A Midwestern Yankee... (Chapter 13)

Chapter Thirteen

Layers

              Luga stretched, yawned, rolled off of the bed, his nap leaving him feeling refreshed and limber. He twisted his body in impossible ways for flesh and blood mortals, but not so for creatures more ephemeral like himself. He gathered shadows to himself with an effort of will, shaping them into a long robe and cloak, as well as boots for hiking in sludge.

              Casey remained snoring loudly under the covers, the sheet pulled down to her midriff, pale skin a stark contrast to his own manifested flesh. He'd used her thoroughly, so if she needed more time to sleep, he understood.

              He couldn't continue to indulge her her sexual appetites, however. His essence had already corrupted her, making of the taomen a complete reverse image of her human source. He needed her to retain enough of her human essence to activate the magic of the Great Door once it was reassembled.

              "No more," he muttered to himself as he walked out of his command tent and into the camp proper. His lizardman frame had become so natural a form to take that he was beginning to take notice of the way different shadows felt against his scales. With a minor twitch of will, he softened the material of his robes for comfort.

              He allowed his feet to carry him where they would, paying no particular heed to his destination. All roads, after all, led to freedom. Loud cheers from a nearby tent on the northern edge of the sprawling camp caught his attention, drawing him on. Outside, situated on a wooden pallet to keep it out of the muck, was some kind of complex machine he didn't recognize. It made a low, constant humming noise, and stank of what he assumed was some sort of chemical.

              Curious, he inspected it, following a cable of some sort to the back of the tent, where it disappeared. He heard conversation inside, muffled, followed by something he hadn't heard in a long time- a gunshot. Panicked, he whipped back to the front of the tent and dove inside, hands filled with bright green power.

              What he discovered within was a group of gotrin, goblins and Foruk seated in rows, with assorted foods and drinks, looking back at him. Before them, at the back of the tent, was something he'd only seen a few times. "Is that, a television," he asked, voice faltering, hands lowering.

              "Yes, master Luga," Foruk said, starting to his feet.

              "No, no, sit down," Luga said, finding an open bit of floor and sitting down. "What are we watching?" Nobody spoke, all fearful that the shade was being facetious, that he would any moment turn his wrath upon them.

              "Um, it's a movie, called Tombstone," Foruk ventured. "It's what the humes call a western."

              "Ah," said Luga, snatching a bag of M&M's from the gotrin on his left. "Well, how far in are we?"

              "About an hour."

              "Anything else lined up?"

              "Yeah, '3:10 To Yuma'," said Foruk.

              "Very well, then. Let's watch," said Luga, popping a handful of candy into his mouth.  And why not enjoy their company a while, he thought. You won't see them all forever.

              Kathy sipped at her coffee, reading  copy of a tome Baron Dimanche called 'De Ether Plane Bestiary'. It made her think of table top role-playing games, a compendium of general information about the myriad peoples and creatures residing within the Ether she'd come to.

              She was reading about creatures called dimnars when the Baron sat down on the couch next to her. "Dis is a pretty nice café," he commented. He wore this day a clean white dinner jacket over white pants and a silver sash around his waist. Even his top hat was white.

              "I know. I was here a couple of times before we left for the Gaedling Goblin's place. Daggeuro send you a message to meet him here too?"

              "Yes," said Dimanche. He looked like himself again, which spoke volumes of his powers of healing. "I only hope we're not already leaving again. Dere are t'ings I wish to tend to before taking off." They sipped coffee in respective silence then, Kathy reading about the elusive, fish-headed dimnars while Dimanche people-watched.

              Finally Daggeuro arrived, dressed in a sky blue tunic with cloth knot buttons running up the middle, black flowing gi pants, blue cloak and his blades. Without his armor, he still cut a powerful figure, but a more athletic one as opposed to staunchly muscular. He had a coffee of his own in hand as he took a seat kitter-corner to them.

              "Hail, my friends," he said, letting out a whoof as he leaned back. "I hope you've both slept well."

              "I know I did. Like a friggin' stone," Kathy said.

              "I only wish de young couple next door to my room could have finished deir business earlier in de night," Dimanche said. "But yes, once dey were finished, I slept hard and well."

              "Good to hear," said Daggeuro. "My armor needs to be fixed up, and I have some details to tend to in the next couple of days. Three or four days from now, we will depart again, south."

              "South?" Baron Dimanche gave him a puzzled look. "I t'ought de next fragment was-"

              "South, with the Manchis Clan fellins," Daggeuro said, slitting his eyes at the voodoo spirit. He eased his free hand into the front pocket on his tunic, withdrawing two folded slips of paper. "We'll have to bargain with them for it." He coughed, shook his head. "Hmm. I have to use the head. Back in a minute," he said, letting the papers slide to the floor. With a whisper and flick of one finger, he used his limited wind magic to send the papers along the floor to their feet, then set his coffee down and slipped away.

              Kathy snatched the paper up and unfolded it. It read: 'We suspect Luga has spies in the city. Go along with my story. In the coming days, I will be lying to a lot of people. I don't like it, but my duty comes first. Destroy this paper.' Kathy ripped her paper up into small bits and swallowed them, downing her coffee as a chaser, grimacing. Dimanche simply held his in his hand, conjuring flames to burn it to ashes.

              When Daggeuro returned, they exchanged some small talk, then all went their own way. Kathy headed for the park where she'd trained with Lady Barnick, preferring the peace and quiet it offered, at least for the time being. There would be plenty of time for noise later.

              Daggeuro stalked along the streets of Celia's western district, head down, cloak wrapped around him loosely to conceal his weapons and bearing. He hated the cloak-and-dagger tactics he was rarely required to implement, much as he held many legal procedures in the High Council in contempt. Of the many hats he was forced to wear, that of political figure was his least favorite.

              Spy followed close on the heels of politician, however, and that was the role required of him now. He'd drawn a veil of illusion over himself, so that his head more closely resembled that of a Doberman as opposed to a German Shepherd. A small change, but he'd found that small or subtle disguises worked best.

              Presently he was pretending to be a messenger tapped to deliver king Ovin's notice to the Watch of Sir Daggeuro's next expected deployment. Already he'd delivered one copy to the eastern districts' Watch station. Now he would deliver to the west, watchful for anyone taking special interest in the information. In the eastern station, captain Tellons had read the missive and promptly locked it in his desk, so Daggeuro doubted their spy was working out of there.

              He slipped quietly into the large, ancient brick building that was the western station house, sauntering up to the duty sergeant's desk with a sealed envelope addressed to captain Vall. The duty sergeant, an elf of middle age with more color than most, just grunted at him. Daggeuro tapped the envelope pointedly.

              "See here, good man, I'm wearing three stripes," the elf snapped, thrusting his left shoulder toward him for emphasis. "Does that mean captain?" Daggeuro said nothing, just shook his head. "Right. Captain's office is on the second floor. Sign the log sheet," the elf said, pushing a clipboard at the kennin warrior.

Must, keep, temper, checked, he thought, scribbling the name 'Snide Jackass' in curly script. The sergeant didn't even bother checking it, just waving him through. He kept his mind focused on maintaining the balance he strove so hard for.

              Up to Vall's office, where he discovered the bear-like faerie reviewing multiple papers. Daggeuro knocked on the door frame, and Vall looked up. "Whatever it is, give it to lieutenant Bronson, next door down," Vall said. "I'm swamped." Daggeuro shuffled down the hall, to the office of a squat gotrin woman who was writing something on a large yellow notepad. When he knocked, she looked up, smiled prettily, and waved him in.

              "Well, what do we have today, messenger?" He handed her the envelope, trying to place her. That's right, she was a sergeant until three months ago, he thought. She tore open the envelope, read through the missive, and whistled. "Well, corporal Standish will want to hear about this. He's practically obsessed with Lord Daggeuro," she said, shaking her head. "I don't get it." Daggeuro just cocked his head to one side, trying to look curious. "Well, I've worked with Sir Daggeuro personally, you see. He's a good man, don't get me wrong," she said, nervous chuckle escaping her. "He's just a little, well, frightening sometimes."

Ouch, he thought.

              "Did you need someone to sign off on receiving this," she asked, but he just shook his head, and the rat-woman waved him off, returning to her work.

Standish, he thought, letting the veil drop when he was a block away. "We'll have to have a talk when the dust settles," he murmured aloud.

              Kathy tried to think around a corner, but found her mind unwilling or unable to bend the way she needed it to. The task she'd set for herself seemed simple enough on the surface, but she kept getting bogged down in details. On her hotel room's table she had a drinking glass and a slab of square-cut wood perhaps an eighth of an inch thick. She had one hand on the glass, one on the wood, and was trying to clear her mind.

              Once more she mentally envisioned the glass melting down flat, forming to the block. But as before, her mind jumped to the technical details of what she was trying to make. She kept thinking, I don't have all the materials I'd need to make a real one. All she wanted was to make an ebook tablet run on magic.

              Her premise was simple, but real tablets were complex little devices, and therein lay her problem. Kathy couldn't stop thinking about the chips and programming that went into those devices, cutting off her magic flow.

              "Right, one step at a time," she said to herself. She hadn't realized until coming back to the Phoenix Inn how much she was missing the luxuries of hr world. If she could do this simple task, she might at least have a feeling of being plugged in again. For the moment, she concentrated on just melting down and fusing the glass. Her power flowed into her fingertips, and she felt the glass melt down under her hand. When she opened her eyes, she saw that it had worked just as she'd hoped.

Now the hard part, she thought. She laid her hand on the would-be tablet and focused on the glass being dark, a single button on the block's bottom. Once more the itch started on her neck, and when she looked, the glass had gone black, and a wooden button was on the tablet's bottom edge.

              Kathy then took the Baron's compendium of species in the Ether Plane in her right hand, the tablet in her left, and focused on the idea of the information in her her hand being in the device in her left. The magic flowed, and when she tried the device, for a wonder, it worked. She set it down and made one final pair of adjustments, holding it to the window. When she 'turned it on', as it were, a little green bar showed the universal battery symbol, charging on natural sunlight.

              Satisfied and exhausted, she laid down for a nap, not realizing that she had just done something no human before her ever had- she had created from scratch a magical device. If someone had told her as much, Kathy would simply smile without realizing what exactly it meant. But she would find out, in due time.

              Travis Standish took out the small box he'd kept hidden under the floorboards of his tool shed, slipping it open on its oiled hinges, eyes shining with greedy delight as he dropped in another sovereign. Fifteen sovereigns he now had in the box, each payment delivered surreptitiously by a goblin 'messenger' midway through the month. All he had to do was contact Foruk with news the troll or his master, the shade Luga, might want to know.

              Greed makes for easy trades.

              He could easily buy three very nice homes for the money in his box, or a manor in one of the other cities throughout the kingdom. He'd have to quit the Watch first, though, and go into hiding, claim he was going treasure hunting or something. Otherwise, an elven corporal having that much coin on hand was apt to raise suspicions. Standish wasn't stupid; he knew what people were like.

              He closed the box again and hid it away, returning to his humble cottage, which he shared with his older brother Paul and their sister Elise. His brother, cumbersome bore that he was, sat in the living room scribbling in one of his notebooks on the floor. Paul Standish was one of the city's only purely academic elves, a scholar who spent his every moment studying magic in its various forms and functions, experimenting with arcane energies. As for Elise, she was an artist, a painter who specialized in portraiture. She was also, in Travis's humble and authoritative opinion, a first-rate whore.  The frequency with which she brought seemingly random men into the house and directly back to her bedroom to copulate with would stagger even the least civilized gotrin, from Travis's perspective.

              He needed to get away from these two. The money he made as a member of the Watch would never be enough to move out on his own to a better place. If he tried now, the best he could afford would be a dumpy south side apartment, and he refused to live among such people. He deserved better than that.

              Such was the run of his thoughts when Elise nearly collided with him as he stepped into teir small kitchen. "Watch it," she snapped, hands on her hips. Travis flinched back and to one side; she was standing there nude for all to see.

              "What the hell are you doing strutting around here without any clothes on?"

              "Derrick's in my room right now, and we needed something to drink," she said, dangling a bottle of cold graf before his face. "Art is thirsty work."

              "So's earning your share of the rent on your back," he shot back, temper flaring.

              "How dare you!"

              "How? With relative ease, thanks to your carelessness. You know one of your 'models'," he said, making air quotes for emphasis, "handed me five drakes last week when he left, to make sure he didn't owe you money for showing him a good time?" Elise looked away, cheeks flush with color. "You're a prostitute with a cover story thinner than the trashy shirts you wear, Elise. I only thank the gods mother isn't alive to see you drag our family's honor through the mud."

              She slapped him then, a resounding clap that echoed through the house even as she stormed away to her bedroom. Travis put one hand to the struck cheek, tender from the blow. He looked through the kitchen archway, out into the living room, where Paul carried on with his work as if nothing else were happening in earshot or eyesight.

              Anyone claiming that greed alone motivated treachery in the world had only to meet Travis Standish to know that that wasn't always the case.