Saturday, May 22, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 23 "Breach"

Part 23

Five Years ago...

Bright torches lit key areas of the camp at the edge of The Sea—just enough for the watch to see more of the immediate area, but not enough to be noticed. Or at least, that was the plan.

The twenty-man crew had been selected for an elite mission intended to take place on the water, but they had not yet boarded the ship they would take.
Brigadier-General Feldt, the man in charge of the team, glanced around the camp to make sure the watch were at their stations, and then withdrew into his tent to review the maps and comb through the meticulous details of every move he would make on the morrow, one more time. Those pirates had stormed their last port, as far as he was concerned!

If Feldt had been a little less distracted by his future, he might have noticed the slight shift in the shadows around the tree line behind the camp. He had instructed the watch to be as randomized and unpredictable as possible, changing positions regularly, but switching up their pathing and the directions they were looking--

Yet somebody had managed to identify the gaps in their surveillance, and that person now crept toward the camp, staying well within this series of blindspots. The infiltrator headed straight for one tent in particular, in the middle and along the perimeter. The watch traded positions, and in the brief moment during which none of them were paying any attention except to the very spots where they were meant to stand, the security of the Brigadier's camp was well and truly breached.

The young man occupying the tent in question settled in his cot, feeling agitation that made him want to tear out his sleek red hair by the roots. Did they really stand a chance of catching the pirates the next day? Would the Brigadier honor his agreement if they did?

He sensed there was something amiss just seconds before the intruder materialized in front of him. The young man sat up straight on his cot, and before he could cry out, a narrow finger rested on his lips, and a hushed voice asked, "Are you the navigator?"
The young man squinted and backed away from this person's touch. "Who's asking?"

"Someone who knows," replied the person, pushing the hood back from their face. Soft golden ringlets fell free around a fair face. "I've heard what you can do... what you are." She searched his face with practiced eyes. "Is it true?"

The navigator could have dismissed her right then--raised the alarm, sent her packing, or denied everything the implied. Instead, he gestured to the smoldering lantern hanging from the roof of his tent. "Watch," he instructed.
He made a simple movement, just a twitch of his fingers, a balanced hand posture. A focused gust of wind streaked through a gap in the tent's stitching, and stirred those not-quite-dead embers. Steadily, the spark reignited, and soon the lantern cast a dim light around the tent.

She balked, pulling up on her hood, in case the light was just bright enough to be noticed from outside. "Flame? But I thought--" She caught him staring and ducked her head with an embarrassed tilt to her lips. "They say you could summon the wind, or push it away--that even a ship in dead, glass-smooth water could still move because you brought wind to move it, or that a vessel in the most turbulent storms would survive because you deadened the air around it. Is this not what you can do--what you've done before?"

The young man flicked his fingers again, and a tiny gust picked up the few flickering embers from the lantern, and carried them right into his palm, where he caught them in a small dish, reducing the amount of light to just enough to see each other's faces. "I can," he admitted. "My name is Tristan. What is yours?"

"Corinda," she answered with a gentle grin, but whether it was relief at seeing her suspicions confirmed, or the fact that she was genuinely starting to like him, remained to be seen.
Sleep would not be for a while at least, so Tristan tilted his head curiously at her, wrapping his arms around his knees. "Tell me, Corinda--why have you come to visit me in the middle of our camp, in the middle of the night? Was it just to watch me blow around a few cinders?"

Corinda shook her head, fidgeting with the seam on her close-fitting trousers. "No--not just that. I..." She trailed off, seemed a little afraid, but plunged ahead anyway. "I'm a deckhand on the Scylla," she confessed. "I've come to warn you."

Tristan tensed as she named the very pirate ship they were preparing to hunt. "Warn me about what?" he asked.
Corinda pursed her lips, her expression wincing in displeasure. "Haggard, our captain, is a very conniving and cruel man. He knows about you--and when the Brigadier gives chase tomorrow, he is going to seek you out very first, and either force you to join his crew... or get rid of you."
Tristan frowned, and the swirling breeze playing about his fingers swelled to a twisting wind the size of his palm. "Get rid of me?" he said. "Why?"

"I don't know," Corinda answered. "Something to do with your, um, ability... He's set himself against your kind."
Tristan snorted. "My kind? As far as I know, there aren't any others who can do what I do." He closed his fist, and the very air inside the tent seemed to freeze in place.

Corinda bobbed her head. "I can't say I've ever seen another person who can do that... but I do know where there are lots of people who can do things that other, normal people can't."

Tristan heard her speak the word normal, and a flood of doubts crowded into his mind. How dare she say he wasn't normal--but wasn't that something he thought about himself every time he used this strange "gift" that he'd been given? But then again... to be given the opportunity to avoid being slaughtered, and to actually be able to meet other people who understood what he dealt with every day, and accepted him as one of their own...

"Where is this place you speak of?" he asked in hushed tones--after all, they didn't want to be overheard.
"It's called The Realm," Corinda answered. "And I can find you a ride to get there tonight."
Tristan squinted closely at this girl who until a few minutes ago had been a perfect stranger, actually going out of her way to accomplish the impossible for his sake. "What do you mean, find me a ride?"

Corinda smiled. "It's an instinct I have--I can figure out where things are going, and I have knack for finding the right way to go places. On my way from where our ship is anchored, to this camp, I heard a merchant with a wagon talking about making the trip up to The Realm tonight--I can get you into his wagon without him noticing." Corinda stood and put her hood up again, masking her features and making her stand out even less in the midst of that darkened tent. "So what'll it be, Tristan the wind-whisperer? Are you leaving this place, or not?"

Tristan took one look at the door of his tent. General Feldt had made no secret about the fact that even if Tristan did well, and the mission succeeded, he would still be regarded as "property" and the man would not hesitate to turn him over to the scientists committed to experimenting on the Gifts and speculating about their origins, why some had them and others did not. This wasn't any sort of life, and definitely not the one Tristan would have chosen for himself. He shrugged, turned his back on all that he knew, and slipped out the door after the strange young woman.

The wagon was waiting exactly where she said it would be. The driver had pulled to a stop and was absorbed in something Tristan couldn't exactly distinguish in the darkness, but he didn't notice when Corinda lifted the tarp at the back of his wagon and motioned for Tristan to get in.
He stopped her before she could drop the tarp and cover him again. "Wait," said Tristan, "What about the Brigade? They won't get far without someone to help their ships navigate. Maybe I should stay--"

"And risk losing your life, or at the very least, your freedom?" Corinda smirked. "I may not know a lot about you Gifted people, but I know enough to realize that you need to be safeguarded more than feared."
Tristan tried to look her in the eye, but she averted her gaze. "Corinda, you don't need to worry about me," he said softly. "I can handle it--"
"Go, Tristan," she said, stepping back from the wagon as the driver started calling out to his horses. "I'll cover for you, but this isn't the place for you." She dropped the tarp, and immediately, the wagon began to shake and roll over the uneven ruts in the ground.

In the middle of the camp, Brigadier-General Feldt had just set aside his maps, full of confidence in his plans and predictions--when a young woman dressed in leather barged right into his tent, right past the stunned guards who were posted in front of the door to prevent just this sort of thing from happening.
He jumped to his feet and fumbled for his pistol, all the while trying to form a coherent shout to see who was paying attention and would come to his aid.

"Help! Pirates!" He managed at last.
The young woman rather calmly flicked a piece of dirt off her sleeve. "Relax, I'm not going to hurt you," she scoffed. "I hear you're in the market for a new navigator, as your former one has flown the coop," she said. Her eyes twinkled as she met and held the General's gaze. "I've come to offer my services."
Guards tumbled into his tent, and Feldt held up his hand to forestall them.
"What do you mean, he's flown the coop?" he asked.

"Sir, it's true!" one of the guards gasped. "I was just coming to tell you--Tristan is missing!"

The girl shrugged. "Guess you won't get far if you don't know which direction works best, and you've lost your advantage because no one else can control the wind like he can, am I right?"

Feldt's gaze narrowed. He didn't like being told off by a mere girl. "And why should I believe anything you say?" he asked. "For all I know, you might be a simple deckhand looking for an edge in a fight you don't care about, or a spy sent to infiltrate my crew."

Her hand slammed down on his table with a force that made everyone jump. She held his gaze without wavering. "Or I could be the best damn navigator on this whole continent, and you'll need me to guide you, now that your best chance of being in control of anything in tomorrow's skirmish has escaped your grasp!"

Feldt hesitated for a long breath. Finally, he waved his hand. "Fine, you can take his position tomorrow when we strike. But," he jabbed a finger at her. "My men and I will be watching your every move. If this is an attempt to double-cross, I will feed you to the sharks, and you'll wish you'd stayed with your old master!"
The navigator shrugged. "Fair enough."
They shook hands, and the fate of the Brigadier was sealed that very night.

Present Day...

Denahlia scowled to keep the sweat out of her eyes as she finished rewiring the ancient system embedded in the Golem's hand. She'd been working under the watchful eye of Haggard's quartermaster and right-hand man, the stoic and imposing Goddry, for over an hour now. Beren could hardly stand the anxiety of watching her and having no idea what it all meant--but at the same time, it called his attention to the way Denahlia behaved around this strange technology. As a Hunter, she would be blinking a lot, and she seemed to carry within her an innate knowledge of the inner workings of things, an impeccable memory, and the ability to retain vast amounts of information and countless records.

Now, as she worked with the Golem's hand, he saw her feeling her way around it more often--as if her Gift had changed its function.

A spark erupted from the tangle of wires, and Denahlia jumped back with a cry. "I could use some help, here!" she snarled, shaking her hands the way Beren would after a nasty jolt from Jaran.
Haggard's crew exchanged uneasy glances from Denahlia's position at the hand, to the whole length of the Golem's body, but no one moved.

Beren felt the hairs on the back of his neck lift, and he turned to see Haggard's gleaming eyes staring right at him.
"What're you waitin' for, Harlock?" jeered the pirate captain. "Git on over there!"

Beren opened his mouth to protest, but Goddry stepped toward him. Beren inched away to avoid being shoved by the stony man. "All right, I'm going!" He crossed the distance to Denahlia's position. "What do you need?" he asked.
Denahlia stiffened and glanced toward him with confusion briefly on her face, as if she expected someone else besides Beren, but a moment later, she shrugged it off and said, "I need someone to help hold components for me." She climbed onto the wide, articulated plate that served as the Golem's palm. "Come over here."

Beren clambered after her, his heartbeat skyrocketing as he imagined Zayra chewing him out for being so close to something they couldn't even begin to fathom. "Now what?"
Denahlia lifted her gaze and pointed upward, to the Golem's chest. "We need to get up there," she replied.

Beren tried to measure the height with his eyes, but he was never very good at that sort of thing. "But how are we going to do that?"

"Hold on to something."

Beren was dimly aware of Denahlia pressing her palms against the surface of the metal plate underneath them. "What?"

Before he finished the word, the hand gave a jerking rumble and began sliding upward, into the air! Beren desperately clutched at the nearest finger, but doing so gave him a clear view of the ground dropping further and further away from them. The palm stopped level with the Golem's chest, and Denahlia calmly walked across it, as if it was simply a balcony on one of the towers at the White Castle. She fluttered her fingers over the tarnished surface of the round shields making up the Golem's chest plate, and different blinking lights and hissing hydraulics unfolded and shifted under her hand.

Such was his curiosity, that Beren forgot his fear. He shifted so that he could sit nearer to Denahlia, in case she needed help, but he wasn't quite ready to stand just yet.

She worked busily for several minutes before the keenness of his gaze upon her prompted her to stop and demand, "What is it?"

Beren averted his gaze, finding nothing much to focus on besides his own hands. "Um, nothing," he hedged.

Denahlia rolled her eyes, and held out a handful of components she'd removed from the chest cavity. "Hold these," she said.

Beren opened his hands, and received the bits of metal and wiring. As he did so, he happened to glance at her face.
"Hmm," he remarked, before he could stop himself.

Denahlia withdrew her hands from the opening and turned to face him with a scowl. "All right, if you've got something to say, your highness, go ahead and say it!"

Beren sighed. "It's not that I'm suspicious of you or anything," he said. "But why aren't you using your Gift to repair this enchanted mechanism?"
Her gaze shifted downward. "I am," she retorted defensively.

Beren shook his head. "No, I remember back when we were all fighting against each other and then uniting to stop Troy--whenever you used your Gift, your eyes would glow." He gestured to her face. "I've been watching you for some time, and your eyes haven't glowed once, the whole time."

Now she glared at him. "What do you care?" she sneered. "You're not even the King, when did you receive jurisdiction over the Gifts of others?"

Beren shrugged his shoulders, since his hands were too full to raise. "I don't, I just... didn't think it was possible to change one's Gift, but maybe I missed something--"

"It isn't!" Denahlia snapped, turning back to finish deconstructing the damaged wiring. After a moment, her shoulders sagged and she gave a heavy sigh.
"I don't have... I'm not Gifted anymore... I think," she admitted softly.

Beren blinked wide eyes. "What?" He gasped. "Since when? How is such a thing even possible?"
Denahlia set aside the tools and components and dropped to a sitting position beside the prince. "Truth is... All those special abilities I had, the things I could do with my sight, like being able to see in the dark, or through walls, or far away, and very small... It was due to an optic implant, a tiny machine attached to the nerves in my eyes." She gestured to the scar that ran across one eye. "Without that machine, I'd be totally blind. In fact, I was blind, as an infant."

"Blind?" Beren gasped. "No, that's impossible! No scientist in all The Realm could ever conceive of something that could restore sight to someone born blind! Much less be able to place it inside a person's skull without damaging it in some way!"

Denahlia chuckled and ran her fingers through her short hair to hide the way they trembled. "You're right there," she mused. "That's why I could believe that it was a Gift--that's what the scientists called anything they didn't understand, right? It didn't matter that my experience was wholly different from everyone else with an organic Gift--I had something different about me, therefore it must be a Gift."
"How do you know all these things?" Beren asked.

Denahlia's lips pursed, and she set her chin. "Because," she said slowly. "Two years ago, I... found the people who installed the implants."
Beren blinked rapidly. "Found them where?"

Pain ghosted over Denahlia's expression. "In another dimension, a system of worlds completely different from our own."
Beren scratched at his beard. "Worlds..." he muttered underneath his breath. "You said worlds, plural."

"I only saw one of them, although I heard about the others," Denahlia answered. "It's a world where technology and magic exist side by side, sometimes working in harmony with one another, sometimes working against one another, so they need to be kept separate."

"Magic and technology..." Beren kept repeating the words he didn't understand, as if hearing them in his voice would make them more tangible and comprehensible. "So... all those new sensors and intercoms and devices you introduced around The Realm last year--"
Denahlia nodded. "All came from that other place... the place I was born."
"You were born there?"


A bullet whizzed by them and struck a treetop just beside the Golem. Denahlia glanced over the edge at the milling pirates below. There was still a bit for her to do--but she probably didn't have much time to sit here and explain the existence of this other world to the befuddled prince. She stood up and beckoned for him to stand next to her as she finished reconnecting the wires to restore the flow of power to all the necessary systems. 

"Yes, my family came to the Realm from Je--from the other place," she answered. "There used to be a special program the authorities used to control the population, and rid their world of rampant magic: they would demand that certain children be given to the government to train and equip with enough technology to take out the magic-users. To avoid this, my parents, after allowing me to undergo the procedure that would restore my sight, escaped our homeworld and came to The Realm to be able to raise me in peace. It was their connection with this other world that enabled my cousin Markus to receive his mechanical parts as well." She finished setting up the connections and ran a finger over certain wires, glancing down to see the large feet twitching and creaking, the knee joints hissing, and the trapped arm break free of the tree roots restraining it. All that remained was getting it put back together.

"Magic and technology, working together..." Beren mused. "Do you suppose that was how Troy was able to jack your Gift, to 'upgrade' it to what it became?"
Denahlia bobbed her head in response. "More than likely; it was a piece of magic-sensitive technology--it could have been Gifted, which is why it was able to do more than just supply me with lacking sight... so when I learned all of this, learned what those scientists could do for me, I had them replace the old implant with a new one, a plain one that would only give me sight, and to insert the old ones with the Gifted magic in them into my wrists," she held out her hands and showed him the scars. "I'd rather be paralyzed if another Shadow tried to negate my Gift, rather than blind, as Troy made me."

"So, two years ago," Beren remarked, "you just decided to go back to this place? Why have you not spoken of this before? I don't recall ever receiving notice of your leave of absence..."

Denahlia winced as she slid a cog back into place. "That's because I never took one," she confessed. "One day I was here, and the next, I awakened in a new place I had never seen before. Someone had brought me through a portal between that place and The Realm." She had stopped looking at him, and Beren couldn't figure out why. Was she ashamed of her connection with that other person? "I met the governor of that realm, and she helped me research all about my family and get accustomed to using my hands the same way I used my eyes. And then, once I found a way to return to The Realm, I did."

Beren wagged his head. "Yes, and brought a host of new systems and gadgets with you! But wait--how long were you gone, exactly? Because I remember seeing you at the first anniversary celebration... and then by the second anniversary, you'd changed your appearance and gotten your hands on a collection of strange knowledge and defense systems--"

Denahlia slid the bronze plate back into place over the Golem's chest cavity. "It took me the span of a year to find someone who could transport me back to The Realm."

Beren's eyes bulged. "You were gone for an entire year? Without telling anyone? Least of all Jaran, who trusted you to make you the Harbor Watch--"
"Like I said, your highness," Denahlia interrupted with a strained tone. "I tried to get back as soon as I could, but there wasn't anybody who knew how to open a portal to a world no one had heard of!"

"Why couldn't you just ask the person who brought you there in the first place?" Beren scowled at her negligence.

"Because I had no idea who that was!" Denahlia seethed. "Trust me, I tried every which way--the ruler of that place had to call in a favor from an old friend, the most powerful sorcerer in her acquaintance, and he was finally able to open a portal to get me back into The Realm." Denahlia sighed. "So many times, I worried that I would never be able to get back, that I would be trapped there forever."

Beren paused to cool his frustration at the breach of trust. "How much does Jaran know about your disappearance?"

Denahlia frowned. "Nothing I've said to him. The only people who knew I was gone were Aurelle and probably Azelie--and Korsan." The corners of her mouth lifted slightly and her gaze softened. "Korsan actually met me very first upon my return, stepping out of the portal and into the Forest. He said his talisman had warned him of my absence, and he'd figured out where I would be going before I'd even left, and I think he even knew why I was gone, and when I'd be back. Aurelle figured it out when she started hanging out around the Harbor a lot more, after Jaran's first year as King." The former Hunter smirked. "Only, her response to finding out that I'd left Hayden in charge of the Harbor was to--" She stopped mid-sentence and shook her head, "Anyway, I don't exactly know if Azelie knows for certain, but I just assumed she would know if she ever tried reading my thoughts."

Beren wagged his head and would have asked her more questions about this other world, its inhabitants, and more about how technology and magic could coexist so well, that a piece of technology could actually contain a Gift--but Denahlia had controlled the hand to lower them to within earshot of Captain Haggard and his crew, so he chose to remain silent.

The Captain signaled to Watson and Goddry, and the two burly men stepped onto the hand and grabbed Beren and Denahlia, dragging them to the ground.
"Took you two long enough!" Haggard grumbled. "Is it ready?"

Denahlia nodded without saying a word. Still firmly in Watson's grip, she waved her hand at the Golem. Creaking and groaning, the giant legs moved and shifted to tuck themselves under the body, and with a thunderous rumble, the whole structure stood up against the wall of the ravine, which reached as high as its shoulder. The hand lay flat and level with a short outcropping in the middle of the wall, connected to the valley floor by a narrow, inclining path.

Denahlia nodded to the map in Haggard's hand. "We'll be able to reach the top of the wall and find Gybralltyr from there," she said.
Haggard's eyes twinkled. "Good! Let's get moving, then!" He waved to the rest of the group, and Beren found himself clapped in restraints once more as the pirate crew formed a single-file line to climb up to the Golem's hand.

From the back of the file, Kaidan patiently waited with his hands hanging in front of him, completely cowed and resigned to being led about at his captors’ whims.

At least, that’s the sort of exterior he projected. He blamed it on living most of his life under the compulsion of a charismatic Gift—the one his father somehow gave both him and Javira when they were far too young. They could both project a front of one mood, while the interior could be something else entirely.

Kaidan struggled to keep focused amid all the thoughts swirling about him—after the initial contact to affect their short term memories to avoid being bound, Kaidan only had to alter someone’s perception if they got too suspicious. While he couldn't read thoughts as clearly as someone like Azelie could, there was an element of his Gift that meant their mind was more open to his perception, like hearing the last echoes of someone's voice after they'd left the room. This made it rather handy when he wanted to keep tabs on certain people, but in a group like this, the near-constant murmur of several psyches became rather disorienting.

He hardly noticed when the slim, redheaded navigator edged up beside him. Her hand grabbed his wrist before he could shy away.
Immediately, his mind filled with her memories, and Kaidan stumbled to the side.

Cori stood on the deck of a ship under attack--and the invading force was led by none other than Captain Haggard. She tussled with the pirates, but oddly enough, it wasn't anything like someone fighting for their life. Had she known this crew already, even before they attacked? When the fight settled, Haggard had the captain of Cori's ship at his mercy--judging by the star on his shoulder, the man was a Brigadier-General. The next scene in Cori's memory showed the pirates forcing the Brigadier and his surviving crew onto the other ship, a beat-up, sorry vessel called THE SCYLLA, while Captain Haggard laid claim to the Brigadier's ship, renaming it the Brigadier's Ransom. Cori looked at the Brigadier's collection of maps, and--

Kaidan shook away the memories and met Cori's searching gaze. There was no telling how long he'd been under, but judging from the way the others were not too far ahead, and Watson was only glaring over his shoulder from half that distance... perhaps only a minute or two.
He pulled away from Cori, but she stayed right where she was.

"You're one of them," she whispered into his ear. "You've got a power too, haven't you?"
Her use of too kept Kaidan from denying it outright. He decided to press her on it; at least he could be reasonably sure that the pirates wouldn't try to extort a Gift such as his--there wouldn't be much use for being able to read memories in a place where no one had been before.

Kaidan furrowed his brow. "What makes you say that?" he asked.

Cori's face relaxed. "Your face just now, I could see that you were looking at something that wasn't in front of your eyes, and I've just thought about the last time I saw another one of those Gifted--the day Haggard became captain of his own ship instead of a borrowed one, our first day as the crew of the Brigadier's Ransom. There was a fellow in the General's crew who could call up the wind and make it do whatever he liked. I helped him escape so that I could join the Brigade. I thought for sure that if the Brigadier lost his navigator, he wouldn't have the advantage and he'd have to regroup, but they attacked all the same, and the Brigadier's side lost. I rejoined Haggard's crew, and I've been looking out for your kind ever since." She crossed her arms and nodded toward his hands. "And the fact that you've made it this far without being tied up, even when my eyes are telling me that you've got the manacles on your wrists, same as the others."

Kaidan blanched, and the ground under his feet seemed to give way, but Cori shook her head. "You have your reasons, and you haven't caused any trouble yet. I don't fear you or desire to control you as the others might." She dropped one hand to brush across the well-stocked utility belt around her waist. Kaidan saw many small knife hilts, all ready to be drawn at a moment's notice, as well as the pistol holstered at her hip. "Just don't try anything," Cori murmured. "I may not have any loyalty to Captain Haggard and his ilk, but I like my job, and I'll do anything to keep it."

"Noted," Kaidan replied, hanging his head. "Are there any others who feel the same way you do?"

It was a dangerous question, and Cori was wise enough not to respond immediately. The front of the file had reached the Golem's hand already, and the ghostly, featureless face illuminated along the cracks between the metal plates, humming as the machinery idled until everyone had gathered in the middle of the giant palm.

The hand raised upward with a series of jerky movements, nearly throwing Kaidan off-balance and exposing his charade, if Cori hadn't caught his shoulder and shoved him upright again. They disembarked onto the top of the cliff, which was shrouded in a thick fog. Kaidan could only see so far over the patchy, rubbled terrain. Captain Haggard urged Denahlia onward, as she stared at the map only she could see.

He glanced over to Cori, who had moved to stand beside Reva and Seline. She said nothing, only met his gaze and gave a wink.

Behind the group, the Golem's eyes flickered as a new bit of programming--something inserted by Denahlia while she was working to restore its systems--activated and began running. Slowly, the behemoth pivoted in place, and tilted its head back. For the first time since its construction, The Golem began to do a very strange thing.

It began to broadcast its very own signal.

Jaran didn't think, just moved. He launched himself at his wife, tackling her to the ground as the massive beast thundered by, snorting and snarling. Erlis met him, helping them both to their feet as the bear reared on its hind legs and growled a warning.
"I've got her, Your highness," Erlis whispered. "I'll get her to safety."

Jaran's lightning crackled around his eyes as he nodded. Erlis and Azelie disappeared into the sheaves of wheat, and Jaran cried out, "Aurelle! Diversion!"

Aurelle flourished, and a flurry of glowing blue shapes swarmed from her hands: bees, angry and buzzing and crowding around the bear.

The huge paws swatted through the glowing illusions, and it did seem to disorient the animal as it could see but not smell this new threat. Jaran flexed his hands, and balls of lightning collected over his palms, arcing between his fingers. He clapped his palms together, and a bolt of lightning shot straight toward the flailing bear, headed straight for its heart...

But just at the same moment, a whistle caught the animal's attention, and it dropped to all fours, letting the lighting sail harmlessly over its head.

Aurelle and Jaran froze in place, neither willing to anticipate what might happen next.
"I would very much appreciate it if you didn't try to roast my Bronn," said a voice.

Jaran whirled to confront this new threat, and beheld a lean, wiry young woman wielding a gleaming scythe in her capable hands. Blue tattoos spiraled up her arms to her shoulders, and down across her left eye. She frowned and brandished the scythe at them. "What do you think you're doing, trespassing on my land, threatiening my animals?"

Jaran prepared to defend himself again, calling up another charge of lightning between his hands. Abruptly, Erlis appeared at his side, her hand on his arm. "Your Majesty, hold!" She turned to the woman. "Are you Brinley?"

The golden-haired damsel didn't take her eyes off Jaran for a moment. Her eyes narrowed. "Who's asking?"

"The King!" Jaran retorted, clenching his fists to extinguish the charge.

The woman's response was to immediately sheathe her scythe, while the bear hemmed and snuffled.
Jaran crossed his arms. "I ask again--are you the one called Brinley?"

The woman held his gaze and nodded firmly. "I am. What brings the King so far out of his element, into the back alleys of Wildhaven?"

Azelie, it's safe, Jaran thought the words for his wife's benefit. "I haven't been this far into Wildhaven, it is true," he acknowledged. "But all the same, it's still a part of my kingdom, and when something threatens the safety of The Realm, even the Gifted who are its citizens should be more careful about letting their wild pets roam about and threaten others."

The bear waddled to stand next to Brinley, and she leaned casually on his shoulder. "Bronn wasn't just roaming about, thank you. We have a connection, he and I, and my Gift ensures that I know where he is and how he is feeling at all times. He acted upon his own territorial instincts and my own alarm at the four strangers shouting my name--but there was not a moment when I wasn't in total control." She sniffed and brushed a stray lock of hair out of her face as Azelie and Erlis emerged from the wheat field. "But you haven't answered my question. Why are you here? Why look for me?"

Azelie settled beside Jaran and nodded to her. "A dangerous enemy has threatened the safety of The Realm--perhaps even the whole world, and she's taken Prince Beren captive. She seeks a protected location known as Gybralltyr--do you know it?"

Brinley's eyes hardened, and the bear--Bronn, evidently--picked up his head and issued a soft growl.
"Yeah, I might have come across its whereabouts during my time as a captive rigger on a ship that was headed for it, on account of some priceless treasure that was hidden there."

Jaran leaned forward. Priceless treasure? Was this all Haggard wanted? "And?" he prompted.
Brinley shrugged. "The pirates never got to land. We approached this small bay, just a narrow gap between some high cliffs, and the lookout in the crow's nest cried out that there was somebody on the cliff. Everybody looked, but we could only see a woman in a red dress who held a dagger of some kind--and then a wind picked up and started knocking our ship around, churning up waves that pelted us, until the whole vessel capsized, and we all went under."

Bronn moaned, and Brinley paused to bury her hand in the thick fur atop his head. "Bronn was as trapped on that boat as I was. They'd wanted to goad him into being their attack bear, as an intimidation tactic. I was kind to him, though, sneaking him food every chance I got, and when the boat split in half, and I plunged into the water, I thought that was the end of me. But next thing I know, I'm waking up on a rocky beach inside a very small and narrow bay--that same one we'd been trying to get to--and there's Bronn next to me." She turned slightly, to wrap her arms around the bear's shaggy neck. "Bronn had saved my life, and we've shared a bond of understanding ever since."

"How did you get out of that place, if no ship could make it in without getting destroyed?" Erlis asked, as the others merely waited for her to continue the strange tale.

Brinley sighed. "That's the strangest part, I guess. Bronn and I followed a narrow path up to the top of the cliff, and into the clouds. I could barely see the topmost gables of what looked to be a stone mansion in the distance, but as we walked toward it, we entered a fog bank that covered us completely, and when we came out of it, we were here."
Jaran tilted his head, and gestured around them. "Here?" he asked.

Brinley shook his head. "Here, as in back in The Realm. The fog bank came out just in front of the registration office, at the entrance to Wildhaven. They didn't seem the least bit concerned about a random woman walking in with her psychically-bonded bear, so I took it as a sign that we'd found the place we were meant to be, a safe haven for both of us." She sat up. "But now you're looking for Gybralltyr and talking about someone who threatens our safety?"

Jaran nodded. "She wants to control a power beyond that of the Gifts, more power than a mortal is meant to have. That woman you saw, or at least her dagger, could be the key to stopping the woman."
"Do you happen to know where you were when the pirate crew located Gybralltyr?" Aurelle asked, casually holding a glowing blue scroll at the ready in her hand.

Brinley shied away from its sudden appearance. "I don't rightly know just where we were..." she murmured.
Bronn lurched and shied away from Brinley, almost knocking her over. The bear gave a series of short grunts, and began pawing the ground in agitation.

Brinley watched him closely. "What is it, Bronn?" she asked. "He only does this if trouble is coming."
Moments later, the sunlight dimmed a little as a massive flock of crows--croaking and cawing their rasping cry--sailed across the sky. They headed toward the northward--toward the White Castle.
All four friends and Brinley stood watching them, while shielding their eyes from the sun with their hands.

"Huh," Brinley mused as the last caw faded. "Come to think of it, we did see quite a bit of crows while we were on that ship. I remember thinking how strange it was that these birds would fly so far from land, but nothing ever came of it, so I just forgot, I suppose." She gestured to tall figures waving at the tops of poles around her wheat fields. "I put up a few scarecrows, just in case the birds were native to this area, and took a fancy to my wheat... but they never did. Is that strange?"

Jaran shared a glance with his wife and friends. They all thought the same thing, transmitted by Azelie. The Crow Queen is coming. "Whatever it is," Jaran answered, "It can't be good."

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Reader's Review: "The Purple Door District" by Erin Casey

Synopsis from Amazon:

Bianca was supposed to attend art school in Chicago, not run for her life from Hunters. The only chance she has to survive is to find The Purple Door District, a safe haven for a parahuman like herself. When she stumbles upon a magus named Gladus and a fellow avian named Carlos, she thinks she's found safety. But the Hunters are relentless, as is the dark force driving them.

Vampire, werewolf, avian, magus...

It's up to the parahumans of the Purple Door District of Chicago to put their differences aside to save Bianca and stop a dark threat from destroying their peaceful community.

My Review:

Color me impressed! If anything, this book just made me miss the fact that Grimm is no longer running...

Which is to say, it was awesome! I was intrigued first of all by the mention of bird shifters--usually, shifters are of the four-footed, or at least mammalian variety. But birds? The only place I'd really seen that was on the aforementioned show. The second thing that intrigued me was the idea that there could be a system in place as a haven of protection for shifters and other parahumans--such as Fae and vampires, for example. What would such a place be like? I'd read other books that dealt with their "nonhuman" characters in a similar manner: placing them in protective neighborhoods or reservations, and the like. What would Bianca's journey be like, a teenager on the run, with people trying to hunt her down, and nowhere safe, no family left to give her sanctuary?

Not to give too much away, but Erin Casey executed her answer to this question quite brilliantly. I love it when a good premise gets sculpted into a solid plot!

Firstly, the characters were a wonderful mix of varying strengths and weaknesses, with all their quirks and flaws and just personality in general! Bianca is innocent and wary without being too jaded and always carrying a chip on her shoulder--those sort of characters get really boring if they're just always rebuffing other characters' attempts at being nice! Gladus is knowledgeable and enigmatic and protective without being prickly or withdrawn--she's personable and tender when she needs to be, and yet not afraid to back down when the situation calls for firmness. The difference between the way the Avians like Carlos and Hayley interacted, versus the pack of werewolves like Paytah and Nick and Kat was also a shining example.

The other part I loved about this book was the way it developed its own lore: the Ether, and the way that a Magus could use it to manipulate reality in certain ways, but only to a certain extent, and different magic-users had different names, depending on how the accessed the power and how they utilized it. The concept of the Purple Door, too--a certain region marked by some kind of purple decoration, like a flowerpot or a porch light, signaling that this was an area safeguarded by a Violet Marshall, one elected member of the community who kept the peace between races and ensured that no one was threatened by the Hunters, those who saw parahumans as a threat and wanted to eliminate them. There were definite rules and roles for everyone, and it was all explained fairly well throughout, so that the reader wasn't too befuddled by heady concepts, and could stay emotionally connected to various characters throughout!
I found plenty of characters to root for, I could form clear pictures of each character in my mind, their reactions and responses resonated deeply with me, I can attest to at least a couple late nights when I was going to stop reading at a certain point but I just couldn't!

The Purple Door District earns a full *****5 STAR***** rating from me, and I'll even add an Upstream Writer Certified DEFINITELY Recommended endorsement. I found it thrilling, mysterious, and absolutely enjoyable from start to finish--and I would seriously consider acquiring the entire series!

Further Reading: (Shifter Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Engaging Plot)
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart 
       -Wolf's Path 
       -Tiger's Shadow 
Verona: The Complete Mermaid Tales--Pauline Creeden
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny 
     -A Halloween's Curse 
     -Frost Bitten
The Bhinian Empire--Miriam Forster
     -City of A Thousand Dolls 
     -Empire of Shadows
Wonderland Guardian Academy Series--Pauline Creeden
       -Red The Wolf Tracker 
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -A Drop of Dream 
     -A Dash of Fiend 
     -A Splash of Truth
The PSS Chronicles--Ripley Patton
       -Ghost Hand 
       -Ghost Hold 
       -Ghost Heart 
       -Ghost Hope 
The LouisiAngel Series--C. L. Coffey
        -Angel in Training 
        -Angel Eclipsed 
        -Angel Tormented 
Judah Black Series--E. A. Copen
       -Fortunate Son (prequel novella) 
       -Guilty By Association 
       -Blood Debt 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 22 "Signals"

Part 22

The Boundary of Elvendom tingled a little as it glided over Erlis' skin. She'd worried what the transition might be like, given the presence of Elvish blood in her veins, but altogether she wouldn't call it an unpleasant experience. She paused to watch the others come through the portal with their tokens in hand.

Jaran stumbled a little bit, brushing a cloud of dust out of his shaggy, dark hair and tugging awkwardly at the rough cotton tunic Aurelle had insisted he wear.
"If you want to be able to navigate Wildhaven without attracting attention from literally everyone," she said as she distributed the clothes during their brief trip in the carriage, "you can't very well accomplish that in such regal robes, Your Majesty."

Azelie tugged at the skirt of her dress, where a dull apron cinched it about her waist. Erlis hid the smirk she felt at the sight--never in her life had she ever imagined she would see the Paragon of The Realm attired like a common village girl.

Aurelle strode through last, dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, with a brown cloak fastened about her shoulders--Erlis had seen her wear this very outfit several times over the last three years, sneaking back into the castle after her mysterious trips down into the Harbor, where she played vigilante... somehow, without Denahlia's knowledge, though Erlis could not quite figure out how that could be possible.
The Illusionist swept a loose lock of silver-white hair out of her face and grinned. "Everyone ready?" she asked.

Jaran nodded. "Let's find that woman Anahita mentioned--she owns a wheat field at the back of the community. We'll see what she knows about this enchanted dagger that should get us closer to finding Gybralltyr."

Erlis kept her head bowed, and subconsciously reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear. The pointed lobe felt strange under her fingers, and she glanced around as they passed by rows of houses. A fire-starter like Damaris sent a controlled blaze over his garden to kill off the weeds growing there, in preparation for planting. Next door to him, a Gifted woman waved her hands over the already-burgeoning flowerbed, turning the gorgeous blooms into long stalks thick with ripe fruits of many sorts. 

A burst of greenflame caught her eye, and Erlis watched as a young man with red hair cropped about his ears let the fire dance about his fingers, much in the way that Lizeth would. His twinkling eyes gave her the impression that he might know something.

Indeed, Aurelle had already changed course to approach him.
"It's been a while, hasn't it, Ryan?" she waved to him, and reached to stroke the ears of the cat that crawled around his shoulders. "Twilight is looking sleeker than ever."

Ryan chuckled. "It's the pickings she gets from whatever the gryphons bring back from their hunts," he said. "I never know what sort of animal it used to be, but the scraps are delicate enough for her, and she loves the taste. It's funny to see her running about between these giant catbirds, gorging herself on their leavings as they rest after a hunt. I don't wonder but Twilight firmly believes in her little cat mind that if she eats like them, then one day she will grow up to be a gryphon, herself."

"Ooh, Jaran!" Azelie's thoughts resounded so clearly in Erlis' mind that she had to stop herself from raising the alarm that the queen had just used Jaran's name aloud--which she hadn't. "They have gryphons! Please, can we see them?"

Erlis couldn't hear Jaran's response, but the smile on his face seemed to indicate a favorable response.
"Hello, Ryan," he reached forward to shake the young man's hand. "I'm Jared, and I was wondering if you might help us find someone in particular in this place."
Ryan nodded. "I thought you might be newcomers. Lady Devir often accompanies new arrivals into Wildhaven, to help them get settled. Pleased to meet you, Jared, and I will definitely try, although I do only know a handful of people personally--the rest only by Gift or reputation."

"Thanks, Ryan," Aurelle cut in. "We don't know much about the person we're looking for, not even her name or her Gift. We know she owns the wheat field at the back of the community."

Ryan snapped his fingers, sending green sparks flying. "Ah, I know just the one you mean. The other wheat field is more of a group effort between a handful of Nature Gifteds, but the one at the back is owned by a woman I've heard of, I think Brinley is her name. You should stop in at the bakery, ask for Brinley's Bread--she makes this loaf of bread from her wheat that is the fluffiest, most flavorful bit of crusted heaven that you ever tasted!"
Erlis drew a deep breath as she imagined what such bread must taste like, and her stomach gave an involuntary gurgle. Twilight curled around and stared straight at her, and Erlis felt the blood rush to her cheeks.
"Thank you for the recommendation, Ryan," Jaran said. "I think we just might be hungry enough to try some while we go meet Brinley."

"Good luck finding her," Ryan mused, turning back toward the little shop beside him. A sign beside the door read Ryan's Apothecary--Draughts For What Ails You! "From what I hear," he finished, "she can be a very difficult person to pin down, when she doesn't want to be around people."
Jaran nodded. "We'll keep that in mind." He glanced toward Aurelle, who gestured down one of the side roads. The four of them started off down the path.

Erlis saw more Gifted people: a mason sculpting solid rocks like putty in his hands, making them the perfect shape for fences and buildings; a water-dancer like Anahita drawing water straight up from the well without a bucket, so that people coming by with jugs and cisterns to fill didn't have to haul it up themselves; a cloud of bees buzzed overhead, not one of them bothering the people milling about, nor were they flying too low. Erlis felt Azelie tug on the sleeve of her borrowed dress, and knew she'd been wondering about the same strange phenomenon. When she followed Azelie's pointing, she saw a young man standing at a table full of clay pots, with a large basin in front of him. The bees would dip down into the basin, and Erlis could already see the rich golden honey flowing out of a spout and into the pots. The bees swarmed around the young man, but he didn't even seem to notice them. He could hold out his hand, and a cluster of bees would land upon it--such was his Gift.

A little ways ahead of them, Aurelle had stopped alongside a wide field. She pointed into the distance with a grin. "You wanted to see the gryphons?" she asked Azelie. "There they are!"

The young Queen gasped and clapped her hands giddily to see the large, golden creatures sprawled out in the shade of tall trees under the afternoon sun.

"Oh, they are so beautiful!" Azelie squealed.
A whole herd (flock) of gryphons and a few Manticores dotted the field, licking their paws and legs in just the manner of a cat, while a handful of attendants shifted carefully among them, brushing out their wings and tending to their claws.

Azelie smiled as she stared at the magnificent creatures moving about and stretching their limbs, opening their great mouths wide in lazy yawns.

"Aye, they would," Jaran said suddenly, and at first Erlis wondered what he was referring to--then she remembered that one of their number was telepathic.
"Would what?" Aurelle asked, alerting Jaran to his slip.

He shrugged. "Azelie was just saying that Beren and Zayra would be excited to know how well their idea to create a community for Gifted people is flourishing. I don't think Beren had been down here for a while--and Zayra has been so busy with sending correspondence and organizing things that she almost never comes. I think, once we get them back, that we should arrange to visit more often, now that I know what it is like."

"Perhaps we could even find a place here for Trev," Azelie suggested aloud.
The lighthearted mood of the moment came crashing down at the mention of their new mysterious guest.
Jaran frowned. "What makes you think he's Gifted?"

Azelie shrugged. "Well, he's telepathic, like me--you can't be telling me that such a thing is normal." She quirked her eyebrow at her husband, and the tension mounted just slightly.

Jaran scuffed his boot in the dust around the fence-post. "Well, dear... Nothing about him is what you would call normal. From the way Jade talked, only mortals could receive Gifts."

Azelie crossed her arms. "So now you're insinuating that he isn't even human? Is this just because of how tall he is?"

"Tall doesn't even begin to describe him!" The discussion swelled into an argument as Jaran raised his voice. "Were you even looking at him at all, while he held you captive? There is no one in the Realm as tall as he is... I'm betting he's got some connection to the giants who used to roam the outlying areas before my father became king!"
"And what of it?" Azelie snapped, forgetting all about the enchantment of the gryphons. "He might be a descendant of giants, but that doesn't mean he isn't worthy of being treated with dignity, anyway!"

"Dignity has nothing to do with it," Jaran grumbled, his lightning Gift flashing in his eyes and causing the air around them to crackle. "I want to know why he's in the castle, why he just decides to abduct people now, at the same time we were dealing with the arrival of Captain Haggard, and the assassination apparently instigated by the Crow Queen who wants to take over Justicia and undo everything we fought for three years ago!"

Azelie's jaw dropped open. "You can't possibly assume that all these things are related!" She gasped. "I've told you all I know about Trev: the tunnel system he uses is definitely intentional, a feature of the castle since the time it was built--if not by your father, then by a previous king. It makes perfect sense that he could just form a trail by which he could traverse the castle without being discovered, we're all pretty stuck in our habits and routines! He could have been down there for days, or even months, while we've been caught up in our own issues and distractions."

"But where did he come from?" Erlis blurted before she could remind herself that this was not a conversation she wanted to insert herself into. "What is his history? Why do we have to assume anything if--" She finally stopped and lapsed into silence, leaving the last phrase if you are the one who can read his mind unsaid.

Azelie already knew she was thinking it, anyhow. She rolled her eyes. "I've tried, I promise! I probed him as far back as his mind would go--but it's as if the memories only begin a few days before, and prior to that, it's just blank. He has no memories of his own childhood--I dare say, a week from now, he might not even remember the day that he abducted Damaris." Azelie shuddered and brought her hands up to cover her arms. "As if another influence has erased what was before... Like what happened to Zayra when she was turned into the Mad Queen."

Jaran flinched. It was his own powerful Gift that the scientists had used to "reset" Zayra's mind--his fault that she lost all sense of her past and her identity and went mad. "Well, now we've gone and left that second Zayra alone in our castle while we chase after an ancient legend we're not even sure exists, to try and stop a threat we've never actually encountered before."

"He's not alone with them," Azelie maintained. "Risyn is there--if anything happened, I'm sure the Mage could use his powers to protect everyone, the way Korsan could resist Zayra's influence."

Jaran sighed, all of the effort from carrying around that building resentment now expended. He gestured down the road toward the back part of Wildhaven. "Well, let's keep going, then. The faster we find this woman and the dagger, the quicker we can return to the castle and make sure that Trev doesn't end up actually being in league with the Crow Queen or something."
They walked for at least another mile before Aurelle declared, "There it is!"

Tall, glimmering amber-colored stalks waved gently in the breeze. Jaran stopped and smiled. "This definitely looks like the place," he said. "Now to find this Brinley woman."

The four of them made their way around the wide field. The stalks grew almost right up against the fence, and as tall as Jaran's eye level, which made it hard to see anything but wheat.
"I wonder what her Gift is," Azelie mused. "Perhaps some kind of gardening ability? This wheat looks amazing!"

Jaran stopped short, and raised his hand. "Shh! I think I heard something!"
They all paused, listening closely. Among the steady murmuration of the wind through the grain, a plodding crunch could be heard.
Azelie clung to his arm. "I can feel someone nearby," she said softly.

They approached the next edge of the field, taking care to stay on the road, lest any of them get accused of trespassing. The wheat field extended far over to the top of the next hill in the distance--and just under the rise, amid the sea of gold, a blue skirt fluttered, and the sharp blade of a scythe glinted in the sun.
"There she is!" Erlis cried out, forgetting about staying quiet.
Jaran cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to shout over the sound of the wind. "Brinley!" He called.
"I don't think we're close enough," said Aurelle, and she strode forward to close the distance between them and the woman.

Azelie suddenly froze in place, staring at the wall of wheat beside them. "Something's coming!" She squealed--and almost before the words had left her mouth, a dark shape loomed out of the pale stalks with a deafening roar, as a massive, angry bear came charging out of the field, headed right toward them.

Every deckhand on the Brigadier's Ransom paused to watch the jagged cliffs coast by as they entered the "Strait of Death." Quilla had been bound in a crouching position so that the whole ship was covered in her special armor, and every so often, Goddry would strike her with his whip, lest she relax her defenses, even a little.

Kaidan winced as he watched from his post at the side of the ship. Ever since he learned that Quilla was a sibling of someone he knew, he couldn't stop imagining if it was Javira in that position, and the cruel treatment the young woman received at the hands of these pirates made his blood run cold. He was going to get them out, if it took every ounce of cunning and strength he had.

"Weigh anchor!" Captain Haggard bellowed, and Watson relayed the order all up and down the deck, sending the pirates into a flurry of activity. The ship came to a stop in a darkened bay, with cliffs on all sides, except for a narrow crevasse which seemed to be the only egress from the pile of sharp, angular boulders at the base of these "cliffs."

Haggard finally signaled Goddry, and the quartermaster set down his whip and clouted Quilla's shoulder. "That's enough!" the dark man growled.

Quilla slumped to the deck, completely spent, but Haggard barked, "Get her up and put her with the others. The prisoners ought to be bound together--except the girl, " he pointed to Denahlia. "She'll be with me."

Denahlia grimaced as Keaton popped up behind her and gave her a shove. "Get over there," he barked. The crow perched on his shoulder--probably one of the ones from the flock that had accompanied Queen Mallory--squawked in assent.

Once she stood before Haggard, the grey-bearded captain showed her a scroll. "This here's a map to the Gate," he said, unrolling it.
Denahlia pursed her lips as she squinted at the blank parchment. "I see no map," she retorted.
Another shove from Keaton, and he hissed, "Take it!"

Denahlia accepted the map from Haggard, and she felt her implants hum to life. Fine lines materialized out of the parchment, standing up from the papery surface like the holographic projections she was accustomed to. When Denahlia shifted her grasp, the lines disappeared, only reappearing when she would hold the edges of the map. She kept her face neutral to hide her surprise at finding a tech-sensitive material in a place like The Realm.

"Ready, Captain," Goddry grunted, and Denahlia glanced over her shoulder at her friends. Beren and Quilla stood bound together, and although Kaidan held his arms in front of him as if he wore shackles as well, Denahlia saw none. She searched the man's face, and Kaidan caught her eye. He winked, and she remembered his Gift having to do with memories--perhaps he had influenced the memory of the pirates binding them, to make them think they'd already shackled him when they hadn't.

Good to know, Denahlia thought. That might come in handy later on. Haggard would be watching her closely, but as long as everyone thought the three other prisoners were bound--and they had no idea of the fourth, invisible person looking out for their interests--then that meant they had so much more of a chance of escaping later.

Twelve people rowed ashore: Goddry, Seline, Cori and the three "bound" prisoners in one boat, and Haggard, Watson, Denahlia, Sally, Reva, and Keaton in the other.

Technically we're thirteen, when you count Zayra, Denahlia thought to herself as the boats bumped against the rocks, and Goddry and Watson both clambered up to moor them so that the others could disembark. Was the number of the landing party going to prove unlucky? Which side would end up on the downside of that luck?

An alert in the implants just below her skin sent a jolt all the way up to Denahlia's elbow, and she looked upward. Her eyes registered a long, lean black shape just as it sailed behind the thick cloud banks overhead, but the thing that helped her realize what she saw was the sound of a familiar voice in her implanted earpiece.

"... --alia if you're getting this, it's Markus and Hadrian should be just overhead. Send a signal to connect and cancel this message. Denahlia, if you're getting this, it's Markus and Hadrian should be just overhead. Send a signal to connect and cancel this message. Denahlia if you're getting this..."

Denahlia flicked her wrist up and down, activating the connection, and Markus' voice ceased. Instead, the digital prompt declared "Connected", and a sense of reassurance washed over the former Hunter. Her comm systems weren't intuitive and wired into her brain, so she would need either her voice or hand signals to be able to leave a message for Hadrian to carry back to Markus, but the added security of having yet another ally in her camp was a definite bolster to her confidence.

They clambered up the steep path single-file, till the trail widened and dipped down slightly, away from the clouds, not quite up to the tops of those cliffs. If anything, the crags farther inland rose higher and more definite. According to the map, Denahlia saw that eventually they would need to end up on the top, but at the rate of decline they traversed, they would need to be traveling straight up to get to the top again. Was Haggard prepared to scale these walls around them?

Her answer came as they entered a wide crevasse, wide enough to accommodate everyone. One side of the ravine seemed covered in trees, vines, and roots of some sort--plus some kind of metal plates, unless Denahlia's eyes deceived her.

Haggard signaled to Goddry and Watson. "Get up there and get that greenery cleared away," he said.
The two burly men, along with Keaton, Sally, Cori, and Seline, pulled and slashed at the vines, using their swords to cut away the roots and branches from the metal plates that seemed to extend all the way up to the clifftop, where the map indicated they would need to go next. When Goddry finally yanked on the right vine to cause a small landslide, everyone cowered and covered their heads as the whole mass crashed down with a rumble, and when it cleared, Denahlia peered up and gasped.

Slumped against the ravine wall was a giant, articulated robot of sorts, complete with a vaguely humanoid face, arms, and legs made from a combination of metal and hardened clay. The hand splayed on the ground was big enough to hold at least four of them seated comfortably. What was a giant robot doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Denahlia glanced down at the map. The landmark on the map had a label: The Golem.

When she looked up again, Haggard was pointing to her.
"You," he said. "With the special powers and such--you're going to wake the Golem."

Raedyn had to admire how the deep-green Ranger uniform fit him as he walked alongside Warden Velora down the Forest Road. He had completed his training to her satisfaction, and now she was putting him to the test: guard the Gate.

Velora stopped as the Ranger on duty saluted and took the same Forest Road to her next assignment. She in turn saluted the two soldiers on either side of the entrance.

"All right, Raedyn," she announced at last. "You'll be watching the Gate until nightfall. Keep a keen watch as people go in and out. The soldiers we have here are--" she paused to sniff deeply. "Hmm, looks like Sir Vann and Sir Henry." The armored soldiers glanced in their direction and nodded. "They're on different rotations, and they report to Commander Edri if there's any trouble. You're here to make sure that things go smoothly with anyone coming in or out, making sure that they have their special tokens," she showed him the silver coin with the strange tree emblazoned on it, "so they don't disrupt the magic, that sort of thing. I'll send Gavin out at dusk to escort you back to my headquarters. Until then, you just stand here and watch. Got it?"

Raedyn saluted in the same way he'd seen the other Rangers do. "As you command, Lady Velora," he replied.
Velora balked briefly, staring intently into his eyes as if she either suspected him of mocking her, or as if she could perhaps see into his mind to find out what really went down during that face-to-face with Juros.

Finally, she said, "I look forward to hearing your report tonight." With a final salute, she turned heel and walked away.

Two hours later, Raedyn was nursing an ache in his leg that wouldn't go away, he'd seen almost no activity at the Gate, and he was beginning to wonder if swearing his allegiance to Velora had been worth it. And yet... every time he considered cutting ties and resuming his mercenary path, the sight of Juros' terrifying visage--the gleaming armor, the piercing eyes, the thundering wings--would overtake his mind, and Raedyn's resolve returned anew. Better sore legs and a boring job than facing the wrath of a deity whose follower he almost murdered in her sleep!

The sun was still halfway over the horizon, and the shadows were twice as long as they had been before, when Raedyn's ears caught a rustling sound in the bushes alongside the Forest Road. Finally, some action! He stood straighter, all senses on alert, ready to receive whoever came along the road toward the Gate, seeking sanctuary in Wildhaven--

But totally unprepared with the sudden pressure that wrapped around his neck and dragged him backwards into the underbrush, cutting off his breath as it squeezed tighter. In the dark shadows that gathered around his vision, Raedyn could see the shapes of two glowing, narrow reptilian heads--snakes made of light, it seemed, but with all the weight and strength of living animals. A shadowy figure stood over him, one that Raedyn found vaguely familiar--but he was too busy getting the life choked out of him to think about that just now.

A voice reached his ears as the hissing snakes crushed his windpipe.
"A dull knife is no real benefit to anyone, a dead weight," the figure crooned. "She who commissioned you has sent me to convey to you how very disappointed she is in your failure to complete the task you were given. Dead weight must be shed, to make room for fresh inventory... and this time, he who follows will not fail as you have..."

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