-Zero Hour, zenith
-Zodiac, zipper, zinging, zigzag
"The Zodiac at Zero Hour"
“GIVE IT TO ME! MINE... MORE... MUST HAVE IT... MUST HAVE MORE...”
The shrill tones railed in her ears as she watched her parents’ bodies crumble... and then it was over.
Zayra tore away from Kaidan.
“What have you done?” She rasped. “What did you do to me?”
Kaidan looked only slightly less stunned than she was. “Your memories—“ he stammered.
“No!” Zayra shrieked. “Those weren’t mine! It cannot be! You did this to me!” She felt the urge climbing within her; every impulse screamed to get away from Kaidan and his strange visions, to get away from them all.
She ran now, through archways and down halls, to the farthest reach of the palace grounds. When she finally stopped, she stood at the edge of a large expanse of empty, unkempt cages, of all different sizes. A dilapidated sign overhead displayed the name “ZOO” in stylized lettering.
Her knees buckled and she sank to the ground, sobbing, as the grey ash from Javira’s flaming tree roots rained down. Let it burn, let the whole castle burn! Her entire life had been manipulated by powerful beings from the very start. She didn’t belong here—Zayra began to wonder if she really belonged anywhere at all.
Back in the courtyard, Beren saw Zayra dash away as Javira joined the fight against Damaris the Phoenix, under the influence of Troy.
“Beren?” Azelie’s voice called to him. “Are you safe? Where are you?”
“I am safe!” He thought in reply. “I am shielded at the far end of the courtyard. No one has found me yet.”
“The castle stands empty, young king,” she said. “Jade would appreciate being restored again, if you can find the chance.”
Beren surveyed the fight in the courtyard. Erlis was hard-pressed to keep Damaris at bay, and without Zayra to enthrall her, Denahlia was back to her mercenary habits, seeing and reacting in astonishing ways to the attacks mounted against her. It was all Javira could do to keep her contained with tree roots. Meanwhile Edri attempted to mobilize what remained of the castle garrison to take down the phoenix, at the same time Velora the wolf worried the unprepared troops with her targeted, stealthy attacks.
“I don’t think I can find a way,” he thought to Azelie.
A moment later, the drawbridge tumbled down, and although Damaris sent a fireball at it, a lone figure zipped through the flames on horseback: Sir Justin, the faithful captain. He sent a few soldiers flying, and he looked around until he met Beren’s gaze. Touching his forehead in respect, he gestured toward the castle doors.
“Here I come!” Beren thought as he ducked his head and charged for the doorway.
A fireball zinged over his head, singing part of his tunic and smashing into the wall beside him, but Beren raised his hands and enveloped himself in a sphere of water. The ambient flames struck the water and hissed, creating a cloud of vapor surrounding him and obscuring his vision so that as he approached the castle doors, his boot caught on something and he stumbled.
He recognized the midnight-blue jacket and the tousled, dark hair. He forgot all about getting to the throne room as he reached toward his brother.
“Jaran!” His brother’s face was as grey as the stones, and Beren couldn’t feel breath coming from his nose and mouth.
Azelie’s voice slipped into his mind. “Beren, you can do nothing for him, especially if you are dead.”
“Get to the throne, your highness.” She didn’t plead or berate him, she only entreated him calmly.
Beren still didn’t move, but just then, a thin, creaking tree root slithered out of the half-open doorway. With sinuous movement, it wound around Jaran’s chest and pulled him closer to the protective arches, so that no stray ballistics might strike him.
Beren entered the castle and made straight for the throne room. The inside was still dark and covered with soot, but a small orb of golden light, plus a flaming blue ball illuminated the strange group. White marble lines among the soot described the boundaries of some design. He didn’t recognize the girl who held the bluefire, but he didn’t doubt that this might be Erlis’ healer friend. Next to her stood Javira, who had sent the root to pull Jaran. She stood stiffly next to the king she had tried to depose not long ago.
He met the redhead’s gaze. “Thank you for helping my brother,” he said.
“We have a common enemy,” she whispered quietly.
In the center of the design, Jade’s keen fairy-voice jingled.
“The Zodiac is almost complete. We need but one more element, and I need to be my normal size.”
“What is the Zodiac?” Beren asked, but just then, a body hurtled through the door and a rough voice hollered. “I’m here! Has he claimed the throne yet?”
Beren glanced at the bluefire woman, who nodded to him. “You must claim the throne so that Jade can be an angel again and complete the circle.”
He huffed. “Yes, because it went so well the last—“
“BEREN!” Jade clanged right in his ear.
“Fine! I AM BEREN, SON OF BALWYN, RIGHTFUL HEIR TO THE THRONE OF THE REALM!”
A brilliant flash of light exploded in their midst, and for a moment, Beren could see the faces of the three individuals standing in their respective places around him, and two large angel wings unfolded from the pillar of light as Jade resumed her normal size.
Beren heard Justin swear beside him. “Zounds! I still can’t believe such beings exist,” he muttered, as Jade took her place at the last remaining symbol.
She didn’t take it immediately, standing just outside it as she explained. “This is the Zodiac of the Realm,” she pointed to each of them. “Lizeth is Fire, Javira is Earth, Justin is Air, I am Spirit, and Beren, you are Water. Most of you know me as an Abnormal—my own Realm is far different from this one. It is called Justicia, and it is ruled by Juros, the Lord of the Abnormals, immortal beings who are either Angels like me—“
“Or Shadows like Troy?” Lizeth guessed, but Jade shook her head.
“No, not like Troy. There isn’t much difference between a Shadow and an Angel except in the way they move and the role they play in distributing Gifts around the Realm.”
Justin lifted his head. “Like when you gave me my Gift?” He suggested.
Jade nodded. “Angels give Gifts, Shadows amplify or subdue the Gift based on the strength of the person, and the amount of challenge they need.”
“So what happened?” Javira asked. “What makes Troy so dangerous? How did he become so much more Shadow than corporeal?”
Jade hesitated. “It is a long story, one that we do not have time to tell. But I will say this: Troy did not believe in the purpose Juros set for him, and for his rebellion, Juros sentenced his corporeal body to be separate from his ethereal body, until he could prove himself more responsible with his power. Instead, he has used his power to bring about the impending destruction of the Realm, so the only way to stop him would be to bring the cage with his body down to this Realm, and try to reunite the two.”
Beren tilted his head. “Hang on, so why do we need the Zodiac? If this other Realm is your home, why can’t you go there and get it yourself?”
Jade hung her head, retreating further from the circle. She hugged her arms and her wings close to her body.
“It began in Zapheira,” she said softly.
Justin and Javira looked at each other blankly, but Beren squinted.
“That name sounds familiar...” he mused. “Where have I heard it?”
Lizeth stared at Jade with wide, stricken eyes as she explained to him, “Zapheira was your father’s most ignoble campaign in the whole of his rule... and also his last.”
Jade nodded. “It was supposed to be the defining moment, when the Gifted would be revealed and King Balwyn would have been able to implement his plans to integrate them into society as contributing individuals. But Troy—“ the Angel caught herself. “I was foolish. I had previously Gifted some people outside the Realm who should not have received Gifts.”
“You were the one?” Lizeth’s bluefire blazed hotter. “You Gifted the soldiers in the other army who then turned their abilities against us? Because of you, the Gifted were forever regarded with animosity, and thousands of innocent villagers died—“
“I know!” Jade burst out. “Troy was the one to convince these Gifted Outsiders to empower the Realm’s enemies, as retaliation for what I had done, but it was my fault to begin with. I had placed the leverage squarely in his hands; if I had not Gifted them, Troy would not have been able to alter their Gifts. Juros wanted to imprison me because of it, but Troy used an ability he picked up as a Full Shadow to help me escape—by turning me into a fairy—and said that if I could somehow manage to undo what he had done in tearing the Realm apart, by bringing the rightful heir back to the throne, it might prove to Juros that I could still be an effective Angel.”
“But wait,” Javira toyed with a root as she considered the tale. “Wouldn’t the fact that you escaped cast suspicion on your motives?”
Jade nodded, stepping back to the very edge. “Hence the need for the Zodiac to open the way to Justicia. I have been cut off from there ever since my return, trapped in this Realm with the Shadow half of my brother until I could find individuals with the right Gifts to unlock the gateway once more.” She gazed at the four faces around her. “Are we ready and willing to do whatever it takes to stop Troy once and for all and preserve the stability of the Realm?” She held out her hands to Lizeth and Justin on either side of her.
They joined hands, all five, and as soon as they connected, the design on the floor glowed brightly, and the floor began to warp and change. As they watched, a thread of light materialized in the air among them, and gradually it lengthened and widened until it parted just a sliver. Beren could see the merest glimpse of glowing clouds through it.
Jade used the tip of her wing to catch up a thread of light from the design on the floor. Easing it to her hand, she gestured for Justin to shift his grip to the thread, and on the other side, she directed Lizeth to do the same. The circle remained unbroken, with Jade now holding an ever-stretching length of gleaming thread still anchored to Lizeth and Justin.
“Don’t let go, or the portal will close,” she cautioned. “I need to fly through it and bring Troy’s cage out. Keep hold!”
The two of them nodded, and Jade stepped through the sliver of light and vanished.
Outside the castle, the battle still raged. They heard shouting and screeching and roaring, and the ground shook with each explosion, but each felt as if their feet were fastened firmly to the floor. They couldn’t leave if they wanted to. They needed to see this through.
At last, Jade emerged back into the castle, carrying something large with her she set it to the side and nodded to the friends in the circle, dropping the thread as she did so. The light died immediately, and the portal closed.
The four friends gathered around the cage, peering intently at the still form illuminated by the soft glow of Jade’s wings, as well as Lizeth’s bluefire.
“Well,” Justin mused. “It does sort of look like him.”
“This is Troy,” Jade confirmed. “We need to get his Shadow form back into his body.”
“But how are we going to do that?” Javira wondered.
Jade smiled. “It requires a zodiac of a different sort. We’ll need more friends, that is certain.”
Out in the courtyard, the battle raged.
“Come on, Firebird!” Troy urged Damaris. “Keep blasting, we’ll get them! They can’t hold us back forever!”
Damaris drooped; the sun had reached its zenith, and he was feeling the effects of that heat, beyond the heat he generated, himself.
Erlis made another pass, still placing her body between him and the castle, preventing Damaris from landing in the courtyard. The weapons from the soldiers below merely bounced off her scales or melted in the flames she blew.
Damaris knew she only pretended. Erlis was big and strong enough to take him down in a moment, with or without Troy.
Abruptly, the doors of the castle burst open, and four figures hopped out: Justin, pulling and throwing bodies and objects with a flick of his hand; Javira, sending her tree roots in multiple directions; the mystery woman with hands wreathed in blue flame, and last of all came Beren, looking revived and resplendent in his crown.
“Well!” Troy crowed. “It seems my sister succeeded in her part of the bargain! Too bad she isn’t here to see how badly I am going to crush her ideals! Get the castle!” His shadow pulled on Damaris’ head, and the Phoenix squawked as a jet of flame hissed toward the castle door.>>>>>>>>>
Denahlia grunted and dodged as the soldiers persisted in associating her with the company of Outcasts. Gritting her teeth, she let the colorful vision find the chinks and cracks in their armor, then used the magnifier to aim her weapons right for those cracks. As she lined up her shot along the scope of her gun, she didn’t notice the person standing next to her until the gun flew from her grasp, leaving her squinting at her empty hands. She glanced to the side.
“What?” She snarled at Justin.
He waved a hand and turned the guns of every soldier away from her. “You’re needed in the castle.”
The fuchsia-haired Hunter laughed bitterly and drew her knives from her belt. “Nobody needs me; I do what I want. Get out of my way!”
The ground dropped away from her feet, and she couldn’t move as Justin aimed his power at her. “Sure, you think you can do as you please now; but if Troy wins, how long do you think that kind of freedom will last?”
Denahlia glared; she knew what Troy wanted. He had almost convinced her to work alongside him to make it happen.
“He is a maniac who uses others to get what he wants.”
“And if you don’t stop him,” Justin replied. “He’ll just keep using you.”
“Lizeth thinks there is a way,” Denahlia said. “Something about touching the untouchable.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find Troy is very touchable right now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Denahlia snapped at him, sending a few bullets zinging toward the soldiers. Two down, sixty more to go.
“Head into the throne room,” Justin coaxed her. “You’ll see.”
Denahlia groaned, but Justin had already parted the sea of bodies between her and the castle, so what other choice did she have?
“This better be worth it,” she growled as she darted for the castle door.
Lizeth blasted aside two soldiers as she made for the east colonnade. She could see a few more, engaged with a figure she couldn’t quite see.
“Hey!” Lizeth yelled, tossing a bright globe toward them.
The soldiers turned, and the brilliant blue light was the last thing they saw.
Lizeth nodded with mild satisfaction as the men collapsed. “Bunch of ninepins,” She gloated.
The figure, a lean, white-haired woman in a long blue dress, gazed at her in surprise. “Bluefire...” she gasped. “You were the woman I saw!”
Lizeth frowned. “Who?”
The woman’s eyes widened in terror and she screamed, “Look out!”
At the same time, a vicious growl erupted from behind Lizeth. She turned around very slowly.
A wolf snarled savagely at them. But not just any wolf.
“Velora?” The woman muttered.
Lizeth dared to glance at her. “Velora—that’s her name?”
The woman shrugged. “Yes; mine’s Aurelle, by the way.”
“Lizeth.” There wasn’t too much time for introductions, but it was nice to know who she was talking to. “If that’s Velora, then I guess I need to speak with her.”
Aurelle turned her head to regard this stranger. “You can’t really do that when she’s a wolf.”
“I know,” the former medic responded, letting the bluefire surround her palm. “And she knows it too, or this would be a lot more dangerous.” Slowly, she advanced toward the hostile wolf.
Velora spread her paws, sustaining her growl, but she did not strike as Lizeth inched closer and closer. Carefully, she reached out her hand to just barely brush the top of Velora’s head. The growling ceased, and Lizeth felt the wolf nudge her head perfectly into her palm. She heard Aurelle gasp as the thin wisps of bluefire seemed to split the wolf’s fur down the back like a zipper, spreading down the sides and leaving behind clothing and human skin. When it reached the soles of her boots, Velora stood on her own two feet with a gasp.
“Thank you,” she whispered to Lizeth.
“There is no time,” Lizeth replied. “You must go to the throne room at once; Jade is there, she will explain everything.”
Aurelle brightened at the name. “Jade? Then Beren’s claimed the throne again, she’s an Angel once more!”
Lizeth nodded as Velora stalked away. “She is, but Troy is still a threat. We are working on a way to stop him, but for that, she needs certain people.”
“People like whom?” Aurelle’s excitement burst out of her hands in the form of tiny blue butterflies. “It depends on their Gift—I’m assuming yours is illusions?”
Aurelle nodded, waving her hand and creating a replica of Lizeth’s face in the air. “Yes, it is.”
Lizeth shook her head. “You might be able to—except, I think it more has to do with ones who have been directly affected by Troy. He didn’t happen to directly alter your Gift at all, did he?”
Aurelle shook her head. “Directly? No; but some of the others...”
“Denahlia’s already inside,” Lizeth confirmed, “and Javira promised to get her brother. I don’t know of anyone else except—“
A powerful roar interrupted the two women. Aurelle peeked out from under the arch. “Erlis!” She cried. “She’s been hurt!”
Lizeth set her face grimly. “I can get to her; my Gift will protect me from the Phoenix. You just figure out a way to keep him from landing on the castle!”
Aurelle grinned. “I know just the thing!” She turned and dashed up the staircase behind her as Lizeth dashed back into the courtyard, toward the giant red dragon.
Javira couldn’t find her brother in the fight, so she reached out with her empathy.
“Kaidan, where are you?”
“Javira!” She felt his voice rather than heard it. “Come this way!” She sensed the direction he indicated and followed his lead.
Around the far side of the castle were the stables. Javira almost sighed with relief when Kaidan beckoned to her from the shadows.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Kaidan shrugged, his lips pursing in a frown. “My Gift isn’t exactly useful in a battle, Sister.”
A smile played about her lips. “It might be more useful than you think,” she mused.
Kaidan peered at her. “How? I haven’t seen Zayra since I restored her memories; what more can I do to return us to Troy’s favor?”
Javira blinked. Of course Kaidan didn’t know what had passed in the castle.
“Kaidan, listen to me: Troy is our enemy.”
He all but scowled at her. “How dare you say such a thing! Troy is our best chance at regaining the throne and the crown—“
“Beren has already claimed his inheritance,” Javira informed him. “It is not ours to take.”
Kaidan glared at his sister. “Who are you and what have you done with my sister Javira?”
“Kaidan, I asked you to listen!” Javira’s agitation became plain as tree roots curled between the stones in the floor. “Troy has been lying to us the whole time. Jade told me the truth—“
“Jade? Who is Jade?”
“Troy’s Sister he spoke of, don’t you remember? The Angel?” Javira took her brother’s hand. “Troy wants to destroy the Realm. He only knows chaos and disorder. He would never allow us to reign, no matter what promises he makes to convince us to let him take charge. We would always be under his control—“
Kaidan pulled away from Javira, even as their empathetic bond confirmed how ardently she believed what she was saying. “Isn’t this exactly what I have been saying all along, Javira?” He mumbled, pacing away from her. “We can trust no one but ourselves.”
“I trust Jade!” Javira staunchly declared. “I have seen the way Troy works, and I agree he must be stopped, and furthermore I am willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that.”
Kaidan wagged his head. “Even taking orders from a strange being we hardly even know?”
Javira sighed, toying with a lock of her deep-red hair. “We must face the reality that we are no longer going to be able to control the outcome of things,” she admitted at last. “Life is no longer in our favor all the time—but we can deal with it normally, can’t we?” She stepped forward. “Kaidan, please! If you trust nothing else… at least trust me?”
The young man sighed. “Very well,” he admitted. “I trust you, Javira.”
She smiled. “Excellent! Now I will return to the fight to keep Troy at bay, and you must go to the throne room; the others are there, and they need your help.”
Kaidan stiffened. “What others?”
“Just go!” Javira waved him off, and stepped out from the stables with her hands splayed. Tree roots thrashed and grew, winding around unsuspecting victims and holding them tightly.
On the other side of the courtyard, Beren kept any renegade soldiers he found at bay with sprays of water from his hands.
“Azelie?” he thought.
“I am here, your Highness,” she responded immediately.
“And where might that be?”
“I’m afraid to say,” her response came after a pause. “Korsan is with me, and he cautions not to give away my location, in case Troy has any of his associates listening in.”
The young king nodded. “That is wise counsel. Don’t give away your position, but wherever you are, make your way down to the throne room. Jade needs our help.”
“I will do whatever you ask, your Majesty.”
Beren frowned as he returned his focus to the battle at hand. It seemed that most of the soldiers were overpowered or scattered. All that remained were those loyal to him, and everyone focused on keeping Troy and Damaris from landing anywhere. The Shadow didn’t seem to mind, content with blasting the castle with fireballs and taunting them all from the air.
Suddenly, from the forest beside the castle, a second dragon arose, roaring furiously and zinging between the Phoenix and Erlis the Dragon. Beren watched Erlis land, as this dragon assumed the same motions and defensive flight patterns she had engaged in, zig-zagging to and fro, keeping Damaris at bay. He saw Lizeth dash forward, and with a touch of her bluefire, the dragon-scales melted right off and Erlis could be human again.
“Azelie?” he thought as he crouched in the darkness. “Where did this new dragon come from?”
“New dragon, sire? There isn’t—“ her voice cut off, and Beren saw something flicker over the dragon, a twist of the light or something. “Oh! I do believe our friends are engaging in a diversion!”
Beren glanced up as a burst of flame shot from the east Tower window. He smiled. “Tell Korsan and Aurelle thank you for me,” he said.
“Oh my!” Troy crowed from Damaris’ back. “Looks like I’m not making much headway at all!” he cackled and jerked the Phoenix into an alternating pattern, while the dragon defending the courtyard matched his movements exactly—almost as if reflecting Damaris like a mirror.
Troy scowled. “You won’t be able to hide in there for long!” he shouted, waving over his shoulder. “Let’s see how you fare against more of the UnGifted!”
Beren stiffened as the sounds of shouting and the heavy thuds of battering rams shook the portcullis gates.
“Azelie, what is it?”
The young Paragon’s answer came faint and hesitant. “I fear Troy has used some of the undiscovered Gifted to recruit the villagers from all over the Realm. Please conceal yourself somewhere safe, King Beren! You will soon have a mob on your hands!”
“Tell Jade that whatever idea she has of stopping Troy, she had better do it now!”
He braced himself at the back of the courtyard as the massive gate at the entrance splintered, and a flood of angry people poured out into the courtyard of the White Castle.
This is the penultimate installment of the Clan of Outcasts series, and the final installment of the A to Z Challenge series. Stay tuned for the final installment, coming next week! Meanwhile, you can read most of the whole series by following the hyperlinked text, as well as the continuations that have occurred in this series, most notably Letter D and Letter J below!
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of Suggestion Box installments)