Saturday, February 27, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 15 "Conflict and Cobwebs"

Part 15
"Conflict and Cobwebs"

Lizeth paced up and down the tower window. She heard the soft bleep of the small tracker, and then the grating buzzer that said that the subject was Out of Range. She whirled around on her heels. "No!" she gasped. "It can't be! Search again."

Nyella obediently turned the dial again, pulling up the complete map of the castle. She pressed the same sequence of buttons, and once again, the machine squawked and gave the same message.

"How can she be out of range?" Nyella asked. "This device should pick her up if she's somewhere in the castle!"

A thick fanfare drifted through the tower window. Lizeth frowned and snapped at the young girl, "Keep working on it. Maybe the mayhem at the Harbor messed with the signal. I'm going down to get an update from the others."

The scientist reached the Great Hall at the same time as the others returned--half of them, anyway. Jaran supported an injured Aurelle, while Javira scowled as if she was ready to uproot the whole castle. Just looking at her made Lizeth feel the roots creeping and bulging against the stones underfoot.
Lizeth frowned when no one else entered behind the trio. "Where are Beren and the others?" she asked. "Did they decide to stay with Denahlia at the Harbor? Why would they do something like that?"

Jaran eased Aurelle down onto a nearby chair. A page raced forward, and the King nodded. "Get Erlis," he ordered. "Tell her the Archivist is badly wounded. Quickly now!" His eyes regarded Lizeth. "Is Zayra here?" He asked carefully.

Lizeth forced her racing heartbeat to steady, and she answered truthfully, "Not in this room, sire. I am sure she is elsewhere--we haven't yet managed to get the tracker up and running properly, otherwise I would be able to tell you exactly where she is." Provided she is, in fact, still within range of the tracker, her niggling thoughts added. She searched his face. "Why do you ask, Milord?"
Jaran didn't smile. In fact, he looked quite devastated. "Beren's been taken by the pirates again."

Lizeth gasped with wide eyes, well remembering the news of the Prince's first disappearance, when pirates had attacked him and his friends on their pleasure cruise, leaving (so they thought) no survivors. Even though she'd been in hiding at that point, she'd still kept track of the goings-on of The Realm: Jaran named the Heir Apparent, before he, too, mysteriously disappeared during a "freak" lightning storm, leaving the Royal Council in charge until the Clissander twins rose to power and assumed the vacant throne as Regents... She shook off the memories as the sound of Javira's infuriated voice brought her back to the present.

"Where is the wizard?" she demanded. "He should be here to account for himself!" She caught the arm of a passing maid. "You there! Go tell the wizard I want him!"

The girl jerked her arm away with a sneer. "I ain't doin' anything o' the kind!" she retorted. "You ain't Regent no more, I shan't pay you any mind! You ain't no better'n us nowadays!" And with a laugh, the maid continued on her way.

Javira didn't have time to react before Erlis swept in and headed straight for Aurelle. Behind her, Risyn drifted into the room.

Erlis busied herself with bandages soaked in ointment to wipe away the blood and clean the wounds. "How long ago did this happen?" she asked.
"Within the hour," Jaran answered. "We started walking up from the Harbor when Aurelle roused herself enough to attempt her shadow-travel..." his voice trailed off a little. "But she could only get us as far as the outskirts of the City before she passed out altogether."

The healer winced. "Shadow travel? In this state?" She passed a hand across her friend's cold, clammy forehead. "Aurelle, what were you thinking?"

"Where is the Prince?" Risyn asked, his low, warm voice betraying no stir of emotions, although his eyes did search the group rather closely. "Is he safe?"

Some flowers standing in a vase suddenly swelled and burgeoned with such a ferocity that the vase shattered and the bouquet appeared to almost crawl across the floor like a sentient creature, heading straight for the Mage.
Jaran's gaze narrowed on the person responsible for such a bizarre sight. "Javira, stop!"
Tears gleamed in the young woman's eyes as she clenched her fist, and the pile of flowers wilted where they sat on the carpet.

"You know good and well how he fares," she snarled at Risyn, "because you already knew exactly what would happen!" She clenched her jaw and her whole body began to quiver with barely-restrained fury. "How? How did you know?" Javria stepped forward, almost lunging at him, but Risyn didn't stir from his spot.

"They took Beren!" Javira sobbed. "And they took Denahlia--and my brother, too! Do you know who they are, wizard? Why they would take these specific people, and not the rest of us? Tell us how you knew!"

Risyn stood firm, his face blank and unflinching. "The spirits that my Gift makes me sensitive to informed me that danger was coming, and I did my best to convey as much to the Prince. I have no authority to compel him to choose one way or another, against his will. I can only tell him what the signs say--if he chooses not to heed my warning, that is all that I can do."

"No that is not bloody all!" Javira seethed. "You knew more than you said, and yet you never let on. Kaidan figured it out," she said this with a vehemence, her head tilted back and her chin out. "He knew you were hiding something all the way back when Aurelle pulled up that vision of a ship. He saw the way you reacted--you were terrified of it. In fact," she let out a bitter chuckle and wiped her tear-stained cheeks, "I bet that's what the connection is--you knew they were coming for Prince Beren, but perhaps you also knew that Kaidan was just moments away from exposing you, and maybe the Hunter had some kind of leverage against you, some bitter moment from your past you've tried to bury." She stomped her foot. "Is that why you arranged for the pirates to pick them out of the crowd, of all people?"

"That's enough!"
Jaran thundered, emphasized by a bolt of lightning that cracked over their heads.
Erlis roused the bandaged Aurelle enough to help her hobble from the room as everyone focused on the King. He had pain in his eyes as much as Javira wept openly.

"Javira," he addressed the fiery young woman, "I know how much it hurts to lose a sibling--I've lost my brother, as much as you have! But turning against each other isn't going to help bring them back! We've got to work together to figure out where the ship was going if we are ever going to see our friends again." He glanced around at every face in the vicinity, "So from here on out, there will be no more arguing, no more suppressed grudges or harboring secrets--if you have a problem with anyone else that forestalls any cooperation, then the two of you had better work things out, or this mission will absolutely fail. Is that clear?"

Javira nodded. Risyn sighed and did not shift or change his expression in any way. Lizeth did her best to smile, as a means of showing she didn't harbor anything against anyone else. This was as much of an answer as Jaran could hope for at the time.
"Good," he said. Nodding toward Lizeth he said, "You and your assistant keep working on that tracker, and notify me the moment it goes back on the line again."

Lizeth nodded, "Yes, sire." If I was Zayra and I was trapped in some intangible, disconnected state, where would I go? her mind asked.

A murmur of greeting from a passing servant alerted them just before Queen Azelie appeared at the bottom of the stairs up to the main tower. She wore a weary expression as she pulled her dressing gown around her.
"What's all the shouting and crashing about?" she asked.
Jaran immediately crossed the room and threw his arms about her, kissing her tenderly. "Azelie, my love--how do you feel?"

Azelie welcomed the embrace and leaned her head on her husband's shoulder. "A bit better," she said. "How did it go at the Harbor? Were you able to find out what caused the blocked connection?"
Jaran hesitated, a somber expression covering his face. "I did... but that's not the worst of it," he answered.

The door to the Science Tower opened, and young Nyella stepped out. "Madam Lizeth!" she said, coming forward with the round silver tracker in her hand. "I'm sorry, I've tried everything, but I can't seem to--"
"Get it to work?" Lizeth jumped in and spoke over her assistant. "Yes, that's what I was just telling His Majesty."
Nyella finally noticed that the disheveled and bedraggled man standing beside the weary-looking queen was, in fact, King Jaran, and her eyes widened and she bowed low. "Oh! A thousand pardons for my intrusion, sire!"

Jaran smiled and waved the matter aside. "It's all right, Nyella. Now, if you don't mind, I should probably retire and freshen up--my wife and I have a bit of catching up to do."
Nyella eyed her mentor, who fidgeted and shifted her gaze far more than usual. "Madam Lizeth," she said, "Did the Queen give you an answer when you asked her about finding the Princess?"

Jaran and Azelie stopped in their tracks and turned to face the flustered scientist.
"What do you mean, finding the Princess?" Jaran's voice held a dangerous edge to it.
"Princess?" Azelie echoed, "You mean Zayra? Lizeth, why were you going to ask me about her?" She eyed the device in Nyella's hand. "I thought that's what you were supposed to be doing!"

Lizeth melted and hung her head. "All right, I'm sorry!" She burst out. "The truth is, we did get the tracker back online again... but by that time, it only said that the thing it was supposed to be tracking was out of range."
"What?" Azelie clapped her hands to her cheeks.
Jaran scowled. "How long ago was this?"

Lizeth kept her gaze averted. "Shortly after you all left for the Harbor."

Javira tapped her chin and tilted her head to one side. "But have we figured out what exactly it's tracking, yet? Should we assume Zayra has gone off somewhere, or perhaps she's found some kind of solution that makes the necklace untraceable?"

Jaran snorted. "I doubt it; she can't even touch the thing, how could she affect it at all?"
"And out of range doesn't mean undetectable," Lizeth added. "Nyella's next assignment," she nailed her assistant with a stern stare, "will be to figure out how we can extend the tracker's radar capabilities beyond the borders of the Realm."
"It can't find her in the whole Realm?" Jaran burst out.

Azelie winced and shrank away from her husband, clapping her hands to her ears. "Shh!" She urged him, "Not so loud!"
Jaran pressed his lips together, but Azelie only shrank further away. "You've lost it!" she cried, grimacing and shaking her head back and forth. "It's gone, the key is gone--"
Jaran frowned. Azelie couldn't be talking about their situation. "What key?" he asked, reaching toward her.
"No!" She reeled away, gasping for breath. "The Crow Queen! Someone knows about the Crow Queen!"

Her husband blinked in surprise. "How did you--Well," he shrugged, "Aurelle did say something about it down at the Harbor. She mentioned Kaidan was doing research."
"I remember seeing the records when I visited him recently," Javira volunteered.
"It's all about the Key!" Azelie muttered. "The black wings... Her Army gathers..." She swayed like a willow in a high wind, looking as if she might faint again.
Jaran carefully stood near her, not touching her just yet, lest he frighten her away again, but at least close enough to catch her if she fell. "What key do you speak of?" he asked gently.
Her mouth closed, and for several quick heartbeats, Azelie didn't respond. Then, with a deep sigh, she looked up at Jaran and blinked. "Wait... that wasn't you," she said.
Jaran took her hand. "What wasn't me?"
Azelie sniffed. "I don't know..." She stepped away down the hall toward the Throne Room and the Library, turning her head side to side as if looking for something, or listening.

Jaran sighed. Perhaps Erlis would know how to help his wife. Risyn and Javira watched him expectantly, awaiting direction from their king. The young man sighed. "Well, it seems Kaidan's research is a reasonable place to start."
Javira rubbed her toe along the stones in the floor. "But... without Kaidan or Aurelle," she said in a small voice, "how are we ever going to understand it or get through it?"

Lizeth stepped forward and cleared her throat. "I might be able to help with that," she said, waving to Nyella. The young assistant opened her vest to reveal a bandolier full of vials containing various-colored liquids. Lizeth selected one and presented it to the others. "One of the projects we've been working on is distilling small, concentrated doses of the different Gifts, thus granting an UnGifted person temporary use of a Gift. For example," she pointed to the vial of glittering blue liquid, "This is a tincture of Aurelle's Gift. None of you can use it, since you're all Gifted, but Nyella can, so you should be able to access whatever information you need, until Aurelle herself has recovered enough to keep helping you."

Javira and Risyn shared a glance, and the Mage nodded. Javira said, "All right, we'll work together to see what Kaidan had discovered about this mysterious Crow Queen, and what designs she could have for The Realm."
Jaran sighed and his eyes followed the route his wife had taken. "I'll look after Azelie," he said.
The group dispersed to find answers.

Deep in the halls of the White Castle, the young queen wandered, as the strange voice that had been invading her thoughts grew stronger and stronger. She almost collided with Anahita as she passed by the door into the kitchen, but when the young water-dancer asked her what she was doing, Azelie only said, "Find the Gate... The Key unlocks the Gate..."
Her feet wandered while her mind listened, and she hardly realized where she was until the voice suddenly cut off.

Azelie blinked and her awareness returned--but she stood in a wholly unfamiliar part of the castle. Cobwebs hung from every surface, and the very air hung cold and stale, as if no one had so much as breathed in this space for the last decade or so. The voice running through her head still muttered on, but Azelie could barely hear its muted whispers. Her own dainty slippers left small footprints in the thick dust on the floor, but at the same time, she noted another set of oblong shapes running the length of the hall. More footprints? But those feet were nearly the length of her forearm! How tall would the person have to be to walk upon feet that size?

Azelie was so distracted by the voice in her head and the dusty prints on the floor that she didn't notice the fat black spider hanging down in front of her face until its legs brushed her nose. She leaped back with a screech, flailing her arms--an action which only disturbed more cobwebs, and the dark crawlers that made them. Azelie hardly knew which way to run, only that myriad legs tumbled across her exposed skin and up her legs into her dress, and she desperately ran in whichever direction she could, to get out, to return to the light and to warmth, to escape the scuttling vermin. She careened off of several walls before colliding with something firm, soft and warm. This something grabbed her arms, and Azelie couldn't move. Large hands held her elbows as she shook her head and scraped at her hair with her hands, peeling the cobwebs from herself. Finally, her pounding heart relaxed, and one hand released her arm, as she squinted at the form looming over her.

A flickering torch sparked ablaze, and in its light, Azelie beheld the tallest man she had ever seen. Her head only came up as far as the man's elbow. Jaran was the tallest man she knew--and even he would still come up to the man's shoulder, if that. Gleaming brown eyes studied her closely, and the man's long, dark hair scraped against the collar of his green tunic that looked big enough for Azelie to wear as a ballgown. Once she stopped wriggling and stared at him, he released her other arm.
Azelie swallowed several times until she found her voice.

"Who are you?" she whispered. Was this the man whose thoughts had invaded her mind so recently? She looked around, still surrounded by stone that told her she still stood in the castle--but where, exactly? She tried to recall all she had seen about the architectural plans from its construction, in case there had been an entire section of the castle that nobody used, so everyone forgot about it. But which direction had her wanderings taken her? Fear elevated her heart rate. Azelie withdrew a little step, although she hated the thought of leaving the little circle of light near the torch, what with all the bats and spiders and nightcrawlers waiting for her in the dark.
"Who are you?" She repeated more firmly, like the Queen she was. If he threatened her, and she screamed--would anyone hear her?
The man didn't move. But for the rise and fall of his massive chest, and the slow blink of his round eyes, one might forget that he was a living man, and not a lifelike statue.
My name... Said the voice in her head. For the first time, Azelie noted how gentle and deep it was, just the sort of rumbling voice she could expect from a man of his girth. I am called... My name is... Trev.

Azelie blinked, and searched the man's face. He watched her, blinking a few times as he stared. Still, he made no move to speak. She stepped forward, reaching for his thick, rough hand. Looking into his eyes, she spoke her guess aloud. "Trev?" she said.

A small smile turned up the corners of his mouth, and he lifted his hand, so close to her chin that she could feel the warmth of his skin. That is right. My name is Trev. What is your name, damsel?

Azelie blushed at the way the mute man referred to her. She tilted her head, allowing his touch, showing him that she trusted him, and he could trust her as well. "Trev," she addressed the man who spoke in thoughts, without using his mouth at all, "You may call me Azelie."

<<<< Previous             Next >>>>>>>

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 14 "All Hands On Deck"

Part 14 
"All Hands On Deck"

"All right!" Markus shouted, jumping out into the open. "Reinforcements!"

Beren Seramis began directing a jet of water at the flames he saw, while King Jaran himself zapped every metal weapon with a jolt of electricity, causing the rough and hardened criminals wielding them to drop them with a cry of surprise and sometimes agony, when a man couldn't let go fast enough.
Denahlia and Markus had to dodge out of the way as a redheaded woman appeared with her hands raised, and the ground shifted and crumbled to allow hard, twisting roots to burst free and wrap themselves around the crumbling buildings, reinforcing the walls and pushing the ruffians back toward the docks, where they couldn't do as much harm.

Those who escaped the physical retribution found themselves lost and disoriented in what appeared to be a maze of dark and hazy corridors, each looking exactly alike, and the ghosts of past victims lurking behind every corner. Meanwhile the people they chased found a brightly-lit trail of arrows leading them through the winding streets until a white-haired woman and a bearded man with curly red hair welcomed them with open arms and told them they were safe.

Denahlia dodged the sprays of water and the lightning strikes to come up beside the Prince.
"My liege," she said respectfully. "What are you doing here?"
Beren swept aside a charging thug with a wave, which he then froze into a wall of ice to block an angry mob of pirates charging down a side street. "Azelie noticed you'd gone dark, and, with the way you left all angry, we assumed something was up."

"Beren," Denahlia dispensed with titles as she struggled to call his attention away from fighting. "I appreciate the sentiment, but you really shouldn't be here--"
"And leave you to fend for yourself?" Beren chuckled. "Not a chance--you and your cousin there aren't even Gifted, right?"

Markus chose that moment to spring up with his hydraulic powered leg, flexing his prosthetic arm so that his arsenal clicked into place. By pointing his finger and flicking his thumb, he discharged small pulses of ultrasonic energy that caused the pirates and renegades to cringe and recoil, holding their heads in their hands. He paused to gloat over the stunned expressions on the faces of the two brothers. "Which one of you Gifted can do that?" he teased.

Denahlia gritted her teeth and studied the map on the display screen between her hands. If they didn't corral the ruffians currently looting the higher-end apartments on the other side of the Harbor, the melee could risk spreading up toward the City surrounding the White Castle--and with Edri's action-hungry soldiers on guard, the situation could turn from chaotic to bloodthirsty in a moment's notice.
"Markus!" She barked, "get over to the eastern end and bolster their defenses!"

The pirates were converging now. Denahlia could see them inching closer, taking hit after hit of water--and yet, somehow recognizing the bearded man who dealt it. The hulking, dark-skinned man registered as Goddry--Haggard's quartermaster--signaled to a couple thugs and pointed to Beren.

"Harlock," a voice beside her said. Kaidan appeared a moment later, his face flushed from exertion, as he struggled to get his second glove back on his hand. He nodded to her. "The pirates have given them a description of Harlock, and they know he's around here somewhere." He wagged his head. "Everyone Aurelle and I found were either hiding from the pirates or looking for the man they wanted."

Denahlia shuddered. She could never quite forget her first audience with Kaidan Clissander, the newly-appointed Regent. He had been so young and yet so cunning back then. The beard didn't do much to hide the keen glint in his eye... The casual cadence in his voice as he commissioned her to hunt down Javira's missing armor, by any means necessary... Not even bothering to wipe the blood of the bounty-hunter he'd just murdered off his gloves...
Denahlia hissed through her teeth and shook away the memory. "These people would hand over their own Prince?" she asked in disgust.
"Not if they don't recognize him," Kaidan said. "As far as I can tell, the description the pirates have given is of what he looked like six years ago, starved and beaten after being captured off the pleasure cruise boat they raided."

Denahlia leaped forward to stop a ruffian charging at them with a club whirling over his head. She activated the built-in armor in her sleeve, and a gleaming, holographic shield of light unfolded between them and the attacker, sending him flying back with the force of his own blow. She eyed Kaidan carefully. "Your Gift has to do with memories, right?"
Kaidan shrugged. "I can read them, sure--"

"Can you hide them?" Denahlia well recalled the way the twins had both worked together to warp the minds of the people they came into contact with--somewhere along the line, they'd lost their matching ability, but surely some of the habits remained, even though the Gift wasn't quite the same.

Kaidan shrugged, staring at her as if trying to see inside her own head. Denahlia knew she had enough implants to detect if he was reading her thoughts or not, but it was hard to maintain eye contact when he had that expression. "I might be able to cover certain thoughts with other thoughts," he suggested.
"Good enough," Denahlia replied. "Do that, and stick close to Beren. Anybody who gets within arm's length of him, I want you to scramble their mind so they forget to focus on him."
Kaidan frowned, a weariness creasing his brow. "That's going to take a lot of hand contact--"

Denahlia was not in the mood for weighing options. "It's the only way we can guarantee his safety! Everybody else is trying to defend the Harbor--but who's defending the defenders?"
Kaidan raised his eyebrows dubiously, but after a moment's consideration, he nodded. "I'll do my best, for the sake of The Realm."

Denahlia watched him make his way toward Beren's position, muttering at his back, "Whatever it takes to motivate you." She caught sight of the small redheaded pirate slinking around a corner, and she moved off in pursuit, activating any nearby cameras to track the swashbuckler as she did.

Nearer to the docks, Jaran did his best to blast away the rioters with targeted bursts of lightning. He wielded the white-hot bolts like bull-whips, sending them cracking over heads and under feet. Only a couple times, he'd accidentally caught an innocent bystander with an errant branch splitting off from the main bolt, but he'd worked out a hand technique to keep that from happening as often.
A screech split the air, and Jaran looked up to see a long red dragon streaming through the air, headed for the eastern coastline of the Harbor. Seeing the dragon reminded Jaran of the report he'd gotten, of a dragon sighting in the Harbor not too long ago. Was this the same dragon, or were there more of them? Where did these dragons come from, anyway?

An icy wind cut into the back of his knees, prompting Jaran to turn. Immediately after, the clouds overhead began to twist and whorl, coming together in a large funnel that threatened to touch down right over their heads. Jaran could feel it tugging the very breath from his lungs, pulling him into its spinning grasp. Jaran sent a bolt of lightning up toward the cloud, and a pair of hands caught the end of it, splintering the light into several smaller bolts and scattering it through several more tornado funnels scattering the debris and the skirmishers every which way. The bolt from Jaran's hand illuminated the figure overhead, and Ranger Tristan--his auburn hair swaying gently in spite of the full gales twisting around him--saluted his king.

As the noise of the winds died down, now that Tristan had caught the attention of nearly the entire Harbor, a wolf-howl rang out from the western side, answered by several more howls surrounding the area.

"WOLF!" somebody shouted, and the running and screaming renewed--but this time, the only ones running were those with ships in the harbor, each man to his own vessel. Those who had homes could run inside and bar the door, and the wolves left them alone. Every merchant and pirate and sailor, on the other hand, found snapping jaws and ominous snarls at every turn, save that which took them up their own gangplanks and safe on their own decks.
Velora entered the main square, howling orders to her pack, and when every wolf sat at the head of the docks, guarding the ones they had driven out from among the Realmish citizens, she threw back her head and howled again, signaling an end to the conflict.

Jaran came out of his secure position, extending his hand with a huge smile on his face. "Velora! It's good to see you!"
She shook his hand and nodded. "And not a moment too soon, by the look of things," she replied.
The door to Hayden's office cracked open, and he peeked out. "Is it safe to come out now?" he asked.
Velora nodded. "The Harbor is secure, sir."
Jaran's eyes scanned from one side to the other. "Where's Beren?" he asked.
Velora shrugged, as their friends were still coming into view.

Javira came up, with Aurelle leaning heavily on her shoulder. "She needs help!" cried the gardener. "A couple Gifted thugs saw through her illusions and started messing with her mind. Has anyone seen Kaidan yet?"

Velora shook her head, while Jaran wandered through the shadowy places, listening for a trickle of water or any other sign that his brother might be just out of sight. "Beren? Where are you? Can you hear me?"

The group briefly scattered as a man and a dragon landed in the middle of the space, kicking up a large cloud of dust as they did. Hadrian curled protectively around Markus, his face creased with worry. "Guys, we have a problem... I can't find Denahlia."

Velora snorted. "You're kidding," she scoffed, "all that specialized tech, and you can't find the only other person in the Realm with the same kind of tech?"
Markus glared at her, and even Hadrian let out a little growl in her direction. "I don't mean I am not capable of finding her... I mean the radar I use to pick up her signal is saying she is offline!"

"Off of line?" Jaran's worry only compounded, and he began pacing, wishing that Azelie was here to find their missing friends and his brother. If anyone knew where they could be, she would! "You mean, the connection you have between you is broken?"
"Is she dead?" Hayden wanted to know.

Markus shook his head. "If she was dead, I would know that. She's just... disconnected..." His eyes wandered to a spot on the docks, where there was a gap in the line of wolves. He glared. "And I know exactly who took her!"
"Who?" Javira asked, yielding support of Aurelle to Tristan and Velora.
Markus stood at the top of the dock and pointed. "The man who started it all by asking for Harlock."
"Harlock?" Jaran exploded. His face paled several shades, and a bolt of lightning hammered down at the dock where the Brigadier's Ransom once moored.

Markus stumbled back a few paces to be out of the line of fire, and in that moment, he felt the click of a secondary connection falling into place. The alert message scrolled across his line of vision: "Admin not found. Connecting to secondary Admin. Connected."

So, Denahlia hadn't entirely revoked his privileges. Markus smiled as his implanted comm reconnected with the intercom system at the White Castle. Whatever had triggered the "communications lockdown" was no longer a threat--which still begged the question, what had triggered it in the first place?
He gestured up toward the North. "Why don't you all head up to the Castle and see if you can't find answers from your prisoner up there?"

Aurelle blinked and raised her head groggily. "We tried," she sighed. "He gave us no answers... He had a device--"
"The tracker!" Jaran cried. "Lizeth has been working on it this whole time, I bet she's figured something out by now."

The Peacekeeper Captain came over to Markus to deliver his report. In his hand was a scrap of wood with that strange black bird silhouette printed on it. "Only the buildings with this mark were ransacked," he said. "We are still assessing the extent of the damage, and monitoring the process of repairs."
Aurelle saw the bird shape and her eyes widened. She opened her hand and a small flock of birds flew out. "Crows!" she cried. "Kaidan has been doing research... Something about a Crow Queen from a neighboring kingdom, back when Balwyn Seramis first ascended the throne."

"Crow Queen?" Jaran echoed. "I've never heard of any such thing. You think she might be behind all this?"
"Perhaps that's why the pirates grabbed my brother?" Javira inquired.

"I don't know what he found," Aurelle admitted. "But I think we could find more answers down there than we could by just waiting here and making assumptions."
Jaran glanced to Markus. "You have things handled here?"

Markus waved his hand. "I've got this; now that the place is not in crisis mode, I think we can recover." He glanced around and noticed that the wolves had disappeared, along with Velora and Tristan. "Perhaps Hayden can help me smooth things over with the merchants we displaced. Go ahead, and you can reach me on the intercom if you find anything. I'll do likewise if anything happens down here, your Majesty."

Jaran nodded. "Thank you for your assistance."
The King and his companions trudged up the road to the castle as the afternoon sun ducked behind a stray cloud.

Everything was black, tilting, and smelly. He couldn't see, couldn't keep his balance, couldn't pull his arms out from behind his back. A thick band of canvas held the corners of his mouth apart, preventing him from closing his mouth all the way, or speaking. All he could do was lay there like a pile of useless cargo. Why? Did they want to carry him away for ransom? Did the others know that the attack on the Harbor was a ruse? Didn't Risyn warn him about just this situation?

"Bring 'im up!" Growled a voice, and he immediately pictured a short, muscular man with a heavy brow and a bald head--but where would he encounter such a man?

Hands grabbed him by the arm, in no way treating him with the respect due a Prince. The ones dragging him didn't much care if he was standing or not, so Beren left his legs slack and let them haul his full body weight, only picking his feet up when they ascended a short flight of stairs, up to a higher deck. He heard someone knock on a thick door, and the bald-man voice declare, "We've brought the prisoner for ya, Cap'n!"

Captain... The memories flooded thickly into his mind, from the long-buried past... The memory of beatings, of the blistering sun, of rotting fish guts and rough ropes cutting his hands...
Someone yanked the blindfold off, nearly pulling his head off with it.

A portly man with a big, bushy beard leaned over to stare at him with clear, twinkling eyes. The thick hand clapped him on the shoulder, bringing with it a host of memories: whipping, shouting, and cruelty.

"Harlock!" Captain Haggard gushed, as if greeting an old friend, and not a prisoner he'd just forcefully abducted. "Ye've come back to me at last!"