Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Reader's Review: "The Night Alphabet" by David M. Donachie

Synopsis from Amazon:

Have you ever had a dream so wonderful it followed you into the waking world? Do you lie awake, listening to the creaks and groans of a settling building, and believe that something strange and terrible is happening? Have you ever been unable to tell the dream from reality?

The Night Alphabet is a collection of 26 short stories dragged from the edges of sleep: marrying nightmares to detective fiction, ghosts to science, and the weird to the nonsensical. Author David Donachie weaves stories together from the ideas that cross the dozing mind, creating fantastical tales which will take you deep into the dream world and beyond. Inside you will find: cloud castles, flooded cities, haunted dreams, aliens, talking heads, insomniacs, and lots of cats.


My Review:

I believe this book was one that I won in a giveaway during an event some years back, and it's been sitting in my queue while I chased down the next amazing book from authors I already followed, or started a series from a new author whose concepts I was absolutely onboard with.

The thing about short story collections is it's always kind of a mixed bag, you never know what you're in for, and they are often difficult to summarize for a decent blurb.

Having read The Night Alphabet, here's what I can say about David M. Donachie: place him on your list of "Authors To Watch" because out of 26 stories, there was not one that I didn't at least find intriguing, and four that stand out as thoroughly enjoyable!

Donachie does very well with setting the stage for each story. With a few deft sentences, the reader gets a sense of whether this story is going to be creepy, pleasant, mystical, comical, or just plain ordinary. There were a handful that made my skin crawl with their vivid descriptions of horrific creatures and scenarios--but that just means that fans of horror stories will likely relish the same sensation as they read! Reading the whole collection straight through, I saw a few instances of name-borrowing, even character-hopping, as a character from one story shows up in another... but what author hasn't borrowed from past stories as they create new ones?

I have done an A-to-Z challenge before, and while on the one hand, coming up with 26 distinct and unique stories sounds like a daunting challenge, Donachie meets the challenge with unfettered inspiration, coming up with terms for each letter of the alphabet that range from mundane to esoteric--and each story centers around the concept used with admirable skill.

The Night Alphabet earns a full *****5 STAR***** rating, and I'd even add an Upstream Writer Certified RECOMMENDED endorsement. If you're interested in discovering a new author without the commitment of a full novel, then consider this collection of short stories--and pay close attention to which ones were your favorites, as that could be an indicator of how well you'll like other things the author has written! (In case you're wondering, my favorite stories in particular were the ones for letters F, J, W, and Y)

Further Reading: (Anthologies/Short Story Collections)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 33 "Lady Two-Bloods"

Part 33
"Lady Two-Bloods"

Three years prior...

Memories swirled in flares of blue around her... The sight of Jaran and Korsan watching her with growing concern soon engulfed by the light of the sun, the colors of everything leaping out so brilliantly that the whole world seemed hazy... she'd never noticed the taste of the air before, nor the feel of every single thread in her dress, nor even the incessant clamor of nature surrounding them, closing in on them... She couldn't feel her legs... she vaguely recalled stammering out the word "Help..."

And the next thing she knew, everything vanished in a wave of blue light, and a sudden fatigue settled into her whole body. Erlis did something she hadn't done in a long time: she caved. She withdrew into herself, the part that was still a dragon on the inside. 
The outside, she reasoned with herself, that was where the Elvish blood is changing me, altering me first in appearance, but the more it seeps in, the more it changes... When my heart no longer beats with Dragon blood, will I be cured of my Gift, or will it replace the healer's touch with something more akin to its own nature?

She hadn't quite reasoned it out before she regained consciousness, and everything she experienced in her dream faded to the deepest recesses of her mind from whence they came. It was another two days still until she had enough strength to walk, but as soon as she could, there was only one place Erlis wanted to be, and one person she needed to talk to.

Tristan, the redheaded wind-puller Velora had recruited to her Forest Rangers, snapped to attention when the tall, black-robed woman stormed toward the cluster of buildings forming the Ranger Service Head Offices.
"Hello, Lady Erlis! To what do we owe the--"
"Velora!" Erlis roared with dragonish fury. "We need to talk!"

Tristan raised his hands, and a thick gust of wind blew Erlis' hair back from her face. "Please wait a moment, while I check to see if the Warden is taking visitors--"
"She's taking me!" Erlis snarled, shrugging off the gust of wind and stepping forward. The rebounding blast of air pushed Tristan back a few paces, and blew the door of Velora's office open. Erlis strode right inside.

Velora had been staring at a large map of the forest posted on the wall. When Erlis walked in, she only had time to turn around before the imposing woman had her face just inches from Velora's own.
"This is your fault!" Erlis thundered. "You let them change me! You're the reason I'm sick!"

Velora's face tightened, and her gaze hardened in the face of this fury. "I seem to recall you being fatigued by the action of getting out of bed at one point--and yet you seem to have made it all the way here from the White Castle without much effort. It certainly looks like the remedy worked."

"Remedy, my eye!" Erlis backed off, only to pace the room in front of Velora, who sank into the chair standing behind her desk with all the decorum of a court justice. "That was no remedy... just trading one internal conflict for another!" She bared her teeth and ran her hands over her arms. "Ever since Jade took Troy back to Justicia, I thought I'd gotten a handle on it..." she said with a shudder. "I had spent all my life wearing ugly scales, I didn't want to return to that if I could help it..." Her lips twitched into a sneer. "But the trouble was, I couldn't help it. Every time I healed someone, every time I used my Gift, there it was, the sleeping dragon within, pushing and yearning and stretching to burst out to the forefront again."

Velora yawned and wriggled her head. Fur broke out over her face, and her mouth and nose elongated while her ears shifted upward to two furry points at the top of her head. The wolf-head nodded to the troubled healer and with another shake, Velora shifted back into herself to speak.
"A little shifting never hurt anyone of us," she remarked. "Why not just let the dragon loose for a bit, every once in a while?"

"Because I can't!" Erlis retorted. "Don't you understand? Every time I've been a dragon, I've destroyed something, killed people. At least as a half-dragon I was still human-sized--but the longer I keep using the healing factor of the Dragon's Blood, without shifting into a dragon, the harder it is to stop it from taking over completely." She folded her arms around herself, reaching up to fidget with the smooth, glowing blue stone hanging around her neck. "I can't ever let even one of the scales show, or the rest of them will follow."

Velora raised an eyebrow. "I still don't see why you're so afraid of it--"

"I'm not afraid!" Erlis came to lean her hands upon the desk between them. Her eyes flamed with fury. "You don't know what it was like to live for so long with people shunning you for the way that half your body looked so grotesque. Maybe I don't have that anymore, as bad as it was, but now..." she pulled her hair back from her face in a sweeping motion of her hands, "How do you expect me to explain this?"

Velora stared at Erlis' earlobes, the pink fleshy disks--except instead of being rounded oblong shapes, the tops of her ears had warped a little, coming to a very fine point at the top. While it wasn't too perceptible now, something about Erlis' reaction told Velora that it was only going to get worse.
In fact, she knew how much "worse" it was going to get. Low Prince Spruce had informed her as much.
She hedged her bets with a shrug. "Well, what do you want me to say?" she replied to Erlis' question flippantly.

"The truth, Velora!" Erlis emphasized. "I know that you know more. Tell me!"

Velora let out a long sigh. She knew that Tristan would keep everyone enough of a distance away that they didn't have to worry about prying ears--new recruits could always be counted on to make those types of extreme decisions when it came to security, and right now, she didn't find it as annoying as she usually did.

"Fine!" She snapped. "Sit down, though. My neck is getting sore."

Erlis sat stiffly in the chair.

Velora huffed once more, then said, "The truth is... It's not just called an Elvish cure because it came from the Elves... The truth is," she finally met Erlis' gaze, with a somber face. "The blood that I borrowed wasn't just for testing. They mixed it, combined some of your blood with Elvish blood to make the cure."

Erlis didn't relax, and her gaze didn't waver. "And then what? I inject myself with Elvish blood, and what is it actually doing to me?"

Velora struggled to let the words out. "They found that nothing else had any effect, that the Dragon's Blood would just eradicate any other substance... Except the Elf-blood. When they tried to mix Elvish blood with Dragon Blood, diluted by your own blood as it was, the Elvish blood... overtook it. Broke down the Dragon Blood until all that remained was Elvish blood."

Silence reigned in the small cabin. Finally, Erlis caught her breath. "So that's it, then," she whispered. "I'm becoming one of them."

"It's not an instantaneous process," Velora admitted, "and it isn't inevitable either. From what I could understand in the way my contact explained it, as long as you keep healing, the Elvish blood can't take hold, and the Dragon's Blood remains as strong as ever, and you'll still have to eventually deal with shifting into a dragon when the compulsion gets too strong to resist. However, you can rid yourself of the dragon issue altogether if you refrain from healing--but that will also allow the Elvish blood to take over inside your body, and..." she shrugged and dropped her gaze. "And yeah, you'll just become more and more like them until you'll be virtually indistinguishable from them."

Erlis pursed her lips tightly and stared out the window beside her. "So," she murmured slowly. "That is the diabolical exchange: continue using the Gift I've been given, and live in fear that one day I will not be able to restrain the monstrosity and woe betide anyone nearby when that happens... or become an Elf, and never access my Gift again." She gave an agonized grimace at the idea.

Velora nodded. "That's about the size of it. I'm sorry that my efforts to help have removed any chance of you getting back to normal."

Erlis gave a wry snort. "We ceased to be normal when we first manifested our Gifts, young Wolf."

This is it. My worst nightmare become my reality.

I thought I could handle it. I could cover the distance between the Roque and the cove much faster as a dragon, and I could carry my friends to safety. Just once, that would be enough. A second time, perhaps--but only briefly, and with a clear agenda in sight.
Then the change happened all on its own, without any of my doing.

The Dark Man's voice slipped into my psyche, telling me that there was danger coming and that the only way to stop it was to shift into a dragon. I should have known better, should have fought harder--but there was no stopping it. Once the suggestion landed, the change happened like a reflex. It was supposed to be bound to my own will, as Troy had promised me... but now the dragon responded to his will.

I took off into the air. Perhaps if I kept him busy with my activity as I swooped and dived, I could distract him from causing trouble.

His influence held tight. A dark cloud wrapped around him as the army of crows descended, and he wasn't there anymore. It reminded me of how Troy moved, through shadows--Trevon is a Shadow? But neither he nor Mallory were Abnormals at all--so how could Mallory reproduce Gifts, and Trevon engage in shadow-jumping?

I needed to keep an eye on him, for as long as I didn't have any compulsion to attack my friends at The Roque. I watched him vanish and reappear over the length of the city ruins, running from one end to the other.
"Perhaps you might know where the Key is?" his voice murmured over my thoughts, as his influence slid deeper into my mind. "It's got to be buried somewhere nearby, hasn't it? Someone found it, and dropped it..."

I turned away from him, lest he pull the memories from my mind.

"I am here, brother!" called a cold, imperious voice, also in my mind. At once I knew who it was: the Crow Queen herself, amid the cloud of feathers and squawking and talons. "Where are you?"
"Searching for the Key, dear sister," Trevon responded. "Your throne is almost ready."
"Never mind that, darling," she crooned in a voice that made my skin crawl and my bones ache. "Come and see what I see."

Trevon shadow-jumped again, to a high tower on the edge of the city, overlooking the chaotic battlefield. The others had arrived! How many, though? Had Polaris brought them all? I saw Jaran and Beren--my eyes immediately searched for Zayra, hoping that she had kept the good sense not to come with them, since after all she was the one who bore the--

Oh no; what have I done?

"Interesting..." murmured Mallory, as a wicked smile broke over her face. Her influence gently shifted into control of the dragon--perhaps this was a flaw hidden within my abilities, carried over from when Zayra tried to use my blood to heal herself. Perhaps a little bit of Zayra's power-hungry Gift had seeped into me, so that the Dragon's Blood in me reached out for whoever had the most power. What did that say about the magnitude of Mallory's capacity?

I felt her pushing my instincts, and there was nothing I could do about it.

"The Key is with HER," Mallory informed Trevon, indicating the Princess. I saw Lizeth and Nyella nearby, each equipped with a supply of the vials Lizeth had been developing. They had armed Zayra with vials of her own, and the three of them created a barrier of ever-changing Gifts.
"She must be separated from those two," Mallory decided. "Trevon, isolate her."

"As we must," Trevon answered, and he shadow-jumped down into the fray.

I became overwhelmed with the desire to fly low and rain fire upon the enemy--whose enemies? Mine? Surely not! Why did I suddenly hate these people I'd regarded as my friends?
"Do it!" Mallory thundered within my mind, and my jaws opened.

Flames lit the battlefield, sending Lizeth reeling backward. Nyella huddled close to Zayra, but Trevon's shadow-tendrils pulled her away. Lizeth tried taking a fire-quenching tincture, and split the flames to walk among them without getting hurt, but under Mallory's control, I ignited the inferno again and again, heaving like a bilious patient against every inclination. Zayra ducked and fumbled with her vials, trying to find one that would protect her. Mallory sent me swooping down toward her, although each time I could shift my claws just a little bit, so that I wouldn't actually catch her up like the Queen wanted me to.

A flash of fire darted toward my face. Damaris! The small Phoenix compared to my massive dragon size coached me through the same focus exercises Lizeth had taught him, back when he was under Troy's control. Brave soul! In the face of that true friendship, I regained a little bit of my own willpower and actually turned aside, to fly over the city--maybe even out to sea, in order to allow my friends to regroup and stall to find some way of breaking the influence of these wicked siblings. Lady Two-Bloods is no one's pet!

Velora's ultimatum to me returned in my memories, and I thought about the Elvish blood I still carried. Becoming an Elf for the rest of my life would be a small price to pay for evading Mallory's control, wouldn't it? I focused my mind on those moments when the Elvish influence seemed strongest--my appearance changing, my senses sharpening, my pale skin breaking out in a cobweb of those shimmering bloodlines...

I opened my eyes. I was high in the air, still a dragon, but the voices in my mind had faded somewhat. It worked! I flew back toward the battlefield, now in full control of myself. I would stem the tide and turn the battle in favor of my friends! I made it to the edge, where Zayra was beset on all sides by soldiers. She hardly had time to drink a vial, even if she knew what Gift it would unleash. I blasted a few soldiers with fire, but darted aside when the flames got too close to her.

Zayra called my name, and something glittering rose into the air, catching around my foreclaw. At the same moment, a stone almost as big as my dragon form sailed through the sky, headed right for me. I couldn't get out of the way, and the force of it knocked me clear back into the city ruins. I crashed through the shattered dome of a large building, hearing several dragon-sized bones crunch as I did so. A wave of pain rippled through me, immobilizing me there. Trevon's black cloud sizzled through the opening after me, but before he could do anything, a flare of blue light enveloped me, and I heard a commanding voice before everything faded into complete darkness:


Velora paced in front of the portal, watching the perimeter of the safe zone she'd set up around it.
Her pack was doing a marvelous job of keeping everyone and everything at bay. Once she reached this side of the battlefield, Zayra would have a clear path toward safety.

The white-haired ghost-man appeared in front of her, as she was mid-pivot.
"Any sign of the Princess yet?" asked Polaris.

Velora bared her teeth to avoid swearing in front of a Knight of Juros. "No!" She growled. "And Erlis just got blasted out of the sky--things are going very badly!"
"Keep faith, young Wolf!" Polaris attempted to hearten her. "Juros is fighting with us, we will not fail!"
"We'd better not!" Velora seethed.

A watch-wolf yapped, signaling that someone was coming. Velora drew her sword and braced herself.
A burly figure charged into the trees--but her wolves did not spring to attack him immediately, which told her everything she needed to know. Velora sniffed, recognizing the scent. "Raedyn?"

The burly man thundered toward her, with the pale, slight form of Zayra draped over his shoulder. She bled from a wound in her side, but as he neared, Velora saw that Raedyn's back fairly bristled with arrows.

This time, she did swear. "What the blazes do you mean, coming all this way like that?" She bellowed, as Polaris coached them all through the portal and into the underground passageway that would lead them right to the Roque.

Raedyn glanced over his shoulder at the collection of arrow shafts and shrugged. "I didn't feel a thing," was all he would say.

Polaris leaned forward eagerly as Zayra stirred. "Your Majesty, where is the Key?"
Sure enough, not even the golden chain graced the Princess' neck anymore.
Zayra let out a painful whimper and decided to forgo moving altogether. "I don't have it," she whispered softly. "But don't worry... It is safe..."

The three beleaguered warriors scurried through the tunnel, while overhead the battle between the Gifted and the Crow army raged on.

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 32 "Redoubled"

Part 32

Edri shivered as she ducked into the last and deepest corner of the dungeon. She dug out the key ring she’d lifted from the soldier who had killed the royally-appointed jailer, and turned it in the lock.
“Commander!” Gasped a hoarse voice in the back, and Sir Monte staggered forward through the despondent knot of soldiers, hand shaking as he raised it in salute.
Edri nodded as she backed aside and let the men surge out of the cell.

“The Realm needs you,” she said. “Your king needs you! Arm yourselves and step up to defend this kingdom!”

Hearing her invoke the name of their home, and coupled with the sounds of battle outside invigorated the soldiers, and they charged toward the armory with loud shouts.

Edri noted the surge of twining roots peeling away from the gap in the dungeon wall—Javira had freed her brother. She stepped through the rubble with sword drawn, ready to plunge into the nearest skirmish…
She was met with absolute silence.

The newly-released soldiers stopped and looked around, hesitant and confused.
Edri walked over to where Zayra and Beren stood, similarly mystified.
“What happened?” she asked.

Beren shook his head. “I don’t know! We were fighting our way into the castle, trying to get rid of as many crows and soldiers as we could, but in the next moment, we were fighting nobody!”

Risyn, Jaran, Azelie, and Lizeth emerged from the collapsed wall into the main wing of the castle.
“Empty!” Azelie declared, squinting at all the towers. “There isn’t a single living member of Mallory’s forces anywhere!”

“I don’t get it!” Jaran muttered. “Where did they go?”

Damaris clenched his fist to extinguish a fireball with a grin on his face. “Is that it, then?” he asked. “Did we win?”
Zayra frowned. “This doesn’t feel like a win…” she muttered.

Just then, the soldiers all gathered to one side, eyes focused on their commander. When Jaran approached them, the knights backed away out of deference. The King stopped before Sir Roger and dropped to one knee, bowing his head.
Several soldiers gasped, and a murmur rippled through the crowd. The knights bowed to the King, not the other way around!

“Lord Juros,” said Jaran in the stunned silence. “We are honored by your incarnate presence.”

At the name, every other person in the courtyard immediately dropped to one knee as well.
Edri watched Sir Roger’s face, saw his approval of Jaran’s acknowledgement, and her own knees buckled. Juros! The famed all-powerful ruler of the celestial domain! Not just among the numbers of knights serving the castle, but under her jurisdiction! Every time she gave an order, every time she ran a drill and brooked no insubordination—she had been drilling and giving orders to HIM!

Velora stared at the bearded soldier, suddenly recalling how the last time she’d seen him was when they were chasing down an escaped Raedyn… and the way Raedyn disappeared and reappeared so suddenly…
She looked at her newest recruit. “So… when you said you’d seen him—“

Raedyn nodded, his entire body tense. “That is the man who took me away, and told me who he really was! I’ve been trying to tell you this whole time!”

Sir Roger laid a hand on Jaran’s shoulder. “Stand, my liege,” he said. When Jaran did so, and looked him in the eye, he asked, “How was it that you knew me? I have concealed myself since long before you were born.”

Jaran pointed to the ornate hilt at his hip. “Polaris disclosed it to me,” he answered. As he said the Shadow’s name, Polaris’ star sprang forth. The Gifted ones nodded when they saw his ghostly form, while the soldiers who only saw the magical glowing orb nudged each other with subdued whispers.
Before anyone else could speak, Polaris gave a cry and lurched backward. Those closest to his star could feel the surge of energy radiating from it.
“What’s wrong?” Jaran asked.

Polaris turned his head, fixing his gaze on some distant point.

“Tessa is in trouble!” Polaris answered. His ghostly face filled with sudden agony. “That must mean… Surely Mallory wouldn’t dare—“ He stopped, and his form began wavering, as if Polaris lacked the will to make himself visible. Jaran knew what his behavior meant.

“If Mallory thinks that taking the fight to Gybralltyr is going to give her some sort of advantage,” Beren growled, “She has no idea how wrong she is!” He curled his fist, and a wave of water splashed along his arm.
Zayra came to stand beside her husband. “The Roque offered us shelter and protection when we needed it,” she declared. “We will defend it in return.”
Velora set her jaw and steeled her gaze. “Time to end Mallory’s threats once and for all!” said the Alpha.

Polaris regarded Jaran, and the knife he held. “I cannot stray far from the knife tethered to my essence,” he said quietly.
Jaran nodded. “I suppose that means I’m coming with you,” he affirmed. “After all, this knife is the only thing that Mallory cannot withstand.”

“Sire,” Risyn spoke up from beside Quilla. “What about the Realm? You have only just returned, and to leave again so soon…” He trailed off as a brisk wind blew around them.

Velora glanced at Tristan, but the wind-walker shrugged. This breeze wasn’t bound to his will.

The air rippled in front of the archway leading to the garden, and a dense fog formed between the stone columns. From that fog stepped a delegation of Elves in regal garb. They stood, blank-faced and reverent until High Prince Aspen and High Princess Mignonette appeared. They bowed respectfully to Jaran and Azelie, who returned the gesture.
“Your Majesties,” said Jaran, recalling Polaris into the blade. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?”

Aspen’s golden eyes wandered around the distressed castle grounds, but his expression did not change. “We ascertained that it was once again safe to cross the portal, since Mallory and her army were no longer present in the Realm.”

“Oh, you noticed, did you?” Beren muttered under his breath.
Jaran shot a disapproving glare toward his brother, but the prince only shrugged. “What? I’m just saying, we could have used their help just a short while ago, when Mallory first started infiltrating this place. Maybe she wouldn’t have completely taken over!”

Aspen’s face hardened only slightly. “You forget that at the time she seized the advantage, you were all of you scattered to different locations. That’s how she works, divide and conquer.” He looked at each of the Gifted in turn. “The only way to defeat her is with a united, concentrated effort, and the only way such a thing is possible is if all of you meet her in battle.”

Jaran wagged his head. “All of us? But won’t that leave the Realm vulnerable? Mallory has already proven she can change locations quickly. If we all headed for Gybralltyr, what’s to stop her from coming back here and taking over again?”

Princess Mignonette tilted her head, the golden lines crisscrossing her face glinting in the sun. “What she wants isn’t here. She already has all the power she can hold, but it still doesn’t open the Gate. She will stay in Gybralltyr, because she thinks everything is in order for her.”

Edri frowned as she looked over the heads of her soldiers. Many of them had suffered injuries in the process of their capture, and not all of them had healed. Not to mention that they had gone without food and drink for too long. They would defend the castle with every last ounce of strength, but they wouldn’t be able to stand up to the Queen in a place they’d never seen. Who knew how long it would take them to get there?

Azelie stepped forward, her gaze fixed on the Elvish siblings. “This is all well and good,” she said. “But you didn’t place ourselves right on our doorstep just to tell us something we could have decided on our own.”

Aspen drew his sword and extended the hilt toward Jaran. “King Jaran, Princess Mignonette and I are prepared to steward your kingdom in your absence. We will rebuild what needs rebuilding, keep peace between the citizens, and when you return victorious, you will find everything in order and ready for you.”

Zayra’s eyes gleamed. “I knew it!” she seethed. “This is just a ploy, a backhanded show of force—how do we know you won’t use this as an excuse to just set up a seat of your own out here in the mortal realm?”
The knights stirred restlessly, their hands shifting on their weapons.

Aspen’s lip twitched only slightly—the first time his expression changed at all since the moment he arrived. He still held out the sword to Jaran, and addressed him directly, without even looking at Zayra.
“If that is what you think of us, then know this: if we had any interest at all in maintaining kingdoms on both sides of the magic barrier, then we doubtless would have done so—and we could have—on that first day we met, after so many of your people had trespassed into our land without permission. It would have been well within our right to consider such ingress as an act of war, and that war against your weak, fractured little kingdom would have been brief!” He nodded to the hilt. 
“I offer this to you now as a symbolic gesture of peace between our races. We Elves have seen many kings claim authority over The Realm, and most of those kings would willingly attack anyone they perceived as a threat to their power, human and non-human alike, regardless of whether the being expressed any inclination of doing so.” He nodded to Jaran. “You, and your father before you, showed us that humans with power can be wise, patient, and discerning. In particular, the way you are willing to let us have our own space, even though it is right in the midst of your kingdom, and that you were willing to submit to the token system, so that our borders might remain intact.” His gaze softened, along with his voice. “You negotiate more often than subjugate, and that is a quality we hold in highest honor among our culture. To betray the trust of such a one would be like to betraying one of our own.”
Everyone focused on Jaran as Aspen finished speaking. He hesitated, watching the Elves with their unwavering expressions. Then Jaran accepted the hilt, raising Aspen’s sword high for all to see, and then handing it back to him in a similar manner. Aspen sheathed his sword and nodded. “Everything shall be as you command, Sire,” he said with a low bow. Mignonette curtseyed as well, and the whole Elvish delegation followed the example of their ruler.

Jaran turned to face Edri, Sir Landis, and Sir Roger standing at the front of his army. After a brief moment, he nodded and extended a hand. “Now here is the gesture we mortals use,” he said to Aspen.
The High Prince took his hand, and the two rulers shook to seal the pact.

“When you return, King Jaran,” Aspen remarked, “Do allow us to tarry a bit. I believe there may be a need to renegotiate the terms of our current treaty.”

“I look forward to it,” answered Jaran.

Aspen gestured for the Elvish delegation to retire into the castle, while the mortals—the ones who would be going to Gybralltyr—remained outside.
Jaran laid a hand on the Dagger and spoke the name, "Polaris."
The Shadow blinked into existence, a mere incorporeal apparition in the dying light of the day.
The young king nodded to him. "We are ready to return to Gybralltyr," he said.
Polaris gazed out over the group. In addition to the fifteen Gifted friends, there were a few dozen soldiers, which were all that remained of the White Castle's forces. "Which among you have you decided to take with you, my liege?"
Jaran shrugged and gestured broadly with his hands. "All of them."
Polaris stared at him, aghast. "What?"
"We're all going to Gybralltyr, Polaris," Jaran reiterated. "Can you manage it?"

Polaris wavered haplessly. "I'm not sure... I was hoping that you would have some sort of elite strike team in mind... What with my essence being separated from my form, and I confess, my focus isn't as strong as it would normally be because of course I'm worried about Tessa..."

"What seems to be the problem?" Sir Roger--or, Juros, rather--strode up in the middle of the conversation, the setting sun glinting golden off his armor.

Jaran nodded to him, as at the very least a peer, a fellow ruler, or a superior in this case. "Sir, I have been told by the Elvish rulers you appointed to guard the secrets of Gybralltyr that it will take everyone to fight and succeed against Mallory on Gybralltyr. I was trying to ascertain if Polaris had enough ability to Shadow-jump us there."
"I don't know if I can," Polaris supplied, hanging his head in contrition, "My lord."

Juros chuckled. "I can teleport, remember?" he said, grinning through his bristling beard. "If I took half the group, Polaris, surely you could manage the other half?"
Polaris nodded almost right away. "I will do anything you ask, Sir."

Jaran addressed the crowd. "All right, we are going to Gybralltyr, just as Prince Aspen has said," he declared. "One group will Shadow-jump with Polaris," he gestured to the hovering figure beside him, which all the unGifted soldiers (and Raedyn) merely saw as a floating ball of energy, "while the rest will teleport along with... Sir Roger." Jaran stopped himself just short of identifying Juros in his disguise. There had to be a reason that the deity would choose to conceal himself, and Jaran recognized that until such a time as Juros revealed what that reason might be, he would be wise to continue identifying him the way he'd been doing it all along.

It worked. A murmur went through the group, but those who didn't know about Juros had at least seen him teleporting during the skirmish. All the better if they assumed he was merely Gifted (instead of being the originator of such Gifts, himself!) instead of suspecting the truth.

In the end, Polaris departed with Beren and Zayra, Jaran and Azelie, Raedyn, Damaris, Lizeth, and Sir Landis, leading a group of half the soldiers of this regiment. Juros stood in a circle with Velora and Tristan, Javira and Kaidan, Risyn and Quilla, Edri, Anahita, and the remaining soldiers.
"Here goes the last-ditch effort," Jaran muttered to himself, sheathing the Dagger so that Polaris could concentrate.
In a swift and powerful wind, the entire group disappeared.

The world was spinning darkness, trees and rocks and soil coming at them from every direction…

Denahlia reconnected with reality as her head slammed into the ground and she could breathe again. She couldn’t feel any pain in her limbs—but when she attempted to work her way upright, the thought occurred, but nothing happened. She lay in a heap, unable to do anything but blink.

“Markus! Denahlia!” Aurelle’s voice came from somewhere above her. “Are you all right?”

“Can’t move,” Denahlia grunted, her words muffled by the ground in her face.

Several sets of running footsteps echoed around them.

“You’re back!” Nyella called out.

“Help me!” Aurelle begged, and finally Denahlia’s face lifted from the dirt.

Brinley and Aurelle supported her limp body between them, while Nyella wrestled Markus’ mangled form onto Bronn’s strong back.

Denahlia focused hard, willing his implants to send the smallest signal back to her brain.
Please let him be alive, she thought. Please, just a bit of consciousness, that’s all I ask!
A short blip was all the answer she got—and it told her what she wanted to know.
Basic systems functioning on auxiliary power.
His heart—the power source for both the cybernetics and the blood circulating through the biological side—was still beating. For now.

“Get them onto the cots!”
“Good thing we still have those things out!”

Denahlia felt the cool softness of the pillow under her head as she stared up at the tiled ceiling above her. She still couldn’t feel anything below the neck.

Aurelle’s face tightened as Tessa approached, her eyes wide with disgust and confusion. “What did this to them?” she asked.
Denahlia let out a snort. (At least she’s could still talk!) “Trevon, the deranged brother of the Crow Queen.”

“He can’t be her brother, though!” Nyella protested.
“He thinks he is!” Denahlia retorted. “He seems to have some kinds of powers, too, because he banged us both up pretty good.”

“Can you move?” asked Brinley, looking at Denahlia’s inert body.
Denahlia shook her head. “Can’t feel anything below my chin. If someone can raise my hands to expose the implants in my wrists, I can talk you through resetting them and restoring my motor control and external nervous system.”
Aurelle nodded. “I’ll help.”

Tessa looked on with interest as Nyella carefully arranged Markus’ limbs on the cot. Circuits and wires had been sheared and tangled, sparks flickered in his mechanical parts, while blood seeped from cuts over his biological side.
Tessa had seen machines like this in the process of tracking and dismantling Mallory’s experiments, but she didn’t understand any of it. It seemed like magic, the way the young girl reconnected things, arranged the colored wires like ligaments, and used the tools from a pack on her belt to repair the hoses. 
After she had cleaned and bandaged his bleeding wounds, Nyella drew a warm cloth across his forehead.

Markus stirred, and his eyes opened. He moaned. “What happened?” he muttered.
Nyella set aside the cloth with a wan smile. “What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.
His brow furrowed. “Deni and I were tracking one of the pirates… and then there was a big man in black who could toss us both around without touching us…”

Nyella wagged her head. “I don’t understand how Trev could change so much. When we found him at the White Castle, he was docile, inquisitive, and very much aware of his strength. This Trevon person is… cruel, and forceful, and—“
“She’s turned him into a monster,” Denahlia supplied, sitting upright and reaching toward her feet. “Mallory—I don’t know how she’s taken over his mind so completely, but he’s definitely committed to her cause now!” She swung her legs over the side of the cot. “Systems check, Markus!”

Her cousin closed his eyes briefly, opening them to give her a thumbs-up with his right hand. “Nearly online. She patched me up pretty good,” he gestured to Nyella, who had slunk over to stand beside Brinley.

Denahlia looked around the room, taking stock of those present. “Where’s the Angel?” she asked.

Nyella pointed toward the massive window near the top of the front wall. “Incoming!” she said.

They all watched as Seline's winged silhouette glided to the terrace above the ceiling of the Great Hall. Bronn reared on his hind legs and grunted, batting at the air as if staving off some threatening advance.
Brinley listened carefully to her friend. "There's a large group of people coming!"

"It's her!" Seline's voice rang out near the vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall. She sustained some visible wounds, and her clothing was stained, ripped, and disheveled. She dipped down to let them know what had transpired.

"Trevon trapped me," she said. "I was able to escape, but only because Mallory arrived, with an entire army of soldiers! She changed them all to men, and dispatched them toward this place! We need to fortify this mansion!"

Brinley smiled and rubbed her hands together. "Finally, something to do!" she said. "I'm on it!"
"I'll come with you," Nyella volunteered.

Denahlia activated her implants, but all the readout she received was the aggravating UPDATING message. "Argh!" She groaned. "I can't get a signal--Markus, what about you?"
Markus rolled his eyes. "Still progressing, cousin," he said. Servos whirred as he lifted his mechanical arm and tested the fingers on his hand. "I have movement above the waist, so at least that's something."
Just then, a series of tremors shook the ground, and a bestial roar split the night.

Tessa groaned and covered her face with her hands. "This day just keeps getting worse!" she wailed.
Aurelle frowned and tilted her head. "That's not Erlis, is it?"

Markus jerked upright. "Hadrian!" He cried with a grin. He swung his biological leg over the edge of the cot, but his mechanical leg did not move. Markus bared his teeth in frustration. "Urgh! Somebody get me up to the terrace!"
"I've got you," Seline said, wrapping her arms under his shoulders.
Denahlia hobbled after them, with Aurelle and Tessa remaining below.

Out on the terrace, they could see the wave of black shapes creeping closer and closer to the Roque. Hadrian landed on the flat surface, her claws scraping against the stones. Behind her fluttered the gleaming blue Wyrmling, who chirped in bewildered excitement as its mother greeted her master.
"Oh, this is perfect timing!" Markus crooned, stroking the smooth scales on Hadrian's head. His eye caught another massive dark shape looming over the terrace. "What's this?"

Seline produced a glowing beam of light, aiming it right at the thing: the head and shoulders of the metallic Golem, standing at attention like a robotic soldier awaiting orders.
"Oh hey," Denahlia mused. "Mallory's arrival must have kicked in some of the programming I left in there to track us down in case anything happened."

"I have an idea!" Markus said, clambering onto Hadrian's back. He urged her forward, toward the Golem, whose glowing eyes watched with bland disinterest. It focused on Markus as he guided Hadrian around to the back of the Golem's neck, where the main control panel was located. He fiddled with connections and circuitry, adjusting the Golem's programming, until at last he closed the panel again. The Golem's eyes flickered, and it immediately crossed to stand directly in front of the Roque.
The Golem took five paces forward, and when the first wave of Crow soldiers reached it, the ancient machine leaped into action, stamping and swatting, beating back the army.
Denahlia reached up to pat Markus on the knee. "Nice going," she said.

"And look!" Aurelle said, pointing with one hand, while the other caressed the glowing blue talisman-stone around her neck. "The others have returned, with more soldiers!"

Denahlia watched as the furry forms of wolves poured out of the trees--in addition to the trees themselves, as roots split the ground to rise up and wrap around the enemy soldiers.

"Javira and Velora, at least," she announced. A cloud of gleaming purple lit up the shadowy battlefield, and a whirlwind lifted a group of soldiers and tossed them to the back. Denahlia grinned. "There's Risyn, which means Quilla must be here, too."
Brinley and Nyella joined the group on the terrace.

"We did what we could," Nyella explained. "What's all that noise?" She squinted over the darkened battlefield, full of shouts and screams.

Denahlia smiled as her implants sent a signal to her brain, indicating that they were finally ready for use. "It's our friends," she explained. "They've followed Mallory over from the Realm to stop her once and for all."
"But how?" Brinley blinked in surprise.

At once, a glowing figure appeared in their midst. "Tessa!" he cried. "Where is she?"
Denahlia frowned as Aurelle and Brinley gasped. "Polaris?" The Harbor Watch tried to use her implants to make out what her friend was looking at, but no matter what she used, all she could see was a glowing, hovering orb, like a palm-sized star.

"Tessa is downstairs," Brinley said, and the star disappeared.

Nyella asked in a small voice, "What was that?"
Seline frowned. "If Polaris brought a group with him, then Trevon must have gotten through to them--and that means..." She trailed off and lifted into the air, as the light shifted a little, to a twilight shade that softened the moon's light. Seline focused on the opposite side of the battlefield, nearer to the ruined city. "No!" She howled. "I told her not to come!"

"Who?" Nyella asked, coming to the edge of the terrace. She saw more of their friends spilling out of the rubble-strewn hills, Azelie and Damaris and a bunch of soldiers--and in their midst, a tall, blonde figure with a gleaming amulet around her neck. "Zayra!" Nyella cried.
Seline scowled. "She's going to bring the Key right to her!" she grumbled.

Nyella watched as Zayra waved her hands and the soldiers reaching for her reeled back under a blanket of water. "Look!" She pointed. "She's got a belt of tinctures like the one I have!" Sure enough, they witnessed Zayra lift something to her mouth, and immediately disappear.

Nyella noticed another figure cutting through the battlefield at superhuman speeds. "Lizeth is here!" She crowed. "She must have more tinctures--I can help fight!" Nyella pulled a quivering, formless shape from her pocket and slipped it around her neck, rendering her whole body invisible.

Seline chuckled and laid a hand where she anticipated Nyella's shoulder to be--sure enough, her skin registered the touch, although she couldn't see it. "Not too fast, young apprentice," The Angel cautioned. "I'll transport you down there myself." Her lips pressed into a thin line. "There's a certain princess who needs some sense talked into her."

Together, under cover of darkness, the Angel and the invisibly-cloaked girl landed on the far side of the battlefield. Nyella held her cloak tightly around her as she scurried between skirmishing bodies to reach her mentor.

"Lizeth!" She shouted as she pulled back the hood of her cloak. "Lizeth! It's me!"

Lizeth finished fending off a few soldiers with greenflame and whirled to see the disembodied head of her assistant floating toward her. Nyella's arms appeared, and the rest of her body emerged as she came even closer, while her back remained invisible, shielded by the special cloak.
"Wh--Nyella?" Lizeth gasped. "What are you doing? How did you get here?"

Nyella gestured over her shoulder at the fierce winged woman who engaged the enemy with skill and precision. "Seline--we originally thought she was one of the pirate captain's crew, but it turns out, she's actually an Angel who was masquerading as an Elf."

Lizeth gasped and her jaw dropped. An Angel! But this slender swashbuckler looked nothing like Jade, the elegant, ethereal companion they'd become acquainted with three years prior!

Seline regarded the scientist, her eyes traveling over the collection of vials Lizeth carried. "Please tell me you've equipped the Key-bearer with similar defenses," she said, gesturing to them. "I've already seen what your assistant can do with those things." She gave an approving smirk. "I almost get the feeling that you've somehow reverse-engineered Juros' Gifts."

Lizeth blinked, completely gobsmacked at receiving such acknowledgement, from an Angel, no less! "Oh, I just found ways to mimic their effects, with help from those with the Gifts themselves. They aren't nearly as effective as real Gifts, though--and when a Gifted person tries to use them, the effect is diminished and their own Gift is inaccessible."

Seline nodded toward Nyella, who was busy trading her empty vials for full ones. "May I?" she asked, pointing to the fresh vial in the girl's hand.
Nyella handed it over, and Seline examined it closely, testing a bit of the tincture on her finger. It glimmered softly, and she peered at the vial with renewed interest. "I think I can help with that," she said.

A full murder of crows swarmed around them, cawing and clawing. Seline handed the vial back to Nyella. "Not here, though. I'll lure these ones away from you. Meet me at the Roque when your supply runs low. I think I can give you a bit of true Gifts to help you fight these forces." She glanced toward the side of the battle, where Zayra took yet another potion that allowed her to encase herself in a colorful and impenetrable bubble, which she could move just by running. "Especially where the Princess is concerned--see that she doesn't run out of vials!" With that, the wiry Angel took off into the sky, a long trail of crows following after her.

Nyella and Lizeth shared a glance. Lizeth uncorked a vial and raised it as if making a toast. "Shall we?"
Nyella selected a vial and did likewise, tapping it against Lizeth's vial. "Bottom's up!" she responded.
The pair plunged back into the fight, with Nyella's Gift allowing her to conjure metal weapons out of thin air, and Lizeth honing some of Tristan's Wind-Gift to push away the rushing soldiers.
The ground quivered with each blow of the Golem's hand and feet. Now, as the sun rose and night transitioned into day, Mallory must have seen fit to shift more of her forces into bird form, and attract more birds to replace the fallen soldiers.

Denahlia, are you still here? Azelie's warm voice resounded in her mind.
I am, Denahlia replied in her thoughts. We all are. Her implants hummed in the presence of large amounts of electricity, just before a series of lightning bolts arced from the side of the battlefield where Seline had gone. The wind combined with a flurry of ice-bolts, freezing soldiers in their tracks, while a flaming figure tore through the battlefield and breakneck speeds.

A swirl of purple landed on the edge of the terrace, and Risyn appeared, with Quilla at his side.
"We've come to ward The Roque," the Mage explained. "Polaris told us that Tessa is in trouble."
Denahlia nodded. "The person who caused it is none other than that mute giant we found under the castle."

Risyn frowned. "Trev? But I thought he--"
"Mallory has convinced him that she's his sister!" Denahlia answered with a shrug of her shoulders. "Somehow, she's made him talk, and warped his memories. He goes by Trevon now."

Risyn nodded. "I think I know how she accomplished such a thing," he said. "She captured Kaidan and used his Gift, polluted it somehow, so that instead of pulling out Trev's memories, she twisted that Gift to force memories into Trev's mind."

"He's in the city now," Denahlia supplied. "He mentioned something about preparing his sister's final throne or what have you."

Quilla grabbed her brother's hand. "What can we do?"

Risyn conjured an orb of purple Darklight. "With our Gifts combined," he answered. "We will make the Roque a truly impenetrable sanctuary where we can bring anyone who needs assistance."
Quilla nodded.
Risyn turned to Denahlia, Brinley, and the others. "You'll want to be inside when I start laying out the wards," he said.

Denahlia nodded. Markus prompted Hadrian to lift into the air. "I'll keep an eye on the battlefield," he told his cousin. "I'll notify you if anything changes."
Denahlia grinned and tapped the side of her head, activating her comm.

The morning sun only illuminated a battlefield full of carnage and more enemies. Raedyn had to marvel at how quickly and completely his fate changed, from a freelance mercenary tasked with hunting down people he only knew by description, a small-time cutpurse, to now fighting in the defense of a kingdom whose ruler he had once tried to murder. His skills were more suited to close combat, espionage, and subterfuge--outright aggression confused him, and he found himself useless at any sort of maneuver that wasn't "
take out any direct attacker by any means necessary."

The soldiers pouring out of the woods around him as he hung at the back of the group, watching the brothers and their wives begin casting about with their Gifts, as the castle soldiers fell into impenetrable and mobile formations to knock the enemy aside. Raedyn could only battle the occasional black-garbed opponent.
The soldier with the lion pauldron and the shaggy white hair laughed as he mowed down a few men who had just transformed from crows to men. Elsewhere, the scientist slipped a belt full of small vials of liquid over the head and shoulder of one Princess Zayra.

Just then, the battle swelled, and a throng of birds swept Raedyn into a far corner. A high howl rent the air, joined by a whole chorus, and Raedyn witnessed a pack of wolves dive suddenly out of a corner of the forest behind them, making short work of the birds. He was especially astonished at the sight of the giant metal statue that looked and moved like a very stiff man, looming over the flank of the battle that edged too near the mansion constructed against those craggy cliffs. Was there anything these Gifted ones didn't have in their favor? When Raedyn looked back to where the Royals had staked their claim, he saw the space empty, and crow soldiers dashing through it. but where had the others gone?

Raedyn sensed someone standing very nearby just beside him, and when he turned, there stood Juros, in all his terrifying majesty as a grizzled, bearded captain of the Royal Guard.
"Raedyn, do you yet feel the need to prove yourself to these people?" asked Juros.

Raedyn scowled at the man's prodding and skewered a few more soldiers. "They were all set to execute me, and they have every reason to mistrust me, hate me, even." He slid suspicious eyes over to the bearded soldier casually waving away the dive-bombing birds as easily as dust motes on the wind. "But all I needed to say to them is that you vouched for me, and they're willing to include me in their numbers. Why?"

Sir Roger smiled. "Such is their faith in me, and confidence in each other, that they would welcome anyone. As I gave you back your life when it would have been over, Raedyn--now I give you a second chance to prove that you are indeed functioning in my service." He beckoned to the man, and vanished from the spot, appearing at the edge of the woods some distance away.

Raedyn growled as the clamoring soldiers closed in on him, but he shifted his grip on his sword and hacked his way through the crowd, gaining even more wounds and bruises on the way. At last, he arrived in front of Sir Roger.

"What would you have me do?" he gasped between breaths, putting the agony of his injuries from his mind for the moment.

Sir Roger held out his hand, and Raedyn took it. A warmth seemed to seep from the Knight's skin, one that spread through Raedyn's whole body, and as it spread, the many wounds closed themselves up while he watched.
Sir Roger gestured to the battlefield. "Look," he said.

Raedyn followed his gesture, and witnessed far more of the battle than one could see with the naked eye.

Jaran and Beren worked a fearsome storm of lightning and rain, dousing so many soldiers and striking whole groups down at once. Damaris swung a staff made of tauranium, through which he could channel his fire, directing it in precise bursts. Edri had her soldiers forming tight and orderly groups, enhanced by magic from Risyn and shielding from Quilla, sending them out to meet wave after wave of these shambling, violent minions of the Crow Queen.

"All this is but a distraction," Sir Roger's voice cut into Raedyn's enthralled attention. "She is using it to keep as many of us as possible engaged in fighting an unwinnable battle, while she and her companion make their way to their true destination," He gestured again, and the view shifted to a high cliff on the far end of the ruined city. "The Gate, for which she needs the Key."

Raedyn gave a start. "That's right! Where's the Princess? She has the Key still, doesn't she?"

Juros nodded. "As you were the one commissioned to end her life, so now you will be the one to preserve it. Find her, Raedyn, and protect her at all costs. She must not fall to these forces of evil!"
Raedyn frowned in consternation. "But how will I find her?" he asked. "She could be anywhere."

"I know where she is," Juros said with a nod. "And I know where she needs to be." He gestured to a far corner of the battlefield, half again as far from The Roque as it was from the ruined city. 
There, Raedyn--through whatever visual means Juros apparently used--watched as Zayra consumed vials and cast about with various Gifts. "She doesn't have many of those vials left," he observed.

"That is so," Juros confirmed. "And her friends have need of a resupply as well--although they do have somewhat of a plan whereby she can be saved." He pointed further on in the very woods by which they stood. "Velora, the woman for which I designated the Gift of wolf-like attributes, is waiting by a portal that leads into The Roque, with a pack of her wolves at the ready to defend it, once Zayra arrives."
Raedyn measured the distance with his eyes. "But how am I going to get there? She won't make it in time, not with so few vials of tincture left!"

Juros pointed to Raedyn's hands. "I have Gifted you already, my soldier. You are her protect her--do not fail! Now go!" With a wave of his hand, he dispatched Raedyn--literally! Raedyn vanished from that spot beside the woods, and when he blinked again, he found himself in the middle of a thick crowd of crow-soldiers, not far from where Zayra stood. He thought about a gap he saw, and how he'd rather be there--and in the space of a blink, he was!
"I'll be!" He breathed, gazing at his hands. "I can teleport!" He shook away his shock as someone rammed into his back, and focused on his new assignment.

Meanwhile, high over the battlefield, a massive blackened shape arose, and screamed out a tongue of flame. Erlis the dragon dispersed the rainclouds, licking up the lightning with the heat, and carving out barriers in the battlefield around the forces of the Crow Queen.

Anahita cringed in fright as the flames licked too near her. "It's Erlis!" she shouted to Damaris. "But something's wrong! She's fighting us!"

Azelie's voice came through their minds. I see her, she said, But she's not responding. It's like she's trapped inside a perverted version of her alternate self!

That's Trevon's doing, for sure! replied Kaidan. Denahlia says he's bound her in dragon form, and he's controlling what she does!

Damaris flourished his staff, extinguishing the flames on either end as he drew it back into himself, igniting his body. "I know how that feels," he murmured to Anahita. "Troy did the same to me in my Phoenix form, once."
"How did you escape?" Anahita asked.

Damaris gave a wry smile. "Erlis kept me occupied so I would stop harming the others, and Lizeth was able to use her Bluefire to pull me out of my Phoenix form." He looked up at the enraged dragon. "I suppose it's time for me to do the same for her."

Anahita backed away as Damaris unleashed the flame all over his body, casting the inferno wide until it formed the wings and body and beak and talons of the fiery Phoenix. He squawked and darted up toward the dark shape.

"Erlis!" He called in his thoughts, "Can you hear me?"

"Damaris!" The voice of her thoughts held a frantic note. "Help me! I don't want to hurt you or anyone else!"
"You have to fight it, Erlis! Don't let Trevon hold you against your will any longer!"

"It's not just Trevon, Damaris!" Erlis replied, as the Dragon snarled and swiped at the Phoenix. "It's... Her!"

"Mallory's controlling you?" Damaris responded. He saw the way the Dragon roared as she neared Jaran and Beren fighting and fending off the soldiers. He dove to hover in front of her face again. "Don't let her! Focus on me! Focus on what you know to be your truest self!"

"I... I can't..." Erlis' voice had begun to fade already. The Dragon twisted and thrashed, setting the grass around the two brothers aflame. "I'm so... tired..."

"Erlis! Please don't give up!" Damaris could feel the animosity growing as the Dragon threw back her head and roared at the sky.

Down on the battlefield, Edri gripped her sword with two hands and cut a swath through the enemy forces. She checked on the battle going on in the sky--just as the Dragon smacked the Phoenix away with her tail. Damaris regrouped and charged toward her again.

"Greetings, Commander!" rumbled a voice behind her, and Edri turned just as Sir Roger--or really, Juros--appeared by her side.

"Where have you been?" she seethed. "If you would just do something, this battle would be over by now!"

"I have been doing things, Commander Rodan," Juros replied. "And there are things I have done long ago, to prepare for just such a moment as this."

"And what exactly have you done?" Edri wouldn't have dared to be so insubordinate to someone with as much power as Juros had, but the endless fighting had begun to wear on her. "We've lost Erlis, Zayra is nowhere to be seen, Mallory keeps pulling up more and more soldiers, for every few we kill, and all I have to show for it is a squadron of soldiers whom I can barely protect, much less direct with any kind of effectiveness! Please tell me you're about to do something amazing to bring an end to all this! I don't want to be commander anymore! I want you to be the one in charge!"

A lucky soldier scored a hit on her arm before she ended his life, and she snarled through gritted teeth as she whipped off her gauntlet to heal it up before it incapacitated her completely.

Juros still smiled as he nodded to her arm. "I have Gifted you with more than just the power of healing, Commander. You are the Lion of the Realm, and fully capable of leading. I am merely a soldier, seeking out those I have need of--and right now, I need you. The Realm needs you to fight--and to lead!"

Edri's face tightened. "I nearly lacked the strength to shift back after the last time I turned into a lion to fight. What if I get trapped in that form, the way Erlis is trapped? I don't know if I can do this..." She barely even noticed that Sir Roger had disappeared to some other part of the battle. Edri stood alone, looking over her regiment of soldiers who followed her orders without question or hesitation. Quilla was doing very well at keeping them all shielded as long as they maintained their permission.

"Hey, Commander, look out!" A lion's-head pauldron and a shock of dirty white hair broke away from the others and hurtled toward her, and Edri winced and stumbled aside as Sir Landis threw himself bodily into a throng of soldiers little more than an arm's length away.

One taller fellow grabbed Landis by the neck, and Edri felt her body go numb. The black soldier's sword flashed, and the knight of the White Castle crumpled to the ground. Immediately, Edri's mind reached back to the buried trauma of three years ago, when she watched her friend Justin collapse in just such a manner....

A roar built in Edri's gut, and she didn't pull it back in this time. She opened her mouth to scream and out it came, her world swirling and tumbling as the armored woman transformed into the mighty Lion. Size didn't matter as Edri threw herself with tooth and claw bared into the fray, rending the burly soldier to pieces before she turned and leapt at the next group. The battle began anew as the dark clouds rolled in to obscure the morning sun.

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