Edri slunk past the cages, ignoring the barrage of scents that assaulted her, even from these cages long-since-abandoned. She picked up her head as her nose caught a whiff of the person she wanted: Zayra, former Queen of the White Castle.
Zayra sat at the edge of the pen originally designed for zebras, according to the plaque overhead. She sat with her head bowed, her golden hair draped limply to conceal her face. She barely moved as Edri approached. The soldier threw herself at the Queen’s feet.
“Your Majesty, at last I have found—“
“Why do you do this?” Zayra lofted her head, a vague disorientation in her gaze. “I am broken; I have no thrall over you—yet you still refer to me as your queen.” She shook her head. “It is over, Edri. I am dethroned, and furthermore, now I know the full truth of what I am.” Sobs gathered in her throat, choking her words. “I am a monster! A heartless leech that feeds on the freewill of others, sucking them dry to the point of death, and then casting them aside like garbage!” She covered her head with her hands. “I murdered my own parents without so much as a second thought! Why did I do it? What manner of creature am I, that I would do such a thing?”
Edri watched the young woman vent her sorrow. Perhaps it was true, what she said about the thrall. Edri certainly didn’t feel the dense fog crowding her thoughts and reshaping then anymore. Yet one thing did still remain.
“No titles, please. I am no better than an UnGifted citizen. The only reason I came to live at the castle was at the behest of others. Call me Zayra.”
“Zayra.” The name still felt queenly to say. “If you believe nothing else, trust me when I say that I am not here because you took my freewill.” She placed a mailed hand on her breastplate. “I came because I gave it to you, without reservation.”
Zayra gave a shaky half-smile. “Your zeal is commendable,” she remarked, “but I am not worth your loyalty. I am certain it belongs rightfully to another.”
Edri frowned. Would Zayra plan to reinstate the Twins, then? Surely Troy would succeed in killing off the Princes and their allies before they could find a way to stop him! With a shake of her head, she refocused on her present. “Where you lead, I will follow,” She pledged.
This time, Zayra truly smiled. The tears fell no longer, and she took a deep breath to draw herself upright.
“That’s precisely what I am counting on, my bold, brave Lion.”
Jade stood with the others in the middle of the room as the battle raged anew, this time coming from scores of angry villagers tricked into believing that their king wanted to take their rights, their land, and their lives to serve his purpose. Tricked because of lies her brother told.
“Someone’s coming!” Azelie announced, just before a young man with curly red hair entered the darkened throne room.
“What’s HE doing here?” Denahlia cried.
Kaidan held up his hand. “Peace, Hunter. I know how much you mistrust me because of the way I misused you in the past—“
“More like you just used me,” Denahlia muttered.
“—but my sister has explained the situation and I have come to help.” He glanced around at the other three: the Wolf, the Dragon, and the voiceless Paragon, who nodded.
“He is telling the truth,” she said. “I believe him.”
“Great,” grunted Velora. “Let’s get this done, then. What do we have to do, Jade?”
The Angel regarded her brother’s body through the open door of the cage. “We need to get his Shadow back into his body by activating each of his senses. That means—AHH!”
She screamed as a huge mass of darkness coalesced and wrapped around her like a giant snake.
“So!” The voice boomed in the large empty room. “This is where you’ve been hiding from me, eh?” Troy’s face grinned as the tendrils of shadow wrapped tighter around Jade, pulling and twisting her body, and yet covering her mouth to muffle her cries. “What were you planning, Sister?” He saw the cage, and an instant of fear glanced across his face. He covered it with an angry scowl. “My cage? My body?” The shadows threw Jade across the room, only to pick her up and bind her again when she landed. “You were going to trap me again?” Troy guessed, using the shadows to pick her up and slam her down on the ground. “You think this pitiful gang of messed-up humans is going to be able to stop AN ABNORMAL?”
The tendril wrapped around her neck, squeezing tighter with the same force as an actual limb, yet there was nothing that Jade could feel. She couldn’t speak, but she could think.
Azelie met her gaze and nodded. She said nothing, and her words were hidden from Jade, but Kaidan moved into position alongside the body.
Jade couldn’t see what happened next because Troy tossed her again, and she slammed into a blackened pillar.
“Good night, Jade!” Troy spat in disgust. “Haven’t you done enough? The destruction of this Realm is your fault, you know!” He flung her back against another wall. “You dared to spread the Gifts where they did not belong. You refused to give them the power they needed. Why? Were you afraid, Sister?” His shadows gripped her hard as his face came close, sneering at her. “Afraid they would become too powerful for you? Afraid that if they reached their full potential, they wouldn’t be so impressed with you and your amazing wings?” One of the shadows wrapped around the bone at the top of her wing and wrenched in the wrong direction. Jade grimaced and couldn’t restrain a scream.
Troy relished her pain. “Did you really believe in Juros’ plan, to normalize and integrate Gifts into the Realm? Did you honestly think such a thing would even work?” He twisted her wing until they both heard a pop, and Jade could barely breathe through the pain. “There are dozens of UnGifted out there right now who are ready to prove you wrong, Jade.” He dropped her body and let it plummet to the floor, the dislocated wing flopping uselessly behind her. “Those stupid yokels were all too easy to manipulate, even if I couldn’t affect them directly! They would NEVER accept something like you or me. We will NEVER belong among them.”
Jade tried to move, tried to signal the group somehow, but she couldn’t.
“Do it!” She thought, hoping that Azelie would get the message.
Seconds later, the pressure on her limbs slackened.
“What?” Troy gasped, as she shadows slipped from his control. “What did you— Ow!”
Jade felt a surge of hope; how long had it been since Troy felt pain? She forced herself to look back toward the cage. Kaidan knelt with his hand on Troy’s physical body. She could see the tether of light now stretching from the body to the nexus of shadow that was Troy’s incorporeal form. Setting her jaw against the excruciating pain of her wing, Jade turned and shoved Troy’s shadow-tendrils aside—they had more substance now, like an icy sort of slime.
“Hey!” The slime lunged for her again, grabbing her leg, but she saw Denahlia crouch down next to Kaidan.
“This is for all the trouble you caused me with your system upgrades,” The Hunter muttered, reaching to cover the top of his head.
Still in the air, Troy grimaced, and his face changed. “Argh! I can’t see!” He whined. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The eyes on his physical body opened, and he stared straight at Denahlia. “Oh, hello!” Cried his voice from above. “You are meddling with things you don’t understand. Stop this!”
The Hunter glared at those eyes. “Never,” She enunciated very clearly.
“My turn!” Velora said, kneeling and placing her hand over his chest.
Immediately, it began to rise and fall.
“What are you—“ Troy’s voice broke off with a choke. When he spoke again, his voice issued from the body in the cage.
“Well, this is a strange situation. I suppose I can still adapt, though!” The tendrils of Shadow still writhed and wrestled the wounded Angel, who tried to stay as far away from the cage as she could, to give the others the best chance of succeeding.
“This party is boring,” Troy’s body said. “Let’s set it on fire!”
Immediately, the broken stained glass window filled with the fiery form of a Phoenix, as Damaris glided down toward the group huddled around the cage with a screech.
“No!” Jade called, struggling madly against the shadows, “stay strong!”
The flame from the swooping phoenix illuminated the room, so that she could see Erlis and Azelie joining hands. The Dragon had no fear of fire, and she knelt along with the young Paragon.
“You won’t get away with this!” Jade hissed at the shadows surrounding her. “You cannot escape this time!”
“What was that?” Troy responded. “I can’t hear you.”
Azelie smiled as her touch had opened his physical ears. Erlis leaned over him.
“Then listen closely,” she whispered. “It’s time you had a taste of what you’ve done to all of us.” She gripped his shoulder, and the body began to writhe and scream.
“ARGH! NO!” Troy shrieked, as all the shadows, every last part of him that remained in the room, rushed to be absorbed into the body in the cage. The body itself thrashed and flailed, but everyone held on, until at last, he lay still.
The five allies looked at each other.
“Did it work?” Velora asked.
The eyes snapped open. Hands gripped Erlis by the arm and tossed her into Kaidan and Velora on the other side, while Azelie felt a blow against her side that knocked her away. Troy stood, as strong as ever, and walked out of the cage with a laugh.
“You idiots!” He crowed, as Damaris swooped around, herding the group into a small cluster.
“You thought that returning me to my body was going to stop me? Jade probably told you that returning me to the cage would trap me, weaken me...” he leaped halfway across the room in a bound, making his way to where the injured Angel struggled to her feet. “Well?” He snarled, kicking her back down again. “DO I SEEM WEAK TO YOU?” He laughed again and leaped to the wall with the broken window.
“Stop him!” Jade yelled.
“Gladly!” Denahlia replied. She switched to her hypnosis vision—but she only had a few seconds before a fierce pain lashed through her head. “UGH!”
“Aww,” Troy goaded her. “Are your special abilities too much for you? Here, let me help.”
Denahlia felt the pain subside and looked up at Troy. She blinked.
“What have you done?” She yelled.
“Never forget, Hunter!” Troy snarled. “I have all the power over you!”
Velora advanced toward him. “You might control these others, but you don’t control me!” She flexed, letting her wolf abilities come forth. If he so much as twitched, she would tear into him.
Troy smiled. “Or do I?” He pointed at her, flipping his hand palm-up.
Velora’s animal instincts took over, and instead of attacking the man in front of her, she turned and lunged for the smallest, weakest person in the room: Azelie.
“Get away!” Erlis warned, as the group scattered.
“Have fun with that one!” Troy crowed, vanishing from the room. Shortly thereafter, Damaris landed with a screech.
“Lizeth! We need you!”
The medic heard the cry as she vainly tried to help as many wounded villagers as she could, in an attempt to convince them that the Gifted were not the enemy.
“Hang on!” She repaired another broken bone and headed toward the castle.
Troy was back, after they had worked so hard to supposedly stop him. Is that what Jade had wanted all along? He teleported many places, popping up next to anyone with a Gift and either rendering them impotent (like Justin, who couldn’t lift so much as a pebble anymore) or sending their powers wildly and violently out of control (like Javira and Beren, so much that the castle courtyard was buried in tree roots on one side, and a glacier on the other, with the frightened, aggressive, confused villagers trapped in between); it was hard to tell which side would prevail, but one thing was certain: the battle wouldn’t last forever.
So what else did the Angel have planned for them?
The moment Lizeth neared the door to the throne room, she had to dive out of the way as a sword neatly split her in half.
Velora, a crazed gleam in her eye, charged and swung at anything that moved—much like a cornered wolf.
Lizeth ignited her bluefire, attracting the attention of Velora, but stifling any more aggression as the young woman shied away from the flame.
“Stop,” Lizeth commanded, holding out the flame toward her.
Velora still gripped the sword, panting heavily through bared teeth, but she didn’t move as Lizeth advanced slowly, step by step.
Finally, as Lizeth stood an arm’s length away, she made a desperate lunge and caught Velora’s sword arm. The young woman let out a howl as the bluefire spread over her, but when it receded, she was herself again, gasping for breath as her knees trembled. She dropped the sword.
“W-wh-what was that?” She stammered. Velora turned to see the others staring at her in terror. “What are you—“ she stared at the sword on the ground, and then at her hands. “What did I do?”
Lizeth patted her on the shoulder. “Nothing terrible, I think.”
Velora shook her head. Damaris screeched and stepped toward her.
Lizeth smiled. “At least he can not control you anymore, young man.” She reached out and mingled her bluefire with the flames of his feathers. Blue overwhelmed the gold, and as it died, Damaris stood in place of the Phoenix.
“Damaris!” Velora was the first time step forward and hug the boy.
“Ugh, I am so glad that’s over!” He grumbled. "Have I mentioned how much I hate flying?"
“What happened in here?” Lizeth demanded. “I thought you were supposed to stop Troy, not give him a second chance to destroy us all!”
“It was my fault,” Jade staggered over to them, her wing dragging behind her. “I thought that if Troy returned to the cage he would be trapped in there just like in Justicia. I didn’t expect him to regain vitality and escape.” She stared at the empty cage. “We need to get him back into that cage again.”
“But how?” Kaidan asked. “It’s not like we can get him to come back in here again. And he can just mess with our Gifts if we try to get close to him.”
“Perhaps we can be of assistance?” Asked a voice that made everyone tense in fear. They turned toward the side entrance of the throne room as through the door came Zayra, the Mad Queen, followed by Captain Edri, her fiercely loyal bodyguard.
TO BE CONTINUED....
SEASON 2:Episode 1: "Upgrades"
Episode 2: "Strategic Maneuvers"
Episode 8: "Damaris and the Dragon"
Episode 10: "The Zodiac at Zero Hour"