Saturday, July 31, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 28 (2 of 2)

Part 28
"Reunions" (Part 2)

The woods around the White Castle stood silent--more so than ever before. The only movement was the occasional flutter of birds. A keen observer passing through the wooded paths might realize that there was a bird sitting on just about every branch, and if a bird chose a different perch, another would fly over and assume their original spot. The positions of the birds fluctuated and moved--but the unsettling feeling of being under rapt surveillance persisted for the entire length of the forest path.

A heavy wind gusted through the trees, disrupting the birds and sending them squawking in all directions. When all was silent, a red-haired man in a Ranger's uniform stepped out into the open. Glancing over his shoulder, he whispered. "All clear, your Majesties."

Six figures stepped out of the undergrowth undetected.
Jaran clapped the Ranger on the shoulder. "Thank you, Tristan. You may return to your post--but be alert, because we might yet have need of you and the other Rangers."
Tristan nodded. He saluted the royals, pulled a billowing wind around him with his hands, and sailed up above the treetops and away.

Zayra stopped just short of running up to the familiar battlements, as she realized that the castle would more than likely be thickly guarded. She gripped Beren's hand.
"We're almost there!" she said.

Quilla paused to examine her hands and feet, as if to reassure herself that she was all there. "I don't think I've ever gotten from one place to another that fast," she mumbled.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the group, Kaidan glanced at Queen Azelie. "Can you locate the others by their thoughts?"
Azelie paused for a moment, then nodded. "They're still together. I've made contact with Javira, and she says Velora and a couple others are on their way out to get us inside."

Polaris shadow-jumped in front of the group. "Stand your ground!" he warned. "I sense the formation of another portal!"
The air shimmered in place between two trees, and out of thin air stepped Velora, Lizeth, and--
"Brother!" Quilla shrieked, throwing herself at the tall, dark man in the robes of a Mage.

"Wh..." Risyn's stoic demeanor cracked for possibly the first time since arriving at the Castle, as he stared down at his sister's head, and felt her arms around him. His hands trembled as he embraced her shoulders, almost as if he weren't sure if she would vanish the moment he let his guard down. He dropped to his knees so he could look her right in the eye. "Quilla? Is it really you?"

She was already crying, the glittering tears running down her cheeks. "Yes, Risyn, it's me! I thought I would be trapped on Haggard's ship for the rest of my life, never to see you again--but then I meet three new prisoners the Captain placed on the crew--and they knew you, and they promised to protect me, and bring me back to you--"

"And they did!" Risyn threw his arms around his sister once more. "Powers be praised, they have brought us all together again!"

The Elfin royal with skin as dark as the trees frowned as she surveyed the six people before her. "Not all of you," she objected.
Jaran broke away from filling in Lizeth on what had become of Nyella, and bowed to her. "Princess Tamarind," he greeted her. "Thank you for your assistance in ensuring the safety of my people. We had to leave some of our number behind, to ensure the continued protection of Gybralltyr."

Princess Tamarind nodded. "We concluded as much when that dragon which had escaped our sanctuary not very long ago suddenly returned, of its own accord. We learned that it had come to us from Gybralltyr, and we realized, through covert means, that the Key had arrived in Gybralltyr, which meant the Gate was at risk. Even now, Prince Spruce is on his way to Gybralltyr with a detachment of Elvish soldiers, ready to repel any who attempt to approach the Gate." Her eyes traveled over the group and stopped when she saw Zayra. "You were not among the ones who departed through the Wasteland portal, nor were you one of the prisoners taken from the Harbor."

Zayra shook her head. "I was... a bystander caught in the middle of all of this." She wrapped an arm around Beren's waist. "My husband and the others managed to rescue me as well."

Tamarind hesitated, peering keenly at Zayra, as if waiting for her to break down and admit something important, but the moment ended and she turned back to the space they'd exited. At a wave of her hand, the light wavered, and the view into the forest seemed to melt into the sight of a familiar stone-paved hallway. "This portal may be used once more," Tamarind said. "I must return to Elvendom immediately, to inform the High Prince and Princess of what has transpired."
Jaran nodded. "Thank you, Your Highness."

The King and Queen led the way with Polaris. Beren and Zayra followed, then Kaidan, Quilla, and Risyn, while Velora and Lizeth brought up the rear.
Beren nudged his wife. "Everyone's going to be so excited to see you!"
They stepped through the portal, and in that secure room in an obscure tower of the castle, there was much rejoicing as no one had expected to see Zayra emerge with the group.

"What happened out there?" Edri cried, embracing her friend.
Zayra gestured to Polaris. "We made a friend on Gybralltyr--his name is Polaris, and he's a Shadow."

what?" Javira lunged with a scream, lashing out with whiplike roots. They passed harmlessly through Polaris' incorporeal form.

Kaidan tugged his sister's arm. "Javira, calm down!" He cried. "Polaris is nothing like Troy! It's his spirit that is bound to that knife, the one we were researching." He pointed to Jaran's side, where the enchanted knife hung.

"You found the knife!" Lizeth cheered. "Things are looking up, after all! Any idea how to use it to stop Queen Mallory?"

All attention riveted to Polaris, who shrugged. "I have attacked her before, but that was a long time ago, and, thanks to some awful experiments she ran on herself, not only has she given herself the power of an Abnormal, but that power only gets stronger every time she encounters a Gifted person." He ran a hand through his silver hair. "Is there anything in your research that mentions exactly how this Knife was meant to stop the Queen?"

Kaidan let his eyes roll back in his head as he rifled through his own memories, but after a long silence, he wagged his head. "I can't specifically recall the right memory--it's been too long since the last time I was looking at any of my research." He turned to Velora. "Is there a safe path from here to the Library?"

Velora pinched her lips. "I'm afraid not," she said with a sigh. "But I can confirm that neither Mallory nor her soldiers have set foot in the Archives since they've been here--apparently she has no interest in the old records of the kingdoms she overthrows."

Kaidan frowned. "Great, so my research should still be there... but how are we going to get it?"
Lizeth looked up from the side of the room, where Zayra had been filling her in on her whole experience being invisible and intangible. "I might have a solution," she offered, reaching into the pouch hanging from her belt. She fumbled through several different vials until she found one and handed it to Kaidan. "This will give you approximately--" she checked the seal on the vial, "--twenty minutes of invisibility. Possibly less, since I'm still not completely sure how much being Gifted limits the tincture's effectiveness."

"Don't remind me!" Edri groused from the side of the room, where she conferred with the only two soldiers from her garrison to survive the attack, Sir Roger and Sir Landis.

Lizeth rolled her eyes and handed Kaidan a second vial. "Here's an extra one, in case the first one gives out on you before you get back here."
Kaidan took up the vials with a nervous expression, slipping one in his pocket and pulling the stopper out of the other one. He glanced at Polaris. "If I go invisible, and you're the only one to see me, you'll know how to bring me back, right?"
Polaris tensed, but at a quick glance to Jaran, he nodded without saying anything.

Kaidan swallowed the tincture, and a moment later, his body faded from view, beginning with his extremities and ending with his head.
"Kaidan?" Javira called as soon as she couldn't see him anymore.
"Still here," came Kaidan's voice, exactly the way it had been.
"At least we can all hear him," Zayra laughed.

Velora signaled for Sir Landis to open the door. "Better hurry," she said. "We don't know how long this will last."
"Make sure nobody sees you," Edri offered. "You might be invisible, but there's no telling whether they might see a stack of floating scrolls and get suspicious!"
"Good point," said Kaidan's voice. "What if I try something like this?" A scrap of cloth lifted into midair, dipped down, and vanished. "There we are," Kaidan finished. "I've tucked it under my tunic--can you see it now?"

Edri wagged her head with an approving smile. "I think that will work. Good luck, Kaidan!"

Down in the main halls of the castle, crows and soldiers alike wandered back and forth. They'd taken over several of the rooms, turned them into storage for their gear and various items they'd stolen from other areas of the castle, made regular dens of intemperance and carelessness of the stately fortress. Hardly anyone noticed the odd door or curtain shifting without so much as a breeze, and no one was in the hallway outside the library when the massive door shut and bolted itself from the inside.
Kaidan let out his breath as his body came into view. He'd made it just in time.
"All right," he muttered to himself. "Time to shift the balance of power in this place!"

He made his way over to the long table, still strewn with piles of his research--except that they weren't exactly as he left them, so there were a few pages missing from their correct locations. He flipped through the stacks, scanning the markings to ensure things were still in the right order. Amid the rustling sound of shifting paper, he hardly noticed the hissing until it was too late.
Massive coils of purple light wrapped around his arms and his neck immediately, pulling his body to face the dark man in the crow-feather collar who grinned at him as more snakes emanated from the skin of his arms, to wrap around Kaidan's legs and prevent his escape.

"Hmm," the man mused, "I think you'll find the balance of power to be much too heavily weighted on one side to be shifted by mere paper."
Kaidan stilled as the more he struggled, the tighter the snakes would squeeze.
The man nodded. "That's better. You're needed in the Throne Room."

Kaidan could do nothing as the snakes dragged him along the floor behind the man, all the way down to the end of the hall. The moon shone through the shattered window into the throne room, and the air filled with the harsh jeering of men's voices, as well as the croaks of crows.

Queen Mallory stood from her throne, and all sound died at once. The Snake-Man bowed before her.
"What have you brought me, Kamau?"

Kamau crooked his finger, and the snakes dragged Kaidan upright. Now he could see the room full of trash and carcasses... and the brick of ice with Damaris in the middle, standing right beside the dais.
"I've brought one of the fugitives," Kamau answered as Kaidan stared at the frozen youth in horror, willing him to twitch or give some sign that he still might be alive. "He came into the library, just as you suspected."
Queen Mallory grinned, and she came down to stand before Kaidan.

"You..." she seethed. "I've heard of you." She reached out and seized his chin in her fingers. "I know your Gift: You deal in memories, do you not?"
Kaidan stood immobile, but the snake on his left arm hissed and sank its fangs into his shoulder. Made of light or not, it still hurt like an actual snakebite.
"Answer her!" Kamau snarled.
"Yes," Kaidan grunted.
The Queen gave a self-assured smile. "And are you capable of restoring lost memories?"

Kaidan saw the snake on his other shoulder rear its head, so he shouted, "Yes!"
"Good." Mallory gestured to the other side of the room, where a knot of soldiers dragged something through a curtain. "I have someone who needs his memories back, and you're going to make that happen."
The soldiers parted, and Kamau used his snakes like tethers to drag Kaidan forward. Chained in their midst was the silent giant, Trev.

Markus wrestled with the bonds around his wrists as he sat upon the deck of the Brigadier's Ransom. They were tied so tightly that the metal plates of his mechanical wrists bit into the skin of his biological hand.
How could he have been so foolish? He and Nyella had tracked Hadrian's signal as far as that portal at the back of Wildhaven--the same one Azelie had mentioned before they departed. Then, somewhere in the haze he'd lost Hadrian's signal, which distracted him so much that when they finally emerged from the fog and into a forest, he'd forgotten to check their surroundings until it was too late, and a flock of angry birds drove them straight into the midst of waiting pirates!
It had been too long since he managed to find a signal to reach Denahlia. He didn't even have a way to know how much she'd heard, or whether she was in any position to come rescue him. Now he had to sit by and watch as the pirates tortured Nyella for more information on the tinctures she carried. She might have been able to keep them hidden, if that pesky pet crow belonging to one of the pirates hadn't managed to help itself to a vial of shapeshifting tincture. Markus chuckled--one moment the crow had become a lamb, then a flapping sea bass, then a whole black horse... But that had only made things worse for the young apprentice, because now the pirates knew that the vials held something that would give them magical powers.
Captain Haggard had forced Nyella to take the water-manipulating potion to raise the water level so that the ship wouldn't scrape against any hidden rocks or sandbars under the surface, and he'd given his quartermaster, Goddry, a vial of earth-moving tincture, so that he could push the cliffs aside and let them through. They were about to weigh anchor, and then they would most certainly be beyond any hope of rescue...

...Markus, come in. Markus, come in. Markus, come in. Markus--

The voice! It was coming, not from his thoughts as if by telepathy, but through his comm implant!
"Ah! Finally I have a connection--Markus, I have eyes on you, can you hear me?"

Markus stiffened, wary of Goddry's focus on Nyella and the tincture, since it could shift to him at any moment.
"Boy, it's great to hear your voice, cousin!" he communicated in response.
"You look pretty beat up," Denahlia responded.
"I feel pretty beat up, thanks for noticing."
"Ready to be rescued?"
"If you're thinking about coming down here, you'd better have a plan--there's four of them, and you'd make three of us, although I can't say much for my ability to fight in my state. I haven't done a weapons check yet."
"Don't worry about that, cousin. I've got reinforcements. Hang tight!"

Markus refocused on Nyella, who still slumped against the mast where she was bound. She hadn't called up more than a water-spout, but once Haggard was satisfied that the tinctures worked as intended, all attention had focused on Goddry's ingestion of the earth-moving potion.

At that moment, Sally screamed.
"Lavidian!!" she shrieked, pointing to the cliffs.
Everyone followed her gesture, but the only thing moving at that height was the odd wisp of fog.
"Who?" Keaton asked.
Sally was too busy scanning the cliffside. "Can you not see them? In my culture--among the Elves, Lavidian was a maiden who defended our purity... she despised outsiders, and it is said that those who betray their kin will be haunted by her for the rest of their days! And now I have seen her! Woe is me!"

Markus watched the cliffs, wondering what exactly Denahlia had meant about reinforcements--until he saw the glowing blue form of a large man in armor marching down toward them, sword raised in challenge.
"What is it?" Haggard rasped. "Goddry, you've got the Gift in you--take down that cliff!"

Goddry raised his hands and struck a fist toward the rock. A low rumble resounded over the cove, and the cliffside at the knight's feet shifted backward several yards, like clay under a potter's hand.
The blue knight's pace never wavered. He kept marching on thin air, right for them!
"IT'S A GHOST!" Sally wailed.

"You are a traitorous fool, Master Keaton,"
warbled a voice nearby to the pirate's position. He looked all around him, seeing no one, not even a glowing blue figure.
"LOOK AT ME WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU!" shrieked the voice, and the crow on his shoulder suddenly flapped its wings and pecked him in the side of the face.
Keaton frowned. "Are you... H-how can you be t-talking?" he stammered. "Y-you're just a crow!"
"Animals have been known to speak in times when humans are doing something so incredibly foolish as to pit themselves against the Almighty Juros!" The voice did indeed seem to issue from the crow's open beak. "You've chosen the side you assumed would get you the most power, but it is the losing side!"
Keaton brushed the animal off his shoulder and darted across the deck. "Get away from me!" he thundered.

Two blue ghosts had swept over him, and Haggard had plainly had enough. He staggered to the helm and started gasping out orders. "Sally, get your hide up that rigging and prepare the sails! I've had enough of this place, we're leaving! Goddry, stop gawking and stand by to move those cliffs! The ghosts can't hurt ye!"
Goddry narrowed his eyes. Markus watched the big man grunt and flex, reaching forward like a man opening a heavy door.

The entire cove echoed with the grinding rumble of shifting earth, and the edges of that narrow passage scraped backward. The ship rocked and reeled as the water level shifted, now that there was more space. Haggard yelled again, and Nyella thrust her hands out. The cliffs around them seemed to shrink a little, but Markus' implanted sensors informed him that his altitude was changing--the water level rose under Nyella's control.
Haggard turned the helm, and the ship responded, aiming straight for the wide opening as the narrow cove became a wide-open bay.
"Whatever you're trying to do," he muttered under his breath to Denahlia, "Do it fast, before we weigh anchor!"

With a sickly squelching sound, a wave of mud slapped against the side of the ship--and then the mud reached up and grasped the side of the hull. Markus gawked as a dozen or so figures made of oozing black sludge jumped onboard the Brigadier's Ransom and staggered their way to surround the four pirates.
Four at once jumped atop Goddry, dragging the big man down to the deck with enough force to rock the ship a little, and pin him under a heavy blanket of mud. The more he tried to peel the mud-people off, the more they found little places to stick and swell to engulf him.

Some thin, wiry figures attacked Keaton with spiny branches and swords, surrounding him with a ring of muck that would rise up and block him in every time he tried to step out of it, and yet the strings of mud would dodge and slip out of the way every time he struck at them with his sword.
Sally and Haggard kept the rest of the mud-people at bay. The mud coated the helm and made it slick and sticky at the same time. Haggard struggled to keep the boat from crashing into the rocks, and Sally took on the formless mud-figures with her narrow sword. Neither of them noticed the slight movement of the door to Haggard's cabin as the ship listed and tacked back and forth.
"Don't let it get up to the rigging!" Haggard warned, pointing to the thin layer of mud inching its way up the lines toward the sails.

Sally flourished her sword and charged in with a high-pitched yell. From up there on the mizzen, she glanced down to the deck, where the prisoners were. The half-bot man was gone, his shackles laying open on the deck. Goddry and Keaton were still fending off attacks from the strange piles of sentient mud. Nyella, still tied to the mast, had gone oddly still and silent. Sally squinted and focused on the air next to her. From way up there, it seemed that the light bent oddly around her, giving the deck a kind of warped look...

Sally gasped. "There's someone there!" She grabbed a loose line and swung down toward the deck, aiming for the spot. Her feet connected with something solid, and from thin air emerged a tall, redheaded person sprawling to the ground.
Sally scowled as she recognized the person. "Cori?" She snapped.
Cori ignored her, looking up at the prisoner and yelling, "Now!"

Nyella tipped her head back as if swallowing something, and when she opened her hands, a wide fireball sped right for Sally's face! The Elfin pirate dodged and ran for the navigator, who jumped to the side and sped toward the ship's bow much faster than Sally anticipated. Nyella was still throwing fire around, igniting portions of the deck, until she reached to her belt and pulled out another vial.

Sally reached her just as she swallowed it. Angrily, Sally swung her sword--but the blow glanced off the side of Nyella's neck without even breaking the skin. Nyella returned the gesture, striking Sally with a punch to the gut that laid the wiry Elf out flat. Sally's head struck the deck with enough force to make her dizzy, and when she sat up after recovering her wits, Nyella wasn't there, and Keaton was no longer surrounded in mud--instead, he was dueling someone merely covered in mud. Goddry staggered to his feet, but before he could stand, something Sally couldn't see shoved him down again.
"Help me!" Haggard roared, and Sally had to grab the nearest cleat as the ship banked hard to starboard. The captain struggled to keep the tiller on an even keel, as it rotated wildly back and forth in his grasp. How had a simple abduction gone so very wrong?

The crack of gunfire called Sally's attention to the stern, and the half-mechanical man stood on the uppermost deck, arm raised, but the gun seemed attached to his hand as he riddled the deck full of holes.
Sally drew her sword and advanced toward him--but a stranger stepped out of the shadows, armed with a metal staff.
"Going somewhere?" she asked, leveling her weapon in Sally's face.

Sally bared her teeth in a snarl and vaulted over the stranger, drawing her knives as she did so. The staff came down to hit her, and Sally parried it between her blades. With one hand she shoved the staff to the side, and with the other she lunged for the stranger's unprotected side. Before she could drive the knife home, the staff veered out of her reach and swept her feet out from under her. Sally landed just as the spray of bullets from above grazed by her. Pain radiated from her shoulder as one of the bullets found her, but she wasn't about to give up on this fight. She jumped up to attack again, flailing her blades in a controlled and random pattern. The stranger with the short-cropped hair dodged her blows and struck her again and again with the staff, always in a soft place like the base of her neck and just below her ribcage. Once, the slender staff whipped her across the side of her face, and Sally tasted blood--but that only galvanized her to fight back even harder.

The ship lurched and Sally barely registered that both Keaton and Goddry had somehow gone overboard, but Haggard was still wrestling with someone at the helm--young Nyella, who was now trying to blind him with gouts of greenflame. This last drew Sally's attention for a split second too long, and the metal staff caught her in the leg. Sally felt something inside her leg shatter, and at once, she could no longer stand.
"Denahlia help!" Called one of the attackers, and the woman with the staff looked away in alarm. Sally steeled herself for one more savage blow--but the tail of a whip wrapped around her wrist and jerked her arm back. Cori stood over her, with the whip in her hand. She nodded to the woman with the staff. "Go," she said. "I've got this one."
Sally grimaced, and tried to spit at Cori, but the former navigator didn't even notice.

On the port side the ship, Aurelle had just caught her breath from her fight with Keaton. Markus had slipped back under some cover as his hand-guns jammed, Nyella was running out of tinctures and couldn't stay in one place very long with the hypermotility tincture she tried. Aurelle saw Haggard turning the crank to raise the anchor.

"Not on my watch," she muttered, raising her hands to unleash more illusions like the mud-people she'd conjured.

Huge hands clamped around her shoulders, pinning her hands at her sides. Goddry was back, and he held her tightly, squeezing the air out of her lungs.
"Denahlia!" Aurelle screamed. "Help!" She couldn't move, she was too tired to think straight.

Cori appeared, to take over watching the incapacitated pirate, while Denahlia raced to assist Aurelle--but Goddry lifted Aurelle off her feet and slung her over his shoulder, while leveling a fresh pistol at the former Hunter.
"Don't move," he snarled at her.

Aurelle felt faint, as all the adrenaline from the initial attack faded. "What are you doing?" She shouted over Goddry's shoulder. "Use your eyes! Do the hypnosis thing!"
Goddry took the warning and turned away, giving Aurelle an unobstructed view of Denahlia racing across the ropes and lattices to reach them. She wasn't looking at him, or even trying to hold his gaze. A flying kick knocked the gun out of Goddry's hand before he could pull the trigger, and Denahlia wrapped two hands around his open wrist and pulled as hard as she could, to bring the burly man down to her level.
Aurelle flailed helplessly. "Denahlia, what gives?" she yelped.
"I'm saving you!" Denahlia bellowed, as she grabbed Goddry's head with both hands.

The quartermaster bellowed in pain, and Aurelle felt his whole body shudder violently just once, and all his muscles went slack. She scrambled out of his grasp as Goddry sank unconscious to the deck.

Across the deck, Haggard saw his most valuable crew member go down at the hands of these scrappy city folk, and he scowled deeply. "No!" He shouted, and slashed his cutlass toward Markus' legs. Sparks flew as connections severed, and Markus collapsed with a cry.

At the port side of midship, Cori shook her head as Sally tried yet again to stagger to her feet. Blood dripped from many cuts, yet the fierce Elf still muttered threats. "You think you've beaten us, well you haven't! How dare you betray us! We're the ones who took you in, you want so badly to be one of them, but you'll never be! You're a fool, Cori!"

Cori watched Aurelle unleash a curling vine of blue energy to incapacitate Haggard and she wagged her head. "It's over, Sally," she said. "You can stop fighting now."
"Never!" Sally gritted crimson teeth and spat on the deck. "You'll never take me alive!"
"Just listen!" Cori tried to reason with her. "You're badly injured, but these aren't unreasonable people. You can help us, fight for Gybralltyr and for the Realm, instead of fighting against something you don't understand--we have healers here who can tend to you--"
"More of your magic stuff?" Sally snarled, reaching toward the edge of the ship. "Are you going to erase my memories, make me want what you want?"
Cori widened her eyes in horror. "No! Nothing like that--"
"I don't believe you." Without another word, Sally slipped between the railings, and the next sound Cori heard was the wet smack of a body against the jagged rocks at the base of the cliffs.

Cori stared at the dark smear of blood, until Denahlia clapped a hand on her shoulder.
"You did what you could," she assured her quietly.
Cori looked around at Markus, twitching painfully on the deck as his mechanical prosthetics malfunctioned due to the damage they sustained. Nyella stood by, watching Aurelle work her illusions to bind the unconscious Goddry--
Just as a figure loomed behind the young girl.
"Nyella, watch out!" Cori yelled.

Too late, Nyella looked up as Keaton--beaten but still very much alive--sprang forward to grab her. She lifted her hands, and at the same time, Keaton's body flew up into the air and over the side of the ship, landing with a splash in the water below. Cori peered over the side to watch him swim for the shore, and disappear among the fog-covered cliffs.

Behind her, Haggard gave a dark chuckle. "You've lost him now, ladies!"
"What's one crewmate when we've got the captain and his first mate?" Denahlia seethed.
Haggard managed to waggle his bushy eyebrows. "Don't you know? Keaton has a way with birds--he's Queen Mallory's agent here on Gybralltyr. Chances are he'll be contacting her the first chance he gets... and then she'll be here with an army--"
"Shut up!" Denahlia reached into her belt and drew out a small black box that crackled with blue lightning, just like Jaran's Gift.

A terrible roar split the air, and all attention focused on the skies. The high fog swirled and parted to admit a large red dragon coming to land on a nearby cliff.
Markus roused himself just enough to mutter, "Hadrian?"
Denahlia grinned. "No--it's Erlis!"
Aurelle waved at the creature. "Hello, Erlis! You're just in time. We've got a few wounded, and--" she stopped as Erlis dipped her head down to admit a young brown-haired girl onto the ship, using her neck as a gangplank of sorts.
Cori blurted, "Reva?"

The rigger's hands were bound, but she held a letter between them, which she handed to Denahlia.
The Harbor Watch read it out loud: "I, Reva, formerly of the crew manning the pirate ship Brigadier's Ransom, in return for healing services rendered and the opportunity for survival, hereby relinquish all affiliation with Captain Haggard and the self-styled Queen Mallory, and hereafter submit myself to the decisions of those currently controlling and occupying the ship I have served on. I recognize that my life is in their hands, and if I do not submit, then my life and the treatment I have experienced within the Roque is forfeit." She looked up at the others, turning it around so they could see. "They made her sign it at the bottom."

Reva nodded without speaking still.
"That does bring up a very good point," Aurelle observed. "Now that we've dealt with the pirates, what will we do with the ship?"
Cori raised her hand. "I'll take it," she said. "I know how to steer it, and Reva will have to handle all the rigging, but the two of us can at least make it back to our home port. At worst, we have a couple prisoners that we might be able to conscript if we need extra hands." She nodded toward Haggard and Goddry. "I have learned that piracy isn't my only option--and who knows? With our skills, it's probably not going to be all that hard to find legitimate work to earn a decent living, and these fellows can face the consequences of their crimes."

Denahlia nodded. "Aurelle, stow these two in the brig." She slipped the bonds off Reva's wrists. "Cori is your captain now," she warned the rigger sternly.

Reva studied Cori for several moments, and then nodded. "Aye-aye, Captain," she said.

Erlis waited patiently as Aurelle and Denahlia carried the injured Markus onto her back, and waited till they and Nyella were settled before taking off and leaving Cori and Reva to sail away on their own.

As they flew, Denahlia caught Aurelle staring at her wrists. The fight had broken the skin, but instead of blood and tissue and bone, her injuries exposed wires and circuit boards.
Denahlia heaved a huge sigh. "Well, you might as well know--I'm not Gifted like you all. That 'eye thing,' as you call it," she gestured to her face, "that was because of some implants, kind of like Markus' prosthetics," she gestured to his robotic left side.
"That's what you were doing while you were gone for a whole year?" Aurelle queried slowly. "You could change the location of your implants?"
"It's not why I left," Denahlia answered, "but it's what I learned while I was there."

Denahlia hesitated before admitting, "My homeworld." When Aurelle looked like she wanted to react but couldn't find the words, Denahlia continued, "Yes, I'm not originally from the Realm--but the place where I was born, it has both magic and technology, similar to the way the Realm does. Come to find out, I was born blind, and the implants were supposed to just resolve that issue and give me sight--but they gave me more than just that. My parents traveled to the Realm, but then they had to return and leave me behind, to be raised by my aunt and uncle--Markus' parents. I grew up thinking that I was Gifted because that was the only way I could explain the strange things I could do with my eyes."
"If you're not Gifted," Aurelle cut in, "Then how could Troy--"

"Alter my Gift?" Denahlia finished for her. "The way I understand it, the technology from this world is sometimes susceptible to a magic influence--he 'Jacked' the implants, so when I had them moved into my wrists," she gestured toward the exposed implants, "they kept the upgrades. I can still do everything I was able to do before, only now with hand gestures and by touch, instead of vision and blinking." She sighed. "I didn't tell anyone I was gone because I didn't want anyone thinking I'd changed. The whole thing was entirely against my will--someone had gotten ahold of my old bounty-hunter credentials and "hired" me for an assassination--but the woman who was supposed to be my target was a former assassin, herself. She actually helped me understand my implants, and supervised my rehabilitation, and even helped me find out about my parents. I came back with all that new technology from this other world, and I didn't want anyone to notice because I didn't want them to think that I was slipping back into my old habits voluntarily!"

Aurelle nodded. "I know the feeling," she said. "Truth be told, I think half my motivation for becoming the Silver Bandit was not because I resented you or anything, but because of all the history I'd been absorbing from the Archives." She snorted. "Speaking of Troy's 'upgrades', I think I've only just begun to acclimate to all the changes I went through. The more I learned of the Realm's tumultuous past, the more it almost seemed to take a toll on my sanity, and sneaking away to the Harbor to rough up thugs was my way of blowing off steam, of reminding myself of the old days when using my Gift was an act of defiance against the overbearing authorities." Aurelle shook her head, "But now that Jaran is King and Beren is helping him, I need to remember to let go of that fear and resentment. It was nothing against you," She laid a hand on Denahlia's arm. "I had no idea that the first night I started prowling the streets also happened to be a few nights after you'd disappeared. I would never have chosen to make it so difficult for the people who work for you."

Denahlia snorted. "For what it's worth, I knew exactly who it was, and all the while Captain Potsworth and Hayden were filling me in on this diabolical Silver Bandit, I was thinking to myself, Why is Aurelle stirring up trouble in the Harbor all of a sudden?"
Aurelle chuckled. "Well, now that we both know what we've been keeping from each other," she held out her hand. "Truce?"
Denahlia shook the hand. "Friends," she affirmed.

Erlis came to land in the field just outside Gybralltyr. Markus groaned and roused himself slowly. "Ugh, are we there yet?" he asked.
Denahlia rested a hand on his shoulder. "Hang on, Chippy. Try not to move until you've had a systems check."
"Yes, mother," Markus groaned, rolling his eyes. "I already saw the full diagnostic--the servos in my leg are damaged, and I think my arm needs some looking-over."

"On it." Denahlia spread her hands out in front of her, projecting a screen over his limbs that showed every connection, marking out the trouble spots. "Hmm, I think if we reroute the circuit here, and splice this connection there..." she reached in with deft fingertips and touched the indicated wires. A spark spat as the leg jerked, and Markus yelped.
He pushed her aside with his good arm. "Okay, back up, I can do this. I've got the tools already. You take care of the arm--that one's harder to reach."

Aurelle breathed deeply to hide her astonishment as Markus waggled his mechanical fingers, and with the rhythmic click of moving parts, the metal fingertips retracted and re-emerged as fine tweezers and narrow pins. Denahlia focused on repairing the severed wires in his arm, and within a few minutes, she guided her cyborg cousin down off the dragon's back, supporting him till he said, "Yep, everything looks functional."

Denahlia grinned. "Good... because I just got a flag on Keaton's last known position." She pointed into the city. "He's somewhere in there." She flicked the air beside her head, as if shooing a fly. "Ready to track down a fanatic sycophant trying to summon a dangerous enemy?"
Markus nodded. "Here we go again!"

The two cyborgs headed into the city, while Erlis carried Nyella and Erlis back to the safety of the Roque.

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