The Chained One (Chapter 18)

Meanwhile

Kathy laid out a set of fresh clothes for Byron to change into after his shower. He'd woke up twenty minutes earlier, just as evening began its descent upon the realm. Kathy had hersef been sleeping curled up next to him, taking and giving what comfort she could. He seemed fine when he kissed her on the forehead to wake her up, and as the shower cut off, she hoped he actually was. He came out of the bathroom, trailing steam as he walked out in just a towel, giving her a tight hug and kiss.

            "Evening, dear," he said brightly, snagging the boxers she set out and pulling them on. "How're you feeling?"

            "Stiff," she replied with a sigh of relief. Yes, he seemed to be just fine now that his fugue of oddity had passed. "You?"

            "Likewise, and hungry to boot. Um, Kathy?" She looked up from folding his dirtied clothes, saw how solemn his face was. "I'm really sorry you saw me like that." He shrugged. "You know, spaced out?"

            "That's fine, really," she said, stuffing his clothes into his bag. "Byron, did you ever think about getting on medication? For your, um, whatever that is?"

            "Schizophrenia according to my shrink, and yes, I've thought about it. It's actually more like schizo-affective disorder, but they're never sure what meds to try me on, so I never get anything. They just sort of shuffle me from one doc to another."

            "Well that's no good."

            "I do okay, most times," he said, buttoning his pants and zipping the fly. "Stress does me in, though. Well, bad stress does."

            "Beg pardon? Bad stress," she asked, scoffing with a smile.

            "Yeah, one of my shrinks, Dr. Woodson, said there's two types of stress. There's bad stress, like worrying about the rent, getting hurt, being embarrassed, and good stress, like a workout or rooting for your team when they're winning, or sex. They all put stress on people, but in positive or negative ways."

            "Ah," she said, sauntering over to him and grabbing his groin. "So this would beeee-"

            "Good stress," he exclaimed. She laughed and pulled away. "Hey, blue balls are bad stress. Get over here," he said playfully, tickling and roughhousing with her on the bed until they lay back together. He held her against him, kissed, her nose, and said, "I love you, Kathy."

            "I love you too." It was the best stress she'd ever felt.

            Daggeuro opened the door, once more dressed in casual tunic and trousers without shoes. His toes wiggled up and down as he looked sleepily at the duo. "Dinner," Kathy asked.

            "Surely. Not that fancy place today, I've no patience for it."

            "Um, that place got destroyed in the battle," Kathy said.

            "Oh. Well, they'll rebuild," Daggeuro said, his voice slurred from slumber. The trio ended up in one of the town's taverns, served dark beer and steaks with wide-cut fries. Daggeuro was more awake and with it after sipping his beer. "We'll have to go back to Celia tomorrow. More importantly, we need to figure out where Cassius has his forces entrenched, where he's based out of. Until we know that, we're flying blind, as you'd say."

            Kathy and Byron agreed. Kathy put a napkin under her mug and said, "Couldn't we find out from the Rangers? I mean, I imagine they've got people pretty much everywhere, don't they?"

            "Unfortunately, no," Daggeuro said. "Because of some cutbacks, many Rangers in the outer provinces spend much of their time defending small towns and villages from the most aggressive specters." He took a draught from his beer, wiped his snout. "I intend to speak with sage Ocstar when we get back to the capital."

            The trio tucked into their food then, letting their conversation dry up for the time being. When they finished, their bar maid delivered a fresh pitcher of beer, compliments of the leader of Hazard Incorporated, a swarthy-looking elf who flashed them a smile with more gaps in it than teeth. They drank it off, the humans staggering back to the inn with Daggeuro's assistance. Kathy and Byron slept in drunken peace that night, while the kennin warrior sat up late, longing to be home again with Selena, to have what those two down the hall had.

            Senta had been sent to kill Leroy Ferter, a mission given directly by his employer. Upon returning to Celia with the dwarf through the Ether door in the Royal Guard's barracks, he had turned him over to members of same said organization, per Sir Daggeuro's orders.

            Shortly after this exchange, he posed a series of seemingly innocent questions of several members of the organization regarding Ferter's audience with the King. In this way he discovered that while the Awakened human had told not the King but an agent of the Watch of what he'd done, releasing The Chained One, he hadn't named prefect Lonek as the man responsible. That specifically had been the gotrin's mission, to prevent that knowledge from being spread.

            He still had a chance to complete his mission with honor.

            By means of conversing with and threatening the few criminal sorts he could locate around the city, Senta discovered where the target was being housed, safely protected by an assigned member of the Royal Guard. He began surveillance on the location that same evening, a shoddy tavern that rented out three rooms over the bar.

            The Royal Guard assigned to Ferter was an owl faerie, a magic wielder if his robes were any indication. Twice that night Senta had been forced to hide in a trash midden tucked in an alley across from the tavern, the guard doing winged passes of the area in search of suspicious sorts.

            On the day before the attack on Craeton's Bay far to the northeast in Engelesh, Senta continued to keep tabs on Ferter. The hume only left the tavern once during the morning, heading down to a quaint café for a cup of coffee and a danish. Using his unusual, subtle magic, Senta listened to Ferter and his guard talking on their way back to the tavern.

            "-ig deal is," Ferter was saying as Senta followed twenty yards back. "It's not like they've got a breakfast menu at that hovel."

            "That isn't the point," said the guard, his voice haughty, aristocratic. "The decree requires you take no unnecessary risks. Yet every day you go tromping up to that bakery, first meal of the day!" Senta had heard enough. He swiftly entered the bakery, looking into the pastry case avidly.

            "Help you," asked the gnome vendor.

            "I just saw a man come out of here with a wonderful looking pastry," said Senta. "What was it?"

            "Ah! Ha ha, yes, one of my specialties," said the gnome boisterously. He opened the case and took out a danish like the one Ferter had been chewing on. "Blueberry and cheese cream danish, fresh baked. Only two bits." Senta paid the man and left with his treat.

            He enjoyed his snack as he headed in search of an apothecary.

            Late at night in the city of Celia, the criminal element tended to restrain itself to key areas of activity, streets and alleys the local Watch avoided if patrolling solo. The bakery happened to be in one such place, and Senta almost walked right into the backside of another gotrin creeping about the alley between the bakery and the watch shop next door.

            "Oof, terribly sorry," said the sneak thief, picking up the lockpicks he'd been pulling out. Senta stooped down to help him retrieve the tools, handing them over stiffly. "Cheers, mate. Hey, you're not looking to hit this place too, are you," asked the othe gotrin, facing the side door of the watch shop.

            "No. My business is in here," said Senta, hooking a thumb at the bakery.

            "Ah-ha. Well, best access is on the roof, safe's in the office about fifteen yards left of the vent hood on top the building," said the thief conversationally. "Might not be much in there, I just hit the place last week."

            "I am not here to steal, but thank you for your information," said Senta. He leaped up onto the roof, a movement which would normally require a grappling hook, wings or magic from most other folks. But Senta had been training for most of his life to live without the advantage of magic use. Having only discovered his own talent with subtle magics a decade and a half earlier, he had been like most citizens of Ether, relying on mundane, non-magical methodology.

            This gave him a superb advantage over his peers. Most members of the Shadow Corps and other assassin outfits utilized a great deal of magic, all of it tracable, detectable. Senta had an appreciation for the more effective methods of the craft that such men and women had left behind.

            As he slipped down into the bakery's kitchen, he employed a spell to gather up any dust, hairs, or outdoors detritus he brought in with him into his left trouser pocket. Silently he approached the large metal door of the cooler, slipping inside the chilled chamber. He quickly located a tub of prepared blueberries, peeling off the plastic wrapping. From his belt he withdrew the tube of thick blue paste he'd concocted from ingredients obtained at the apothecary store, along with a rubber spoon. He poured the paste in, stirring it with the fruit and water already present, until the food looked no different than it had before.

            When he was satisfied, he carefully redid the plastic wrap, just as it had been done when he grabbed the container, and set it back on the shelf. He crept back out into the kitchen, leaping up into the vent duct, crawling onto the roof. He hoofed it away to the edge of the roof, leaping down to the alley and dashing away down the street.

            When he came to a lamp post marked on its base with an 'S' in white chalk, he probed along it until he found the small false plate, pulling it away and grabbing the package within. It was a small black box, which he took with him back to his hideaway near the tavern Ferter was holed up in. There, he opened the box in the room he'd rented from a doddering old elf by candlelight, pulling out a fake bronze Health Inspector's badge and papers written for this occasion.

            Senta smiled to himself, feeling once more the rush of a job nearly done.

            On the morning of The Chained One's attack on Craeton's Bay, Senta stood tucked into the early morning shadows across from the bakery. As the day before, here came Ferter and his guard, the Awakened human bleary-eyed and sleepy, the owl-man sharp and alert. Senta thought he'd been spotted at one point, but a cat went mewling past him out of the alley moments later, the Royal Guard's attention fixed upon it.

            Ferter and his guard went in, and a minute later, they came out, Ferter taking a bite of his blueberry danish. Five minutes, Senta thought. When Ferter and his guard were safely out of sight, Senta raced across the street and barged into the bakery, panting and bedraggled-looking.

            "You sir," he grunted, flapping his credentials and papers at the gnome shopkeep. "I am inspector Varsin, Health Department! Have you sold any blueberry products this morning?"

            "Yes I have," said the befuddled little man, taking the offered papers. They were a hoax letter from an imaginary man, a supposedly rankled ex-customer. The letter said that this customer had asked for a refund and been refused, and as a result, this man was going to ruin the baker by poisoning his supply of blueberries. The gnome looked up, horrified. "Dear gods! I just sold a blueberry danish to that human fellah!"

            "No time," Senta proclaimed, dashing out of the bakery and running up the street just far enough to be out of the bakery's view. Once clear, he turned down a narrow side lane, streaking towards a stables on the city's western outskirts. There, he purchased a swift mount, and rode away from Celia, his mission complete.

            The assassin's record remained flawless.

            When The Chained One departed Parik with his assault force, general Quintus made his way to the barn where he had established his own operations command. The master had no need of such trivial things, but Quintus reflected that he was not the master, just a man with a rank and a duty to serve as keeper of the forces while the master was away. But he had already served as a member of the Watch; as such, certain protocols were already well known to him.

            Darius waited for him in the barn, seated in the guest's chair at the rickety desk which Quintus had ordered set near the rear wall for his use. The elf gave his minotaur lieutenant a fist-over-heart salute, which Darius returned in kind, before sitting down with a sigh. "Well, what news, Darius?"

            "There is a man being held encircled by some of our specters just west of town," said Darius. "I didn't want to bother you or the master with it until more important matters were underway."

            "You've seen this man?"

            "About twenty minutes ago, yes," said the minotaur. "He looks like some kind of functionary." He paused a moment, looked away at the empty barn's dark interior. He turned his attention back, mind clearly elsewhere. "What would you have me do?"

            "Bring him here, to me," said Quintus. "After he's with me, send for Coleen Renek and have her get the a contingent of suits to help her retrieve building wood and stone for the new housing."

            "Yes, general," said Darius, thumping his chest. Ten minutes later, a weeping, sweaty elven man in white silk trousers and a purple satin tunic and matching robe sat before Quintus, flanked on either side by chimeras. Quintus raised an eyebrow at this man.

            "What brings you to Parik, home of The Chained One, my good man," general Quintus asked, drawing out his gladius and running a whetstone along its edge.

            "I, uh, that is to say, um, I, could you make these creatures go away?" Quintus kept running his stone, rasp, rasp, rasp, looking the cowardly man in the eyes. He flapped his hand back toward the barn dors, and the specters dutifully sauntered away. "Thank you."

            "Use your tongue to tell me who you are and what brings you here, or lose it to my blade," Quintus said, pointing the tip of his weapon at the man.

            "I-I-I'm Bartleby Roost, and I'm a p-p-pollster for C-C-C-Councilman Stahg's reelection campaign in th-this province," he stuttered. "I was sent here to Parik to get a likely voters' reading, find out for the Councilman how many votes he could count on here."

            "Well, pity for you, the answer is none," said Quintus. "This region belongs to my master, The Chained One. There will be no votes here for your employer."

            "Oh, okay," said Roost enthusiastically, slapping his legs. "Well, I'll just tell the Councilman," he began. He might have finished, but for Quintus shooting up out of his seat and thrusting his gladius into the man's neck, cutting hard out to the right. Roost sprayed blood, gurgling as he clapped his hands to the wound and fell out of his chair to the hay-strewn floor. He lay there twitching and bleeding, eyes wide as he tried begging for mercy through freshets of crimson life spilling from his neck.

            "You will say more with your silence in death than you ever could in life, little man," Quintus said. When Roost finally lay still, Quintus called the chimeras back in. They deserved a treat, and he sat back in his chair, cleaning and sharpening his blade as he watched them dine on Roost's remains. "For the glory of the Chains," he murmured. Rasp, rasp, rasp.