the twinkling, glittering city below. At least if she was going to have him clunking around after her with his one metal foot, he could do it out where it wouldn’t wake the rest of the family.
“But I thought Dad offered to take you!” Markus protested. “You were going to leave after breakfast.”
Denni pursed her lips and blinked until she could see the contents of the row of bins lining the rooftop in an array of deep hues. She plunged her hand into the wheat berries until she connected with a weighty leather purse in there. “I can’t wait till then,” she said, pulling it out. “Gotta leave now.”
Markus gasped, and something in his mechanical side gave a whizzing sound. “You’re stealing?” he dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper.
Denni snorted. “No, you goober; this one’s mine. I needed to save up enough money to make it to the—“ She stopped talking just short of telling him where it was. She’d been sworn to secrecy by the contact that got her this position, and she could not jeopardize it.
Markus was too quick for his own good. “Where are you really going?” His eyes followed her as she opened the panel in the wall where she kept her weapons: two burnished pistols in twin holsters. Whatever this was, it was more serious than just a job. "Come on, Denni..." He reached out his right hand--the normal one--and tugged her shoulder. "Denahlia," Markus used her full name, something he only did in the most serious and personal moments between them. "Please don't keep secrets from me," he begged. "What is this really about?"
Denahlia sighed, thumbing the pistol butts resting snugly against her hips. "If I tell you," she said in a low voice, unwilling to meet his gaze, "you've got to promise not to tell Uncle Feston and Aunt Winda."
Markus frowned. "Mom and Dad? Why can't they know?"
"Promise, Mark!"
"Okay, fine!" Markus felt the twinge in his robotic hip that said he needed to sit. He backed up to a cask resting against the wall, and rested against it. "I promise I won't tell Mom and Dad. Now will you--"
"The job is at the palace." The words came tumbling out of her mouth, and with it, the rush of excitement and accomplishment she'd felt when the King's man first offered her the job. "The King's appointing Gifted folk, and I'm assigned to a position on his security staff." She finally looked up, her Gift-sight glowing green around her iris.
Markus rewarded her with a smile, his eyes wide in astonishment. "You're going to be a spy?" he gasped.
She held up a finger. "Remember, not a word!"

Markus nodded, and sat, his mind whirling as he processed the information she'd just entrusted to him. His own cousin, going to work for the King in the realm of espionage--he hadn't thought of it, but her Gift certainly did seem well-suited to the line of work, especially when she could see people moving from miles away using her "rainbow" sight. He looked down at his hands resting on his lap: one strong, calloused, and covered in skin, and the other spindly, metallic, and constantly adjusting and balancing to maintain optimal performance for whatever he needed. The fingers themselves could adjust in size and shape to be any kind of tool, and there were many other added features besides. Could something like that be useful to the King? Markus lifted his head, seeing the edge of Denahlia's cape as she dropped down to the scaffolding attached to the side of the building. He stood. Her name was on the tip of his tongue. Take me with you! He wanted to say.

No. Stay. Said the Other Voice in his head, the one that encouraged rationality from time to time. Think of Harrison. Markus subconsciously obeyed, his mind returning to the events of earlier that day, when his friend casually mentioned a "festival of talents" he would be attending the following week, in a village just beyond Zapheira. "There are these people," Harrison had been saying, "whose abilities defy reason! Ones who can lift things without touching them, or produce snow out of thin air--you have to see it to believe it!" You believe it already, said the Other Voice, following his thoughts and fitting seamlessly within them. Your cousin has such Gifts, so you know they exist... but what potential do they hold for humanity? Are they really so harmless if the King is drafting Gifted people for his own protection?

Markus shook his head. Denahlia's glowing eyes was one thing--but he'd go and see what the fuss was in Zapheira, and decide for himself.

Denahlia crossed her arms and stared across the desk at her cousin. He'd grown, she saw that at once. Compared to the last time she saw him, he now stood head-and-shoulders over her, his muscles had bulked up considerably, and his face now sported a patch of stubble on his chin. On his mechanical side, she saw smooth casings covering what was once naked joints and pistons. He had a few more scars on his flesh side, but the twinkle in his eye was bright as ever.
Markus coughed, running his fingers over the angry red welts her shocking touch had left on his neck. "Nice upgrade, cousin."

Denahlia squinted, as her implant fruitlessly scanned for any information on her cousin since the time she left the Firron farm. She nodded toward the plating on his arm and leg. "I see you've upgraded too." She flicked aside the holding records just coming in on her desk surface. "And you have a dragon?"
Markus smiled. "Her name's Hadrian, and I'll thank your men to deal gently with her. She's due to lay an egg any time."
Denahlia planted her hands flat on the desk. "What in The Realm are you doing with a dragon?"
The young cyborg shrugged, stretching his flesh limbs out to their full length, working the kinks out of his natural muscles. "Picked her up while looking for a job a while back. Some rather ugly fellows seemed to think that she belonged to them after I found her almost crushed under a wall that had collapsed." He shrugged.
Denahlia raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Let me guess," she said. "You stole her out of pity?"
Markus let out a snort. "I prefer the term liberated, but yes--and she's followed me around ever since." He clasped his hands in front of him, interlacing his prosthetic fingers with the flesh-and-bone ones. "We're kind of a package deal in the business."
SEARCH: NO RESULTS FOUND flickered up at her from the surface of the desk. Denahlia sat stiff. "What business would that be?"
A teasing smile played at the corners of his lips. "Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that--I'm pretty much a jack of all trades..."
"Dammit, Markus!" Denahlia let her head land in her palm as she tried to maintain her professional composure in the face of his cocksure dodging. "Why are you here, in the Realm? Why did your dragon show up and start attacking my men?"
Markus spread his hands. "You'll have to forgive Hadrian--she hasn't been in civilized society very much, she's not sure but that every human who isn't me is trying to attack her. I promise, once she's back in my possession I'll do what I must to ensure that she's on her best behavior." He paused after the statement and sat back as if he was finished speaking.
Denahlia flicked through some alerts coming in based on the refined image searches for anyone with a metal arm matching Markus' description--this, at least, was yielding some results, none of which brought her much consolation at all. "You still haven't said what you're doing--"
"I'm here on business," Markus interrupted her.
Ah-ha! Denahlia tapped on a message from a reputable source and twisted her fingers, flipping it around and flicking it toward Markus. "Black market business?" She accused.
A scowl flickered across his face, but Markus waved his hand in a nonchalant gesture. "I seem to recall hearing about a certain Hunter who hired herself out to the highest bidder, without caring which side of the law she landed on," he hinted loftily. "Anyways, my reasons for being here have nothing to do with you personally, cousin... I just thought that whoever was in charge might want to know about the rumors I've picked up."
Denahlia appraised her cousin, drumming her fingers on the desktop--which was a preprogrammed signal to cue the secret recording device embedded in the surface. "What kind of rumors?" she prompted.

Markus leaned forward, keeping his voice low. "Rumors about a vast treasure trove locked up behind a gate somewhere, and there's a reward out for whoever can find the Key to it."
"A gate?" Denahlia's suspicions heightened. What kind of self-respecting treasure-hoarder would lock up their wealth behind a mere gate?

"That part wasn't as interesting to me; you'd get it if you were a sailor--the fabled Lost Gate is something of legends, said to only be accessed on an island with a cove that's wrecked many a vessel. I have no idea what this treasure might be, but the Key is supposedly somewhere here in this Realm, and there are a lot of unsavory types looking for it."
"Like yourself?"

"Ouch!" Markus placed a hand over his heart. "Lady Sharp-Tongue hath cut me to the quick! No, cousin, I didn't come to find the key, just to pass the information on to the nearest authority figure."
"And your dragon?" Denahlia pressed.

Right on cue, a terrible screech cut through the air, and she heard many voices shouting from the vicinity of the holding cells. Markus leaped to his feet in alarm.
"Hadrian!" He cried. "Something's happened!"
"Dragon on the loose!" The cry rang out as the sirens started up, and the alarm system bathed Denahlia's office in a flurry of flashing lights.

"Your pet has escaped, that's what!" The Harbor Watch seethed, storming out the door. "So help me, if that dragon does any more damage--"
"Don't hurt her!" Markus caught her shoulder, just the way he did all those years ago. This time, she looked up into his face, and caught the genuine concern in his eyes. "Please, let me talk her down. I promise she'll listen to me."
Denahlia sighed, but she nodded to him, stepping out of the way so Markus could exit first.

Markus stood on the ledge overlooking the street, where Hadrian flapped and floundered in agitation, while the soldiers below pointed sharp javelins and spears in her direction, desirous to quell her erratic movements without entering striking range themselves.
Hadrian shrieked and spat fire at whoever came closest to her. Markus let out a sharp whistle, and the narrow head came up, while her wings folded in. Markus whistled again, a different sound, and Hadrian responded, sweeping into the air with a flap of her wings, and coming to land right beside her master.
Markus stroked the dragon's pointed, narrow head. "Shh, I'm here, girl. You don't have to be afraid of the big scary weapons."

Hadrian didn't seem to register his comfort. The spines along her back remained elevated, and she held a sustained growl. Ducking away from Markus' touch, she darted her head toward him and grabbed a mouthful of his jerkin. The dragon jerked so hard that it nearly sent Markus tumbling off his feet. "Argh! What is it, Hadrian? Settle, girl! Settle!"
Denahlia flinched away when Hadrian unfurled her wings and took to the sky again, still dive-bombing to nip at Markus' clothes, and shrieking as she did.
Denahlia sighed. "I guess you'd better figure out what she wants," she observed.
Markus put up his robotic arm to shield himself. "I'm sorry, I don't know what's gotten into her!" he said. "I promise I'll stay within pinging range, or I'll let you know when I leave the area. I need to keep an eye on her, though."
Denahlia waved her hand. "Fine, go chase down your dragon."

Markus signaled Hadrian, and the dragon took off into the sky, keeping Markus in her line of sight. "By the way," he remarked, dusting off his jerkin and straightening his clothes. "There's something else I picked up on the black market channels that I thought you ought to know about."
Hadrian chose that moment to resume her swooping attacks, and Denahlia fought the urge to just reach out and zap the creature. "Yes?" She tried to maintain contact with Markus. "What else is there?"

Markus joined her in trying to push the dragon away, but she would only back off when he started moving away from Denahlia. "I didn't get a chance to look into it before it disappeared from the message boards," he said, "but it was definitely a request for an assassin, and the target was definitely someone at the White Castle. And it was going to happen sometime in the next three days."

Denahlia's mind reeled at the idea, but Hadrian seemed to think that her urgent issue was more important than whatever the humans were talking about. "Who's trying to assassinate someone at the White Castle?" she demanded, clambering after Markus as he followed Hadrian's lead. "Which of the royals is in danger?"

She spoke the question as she watched him round a corner, but by the time she reached the same spot, Markus was long gone.

Denahlia growled in frustration. She ignored the prison captain hotly complaining about the damage to his cells, and tapped her fingertips against her thumb. A glowing holographic window appeared above her wrist, and she used a series of hand signals to compose a message for Edri, the Captain of the Royal Guard: "Warning: Assassination attempt imminent. Set garrison on full alert."

She marched back to her office to see about activating her own security measures for the area. So much for family reunions! she thought to herself.

Captain Edri leaned her forehead against the hilt of her sword. She would not cry this time. Her chin wobbled very little. She raised her eyes to the small statue that served as his grave marker. His name had been etched into the stone slab underneath it: Sir Justin the Brave. A few errant tears slid past her willpower and beaded at her cheeks.
"How much longer until it gets easier?" she choked.

She heard someone calling for the captain, and quick footsteps gave her only moments to wipe away the tears and turn away from her weekly ritual before the courier arrived.

Still, the moment he saw her, his instincts betrayed him, and he stumbled backward a step. "Oh, Captain--I don't mean to intrude..."
Edri shook her head, forcing her lips into a smile. "What is it?" she asked.

The courier bowed, showing her a slip of paper with some writing on it--part of Denahlia's strange messaging system she'd installed in one of the watchtowers, to transmit messages quickly from one side of the kingdom to another. "Urgent message from the Harbor, Captain. Something about castle security."
Edri snatched the paper from him, scanning the message. Curses! Why was Denahlia so vague when the life of one of the royals was at stake?
“Thank you.” She waved to dismiss the courier.

Once he left, Edri made her way out to the parade grounds. The soldiers were divided into small groups, some running through marching drills, some sparring against dummies of straw and wood, and others—

Edri’s ears caught the sounds of shouting, and her keen lion’s nose smelled blood. Her eyes narrowed on a corner of the grounds where a group the size of about half the regiment stood with their backs to her.
Edri approached close enough to see what engrossed their attention. One by one, the soldiers noticed her coming and snapped awkwardly to attention, till only a handful remained, and she had a full view of their victim: his white hair had streaks of mud and blood plastered all over it, and his face was a mass of cuts and bruises. Most distinctive of all were the pauldrons on his shoulders, sculpted in the shape of lions’ heads.

It was all Edri could do to stop from transforming into a lion then and there, as she stomped across the parade ground. She didn't doubt that these men who served the castle were brave and strong--it's just that sometimes they were incredibly stupid and arrogant enough to fight each other when there wasn't an enemy to pulverize.

“That’s enough!” She ordered, but the man with his hands around the victim’s throat kept punching.
Edri advanced closer. “I said stop! That’s an order, soldier!” She used her most thunderous voice, but the enraged man continued to ignore her. The lion within her roared at the insubordination, and Edri let those instincts take over. She had sworn that she wouldn't stand by and watch another innocent person die, and she would need more than just strength of conviction to see that through.

Down in the library, on the other side of the castle, Aurelle had been up pacing since dawn. Kaidan knew better than to demand an answer from her right away, since she was only ever like this for a short period of time--but after so many hours of listening to her steady footsteps as he was trying to make sense of the accounts before him (was there a kingdom outside the Realm inhabited by giants or weren't there? Was there such a place as Gybralltyr, the City of Abnormals, or not?) he had finally reached the end of his patience.

He turned to face her, watching the white-haired Archivist double over and moan in pain. His frustration evaporated and he lunged forward. "What happened?" He asked. "Shall I fetch Lady Erlis?"

Aurelle shook her head soundlessly. She raised her trembling hands, her fists clenched so tightly that her knuckles stood out whitely against her skin. "No... I can't--it's just..." She raised her eyes and breathed a solitary word. "Help."

Kaidan braced himself for what he might see in her mind, and reached out to touch her hand. Skin contacted skin, and Kaidan let out a yell as the sheer chaos enveloping his own mind screamed out at him from all five senses at once. He fell backward as Aurelle released the pressure of Illusions through her hands.

This was no mere innocent scene of dancing forest animals, though. Kaidan stayed on the ground where he was as the blue, glowing illusion expanded larger, taking up all the empty space and then some in the room, the top of it pushing toward the vaulted ceilings while the span of it reached either wall of the vast room. Kaidan could hear the creak of the wood and the slosh of water as he watched a single ship seem to steer straight for the door of the library. As soon as the rudder passed the threshold, the whole thing disappeared.

Aurelle slumped against the armchair behind her, as Kaidan stared at her, aghast.

"What the blazes was that?" he demanded in a hoarse tone.

Aurelle wagged her head, her pale locks dangling limply from her scalp. "I don't know," she said faintly. "But I have a feeling it wasn't a metaphor."


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