Saturday, October 16, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 36: "The Boy With All The Gifts"

Part 36
"The Boy With All The Gifts"

Trevon stepped on the cool stone surface of the old cavern, a strange familiarity nagging at the back of his mind. In particular, he noticed the urge to stare up at the towering stone figures lining the walls. Unbidden, the memory came to mind of the very same faces as living beings, their skin darkening to hues of tan and brownish-pink, and, ever so slightly, even speaking to him... but how? This city had been deserted for ages, it seemed. Since when did statues come to life?

His mind warned, and Trevon shook off the befuddling mystery to focus on the goal ahead of him: the Gate itself. There was the gap at the center for the Key he did not have. Trevon looked down at his hands. What did he have when it came to opening the Gate? He willed his hand into another form, watching it shift and glisten as if it were made of some malleable, metallic material. Tucking all but his pointer finger back, he pushed it into the gap designed for the Key, feeling the gleaming material seep and twist and tuck, filling all the facets. He turned his hand, as if his finger was the Key--but the lock didn't budge.

Trevon tried fire, water, ice, air, earth--even secreting substances from his skin that would combust on contact with the metal, or acid that could have eaten away at it, the way it ate through the floor when he let some drip off his fingertip as he watched the Gate standing unscathed. Not even a Gift that could produce white-hot and pin-precise laser beams from his fingertips could penetrate the mechanism barring him from his objective.

Trevon sank back in defeat, slumping against a nearby pedestal. He detected the approach of another person before the man entered the cavern, a grizzled soldier with a bushy, fair beard dressed in light armor. 
He seemed to disregard the awesome statues of the Angels as well, in favor of frowning at Trevon. "What are you doing here?"

Trevon gestured impatiently at the mess that lay before him, the rubble his Gifts had dislodged in the process of trying to get the Gate open. "What does it look like I'm doing?" he retorted. "I must find a way to open the Gate!"

The old soldier stopped about twenty paces away from Trevon. He gazed at the massive Gate in quiet surprise, nodding sagely. "I can see that you are trying," he admitted. "But I think I'd like to know why."

Trevon frowned. "Why I am trying to open the Gate?"
The soldier nodded.

The Crow Prince scoffed. "I am opening the Gate so that my sister can set up her throne right on the doorstep of the gods. They play such cruel tricks with us mortals, and it is high time we teach them a lesson!"

The soldier took one pace closer, and his eyes transfixed Trevon's gaze. "No," he said. "That's not it."

Trevon squinted. "What do you mean? That's the whole reason I'm here without the Key--my sister says it's the only thing that can open the Gate after it's been hidden for so long."

The old soldier snorted. "Your sister seems to say a lot of things, but I think it is ultimately up to you."

Trevon scowled at the audacity of this stranger. "What do you mean, up to me? What are you even talking about? Who are you?"

The man raised a hand in salute. "Sir Roger is what most call me. I am in service to the King and his family and friends. Who is it that you serve, young man?"

The young man's face twisted into a sneer, and he unleashed an earthquake that was so strong, the floor of the cavern split in half down the length of it. "I serve my sister, the Crow Queen, She of unparalleled power and matchless cunning."

Sir Roger shook his head. "No, I do not think so. If that were true, you would have waited for her, or at least tried to get the actual Key. Why are you really here, alone and trying to breach the Gate by your own abilities?" He leaned against the column behind him and folded his arms over his armored chest. "You're here of your own accord, aren't you?"

Trevon's face darkened further, and he raised his hand, producing a ball of crackling energy. "Enough of this. Begone!" He launched the orb toward Sir Roger, but it deflected almost immediately, fizzling into nothing right in front of the man.

The grizzled old soldier shook his head. "I'm afraid your ill-gotten Gifts can't touch me. All you have is your honesty. Tell me, young Prince--what is your true reason for being here?"

Trevon's face darkened, and the shadows gathered close around him, flailing and reaching out their curling tendrils and yet shying away from touching Sir Roger.

The old knight didn't move. "I want the truth... Tyrven," he said softly.

At the sound of the name that sounded more like a mispronunciation than another language, Trevon's arms went slack, and he stared at the cavern floor for a long time. The shadows receded, even if only a little bit.

"I... I remember," he stammered in a small voice. His eyes wandered out of the mouth of the cavern, toward the ruined city. "They weren't all slaughtered, you know," he whispered. "I saw a great many of them leave, they went through the Gate... I suppose that perhaps I was hoping... if there could be any chance... If I could just manage to crack it enough to get through... maybe I could find them again... I didn't want to set myself up as their leader, I just wanted--"
"To be in the place you feel you most belong," Sir Roger finished, nodding his head.

Trevon fell silent, caught between the moment of vulnerability and the orders he'd been given by the one he'd entrusted his life to.

Sir Roger reached up to clap him on the shoulder. "You know that the only way the Gate will open is to whomever holds the Key," he declared somberly. "There's no way around that."
Trevon nodded. "I know," he said.

"So why not use the power of Shadows to compel whoever's holding it to come here and give it to you? Not even your great and powerful sister could stand in your way."

Trevon shook his head. "No, I know exactly where the Key is, and I could very easily walk in and get it myself, but I promised myself I'd never go back there, after what happened last time."

Sir Roger tilted his head. "Last time?" he echoed. "What happened the last time you were at The Roque?"

Trevon winced. "It's the place where everything went wrong," he answered.

Sir Roger stood aside, giving Trevon a clear view of the mansion's uppermost spires. "But it is also the place where you can make everything right again, Tyrven," he replied. "The choice is yours."

The stretch of land between the city limits and the Roque wasn't so much a battlefield anymore--it was a sparse and pitted forest, strewn with barriers of fallen trees, dead bodies, and uneven landmasses. Mallory called upon another circling flock to be her eyes in the sky--but they could only view her forces once they had gotten below the canopy, and once they were below the canopy, they were targets for the opposition.

Not to mention that it was becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly where her fighters stood. Something was drawing their minds out of her grasp, blocking her telepathic control somehow. At least as crows it was easier, since her natural Gift was stronger on birds than on humans--but they weren't much use to her as birds, and if she had too many of them in flight at once, they would just flock in swirling circles, having lost all sense of direction outside of what she could tell them. And with all these infernal trees in the way, she couldn't tell them much!

A river of hissing purple light trickled toward her, and a man dressed in a tunic of black feathers pulled toward her from the shadows.
"Please tell me you've found the Prince!" Mallory snarled.

Kamau shook his head. "I am sorry, Milady--but I'm still looking. I came to tell you that I have found the source of the influence that is turning your men away from you: it is the young queen whom you targeted before."

"I knew she was going to be trouble!" Mallory howled, flinging her arms out. The force of her telekinesis leveled several trees closest to her. "Where is she?" Mallory gripped Kamau's arm with enough force to leave pale marks on his skin.

To his credit, Kamau didn't even wince. "My intelligence tells me she is inside the castle--but that the fighting has worn down the uppermost defenses. If you enter from the top, you will be able to get inside, where you will find the Key... and the Cursed Blade."

Mallory flinched. "That Blade! I saw them waving it about earlier--they are still convinced it might stop me!" She cackled and released her servant. "Meet me inside, Kamau."

The man nodded and gave a low bow. "Your wish is my command, Milady." He folded back into the shadows, drawing his glowing snakes toward him, until he emerged, himself a very large and shadow-black snake crawling almost invisibly through the grass.

Meanwhile, a new crow joined the weakened wanderers of the sky--a larger bird than most of the ones, but stuck on the same aimless path... or so it seemed. If any of the fighters now hunting the tree-strewn grounds for any remaining black-garbed soldiers had thought to watch the swirling flocks overhead, they might have easily spotted the giant crow looping its way through the masses, mimicking their flight pattern, yet on its own path; one that curved closer and closer to the unprotected towers of The Roque...

The Roque was nearly full-to-bursting with people when Nyella entered, using a potent dose of telekinesis from Seline to carry four more stretchers of wounded soldiers along behind her. She passed by the parlor, where Velora and Brinley lounged with Bronn and the surviving wolf pack. In the study, Beren and Jaran stood with their wives, poring over maps and doing their almighty best to convince Zayra that going out and personally challenging Queen Mallory was a bad idea. The headstrong princess wouldn't hear it, and she stormed out of the room and up the stairs, shouting protests over her shoulder all the way.

Nyella dragged the stretchers into the ballroom, which had been converted into the unofficial infirmary, since the Great Hall was now the base of operations and the place where most people gathered to eat, rest, refresh themselves, and basically wait out the last of the fighting as Mallory's forces dwindled, and she ran out of fighters to attack, since they were no longer outside the protective runes, and there was no way for her to get in.

Quilla received the injured parties, shielding them until Edri or Lizeth was available to heal them. She nodded to her friend. "Are there any more, do you think?"

Nyella sighed and slumped into a nearby chair as the telekinesis wore off, leaving her body aching all over. "At this point, there's more birds in the sky than boots on the ground," she answered. "I'm guessing that if there are any more of our fighters still on the loose, there are few enough of Mallory's soldiers that they'd be able to hold their own." She accepted the cup of water Quilla offered, and took a long sip. "Besides, Markus and Denahlia have all the intelligence about everyone on the ground. If there was anybody, they'd let us know."

Just as she finished speaking, Nyella's shoulder spasmed. She rolled her eyes and groaned. "Speaking of which... I better get back out there."

Quilla nodded, and some parting words were on her tongue--when the ghostly, silver-haired form approached her, looking very disturbed about something.

"Have you seen Seline?" Polaris asked, completely ignoring Nyella, who was among those unGifted who couldn't see him anyway.

Quilla shook her head. "You might try the upstairs rooms," she said. "I know she was working with the Mages to try and replace the damage done to the runes Rysin made."
Polaris nodded brusquely and faded from view. Quilla sighed and returned to the arduous task of keeping the wounded alive.

Out in the corridor, Damaris and Anahita emerged from the kitchen with a basket of bread and a pot of soup. Not long after they pulled back into the Roque, the pair were back in their element: working together in the kitchen to cook up a tasty meal. The meager stores had been dramatically depleted with all of the people suddenly dependent on Tessa's hospitality, but they found enough to use in creative ways to keep the meals coming. Anahita carried the basket of bread, while Damaris kept a pot of soup piping hot all the way to the table--right at the moment Polaris coasted over their heads, causing Anahita to stumble and lose her grip on the basket as she cried out in surprise. "Oh, goodness!"

Polaris paused to acknowledge his mistake. "I'm sorry," he said, powerless to assist in recovering the bread. "I keep forgetting that so many of you can see me as I'm moving around, although you can't feel me."
"No harm done," Anahita muttered, dusting herself off and picking up the basket again.

"Where's Jaran?" Damaris asked. "I thought you were bound to his side as long as he bore the Knife."

Polaris nodded. "He told me that as soon as the last soldiers are recovered from the battlefield, he's going to return the Knife to Tessa--he's got it safely secured, and while he's not wearing it, I can wander around the Roque, at least." The ethereal figure glanced back toward the Great Hall, and Damaris could almost see him sigh with longing.
"Well, don't let us keep you from... whatever you're doing," Damaris responded, urging Anahita forward.

Polaris continued on toward the main hall of the house, where the stairwells connected to open balconies on each floor. From there, he saw Seline herself fly down to the second-floor balcony, where the argument between the four royals still went round and round.

"Please just wait a bit longer," Beren begged his wife. "Let us make a plan! We saved Erlis and gained Korsan to help fight for us and defend us, she's lost just about every advantage she originally had--"

"All the more reason I should be out there, hunting her down!" Zayra insisted. "You all can't possibly understand what it's like for me--I can feel her power drawing me, like a compass pointing north! If I allow my Gift to draw me to her, I can also use it to pull her power away from her, allowing Jaran the leeway he needs to get in there and kill her with the Knife!"

"For what it's worth," Jaran grumbled, "I don't want to be near either of the two of you when you're engaged in some cosmic tug-of-war. I've already been there, when Troy encouraged you to use my own Gift against me, and--enchanted knife or not--I'm not going through that again!"

"Zayra, just think about what you're asking," Azelie inserted, reaching for the Princess' hand. "How can you be certain that once you start drawing Mallory's ability, you won't also attract the Gifts from anyone else who comes with you?"

The fair-haired woman stiffened and pulled her hand out of the telepath's grip. "Well then... Give me the Knife, and I'll go, myself!"
"Not without a plan!" Jaran insisted. "The moment that Knife leaves the Roque, we're all vulnerable--Polaris most of all." He glanced up as the ethereal ghost entered the room, noticing Seline's arrival as well.

The Angel settled in the corner of the room, the light from the chandelier overhead playing over her long locks. Ever since taking on her Angelic form, the short-cropped hair had disappeared with the Elvish disguise, growing longer over her shoulders and completely changing her appearance even more than just the addition of wings.

Said wings, she tucked close against her shoulders and said, "Korsan mentioned that you four were arguing about something--what is wrong?"

Azelie spoke first. "Zayra has gotten it into her head that she wants to march out there and challenge Mallory before the woman cooks up a terrible scheme."

"I can do it!" Zayra insisted. "The rest of you don't stand a chance with her, because she is powerful enough to override your Gifts. My Gift draws its strength from the power of others--the more powerful they are, the more strength my Gift can draw!"

"Dearest," Beren cajoled her, "You have already barely escaped danger with your life when you wore the Key out onto the battlefield," he reminded her. "If Juros hadn't sent Raedyn and given him the Gifts he needed to protect you, we wouldn't be having this conversation! Would you really want to flaunt such protection?"

"They can come with me, if they like!" Zayra protested. "Raedyn already told me that Juros made him pledge to be my protector for life, and as such, he would be uniquely safeguarded against my Gift!"

All eyes wandered toward Seline. The Angel tugged on a lock of her her hair as she considered the problem before her.

"I think that if such a challenge were to be made--I said if, your Majesty," she spoke slowly. "It would surely need agreement from all parties involved." She looked at each face in turn. "I would advise you all to include Raedyn in the discussion, and the King is right, you ought to work out a plan rather than just leaving the protection we have here and exposing yourself and all of us to danger. Use your friends outside to locate her, assess what other threats you might encounter, and work out escape routes all along the way. We have come so far, and are so close to defeating her, it wouldn't do to let down our guard and be too impulsive now!"

Four heads nodded, and the couples filed out of the room. Seline waited, noticing how Polaris hadn't left yet, either.

She tilted her head at him. "What is it? Do you disagree with my decision?"

Polaris shook his head. "Not that," he stammered. "It's just... I have something else I wanted to ask you. It's about Tessa."

Seline smiled, pulling her hair back from her face. "Yes? What can I do?"

Polaris steadied himself. Here was his moment! "I think it's time... I mean, I am ready to ask you if... give her a--" As he spoke, his voice and his figure faded in and out again.

Seline frowned, reaching toward him as if she could touch his shape. "Polaris, what's wrong? What are you trying to say?"

Polaris hadn't realized anything was amiss. He frowned and tried again. "I'm trying to-- if you would... Tessa... be with--"

It was getting worse. Almost every other word vanished in blank silence. Seline glanced toward the hallway, where Jaran's room contained the enchanted Dagger that held the bulk of Polaris' essence. "Polaris, something's wrong," she said. "You're fading--"

"I'm fa--" Polaris disappeared completely after this, and a terrible shout went up from downstairs. Seline raced out of the room and launched toward the ceiling, terrified at what she saw:

Queen Mallory herself, standing on a cloudbank in the main hall of The Roque, with the Dagger of Polaris in her hand.

Everyone had come out to see what was the matter, but no one dared move against her.

"So this is your secret weapon you wanted to use against me?" she taunted them, twirling the Knife in her hand. "Just sitting there in an empty room--you fools! You thought you would be protected in here, you thought your precious magic would hold against the likes of me!" She threw her head back and cackled.

Damaris burst into flames and leaped toward her, but Mallory made a striking motion with her hand, and he slammed back onto the floor with his flames extinguished.

"Oh, by the way--don't bother attacking me just now. Anyone who tries will find their Gift Jacked--and not in the good way." She grinned. "I hear you have the Key as well--but now that I have this dagger, I suppose I don't need it." She smiled as she flourished the blade again. "You won't be able to stop me, and I really won't need the Key if I've got one of Juros' own Knights to open the door for me!"

"No!" Azelie shouted, but everyone remained frozen in place.

"Mallory, stop this at once!" commanded a booming voice, and just below Mallory's elevated cloud bank, a black shadow coalesced, and Prince Trevon stepped out.

Mallory sneered. "Ah! My little brother finally decides to show up! Aren't you here to help me, little brother?"

"Put down the knife, Mallory," Trevon replied. "Your army is scattered, the Mages have finished their spells to keep us both trapped in here--you've done everything you could to defeat them, but they're still standing."

"Traitor!" Mallory seethed. "What, you've thrown your lot in with them again? After all I've done for you? All that I've given you--why, when I met you, you were a spineless, voiceless little dishrag--I've made you fit to rule by my side!"

"You're wrong, Mallory," Trevon responded, using his shadows to rise to an equal level with the Crow Queen. "You didn't give me a voice; I already had one, even though I didn't use it very much. You might have unlocked the ability to speak in me, but my words are my own." He folded his arms. "I am done with your influence, you have lost control, and you have lost the battle. You should yield."

"No!" Mallory snarled. "I haven't lost anything, you great, lumbering fool! I'm about to finish this once and for all--and you can kiss your joint throne goodbye, for all I care!" She raised the Knife high over her head. "Polaris, turn out the lights and take me to the Gate!"

Immediately, the entire mansion plunged into darkness, and several people cried out. Lizeth lit the bluefire in her hands, and Jaran sent up a pulse to recharge all the glowlamps in the vicinity.

The great door lay open with half its hinges blown. Mallory had vanished, but Trevon still stood in their midst. Azelie blinked against the bright lights and looked around her, but only the Seramis brothers stood nearby. She gasped. "Where's Zayra?"

"There!" Beren pointed, as his wife marched right out the door of The Roque, and outside the boundary of protection. "Zayra! Come back!" He yelled, but she kept right on walking. Once she crossed the boundary, she took off running toward the ruined city.
"Somebody stop her!" Jaran commanded.

"We'll go after her!" Raedyn announced, followed closely by Edri.
"Don't let her out of your sight!" Jaran shouted after them.
Beren added his own caution. "And don't you dare let anything happen to her!" he warned.

Edri turned to acknowledge with a resolute nod. "We will lay down our own lives before that happens," she promised. The pair disappeared, borne away by Raedyn's teleportation Gift.

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Saturday, October 9, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 35: "Bring An End"


Part 35
"Bring An End"

The Roque was a scene of blood, bandages, beds and more people and activity than it had seen in a decade.

The shielding runes laid by the Nysir siblings held strong, admitting no one but those in the company of their friends and allies. The Great Hall held row upon row of cots, full of wounded soldiers waiting for Brinley and Tessa to come and tend to them. Injured and disabled soldiers entered, shuttled in with the assistance of Quilla and Nyella, while restored and rejuvenated soldiers took the underground passageway back out to the forest to rejoin the fray.

A thudding sound like a furious hailstorm rattled the roof, and Tessa glanced up warily. "What is that?" she whispered.

Brinley saw the flutter of small, dark wings and heard the ugly croak. A thought from her, and Bronn charged up the stairs with a heavy bark, charging and swiping at the crows that had somehow slipped inside.

"How did they get in?" Tessa demanded, but Brinley could only shrug.
"My guess is that they must have worn down the defenses at the very top of the building, and they can slip through the chinks one at a time, since they're so small."

The lady of the Roque shivered as she finished bandaging a soldier. "If only Polaris were here," she whispered. "I hope he can fend off Mallory and get back in time."

Denahlia stirred and sat up in her bed, ignoring the bursts of odd colors over her vision, and the pain lancing through her arms because of the damage to her implants. "I've got to get out there," she muttered to herself.
Tessa rushed over and stopped her from rising altogether. "You're not going anywhere!" she said. "You haven't fully healed yet."

The former Hunter groaned. Neither Tessa nor Brinley understood the technology so closely integrated with her body. They could clean and patch up wounds, but without electricity, they couldn't restore her implants. She flopped back with a sigh. "At least when the implants were in my eyes, I could still use my body!" she complained.

Out on the rooftop, Seline darted back and forth on her powerful white wings, slashing and batting at the intruding crows. A few had slipped past her reach, but she had no doubt that the others would take care of them. At least these ones weren't turning into vicious armed men as soon as they landed; she figured it must mean that the power to shapeshift resided with Mallory alone, and that without her focus and direction, the crows stayed crows, although they fought with beak and talon as well as they could.

The forces on the battlefield clashed again, but this time, Seline watched as thick walls of ice grew and partitioned off areas of the wide grassy plain, often with enemy soldiers trapped inside. She could sense the magic spells being cast by not just one, but two Mages, further away, perhaps defending the Gate. Thick bolts of lightning ricocheted through enemy soldiers in bright spiderwebbing patterns. Seline drove away scores more of the squawking, dark birds, but their activity had only attracted the attention of more swirling hordes, as the trapped soldiers turned into birds and flew toward the vulnerable Roque.

"Someone help!" Seline called out, willing the request out to any Gifted who could hear her and respond.

The lightning streaked closer to her, but Jaran wouldn't be able to strike at them from a distance. Seline felt dozens of tiny, sharp talons grip the tops of her wings, as fierce beaks pierced the membrane through her protective feathers. She recoiled with a pained cry as the weight of them cost her altitude. She was going to fall down the front of the building, if they kept tugging on her in this way.
"Seline!" Jaran called out from below the Roque. "I'm coming!"

He let out a concentrated burst of lightning, and used the energy as a sort of stepping-stool. It stayed in place long enough to boost him off the ground, and as he released another energy burst in front and higher up, he could step again without falling. In this manner, Jaran made it all the way up to the rooftop, where he could spread his arms wide and dispatch nearly all the crows at once with branches of lightning.

Seline landed with a pained grimace, her wings hanging limp from her shoulder blades.
"Thank you, sire," she said softly.

Jaran's hands crackled, and he glanced down to where he had stood only moments before. "I've had the idea that I could use the lightning to climb stuff before," he mused, "but I've never gotten to test that theory out. I guess I know that it works!"

Seline watched his hands and shoulders spark, and thought about the sparks coming off of Denahlia and her cousin. She seized Jaran's hand. "Good thing you're here," said the Angel. "Because I have an idea." Mentally, she sent a communication up to the man riding the dragon over the battlefield. Markus, report to the Roque immediately. I have something that will help you. And tell Denahlia to come up to the roof as well.

Moments later, Hadrian swooped out of the grey sky and landed on the stones. Markus couldn't climb safely off her back, so Hadrian reached with her foreclaw and gently lifted him to the ground. Denahlia arrived, shuffling slowly with her arm slung limply over Brinley's shoulder.
"What's going on up here?" she asked.

Seline grinned. "I think I have a solution for restoring the implants in both of you to full power." She pointed to Jaran. "I can harness his lightning and send it into you both, which should give you the boost you need." Her fingers played over his palm, and Jaran watched tiny tendrils of light unfurl from his skin, coursing toward Seline like threads being pulled from a tapestry. Seline nodded. "There's enough power here to increase your abilities beyond what they were before."

Denahlia hesitated, as Brinley backed away with a wary glance at the lightning. "You mean, like Jacking?"
Seline shrugged. "Only this time, it won't be something uncontrollable, because it's not exactly a Gift--just augmentation."

Jaran frowned and studied Denahlia closely. "Wait... so you're not Gifted?" he looked between the two cousins. "I thought your super-human sight was a power just like my lightning."
Markus glanced at his cousin and gave her a small nudge. Whether their minds communicated unspoken thoughts, no one else could tell, but Denahlia sighed.
"Your brother knows, so I might as well tell you also. Your Majesty, I have a confession to make. There is a dereliction of my duties as Harbor Watch that I have been hiding from you."

Jaran blinked, and his expression hardened. "What? When? How?"

She bowed her head. "One year after you were crowned King, I was drawn--abducted, really--to another dimension, another world. My homeworld, actually. I found out that it was the place where I was born, and that I had been born without sight. In an effort to correct the issue, they had made special implants for me--but what they didn't know, and I was never fully aware, was that their technology, while distinct from magic, was not quite unsusceptible to its influence. Therefore, when my parents fled that world and came to The Realm, they saw that my implants behaved just like a Gift, and so they never told me any differently, so I grew up thinking that I'd always lived in the Realm, and that the strange thing I could do with my vision was a Gift from Juros' Angels."

"Someone brought you into another system of worlds just to tell you all this?" Jaran asked. His mind spun to think that everything he knew about Denahlia, the Hunter of Outcasts, was not altogether true.

Denahlia shook her head. "The reason I ended up there was for another purpose entirely, but it is of no consequence. What you need to know is that my eye-implants malfunctioned on this other world, and in the process of my recovery, I requested that they change the location of my magic-infused implants to my wrists, and give me non-magical implants for my eyes instead." She raised her hands before her. "That's why I look different, and I use my Gift differently now."

Markus slowly worked his way over to his cousin's side, easing his broken mechanical leg with every step.

Jaran stroked his chin. "You say this happened a year after the coronation?" he considered the implications. "How long were you gone into this other world?"

Denahlia watched his face earnestly. "A year," she confessed. "It took that long for the people hosting me to find a wizard strong and skilled enough to send me back to The Realm."
"A whole year?" Jaran blurted. "But then... that would be about the time you started placing all manner of new and strange devices all around the kingdom, and the White Castle."

Denahlia nodded. "I brought those things back with me. Since my implants had the same source as these things, I knew I could build defenses into every area of the Realm that only I could control. Things fell apart quite a bit while I was gone," she admitted. "And although I have tried to make up for it, they're not quite back to what they once were, and I have no one to blame but myself."

The King nodded solemnly. "At least you have the good sense to take responsibility for the consequences," he said. "I forgive you, and I want you to know I still trust you to do what's best for The Realm."
Denahlia smiled a little, and nodded her head.

Seline gave a little cough. "Are you ready?" she asked the cousins.
Markus stood as straight as he could manage. "Ready!" he said.

Seline prompted Jaran, who strengthened the pulse that the Angel directed into Denahlia's wrists and Markus' injured left side. Both cousins gave sharp grunts of pain, but when Seline released the pulse, they staggered back and panted for breath.
Denahlia recovered first, staring down at her hands, clenching and unclenching them.
"How does it feel?" Jaran asked.

Denahlia ran her finger over the smooth, healed skin where her implants rested in her wrists. "It feels... more..." she whispered.

A flick of her hand produced a glowing holographic gauntlet, and when she clenched her fist, the disc of glowing light grew and expanded to encompass her whole body. "A shield!" Denahlia gasped. "Cool!"

Markus tested out his restored leg, even going so far as to lift his right foot and balance his whole weight on his mechanical side. A quick jog in place to test the response of the joints, and he raised his hand, flexing his arm pistons the way he would to shift into gun mode. Barrels and bullets clicked into place, and Markus fired on a circling crow overhead with pinpoint accuracy. "That's cool!" he gushed.

Denahlia scurried over to the edge of the balcony. "I want to try something," she said quickly, extending her hands and beckoning to something.

The ground rumbled, and the Golem appeared, staring down at Denahlia. She gestured with her hands, and the lights on the Golem's chest flickered and blinked for a moment, then held steady.
Denahlia lifted her right hand. The Golem raised its right hand. When she raised her left hand, the Golem repeated the motion. She waggled her hands back and forth, dancing from foot to foot while sticking her tongue out.
The ground shook even more as the Golem repeated the motion in real time, opening its mouth and roaring so loudly that Markus' aural implants squealed with feedback.

Denahlia grinned and turned back toward the group, holding up her hand to "pause" the Golem. "Check it out!" she gushed. "I can fight with this avatar without even leaving this rooftop!" To prove her point, Denahlia clenched her fist and pounded to the ground, close to where a squadron of Crow soldiers were attempting to infiltrate the Roque's defenses. The Golem's fist crushed them flat.

For his part, Markus sent Hadrian into the air, and used his improved implants to connect with her senses. "This is awesome!" he said. "Now I can see what she sees, and I can tell her where I want her to go!"

Jaran clapped him on the shoulder. "Good! See if she can find Trevon--he disappeared from Gybralltyr City while we were fighting off Mallory, and she's looking for him right now. We want to find him first."
"Yes, your Highness," Markus responded, and Hadrian banked in the sky, swooping in wide arcs over the battlefield.

Denahlia sent the Golem stomping across the swarming troops to find him as well, enjoying the sight of mown-down troops that would allow their allies to get to safety.

"There he is!" Markus cried, as Hadrian came to a stop over a corner of the battlefield close to the side of the island nearer to the cove.
"Hang on," Denahlia grunted, "I'm having a hard time getting Stompy over to you."

"It looks like the White Castle soldiers have him surrounded!" Markus announced. "He's trying to fend them off, but--wait! Hey!"

"Send it to me!" Denahlia left the Golem standing at the side of the battlefield inert, while she received the visual data from her cousin.
"Does that seem wrong to you?" he asked.

Denahlia watched Trevon gesture and freeze two or three soldiers in their tracks, while turning another to stone. Yet another soldier fell victim to writhing, grasping vines exploding from the ground. "Those are different Gifts than the ones he used against us!" she gasped. She looked at Seline. "We thought Mallory had made him into a Shadow... but he's using multiple Gifts! Can he do that?"

Seline's face froze in fear and deep concern. "We never knew the extent of the experiments she ran on him," she murmured. "If it's true, and he has the capacity to use the Gifts of anyone around him... that's not good."
"Oh no!" Markus suddenly flailed wildly with his hands. "We've been spotted. Get out of there, Hadrian!"

A massive rumble shook the mansion, as the gigantic Golem exploded in large chunks of shrapnel and sparking machinery.
Denahlia reeled backward with a cry, collapsing to the floor of the balcony.
"Denahlia!" Markus gasped, dashing toward his cousin.

Jaran stiffened and strode toward the balustrade. "Azelie!" he gasped. "She was almost hit by a piece of machinery. Markus, can you find her?"
Markus left his cousin in the care of Brinley, and sent Hadrian the directions to find the telepathic Queen.
"There she is!" Markus nodded as he and his dragon located her. "She's safe, and staying out of reach of any of the enemy soldiers, sire."

Jaran smiled as he strained, as if he could see Azelie on approach. "She's clever--she can use her Gift to make them forget they've seen her." His smile dimmed. "But she worries that she can't make it to the front of the house without being attacked. The battle is pretty fierce down there."

"Wait! Look!" Denahlia cried, pointing to the forest on the side of the battlefield. "It's moving!"
"Well... I'll be..." Jaran gasped, watching as the trees swayed and groaned as if in a hurricane-force gale, although hardly any wind blew at all. "They're moving the forest!"

Sure enough, on a lower-level cliff beside the Roque, Tristan and Javira stood side by side, shifting whole trees from the forest and transplanting them into the middle of the battlefield, disrupting the fighting and providing additional protection for the mansion. Jaran watched as Javira left off shifting trees to gesture toward the side of the mansion. A double-row of hedges and thorns sprouted up, wide enough for a single person to walk through without touching the sides, but too thick and tall to penetrate from the outside. The path she carved led straight to Azelie, giving the Queen a straight, clear shot toward the mansion's entrance. As Azelie came closer in, Javira closed up the hedge-way behind her, trapping any soldiers who attempted to follow her.

Azelie sighed with relief as she passed through the magic wards and into safety. Nyella and Quilla were among the first to greet her with warm embraces. "Queen Azelie, you made it!" Nyella gushed.

Azelie followed her from the entrance way and into the Great Hall, where she saw Brinley, Raedyn, Velora and Sir Landis, along with a good portion of the White Castle's army--recovering quickly, thanks to the healing skills of the Gifted, but not quite ready to return to fighting, given the extent of their wounds. Bronn trundled back and forth with a basket of warm towels strapped to his back.
There was just one sensation that Azelie felt, whom she did not see. "Where is Zayra?" she asked Velora.

The Alpha pointed to an upper landing, near a window. "She won't leave that spot," she said.
Azelie crept up the stairs to her sister-in-law. "Zayra?" she said softly.

Zayra stared at the battlefield, now littered with ice and trees and machinery from the destroyed Golem. Tears trickled down her face. With a long sigh, Zayra steeled herself, wiped her cheeks, and when she turned to Azelie, her expression had hardened with keen determination that would not be refuted. She drew herself up, the way she had done so many times as Queen, and declared to Azelie, "This fighting has gone on long enough. We have defended against Mallory, only for her to attack us more and more. I'm done simply standing by and resisting."

Azelie reached for her mind, but found no purchase in her thoughts. "What are you going to do?" she asked.

Zayra glided down the stairs with elegance and grace, an unstoppable force in herself, the belt of vials still slung over her shoulder. "I'm going to bring an end to this once and for all!"

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