The day Councilman Herbert Stahg discovered exactly why the projection numbers were off was a day he would never forget. He awoke with Jamie’s head resting in the crook of his arm, the couple returned to Ryalt from Linsa for what he suspected would be the remainder of the campaign season. The smell of her perfume, soft and aggressively feminine, filled his nostrils with an olfactory peace while the silence of their shared bedroom threatened to lull him back to sleep. What in the world woke me up in the first place, he wondered.
Lightning flashed through the darkened room from beyond the curtains, and two seconds later, world-ending thunder crashed and rumbled through the house, shaking every stick of furniture as if it was made out of so much driftwood. Ah, yes, that’ll do it every time, he thought. Jamie somehow hadn’t been disturbed so much as an inch from her position by the flashing light or roaring thunder, for which he felt grateful. He didn’t want her upset or afraid, not when things had been going so well for them. So, he carefully slipped his arm out from under her head, extricating himself expertly with the fluid motions of long practice. As he tied shut his bathrobe, Stahg considered just how easily he was able to move unnoticed from her side. Looking over at her still, softly snoring form, he felt a sharp twinge of guilt. He was only able to leave her side so cleanly because for years he’d worked up a technique of leaving behind his one-night and one-week partners, each one easily disposed of in the aftermath of morning.
As he listened to the savage downpour striking his Ryalt home, Stahg quietly slipped down to his kitchen and started making himself and Jamie a modest breakfast. The smell of cooking bacon was intoxicating, and before he even had half of the food cooked, Jamie had followed it down to the kitchen, seating herself happily at the table. Already there were people from the campaign flitting back and forth through the house; this close to the actual election day, only three months out, they would only be prohibited from entering his bedroom at any given time of day. There was just too much to have done to try and control who could get in and out.
He poured even measures of eggs onto his own plate and Jamie’s, divided out the bacon and sausage, and then sat down with a cup of steaming coffee, taking a sip before pulling himself up close to the table. Before he even had his fork stabbed down into his food, a nervous gotrin came scrambling into the kitchen, hair askew, half-winded from running from gods-knew-where. He had a single scroll in hand, which he handed without a word over to the councilman.
“What’s this about,” he asked, setting the scroll aside.
“I really don’t know, sir,” said the rat-man, moving away slowly now that his task was complete. “It was delivered to the campaign office about an hour ago by a couple of Rangers. They were very insistent that it get to you immediately. If you ask me, it’s probably something important, sir. The Rangers don’t usually like to waste time with a lot of huff or written documentation, and I didn’t want to open it without permission. It isn’t for my eyes, that kind of thing, you know?”
“Evading liability in the event it’s bad news, smart move,” Stahg said, eyes half-lidded. “Okay, let me take a look at this,” he said, setting aside his fork and tearing open the envelope from the Rangers. The folded paper he pulled from within was dark blue at the top inch before returning to the standard whitish-yellow of parchment, which by itself drew his attention and made Stahg’s heart begin to race. Such documents were only used within Amermidst Kingdom to declare a State of Emergency or report a major catastrophe. He snatched a strip of bacon and began reading the Rangers’ missive.
When he was finished reading the report, he wolfed down his food. “Jamie, darling, you’re going to have to handle the day-to-day matters for the time being. Can I trust you to do that for me, sweetheart?”
“Anything for you, of course,” she replied, her own plate still mostly full. “Darling, what’s the matter?”
“There’s a town not too far out from here that apparently has been wiped clean of all of its citizenry, and the Rangers have discovered subtle signs of violence,” said Stahg. He swung around the table to her side, crouching down onto one knee and putting his hands gently upon her shoulders. “Jamie, a lot of people may be hurt or possibly dead, people we know. People I’m supposed to represent here. I need you to stay here in Ryalt, keep the campaign running but for the gods’ sakes, don’t go overboard and if someone threatens you, tells you to do something to hurt my chances or they’ll hurt you, then do whatever they ask you to do.” He took her hands in his own, and pulled her forward for a brief kiss. “I love you, Jamie.” She paused, eyes filling with tears, then threw herself at him, her slight frame barely moving him an inch.
“I love you too,” she said into his neck, weeping. He moved her back into her seat and nodded, stood up.
“All right. Like I said, keep things under control here. As for me, I have to head back to Celia for now,” said the fellin politician, cracking his neck.
“Why do you have to go there?”
“To fetch the best man for dealing with a situation like this,” he said over his shoulder. “I need Sir Daggeuro.”
The kennin High Knight sat in the southern Watch station house at just after nine that morning, reviewing the arrest reports from the previous twenty-four hour period and shaking his head. People, he thought, sometimes amazed him with their incredible stupidity. He had one report written up by private Artinz which stated that a local lizardman, having come home from his shift at the grainery just outside of the city a couple of hours early, had discovered his wife of some sixty years having relations with another man. In a fit of rage, the suspect had beaten the other lizardman senseless, then proceeded to beat his wife to death with a war hammer. The whole affair struck Daggeuro as immensely foolish. Were he to be in such an aweful set of circumstances, he would gladly holler about the sense of betrayal, grab his own clothes and possessions that weren’t joint property, and split. Just soooo much easier, cleaner that way, he thought. And if she wanted to divorce him and take money from his pay periods, let her. At least he wouldn’t be in prison or dead.
There had also been the curious case of a minotaur youth who’d decided that trying to light his farts on fire in a school library was a good idea. His gas had proven indeed flammable, but so too had all of the books around the table where he’d performed his lovely little experiment. Someone else, thankfully, had been working in the library on a report on deflection and redirection spells, and the flames were contained before they could destroy the entire building and thus hurt or kill anyone.
Daggeuro didn’t care for the sort of claptrap nonsense like this that he had to contend with on the paperwork end of things, but he knew that it was all essential to the everyday function of the Watch. Without the proper procedures being followed in all areas, chaos would eventually reign, and he could not abide that. After all, there was already too much going on for his liking with The Chained One and his activities.
He thought about Byron and Kathy, holed up in Selena’s and his home while he and his bride-to-be were at their duties with the Watch. “Hmm. Hope they remember to change the sheets,” he muttered to himself. “Last thing Selena needs is to be washing their mess.” He envied them their relative freedom, no real responsibilities at the moment. In Ether, both had attained a level of notoriety which allowed for them to get by without holding down a regular job. He supposed, however, that such was true for all Awakened. With their unique talents and routine passing over from one Plane to the the other, they needed to keep their lives in Mortal Plane more productive than in Ether, where they were occasional guests as opposed to lifetime residents.
Daggeuro signed off on the reports, one after another stacking up into his ‘out’ box. He had done perhaps twenty or so of these report sign-offs by the time councilman Stahg came bursting into his office at just after eleven o’clock in the morning. There was a Watch officer right behind him, a panicked-looking Husky tribe kennin who just hung his head and wheezed, “I’m so sorry, sir, he just stormed right past me without warning, I tried to tell him you weren’t to be disturbed!”
Daggeuro looked from the Husky to Stahg, analyzing his appearance in the blink of an eye. His trousers were loose-fitting sleeping pants, his tunic a flimsy night shirt with two wide pockets, and these were worn under hastily tossed on burgundy traveler’s robes. He had on his feet a pair of what Daggeuro had heard referred to as ‘town shoes’, slippers that were slightly tougher and thicker than what one would just wear around the house. Fellins, Stahg included, were a race given to carefully preparing their appearance at almost all times, especially around those individuals for whom there was no love lost. That he should be in a rush to see the kennin High Knight in such attire, and without even taking the time to smooth down all of the fur atop his head, told Daggeuro that whatever Stahg had come for, it was not something to be ignored.
“Corporal, leave us,” Daggeuro snapped at the Husky tribe kennin, who lowered his head and shuffled out of the office, closing the door behind him. Daggeuro indicated the visitors’ chairs across from him, eyes upon the politician for whom he had cared least in recent decades. He took a quick whiff of the air; Stahg was wearing no perfumes, and his fur didn’t carry the scent of his own saliva. Not even time for such simple measures, Daggeuro thought. I will need to be ready to act. “What brings you, councilman?”
“A report I have just received this morning from a Ranger detachment in Alsem province,” said Stahg with impressive calm. He reached into his robes, drawing out a folded parchment and envelope. “This missive was brought to me this morning as I was having breakfast with my beloved Jamie,” said Stahg. Daggeuro took the parchment, reading it over and handing it back, his pulse quickening in his chest. “I believe you can appreciate why I brought this to you.”
“You believe, as I do, that those Rangers are about to go marching off to their demise,” Daggeuro said.
“I do. It makes sense. With the trail leading so clearly southeast, the fragments of chain left behind, and my pollsters never returning from there, I believe we can safely say that we have pinpointed the seat of The Chained One’s power structure. Sir Daggeuro,” said Stahg, leaning forward in his chair, “we must ready forces to march on Parik.”
The Chained One hovered over the tall grass of the town square, peering out from under his hood at his nearest subjects. Most wore the cuirasses and leather armor kilts of soldiers serving his militia, milling about town with anxious, disgruntled looks pasted to most of their faces. He had inspired in them a bloodlust, one that, while not uncontrollable, still caused them to be on edge and prepared at almost all times for a fight. Those civilians who had eschewed the armor in favor of their old pedestrian garb were watched carefully, never given much room to move about without someone insisting on approaching them to converse and just find out where they were headed, what they were up to. The regime brooked no arguments.
The chains in his back shifted, causing a brief but potent flare of pain to rip through Cassius Melchar’s body. He was a creature of an uncertain nature now, a paranormal anomaly that had never existed before and likely never would again. The circumstances which had brought him to where he was now could not be duplicated again with even the most careful planning. But being unique did not ease his suffering as the links embedded in his flesh, fused to his spine, adjusted themselves in his hovering body.
When the agony subsided, the chains securely in place, Melchar felt the unreasonable urge to lash out. He sent out a silent conjuring spell towards the specters on the outer perimeter of town, and as a blue-fleshed ant the size of a horse scuttled into the town square, he pummeled it with a blazing bolt of purple lightning. The light vibrating off of the power coming from his rotted hands was brilliant, the smell of crackling ozone and searing flesh filling the town square. Dozens of subjects watched on in silence, some dropping to their knees and bowing down to their master.
The Chained One finished his assault, bringing his hands down momentarily as he turned his body towards his followers. He then waved one hand at the giant ant like a gameshow host and said, “Feast!” With a triumphant holler the citizens fell upon the dead specter, picking and pecking for a chance to eat some of the sumptuous meat which their master had blessed them with. The Chained One floated away from the scene, dragging his anchor ghostwood with him as he went.
When he was on the southernmost edge of the town, the apparition floated down to the ground, kneeling there and pressing one skeletal hand to the soil. He knew there would be an army coming soon, here to Parik. He had no other encampment to fall back to, no city to fortify, and perhaps that was for the best. Maybe he would need no such place to go. After all, his faerie and specter forces, bolstered by the animated armor suits, could easily dispatch an entire Amermidst battalion if one were sent their way. Seeing as the conflict was currently going to take place within that nation’s own borders, what were the odds that their King would think to send more than a single battalion?
“Slim to none,” The Chained One said, answering his own question with a lipless grin. “And all the better for me and mine.” King Ovin had one distinct advantage that could not be nullified, however; wee folk. The spells of fairies, sprites and pixies could effectively bat aside most defensive measures he constructed. What he needed, and in short order, was to find if any of the magic wielders among his followers specialized in contending with wee folken and their enhanced powers.
The Chained One focused his will, sending out a burst of thought toward lieutenant Kitek. This power he had absorbed from one of the Awakened, an ability to commune with any living thing he had ever glimpsed or encountered, no matter how briefly. It was a handy thing, but it only worked insofar as he was able to send messages to a single entity and faintly hear a reply directed at him. He could not read the minds of others; that power required physical contact, and had been taken from a different Awakened.
Kitek wasn’t far away when the call had gone out, however. “My servant,” The Chained One said, his voice raspy, as of an echo scraping its way down the hallways of a long-sealed crypt. The tereko’s scorpion stinger-like tail wavered back and forth, his bullet-shaped head belying no emotional reaction to being addressed as servant instead of by his recently awarded rank. “I would not question lieutenant Darius regarding this matter, for his talents lie not within the realm of the subtle or the magical. I cannot ask of general Quintus, for he is engaged in his meditations. Therefor, I shall turn to you.”
“You have a question, master,” Kitek said, his biceps and triceps bulging, twitching. His voice remained level, but if one listened carefully, they would detect his testiness. Unfortunately for the tereko, Cassius Melchar’s perception was quite sharp.
“A couple of them, yes, Kitek. Firstly,” said The Chained One, swooping suddenly close to the specter, his hood slipping back an inch to more prominently display his blackened, leathery patches of flesh over his skull, the ravaged remains of what had once been a proud Roman warrior. His breath, acrid and foul, wafted out into the tereko’s face, and Kitek flinched back from it, coughing. “Are you of a mind to disobey, Kitek? Answer me truthfully, now, and there will be a chance for leniency. Not much of one, but a chance nonetheless.”
“I will not disobey, master,” snarled the tereko, trying to regain his composure. “It had been on my mind to try before, yes, but not for some days, not since Craeton’s Bay.” The Chained One weighed the tereko’s words, wafting back towards his anchor ghostwood tree and taking a seat. Kitek knelt, strange arms kept loose at his sides. “What was your other question, my master?”
“Hmm. Yes. Wee folk, Kitek. I need to know if you can think of any among our forces who is especially good at dealing with wee folk and their brand of magical energy,” said The Chained One. Kitek snuffled, a strange noise which seemed to have a wet quality to it. It took a moment for The Chained One to realize that Kitek was laughing at his inquiry. “Is there something amusing about this situation, Kitek,” he snapped testily.
“My apologies, master,” said the tereko between chuckles. “It’s just that we have about twenty chimeras surrounding the town, mixed in with all of the other specters you have at your command.” The Chained One said nothing, just twirled his right hand in a forward motion to indicate that Kitek should get on with whatever he was about to say. “Chimeras are immune to the magic of wee folk, and can absorb it if they concentrate upon it. That’s why you never see any fairies or sprites or pixies hanging about when chimeras are present.” The Chained One felt the leathery skin that was his left cheek split and spill ooze as he grinned wolfishly under his hood.
“Go forth and gather them to me here,” he ordered the tereko, shifting himself until he was in his meditative posture at the base of the pale, ashen ghostwood tree. “I have war to make ready for.”
Daggeuro burst into the living room, huffing and puffing, his eyes wide with a blend of excitement and fear. Kathy recognized the look on him; anticipation for battle. She was up off of Byron, whose lap she’d been resting her head upon, in less than the blink of an eye as the kennin High Knight stomped right past them towards his and Selena’s bedroom. He called out to them from there, “You two should start making serious arrangements!”
“What’s happened,” Kathy called back, joining Selena at the end of the hallway to listen for Daggeuro as he moved about. Tigger climbed up the back of Kathy’s cloak and perched upon her shoulder, his forelegs stiff, claws locked into the magically enhanced fabric. She could sense his tension, all nerves screwed up into a singular package of fur and purr.
“We have figured out where The Chained One calls home,” Daggeuro replied. Something crashed in his and Selena’s bedroom, but the elven Watch woman didn’t dare go down there to see what exactly her husband-to-be was up to. She had once tried to peek in at him while he was preparing for a simple hunting trip and gotten an accidental elbow to the chin for her efforts. Daggeuro was the finest soldier she’d ever known, but when he got into the zone like this, he tended to forget everyone around him. It made him a tremendous soldier most of the time, and he had the intellectual wherewithal to realize when he was doing it in scaled combat. When that started to happen, he delegated primary duties of command to his highest ranking officers, who knew him well enough to know what to do in order to simulate his orders. Few if any would be the wiser, but he depended heavily upon these trusted men and women to do what needed to be done in his stead. There came several more crashing noises before he continued to speak. “It is believed with high certainty that he and his minions are in Parik.”
“That could be really bad,” Selena said to Kathy and Byron as they stood beside her. “Parik is a village built into the woods in the southeast of Alsem province. It’s not near much of anyplace else except the border of its governing province. He’d have woodland cover and all kinds of open territory to let his armies patrol and rule over.”
“So there’s not much in the way of making an unseen approach,” Byron said, pointing out the tactical disadvantage they would initially face if they made any concentrated move on Parik. “And even if it could be done, there’s going to be tons of creeps just waiting to lay waste to anybody who gets close to The Chained One.” Daggeuro came out of his and Selena’s room, a heavy tote bag in his right hand, his armor and weapons strapped on.
“We have other methods of getting one up on The Chained One at our disposal,” Daggeuro said. “Selena, I offer you the choice of coming with us,” the kennin High Knight said, his voice tight, strained. “I don’t like the idea of bringing you into harm’s way, but as an officer of the Watch, you sometimes must put yourself in harm’s way. I would be remiss if I did not offer you the chance to volunteer to travel with myself, Kathy and Byron as we lead a battalion of soldiers south toward Parik and The Chained One’s army. Your talents would be more than welcome, and your familiarity with humans, of which The Chained One once was, could turn out to be an unexpected boon to our efforts against him.” He dropped the oversized tote bag and put his hands gently upon his beloved’s shoulders, looking her squarely in the eyes. “Do you wish to go, or to stay?”
She smiled up at him, her eyes half-lidded. “Come now, you must know already my answer. I will remain here in Celia, where I am able to do the most good. I am not a combat magic-wielder by nature. Sure, I can do what I must in the keeping of the peace, but two-bit criminals are a far cry from warriors ready to kill or die in the name of their cause. But you must make a promise to me, love,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist.
“Anything,” Daggeuro replied.
“Don’t take any unnecessary risks,” Selena said. “You’ve always been the hero for this country. Let someone else do the outrageous things for a little while, so that we can have our wedding in a few months without you missing an arm or something. Okay?” Daggeuro chuckled lightly, but he agreed to the promise. Kathy and Byron left them to enjoy a few minutes to themselves and so that they could both get all of their gear together in the guest room. Kathy used the dragon bone dagger to cut open a rift that led directly into her apartment, and she gave Tigger a brief hug before sending him back through into the Mortal Plane.
“I’ll come by in a day or two to give you more food and water,” she said, reaching out and petting him one more time. “I’ll see you then, buddy boy.”
“Until then, Kathy, Byron,” the cat replied, dipping his head at each as he addressed them separately. They waved until the rift sealed itself shut, leaving them Ether-side to make ready for what lay ahead. Soon they would be on the march for Parik, and meet their fate therein.