Saturday, March 27, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 18 "Guardianship"

Part 18

A Distant Harbor, Three Years Prior....

Just keep moving,
the young man thought to himself--although such a thing seemed impossible, with more objects and beings to impede their progress than clear paths through it all. Only someone with absolute confidence or no intellect at all would attempt to enter the vicinity of this particular port without an agenda or a destination in mind. All he had was a very specific desire, and a narrow window of time in which to achieve it. He ventured a glance over his shoulder, where one hand held the wrist of a small girl as they threaded their way through wagons, crates, herds of livestock, porters, merchants, and everything in between. Her steps stumbled and a passing cart full of steamer trunks nearly clipped her.

"Keep up!" He cautioned as he drew her in close, throwing his body between hers and danger and surrounding her with his arms. "We're almost there."

"It's no use!" she whimpered as she huddled against him. "They're going to catch us! We'll never be able to run far enough!" Her dark eyes fixed on his chin and her brow knit reproachfully. "Why did you have to sneak me out like that?"

He set his jaw, not trusting himself to meet her gaze. Because that place would have broken you, his thoughts ran. Because if I hadn't come, if we hadn't run... He satisfied himself with a tighter grip on her shoulder as he scanned the crowd for their pursuers. They didn't need to think about what would have been. "Listen to me closely," he whispered in a voice for her ears only, "as long as I'm alive, you are never going back to that manor ever again! We're not just leaving the city--we're leaving this continent."

The pair ducked behind a brightly-colored stream of well-dressed passengers just getting off a pleasure cruise. He kept his eyes fixed on those slouchy woolen hats that roved carefully through the muddle and noise, searching, waiting, combing for the missing servant girl. The farther they could get from those prying eyes, the better.
"Where will we go?" he almost missed her question.

He closed his eyes, shutting out everything but the dim purple glow that settled over the darkness behind his eyelids. The glow brightened, unfolding into the scene from his dream that had prompted the series of actions leading to this point: a glowing figure with a long white beard, and a string of stones glowing blue as brightly as the string of magical energy coursing through his skin glowed purple. He understood; he would know what this magic could do, how to harness the energy that had arisen inside the young boy's body one morning.

"Risyn!" The girl's frantic tone urged him to open his eyes. The purple streak glowed brightly in front of them, an enchanted thread only he could see. He looked down.
"I asked if you knew where we could go!" she reminded him. "Those men are getting closer to us!" She pointed over his shoulder, where the crowd had thinned somewhat, so the slouch-hatters had resumed studying all the heads below shoulder-level. Any moment now...

"This way!" Risyn hissed, guiding the small girl down the pier toward a large ship with plenty of sails, looking outfitted for particularly long journeys. Standing on the dock overseeing the transport of cargo onto his ship was a portly man with thick, grey hair, and a beard billowing down his chest.
"Excuse me!" Risyn called as they approached.

A black shape on the man's shoulder shifted and let out an ugly croak, and the man turned to face the pair. His eyes gleamed, and the sunlight reflected off his glossy red nose.
"Can I help ye, lad?" he asked.

Risyn nodded. "Are you the captain of this vessel?" he asked.

The bearded man nodded, while a burly giant of a man watched them keenly from the deck overhead. "I am--what business is it of yours?"

Risyn tilted his head, watching the purple thread extend down the dock in front of them and up the gangplank. Whatever awaited at the end of that thread, they would reach it with that ship--and somehow, deep inside his psyche, Risyn discovered that he already knew why. "You are destined for The Realm--and that is where I must go, as well."

The gleaming eyes narrowed, and the grey beard bristled. "I don't carry passengers, boy," he growled. "I don't suppose you're going to offer me money for a berth, just because we might happen upon the place you're wanting to go?"
Risyn stood his ground. The magic curled around his feet, coursing up through his legs and into his whole body. "We have no money, we only need to leave immediately."
The captain laughed in his face. "HA! No money? What else can ye offer me, then?" His eyes dropped down to the girl currently clutching to Risyn's shoulder.

Risyn shifted his stance, placing more of his body between her and the captain. "I can offer you my skills," he said, calling the flow of magic out to the surface of his fingertips.
The gaze focused on him once more. "Skills? You ever been on a boat, boy?"

Risyn shook his head, but gestured with his hand. In the blue sky overhead, a cloud formed, a regular flat-bottomed storm cloud--and with its shade came a thick breeze. At another gesture from the young man, the cloud vanished, and everything was humid air and blazing sun once more.
He stopped to observe the captain's reaction, but the bushy-bearded man merely waited. Risyn sighed, and pointed to the large crate still waiting on the dock, as the bald boatswain hollered names at the riggers trying to find the right ropes to hoist it aboard.

The wood creaked, and the dock swayed a little as the massive crate began slowly levitating off the dock. Sweat broke out on Risyn's scalp, but he maintained the telekinetic pressure, lifting the crate onto the deck of the ship with nothing but his own willpower. As a final demonstration, Risyn reached toward the captain's coat, and--without touching the man at all--pulled something out of the captain's pocket: his tarnished hip flask.
The captain snatched the flask away from Risyn with his left hand, while extending his right in greeting. "I think I've seen enough. Welcome aboard the Brigadier's Ransom, lad! My name is Captain Haggard. What should we call you?"

Risyn smiled and shook his hand. "My name is Risyn, and this is my sister--"
Haggard was still nodding when he interrupted. "And can she do all that, same as you?"
Risyn shook his head. "No, sir, but--"

Haggard also shook his head. "Then I'm afraid we ain't got room for more than one stranger on board."
Risyn saw the fear in his sister's eyes, and he pulled her closer. "I'm afraid I must insist that she comes with me, or neither of us will board your ship."
Haggard's face clouded, and Risyn continued. "I will consent to use my power to aid in giving you fair winds and friendly seas, and the other ways that I have demonstrated here, if you allow me and my sister to sail with you to The Harbor in The Realm. She might not have my abilities, but she can cook and clean and she is a fast learner."

Haggard finally tugged his beard. "I suppose she's small enough, she won't take up much room. The cook could probably use an extra set of hands as well. Very well, Risyn--I agree to your terms!"
They shook hands again, and this time, Risyn followed Captain Haggard up the gangplank. They cast off, leaving the hellish manor, the slouch-hatted goons, and all their troubles behind. Risyn recalled to mind the Light-Mage from his vision; soon he would have answers!

The grumpy, sallow-faced cook stood in the galley of the Brigadier's Ransom and stared at the wide-eyed waif standing before her.
"What's yer name, gerl?" she whistled between missing teeth.
The young girl folded her arms to keep from trembling. What had her brother gotten them into this time?
"My name is Quilla," she said in a small voice.

Present Day, The Forest Kingdom of Elvendom

"Presenting the High Prince and Princess of the Forest Kingdom! All hail Prince Aspen and Princess Mignonette!"

Velora murmured her hails along with the others--namely, the guards posted around the perimeter of the room. Gavin and Raedyn were too busy gawking at the vaulted ceiling of what looked to be a royal palace carved out of a giant tree. Velora knew better than to take such an incredible sight for granted--but she was too annoyed at the way they clung to their little ceremonies even when there was no one to intimidate or impress, really. Other than soldiers, the four Royals were the only Elves present.

Prince Aspen crossed the room and ascended the dais to sit upon his throne, while Mignonette did the same. On either side, Prince Spruce and Princess Tamarind waited their turn to take their thrones.
The silver-haired High Prince glared down at the three humans.

"Well?" he grunted. "What have you to say for yourselves?"

Velora seethed visibly, but she knew better than to speak until Aspen nodded toward her.
"What is the meaning of this summons?" she demanded. "I have already explained to Spruce the reason why you cannot force us to reclaim your dragon for you--"

"We have relinquished our claim upon the dragon," Aspen interrupted her. "Since she has seen fit to lay and hatch her egg outside of the sanctuary in our domain, she has staked her claim upon the mortal domain, and secured her own emancipation from the restrictions of both realms. We are no longer concerned with the augmented human who claims to share a bond with her, either--he has been absolved of his crimes in the eyes of the Crown."

Velora checked her rising temper. "Then, your Highness, why are we here?"

His strange, golden gaze locked on her in a way that made it impossible for her to break his gaze in any way. "I have summoned you here, as the Chief Forest Warden and the officially-recognized human liaison to the Elvish Realm, because it has come to my attention that your rulers knowingly shelter, in their very castle, at the heart of The Realm, a highly dangerous individual." His eyes shifted, but only slightly, so that Velora still felt him looking right at her. "There is one among you who knows of whom I speak."

Raedyn gave a strangled sort of yelp. Velora felt the wall of putrid fear leaching off of him. "N-no! I don't know anything! I swear!"
Velora held up her hand. "The threat of assassination has already been mitigated. This man is no longer a threat to The Realm."

Aspen leaned forward, fury a mask on his face. "This man is not the individual himself, but he is very much in league with the party responsible for this insidious breach of security!"

Raedyn's knees buckled, and he dropped to the floor between Gavin and Velora--much the same response after vanishing briefly and claiming to have seen Juros. "I don't know anything! I just took the job--I swear, that's as far as my involvement goes! Please don't torture me! I don't know anything!"

Alarm heightened Velora's senses, and she narrowed her eyes at Spruce's side of the dais. Sure enough, the Low Prince deftly manipulated a ball of energy in his hand, with his gaze fixed on the trembling, bawling Raedyn.

"Stop this at once!" she thundered, and all four Elvish royals fixated on her. "Your Majesty," she bowed to Aspen. "I recognize that this is your domain, and I acknowledge that you carry the authority here, so I will not presume to require your compliance according to my directions--but rather than torturing this man who I assure you is under my protection... and willingly pardoned for his misdeeds by Juros himself," she added for good measure, whether she wholly believed it or not, "perhaps it would be better suited to your interests to explain just what is the nature of the threat you are telling me about." Could it possibly have something to do with the fiasco at The Harbor last night?

Aspen sighed, and nodded. "Not much is known about her identity nor what sort of legacy she carries, but she is a Gifted queen who regards herself an enemy of Juros and anyone he has Blessed--and she has made it her life's goal to discover the mortal legend known as the Gate To Paradise."
Velora blinked, recalling all the conversations and revelations Jade had explained during the campaign against Troy three years prior. "Paradise--you mean, like Juros' own realm?"

Mignonette took up the account with a nod. "The very same," she said. "It is said that Juros entrusted the Key to this Gate to his Knights who remained within the mortal domain, and they were the ones who had jurisdiction over who could access Justicia through this Gate."

"However," Aspen interjected, "The mortals began using the Blessings Juros gave them as means to destroy each other, and so, not wanting the evil to spread into his own domain, he locked the Gate and scattered his Knights, so that none of them knew which one had the Key, nor how to unlock the Gate and restore the direct connection to Justicia. The very location of the Gate has been lost to mortal generations, and has sank into myth and rumor."

Velora's mind spun as she digested this information. "But now someone is actually looking for the Gate, and wants the Key?"

Aspen nodded. "The Dark Queen wants to wrest control of the Gate, so that she can control direct access to Juros, and exact her revenge. But to do that, she needs to know where it is, and she needs the Key to open it."

Velora sighed. Did the threats never stop coming? "So you're saying she has an agent somewhere in the Castle because the Key is supposed to be there?"

"The Key was there!" Low Princess Tamarind sprang from her throne. The glistening bloodlines on her face stood out like a glittering veil. "I sensed it myself! But just a short while ago, it departed The Realm--what can we assume but that it is headed for the Dark Queen herself, carried by another of her agents?"

"Please understand how serious this is, Forest Warden Velora," Aspen entreated her, for once not ordering her about coldly. "The location of the Gate has been held secret by Elves for many generations, buried in our records so that no mortal may find it without our knowledge--but if the Dark Queen receives the Key, and finds where the Gate is, there is very little that can stop her from waging war against Juros himself, and no place he can hide from her."

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 17 "Adrift"

Part 17

"Trim the mainsail!" The bald boatswain bellowed. "Get that port jib laced, she's luffing!" His eye traveled to the young man with the scruffy red beard attempting to work up his nerve to climb the rigging. "Oi, lubber! What are you waiting for, an invitation? Get to where I tells ya, or you'll be eating barnacles off the bottom of this ship!"

Kaidan winced and scrambled to the top rail. From there he could step onto the ladder-like rope nets that stretched up to the topmost crossbars of the sails.
The rigger above him glanced over her shoulder. She balanced on one foot as the wind blew her long brown hair all around her face. "It's not so bad once you get used to it," she said. "You're lucky we're sailing on calm seas right now."

Kaidan watched the side of the ship sway to one side, and gripped the rigging tight with both hands as a rolling wave slapped the side of the hull. He made it halfway up when the call came down: "Done!" A second rigger, the one with short red braids, shimmied down the rope and swung from one side of the ship to the other as easily as teleporting. She sneered at him as he worked his way slowly down the rope ladder once more. "You're going to have to be faster than that if you expect the Captain to keep you around, lubber!"

"Give him a break, Cori!" Chided the brunette. "We're only a few hours out of port--and he doesn't look like his feet have ever left solid ground before."

Kaidan realized the truth of that statement when he finally reached the deck below... and it just kept swaying. He staggered and reeled, trying to find that constantly-shifting balance point and failing, until his very insides gave a lurch in the wrong direction, and before he could stop it, Kaidan felt his throat seize up and the dizzying, spinning feeling worsened, sending the contents of his stomach spewing out onto the deck before he could bend over the railing.

A few sailors jeered and whooped at the way he gripped the rail with shaking arms. His head throbbed so badly that he could barely hear the boatswain's commands to readjust the sails for the umpteenth time. When the fog cleared a little, he could see Beren--the former Crown Prince, and even King, temporarily, before he gave that responsibility to his younger brother and chose to remain a Prince.
Now the burly quartermaster sent him trudging across the deck with a mop and a bucket of mucky seawater, to wipe away Kaidan's vomit before it dried and rotted on the deck. They hurled insults at him, too.

"Better get it all this time, Harlock!"
"Betcher hands got soft since we last saw yer!"
"Oh look fellas, it's Harlock's Dinner again!"

Kaidan couldn't watch for too long, as the urge to vomit hit him again, and this time, he puked over the side of the ship.
"Uh-oh, somebody's got a case of the frogs!" teased a sharp voice.

The brown-haired rigger came to stand next to him. "Fix your eyes on the horizon," she said.
Kaidan wiggled his head and clenched his eyes shut. Surely it would be over soon! Surely things would level out!
Her hand gripped his arm just below the shoulder, and he felt the strength of it. "Do it," she urged. "Chin up, look out. There you go."

Kaidan struggled to follow her directions, lifting his chin and slowly peeling his eyes open. The whole sky was ablaze with pink and gold tones, as the sunset wasn't obstructed by mountains, buildings, or trees. He found a low-hanging cloud to focus on, and as he breathed slowly through his nose, the nausea subsided.
Finally, he turned to her. "Thanks," he muttered.

She smiled at him. "My name's Reva, by the way," she said. "You're Kaidan, right?"
Kaidan nodded, feeling more confident and able to anticipate the rocking rather than fight against it. "Thanks for the advice, Reva."
She snorted. "We riggers have to look out for one another--we depend on each other to keep the ship upright. One person can't do it all on their own; we each need everyone else."

Kaidan watched Beren make his way across the deck. Hearing the name Harlock reminded him of not too long ago, when "Harlock" was just another name on the roster of Outcasts, rumored to be the lost Crown Prince returned, but as long as he couldn't remember his true identity, Kaidan and his sister could continue holding sway over the Royal Council. His lips tightened as he remembered what it was like to hold the Gift of Charisma their father had forced on them--the thirst for preeminence it created, the hunger to always be the center of attention, and convince people to do their bidding. Thank goodness the imprisonment had rid them of the false Gifting!
Reva saw the change in expression, but she couldn't know what was going on in his head. She only noticed the way he watched his friend. "You and Harlock are pretty close, then?" she asked with a cautious hesitancy in her voice.

Kaidan blinked and shrugged. "Well, he's kind of--" He stopped just short of admitting that Beren was any kind of high-ranking person. No one on this ship knew of his royal connections. "I mean, I guess you could say that," he allowed. He leaned his head back and felt the cool, salty breeze on his face. "It's like you said--we depend on each other to survive." Never mind that Beren had more authority than any one else except Jaran and Azelie--but it was true: if they were going to make it off this ship alive, they needed to stay close.

"Coming through!" The warning came only moments before the sword blade flashed very near them, and Kaidan had to dodge out of the way to avoid the small, wiry body hurtling toward him.
A lithe Elfin deckhand with boundless energy and a savage temper crossed swords with the dark-skinned pirate who mostly served as the crew's reconnaissance man when they were on the prowl for loot or jobs. His long rat-tail--a thin queue extending all the way down his back--cracked like a whip as he dodged the Elf's attacks and responded with his own hits.

Reva leaned back against the railing, very nonplussed about the commotion. She winked at Kaidan. "You'll want to be careful around Sally," she warned, nodding to the pair.
The redheaded Elf vaulted from one deck to the next, and then back down again right behind her opponent, barely allowing him time to turn so he could parry her stroke.
Kaidan raised his eyebrow. "Sally?" he asked.

Reva gestured to the Elf. "Marsali is her name," she said, "but you didn't hear it from me. She goes by Sally, and you'll have a better chance of keeping all your body parts if you remember that."
Kaidan recalled seeing the dark-haired pirate slipping through the alleyways of the Harbor. "And the other one? What's his name?"

Reva's lips twitched a little. "That's Keaton," she said shortly. "He's new to our crew, and he keeps pretty well to himself... At least, when Sally's not picking fights with him."
Kaidan glanced around and saw money and small objects exchanging hands as the other pirates started loitering, distracted by the duel happening on deck.

A stray blow by Sally struck a taut line, and one of the sails promptly sagged, attracting the attention of the boatswain. "Awwright, that's it!" he barked, barreling down into their midst. Keaton backed away, absolving himself, but the burly man's thick hand caught Sally's arm. "If I've told ye once, I've told ye a thousand times--"
Sally wasn't having it. She wriggled and thrashed against him. "Get stuffed, Watson!"

Watson gave her a little shake. "Now you lissen 'ere, wench!" He growled, pulling her in close. Kaidan missed the rest of the conversation as activity around the ship resumed, riggers along with Reva climbing up to re-fasten the sail, and deckhands returning to their duties in the absence of distraction. He sighed and wondered how Denahlia fared, down in the galley of the ship.

Denahlia, as matters stood, was not having a good time.

The galley of the Brigadier's Ransom was cramped, smelly, moist, and too dark for comfort. She saw none of the rolling waves and brilliant sunset that Kaidan witnessed. It would help if she had somebody fascinating to engage with, but the galley maid, a girl by the name of Quilla, didn't seem to want to talk much, if she could help it.

Denahlia watched the young woman calmly move through the routine of cleaning, preparing, and cooking the food. Her implants were a little glitchy from the rough treatment they'd received upon being abducted, but at least there was enough of a signal to let her know that she would still be able to access the signals she was used to--but who knew how long that would last, the further they got from the Realm?

Quilla chopped vegetables with a practiced hand and a sharp blade. She barely moved as she reached over to stir the chunks of meat searing in a pan, and then as soon as she placed the last slice, everything went into the pot of boiling water to simmer. She took a sniff, and added pinches and sprinkles from small pouches of seasonings that Denahlia recalled seeing Tertus use on occasion. The galley, stuffy from the heat of the fire, soon filled with the tantalizing aroma--if a bit too much of it.

Denahlia's peripheral sensors kicked in, registering a single footfall that prompted her to turn. A slender woman stood at the foot of the stairs down into the galley, with fair hair and pointed earlobes. Denahlia recognized her as the Elf her soldiers had briefly apprehended in their efforts to quell the unrest sparked by the pirates. 
She sneered in her thoughts, rather than let the expression show on her face, when she considered how ironic it was that the newcomer who ended up in cuffs was probably the least troublesome of the lot. What she had observed of the Elf so far was that she was merely a guest on the ship, accompanying them on their excursions, but managing to avoid anything overtly illegal in her activities. On the whole, she seemed to be a calming presence among the raucous crowd.

"How soon is supper?" she asked politely. "The natives grow restless."
"Captain said he wants it by sundown," Quilla muttered without turning around. "He'll get it by sundown."

Denahlia vented her frustration by a small tightening of the lips. Sundown! They had already been traveling for an entire day! Had the others even figured out what had become of them? How far was the captain intending to travel? She stood up, eyeing the stairs and the opening onto the deck.

The Elf laid a gentle hand upon her arm. Earnest blue eyes stared into her own. "I would not risk it," she said, as if she knew exactly what Denahlia had intended. "This is where you are safest."
Denahlia felt the resentment building--who did this Faeling think she was?

"Leave her alone, Seline," Quilla grunted. "I ain't got use for her. Far as I'm concerned, she can go where she likes. Don't know why Captain sent 'er down here."
Seline; Denahlia logged that name away with the rest of the roster on the pirate crew that she was building in her mind.
Seline shook her head. "She's here to help you, Quilla," she said. "You were saying the other day that you could use an extra pair of hands around here. Well," Seline's fingers encircled Denahlia's wrists, brushing against the nearly-invisible scars of her implants. "Here are those hands."

Denahlia pulled her hands away. What made Elves such intrusive beings? Seline walked off toward the sleeping quarters, and Quilla resumed ignoring Denahlia, at least until the stew finished cooking.
Quilla ladled some stew into a small pot, carefully placed a lid over the top, and put it in a small wicker basket with a chunk of dry bread. This she handed to Denahlia.
"Might as well make yourself useful," grunted the girl who was probably no older than Anahita--younger, more likely.
Denahlia accepted the heavy basket, while Quilla carried an open pitcher that smelled like fermented seawater.
"Follow me," the young woman said.

Quilla led Denahlia up the stairs and onto the main deck, where they had to cross the length of the ship to reach the Captain's quarters at the stern of the ship. Denahlia's implants picked up a bit more intel, detecting Kaidan on the rigging overhead, and Beren somewhere amidships, although by now it was so dark that Denahlia couldn't see much into the thick shadows all around the vessel. The pirates moved about in ever-shifting crowds, sometimes apart, sometimes too close. All the while, the ship rocked and rolled under their feet. Denahlia relied on her stability monitors to steady her legs, but Quilla seemed to move easily over the surface, as if walking on flat ground.

Just before they reached the Captain's door, one of the pirates reeled in their direction. Denahlia was able to step out of the way in time to distinguish his long, narrow rat-tail hanging down his back, but Quilla wasn't so lucky. She bore the brunt of his stumble, sending the pitcher of grog sloshing against his tunic. He staggered back, shoving her to the deck as he did.
"You witless hussy!" He snarled. "Now look what you've done!" He grabbed the back of her dress and yanked her up. "You've gone and messed my best tunic! I oughta teach you manners!" He brought his fist back, and Denahlia saw Quilla raise her arms to at the very least protect her face.


Pirates parted around them, and Denahlia stared in awe at the glittering suit of armor that had just appeared on every inch of Quilla's small body. The pirate who'd tried to beat her lurched away, cradling his limp and bleeding fist, spewing threats and epithets in her direction, but once Quilla began to move again, the armor dissipated, and she once again wore nothing but the dirty shift she'd been in since Denahlia met her. Quilla stopped when she realized that Denahlia hadn't moved since seeing her dramatic response to confrontation. She turned around.
"Coming, Handy?" chided the galley maid.

Denahlia willed her body into action, and caught up with Quilla. The rest of their movement went unhindered. Pirates whispered and pointed, but nobody got within arm's reach of Quilla or Denahlia all of the rest of the way back to the galley.
Once there, Quilla visibly relaxed, sinking onto the short wooden stool with a long sigh.
Denahlia took a chair nearby, resting her fingertips against each other as she tried to compute what she'd just witnessed. After a minute of tense silence, she noticed Quilla staring at her.

"You wanna ask me," Quilla observed. "Ask."
Denahlia swallowed, and phrased her question very carefully. "What... what was that?"

Quilla shrugged, standing up to commence cleaning up the soiled spaces in her kitchen. All in a day's work for a galley maid. "Don't much like to be hit," she stated.

Denahlia watched those deft hands at work. She would need to review her visual footage to see the crystalline armor all over again. She could only hope that her eyes registered clearly enough--it was hard to tell, now that her principal interface was in her hands, not her eyes. "But... I mean... You're not..." she stammered, trying to find the best way to ask a question that she had assumed only pertained to residents of The Realm. "I mean, it's not a Gift, is it?"

Quilla slammed down the pan she'd been carrying. "You gonna sit there and call me a freak all night, or are you going to help?"
Denahlia got up to assist with the cleaning, and the two women barely spoke to one another for the rest of the night.

Up in the secondary crew quarters, more exposed than the quarters down below, Beren sank onto the musty, mildewed bedroll, his arms aching from the scrubbing and mopping he'd had to do all day. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think about how long they were going to make him keep doing the same thing over again.
I don't have Jay to keep me company this time, either, he thought. But at least I know that I won't be losing my memories again. He didn't want to get too used to becoming Harlock all over again, falling into the bad habits he had developed when he had no recollection that he was meant to be king.

A soft clunking sound prompted him to open his eyes. Beren had to grip the bedroll to keep from flailing in terror and awakening the slumbering crewmates when he saw the mop, standing up straight in midair at the foot of his bed. As he watched, blinking and pinching himself into wakefulness, the mop slowly inched over of its own accord and tapped in a very deliberate pattern against the wall of his small berth.
Beren felt a surge of hope as he stared at that space beside the mop, as if he could will that person into view.
"Zayra?" he whispered.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 16 "Searching"

Part 16

Markus snarled in frustration as he sent his fist crashing through the holographic projection. The metal prosthetic bounced harmlessly off the reinforced surface of the wall. He slumped into a nearby chair and rubbed his eyes. The full-scale projection of The Sea covered every surface of the room, and yet it seemed too limited, or perhaps the pirates possessed some sort of technology that made them invisible to the scanners Denahlia’s tech used.

“At least,” Markus muttered bitterly to himself, “if I was on that crew, I’d definitely make sure we had some kind of signal jammer or disrupter!”
He gazed around that wide expanse of water, eyeing the array of islands against the far wall, and the wide stretch of mainland joust crossing her desk. Where could they be taking her, and why?
A knock on the door, and the exterior microphone clicked on.
“Hello?” said Hayden, the Harbormaster. “Agent Markus? The repairs along the docks are underway. I came by to see if you needed any—“
Markus cut off the sound of his voice with a wave of his hand. “Go away! I can handle this on my own!” He flipped open the video feed from the camera posted over the door, watching until Hayden gave up waiting and walked away.
Markus clapped his hands together, and the holograms disappeared.

“If I was Denahlia, and I needed to track a mark,” he mused, pacing back and forth, “What would I do?”

His cousin made her tech implants look so effortless—his father had explained that it was because she had no idea she was implanted, just that she had a "gift" she could control that gave her an advantage in any situation. While he always knew that there was a part of his body that had been artificially attached, Denahlia had no reason to think that her changing eyesight was any less natural than any other part of her body. As far as she knew, using her “Gift” wasn’t relying on tech, it was trusting her own instincts and intuition. And if the bounty hunting tech ever failed, Denahlia the Hunter wouldn’t hesitate to go old-school.

Markus directed his weary gaze at the weathered old filing cabinet in the corner. He checked the drawers till he found one that was full of nautical charts and maps.
“Old school it is!” he said, laying out the maps on the desktop screen. He set the scanners to charting out the likeliest path for a ship of the Ransom’s design.

A grating alarm shook his prosthetic arm like a jolt of electricity. The words PROXIMITY ALERT flashed in red across the multiple display screens. Markus glanced out the window and heard the harsh cry of a dragon before he saw the familiar red shape come into view and hover above the property.
He dashed outside. "Hadrian!" He called.

She squawked in response, and he saw the little blue shape of her Wyrmling flapping furiously beside her. Markus noted the glint of a holographic barrier that prevented his dragon friend from landing in the courtyard. He waved his hand until the command menu popped up. "Allow!" he said, and the alarm ceased.

Hadrian curled her wings close and landed on the ground in front of him. She curled her head down and nudged him in the shoulder, blinking intelligently at him.
Markus rubbed her neck. "Boy, am I glad to see you," he murmured.
Hadrian kept her snout resting on his shoulder, as if offering some kind of consolation. The gesture reminded Markus of the way Denahlia would rest her hand on his shoulder when he was anxious or agitated over something, and it prompted a lump to form in his throat.
Hadrian tilted her head toward the door of the office and warbled an inquiry.
Markus heaved a huge sigh and rubbed his face. "Yeah, she's gone, girl," he answered. "Some pirates took her. I'm trying to find where they could have gone."

The Wyrmling let out an ear-piercing shriek and tumbled in Markus' direction, snapping and snarling. Hadrian lifted a claw and picked up the little rascal, giving it a gentle shake and holding it just inches off the ground until it ceased wriggling. She set it down and nudged it toward Markus, looking at him with an easy nod. Markus accepted the welcome and approached the Wyrmling slowly. Another nudge from its mother, and the Wyrmling arrived within arm's reach. It prodded his hand with the tip of its nose curiously, and Markus took care not to move a muscle as the creature conducted its own investigation, and reached its own conclusions about him. Finally, the Wyrmling ducked under his palm, and its tail whipped back and forth as it rolled its head back and forth to simulate petting. Markus responded with gentle strokes over the scaly, spiny back, and Hadrian indicated her approval with a warm rumble emanating from deep in her chest.

Markus blinked and straightened, and the moment ended. "Right.... I need to find Denahlia, Hadrian. She's the only family I've got, and I don't want to lose her." He tilted his head and stroked his chin. "I don't suppose you could track her down?"

Hadrian lifted her head, huffed out her nose, and flapped her wings; she did, indeed, possess many advantages that would allow her to find someone, if he wished it! Markus ducked back into the office and pulled out a glove that Denahlia had worn several times. He showed Hadrian a holographic photo of what she looked like, and gave her the glove to get Denahlia's scent. He'd seen the dragon hunting prey from miles in the air--as long as she had that scent, she would be able to fly over the whole ocean to find her, much faster than trying to launch any kind of drone or track a ship!

Finally, Hadrian stood on her hind legs, her wings kicking up quite a breeze, indicating that she was ready to seek out that scent.

Markus beckoned to her, and she resumed her standing position on all fours. "There's a couple things we need to do before you leave," he said. "First, I've got something for you." He ducked into the office and returned with a tracker on a wide collar, intended for a very large dog. The collar was just barely big enough to encircle Hadrian's foreleg. Markus buckled it, telling her, "This way, I can keep track of where you are. Once you find her, don't go to her--I don't want you to get caught or injured if the pirates see you. Just keep following her from the sky, stay out of sight, and I'll notice when you stop searching."

Hadrian nodded, nudged Markus in the shoulder again, and launched into the air.

The Wyrmling gave a weak little bleat and flapped furiously, trying to join his mother in the air, but Hadrian whirled back with flared nostrils, baring her teeth at her own offspring.
Markus reached out to catch the little fellow before he got too close. Hadrian gave an angry roar, and turned a few circles in the air. Markus understood her body language: she didn't want her little one to come along, as the journey was fraught with peril and far too many unknowns. He chuckled.
"Here we are, little one, I've got another task for you. You will be able to reunite with your mother soon, but not just yet."

Hadrian nodded her thanks and growled the command to her offspring, who promptly stopped tugging against Markus' grip, and sank to the ground with his wings hanging limp.
Markus watched Hadrian rise into the sky, but before she was quite out of sight, he heard the intercom inside the office buzzing. He brought the Wyrmling inside with him, letting it sit in the doorway as he answered the call, originating from the White Castle Garrison.

"Come in, Denahlia!" Commander Edri's voice barked over the speaker. "You'd better not be avoiding me! It's an emergency!"

Markus opened the channel and responded, "Well, you must be the Commander Edri my cousin has told me so much about."

The Commander didn't hesitate to respond. "Cousin? Who is this? What are you doing on this channel?"
"The name's Markus. How can I help you?"
"You can help by putting Denahlia on the intercom."

Markus gulped. "Um, I'm sorry, she's a little busy at the moment--"
"Busy? The Prince has just been abducted, we've got an escaped prisoner, the Realm is descending into chaos--how can she be too busy for that?"
"Look, I'm sorry I don't have all the details--"
"You don't have clearance, is what I'm hearing."

"I do!" Markus huffed. "Denahlia gave me Admin privileges!"

For once, Edri hesitated. Then, she asked in a low voice, "Why would she go and do a thing like that?"

Markus rolled his eyes, but kept his voice even. "Because I'm her cousin, maybe? Look, just tell me what the emergency is; maybe I can help."

"No need," Edri's voice regained some of its stiffness. "I have another method of contacting her. I can just tell her directly--"

"Um--" Markus could almost feel the implant buzzing in his brain. If she tried this other method, she could figure out that Denahlia was no longer in the Realm, and then who would everyone blame for her disappearance? Him! "You don't need to do that! I mean, she's just... Oh wait!" He gasped. "I think I can see her coming up to the office!"

Edri didn't hesitate, Markus could tell. She waited, while his heart pounded and the Wyrmling tilted its head and blinked at him curiously from its spot curled up against the wall. "Now..." she measured her words slowly, "How do you expect me to believe that?"
At least her slow speech gave Markus the time that he needed to activate the voice modulator on his neck. A few quick swipes, and he matched it with an audio recording from Denahlia's memos. With the modulator active, he sounded like his cousin. "What are you doing in my chair?" He switched it off, to resume his normal voice. "Oh! Denahlia, I was just..." He lifted his finger off the intercom button when he saw that Edri was trying to respond.
"Denahlia!" she said. "I've been trying to call you. We have a situation at the prison!"
Markus again switched the modulator. "Sorry, I've been busy trying to restore order to the Harbor. What is the situation?" I really hope she's not going to expect Denahlia herself to show up! Markus thought. Sounding like her over an intercom was one thing, but having to produce her likeness was beyond even what his tech could do!

Edri hesitated again. "Is your cousin still there?"

Markus made shushing and shooing noises, then walked across the room, shouted "Fine!" in his natural voice, and then slammed the door. The Wyrmling, mercifully, sat silent through the whole charade. He sat down and responded, "We're good--" Oh no! His voice! He slapped a hand against his neck and flipped the switch, hiding the sound with a bout of coughing. "I mean, ah, he's gone now," he answered. "What is it you wanted to tell me?"

"Raedyn has escaped!" Edri announced. "He overpowered the guards and slipped out while everyone was busy with those who survived the pirate attack on the Harbor. I only realized it when your perimeter sensors tripped."

Markus noted the small red triangle flashing in the corner. "Hm," he muttered under his breath, "so that's what that means..."

"What?" Edri's voice caught an edge.

Markus coughed, recalling whose voice came through the intercom just now. "I mean, do you have any indication which way he was heading?"

"South, by the looks of it, to the Forest. I can get word to Velora, but she's probably going to need help, if he's as slippery as all that!"

"Copy that, Commander," Markus responded. "Mar--ah, Denahlia out!" He switched off the intercom and flicked off his modulator. He flicked through Denahlia's files till he found the one with the name Raedyn. Something about the man's face struck him as familiar. Markus sat back and pondered what it was. He knew he didn't need to worry about Velora--based on what he'd seen of her the night before, she was perfectly capable of taking down one attempted assassin.

There were times when Gavin envied the surefooted gait of his wolf, the way Sable cut a silvery blur through the bushes and over complex root systems. He had been over this same quadrant so many times, and yet it always seemed like a new tree or shrub had sprung up in some random location, changing the landscape yet again.
He kept Sable within his sights at all times as he walked. Her senses were so much stronger than his, she could detect what they sought long before Gavin could. He could only hope that Velora herself arrived in his quadrant so he wouldn’t have to handle the situation alone.

He had groaned when the howl went up over the forest, passed on from Velora herself: a prisoner had escaped from the castle dungeon, and was headed southward for the Forest. Velora included, through a series of yips and whines only the wolves and those bonded to them could understand, a loose description of the man—but Gavin was only half paying attention at that point. All he needed to know was that someone was headed into his jurisdiction who shouldn’t be there. He didn’t need to know whether this person was tall or short, bearded or baby-faced.

At every stir of the breeze, Gavin’s eyes shot heavenward, half-expecting to see Velora riding in on one of Tristan’s gales. Obviously she couldn’t be certain where or when this man would be in view, especially if he had to run right past the Boundary to Elfdom to get there from the White Castle road.
Gavin shuddered as the memory of shattering that cobweb-fine barrier in pursuit of a Wyrmling returned. Sable ceased her sniffing to check on him, so Gavin pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind and refocused on staying alert.

A faint chatter of rebounding echoes caught his attention, and Gavin stopped and looked upward once more as a flock of very noisy birds—crows, he noticed; That makes them a murder, he thought—sped by overhead.
The trees rustled, and he heard a man’s shouts mingled with the incessant croaking.
Sable’s hackles stood up straight, and her head and tail both tensed parallel to the ground. Gavin squinted at the moving shadows and shifting shapes he could see behind the trees.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when a large black bird burst through the air right in front of his face. He barely made it off to the side before a man burst into the clearing with his arms wrapped around his head. Blood dripped down his face, and Gavin could clearly see the chafe marks on his wrists, from metal shackles. The prisoner!
He seemed more terrified of what came after him than the fact that he’d just been caught escaping arrest. He reached out and gripped Gavin’s tunic in wide-eyed panic.
“H-help me!” He begged. “They’re coming! Don’t let them get me!”

Gavin shrank from the wild-eyed man, pushing him back a respectable distance. “Get off me!” he muttered... And then the strangest thing happened.

The moment his hands connected with the other man’s body, the man disappeared! Gavin stared at the space once occupied by the escaped convict. He looked down at his hands, wondering if the whole thing had been a dream. He could clearly picture the man in his stained, soiled, and tattered clothes, stumbling back a few paces... and then nothing. The crows flew on overhead, and all was quiet.
What had he done?

Velora chose that moment to alight in the clearing with Tristan’s assistance. Gavin was still staring at the spot, willing the man to reappear again.
“What happened?” Forester Velora demanded. “Did he come this way? Did you see him?”

Gavin couldn’t make his lips move—and then they moved, but his voice didn’t work.
Velora snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Hello, anybody home? Gavin, report!”

The command galvanized the young ranger into action. He snapped to attention and saluted. “Yes, ma’am! Ah, the prisoner came through here, ma’am, and he...” Gavin stopped, the words escaping him as his memory again tried to face the matter of the disappearing man.

"He what?" Velora swept her eyes from one end of the space to the other.
Gavin blinked and gulped a few times. "He, um... disappeared."

Immediately, her glare focused on him with burning intensity. Gavin winced and wished he could bury himself under the ground to avoid that keen stare.
"Disappeared how, exactly?" He could almost detect the low growl behind her words.
Gavin tossed his hands into the air. "How should I know? I was staring right at him, and he--"

The ranger gestured toward the space in front of him, and in the same moment, a body hurtled out of thin air.

The bearded man didn't even bother standing upright. The moment his eye caught Velora, he collapsed to his knees, raising his clasped and quivering hands. "Madam Forester, forgive me for the trouble I've caused, and please accept my life as payment for the crimes I've committed!"

Gavin's jaw dropped, and Velora knitted her brow in confusion. "I'm sorry, what?"
Raedyn clapped his hand to his heart. "I, Raedyn Tangeron, swear that I will spend the remainder of my days and the strength of my limbs in the service of the Royal Family of The Realm, and with my body and my life I will defend and protect the King and his subjects!"

His vehemence only perplexed Velora even more. "Wait... weren't you just hired to kill one of us? And how do you expect us to believe that you aren't trying to double cross us?"

Raedyn shook his head, his eyes wide and somber. "After what I've seen, madam, I would never--I cannot!"
Velora's eyes darted to Sable, who sat patiently at her side, watching the man's every movement. The wolf didn't seem to be on edge at all, just calmly watchful. If nothing else, Velora took her cues from that. "What you have seen?" she asked. "Why? What did you see?"

Raedyn shuddered. His eyes stared straight ahead and his face paled as his hands went limp. His voice came out hollowly. "Juros," he whispered. He looked up at Velora without a hint of guile in his face. "I have seen Juros Himself, and he called me to account for my misdeeds in service to Her. His price for leniency in light of all that I have done was to devote myself in service to you."

Velora's mind spun. Juros! The almighty ruler of Justicia, the realm of the Abnormals! She remembered Jade the Angel talking about him, the originator of the Gifts--but why was he still involved with the goings-on of the mortal realm? Didn't they suffer enough interference when Troy went rogue? She looked at the man still groveling in the dirt before her. "Oh, get up!" she groused, waving her hand.
Raedyn bounded to his feet. "Yes, ma'am," he said.
Velora wagged her head. "I don't know what Juros has to do with any of this, but now that you're on our side..." It sounded strange just saying it, for crying out loud! "Then the first thing I want to know is who hired you, what they told you, and how much you know about this plot against the crown!"

Raedyn nodded. "I will tell you anything you want to know."

Velora beckoned to Gavin, who'd finally gotten over his shock at everything that had just unfolded before him. "All right, standard procedure with new recruits, Gavin," she barked. "Take him back to headquarters and give him a uniform, show him the jurisdictions and boundaries, all the newcomer orientation stuff--"

"You'll do no such thing!" a deep voice commanded.

Velora had barely advanced two paces back toward the headquarters in the middle of the Forest when a dark-haired man stepped out of a rift in the space behind him--but unlike other times, the rift stayed open.

Velora tensed, but she ducked her head in respect. "Prince Aspen," she infused her voice with all the annoyance she felt at being ordered about like a subordinate. "To what do I owe this unspeakable honor?"

The dark-haired Elf sneered. "Spare your platitudes. You are hereby summoned to appear in the Forest Court of Elvendom immediately." 
His eyes traveled over each face before him. "All three of you."

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