For four days, Kathy and Byron enjoyed a quiet, peaceful stretch of time in Daggeuro and Selena's company. Of them all, only the kennin High Knight was even remotely aware of the trouble brewing throughout the rest of the kingdom. In that time, the township of Turen, in Alsem province, was mysteriously wiped out, along with a full contingent of sixteen Rangers assigned to the area. There were hundreds of fatalities, and even more persons declared missing.
A message came on the second day from Hailek to the King, a commanding officer of a border fort begging to know what had happened to the two-hundred men who had vanished from Fort Naris after it was attacked by a strange creature ensconced in blackened chains. Scholars from far off Razich, an Ether parallel of Mexico, sent word to Amermidst's sages that scores of specters kept in captivity for study in one of their controlled woodland environs had simply disappeared. They wanted to know if Ovin's wisemen, respected among all nations' scholars, knew what had happened.
Daggeuro knew what was happening. Somewhere in his country, The Chained One was amassing an army. It wouldn't march; such had never been Cassius Melchar's tactics. It would simply swell in ranks until neighboring towns and villages took notice and either capitulated or resisted and got wiped out. That was how Melchar had done it in Wekina, and how he would do it in Amermidst. He needed to find out where his power base was before too long, though, or the kingdom would be faced with a serious problem.
He learned all of this from reports sent from the Royal Manor. He knew, and as much as he hated it, he would have to wait to act upon it.
On the second day of that four-day period, at high noon, general Quintus watched as the Rangers' bodies were tossed on the fire, his bloodied left arm dangling numb against his side. A lizardman who had chosen resistance had raised an earthen golem that grabbed the chain attached to his wrist and whipped him around, dislocating his shoulder, smashing him painfully against the rocky soil. A stone had cut deep into the bicep before one of his men dropped the lizardman with an arrow to the neck.
Now Quintus stared vacantly into the fire as a terrifying revelation washed over him; service to the master did not make him invincible. He was no more capable now in battle than he had been before. A religious zealotry had stolen his good sense, and being flopped about by a golem had brought about awareness of that truth in a dizzying rush.
He was the general of The Chained One's army, not some footsoldier! For the gods' sakes, why had he stepped personally into the fray? Had a career as a private in the Watch left him unable to command without taking personal action? He owed the master better than that. He would remember the scar that would form on his bicep, and look to it as a message- do not what you command lessers to do.
But Turen hadn't been a total loss. Hundreds had sworn newfound allegiance to The Chained One, filling the ranks. His command had swollen, so that now he could be a proper general, issuing orders instead of taking them.
He sat down before the fire, letting a healer reset his shoulder painfully a few minutes later. As he wiped gore from his blade, his best sergeant, a gotrin named Jellis, approached and thumped his chest. "Sir, the last Rangers and resisters have been brought. What now shall we do with the town?"
"Gather all the portable goods that may be carried," Quintus said, bringing out his whetstone. "As for the town itself? Let it stand. Let those who question the master's power see it for what it is; a warning." He then set about his own brand of meditation with the stone. Rasp, rasp, rasp.
On the third day of peace in Celia, at the break of dawn, Councilman Herbert Stahg stood waiting for his favorite diner in the city to open, so that he and Jamie could partake of their legendary 'Big Man's Breakfast', a breakfast buffet he indulged in once or twice a year. He was feeling much better now; his campaign people had projected counts from Turen, taken only two days before, that showed a full seven-hundred and eighty-six votes for him, and only thirty-one for Warren. He was looking good for victory once more.
His deep purple robes ruffled in the early morning breeze. The fellin looked down at Jamie, shivering in her black skirt and green blouse, covered only by a light green windbreaker. "Get over here," he said, wrapping his outer robe about them both, her head poking out just under his, his chin resting in the elven woman's hair. "Better?"
"Yeah. This is nice," she said, leaning back against him. The scent of cooking bacon wafted out to them from a crack in the restaurant's doorframe.
"It is," he agreed, stomach sending his brain urgent missives from the battlefront of hunger. "It would be even better if they'd let us in to eat." Jamie giggled, snuggling back close against the Councilman. Shortly they were inside, sitting down with several people from his campaign group, everybody jabbering excitedly. Three months remained until the elections, and this close to the wire, nervous laughter was the order of the day.
Coffee was brought to the pair, who were offered the chance to get their food from the buffet tables. Jamie stayed right next to Stahg, and when he grabbed a heap of bacon from its station, she cleared her throat meaningfully. He held the tongs aloft, puzzled look aimed at her. "What?"
"I know how much salt you're going to put on your eggs, Herb. Bacon's very heavy in salt, and too much isn't good for fellins, right?" He rolled his eyes at her, and she used another pair of tongs to snatch half his payload away.
"Honey, you've got to take care of yourself," she admonished. Herbert Stahg had been a career politician for a long time, a man whose singular ambition and drive had made him one of the most revered and reviled High Councilman in centuries. He had lied, cheated and swindled his way into economic power and political clout for longer than whole human generations. He was a man accustomed to getting his way.
So he amazed himself by taking only what was left onto his plate, grinning, and saying, "Of course, dear."
Several hours later and approximately three thousand miles away, Senta slipped unseen into prefect Lonek's administrative headquarters, warping the shadows inside the aging, windowless first floor around himself. The building had only two means of ingress or egress, the front doors and a lone window in Lonek's office. The front doors were always guarded by fierce brownshirts who questioned no order given. The window was protected by numerous mystic seals. Entry without notice was a feat only a few had ever accomplished.
Senta made his way silently up to the third floor, where he noticed a heavy shadow down by Lonek's office door. Too much bulk, too black, he thought. Shadow Corps. He withdrew a needle from his left boot, crept to within five feet of the other assassin, and sent the poisoned metal on its way, nailing the other man in the neck. The Shadow Corps assassin began to crumple. Senta caught him quickly, manipulating the shadows to lift the man's an inch off the floor so he could drag him down the hall to a supply closet. Senta dabbed clear oil from a thin vial on the door's hinges, opened it, and shoved the dead man inside.
He returned to the doorway, checked for other members of the Corps, then slipped inside. Lonek sat behind his broad cherry wood desk, a heavy ledger ope before him, pen in hand. When Senta pushed the door shut, Lonek jumped back in his chair, hand over his chest. Senta stood to full height, hands behind his back.
"The mission is complete," he said flatly. "Leroy Ferter was killed before he could name you."
"Gods of all Planes," Lonek rasped, the toad faerie leaning on his desk with one hand. "You nearly gave me a heart storm Senta! I had presumed you were dead!"
"No, sir, though it was actually a closer thing than you would think," Senta said, walking up and taking the lone visitors chair. "There was a Shadow Corps man outside your office, by the way."
"I know that. I had him put there," said the blonot, resuming his seat, wheezing. "While you were away, I managed to convince prefect Krugan that, with The Chained One in Amermidst causing trouble, they might assume we were culpable for its release. It was only fitting that I, as the new lead on relations with their pathetic kingdom, have access to our nation's finest wet work boys and girls. Half are under my control."
"Well, you're a man down now," said Senta evenly.
"Not quite," said Lonek with a lascivious grin. "Though I assumed you dead, I had already laid the ground work, in case you came back, to have you enrolled in the Shadow Corps."
"Why," Senta snapped. He had never rebuked his employer to his face, but when he considered what he'd gone through for this single mission, the gotrin felt a little anger was warranted. "The Shadow Corps is a bad joke, sir! They aren't worthy of the title 'assassin'."
"And you're going to prove just that," said Lonek. "You, Senta, are going to retrain that band of glorified burglars and cutpurses, make them real killers worthy of the trade! And when the rest of the Parliament sees what my man can do, they'll happily hand over the Shadow Corps to me!" The blonot let out a peal of laughter, slapping his desk over and over again, finishing by sniffing hard. "I suppose all that remains is to ask if you'll do it. Will you, Senta? For the good of Rinchak? For the good of your brothers and sisters?"
Senta once would have agreed without question, loyal as ever to his employer. But a revelation had dawned on him as he sat talking with the blonot politician, one that made him feel both horror and revulsion; all of the chaos and fear tearing through the Amermidst Kingdom, all the pain and suffering The Chained One caused around Ether, it had all been unleashed just so Lonek could gain a couple of advantages over the other members of Parliament.
This man would do anything to benefit himself and his career. It would be best not to cross Lonek without a thorough plan. Senta nodded. "I will," he said.
"Excellent! I will inform Headmaster Bidly soonest," said Lonek. "And tomorrow, you will kill him and claim your rightful place atop the Corps." Senta felt a surge of pride in his skills. Yes, prefect Lonek was a monster, but at least he knew Senta's worth.
On the last day of peace for Kathy, Byron and Daggeuro, as the sun rose in the west, the human couple sat out in the yard together, their backs against the house, Tigger purring contentedly in Kathy's lap. A blanket was draped over their shoulders as they nestled together in the chill morning before the city warmed for the day.
Kathy sighed, tilting her head so it rested on Byron's left shoulder. She could just make out his naturally musky scent under his heavy brown tunic shirt and bomber jacket. She quietly said, "Daggeuro's hiding something from us."
"I know," Byron replied.
"It's something awful, I think."
"That seems likely."
"Is it something to do with The Chained One?"
"I suspect so," Byron said, squeezing Kathy tight a moment, then rubbing her arm comfortingly. "The big guy thinks he's protecting us, which is sweet, if misguided."
"Protecting us from what? We're going to have to face that thing no matter what," Kathy said.
"Yes, but until then, he doesn't want us worrying about it," said Byron. "I know this kind of evasiveness. I used it a lot with my kids when my ex-wife and I were heading for divorce at warp speed. Everything becomes about having good times, lots of laughs, and keeping everyone happy as much as possible. It softens the inevitable blow."
"I'm sorry," Kathy said. "I wish you hadn't had to go through that."
"Certainly not the worst period of my life," said Byron. "You know what they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
"Not everybody makes it into that second group," Kathy quipped. Byron chuckled, shook his head. "He'll tell us what's up soon enough."
"How do you know?"
"That's just how Daggeuro is. He'll shoulder every burden in the world on his own as long as he can before opening up. It's not a kennin trait; I've asked around. Most of his race is very open and sharing. He's more reserved than most. I think it comes with being a knight of the court." Byron nodded agreement. They got up and headed inside, the sound of crackling bacon hitting them just before the scent. Daggeuro sat at the kitchen table with a red-covered book open before him, a copy of Frank L. Baum's 'Wizard of Oz'. He appeared utterly engrossed.
"Boy howdy, you really are interested in that story," said Byron. "It's a shame, you know, I've never read it."
"Really?" Kathy sat across from her man, grinning wryly. "I would have thought it one of your major reads."
"No. I've read the Dark Tower series several times, along with Donaldson's Covenant trilogies, but never Oz. Just didn't get around to it. Thinking on it right about now, it’s actually kind of a shame.” He thanked Selena with a nod of his head as the elven woman brought him and Kathy each a steaming mug of coffee. “You ever watch that Oz the Great and Powerful?”
“Yeah, I have a copy of it at home,” Kathy said. Daggeuro looked up from his reading and grinned. “It’s a prequel to the original movie,” she said to the kennin warrior.
“Prequel? I know not this term,” said Daggeuro.
“It just means that it’s the story that came before the story you’ve already seen before. It’s not a common thing, though it used to be really rare. Nowadays, people aren’t as afraid of going back and adjusting or adding to the mythologies of different series,” Kathy explained. “If you ask me, it seems like every fifteen years or so, movies and television come around in terms of relevance and remake likelihood. Unless it’s a comic book movie. Somehow, it’s perfectly fine to remake Spider-Man even though it’s only been out a few years and nobody has forgotten by then the story of Peter Parker, boy genius turned radioactive hero.”
“Cha-ching,” Byron said, rubbing his fingers together in the classical sign of money and/or greed. “There’s only really one reason to remake a movie like that. Quick cash.”
“Or fan demand,” said Kathy. “Everybody kind of knew there was going to be another Spider-Man on a quick turnaround, since Marvel’s got all those different alternate universes and shit like that. Anyway,” she said, looking to Selena as the elven woman tossed bacon from the pan onto a plate, then set more strips into the pan to cook. “Did you guys have any interest in seeing the movie?”
“If it’s to do with your Oz mythos, then yes, I think we have,” said Selena. “I’ll go back and charge up the television and DVD player with some magic, if you want to slip over Mortal-side and fetch your copy for us to enjoy. Dear?” Daggeuro set down his copy of Baum’s original work, sauntering over to the stove to fill in for Selena as she headed back for their bedroom, already gathering magical energy about her. He hummed as he pushed the strips of bacon around in the pan, keeping them stretched out while the oil and natural fats within the meat sizzled and snapped away.
Kathy got up from her seat, drew out her dragon bone dagger, and cleaved a rift in the kitchen which led through to her apartment living room, a portal leading directly from the Ether Plane to Mortal. She slipped through quickly, snapping up her copy of the movie from her entertainment center before nipping out into her kitchen to stuff some more Coca-Colas into a blue canvas bag from Cub Foods over her shoulder and drag her goodies back through into the faerie couple’s home.
When she settled back into her seat at their table, Selena came back in from her bedroom, Daggeuro sliding out of her way naturally, handing the tongs over without even an eye blink’s space between when he was handling them and when she returned to her place at the stove. Kathy smiled inwardly, impressed and just a hint jealous of the kind of native flow the couple seemed to enjoy with one another. Their movements in the home were as fluid as those of dancing partners who have worked with one another for an entire career. Singular movements or looks could convey entire portions of a conversation, and the slightest references meant more between the two of them than entire lectures could between two newly acquainted people.
It was the unspoken comfort of people who were meant to be together. She wondered, briefly, if that was what she would develop with Byron in time. Best not to get too far ahead of myself, she thought. When everybody had their food before them, Kathy checked the run-time on the DVD case. “Do you have Watch duty today at all, Selena?”
“I do, but I don’t begin my patrol until one o’clock in the afternoon,” she said, tucking into her eggs. “We can all enjoy our breakfast together, and then watch the film together. I pushed enough power into our devices to keep them running for the remainder of the day.” Kathy and Byron agreed to this, and after the four of them had satisfied themselves with their meals, they piled together into Selena and Daggeuro’s bedroom, the faerie couple sprawling out on the bed while the humes gathered together on a loveseat kept on one side opposite the dresser. Cuddled together, they soaked up the peace saturating the air in the room around them.
Soon enough, there would be none of this sort of calm in sight.
General Quintus surveyed the forces ranging around Parik. There could be no greater sight for him than the sheer menace that presented itself to the world looking inward. Rows of elven, minotaur, lizardman and a few kennin soldiers maintained patrols around the township, their leather armor kilts, polished steel cuirasses and weapons shining with undeniable hostility and potential violence. These men and women, many of whom had only weeks before been kind-hearted, open-minded folken who would welcome a stranger into their home and give them shelter, succor, so long as they should need it, had swiftly become hard faced, iron eyed zealots, militants whose hostility coursed through their veins like venom, leaking out in the form of silent tension cut occasionally by a wordless brawl between troops.
Much would be changing soon, and he knew this better than most. The specters, the soldiers, they sensed it dimly, a budding vibration on the skin, scratching at the instinct of their minds and spirits. Many turbulent times lay ahead, kept away from them for the time being only by luck and happenstance. The elven general walked along the perimeter of Parik with his hands folded behind his back, two trusted soldiers behind him. His wrist chains dragged along the ground heavily, gouging twin tracks in the earth as the chains about his ankles did the same
“The King will undoubtedly send a sizable force here soon enough to defy our master,” Quintus said plainly, his voice projected around him but aimed at no one in particular. His eyes twitched up and about, watching as more trees were cleared from a section of the woods on the north side of the township, leaving room for makeshift homes to be erected for The Chained One’s troops. “When that happens, we will have to be prepared to kill them all. Some will be former friends, possibly family. Are you men willing to kill such people?” He abruptly stopped, faced his two men. Both were lizardmen, gents with whom Quintus had been close friends for many’s the year prior to The Chained One’s arrival.
The larger of the two reptile-like men, a forest green-scaled fellow with a ridged, heavily scaled neck and shoulders, grunted and nodded. As for the man on the right, whose flesh appeared leathery but not quite scaled in the way most lizardmen were, he demurred, casting his eyes aside and his blunted snout down toward the ground. Quintus nodded, looked the bigger man dead in the eyes.
“Leave us, back to your patrol,” he said flatly at the large lizardman. When he stood alone with the smaller reptilian warrior, specters and minotaurs dragging down more trees only ten yards away, he leaned in close and said, “Come with me, Neirek.” The lizardman said nothing, following Quintus as the elven general moved back in toward the center of town, stopping one street over and then double-timing it to almost the southern edge of town. There, he led Neirek up the steps onto the porch of a grand old two-story family home that had been one of only eight or nine dwellings of such size in the entire township.
“Sir, what are we doing here,” Neirek asked as Quintus knocked on the front door, a simple portal of paneled wood painted white. “Have I done something to offend thee?”
“No, nothing like that,” Quintus said. A moment later, an elven woman in a soft yellow sundress opened the door and stepped back, her features tense, eyes darting back and forth from the general to the lizardman. When they were inside the house’s entryway, a simple mud room in which several pairs of shoes had been arranged along the left wall under a slatted bench seat, she closed the door and locked it, peering out the front window just under the veil. “Neirek, what happens within the confines of this building does not leave it,” Quintus said, removing his boots, his sword belt, and his short bow from its hip ring. “What is said here, is said nowhere else. Do you understand?”
“I’m sure I will shortly,” Neirek said, following the elven general’s lead. Quintus hung up his weapons on pegs on the wall, his boots tucked under the bench seat. Neirek did the same with his truncheon and sling, then let the elven general of the The Chained One’s forces lead him through the entryway into the living room of the house. Three couches had been arranged in the middle of the room, forming a ‘U’ shape in the chamber’s center. Four other townsfolk sat in the horseshoe, each like Neirek himself, wearing the shining iron armored cuirass over their upper torsos, leather kilts stretched out as long to the knee as possible. One of them, an orange-furred fellin, had modified his combat kilt to be shin-length, and plated with long, thin strips of obsidian in order to protect his legs. Given his race’s tendency to have underdeveloped musculature there, Neirek considered this cat-faerie to be a thoughtful warrior.
Quintus cleared his throat meaningfully, and the other people in the room, three of them armored, one not, rose and turned to face him and Neirek, bowing their heads ever so slightly. “Thank you all, please, sit,” Quintus said. The lizardman he’d brought into this house stepped forward, standing now right next to the general.
“I still don’t understand,” he said quietly.
“You won’t fight,” Quintus said evenly. “I’ve seen it in your eyes. The question I asked of you and your patrolling partner, whether or not you would be willing to kill people you had once known as kinsmen. I saw the answer plain as day when I looked into your eyes, Neirek. There is no shame in admitting that you have not the capacity for such slaughter.” The lizardman looked into the faces turned toward he and Quintus, his heart rate quickening and slowing, quickening and slowing, alternating to the circadian rhythm of unknown terror. Was he being tested? Was this some kind of sick joke The Chained One’s general had prepared, one that would leave behind seven corpses and one laughing, leering elven general on the front lawn as the house burned around the bodies? Neirek didn’t know anymore; since the arrival of the horror they all called master, his entire world had ceased to make any kind of sense.
“None of us here were trusting of Durgen at first either,” said the fellin, a man named Foreskra. “And let us be frank, if we may be; we haven’t had much reason to trust him. That is, until a couple of days ago.”
“What happened,” Neirek asked of the elven general, who ushered him around to a seat among the others, taking position himself at the front of the room, so that all three sides of the opened square could look over at him. “What changed your mind about The Chained One?”
“An assault I led on a village some three days ago,” Quintus said. “One that ended in far more bloodshed than I care to think on right now, including innocent blood spilled at the hands of the specters I brought with us. I should have known better,” he grumbled. “Despite my orders to allow children and younglings to escape with their lives if their parents chose not to join the master’s forces, those innocents were slain by the savages. The master needs not such beasts in his forces, and his use of them proves yet further to me that he isn’t what I thought he was. He is a beast, a terror that should not be allowed to bring the realm to ruins.”
“So, what are we to do about it from here,” Neirek asked, looking around at his new companions. “This hardly seems the sort of place to launch a rebellion from.” Quintus nodded, leaving the room momentarily. When he returned, he had a long rolled scroll tucked under his arm. He went to the wall, unrolling what turned out to be a map of the province and securing it in place with a few quietly muttered words, a magical binding worked into the corners of the map to keep it against the wall.
“There are paths in these woods that aren’t patrolled on a consistent basis anymore. I’ve been making sure that the gaps in coverage gradually get larger with each ten to twelve hours. There’s going to come an opening in about three days’ time because of this, a period of about two hours wherein you can all get clear of Parik and head for Ryalt. You need to get word to the capital about this place, let them know where The Chained One is building up his army.” Quintus used a pointer to show the group the exact path they would have to take in order to escape the woods around Parik.
“Will you be leading us, Durgen,” Neirek asked hesitantly, though he suspected he already knew the answer to his question.
“No. I’ve already committed myself to playing my part in all of this,” said the elven general, the chains fused to his wrists rattling as he waved his hands in a negative motion. “In order for the rest of you to stay safe, and in order to keep down the casualties in future engagements, I have to remain here. For all intents and purposes, I must appear to remain a faithful and loyal servant of The Chained One. If he were to suspect what’s going on in here, he would likely destroy us all.”
A silence descended upon them then, but a few minutes later Quintus went over the basics of the plan with them, showing them detailed steps to take on the map in order to stay unnoticed by The Chained One, lieutenant Kitek and lieutenant Darius. He may have to serve the apparition now unto death, but he didn’t have to let everybody else in town, especially those incapable of doing so, suffer a similar fate.
He would behave as a monstrous zealot, and hope that someone in King Ovin’s court, perhaps even the mighty Sir Daggeuro himself, would have the chance to free him of his servitude.