I hate a poor night’s rest. It weighs upon your body and soul the entire day afterward. I could feel that weight after I forcefully roused myself from the bed, found the pencil, turned on the light, and used the bathroom with it’s cold, non-running water. I discovered there was no such thing as facial tissues in this world while I was in there, and ended up blowing my nose on a washrag before tossing it in the waste bin. It’s not like I was ever coming back here anyway.
It was shortly after that I found a toilet paper-like selection of sheets next to the privy. Great. I ruined a perfectly serviceable washrag. I massaged my forehead for a minute after that. Mistakes like that are why I need frickin quality sleep.
Get back on track, “Xander.”
I washed with a spare washrag in a bowl of water, dried off, dressed, and made my way to the cafeteria. The place was vacant but for the cooks, er, chefs, and I silently, purposefully ate my breakfast. Eggs, tiny baked potatoes, and a strip of steak. Dang, I hadn’t realized how tasty eating steak and eggs at the same time was. I’ll have to do that again sometime.
And then I was bored off my ass, with nothing to do, just like the previous night. I decided to practice my freehand drafting while I was waiting for anything to happen instead of nodding off at a dining table. Around the time I had finished recreating the cafeteria, kitchen and all, on a spare sheet of paper on my clipboard Janette found me.
“Sir,” she said, presenting herself with a salute that she… continued to hold.
“Knock that off, stop saluting me. What’s up?”
A little awkwardly, Janette lowered her hand and told me, “The purchased wagons are here and loading has begun. Would you like to oversee?”
“Hell yeah. There’s nothing else to do around here. Say, you got any idea where Aase’s at?”
As it turned out, Aase was outside as well. She’d gotten bored of the inside of the facility before I had and had gotten an escort to spend some time enjoying nature even before the wagons arrived. As I walked through the propped open double doors that I had noticed the previous day, and past a few more security doors, a flight of stairs, and a checkpoint desk with an enormous alarm button installed, I went through one last reinforced door to find the great outdoors.
Well, the first dazzling glare of real sunlight after a full day of being shut in a hole in the ground wasn’t so great, but afterward… yeah, still not so great. I don’t get why people like being outside. Thankfully I was wearing the long black trenchcoat Lumpy had in his closet, since it was kinda nippy and moist. Made sense considering that there were trees as far as I could see, and everything that wasn’t forested was grass and damp turf. Oh, the sky was blue. Thank goodness for that, cause it’d be too much of a brain bender if it was green or yellow or something. There was steak earlier, I could tell by the taste. If I’m lucky this is just an alternate Earth instead of a completely alien world. Oh, wagons!
Yeah, the wagons were a disappointment as well. All of them seemed like they were heavily worn from yard and farm work, and coming closer, one of them smelled like it had been used to move “fertilizer.” Holding my nose, I designated the wagon as the one for moving weaponry. Gads, the horses tied to the wagons were huge! Were horses suppose to be that large? I didn’t think I could mount one of those even with a step ladder.
“Okay, before we start loading- Hey! You over there, unload that! I said before we start loading, okay! We’re going to gather all the stuff we WANT to take out of here, decide what is most necessary for survival, and then load that stuff first. Organize them in piles, too, so we don’t mix and match our various crap. Move it, people, I want to be on the road ASAP!”
There were a lot of confused looks at the term “ASAP,” but they still hopped to, even Aase’s guard when I confronted him with meandering around her. Private Dellon Selcote, who was quite a bit shorter than me and with broader shoulders, but who’s hair was more of a reddish brown. He also had a more squarish head, like he was a corn fed farmboy from the mid-west. I got the feeling he was mackin’ on Aase, not that I blame him except for the fact that the gal could be jailbait. I didn’t know yet.
“Is there… anything I should do?” inquired Aase, with her violet eyes upturned to cope with my excessive height as I occupied half of the large stone she was sitting on.
“No, just keep relaxing. You and I are in kind of a shit position anyway, so it’s fine to indulge yourself.” I looked Aase over once again and asked, “Didn’t Janette say she would get you spare clothes as well?”
Aase was in the same cream colored sweater and blue jeans that she had been wearing the previous day. After she reflexively looked down, she looked back up with a slightly self deprecating smile and said, “Janette delivered them, yes, but I didn’t want to wear them. I’d rather just wear this for a few days instead.”
“Yeah,” I remarked back, “the nice thing about jeans is that you can wear them until they fall apart.”
Aase actually giggled at that lame joke. It was probably politeness, but it was the first sign of happiness I’d seen her express since she’d come out of the coma. It was nice.
“How about you,” Aase asked. “Why are you wearing their clothing?”
“I was kidnapped in my sleep, so the only thing I brought with me were my PJs. So it’s either this or I run around in my skivvies.”
Aase was quiet for a long second before she said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said offhandedly, pretending the whole thing was unimportant. Then I hesitated for a moment like Aase did before asking, “What were you doing when you got taken?”
“…I was spending the day with my friend, Ida. We were shopping for clothes when my memory just cut out and then there was nothing but… the colors. When I woke up tied to that bed, I thought I’d been caught in an explosion or something. …I wonder if Ida is alright…”
Oh, shit. I hadn’t even thought of that possibility. That the summoning spell might cause some kind of magical explosion around the spot we were kidnapped from. “I’m sure she’s fine,” I lied while politely patting Aase’s shoulder. “The most important thing right now is that we take care of ourselves and watch each other’s backs. By the way, I’m glad you don’t hate me after everything I did in front of you yesterday.”
“The jury is still out on that.”
“Fair enough. But back to the topic of looking out for ourselves, I wanted to let you know that you can probably use magic.”
“Really?” That was the most excited response that’d come from Aase since I met her.
“Yeah. Apparently we were abducted for our ability to fight, and fighting in this world is all about using magic. So it stands to reason that you should have some pretty kick ass magic powers. What kind of magic, I dunno. We can figure it out once we’re on the road.”
“We can’t try it now? You’re sure?” Aase’s disappointment was actually rather cute, her violet eyes looking like a begging puppy.
“I’d rather we had some quiet so you can concentrate. I’m not sure if I did it right, but I sort of had to meditate to get in touch with my magic. And right now-” the loud bang of water casks being smacked against each other resounded in the air. I lifted a hand to indicate. “Well.”
“True,” Aase responded, a bemused smirk on her face.
It was a pleasant atmosphere and conversation, despite the- wait a second. “Aase, have your eyes always been violet?”
Mercy stood up from her cursory check of Aase and stated, “Looks like a mutation caused by mana exposure,” as if it wasn’t a horribly scary thing to say aloud.
“I agree,” said Daphne, who was the one I had called over first, and she had sent for Mercy for a second opinion.
“What does that mean? What’s happening to me?”
“Well, Subject One Forty Eight,” said Mercy, in as kindly an explanatory voice as she could gather through some very obvious fatigue. But her continued use of subject numbers once again left a cold pit of anger in my gut that I swallowed down. It wasn’t the time for that, yet, even though my sleepness night made it harder to cope. “It would appear that either your newly found exposure to an environment filled with mana is having physical side effects on your biology, or the summoning process you were subject to has produced a reactive effect to your bodily tissues. In this case, the coloration of your irises has altered, just like One Forty Seven’s.”
“Wait, what? What’s that about me?” I interjected.
Mercy turned towards me and informed, “Back in the summoning chamber, the color of your eyes experienced a rapid, and rather dramatic change from brown to a burning red. From what I can tell, when your emotional or magical state fluctuates, your eye color modulates along with it, producing a visual effect not unlike the illusion that your eyes are aflame.”
Mercy stopped talking and just stood there, looking at me calmly, though she swayed a little bit on her feet as if forcing herself to remain balanced. Daphne and Aase looked at each other and at me. Eventually I found my voice and indignation once again, after rubbing my temples for a moment. “No one thought to tell me about this, about my eyes, until now?”
“I thought they were that color naturally,” said Daphne. Aase agreed with a nod.
“In all the turmoil, it slipped my mind. After all, a lot has happened in the last twenty four hours.”
So this world has a twenty four hour day as well? No, wait, forget that for now!
“Okay, so my eyes, our eyes, have changed,” I stated, bringing us back to the important topic. “What does that mean for us? Will we continue to mutate? Are we going to grow extra arms or tentacles?”
I thought I saw Aase shiver a little as I asked the question, but Daphne replied in a placating manner. “In my Examination, I couldn’t find any kind of deformity with Aase’s eyes. In my medical opinion, this mutation effect has only improved her eyesight. I may be going out on a limb, but considering how complicated the make up of the human eye is, any random mutation that occurs to it could only do damage, so this tells me that the change is not random. It seems like a latent magical reinforcement of the body that has become permanent. So, I guess as far as changes go, it can only be considered a change for the better, biologically speaking. I assume it’s the same for Xander, but I’d have to Examine your eyes as well to be sure.”
“I don’t know if the two of you will experience any more changes,” said Daphne, intentionally avoiding the word mutation, “but if you do, they will probably also be reinforcement of your current biology. I would, however, like the both of you to have regular examinations to be sure. As long as we catch any unwanted changes early, there should be a way to treat it.”
Relieved, I turned to Mercy and asked, “Is there anything in your research that could be helpful in this field? Studying the after effects of your summoning?”
Mercy closed her eyes that had bags under them and concentrated. Huh, looking at her under natural light, Mercy seemed to have a deeper skin tone than the others around here. Kind of a Mediterranean skin tone? Anyway, after a long moment of thought, she opened her eyes as though she’d just fought off sleep with a hatchet and said, “I’m afraid not. You and Subject One Forty Eight are the first living subjects to come through the process, so you’re the first examples of altered biology I’ve found. And believe me, I’ve checked.”
And there’s that “Subject” crap again.
With a long exhalation, I moved forward from there. I needed to get this matter taken care of or it’d be bad for my blood pressure. “Mercy, have you finished gathering your research? All of it?”
“Yes,” she stated proudly, and swept her arms a little too lively to indicate neatly piled and bundled paperwork spilling overtop several wooden crates, with books and journals topping everything off. “It’s all here, and ready for travel! I’m looking forward to continuing my study, now that I have some living subjects to work with!”
I silently nod, and look around alittle. Ah, there’s that one woman, what was her name? Oh, right. “Iyleen, come over here. You too, Dellon.” When the two came over, Dellon all smiles and Iyleen all scowls, I told Dellon, “Hold her back.”
Slightly surprised, Dellon did as I commanded, like a soldier, and moved to secure Mercy as I wordlessly pulled out and opened a flask from my coat’s inside pocket. Mercy was already struggling, with a sense of foreboding which became panicky cries of outrage as I dumped out the hard liquor over the research materials and ordered Iyleen to, “Light it.”
After the moment it took to process my order, Iyleen pulled her magical truncheon out and, without a chant, cast “Fire… Bolt!” The resulting flame had the diameter of a penny and popped like a cheap fire cracker, but it was enough fire to ignite the alcohol and start the blaze going.
“Stop! Stop, please,” cried Mercy with tears forming in her eyes. “What are you doing?!”
“Destroying your research.” Ask a stupid question…
“Because you abducted and killed over a hundred and forty people if your Subject designations are anything to go by!” I shouted that. I actually shouted my pent up frustrations that had been accumulating from the previous day. God it felt good, so let’s keep going. “In all the time you’ve been working on a way to kidnap, enslave, and send civilians out to kill and die for a nation we’ve never even heard of, did it ever occur to you that you were MURDERING PEOPLE?! You have murdered about three times as many people as the deadliest serial killer in the history of my homeland, with this tainted research that can’t even be used to send Aase and me home! This science is the kind of shit that should never have existed in the first place, Mercy, and I for one am going to make sure it’s annihilated before anyone else gets hurt. Iyleen!”
“Sir,” came the startled reply.
“Watch the fire, and make sure every single page is burnt to ash. Then crush and scatter the ashes. Dellon.”
“Keep Mercy away from the fire, and the base. She’s not to be given a chance to snatch up anything even remotely connected to her research. Mercy.” She looked at me, stunned into silence with her cheeks wet and her mouth hanging open. “Go be useless somewhere else until we get the wagons moving. I don’t want to see your face. And I swear to God, if you call me or Aase a specimen, a subject, or a number again, I will make you feel pain.”
I turned on my heel, and walked to the person I needed at that moment. “Janette!”
“Is everything out? Food, water, equipment, clothing, gear, toiletries, Enslavement Collars, everything?”
“I have some men retrieving the last, um… item, now. Ah, there they are.” Janette pointed towards four men carrying a corner each of the mattress, complete with bedding, from Lumpy’s room.
“Alright, good job. Take that over to the covered wagon, the one with the rounded top. Don’t let that mattress touch the ground, either!”
The men carrying the bed gave their affirmative reply and started heading in the indicated direction. Janette cleared her throat and hesitantly asked, “Sir, you said we were only taking the essentials, right? So… why are we dedicating an entire wagon to a single bed…?”
I gave Janette a look like she was as crazy as her question. “What are you talking about, Janette? There’s nothing as precious as a good night’s sleep. Now, double check the piles, and then triple check the people. I want you to make sure everyone is out of that hole before we blow the place.”
Janette did so. Everything worth getting was outside, including personal belongings. All the people were triple checked as present. Then Janette went back towards the entrance to the base, which was dug into the side of a hill and descended downwards to the completely underground facility. After a time, Janette returned with a long wire being deployed by a cable roll on a stick. Once she and everyone else was clear of the entrance, holding the horses heads, and behind cover, Janette pulled out a box that could only be a detonator, hooked the wire into it, and turned a knob hard.
It activated the base’s self-destruct sequence I’d uncovered from the documents in Lumpy’s safe the previous night. Janette had had no idea that was a part of the construction until I’d shown her the document. Thankfully (for me) it seemed the secret system was operating as advertised.
A series of muffled explosions sounded out, and tremors could be felt through the ground as each room in the facility was demolished one by one with quartz charges built into the load bearing walls and pillars detonating to bring the weight of the hill down, burying everything under a pile of dirt it would never be excavated from. Finally, one last explosion occurred near the entrance which already had an enormous amount of dust and detritus flying out of it into the outside air, and the opening that led into the earth was collapsed as well.
“Alright, that’s taken care of,” I called out once the collapsed hill had settled. “There’s no more going home for any of us now. Start loading up the wagons, starting with food and water. And weaponry for the shit wagon over there.”
Inside the Holy Capital’s Cathedral of Fellowship, inside the great round chamber, dozens of men and women were seated at the great conference. At the only straight edge of the otherwise round array of curved tables sat The Holiest Raul the 4th, the spiritual leader of The Faith, selected by The Goddess to lead twelve years beforehand. The dusky skinned man’s garb could be described as flowing about him if it had been any less well tailored, but as it was the lavender, white, and gold trimmed vestments were fitted to reveal his barrel chest and suggest the muscle that lurked underneath the cloth elsewhere as well. The opulent and well padded seat shared the same color scheme, yet Raul’s head was unadorned, for humility required that all of The Faith be without headwear before their deity in recognition of their devotion to the one that sits above all others, though the lavender ribbon securing his long brown hair in a ponytail hanging at the base of his neck was not only condoned, but celebrated by the tenants of The Faith.
“The Embassies have no information, then,” asked The Holiest Raul, his baritone voice resounding in the great chamber.
“I’m afraid not, your Holiest,” stated a thin cardinal with a pointed nose that belonged to the Temple of Fellowship as he reviewed some documents. “There has been no movement in the political structure of the Demon Nations that our diplomats could find. No polarization of parties. No reassignment of military assets. Not even a change in the taxation policies. No entourages to court favors in over a month. If a demon has awoken to power in their realm, then he is either singularly adept at secrecy, or he is a hermit.”
An overweight cardinal from the Cathedral of Lore spoke his fear through quivering cheeks. “Or he could be a wanderer, like the Demon King Agri the Vagabond.”
“Oh, let’s hope not,” stated the cardinal from the Cathedral of Tithes as he constantly rubbed at his thinning hair in worry. “It took eighty years to organize his subjugation force because of his unpredictable travels. Do you have any kind of idea the amount of damages that one caused? Why I could show you a laundry list of repairs to buildings and vital infrastructure around the civilized world that would make you beg The Goddess to go blind. I only pray such a series of events do not occur in the present age.”
“Better a wandering Demon King than an extremist, as their kind are want to produce,” stated an aged but sturdy woman with silvered hair reaching down to her lavender colored dress armor. As a cardinal of the Temple of Wrath, her words held great weight in the matter. “Should a new Demon King topple, or even weaken the rule of one of the moderate Demon Kings, we could be facing another invasion. We should begin preparing a new coalition immediately, and lay groundwork for an expedition to support the moderates as soon as the new King is located.”
At these words there arose a bantering guffaw from many of the diplomats from foreign nations, decrying the need for cooperation with so and so nation, nor the costly need to mobilize such and such military. It was the usual show of posturing nobles and contests for favors disguised as concern for oneself and others.
The diplomatic part of the job left Raul annoyed at the best of times, dealing with people who could only see the world as lines on a map, but he abstained from interjecting in matters too quickly. The nobles must be given their time to squabble, otherwise they would grow petulant.
But it was not The Holiest Raul who interrupted the squabbling.
None could say what the first indication was, for by the time any had noticed, all the signs were readily apparent. The incense was displaced with an even sweeter scent, though there was no movement of air. The furor of debate slowly grew more cordial and even tempered against all rational expectation. The shadows inside the room seemed to lose their edges, and fade further into the background. The water in a crystal pitcher did not vibrate even when the table it rested upon was struck by a noble’s closed fist. In that great chamber that had an open dome for the roof, letting in abundant amounts of natural sunlight, the light grew slowly brighter and brighter until it was almost blinding. But no eyes were strained by the increased luminescence.
Then there was the great impact which displaced no air and shocked no earth, as The Herald of The Goddess landed at the center of the chamber. His knees were bent from the landing, his great white wings outstretched and shedding light more pure than the sun. The figure began to correct his posture, and the wings folded behind his body that was only the size of a man, but whose radiance made him seem even larger. The Herald lifted his head of long blue tinted hair, and let the battle robes of lavender, white, and gold fall into immaculate order around him.
The Herald lifted the opulent war bladed staff in his hand and tapped the ground with the blunted end, emitting a ringing like that of a great bell, three times, to quiet the nobles, diplomats, and cardinals. All the heads in the chamber bowed except for two, the Holiest Raul and the diplomat from the High Elvish Kingdom, who closed their eyes and inclined their heads to bask in the radiance of the Herald. And thus, the Herald spoke aloud, his voice a singing tenor that resounded inside the chamber.
“Heed the words of The Goddess herself, that I, The Herald, deliver unto you that there may be no mistake in their meaning. The new born Demon King is the Living Key to the End Times, and must either be swiftly destroyed or protected from all who would seek Annihilation. Set aside your Pride, your Arrogance, your Greed, your Sloth, and your Ambition. Seek only the Demon King, and preservation. Thus speaketh The Goddess, and thus is your Fate placed in thine own hands. Fail, and The Goddess herself will Intervene.”
The Herald tapped his war staff thrice more, spread his wings wide, and with a single flap that displaced no more air than the wave of a towel, fired up, into the sky, and out of the sight of all present in the chamber.
The shock wore away slowly, and panic quickly took it’s place. One man shouted in fear and many others began crying out in an earnest desire to cast blame for the dawn of this new age upon all their rivals and enemies. His Holiest Raul would have none of that, not at this time of Trial, and so he stood and shouted from the depths of his great chest for silence. The room became quiet and expectant. And thus Raul spoke to all.
“The Age of Turmoil has come. There is nothing that can be done about it, but to pull together. From this moment forward, I expect every one of your nations and your nobility to cooperate with The Faith, in any way, shape, or form that is required for all our mutual preservation. Politics have no place in the present day, and any who try to subvert the goals of preserving our world from the Chaos will be guilty of Heresy. Take these words back to your kings, queens, dukes, barons, and populace! The End of the world is nigh, but we shall persevere as long as we come together for the common good!”
The chamber erupted into a cacophony of cheers and applause, as rationality returned to the eyes of it’s occupants. But the Holiest’s next words struck ice into the hearts of those present.
“This meeting is now adjourned, so send the initial missives back to your home nations. And leave your schedules open, one and all, for you will all be contacted by the Temple of Shadows.”
“Son of a bitch,” I cried after my third counting of inventory. “Stop the wagon! Stop the wagon train!”
I jumped from the slowing covered wagon where I had been enjoying the softness of the mattress in a world without suspension springs and kept calling out.
“Everyone stop! Stop and assemble over here! Everyone, no exceptions!”
After everyone had gathered, I continued.
“So, like an idiot, I left the Enslavement Collars behind in the cafeteria after I’d finished my business with them. Unguarded. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now that I’ve taken, and retaken inventory of the collars, I have found that one of them is missing. I should have a hundred and twenty, minus the ones used on all of you, but no matter how I count, I get a hundred and nineteen. So, I order whoever took one of them to raise their hand! Raise it high!”
After a few moments, one hand rose. I moved towards it, the crowd parting as I did so. I found the hand belonged to Dellon Selcote, who had sweat budding on his forehead. Seems he tried to fight against the command.
“Where is it,” I demanded.
Dellon made some small noises or small talk, I couldn’t be bothered to make it out, as he pulled his service pack with his belongings from his back and rooted around in it. Shortly, a collar with chains connecting to leather cuffs was pulled from the pack by Dellon’s hands.
“Possessing one of those things is grounds for execution, Dellon. What were you thinking by stealing one of them from me?”
Sheepishly, Dellon started to explain. “Well, I thought, maybe I could sell it? Get some spending money? Or something?”
“You were really going to sell something that would get you instantly convicted of treason? That’s bullshit, Dellon. What were you really going to do with it?”
Mother fucker had better not have been planning to enslave me or Aase.
“I dunno! I mean, I’ve never had a slave before, and I kinda always wanted one. Especially if I met a really cute chick, you know? I mean, you’re a guy, too, you know what I mean, right?”
Dellon had pulled in closer to me when he said that, trying to give some Bromanship to his little performance here. It just made me seriously wanted to kill this guy. I really wanted to, because what he’d shown me of himself there, it was something I’ve detested my entire life. But he was my property now, so not only would it be wasteful to kill him, but it would be petty. Instead I stared a hole in him until I could trust myself to decide what to do to him.
“Give me your boots. And your socks. Now.”
Dellon swallowed hard. Maybe there was something in my voice, or my eyes had caught fire, but he did what I asked without hesitation. After he handed over his footwear, I took ‘em and the collar and went back to my bed-wagon, saying, “Alright, we’re moving out again.”
“What about me?” cried Dellon.
I half turned to cast a cold eye on Dellon and said, “You walk, of course. All the way to the next town. Ask Daphne for healing when your feet start bleeding.”
I was half expecting someone to pipe up in Dellon’s defense, but no one did. It felt like everyone was trying to avoid Dellon as well while the wagon train got back in order. I was tossing collars into satchels as I lightly began considering how I was going to smuggle these things in and out of cities as the wagon train got under way again, and the wheels began to turn.
Author’s Note: I mainly chose the name Raul because I start giggling when I say his full title aloud.