|This week's most-nominated character:Captain Edri Rodan, "The Lion"|
Season 2, Part 5
Jaran clenched his fist as the blue lightning crackled around it. Every thump on the wooden surface of the door left a black, singed imprint.
"Beren!" He yelled. He heard his brother scream, heard Zayra proclaim herself queen—
Jaran stumbled back down the hall as he felt her influence buzzing around his ears. Clearly she resented him for the pain he'd caused—but how could he have known? Now his brother was in mortal danger; he could only hope that the Angel had somehow managed to save his brother.
Jaran dashed down the hall. He couldn't do this alone.
"Azelie!" He called.
The fair maiden emerged from the doorway leading to the back courtyard.
"I am here," said her thoughts. "What happened? Where is the King?"
High in the west tower, the door slammed open and Queen Zayra descended. They could hear voices, a lot of shouting—but none was clear enough.
"Zayra," Jaran whispered. "She..."
He couldn't quite form the words, but Azelie read his mind. She gasped. "She killed him?"
Jaran hung his head. "No, at least I hope not. I don't know."
The young woman shook her head. "She is completely insane."
Jaran heard somebody scream in the atrium. "What was that?"
Azelie pursed her silent lips. "I've been trying to find out, but there are too many voices, and some of them have changed. It sounds like Edri is trying to—" she stopped and gasped. "Erlis is free!"
"Free?" Echoed Jaran aloud. "You mean she isn't a dragon anymore?" He turned toward the doorway, but Azelie grabbed his hand. "No! Don't go out there, it's not safe!"
Jaran pulled away just as a series of explosions rocked the ground beneath them. Part of the wall before them collapsed, and he glimpsed a few bodies flying through the air like the toys of some giant child. A bright light filled the space—Jaran knew it could only come from Aurelle—and then there seemed to be a lot of shouting.
"AFTER THEM!" Zayra shrieked. "FIND THEM!"
A wolf howl sent the chills racing down Jaran's spine, and then the castle lay eerily still.
Queen Zayra gave an order, and the scuffling steps of servants rushed to obey, but around the young man and young woman standing absolutely still in the back room, the dust settled and nothing else moved.
We need to leave, Jaran thought.
"That is a wise choice, I think," Azelie's voice responded in his head.
Jaran turned, and his foot scraped against the floor as his shoulder brushed a few pebbles from the crumbled wall.
"What was that?" Queen Zayra's voice came sharply from the next room.
Jaran quickly scuttled toward Azelie and the two friends slipped behind the door leading to the east tower just as servants entered the back room along with soldiers to move the rubble.
"I don't get it," Jaran wagged his head. "How could they just follow her like that? I mean, everybody saw my brother's coronation, didn't they?"
Azelie watched him. "Do you remember how it felt when she sent you out of the room?" She asked.
Jaran nodded. "It was like my body just went numb, and it was just something I was going to do anyway."
"That is her Gift," Azelie stated. "She can enthrall people into doing what she wants, and she can even manipulate reality in small ways when she is sufficiently motivated." The pretty girl shrugged. "She is the reason I lost the ability to speak. She ordered me to stop talking, and I haven't been able to utter a sound since."
Jaran slumped against the wall in the dark, narrow stairwell. "How can we stop someone so powerful?"
"Jaran?" Korsan's voice resounded from above.
Jaran and Azelie looked up at the two familiar faces on the landing above them.
"Korsan!" Jaran raced up the steps. Aurelle stood just behind the old Mage. "But you were in there," Jaran gestured back toward the main hall. "How did you get back here?"
Aurelle smiled. "I turned us both invisible in the flash, and we snuck back here."
Korsan nodded. "We both knew that being outside the castle wasn't safe because that would be the first place Zayra would search for us, and we couldn't get far—I'm still pretty weak from the dragon's claws." He reached down and fumbled at his belt. Horror spread across his features as he looked down. "Blast!"
"What is it?" Aurelle asked.
"My talisman," Korsan answered, "it's gone!"
"What do you use it for, anyway?" Asked Jaran. "I see you holding it from time to time, but I never understood why."
Korsan slumped into a nearby chair. "It serves as a reservoir of magic so I can cast spells without taxing myself. It also protects me from being harmed by other Gifts."
Aurelle watched him. "That's why you could still recover after being injured so badly by Erlis."
Korsan nodded. "I don't know where it could have gone," he said.
"It might still be here in the castle," Azelie offered.
The Mage stared at the young woman. "I wondered why you didn't speak..." he murmured slowly.
Aurelle sighed and glanced toward the door. "It must have come off when we were trying to escape Troy."
"Who is Troy?" Jaran tipped his head.
The Illusionist shivered. "He calls himself an Abnormal, and Gifts don't really affect him. He's the one who has been messing with our Gifts—causing the surges."
"That was him?" Jaran's eyes widened; didn't the Angel in Beren's room claim to be an Abnormal as well? Were they possibly related somehow? "But why would he do that?"
Korsan stroked his beard. "He claims that he is only allowing Gifted people to achieve their full potential—"
"But at the same time," Aurelle interjected, "his surge in Edri turned poor Velora into an actual wolf." She scoffed, "He doesn't seem to care about that like we do. And he's got Zayra's trust, so that tells you how dangerous things are going to get for us."
Jaran huffed and began pacing. "We have to find Beren, make sure he's okay."
"Where did you last see the King?" Korsan asked.
Jaran's face fell. "After the coronation, Zayra surprised us. She forced me out of the room—Jade was there—"
"I'm sorry," The Mage interrupted. "Jade?"
"She's the other Abnormal," Jaran explained. "Remember when we first met my brother, when he had no memories and this fairy companion named Jay? Yeah, apparently this Troy person cursed her to be tiny like that unless she could bring the Crown Prince, my brother, back to sit on his throne. So now she is human-size again."
Korsan nodded slowly. "So Jade was with your brother when Zayra expelled you from the room?"
"Yes," Jaran replied.
"Then perhaps we can hope that she managed to protect the King; she has certainly managed to do that so far."
"But what do we do now?" Jaran demanded.
Before anyone could reply, the door to the tower opened.
"What's this?" The sergeant cried. "All of you stay where you are! Nobody move!"
He had a line of sight on Korsan and Jaran standing at the top of the stairs, but Aurelle moved only slightly. She gripped Azelie's hand and faded into the wall behind them.
The Mage and the prince stood helplessly as more soldiers stormed up and grabbed their wrists to drag them back into the open. No one noticed the two ghostly forms drifting along behind them all the way to the throne room. Twenty servants crouched under a thrall so thick, Jaran could practically see it; they did nothing but scrub at the layer of soot coating the stone, scrub till the marble showed underneath, scrub till their hands were raw and bleeding.
Upon the blackened throne, a young woman in a pale dress sat, his brother's crown upon her head.
"What have we here?" Her eyes lit up when she saw the prisoners.
"We found these two hiding in the east tower, your highness," said the sergeant. He shoved Jaran roughly in the shoulder. "Kneel before the queen!"
"No!" Jaran grunted. "Rather, it is she who should kneel before me!"
Queen Zayra pinched her lips at his response. "The man said kneel, boy!" She rose to her feet; the soot did not so much as stain her dress. "Kneel before me!"
It happened again; his mind blanked, and before he could focus enough to think, Jaran was already kneeling. Korsan dropped to his knees beside the prince.
"I cannot resist without the talisman," hissed the Mage. "My only consolation is that she may have my body, but in my mind, I am bowing to the True King of the Realm, King Beren."
Jaran tried to use his mind to convince his body to stand, but it was no use.
Above them, the Queen gloated. "Ah, Troy was right! Power feels good. I amass an army of souls, Gifted and unGifted, all mine to command." She sat upon her throne. "And now with a prince and a wizard at my side, there is no one in the Realm who can stop me!" She laughed heartily, setting the vaulted ceilings ringing with the sound that chilled Jaran to his core.
It was the sound of madness, all-powerful and unleashed.
Kaidan watched the stranger very closely, but though Troy met his gaze with twinkling, black eyes, there was something unnerving and incorporeal about his features.
Beside him, the Hunter tensed. "What do you mean, achieve our full potential?" She hissed, her hand gripping the hilt of the knife on her hip.
Kaidan leaned forward. "I'm more interested in how you propose to garner all that prestige and power. How would you know what we deserve?"
Troy grinned. "I know, dear boy, because I experienced it once. A long time ago, Gifted humans were revered as deities. Myths portrayed them as the children of gods, and legends extolled their every accomplishment as a genuine miracle for generations!" A sneer flickered across his face. "Then technology came, and the unGifted could suddenly make machines to mimic what the Gifted could do, and suddenly the people didn't NEED gods anymore."
Javira remained upright, a sharp contrast to her brother currently leaning over the table with a hungry gleam in his eye, drinking in every whispered syllable Troy uttered. "So why should we presume to undo this progress society has made? Isn't it just a thankless cry for attention?"
Troy transferred his attention to her. "Tell me," he whispered, "are you truly happy with the Gift you wield? Knowing that it was never intended to be yours anyway, knowing that your own Gift could have been the thing that saved your mother, instead of causing her death? Are you happy, Javira, that this Gift, forced upon you by your father, motivated your mother to kill your father and herself? Are you content with influencing the death of those you love?"
Javira opened her mouth to speak, but the grief gripped her throat as the tears trickled down her cheeks. "I didn't..." she stammered pitifully. "It wasn't me!"
Troy smiled. "But think about it, my dear: it couldn't possibly have been anyone else."
"ENOUGH!" Denahlia roared, slamming the knife blade-first into the table.
The spell was broken. Javira felt Kaidan's arms around her as she sobbed and tried to regain composure.
The Hunter glared at the cocksure Shadow. "No more games, Troy. Either you tell us what you are really up to, or I will run you through again—only this time, I cut you into little pieces so you can't come back again!"
Troy leaned back and raised his black-gloved hand. "Whoa, now; there's no need for such extreme measures, Madame Hunter. I am fully prepared to guarantee everything I am offering. This is no game."
Kaidan viewed the man with slightly less awe, after what he had just done to Javira, but the guarantee sounded nice. "So what would you offer?" He asked. "What is this utopian future you think you can guarantee?"
Troy folded his hands. "I'm offering the chance for Gifted people to rise up and take power."
"In the Realm?" Denahlia snorted. "They already have power. Balwyn's whole family was Gifted, and now under King Beren, they are no longer outcasts."
Troy shook his head. "I'm not talking about merely being accepted by unGifted as functioning members of society. We are Gifted; we should be masters over the rest of our race!"
Kaidan felt the thrill at his words. Masters! Unstoppable!
Denahlia snorted. "And you are the only one who can make it so?" She sneered.
Troy shrugged. "Consider the upgrades I've given you; do you honestly think you could have done that by yourself?"
Denahlia hesitated, but Troy went right on talking. "And it might interest you to know that King Beren isn't on the throne."
Denahlia frowned. "He isn't? But I saw the proclamation announcing his coronation just yesterday."
Troy smiled. "I paid a visit to the palace, myself. I tried offering the same things to the others, but unfortunately my idiot sister was there, and she spirited the young king away to who-knows-where. The only person to take me up on the offer was that marvelous little Queen you have locked up in there."
"Zayra?" Javira cried.
Denahlia rolled her eyes. "You gave an upgrade to Zayra?" This could not end well.
Troy shrugged. "Like I said, she was the only one to agree with me. Jade had already sunk her impeccable claws into the minds of everyone else there."
Kaidan blinked. "But if Zayra is now in charge..." he trailed off as the inspiration leached over into his sister.
Javira smiled. "We've had her once; we can get her again."
Troy grinned. "And the Gifted shall inherit the earth, and all dominion shall be given over to them," he quoted.
Javira frowned. "But there are so many unGifted," she said. "Surely they would not take very well to someone asserting control over them."
Troy shrugged. "That's where Gifts like thrall come in handy. I would say get rid of them all and create a society of only Gifted people, but as matters stand, unGifted are suited for servitude, menial labor, and little else. Every ruler needs their lackeys, and we'll have plenty of rulers to go around!" He threw back his head and laughed.
"You forget, Shadow."
The laughter died in his throat when he felt the cold edge of a knife on his neck.
Denahlia, her turquoise-colored, hypnotic gaze glowing next to him, whispered savagely in his ear.
"I have seen and felt what it is to have so much power that you depend on someone else to give you orders." She swept her gaze around the room, igniting a turquoise gleam in many more pairs of eyes. A group of burly seamen drifted forward and surrounded the Twins.
"It's called being a mercenary, and you want to know something funny about mercenaries? We hate being on a contract." She pressed the blade closer and deeper with every utterance of the word. "We hate abiding by someone else's rules, whether we get paid or sent away with the bullshit line about keeping our lives." A nod from her, and the pirates grabbed the two siblings. Troy still wouldn't dare to move, even as the blood beaded around the blade now puncturing his skin.
"And we really don't take kindly at being called somebody's lackey." She brought the knife down hard, aiming for Troy's chest, but the knife connected with the back of the chair he had been sitting in. Troy himself vanished.
Scowling but not venting her frustration, Denahlia sheathed her knife and gestured to every unGifted person in the tavern. They all gathered around her.
"Javira!" Kaidan hissed. "Do something!"
"I'm trying!" She whispered back. "Whatever she's done to them, they won't respond to me!"
"Shut up!" Denahlia barked. "This Hunter is calling her own mission this time! You two are headed back to the palace dungeons where you imprisoned so many others, and we'll just see how much power the Gifted ones have when the entire population of unGifted are unleashed upon them!"
Jade carefully drew her wings close about her as they crested yet another dune in their trek toward the forest. She glanced at Beren, marching stolidly next to her, but his face had solidified into a permanent frown as his mind focused on something else besides their endless walk. At least, she hoped he was thinking about something else right now, and not about the last time he had been with her in the wilderness, heading toward the forest. The guilt hit her again as she remembered how furious he had been, taking her actions as betrayal simply because he lacked the memory to know how necessary it was to do what she did. Now here they were, wandering the wilderness yet again, ostensibly no closer now than they had been before he got his memories back.
The words came out before she considered them. "I'm sorry."
Beren blinked away from his thoughts and glanced at her. "Hm, what?"
Jade sighed and ran her finger along the edge of her wingfeathers. "I was just thinking of how much trouble I've caused, all for the sake of what I thought was right--all the lies and half-truths, when I thought I couldn't reveal who you really were. I'm sorry for not telling you the truth sooner."
Beren sighed; his face held slightly less anger now when she knew he was recalling those moments. This made her wonder what he had been so frustrated at just moments before.
"I forgive you, Jade," Beren said softly. "Like you said, you were doing what you thought was right, and looking back on it now, I can agree that it probably was. Neither of us could have predicted what happened to us along the way." His eyes drifted to the healer walking calmly ahead of them, recalling how she had been the first person to meet him upon his return to the realm he was meant to rule. "All the friends we've made--"
"And enemies uncovered," Jade added wryly, thinking of Troy and the havoc he had only begun to cause among the Gifted population.
"That too," Beren agreed with a nod. He glanced at Jade--more specifically, at her wings. "If you don't mind my asking, how exactly was your brother able to shrink you like that, and make it so that you would not be able to change size till I had reclaimed my father's throne?"
Jade shrugged. "To be honest, I never expected him to do something like that, either. One moment we were talking, and the next, I was small enough for him to hold in his hand. Perhaps he gets the ability from the same source as his power to manipulate Gifts." She shook her head. "I'm his sister, and I don't even know. All I do know is that he should not have escaped, and his campaign of corruption is my responsibility, and as such it is my duty to see that he is stopped."
Beren stopped and peered at the Angel closely. "Escaped from where?" he asked. "Where did you two come from? How is it your responsibility?"
Jade instinctively wrapped her arms and her wings around Beren as a jet of fire blasted toward them, and the warning came too late.
Once the danger had passed, Beren shoved the feathers out of his way as he stormed toward the young fire-starter.
"What do you think you're doing?" he screamed in Damaris' face.
The boy cringed before the enraged man. "I'm sorry! I was just holding the talisman and I felt the fireball building up in my other hand, and it's normally not that large and I totally wasn't expecting it to do that, I wasn't aiming for you on purpose, I swear--"
"Damaris," Jade came up behind Beren and laid a hand on the boy's arm. "It's all right, calm down."
Damaris heaved a shuddering sigh and his chin trembled as he tried not to burst into tears. He held up the talisman. "This thing is really powerful. I can't help feeling that Korsan is in mortal danger every moment that he doesn't have it."
Jade nodded. "I know; we're going the safest route I know. We don't want to take the normal paths because unfortunately those would take us right into danger and it would take even longer to be in any capacity to return his talisman safely, without it falling into the wrong hands."
Erlis joined the group. "I think we've been walking far enough for one day," she said. "We should rest for a bit before continuing." She pointed to a concave wall that served as a decent shelter against the elements. "That looks like a good place."
When they were all seated, Damaris handed the talisman to Erlis and attempted to start a fire for their little camp. The ensuing fireball required Beren to quench more than half of it to get it down small enough to be useful, but no one voiced any resentment. Erlis even shared a recollection in an attempt to console him.
"You remind me of a young assistant who used to help me in the palace apothecary," she mused. "She could produce a blue flame in her hands that was perfect for brewing the most delicate medicines, though she was often frustrated that it was good for little else." She smiled. "Now there was someone who had a bit too much control over her flame. She was always afraid to let it grow any bigger than the small ones."
"Hmph," Damaris grunted. "I had hoped Korsan would teach me how to control the flame, but everything happened too fast for him to have any time. So now I'm a danger to everyone around me." Unlucky! crowed the voice from his past. "I've always been unlucky," he mourned aloud.
Erlis grasped his hand, her dragon-scales protecting her from the small gouts of flame dancing on his skin. "I am sure if we make it at least as far as the harbor, we can find this woman, and she can train you."
Damaris raised hopeful eyes to the woman beside him. "You really think she could?"
The healer nodded. "Absolutely." She glanced over at the King and the Angel. "As long as the others don't mind a small detour."
Beren prodded the fire with a stick. "I guess I wouldn't mind seeing just how many Gifted people there are in the Realm, if I am ever going to take my place to rule over them."
Jade smiled. "That, I think, is also the key to making sure my brother cannot damage the Realm too deeply. He wants to separate the people and keep them weak and dependent on villains like him; the best way to combat that is for us all to band together and unify of our own accord."
Erlis offered her other hand to Beren. "Troy made a lofty speech about Gifted people reaching their true potential--I say we show him what the Outcasts are truly capable of!"
Beren took her hand and smiled. They would stand together on this, no matter what.
Edri could feel the tension building as they delved deeper into the forest. The alpha wolf--Velora--darted through the undergrowth ahead of them, her powerful senses combing the area as she raced forward. Abruptly, she stopped.
"What is it?" Edri pushed forward.
Velora immediately turned and snarled at her, not relenting until Edri stopped at a respectful distance and waited for the wolf to move.
The leaves bore traces of blood. Velora whined and scraped at the ground the rough symbol of a crown. The blood belonged to King Beren, then--but how had he survived such a fall from the castle tower?
"King Beren?" Justin grunted behind her. "I thought we were supposed to find the Mage and his illusionist friend."
"I know!" Edri snarled. "But if there's one thing I also know about these Outcasts, it is that they tend to band together. Find one, and others aren't usually far away."
Justin scuffed his boot on the ground. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else but right there, but at the same time, a certain compulsion kept him from just walking away. Velora let out a sustained growl, but continued tracking the scents deeper into the forest.
Edri knew the conflict Justin felt because she battled it, herself. There was her natural compulsion to do the right thing, to defend the innocent from injustice--but that was steadily being overridden by Queen Zayra's thrall, disguised as her fierce loyalty to "a soldier's duty."
She glanced at Justin. "I've wondered, since the last time we talked," she began.
He snorted. "You mean the time you took a lion's claw to the face for the sake of a man who could make flowers?"
The resentment built inside her. Edri returned to her soldier's training to squelch it back down again. "Yes; if you knew I was Gifted, all that time ago--"
Justin smirked. "Yeah, I knew."
"Why didn't you turn me in, then?"
Justin stopped and faced Edri. She half-expected some kind of noble struggle, about knowing what was right and wanting to do things for the benefit of the Realm.
"Honestly?" Justin retorted. "I knew that the moment I turned you in, I would never see you again."
Edri squinted and frowned. "What do you mean?"
Justin rolled his eyes. "I like you, Edri Rodan! There, I said it," he threw up his hands. "I didn't understand what these Gifts were, or why it was such a crime to have them if at least some people were harmless and others did good things with their Gifts, but I knew that the minute I reported what I knew about you, possibly both of us could end up dead." He snorted and wagged his head. "And now look at us, wandering through the woods and beholden to a lunatic queen who should have been Outcast a long time ago--"
"Shhh!" Edri froze in her tracks as alarm bells triggered in her intuition. It was far too dark in this part of the forest, far too quiet. She couldn't see anything--not even Velora, though she could still hear the panting somewhere in front of her.
"Velora?" she whispered.
The panting continued, overlaid by a long, sustained growl. The bushes rustled all around them, and Edri realized something was very wrong.
"AMBUSH!" she screamed, and the whole forest came alive with fur and teeth and claws.
Velora howled as her pack descended on the pair. Justin used his telekinesis to keep the beasts at bay, creating a bubble around himself, taking down the pack by snapping bones and throwing the wolves against the trees.
Edri depended on her armor to protect her, struggling to get the metal plates into the snapping jaws whenever she could. Her heart accelerated in her chest. She found it harder to breathe as shadows danced in front of her eyes. Desperately she fought on, but she knew it would only be a matter of time before one of the wolves got the better of her. Sure enough, the keen sting of a claw found its way into her unprotected side, ripping it open. Edri went down with a cry--but as her hands connected with the ground, she felt something twitch inside her, like slipping into another suit of chain mail. Her senses dilated, a new strength filtered into her muscles, and with one last painful wrench, Edri knew she had become something else. She opened her mouth to scream in Velora's face, but the sound that came out was a roar of such magnitude that it sent the wolf pack practically tumbling over themselves to get away. She saw Justin staring at her in horror, his back pressed against a tree where the pack had cornered him.
"Edri?" he whispered hollowly.
She looked down at her hands and saw the massive paws of a lion. Fierce, loyal, and impenetrably strong, she had become the thing she had so long contained inside. Edri turned on Velora; as an alpha wolf she had been very much a threat to the two humans, but now that one of the humans was a fully-grown lion, the alpha wolf looked small and vulnerable.
Edri didn't doubt that Velora knew this. The she-wolf crouched before the king-of-beasts, whimpering softly. Edri raised a paw to send the pup flying across the forest in retaliation for the ambush. Velora barked once.
A second wave of wolves, nearly as large as the first, leaped out of the bushes where they had waited while Justin and Edri slaughtered their pack-mates. Edri wasn't entirely sure of her new lion form, so when these efficient creatures attacked this time, she could not defend against their speed and agility. Jaws and claws ripped into her sides and flanks. Edri could crush a few spines and swipe at the wolves heading for her soft throat, but all too soon, her world spun and her vision went black as all sound faded.
A stiffness and a piercing, burning sensation jerked Edri back to wakefulness. She tried to moan, but the sound didn't come from a human voice. She was still a lion, then. A woman crouched next to her. Edri could smell her, though her eyes refused to focus. One thing she did notice, though it didn't make much sense as she drifted back into unconsciousness: the woman seemed to be tending Edri's wounds with her bare hands, spreading a poultice over each and then cauterizing it with a blue flame cradled in her palm...