Saturday, April 24, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 21 "All's Fair"

Part 21
"All's Fair"

Seven Years Ago....

The moments ticked by on the grandfather clock as they sipped in silence--but etiquette demanded that she never initiate the conversation. She would rather have scraped her arms till they bled, but she could not excuse herself until he'd said his piece.

He sipped slowly, eyes gleaming as he ogled her over the rim of his teacup. At last, he wiped his mouth and set his saucer aside.
"Tessa..." He said, and she fought to suppress a shudder. This was the moment she dreaded. She kept her hands firmly clasped in her lap. Perhaps if she didn't give him any quarter, she could avoid it.
"Tessa, look at me."
She stared at his chiseled, gleaming face, his eyes that haunted her, his lips that twitched more into a smirk than a smile.

"You have everything to gain if you consent to a life with me, and nothing to lose," he said. "Your father supports the match--and I've been as forthcoming as possible with my feelings."
Her father only saw that he was rich and well-connected. He didn't see the wandering hands, the seething stares, or the slurred words murmured in private and denied in public.
"Well?" he pressed her, shifting closer. "Say something, Beautiful!"
She shifted away. "Please understand," she begged, "I realize how my father feels about having a son of the Archduke's cousin taking an interest in my family--but it pains me to hear you speak of harboring such feelings for me when I cannot in good faith reciprocate!"

"Why do you shun me so?" He reached for her, so she disguised her avoidance with the activity of picking up the tea things. He kept talking. "Ever since I first saw you, all other maidens seem hideously ugly--I want no other. You are beyond beautiful, and your delicate nature gets you noticed--it's just that I need that sort of attraction in my life. We are a perfect fit, even if you refuse to see it. You may even grow to like me!"
Tessa stood up with the tea service, heading for the dumbwaiter door on the wall of the parlor. He followed her for those few spaces.
"Tessa! Say something--" She made the mistake of backing away after closing the dumbwaiter, right into his waiting arms. His grasping fingers folded around her elbow. "Don't just ignore me, girl!"

Tessa twisted to get away, stumbling over her skirts to get out of his grasp, but he held on. "Let go of me!" she cried.
He did not move. His eyes darkened. "Not till you say you'll accept my proposal."

Tessa's eyes flamed right back, and this time, she didn't shrink from meeting his gaze. "I will accept nothing from you!" She ducked under his arm, darting behind him and forcing him to release her. She didn't stop, but gathered her skirts and continued right out the door and into the hallway.
"Tessa, come back!" His voice followed her, but she dared not turn around. She ducked into the next wing and threw herself behind the first open door she could find.

The floorboards creaked under his weight. "I'm going to find you, little bird--and then I'll prove to you that you really do want me!"
Her heart beat wildly, and as he neared the door into the room where she hid, Tessa slipped out a second door and into the next room.

On and on it went, all through the house, as Tessa ran in terror, while the mad suitor stalked behind her, growing more insistent and more malicious with his threats.
"Scurry, scurry, little mouse!" His dark voice echoed from the next room as she darted into the solarium. "You can't avoid me forever, you know! You're mine! I am your destiny!"
Tessa listened at the door, cowering and trembling, until the sound of his footsteps faded. Still she waited with bated breath, until nothing but the pounding of her own heart reached her ears. Only then did Tessa dare to step out from her hiding place, and take great, deep breaths to calm herself.

The solarium looked very different at sunset than it did when she usually used it, in the morning. On display at the center of the table in the middle of the room was a shining dagger, given as a present from another suitor. The young maiden had been puzzled by its arrival, and she never did figure out who had sent it, but it was pretty, and it hid a fascinating secret.
Tessa drew the knife and gazed at the constellation etched on the blade. The arrangement of that singular row of stars was such that the main star, Polaris, graced the pommel. Tessa sighed and sank into a chair, speaking the star's name aloud as she did so.

Immediately, the blade hummed, and a brilliant ball of light issued from its tip: a scale model of the star itself, small enough to fit in Tessa's palm. She held it, feeling the warmth radiating over her hand, calming her nerves. It spread up her arm and toward her shoulders, like a gentle caress--not at all like the grasping wrenches of her suitors. She wished she could know how it was even possible to contain a star within a knife's blade, but for the time being, it was her secret to cherish.
"There you are!"
The suitor's voice rasped in her ear, his breath hot against her neck, and Tessa jumped from the chair with a scream.

His dark eyes leered in the light of the tiny star as he pointed at her. "You're coming with me!"

"No!" Tessa threw up her hands to defend herself, forgetful of the energy she held. It left her hand as easily as tossing a ball, and a furious wind blew past her, connecting solidly with the young nobleman's chest. He reeled backward with a cry, sliding right into a stone pillar behind him where he connected with a resounding crack. The wind stopped, and the body slid to the floor... dead.

Tessa stared in horror at the swirling orb of light in her hand. Had she killed the Archduke's cousin? Slowly, she folded her fingers toward her palm, making a fist around the light. As soon as she released it, the light had vanished, gleaming upon the dagger's surface once more. Tessa laid the dagger upon the table and backed out slowly. Only after she had closed the door to the solarium did she turn and run back through the halls, screaming for the butler.
Somehow, she doubted that anyone would try taking advantage of her ever again.

Present day...

Damaris chased after the team headed for Wildhaven: King Jaran and Queen Azelie, Aurelle, and Erlis. He did his best to remain unseen, but Azelie glanced over her shoulder, and abruptly Jaran came to a stop.
"No, Damaris," he said to the empty hallway behind them. "I thought I was very clear that you are not coming with us."

Damaris dropped from the rafters. It was hard to hide from a telepath! "Please!" he begged. "I can be useful--I probably know a lot of the people living in Wildhaven."

Jaran shook his head. "It is unwise to take too many people along to what might amount to a fact-finding mission. You would get very bored before we'd even arrived in Wildhaven."
Damaris scowled. "It's better than hanging around here with Him!" he retorted.

Queen Azelie chuckled. "Just because Trev chose to leave you behind because you couldn't understand him doesn't make him a threat to us," she said. "He could have given me the same treatment, except that I gave him a voice, with my telepathy, and that gave him the confidence to follow me back into the castle where you all could find me."
"And now we're headed to try and get ahead of this threat that's got three of our own captive," Erlis added, her weird Elvish eyes glinting. "You don't have an assignment yet--"

"Or perhaps he does," Aurelle cut in. She smiled at Damaris. "You and Risyn are both in charge of keeping the scientists and Javira safe. Who knows what might decide to strike, or whether Markus might send an update while we're gone. You're the last of the original Outcast team--remember when you and Velora met Korsan in that cave, back when the Wilderness was someplace to send those who had been banished from setting foot in the kingdom?" she laid a hand on his shoulder. "We trust you more than we trust these newer friends. Stay alert, and hopefully nothing will happen till we return."
Damaris smirked. "Little did they know that this was the last time any of them would see each other," he quoted.

Aurelle snorted and cuffed him gently on the back of the head. "Stay out of trouble, young Phoenix."
Damaris nodded.
"If you find out anything," Jaran directed, "Contact Azelie. That will be the fastest way to let us all know."
"I will," Damaris replied. He waved as they departed out of the castle gate. "Fare you well!"
Once the guard closed the gate behind them, Damaris jogged back toward the Great Hall, where Trev sat at a table with Lizeth and Nyella.

The two scientists were fascinated by this unexpected person, and peppered him with all sorts of questions, trying to draw out any portion of his past, to ascertain his origins. Trev, for his part, did his best to concentrate on the Illusory Scroll Aurelle had made, which would write out the words he thought, since no one there could read his thoughts like Azelie could.
"Have you always lived in the castle?" Lizeth asked.

Trev nodded to the scroll.
I have lived elsewhere. I have lived in another castle, where I could move freely. Not this castle all the time.

"Was it hot in this other castle?" Nyella wanted to know. She had a map spread out before her, with lots of information recorded, of the different biomes in and around The Realm. "Or was the weather cold most of the time?"

Trev shrugged, and more words appeared on the scroll.
I do not know.

Lizeth gestured to the light, summery linen tunic he wore. "Did you always wear clothes like this, or do you remember wearing longer sleeves, or thicker fabrics at some time or another?"

Trev gestured all around them. I am warm in these places. I have fire when my arms are cold. I have no need of other clothes. I do not have them with me. In my other castle, I had cloaks and other clothes.

Nyella made some notes, crossing out a few locations on the map. "This other castle, was it big or small? Many rooms or just a few? Tall towers, or only a few stairs?"

Damaris rolled his eyes and glanced over to Risyn, who was watching this whole thing from his favorite place to stand in the Great Hall, just beside the dais where the King and Queen would sit. We trust you more than the others... Those words should have bolstered Damaris' confidence--they were probably intended as a compliment--but years of living on the streets of The Harbor had taught the young man a thing or two about trust. Was there something he was missing about these people who remained behind? Why didn't Jaran and Azelie trust them?

No one was paying him any mind, so Damaris did what he did best: he disappeared, faded into the shadows of the castle, and climbed through all the secret alcoves among the rafters. Trev might be master of the apparent system of tunnels underneath the castle, but Damaris knew how to get around without touching the floor. Perhaps talking it over with Anahita would help him make sense of things.

Down in the garden, Javira coaxed a network of vines to finish sealing over the portion of the castle exposed when Damaris escaped Trev's imprisonment. Since Kaidan was taken, she'd felt untethered, detached from everyone else. She knew that nobody trusted her, least of all Aurelle and Jaran--the people she'd hurt the most by her actions. At least Azelie could see that she was doing her best to be genuine--but Jaran had insisted that the two of them should not be separated after about a day and a half of not knowing where she was, in spite of searching the castle top to bottom three times over. Javira finished sealing the hole with fluffy, leafy ivy, and moved to the rows of hedges, trailing her finger over the leaves and branches to sculpt them into whatever shape she pleased.

Truth be told, she was a bit envious of Trev and his network of tunnels that could take him anywhere he wished under the castle, without anyone the wiser. If she and Kaidan had known about these tunnels when everything had been falling apart around them, they might have avoided throwing in their lot with Troy and inviting all manner of scorn and animosity because of it. Perhaps the Shadow would have exposed his hand a lot sooner, if he couldn't find any lackeys to manipulate into doing his dirty work for him.

"Family is an important part of one's identity," rumbled a voice behind her. "Without them, we are ships adrift, deprived of an anchor for our souls."

Javira sniffed and wiped the tears out of the corners of her eyes. "What do you know about family?" she turned to face Mage Risyn, who had entered the garden behind her. How long had he been standing there watching her vent her frustration into the plants?
Risyn sighed and sat upon a nearby bench, looking very much like a man with a painful secret--hadn't Kaidan suspected as much the last time he talked to Javira?

"There was once a young man," Risyn explained, "who found himself blessed with a Gift he did not understand, and he became desperate to find someone to help him control it, and understand it. This young man had a sister who depended on him for protection--but once she too had a Gift of her own, she no longer depended on him so much, although the young man sought to keep his sister safe, so that she would have no cause to use her Gift more than absolutely necessary."

Javira wanted to ignore the mage, to cut him off and tell him to get to his point--but the longer he talked, the more she felt compelled to listen without speaking. She related to this sister, seeing in the relationship between siblings a reflection of her own relationship with Kaidan. She stopped fussing with the hedges and came to sit next to Risyn on the bench as he continued.

"The young man heard of a powerful man who had practically mastered a similar Gift to his own, so the young man decided that he would do whatever it took to meet this man and train under him. His sister had been to a place where the young man assumed she would be safe, and so he could have departed to see this great man all by himself, leaving his sister behind. But just before he could have left, on his way to the harbor to find passage, the young man received word that his sister was not safe, that this place where she was had put her in far more danger than she should ever have been in, and instead of reserving her Gift for isolated incidents, she was requiring her Gift to defend herself, in the absence of her brother, and because of this, she was going to be given over to a place where she would almost certainly be killed. Therefore, the young man decided to rescue his sister, and remove her from this dangerous situation, and leave on the first ship that was headed in the direction he wanted to go." Risyn's eyes gleamed, and sweat beaded on his brow as the sun shone down on them both. Javira felt a new breed of anxiety, a longing for Kaidan to come and rescue her in just such a way, and all of this agitation she released into the ground, calling up a living, blooming arbor of grapevines with climbing plants woven through them, shading the two of them on the bench.

Risyn had sat silent for some time as the arbor formed, so after waiting in thick and heavy silence for several minutes, Javira finally asked, "Did they escape?"

Risyn nodded. "They found a ship, but as payment for passage without interference, the young man had to consent to use his Gift to benefit the captain and his crew. In this way, the young man and his sister crossed most of the Sea without trouble--but there was one night, when the storm was too great and the young man's Gift too underdeveloped, and so the Captain suffered the loss of his cargo. He charged the young man for that loss, and furthermore cast him off his ship with a rowboat to traverse the rest of the distance to his destination, keeping his sister behind to work of what remained of this 'debt' that the young man now owed--and that was the last that the young man ever saw of his sister."

Javira felt the ache crowding around her chest, and when she released her Gift into the ground beside the bench, a rosebush sprouted and unfurled, full of the thorny, scented blooms. She met Risyn's gaze.
"That's why you were so afraid when Captain Haggard's ship pulled into the Harbor," she whispered.
Risyn nodded. "Your brother suspected as much. That young man was me, and the last time I saw my sister Quilla was when Captain Haggard declared that she would serve as his galley maid until he had no further use for her. That was so many years ago, I don't even know if he's bargained her away at some point, or if she might still be on his ship--but I know that if I ever see the Captain again, he might claim my debt to him and use it against me. That's why I stay here--not because I'm waiting to betray any one of you," he abruptly declared the very resentment that Javira harbored as an excuse to avoid the dark Mage, "but because I failed the dearest person in my life so long ago, I don't want it to happen ever again." He let out a sigh and rubbed his hands together. "And now you know something about me that I have never told anyone--not even Mage Korsan."

Javira smiled, and placed her hand on Risyn's shoulder. "I guess you have just as much of a vested interest as any of us to stop the Crow Queen from achieving her ends."
Risyn nodded. "I just want my sister back, before she is caught in the crossfire between Queen Mallory's forces and our own."

Javira lifted her chin, a renewed sense of inclusion and connection established in her psyche. She held out her hand to Risyn. "For the sake of family, then?" she said.
Risyn seized her hand and clasped it tightly. "For family," he affirmed.

Javira nodded. "Now let's see what our scientists have discovered about our new acquaintance," she said, pointing toward the door into the castle.
Risyn gestured ahead of himself with a nod. "Lead the way, miss."

<<<< Previous             Next >>>>>>

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Reader's Review: "Black Train" by Clareesa Savka

Synopsis From Amazon:

Life at the Station is safe.

Damien enjoys his life, his friends, his family. Even the new girl, Temperance, holds some intrigue. Yet the feelings that nag at him won’t subside: there should be something more.
There are rumors - rumors that light will come to the Station. The Council members insist that the rumors are blasphemy.

Is there more? How could there be more if Damien doesn’t have hope?
A hope that shines a ray of light on a bleak and boring existence.

Damien finds himself in the midst of chaos, destruction, danger, and grief as he seeks answers to the questions he has asked himself his whole life.


My Review:

Wow! Color me impressed! This story ranks high marks in categories such as "unforgettable", "relatable", and "compelling"!

First of all, the allegorical imagery is strong: it is pretty obvious right off the bat what the "Station", the "Engineer", and the "Station Master" are all supposed to represent. For some, this might be a bit of a turn-off, they might be tempted to write it off as just one big cliche, but as a huge fan of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, myself, I didn't mind the obvious parallels to the Gospel story, and sought to give the book its best chance.

The first few chapters are a bit "rough around the edges" and tend to drag a bit, because Savka endeavors to get all of her characters in place, not just in clarifying the setting to inform the readers, but also setting up character dynamics. Its a common trait of debut novels--goodness knows my first publications aren't all that impressive! But the great thing is, once she gets it all out of the way, hang on, because the story really takes off!

I wasn't sure what age Damien was supposed to be, and at times he seemed much younger than he was probably intended--but the emotional connection was very much there. At its most basic, the redemption story arc, religious aspect aside, is a universal one, and very much present in any piece of literature dealing with the battle of good vs. evil, flawed hero seeking redemption, and basically any plot that is headed for any kind of message of hope--which really should be the end goal for any dystopian story, really!

In this universal application, Savka shines. She diverts from the overtly religious tone for most of the book, taking readers through aspects of life that anyone can relate to: the experience of loss, the drive for acceptance, the struggle of resentment, the ups and downs of relationships, how vital it is to be able to trust the people around you, and what it feels like when that trust is broken; there is trauma, there is small glimpses of joy, there is the allure of taking the "easy way out", deciding between a quick and temporary solution, or holding out for the lasting outcome... and most of all, there is hope.

The thing I appreciated most was the way Savka herself, as the author, didn't take the "easy way" and just insulate her main character against any kind of struggle, pain, or disagreement; Damien faces choices the same as you or I, of choosing between two valid and reasonable ideas; he goes through a particular situation that definitely applied to my own personal experience, and as she described the characters' reaction, I found myself re-living all of those feelings, vicariously through these characters. I will admit that there was a point when I thought I knew where the story was going, and I fully expected Savka to take the story in that all-too-common direction--but I am happy to report that she does not, and the twist she threw in was well-timed and really contributed overall to strengthening the plot and allowing for more character development than there usually is in this type of book!

There are so many things that I really enjoyed about Black Train, I think it deserves a full *****5 STAR***** rating, and I'm going to add an Upstream Writer Certified WHOLE-HEARTEDLY RECOMMENDED endorsement as well! This story is excellent for fans of dystopian stories like Maze Runner and City of Ember, and if you like allegories such as The Pilgrim's Progress, then Black Train is a guaranteed winner!

Further Reading: (Christian/Wholesome/Dystopian/Strong Imagery)
The Alexander Legacy--Sophronia Belle Lyon
       -A Dodge, A Twist, and A Tobacconist 
       -The Pinocchio Factor 
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart 
       -Wolf's Path 
       -Tiger's Shadow 
Verona: The Complete Mermaid Tales--Pauline Creeden
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 
        -They Must Be Stopped 
The Cadeau Series--Connie Olvera
       -Who Can You Trust?
The Time Tree Chronicles--Lisa Rae Morris
       -The Emergence
The Painter Place Saga--Pamela Poole
       -Painter Place 
The Goode-Grace Mysteries--Cyn Mackley
-American Goth
The Bhinian Empire--Miriam Forster
     -City of A Thousand Dolls 
     -Empire of Shadows 
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland 
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 20 "The Winds of Change"

Part 20
"The Winds of Change"

Three Years Ago...

King Jaran sat beside the window overlooking the garden, lost in his thoughts.

He’d been king for a few weeks now, but he still wasn’t used to having so much power and respect all at once. He listened for the voices of Zayra and Beren loudly discussing something about a new program for the Realm—he was glad they opted to remain at the Castle, because although his older brother claimed to have no desire for kingship, neither could deny that Beren had received all the training and grooming for rulership, while Jaran was only ever expected to be a puppet in the hands of the Royal Council, once they’d gotten rid of the true Crown Prince.

He only hoped Beren would eventually share these ideas he and his wife were devising.
A series of uneven, shuffling steps pulled Jaran from his musings. He turned around and smiled at the wrinkled, but familiar face.
“Hello, Korsan, how are you today?”

Korsan had been elderly and grey-bearded when the Council had convinced Jaran to hide away till they could “cure” his electricity “problem”, during which time they sought to have the monarchy replaced with “Interfaces”, paragons of wisdom and beauty who would set the standard for the rest of the kingdom.
Now his white beard had thinned almost to translucence, and Jaran could see the way the man’s joints trembled as he took the seat indicated by the king.
Yet Korsan smiled. “I am well, good King. And how fares yourself?”
Jaran shrugged, relaxing in his chair. “Well enough; I’m still trying to wrap my head around this long list of kingly duties that has suddenly engulfed my life.” He chuckled, and then his mind finally realized what was missing from Korsan’s appearance.

Leaning forward, he asked, “Korsan, where is your talisman?” As long as he’d known him, Jaran had never seen Korsan without the string of glowing blue beads dangling from his belt. Those beads had protected them all at one time or another—so why would he simply give them up?

The old Mage rested his elbows on the armrests of the chair, and propped his fingertips against one another. “Do not concern yourself with the absence of my talisman, my liege. Rest assured I have not lost or mislaid it. I have put it where it will do the most good for The Realm.”
Relief swept over Jaran, and his smile returned. “You’ve always had this kingdom’s best interest at heart.”
Korsan nodded. “Which is why it pains me every time I think about leaving it behind.”

Jaran sighed and ran his long, slender fingers through his short black hair. “So it’s true, then,” he said slowly. “I had hoped that it was only rumors Azelie heard.”

Korsan chuckled. “It is a marvelous thing, to have a Queen at your side who will always distinguish the truth, no matter how men try to hide it! I am leaving, but you will not lack a Mage—I will see that my apprentice completes his training before I depart.”

Jaran entertained himself by flicking his finger to switch the glowlamp hanging from the wall on and off. “Ah yes, the apprentice—how is he faring? We were all a bit nervous when his magic seemed to flare a different color.”

Korsan shrugged. “His uses shadow much like mine uses light, that is the only difference. It is still the same magic because it has the same source—just a different way of controlling it.”
Jaran nodded, lapsing into pensive silence. He watched the old Mage’s eyelids droop, but Korsan never looked tired, only serene, as if he were meditating and not sleeping.

“For what it’s worth,” Jaran started, prompting Korsan to open his eyes, “I speak for everyone in this castle when I say we will miss you. I just hope the Realm doesn’t fall apart in your absence.”

Korsan blinked his eyes that flowed the same clear-blue as the talisman stones. “Heed this advice, my king: keep the trust of your friends about you, and never lose faith in your brother, for in that you will find the strength to be every bit the noble, humble, wise, and kind leader your father was.”
Jaran felt his confidence beat strongly in his chest, and all the anxiety seemed to melt right off of him.

“You wanted to see me, sire?”
Jaran looked around in puzzled confusion as Erlis the healer approached the balcony. “Erlis? No, I didn’t call you...” His keen eyes searched her face. “Are you feeling all right? You look a bit pale.”

Actually, the healer’s face had gone as white as the marble, and not even the sleek new robes could hide how thin her body was. Had she been starving herself?

Erlis blushed and sat on the very edge of the seat he offered her, right beside Korsan. “I am all right, your majesty. If you must know, the paleness of my face is because I have not shifted into a dragon for some time now.”

The young king shrugged. "I don't see why you couldn't. It's not as if you would suddenly be under someone else's control, and you've got plenty of people around to help you. Velora shifts into a wolf quite regularly to track down threats in the Forest, and sometimes even Edri has to shift into a Lion for a bit when she gets too stressed out--maybe shifting will help you feel better."

Erlis sank back into the chair, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. "The smaller animals have more control over their animal forms than I do in all the times I've shifted into a dragon. It was one thing to walk around with scales showing on half my body... but ever since Troy gave me the ability to fully shift into one form or another, I have felt differently every time the scales come out--I feel as though the dragon is going to rip me apart if I let her emerge." Her sorrowful blue eyes fixed on Jaran, and he could feel the weight of her words pulling at his own shoulders, tightening around his ribs.

Korsan cut in. "Wasn't it just a week ago when Velora offered to go to the Elves to see if they have a cure, since they've had some experience with dragons in their domain?"
Erlis curled her bottom lip between her teeth. "Yes, she did--and in truth, the serum they gave her was more effective than anything Lizeth tried... but all the same, I felt--" her voice broke off, and her brow wrinkled into a frown. Erlis began swaying in her seat, although she fought to continue speaking. "I mean, the Elvish cure could have..."

Jaran hadn't even noticed that his attention had wandered until he heard Korsan cry out in warning, and saw Erlis' body sink to the floor. Soft groans and pitiful wails escaped her lips as she writhed, alternately curling her limbs close and flailing them about, as if in great pain. "No!" she gasped. "Don't... I want... Can't... Help me! Help me... Help--"

"Is something the matter?" Azelie's voice from the door into the castle halls came as a relief to Jaran. He knelt as close to Erlis as he could, struggling to find some way of helping her when he had no idea what's going on.
"She just collapsed while we were talking," he said. "I don't know what's wrong--can you reach her mind and figure out what she can't say?"
Azelie nodded, and stood silently as she extended her telepathic Gift into the mind of the beleaguered healer.

Erlis quieted, but her breath still came in ragged gasps, and she flinched every time someone got anywhere near her.
"It's the Elvish cure," Azelie informed her husband. "She thinks it's changing her somehow. More and more in the days since she started taking it, she says she's been sensing everything."
Jaran stared at the woman curled up on the floor with concern on his face. "Sensing how?"

Korsan nodded sagely. "Sensing as in "every means by which the body interprets the world around it, my liege," he explained. "She's experiencing a higher level of sensitivity on all her senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, sound--even the instinctual sensitivity that is usually muted in people is running rampant through her." He looked at the young Queen. "Your majesty, could you ask her if the cure involved blood in any way?"

Azelie's lips twitched in brief revulsion, but she asked, and nodded when she received the answer. "She says yes, Velora did ask for a vial of her blood to bring to the Elves, so that the cure they distilled would match her body's specific traits. What does it mean?"

Korsan sighed heavily. "If my understanding of Elvish healing practices are right, it seems that the only way they could figure out how to mitigate the potency of the dragon's blood in her system was to introduce Elvish blood into there as well." He knelt down and drew a stone from his pocket--one from his talisman, glowing softly blue in his palm. He placed it at the base of Erlis' neck, just below the center of her collarbone... and her entire body immediately relaxed. She kept her eyes closed, as if sleeping, and Jaran called for a pair of servants to come lift her onto a stretcher so they could carry her to her bed.
Azelie came to stand next to her husband. She glanced at the old Mage. "How did you know that's what it was?"

Korsan nodded. "Elvish senses are higher than ours--she's experiencing Elvish-level sensations, but my guess is that the dragon's blood is also increasing even that further than her human body can handle."
Jaran watched as they lifted her head to cushion it with a pillow. Her ears, he noticed, had an odd shape to them--instead of rounded, one could almost say they were more pointed at the tops. Would the "cure" turn her completely into an Elf? What would happen then?

Present Day...

"What do you mean, you don't know where she is? She's the Queen! I want every able person to stop what they're doing and scour the castle and find her!" Jaran roared, his whole body crackling with energy from his Gift.

Anahita yelped as a stray bolt caught her in the side as she walked by with an armload of papers.
"Careful where you point that thing, Your Highness," Velora chided him from over in the corner.
"I'm sorry, do you all mind keeping it down?" Nyella squealed. "I'm having trouble focusing on trying to figure out what the Dark Queen's plan of attack might be!"

"Hmph, well excuse me for caring!" Jaran grumbled. "It's only my wife who has suddenly gone missing, after all--while we're all distracted looking for my brother, his wife, and the other captives of these pirates!"

The Forest Warden broke away from watching the two Rangers as they flipped aimlessly through random books, trying desperately to look as if they wanted to help, but having no idea how to go about it. "Relax, your Majesty. My wolves are searching the grounds. If she can be found, rest assured they will find her."

"You don't suppose Queen Mallory would try attacking here, would she?" Anahita asked Damaris, as he combed over the notes Aurelle's illusions recorded.

The young Phoenix wagged his head. "I certainly hope not, from these records of her past conquests! It seems she had quite the fixation on the existence of Juros, and the Abnormals, which used to be known as the Knights of Justicia--hey!" He held up a paper, waving it around like a flag. "I think I found something!"

Aurelle beckoned, and the paper seemed to leap straight from Damaris' hand into hers. "Let me see that: Elvish lore speaks of the Guardian of Knowledge entrusted with the secret of Gybralltyr: the Dagger that Points The Way. Only the Guardian knows the precise location of the Lost City." She frowned as she looked up. "So... if we find this Guardian, then we can find Gybralltyr before Queen Mallory does?"

"Did somebody say Dagger?" Javira asked, coming from between the shelves in the far corner of the library. "Listen to what I just found: Legend tells of a dagger imbued with the spirit of one of Juros' trusted Knights. It is said that this dagger can only be used in defense of Justicia, and no magic can resist its edge."

"The Dagger that Points The Way..." Aurelle mused, "And is imbued with the spirit of an abnormal--"
"So... this wouldn't happen to be some sort of enchanted dagger, would it?" Anahita proposed.
Damaris stared at his friend. "You know somebody with an enchanted dagger?" he asked in astonishment.

The water-dancer shook her head. "Not me, but someone in Wildhaven would have the craziest stories about working a stint in the house of this woman who lived alone, but she would talk to a dagger as if it was a friend of some kind. I never found out specifically who it was, but stories of the crazy woman with the magic dagger spread fairly quickly around the community."

Jaran snapped his fingers. "I bet if we went in there to talk with her, she might know where this woman lives--and that will get us closer to finding Gybralltyr!"

A page scurried into the room and bowed to Jaran. "Your Majesty--the servants have conducted a full sweep of the castle, from top to bottom, yet we have not found the Queen."
Velora glanced out the window to see how her pack fared on the search. She could see them congregating at one corner of the grounds--but none of them had yet given her the signal that they'd found anything.
Jaran's shoulders sagged. "Where could she be?" he muttered.

Risyn swept across the room, to the window at the back of the library. He pointed. "What is that?"
A large, round blue shape hurtled in from the sky, landing with a thud on the table and sending papers flying as it squawked.
"It's the Wyrmling!" cried Gavin, leaping to his feet.
The small blue dragon warbled and groaned, scratching at something attached to his foreleg--something with a bright red blinking light upon it, and a tag that said "PRESS ME."

Curiosity increased and the search for the Dagger briefly halted as Jaran pressed the button. Instantly, a voice only a few of them recognized filled the space.
"Okay, so for those of you I haven't met yet, I'm Markus, Denahlia's cousin--and a cyborg kind of like her," the recorded voice announced. "I sent the Wyrmling with this message, to tell you that I've located a source for Denahlia's digital signature--that is, the specific frequency at which her implants function, specific only to her. The Wyrmling's mother--a dragon I've named Hadrian--is currently tracking the ship she's on, along with the others who were abducted last night, and I have her following the ship to its destination. If any of you are mechanically inclined, check the pack I've attached to the Wyrmling's back. You should find a tracker that's currently linked with the sensor strapped on Hadrian, which would also pick up Denahlia's signal, and--if everything works like it should--give you accurate data on everyone currently on the ship. I've also included a memory stick with all the files Hayden had on Captain Haggard and his crew. I don't know why they came all the way here just for one crewmate, and I have a feeling there's something else going on... but I don't know enough to figure everything out. Hope this helps. Markus, out."

Lizeth approached the Wyrmling carefully, keeping her hands visible, lest it try to nip at her. Just as she came within arm's reach, the Wyrmling screeched and scrambled away, flopping off the table and flapping its wings as it headed back toward the open window.
"Don't let it escape!" Jaran cried.
"Everyone else stand back!" Thundered a new voice.

Jaran whirled around to see Erlis standing in the doorway, her pale skin practically glowing with magic, while her eyes glinted a golden color instead of their usual blue. He pulled back as she stalked toward the Wyrmling. It might have been the way she was standing, but he could have sworn she was now half a head taller than him--several inches taller than the last time they'd spoken.
The Wyrmling looked at Erlis, and immediately curled its tail between its legs. Whimpering softly, it crawled toward her, closing the distance between them and curling quite docilely at her feet. Erlis reached down and pulled the pack off its back.

"Here," she handed the pack to Lizeth, as her eyes switched back to their normal color, and her body seemed to shrink in height as well.
Lizeth reached into the pouch and pulled out a round silver tracker, similar to the one she'd been trying to use to track Zayra, and a small memory stick.
Aurelle peered at the device. "How do you use one of those things?"
Lizeth shrugged. "I don't know--here, try holding it."
Aurelle clasped it in her hand, and immediately, her eyes lit up. "I've got it!" She opened her palm and an illusion-scroll unfolded in the air above it, filling with pictures and information on each member of Captain Haggard's crew.

Lizeth activated the tracker. "There they are!" she said, striding over to the map hanging on the wall of the library and pointing to the region of The Sea highlighted on the tracker's screen. "They seem to be headed Eastward," she marked the trail from the Harbor to the boat's position. Fiddling with some of the switches, she could switch what the sensor detected, everything from an actual video feed, to a view that showed a faint outline of the ship, with two points glowing on it. "Wait a minute," she muttered, pulling out Raedyn's tracker. "I've seen that signature before..." She compared the two, and within moments, the first tracker beeped steadily and began showing the same signal on its display screen. "It's her!" Lizeth cried, showing Jaran the two signals. "Zayra's on that ship with Beren and the others!"
"But if Zayra's there," Aurelle said, "Then that means that Captain Haggard, whether he knows it or not, actually has the Key that Queen Mallory has been looking for!"
"You don't think he's in league with her, do you?" Jaran asked.
"If he is," the Illusionist said somberly, "then it's only a matter of time before Queen Mallory has in her possession the Key to Gybralltyr, and all she will need to do is find the Gate, and her conquest of Justicia can begin!"
"Let's hope she never finds it!" Damaris whispered in horror.

Haggard and Mallory stood with the map spread on the table between them. Mallory laid her narrow finger on one particular inlet. "This is the Bay of Gybralltyr," she said decisively.
Haggard tugged his beard, noting the warning signals marked around the area she pointed to. "That's a graveyard, is what that is!" He protested. "See those markings, your Ladyship? That means death, that means a wrecked ship--we'd never make it far enough inland to even begin searching for your precious Gate, or even if we did manage to make it inside, we'd surely not get out again!"

"Cornelius, I don't have time for your objections," Mallory seethed. "Get it through your thick, pudding brain: I don't care how many ships this costs me, I must have that Gate, and you will be the one to bring me there!"
"But how?" Haggard asked, throwing up his brawny, calloused hands.

Mallory's lips curled in a smile, she raised her right hand, and toyed with a thick golden cuff around her wrist. "Watch and learn, Captain," she said, striding out of his office.

The deck of the Brigadier's Ransom teemed with life. Riggers swung overhead, while sailors bustled to and fro, tending to the equipment needed to keep the ship functioning and underway. One by one, as the pirates caught sight of the terrifying Queen, they stopped and bowed to her. Mallory kept her right hand pointed, sweeping it from one side of the deck to the other, until at last, she found the one she wanted.
"You!" she barked.
The pirates in front of her parted to reveal the small, terrified galley maid cowering behind a barrel.
"Bring her to me!" Mallory commanded.

Quilla squealed as the pirates nearest to her closed in to seize her, but she was no match for their strength. They dragged her before the majestic Dark Queen, ignoring her cries of, "No! Please! No! Stop!"

Mallory pointed with her right hand still, and Quilla seemed to lack the strength to escape her.
"Well now, little girl," the Queen taunted. "Let's see what secrets you've been hiding!" She grabbed Quilla's arm with her right hand and yanked it back, wrenching the girl's shoulder and causing Quilla to cry out in pain. Immediately, the girl's body covered itself in glittering plates of armor--and when Mallory held up her hand still in contact with Quilla's skin to show Haggard, he saw Mallory's hand also encased in that magical armor.

"Here's your solution for getting into that Bay," Queen Mallory declared, as the pirates murmured to one another. She dropped Quilla's arm, and the armor disappeared.
"I don't understand, Milady," Captain Haggard replied.

Mallory sneered at the weeping Quilla. "Stop your sniveling and answer me, wretch: can you armor the entire ship?"
Quilla wrapped her arms around herself, quivering in terror. "I don't know what that will do to me," she whispered. "Please don't make me!"
"Do it!" Mallory hissed, lunging for her and threatening to grab her again. "Show me you can do it, or I'll strip it all away--I can do that, you know, with this!" She showed Quilla the glittering band about her wrist, and Quilla shied away with a cry of pain as if the very sight of it burned her.
"Do it now!" Mallory ordered.

Quilla planted her hands on the deck of the Brigadier's Ransom. Those nearest to her could see her eyes clenched from the strain, her muscles flexing as she called up the strange armor all over her body... then under her feet and hands... across the deck... down the hull... Within minutes, every plank glittered with the shimmering metal. Haggard even tried stabbing the deck with his sword--it glanced of the smooth surface with a clang. Watson grabbed one of the cannonballs--little more than a heavy rock, without gunpowder and the igniter to go with it--and tossed it against the wall of the cabin. It rolled away without so much as leaving a dent.

Just as quickly as it appeared, the armor disappeared, and Quilla sank in a heap, completely spent. Seline, the blond-haired Elf who was little more than a passenger aboard the Ransom, was the first to rush to her side and lift her shoulders. The red-headed captive moved to help her as Mallory returned her attention to the grey-bearded captain.

"That is how you will survive where every other ship has failed. I will contact you again once you have landed and located the Lost City of Gybralltyr. Don't even think about crossing me, Cornelius. You know what happens to those who cross me."
The burly captain shrugged. "Your Majesty, if I may ask--why is this place so important? People have been searching for years, and yet nobody's even sure it exists."
Mallory snorted. "It's there, all right--Paradise on earth, a back door into heaven itself! It won't be out of my reach for much longer--and soon, anyone will be able to access it!" She paused and gazed narrowly at the Captain. "My contact on your ship informed me that you'd gotten the key as well. My agent should rendezvoused with you at the last port of call. You do have the Key, don't you?"

Haggard fidgeted only slightly, but covered it and kept his composure under her stare. "I'm afraid he didn't quite make it, but we've got something better. We picked up somebody who can break the lock, if need be."
"This lock isn't meant to be broken, you fool!" Mallory seethed, advancing toward him. The rest of his crew nervously resumed their duties, lest they be caught overhearing something they ought not have heard.
The Dark Queen rolled her eyes. "I don't have time to correct your mistakes, Cornelius--see that you do not make any more! Either you anchor in that bay and start looking for Gybralltyr, or you get yourself killed and I simply find someone else to do the job. I don't care--I just want Gybralltyr!"

She stormed away, taking a moment to look up toward the prow.

Beren had just exited the small cabin after a few attempts at communicating with Zayra. He felt the icy gaze raising the hackles on his neck with its intensity, and part of him wondered if she could detect Zayra's presence more than he could--but as quickly as it began, the sensation halted. A cloud of crows descended around Queen Mallory, and when the flock cleared, she was gone.

"You heard the lady!" Captain Haggard barked at his crew. "Look lively now! All ahead to the Strait of Death!"

<<<< Previous                Next >>>>>