She frowned and hovered her hand over the open palm of the Prince sitting beside her. He opened his hand, and a delicate splay of lightning bolts rose from his skin to crackle over hers. She felt the energy humming, and she closed her eyes with a soft moan. At least she still had this one thing.
He heard her voice in his mind, very faintly behind the pain Zayra inflicted just now, the pain of pulling something out of him that he should have been able to control. At least she wasn't dragging it all out of him at once anymore, but he would rather—
"Oh good, you're still here."
It's not as if I had a choice.
"Jaran, I'm sorry we couldn't rescue you earlier, but her focus on you was too strong. Now, though, she ignores you as long as you pulse and give her what she needs. She has other things on her mind."
So when is it going to happen? Just say the word and I will bolt! Haha, get it? Bolt as in lightning?
As he thought of it, Jaran released a stronger pulse than the ones Zayra had been pulling, and it slammed into her with too much force.
"Ow!" She cried, thwacking him with the back of her hand. "Naughty prince! Don't do that!"
Jaran allowed himself the smallest flicker of a smile as he sat perfectly still, not betraying for an instant that he was telepathically talking to someone.
Azelie sent laughter through his head. "That was clever," she said, "but I am afraid since she is actively tethered to you, we are going to have to be more subtle to break her thrall. I will work on the connection from here, bit by bit, and I will let you know when it is small enough to free you."
Jaran winced as Zayra once again forced a flare out of him.
Just hurry, he thought.
In the south tower, Azelie glanced over at Korsan. The man seemed positively wilted, not just from being separated from his talisman, but from having to leave the Prince in the clutches of a madwoman. She sidled closer.
"It's all right," she wanted to say, but his mind had closed off to outside influences. Her words fell flat and dull as they were not received. Azelie rubbed his shoulder, and he sighed.
"I should be more powerful than this, Azelie," Korsan mourned. "My Gift is Magic, why shouldn't I be able to use it with or without my talisman?"
"The talisman is your protection," Azelie reminded him. "Protection from influence, and also protection against being destroyed or drained by your own power."
Korsan nodded. "This is true—but without it, how can I rescue Jaran?"
She gave his arm a squeeze. "We'll find a way," she said. "At least we know Zayra won't want to kill him, since she likes the feel of drawing his Gift."
Korsan stroked his beard. "Hmm, yes; interesting how the Gift of thrall can have such an effect on the Gifts of another."
"Have you ever heard of a Gift being able to do that?"
Korsan shook his head. "No I have not. I always believed that a person's Gift was unique to them, and couldn't be stolen by anyone else. Certainly I've never considered taking or altering someone else's Gift."
Azelie caught a fluttering flash in the sky outside the window.
The old Mage raised his head. Fluttering toward the window was the glittering blue shape of his talisman, complete with the frayed cord hanging down. It seemed to fly of its own accord on a pair of golden wings.
When the talisman swooped close enough to the window, Korsan snatched it. A sharp knell like a tiny bell rang out, causing him to flinch and nearly drop the talisman.
The gold wings detached, revealing a tiny golden figure darting to and fro above their heads.
"What—Jade?" Korsan gasped, as Azelie squeaked and ducked behind him. "What happened? Who did this to you?"
Jade, in fairy form, hovered in front of him, chiming slowly in her light, bell language.
The Mage shook his head. "I don't know what she's saying when she's in this form."
"Let me try," suggested Azelie. She held out her hand, and Jade landed on it. The tiny fairy repeated her message, and Azelie watched her closely, trying to focus her intent on the small area of Jade's face.
"Something about Beren and Erlis," she said. "Something destroyed... no, sorry, Troy—oh, but Troy destroyed... Fire? You mean Damaris?" She gasped.
Korsan wagged his head. "What's the boy done now?"
Azelie' chin trembled as the message came through. "He... I can't get all of it, but it sounds like he was setting fire to a building, and it collapsed on top of him!"
"A building? Did he survive?"
Jade attempted to answer, but Azelie shook her head. "I can't tell."
Korsan gripped his talisman tight in his hand, feeling the power coursing through him. "It's time to stop Zayra before this situation gets any worse!"
Jade jangled in response, and Azelie tried to pick up what she said. "I'm sorry," she thought, "I don't—"
Jade flew to the window and circled several times.
Korsan and Azelie joined her as a massive figure sailed toward he castle.
"It's Erlis!" Azelie's telepathic voice rang in Korsan's ear.
The dragon commenced a dive in preparation for landing, skimming right past the tower.
"I see Beren on her back!" Korsan cried. "The Rightful King has returned!"
The Mage and the Paragon raced for the door of the tower, brimming with confidence that Zayra couldn't defy the true king for long.
In the hallway between the atrium and the south tower, Korsan and Azelie met Aurelle, running toward the south tower with grave news written on her face.
"Oh, Korsan!" She gasped. "I'm glad I found you!" She glanced at the blue flare dangling from his belt. "Your talisman! It's back!"
"Aurelle, did you see?" Korsan beckoned her along with them. "Erlis has returned, with Beren!"
Aurelle shook her head. "I am glad he has come; this castle has been left in the hands of fools for too long." She glanced over her shoulder. "We have a problem."
"What is it?"
"Zayra has ordered the Hunter to find some Lion or some such—"
"Ah, that would be Edri," Korsan nodded.
"And when she forced me to show her the Lion, she must have seen something else because she ran off after saying something about 'blue fire', and the next thing I know, a whole detachment of Hunters is headed for the forest!"
"Why is this a problem?" Azelie thought. "Edri wasn't altogether a friend to us."
Aurelle rolled her eyes. "Believe me, I know. But I am concerned for Velora. She and Justin went out under Zayra's thrall, but they haven't come back."
Korsan sought answers from the talisman, but it remained neutral. "Do you think they've managed to find a way of escape?"
Aurelle wagged her head. "I do not know, but if they're still out there, they are in mortal danger!"
The dragon's roar thundered overhead, coming right next to the castle. By the sound of it, Beren had probably landed in the wide courtyard.
"Zayra!" He shouted, his voice coming faintly after the incredible bellow. "Come out! You have no right to sit on that throne, and I will brook no disobedience here!"
The trio peeked cautiously out the window. Beren stood on the ground next to Erlis, and Zayra herself emerged, leading Jaran behind her on a thin, glittering chain.
"Thank you for bringing my dragon to me," Zayra announced, eliciting a growl from Erlis. "I believe I have something of yours as well." She stopped, allowing Jaran to shuffle next to her.
Baran stood firm. "Unhand my brother," he snarled.
Zayra held up her end of the chain. "What, this? Why would I do a thing like that when he gives me this?" She opened her free hand, and a glittering blue arc snaked from Jaran's arm, down the chain, and onto Zayra's arm. She giggled at the blue mass on her hand.
"Isn't it pretty?" She asked with fiendish glee.
"Hello? Anybody there?" Kaidan put his last ounce of energy into it.
Javira slumped back against the dingy, rotten cot on the floor.
"I don't understand," she whined. "We were betrayed by the Hunter, abandoned by Troy—and now we are prisoners in our own dungeon?"
Kaidan rattled the bars again. "If there were any people nearby to thrall, that would be something; but it seems that Denahlia has even thought of this, and she has warned people away."
"Great!" Javira threw up her hands, "now even our Gifts are useless!"
Kaidan gave the bars an extra shake and began prowling the vicinity of the cage. "Oh come! Plenty of unGifted prisoners have escaped royal dungeons. There must be some way out!"
Javira studiously refused to move until Kaidan yanked the cot from behind her.
"Hey!" She cried, scrambling to her feet.
Kaidan ignored her, his attention absorbed by a small scrap of fabric left behind on the floor. The pattern reminded him of something... what was it?
He lifted the piece of fabric. From somewhere, a distant memory coalesced in his mind, of seeing those embroidered flowers up close, of the gentle hand they covered holding his own...
"GAH!" Kaidan cried out as a huge weight crashed over his shoulders. His vision spun to behold something like a memory--but those were his parents, talking together! If this was a memory, it wasn't his.
There sat Habram Clissander, arms folded as he scowled across the table. Veransa Clissander scowled right back, the corners of her flower-embroidered shawl gripped tightly in her hands.
"What were you doing in there, Habram?" she asked guardedly.
Habram wagged his head. "Just bidding the children goodnight. A father is allowed to treat his offspring thus, isn't he?"
Veransa didn't back down. "You did something, I know you did! They were crying, Habram! What part of 'goodnight' includes making your children cry out in fear?"
"I did nothing!" Habram pounded the table with his fist. "Stop fussing over your own ideas, woman!"
"Tell me what you did!"
"Come, Veransa," Habram sat back as his voice grew silky-soft, as warm and inviting as a new blanket. "Why can't you just let things be? There is nothing you need to worry about. Take my hand."
Veransa clenched her fist on the table. "I'm done doing what you say, Habram," she declared. "In fact, I've decided not to take that position at the palace. I'll find some means of making money here in the city."
Habram choked, but instead of anger, a boisterous laugh rang out. "You silly woman! You'd take in pennies and keep our children in poverty, all for the sake of giving yourself the illusion of choosing your own fate?" He stood and inched closer to Veransa. She froze as still as a statue, and refused to look at him. Tenderly, Habram let one of his hands slide up her shoulder and to the back of her neck. The other hand covered both her balled fists. Veransa gave a little shiver, and tears dripped down her face as Habram leaned in close.
"Now that I have your attention," he murmured softly, "I did do a little something. I gave both our children the last little part of me. You wouldn't understand, because you're unGifted, but I just couldn't bear to have children who weren't in the least like their dad. I am sure whatever Gifts they would have had were far inferior to my own Charisma. You will go to the palace, Veransa. You will take the job, and you will secure a fortune for the Clissander family. If you understand me, give me a kiss."
Veransa immediately turned and kissed her husband, just as he asked. Habram smiled. "Now, my darling," he instructed, "sleep."
His vision went black, and Kaidan revived with a powerful gasp. Javira dashed to his side. "What happened?" she asked.
Kaidan couldn't find the words to describe what he had just experienced. He held out the shawl to his sister. "Touch it!" he gasped.
Javira did, giving her brother a confused stare. "Yes? It's mother's shawl, I recognize it, but what--"
Kaidan held out his hand. "Here, let me show you."
Javira took his hand, and immediately gasped as the empathetic bond they shared communicated everything Kaidan had seen. She dropped his hand. "What a horrible, horrible man our father was!" she declared. "You're telling me you got all that from picking up the shawl?" She held the bundle of fabric in both hands, hugging it to her chest as if proximity would produce the same effect it had given to Kaidan. "How is it possible, though?"
Kaidan ran a finger over the bars of their prison, feeling the emptiness, the guilt, the indignation, and the loneliness of countless other prisoners before them. "I think," he mused slowly. "It might be my Gift."
"Really?" There was almost a whine in Javira's voice. "You've found it already? When will I find mine, then?" She turned toward the back wall of the cell and ran her fingers over the bricks. Her fingers connected with something in the cracks and she stopped. "Kaidan!" Digging her fingers between the stones, she felt the sinuous length of a tree root and pulled. The stones tugged free and dirt cascaded into the dungeon from the small hole as the root extended a good two feet out of the wall.
"Where did you find that?" Kaidan asked.
Javira continued pulling wherever she could feel the tendrils of root. "It's in the walls! There's a grove of trees nearby, remember? If we can tear down enough of this cell, we can escape!"
Kaidan poked his finger between several bricks, but only came away with dirt and a pinched fingertip. "I'm not feeling anything," he grumbled.
Javira reached her finger into the space Kaidan had just searched, and another length of root sprang out. "Keep trying," she prompted. "It's easy."
Kaidan gave one more push, then stepped away with a grin. "Javira," he chuckled. "I think we've found your Gift."
Javira stopped and blinked enthusiastically. "We have? What is it?"
Kaidan pointed to the floor. "Wave you hand over here, and imagine roots crawling up between the stones."
Javira snorted. "What would be the point of that? We want to escape through the wall, not the--" She made a waving motion with her hand.
Immediately, the ground gave a rumbling shake, sending the twins staggering apart as a whole knot of roots sprang forth, exactly where Javira indicated.
She stared wide-eyed at her brother. "Tree roots?" She spluttered. "Really?"
Kaidan shrugged. "We'll discuss fairness later. Just use the roots to break down the bars!"
Javira thrust her hands toward the cell door. The roots followed suit, stretching like a thousand senseless arms, gripping the iron tightly and pulling until the doors came apart with a clang. Javira spread her arms to pull the roots to the side, and the Clissander Twins walked out of their prison cell.
She had left Justin behind long ago. He was frightened enough of her as it was, and after what she had managed to do to Edri the full-grown lion--
Velora paused and licked her chops proudly. She was probably the first wolf in history to dare taking on a lion--she could not be more proud of her pack. The two lovers (now there was a shock!) had been so taken with each other that they never saw it coming until it was too late. Velora snarled; she hoped at some point her patrol of the forest would reveal the lion, dead where she had fallen. It would serve her right.
Velora stopped as her instincts screamed of danger. She smelled lots of humans entering the woods, along with the sharp scent of gunpowder. Hunters! Velora dove for the nearest cover and calmed her body to stay absolutely still. A pair of burly men crashed through the undergrowth about thirty paces away, but there was enough distance that neither of them even looked in Velora's direction.
The wolf slipped in, following the men's scent. She passed by a familiar tree, and recalled another time she had passed through this forest: with the Illusionist, Aurelle, when the woman had taught her to embrace the Wolf as her Gift, and use the natural instincts as an advantage. In spite of her peevishness, Velora found herself wishing that she knew where all the dispersed Outcasts had gone; it was wrong to be separated like this. They should all be together, coming forward against their oppressors and re-establishing the Gifted as recognized members of society.
She heard voices and instinctively crouched.
"I think I could," the unfamiliar, feminine voice suggested. "Not entirely, no--but there are some herbs that I know of, by which we might be able to draw your humanity out again."
Velora heard a rumbling growl, and her tail automatically went flat. Peeking from within a bush, Velora saw a lion, sitting calmly at the feet of a young woman who held herbs in her hand. Glowing blue flames emanated from her wrist, far more gentle and concentrated than Damaris' globes of golden fire. The woman cupped the herbs against the lion's nose, and the flame from her hands spread all down the massive, tawny body. The fur began to singe and wither away, and when it subsided, Edri knelt in the lion's place, wearing her armor as she had been before transforming into a lion.
A surge of envy washed over Velora. Here was someone who could reverse the transformation Edri's own foolishness had forced on her!
Edri reached out to shake the woman's hand. "Thank you, Lizzeth."
Lizzeth did not have time to reply before Velora marched out to confront her. Edri tensed, knowing full well who it was, but Lizzeth didn't seem to mind the approach of what appeared to be a wild predator.
"Well, what have we here?" She crouched to face Velora, and smiled.
"It's just a wolf," Edri snapped quickly.
"No wait," Lizzeth regarded Velora's eyes. "I believe this is someone trapped in another form, as you were."
Velora stepped forward and nudged Lizzeth's hand.
"Would you like to be human again?" Lizzeth asked.
Velora nudged again and calmly sat back, ready for the process to begin.
Instead, Edri let out a sharp whistle. Hunters poured into the clearing, armed to the teeth. Lizzeth stepped closer to Velora, as if to protect her, but Edri was already dispensing orders.
"Right, you lot! This is the Wolf we were after, and it's time to take her back to the palace for Queen Zayra."
Lizzeth tilted her head. "Queen who? I thought Balwyn had a son--"
"Yes, but he disappeared, and now Zayra is queen of the White Castle," Edri advanced toward them.
Velora wrapped her body against Lizzeth's legs and growled savagely at the captain.
Edri merely signaled with her hands, and a lasso sailed out from behind the pair and wrapped around Velora's neck, jerking her savagely backward.
"Don't hurt her!" Lizzeth cried, raising a protective hand.
"Muzzle the beast!" Edri seemed to forget that until a few moments ago, she had been a beast, herself.
Velora could snap and thrash all she wanted, but she couldn't escape the half-dozen men surrounding her. The leather muzzle slipped into place, and she could no longer defend herself. The man holding the rope still around her neck tugged it like a leash.
Edri nodded with supreme satisfaction. "Now we can return to the castle," she said to Lizzeth.
"Not so fast!" A figure in black dropped down from the trees in front of them. She tossed her short-cut magenta hair back from her face.
Lizzeth blinked. "Denahlia?"
The Hunter smirked. "Still up to your old tricks, Bluefire?" She moved to stand next to Edri. "Good work," she said. "But the Queen wants you back at the castle."
Lizzeth shook her head. "Denahlia, how can you be in league with the ones who want to usurp the throne from Balwyn's heir?"
Edri chuckled. "Are you kidding? The Twin Regents commissioned The Hunter personally to hunt down all of the Outcasts they wanted in custody. There was nobody better at the job than she was!"
"Twin Regents?" Lizzeth still frowned in confusion. "Denahlia, what happened after the Battle of Zapheira?"
Denahlia snorted, "As if you didn't know! You've been in hiding too long, Lizzeth. Me, I followed the money. King Balwyn thought he could come back and make a speech and everything would go just fine for the Gifted people? Not a chance! People were more afraid of us than ever. I went into hiding--but not like all you mice running for the deepest, darkest hole you could find! No, I found the place for me, hiding in plain sight, taking jobs where my skill," she pointed to her face to indicate her Gift, "gave me an advantage. The King died, the Royal Council took over, and then the Twin Regents took them over, and when the Gifted were branded Outcasts by the administration, I knew it was either 'join or die', so I went ahead and did whatever they asked."
Lizzeth wagged her head. "So you would betray the King who gave you such an elevated position, only to take such a low position as mercenary and bounty hunter, all for the sake of money?"
Denahlia smirked. "Not entirely. On my mission to bring in the leader of the Outcasts, I met this powerful new being, an Abnormal named Troy. He gave me all sorts of upgrades for my Gift, made me more powerful--he's trying to stop his sister Jade from suppressing the full power of the Gifts, under the guise of making us more acceptable to unGifted people."
"And is that such a wrong idea, to be accepted?" Lizzeth retorted.
Denahlia shrugged. "Being accepted is one thing we Gifted will never be, no matter how hard we try, Lizzeth. Our only option is to regain the top, and stay there. Wouldn't you rather be in charge with your power, than simply dismissed as 'normal'?"
The young woman didn't answer. Edri checked the setting sun.
"It's getting late," she said, waving to the hunters. "Let's get moving!"
Lizzeth followed them out of the forest. Velora could smell the confusion on her, but even she had to admit, the question had been a good one. What sort of position did she want in her life?
He stepped right up to the blackened boards that used to be the steps up to the front door. Out of all the Outcasts assembled here the night before, who still remained? He extended his hand, and a black tendril slipped into the cracks between the debris.
"Hello?" He whispered, as the tendril probed deeper. "Who's there? Come out, come out, whoever you are!"
The tendril felt a body, but the soul inside it had already departed. The Shadow maneuvered around the corpse and continued until he found the victim still living. Curling the tendril around the body, he slowly drew it out, toward himself, shadow-traveling it through any obstructions till he brought it to rest on the cobblestones in front of him.
"Ah, the young firebrand," Troy mused as he surveyed the loose vest and the mussy hair. "Well, this makes the third time we've crossed paths--so what do you say we make this one extra-special?" He laughed and sent a burst of energy streaking toward the boy.
The body exploded into flame, much as it had inside the building not too long ago, but the fire kept on building, while the ash-coated body remained. Troy spread his arms. "Yes, my friend! Yes!" He punched the air and even dared to dance his celebration. "Show the Realm what you really are!"
A sharp screech pierced the air, as a giant figure took shape in the flame. Sharp talons formed on the ground, and a beak in the midst of the inferno. With a huge gout of fire, two wings spread, and when it relaxed, Troy stared up at a massive Phoenix, newly-birthed and still glistening like stirred embers at the edges of its feathers.
"Now that's more like it!" Troy gushed, floating up to hover in front of the Phoenix's face. "Nobody stands a chance against you! Everybody left you for dead--let's show them just how unlucky they are!"
The Phoenix squawked, and a jet of flame erupted from its beak.
"To the Castle!" Troy shouted, and the Phoenix took off after him.
Down at the south end of the harbor, where the forest met the town, a young man staggered out from among the trees. He'd been lost for quite a while, and had finally found the edge, though it wasn't quite the right edge. He saw the massive Phoenix, and the dark Shadow in front of it, and he knew that, whatever the Shadow was planning, it would not have a good outcome for the castle's current occupants.
Justin staggered for the nearest stable, pulling out his badge bearing the crest of the White Castle as he did so.
"King's Business!" he blustered as he made for the nearest saddled horse, just preparing to bear its master. Justin tossed a bag of gold pieces down as he took the reins and jumped onto the horse's back. He didn't know if he would make it to the castle before the flying beast, but at least he could try!