Kathy had found out about what had occurred at the armor museum in Linsa, and found that she could do one better for King Ovin’s forces. A similar historical center stood in the center of Celia, and she was able to augment the battalion that would be marching southwest to Alsem province by including seventy-two suits of armor, animated by her magic. Her cloak needed mending, and she saw to that as well in the days before departure.
Byron spent this time practicing new combinations of words on his cards, conjuring various weapons, defenses, and objects and creatures of uncertain strategic value. His favorite after a few hours was a giant green rooster composed of emerald. It crowed, pecked and kicked about, an enormous six-and-a-half foot behemoth with about as many wits as an orc that has driven a railroad spike through his own head. Try as he might, the only command Byron could get it to listen to and obey for the brief time he had it around was ‘claw’, which it followed by raking one huge, glittering set of talons through the air just a few inches away from Byron’s face. That, Byron thought as he dismissed the creature back into a crumpled card, was interesting.
Daggeuro was largely absent from the house during the two days following his delivery of the news to the others about Parik. He was arranging the detachments of Watchmen, Rangers and Royal Guardsmen who were going to comprise the battalion he’d be leading against The Chained One. While making these preparations, Selena helped him by rearranging patrol schedules in accordance with who would be leaving the capital with the battalion, trying to match up their skill sets with those of the registered Watch reservists who kept themselves available at all times. It hadn’t been easy, but she was keeping up with it all.
On the second day of preparation, just after noon, Kathy strode into the seamstress’s shop, taking in with a sniff the heavy, cloying odor the owl faerie woman behind the service counter seemed to enjoy coming from her incense burners. She wrinkled her nose at the scent and tried to smile at the seamstress. “Travel cloak for lady Potts,” she said, producing the small red ticket she’d been given when she handed her cloak in the day before. The owl woman took the ticket through a narrow door behind the counter, returning a minute later with Kathy’s cloak on a wooden hanger, a disapproving scowl furrowing her brow as she handed the item over to the human woman. “Something the matter,” Kathy asked evenly.
“You,” said the owl faerie, flapping her feathered, wing-like hand at Kathy dismissively. “Humans, all humans, you bring nothing with you but trouble, every time you’re around. Councilman Stahg, he has always had the right idea about you Awakened and Adepts, I believe,” said the owl woman, folding her arms over her chest. “We should just leave you out in the wilds to survive, return to your own world or die. It’s easier and smoother than having to deal with your devilry.” With that, the owl woman snorted, spat to one side, and ignored Kathy henceforth.
Kathy removed her cloak from the hanger, shrugged her way into it, and lofted the hanger back over the counter flippantly. “I’ll remember that the next time I’m fighting to save this kingdom,” Kathy said evenly. The owl woman met her eyes for a moment, then looked away. In turning her eyes down and aside, Kathy recognized the reaction for what it was; shame. “Which will probably be in another day or so.”
She strode back outside confidently, enjoying the warmth of the sun beating down on the city. Byron was off working on new card manifestations, Daggeuro was readying a battalion for marching to battle, and Selena was going through the motions of keeping the Watch running smoothly. All in all, with everyone off doing their own preparations, Kathy was left largely to her own devices. Mostly, she found herself wandering aimlessly through Celia, taking in the faerie folken she’d come to feel natural around. There was something here she’d never find back Mortal-side, something other than the magic the Ether Plane operated by; it was a sense of belonging, of being finally delivered to the world in which she always should have lived.
She wondered as she walked along under the weight of her repaired cloak if Byron felt the same way. He was a bit of a misfit in most ways; his humor was sharp and dark, his manner often standoffish with strangers, and he had brief fits of delirious behavior. She had a hard time envisioning what his life must have been like Mortal-side. If even faerie folk treated with him at arm’s length, how must the everyday humans back home perceive him?
Their relationship had begun and developed quickly thus far, as such things often do when established in times or situations of duress. She wondered how they would get on together after things were over, if they should both survive mostly or entirely intact. Would she still find his eerie personality charming? Or would she feel a native pull away from him? Only time really would tell, and if something should death slip between them before The Chained One was banished or destroyed, the question would become moot.
Deciding not to dwell on such questions any longer, Kathy made her way toward the nearest park. She was going to spend some time with the wee folk and let her worries go for a while. After all, she thought, striding along confidently, they’ll be there when I need them again.
Byron sensed there was something not quite right about what he was doing, but he didn’t really put much stock in being overly cautious at this point. It would only be another day or so until he and Kathy were marching alongside Daggeuro towards the gaping maw of Cassius Melchar’s growing contingent of crazed worshippers and enslaved specters; being weak-kneed now made no sense. He drew out a blank yellow card, wrote down a few words quickly, and tossed the card down. It flashed with a brilliant white light, a smell of sulfur, and when he brought his arm away from his eyes, the creature that stood before him glared down at him.
It was a towering albino shark-man, with two hellfire shotguns for arms. Magical energy flickered around its eyes and along patches of its pure white skin, the crackle audible thanks to the acoustics of the old, decrepit storehouse on Celia’s south side. The creature took three steps forward, at Byron’s behest, before it fell to its knees, the magical energy spiraling around it in rapid pulses. Finally it exploded in a shower of golden powder, the magic dissipating, leaving Byron sighing, hands running back through his hair and clamping on his head. The construct was too potent, utilizing too many separate factors for its construction. He had no idea how he was going to simplify his efforts further without losing all meaning in the words he wrote down to describe his construct.
“I need to cool off,” he said to himself, ignoring the other creature in the large, open-air chamber he stood in. It wasn’t real, after all, so he could safely write it off as just another of his delusions, one he had dealt with before. It appeared to him as a slightly oversized human skull with a single eye in its socket, leathery bat wings on its sides to let it float and flap about, and a spike-tipped bone tail hanging out from the back. It had once introduced itself to him in a high, tittering-bitch tone of voice as Poxy the Magnificent. Byron, being unimpressed, had simply shrugged and gone about his business. Since that first experience, he had seen Poxy numerous times, usually in times of stress. He figured that just helped solidify his case for the skull-bat’s not being real.
Byron made his way outside behind the building, lighting a cigarette and chuffing smoke, peering down the narrow alleyway at the people passing the end of the walkway along a parallel street. All shapes and sizes, all manner of man-beast hybrid of the sort he’d only ever dreamed of growing up. In all of the fantasy and science fiction novels he’d read as an adolescent, he’d learned of creatures that defied even a boy’s imagination. Here, in the Ether, he might see anything, including those things he never could have dreamed up.
The cards baffled him at times. He didn’t need them, per se, but having them allowed him a degree of ritual, and ritual meant control, something he was always looking for given his illness. Whatever he could do to get things nailed down in his life, he would do. As such, when the chance seemed to open up to him to keep things orderly with the cards, he took it. But as he stood in the pathway behind the building and smoked, he questioned whether or not the current trouble rested with him or the cards. Another medium might be strong enough to sustain something like the twin-shotgun-shark.
“Well, ‘twin-hellfire-shotgun-shark,” he muttered aloud to himself, tapping ashes onto the ground. He looked up suddenly, smiling, snapping the fingers on his free hand. “That’s it! That’s it.” Byron finished his cigarette quickly and swept back inside, heading for the main chamber and withdrawing a new blank card, quickly jotting down the words ‘Twin Hellfire Shotgun Shark’. He tossed down the card, which released it’s telltale white flash of light, followed by a flopping, thrashing shark with hellfire shotguns where its fins should have been. It flopped about, utterly helpless in its environment, mouth working on the empty air as it suffocated.
Byron clapped his hands together, dismissing the magical construct immediately. He kicked at the floor, snorting and chuffing back and forth now in the kitchen, cursing at himself. The shark had been just that, a shark, unlike his previous efforts, which had been more or less hybridized shark lycanthropes that he had wanted to be augmented with heavy weaponry and armor. Unfortunately, such constructs, if he should successfully make them, were only going to last a few minutes.
He wrote down ‘comfy couch’ on a card and tossed it down quickly, conjuring in a flare of light a long, luxuriously comfortable couch that looked similar to a La-Z-Boy sectional in scarlet leather. He lay back on it in the otherwise emptied chamber, allowing his body to go loose, to relax. Inanimate household objects created by the cards could remain in place so long as he was within several miles and didn’t dismiss them. The only real downside Byron had ever noticed was that the furniture he could create with the cards had a habit of breaking easily.
The Awakened human tried to get into a position where he knew he could fall asleep, but something felt like it was missing. He conjured a thick blanket for his use, covering himself up and snuggling in, and almost as soon as he stopped moving he was asleep, down for a nap like the fussiest of children.
There could indeed be rest for the wicked, it seemed.
Daggeuro looked over the rotation roster as it would stand after he left the city of Celia with a battalion in tow, dreading the inevitable increase in criminal activity that would take place as soon as they were gone. He couldn’t very well redo the battalion roster again; he already wasn’t comfortable with the middle-grade skill level of some of the soldiers he’d be taking with him, and he couldn’t very well completely deplete the Watch of its best officers. Without certain men and women in place to do the job, the criminal element, always small in Celia, might get bold and decide it was time to do either some recruiting or pull some bigger jobs.
Daggeuro set the roster aside on his desk and sighed. It never took long for his quiet time to be usurped by his duties. Everything came back around again to his obligations as Lord of the Watch and High Knight of King Ovin’s court. If he even gave up one of the two titles, his free time would become considerable. Stacking the two side by side, he would obviously be much freer if he gave up his title as Lord of the Watch; High Knight didn’t really require much of him, as the Royal Guardsmen mostly assigned themselves their own tasks, or had them handed down directly from the High Council and King Ovin himself. But he couldn’t do that; too many internal power struggles within the Watch might tear it apart, as they almost had several times to the Rangers.
“‘Of all the evils shared by Man and Faerie, politics is perhaps the worst,’” he muttered to himself, quoting a long-dead pixie scholar by the name of Farthis whose works had all been transcribed for the consideration of large faerie folken. His fear for the Watch was paternal, it seemed, and he couldn’t deny that he wanted always to see it in good standing. But he had also been Lord of the Watch for a long time.
Perhaps too long, he thought to himself, doing a walk-through around the top floor of the southern Watch house. He knew perfectly well the ins and outs of the building, all of the tiny imperfections that lent it a certain charm and all the ones that annoyed the ever-loving gods out of him and needed fixing or replacement straight away. This might have been expected from an officer who spent all of their time serving out of a single station house location; he knew these things for each one in Celia, and for several others in the major cities throughout the kingdom. Without his sight to rely upon, he could identify which station house he was in by simply walking through it for a few minutes and feeling, smelling and listening to the buildings themselves.
He knew there would come a day when this no longer held true, either because his senses were slipping with age, or because he would be perished, no longer able to worry himself with such things as where the little ‘s’ curve of the wood showed up along the inside edge of an office doorway’s frame. But for now, that knowledge was sure in his mind. He would hold onto it for what it was worth.
After finishing his circuit around the top floor, Daggeuro returned to his office, reviewed the roster, and called out for a runner. When a fox-faced young patrolman saluted at the office doorway, fresh-eyed and eager, Daggeuro smiled at him, the roster rolled up tightly and held out, tied shut with black ribbon. “Come here, then, and take this post-haste to Sir Kerfis at the inner court gates,” the kennin High Knight said, waggling the scroll. “Tell him it is the finalized roster for the battalion to march upon Alsem province to hunt down and face off against The Chained One. Carry your duty swiftly, private,” he said. The fox faerie, a young fuxbau not much different than the one who had fallen at the Ranger memorial cemetery, took the scroll, saluted with flair, and darted away, his pride flashing in his eyes.
Daggeuro chuckled, then dismissed himself from the building, slowly making his way back to his and Selena’s home. He would enjoy one final afternoon and evening in her company before leaving for yet another battle whose outcome he could not yet foresee. He much preferred the predictable ones; at least then he could prepare some kind of romantic evening with his beloved afterwards.
Kathy kicked the floating black-and-white striped ball hard to the left, where a fairy named Quiggel waited for it, catching it in one oversized hand before darting under the hard-swinging cinnamon stick of one of their opponents. Quiggel dashed forward, while Kathy herself weaved and spun through and around the defenders, waiting for him to pass it back. As soon as he did, dropping the ball and kicking it over to her, she floated straight up, mindful of the ceiling of the playing area, and kicked the ball, called a wodger, over to a female fairy in a canary yellow dress with tea leaves woven through her hair.
She allowed herself to freefall for a moment, diving back to the middle of the arena. Looking about, Kathy spotted a free cinnamon stick now laying along the outer rim of the playing field. She dashed over through the air, nabbed it, and took flight up towards her teammate in the canary yellow, bringing the stick up to defend her from an incoming blow by one of their opposing defenders. The fairy woman dropped the wodger, kicked it hard, and Kathy watched it sail past the final defender into the goal net. A horn blared below, and everybody whooped as they descended to the floor of the arena, congratulating each other on a match well played.
The fairy woman in the canary yellow dress, Shendra, followed Kathy off of the little floor area, over into the heart of the tree they were in. The Awakened woman smiled at her and nodded. “That really was a lot of fun, even if I still don’t quite get the rules,” Kathy said.
“I wouldn’t try to memorize them if I were you,” said Shendra. “I’m a fairy and I still haven’t got them all figured out.” She and Kathy shared a giggle, the human woman sipping fresh spring water from an acorn cup offered to her by one of the passing equipment handlers as they stood near the entrance to the shaft that led up and down through the tree. Shendra waited until Kathy wasn’t drinking to ask, “So, do you think Sir Daggeuro will be leading the battalion out of the city soon?” Kathy looked down into her acorn cup and nodded.
“Likely tomorrow or the the day after,” she said somberly.
“I would like to join the wee folk accompanying him,” said Shendra quietly. Kathy looked the fairy woman in the eyes, saw the fear, the apprehension, climbing up to the surface. She slowly shook her head.
“You don’t have to volunteer,” Kathy began. “We already have a decent handful of fairies coming with us.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Shendra, sighing. The fear was still in her eyes, but Kathy saw something else there as well, something she saw evident in Daggeuro’s eyes every time she looked there; determination. This fairy woman wasn’t going to be shooed away, not by Kathy, not by anybody. Shendra continued, “The biggies like Sir Daggeuro are always throwing themselves in harm’s way to defend the King and this realm. It’s only right that this realm should do something to stand up for itself, to help defend them, when the need arises. You may count on me, miss,” she said, bowing deeply, gracefully to Kathy Potts. Kathy returned the gesture as best she could, then stepped out into the shaft which led and and down through the tree.
She hadn’t come to do any recruiting, but it seemed she was a natural at it.
The Chained One sat across from Quintus, a map of the township and surrounding area laid out between them on the springy grass of the town’s central square. The elven general had set several small tokens upon the map and was busily arranging them before the strategy session began. Lieutenant Darius and lieutenant Kitek were also present, one of the rare occasions when none of the elite followers of the chain-bearing apparition were busy keeping a close eye on their people.
“We can expect that King Ovin will have sent an entire battalion,” Quintus began, pointing to a large formation he’d constructed. “If it hasn’t already been sent, it will be, soon. Now, that battalion will be comprised of anywhere from four to six columns, and each column will have five or six squads.” The elf started pushing several of the small tokens towards the edge of town. “Now, we know that it isn’t very difficult for the specters to keep the outermost reaches of the town safe from intruders, but the men and women who are coming to fight us have all had plenty of experience fighting specters. We need some sort of advantage that can be used to maximize our specters’ abilities. Kitek?”
The tereko lieutenant looked over into the darkened recesses of The Chained One’s hood, darkened even more than usual by some subtle magic that he was not about to question or go probing. “There is an herb which grows naturally in most wooded areas that, if ingested, bolsters the strength and speed of a specter, regardless of breed. I know that if I were to describe it to a few elves here that they could scour the woods for every bit of it in just a few hours.”
“How long does it take for the effects to take hold,” asked the hooded creature. “And how long do they last once they have done so?”
“Only a few minutes for the enhanced strength and speed to become apparent, and they last for several hours afterwards,” said the tereko lieutenant. “Caution should always be used when offering this sort of thing to iron rendermen, of which we have five in our company,” he continued. “They may see the offer as an insult against their strength, which is essentially the only thing their tribe cares about.” The Chained One said nothing to this, offered no wisdom, instead remaining silent with his head bent downward. “Lordship, may I take the necessary elves to gather the herb?”
“Yes,” said The Chained One. “Upon your return with the material, send the iron rendermen to me,” he rasped, floating back over toward the trunk of his anchor tree. “If they don’t wish to partake of the herb, they will perhaps accept a different kind of blessing.” Kitek nodded briefly and took off into the village. Gathering all of the people he needed for an expedition to look for the herbs was a task swiftly done, though once he had them all split up to head off into the woods to seek out the elusive plants, he realized what part of the trouble was that they might have when King Ovin’s battalion arrived in the area. They knew the woods well enough, these folks, because they’d lived here for many moons. But for Kitek himself and the specters and outsiders who’d been brought in as members of The Chained One’s army, these woods were still foreign territory, utterly unfamiliar and disorienting. All sorts of advantages were inherent in those who were defending home turf, for their ground was known best to them. Though the specters would be expected to do most of the outlying fighting, they were, in truth, the least efficient choice for such duties come the time of combat.
There was a dual purpose in his having requested the elves for hunting down the herbs. Most of the faerie folken pledged to the master had become somewhat adjusted to the fact that Kitek was intelligent enough, or rather civilized enough, to conduct normal conversation with and come to terms. While out in the woods, he would try to convince several of their number to speak with The Chained One, explain why it would be best for local elves to tend to the outlying woods. Failing that, he would attempt to get them to agree to help train the specters smart enough to understand in the ways of finding their way around this foreign territory.
He considered that this was why it was always to the advantage of whoever was in charge to establish a strong foothold someplace, but to do so by relying upon firmly settled sources of information and lore already present within a region’s given power structure. Never slaughter all of your enemy’s administrative players; keep a few around, dangle the promise of power and future opportunities to do some backstabbing of their own in a vain attempt to usurp the power, and then dispose of them once they’ve done everything that they can that nobody else could.
Kitek thought these things, but never spoke of them to The Chained One. After all, he didn’t want to tip his hat or expose his potential to such a creature. If he did, the creature chained to the ghostwood tree might realize how useful and potentially dangerous the tereko could be to his efforts. If that revelation ever came to pass, Kitek might well never spend another moment’s time in peaceful privacy.
So for the time being, he simply made his way slowly about town, gathering the best trackers and healers among the elven men and women, leading them away out into the woods. When he had them far enough away to speak without being overheard by The Chained One, he would speak, but not a moment sooner. Unfortunately for him, his intellect and overall understanding of socio-political considerations made it as simple as asking the wrong question to the wrong person before someone reported him to the master. And when that finally happened, he would likely be deader than a doorknob. Better to take his chances out on the fringes of the territory.
He had only a few days, perhaps a week at best, before King Ovin’s people were around Parik, ready to make battle. Kitek got started with the first elf a few minutes later, asking how well the man knew these woods.
Byron grunted as he rose from the futon, letting the conjured furniture disappear in a flash of white light and a puff of smoke. The cause of his having woken up in the first place stood just a few yards away, a hallucination whose physical presence he never seemed able to deny or dismiss without the assistance of copious amounts of alcohol. A few times he’d confronted the figure standing there, pummeling it mercilessly, and this too had worked to send it away, but only temporarily. It always found its way back around in times of worry, times of trouble.
It was a perfect copy of his father, Howard.
Byron bared his teeth and snarled like a wolf at the vision, folding his arms over his chest defensively. “Go away, dad,” he snapped. “You don’t belong here.” His father was a tallish man, ropy and toned from nearly three decades of working his ass off in the cooler at Upstate Farms, a dairy production plant in Cheektowaga, New York. His curly black and gray hair was puffed up under a Buffalo Bills baseball cap, and his plain white shirt stood out crisp and clean under a waist-length light blue denim jacket the same shade as his jeans. A Sam Elliot-style beard and mustache of white framed his mouth and cheeks, a grizzled look overall that made one thing clear to outside observers; here was a working man, one who wanted no trouble, but could give trouble in plenty good store should it come sniffing about.
“And you do, I suppose,” the mirage of his father replied, hands planted on its hips. Byron narrowed his eyes at Howard, whose outer frame wavered momentarily when Byron did this.
“I do, matter of fact. I belong here more than I do back in Mortal Plane,” Byron said. “At least here I can be useful. And here, I’m mostly able to control my outbursts. And something else, dad,” he said, spitting the word as if it were poison. “Here, nobody tells me I’m a worthless piece of shit. So GO AWAY,” he shouted, pulling a card from his pocket and tossing it down. There came a flash of yellow light as a giant bearded warrior in a horned helmet appeared, his Norse battle armor gleaming, giant scrollworked hammer in hand. It let out a roar and swung the hammer, the legendary Mjolnir, against Howard’s head, sending him flying with blood streaking out to the side. The mirage disappeared before the body hit the ground, and Thor remained where he stood a moment longer before Byron dismissed the card with a small effort of will.
He trembled where he stood. He’d tried that very card several times, and it never worked. Only here, at the height of his inner anger, had it materialized. He sat down slowly on the ground, wondering what this might mean for him.
Lieutenant Kitek held himself as still as he could, remaining hidden up in the spruce he’d scrambled up when he heard general Quintus speaking to someone he was walking with through the woods. The elven general now stood a few yards away from the tree, looking around with a group of seven people, all dressed in civilian garb. They carried heavy rucksacks on their backs, loaded with canteens and grow-bags. If the tereko didn’t know any better, he’d say it looked like they were trying to sneak out of Parik.
Working off of instinct, Kitek leaped down out of the tree, landing a foot away from Quintus. In the moments before landing, he considered allowing his stinger to come down into the elf’s face; yet he thought better of it, particularly when he stood upright to find that Quintus had his gladius drawn and held over his head in a drop-block. He would have cut the tereko’s tail off.
“What are you doing skulking around out here, lieutenant,” Quintus snapped, stepping right up to the tereko, nose less than an inch from the sloped eyes of the specter.
“I could ask the same, general,” rasped the hulking creature. The people with Quintus shied away, one fellin drawing a spike-headed mace from a loop on his hip. He alone was dressed in battle wear, a native armor designed and worn by members of the cat-faerie race. “Tell your people to stand down, or I will slay them.” Quintus sheathed his gladius, at which point the others also put their weapons away. “Now, what’s going on here?”
“These people aren’t sticking around for The Chained One’s war,” said Quintus. Kitek’s slitted eyes widened momentarily.
“You didn’t call him ‘the master’,” the tereko rasped. “You don’t believe in him anymore, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” said Quintus quietly, looking around the woods for other eavesdroppers. “But I’m in too deep to escape what’s coming myself. As are you and lieutenant Darius, though he still seems to be fully engaged in his fanaticism. Even without The Chained One, I suspect that minotaur would have become a terror in his own right.” He took a step back from Kitek, hung and shook his head, looking at the ground. “We’re against it now, you and I. We may come from different perspectives, but you and I both seem to know one thing for certain, specter.” He looked up, eyes narrowed upon Kitek. “What’s going on here isn’t right. We should never have knelt to The Chained One’s power.”
“I had no choice in the matter, if you’ll recall,” Kitek snapped, pointing one clawed finger at Quintus. “Less than a month ago, you were threatening me with destruction if I didn’t fall in line. How do you explain this sudden swing in perspective?”
“Craeton’s Bay,” Quintus said. “It was unnecessary. It wasn’t about expansion, or territory, or glory. It was just about trying to commit slaughter and steal people away from their lives. I saw in The Chained One the essence of his madness, and it is this; he is not interested in command or dominion, but only destruction and terror. I am faerie, Kitek. I cannot stand for that.” The tereko nodded, looking to those around the elf.
“Nor can I,” he said. “Go, then. Give these people what we will never have again, general.” He saluted the elf as best he could with his strange appendage, and stalked away back towards the village. On any day before being forced to live among these people, he would likely have ambushed and tried to eat them. Now, though, that he had been part of a society, even one as deranged as the one The Chained One was gathering to himself, he found he understood what was at the core of faerie civilization; freedom. Who was he to try and deny that to anyone?