In the City, the Mighty City
When Kathy came to, she found herself laid out in an unfamiliar four-post bed, a light beige sheet her only cover. A quick assessment of what she felt against her skin confirmed that she was naked under the sheet, freshly washed. A scan of the room showed her she was not in a hotel, but rather someone's home. She could smell some kind of floral scent in her hair, left behind by whatever soap had been used to clean her up.
The door on the right side of the room creaked open, and Selena Barnick slipped inside. She looked down at Kathy and smiled. "Ah, you're awake," she said brightly. "That's good."
"How long was I asleep," Kathy asked muzzily.
"Nearly a full day," Barnick said. "There has been much commotion since your return. Sir Daggeuro will probably bring you up to date when he returns."
"Where did he go," Kathy asked, holding the sheet t herself and sitting up.
"To the north Watch station house. He's preparing all of the upper officers for deployment command. The barrier has been put up around the city, but we all know it can't hold indefinately. Luga's army is on the march here to lay siege." Kathy cast about for her bag, found it in the far left corner of the room. "Did you want to get dressed?"
"Yeah. I'm feeling kind of hungry, too," she said, stomach gurgling on cue. "Any chance you've got something I can eat?"
"I believe I can arrange that," Barnick said. "You go ahead and get dressed while I grab something for you." The elven woman left, which allowed Kathy to toss the sheet aside, strolling naked to her bag and swiftly dressing in light white trousers and a matching blouse with orange floral print. Her only alternative to the boots she'd been given were a tired-looking pair of white lowtop sneakers with a blue stripe up the side. Thusly dressed, she sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around the room.
There weren't many decorations here, though Kathy did take special note of an absurdly out-of-place object on the wall; a poster for Metallica. She recalled Barnick mentioning that she had been a long-time student of human behaviors and societies, so it seemed appropriate.
Likewise, on the bedside table Kathy discovered a small single-disk CD player. A jewel case set atop the box proclaimed it 'Gord's Gold', a greatest hits compilation of songs by Gordon Lightfoot. Kathy pushed a button to turn the player on, and the soft, dulcet tones of 'In My Fashion' rolled out of the player's lone speaker.
Barnick returned near the end of the song, head tilted to one side as she carried a silver tray over to Kathy and set it down by her. "Kathy, why are you crying?"
"Hmm?" Kathy wiped a stray tear from her eye, flicked it away. "It's just a really pretty song, is all. A lot of folk music makes me feel this way," she said, sniffling. "Gah, damn it. I hate being such a girl sometimes." Barnick handed her a tissue from the dresser.
"At least we're allowed our emotions," the elven woman said wistfully. "Most men are too afraid to reveal their hearts, terrified of ridicule. I don't understand that, the need for men to shield their feelings from being seen except for anger or aggression. What say you, Kathy? Have you any uniquely human perspective on the matter?"
It took Kathy a moment to realize that Barnick wasn't being sarcastic. "Um, well, they're not much different where I'm from," she said. "There seems to be a general moratorium on crying for most men in my world. Something about it being a sign of weakness." Barnick sighed, sat down on the other side of the tray.
"So some things are universal," she said. "Daggeuro was very worried about you when he and Baron Dimanche brought you here."
"Where is here, by the way," Kathy asked.
"Ah, yes, this is my guest room," Barnick said, some of her cheer returning. "I inherited this house from my mother when she remarried the Duke of Amerwest."
"Wait, so, you're royalty?"
"Oh, hardly," she said, giggling. "My mother married into their royal family, so I have no claim being from her first marriage. My father was an enchanter for king Ovin's court. He passed away almost seventy years ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Kathy. She knew the sting of losing a father. "If you don't mind me asking, how did he pass?"
"I don't mind. In addition to being an enhanter, my father was an avid scholar of specters. He had a theory about the rendermen, and when he sought out a nest of silvers, they attacked him."
"Oof, that's bad. How did you find out?"
"Rangers were sent to find him when he didn't return a week past his usual timeline. They managed to drive out the silver rendermen and recover his remains." Barnick looked at the dresser with a fondness Kathy attributed to nostalgia. "He was buried with honors at Hallick Cemetery, where his majesty's most trusted aides, knights and scholars are laid to rest."
Kathy thought about her creature compendium, snapping her fingers with revelation. "I've seen his signature," she said, hopping off the bed to retrieve the tablet. She turned it on and cycled through to one of Cecil Barnick's entries. Selena nodded, grinning.
"Yes, I remember that tome," said the elf. "He was so proud to be a part of its completion." She abruptly got off the bed, turning away to wipe at her face. "You should eat and rest. The water closet is to the left when leaving the room." She then departed, leaving Kathy to her meal and comfort. She ate ravenously, barely tasting the food before laying down atop the sheets and falling back to sleep.
Much to his surprise, no punishment had awaited Foruk when he announced to his master that he had failed to secure the fragment. Instead there had been a sort of blasé acceptance. The shade already had marching columns prepared, and they started the long march on Celia without delay. They had a long way to go.
The taomen bothered the troll more than his master's lack of reaction, though. She kept entirely to herself, only responding to yes or no questions with a shake or nod accompanied by a grunt. Something new troubled her, and she wasn't sharing.
When the army stopped to rest at midday, Foruk sat with Luga on the edge of the camp. Setting aside the matter of the taomen, he had a question for Luga that had sporadically popped into his head since first learning of the shade's plan to reassemble the Great Door. Two questions, in fact.
"Master, if Casey had not been created, how would we have secured human essence to awaken the Great Door," he asked.
"Simple," said Luga around a mouthful of bread. "I would have sent you to abduct one of the Awakened."
"Ah, I see. And master?" Luga stopped eating, eyes wide upon his trusted lieutenant's face. "What are you planning to do once the doorway has opened?"
For a minute Luga just ate, finishing his bread and slice of dried beef. Foruk almost expected to be dismissed, his question left hanging. But when Luga gave answer, he spoke gently, wearily.
"I will leave this world behind me, Foruk. I will travel as far as I must, until I find a world in which I belong. I seek a place where I'm no longer so alone, my friend. I tire of being unique in the way I am."
Foruk's heart hammered away in his chest. For so many years I have served, he thought, and always because you're so unique, so different, like me. All of my service, all of my efforts, and now you seek to be just a commoner in some other world? The depth of the betrayal he felt was as a punch in the chest, one that bruised the very bone itself. Crestfallen didn't begin to cover it. He came out of his daze as Luga spoke again.
"You understand my reasons, don't you, Foruk," Luga asked, his face long and tired.
"I do," the troll vindicator said.
"And you stand by me in this endeavor, don't you?"
"I do," Foruk lied. Luga clapped him on the back in a show of fellowship and headed towards his other commanding officers. Alone, away from prying eyes, Foruk let a single tear track down his leathery cheek.
Daggeuro marched past the line of officers at the top of Fletcher Street, all of them looking frightened. They had strict orders from the kennin High Knight to not allow anyone onto the street who wasn't on a list he gave them all to memorize. Thus far they'd stood their ground. But when none of them even gave him a second glance, he marched right back in front of them, hands planted on his hips.
"Did none of you stop to think to confirm my identity," he barked, causing them to flinch in unison. "Have none of you encountered a skilled wielder of illusions? We already know Luga has at least one spy in our midst! Did the possibility of more escape your imaginations? None of you will be paid for today's duty! Such dereliction deserves no less!"
They cringed away from him as he slipped by them again, intent on seeing the six men this street had been closed off to house. All six were divars, turtle-men whose defensive magics were unrivaled in all the Ether Plane. He had earned the title Santo of divars many decades before, when he helped defend what might have been the last batch of eggs laid by a dying matron. However, the generation spawned then were now of age to lay their own eggs finally, preserving the slim hope that their race might not go extinct.
Daggeuro had been personally asked to aid in defending the eggs from predation by ocean-born specters, which often came ashore to feast on whatever they could. He alone had fended off all such attacks for almost a week, when the offspring began hatching. His heroism was still lauded by the divars some eighty years later, earning him the title of santo, meaning 'savior'.
He entered a small cottage where one of the thick-shelled wielders was staying, seated on the floor in meditation. Each would renew their magical influence once a day on a staggered pattern, so the barrier didn't abruptly weaken.
"You come with great anger clouding your heart, santo," said the divar, eyes still closed. Daggeuro grunted and sat down a few feet away. "You have maintained your balance, however. That is good."
"Balance is key," Daggeuro said, his mantra spoken aloud. "Goron, Luga's army marches on us. The Rangers send word through linked mirrors that they are moving with the aid of speed enchantments, and will be on our doorstep in four days' time. Their forces are nearly one thousand strong."
"Not much of an army," the divar said.
"Large enough to be a problem. We have too many other Watch and militia engaged in dealing with rising specter problems throughout the kingdom. His majesty refuses to call troops here to the capital."
"Why do you tell me this," asked the turtle-man, genuinely curious.
"I tell you this because I want you to know how much you'll be up against when the shade arrives. His people are powerful, some of their wielders almost a match for you six in terms of raw power."
"Power without finesse is a troll swinging a rapier," Goron replied with a wry grin. "Scary to see, but easily defended against." There hung a brief silence between the two men. "You worry about someone or something already inside the city," Goron whispered.
"I do. We know Travis Standish was a traitor and spy, but Luga had him silenced already, permanently. If he'd been working in conjunction with anyone, we could have found out who. Another spy, if they're in the city, will wait until Luga's people are right outside the city gates to come and try to kill the six of you. Or only three or four, since that alone would break the barrier."
"I am not worried about this," Goron said. "When the time comes for me to no longer be of this life, I will be gone."
"You're a bit too Zen for my liking about all of this," Daggeuro said. " Do you realize how easily things could come down around our ears here? Without the barrier, we've got a city full of people who don't know how not to panic and a Watch force with only about eight hundred men and women trying to protect them, keep them out of harm's way. The people in the outer neighborhoods can defend themselves well enough, since most of them are of a rough trade or in the Watch themselves."
"What comes, comes," said Goron. "Santo, you cannot save everyone. In war, there is bloodshed. If there were not, it would not be war."
"And war is the balance of peace, yes, I get that," Daggeuro grumbled.
"And balance is key," said Goron.
"Yeah, well, sometimes balance is shit," Daggeuro said, one of his rare indulgences in cussing. "So, is there anyone available to do a chi reading?"
"Teffin," said the divar. "You remember where he resides?"
"Yes. Thank you," said the kennin High Knight. He stood up, then turned back toward Goron. "I'm a little surprised you'd remind me of him. What about 'what comes, comes'?" The divar smiled beautifically.
"As you've pointed out, sometimes balance is shit."