For countless generations, an invisible barrier had prevented all those without Talent from approaching the fortress upon the mountainside. The word "fortress" was applicable only to the physical building itself, for it was not a seat of power, nor was it a glorified barracks for an army.

Instead, the fortress and the entire mountaintop was the only known safe haven for those with Talent, where they could hone their skills and use their collective gifts for the betterment of all.

Vast armies had attempted to penetrate the invisible barrier, but were unsuccessful. Several powerful dark wizards had attempted to tear down the invisible barrier, yet their magics were always thwarted by means unknown to those who did not live within its safe confines. For more than six full years, one king's army had remained encamped at the barrier, attempting numerous means to penetrate the impenetrable, waiting for the barrier to falter for just a single heartbeat of time, yet the army had ultimately trudged down the mountain in defeat without a single weapon having been brought into action.

The "prize" for anyone able to break past the barrier: a vast pool of knowledge on virtually all matters from history to herbs, from warfare to writing, from magic to music, from fencing to flowers. The library within the fortress was worth the world's riches in its own right, according to the legends, but the secrets of the library could only be fully exposed with the accord of the hundreds of Talented living within the massive stone structure.

After so many generations, it was believed that, at last, every possible means for breaking the invisible barrier had been attempted and thwarted. For nearly three full years, not a single attempt had been made despite the mountain being located at the union of three kingdoms perpetually warring with each other.

Yet, two older women stood in a large clearing near the southern curvature of the invisible barrier. Clad in their traditional cloaks, the woman with the silver hair peeking out from within the hood stood with her eyes closed and her right hand raised toward the sky, as if reaching for something unseen: a hope, a wish, a dream.

The second woman, as calmly as if she was watching the falling snow, looked toward the south, her eyes scanning just above the tops of the leafy trees, her head cocked slightly as if concentrating on a subtle sound.

Minutes later, the second woman smiled, her eyes veering slightly to her left. An eagle, as powerful as a flying arrow and as beautiful as a newborn babe, silently descended, backwinging to a near halt just above the outstretched hand, its talons wrapping firmly around the aged wrist yet not piercing the weather-hardened skin.

"You still have it in you, my dear," the second woman noted confidently. "Despite all these years, you still have it in you."

"As do you, my sister," came the soft reply as the silver-haired woman lowered her arm to look the eagle directly in the eyes. After a long silence, the eagle took to the air once again, returning to the south.

The second woman suddenly froze, her blood turning chilly with dread, for what she had just heard should not have been heard, not ever.

"What is it, my sister?"

"The barrier has been breached, and not by an animal."

They each shared an expression of shock and sickening foreboding.

"Has one with Talent found a way to reach our haven?"

"No, for I do not sense a wonderment at having passed through the barrier unscathed."

They sighed as one, with resignation. "Then we must assess this stranger at once and raise the alarm should it be necessary."

"Agreed, my dear."

Hand-in-hand, they waited, facing the tree line to the south, their eyes scanning for a sign of the unexpected.

The unexpected was unexpected indeed, for a young boy of perhaps only seven years ultimately emerged from the trees, stopping within their shadow. His clothes were dirty, torn. His hair was stringy, mangled.

For a long time, nothing was said. The two women regarded the boy as he regarded them. Each person was silently assessing the situation, wary and alert.

"How did you pass through the barrier?" the silver-haired woman finally asked aloud, her voice strong enough to command the attention of a nearby bear ambling past. "No human without Talent has ever been able to pass through the barrier. Even those of us with Talent do not pass it easily."

The boy did not respond, yet his lack of reaction indicated that he was indeed able to understand what had just been said.

"Not everyone has a visible Talent," the second woman noted aloud. "My sister here is able to communicate mind-to-mind with most animals, but particularly with birds. I myself am able to hear the softest squeak of a mouse nearly a full league away."

"Yet I cannot sense even a trace of Talent upon you," the first woman declared, her voice taking on an accusatory tone. "What is your Talent?"

As the young boy's eyes turned to ash and his teeth grew into fangs and his fingernails sharpened into talons and bony spikes sprouted along his spine and his skin became as black as the night sky, he replied with an unearthly voice:


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