His Holiest Raul the 4th stared at the report on his desk like his eyes could burn it to ash. The one and only hold out, and it had to be that nation.
The polite knock at Raul’s chamber pulled Raul’s attention away from the report. Unconsciously, his eyes flicked to the pendulum clock mounted on the wall and reflected that even though in his own way the emissary in particular was as grating to deal with as a screaming fishmonger’s wife, at least he was punctual.
“Send him in,” called Raul to his attendant on the other side of the door.
The great double doors to The Holiest’s office opened, each door pushed by the elite guardsmen in their impeccable armors, and in walked the diplomat for the High Elven Kingdom. Not a diplomat, but the diplomat. The only Elven emissary in all the world, stationed in the one city where every other kingdom had a diplomat placed. All of the Elven politics with outsiders went through him. And the smug knowledge of that fact penetrated him all the way down to the marrow of his bones.
The pompous, tall, thin, beautiful, immaculately combed blond haired bastard of an elf sauntered over to the luxurious padded chair for guests. He then looked on the chair, and with an almost disguised air of disdain, bent his body and knelt on the floor with his knees together and his back straight as an arrow. It was the most uncomfortable sitting position one could take in that office, even with the padded carpet on the floor.
“You refuse to sit with me at eye level, Cultair?” Raul had to ask, even knowing the answer.
“I would be glad to sit with you, your Holiest, should you provide me with a more serviceable chair.”
“Please forgive me for not providing one,” without padding, armrests, or paint to prevent splintering. As are the preferences of those of the High Elven Kingdom.
“You are forgiven,” said Cultair, with an air of magnanimity. Raul smiled and let it pass.
“Thank you for meeting me on short notice. I wished to inquire about the report I received, written by the priest of the Cathedral of Shadows who visited you at your manor.”
The word “manor” was an overstatement. By necessity, Cultair was housed and guarded with the diligence and care his unique position required. But the inside of his dwelling was bare of all but the most basic of amenities. It was an enormous waste of property.
“What does it say,” inquired Cultair for forms sake.
“That you refused any and all cooperation with the Cathedral of Shadows, and that if the priest tried to press the point you would cut ties with the Holy City.”
“Yes, that is correct,” said Cultair, with the same lightness of tone as before.
Raul took a deep breath to recenter himself, and said, “You do recall that we are facing the end of the world, correct?”
“And that we all need to work together to try and prevent it, correct?”
“Then the High Elven Kingdom needs to cooperate with our labors as well, in order to prevent all of our mutual destruction.”
Cultair rolled his eyes while he scoffed lightly through his nose and said, “Now, as always, the High Elven Kingdom will watch after itself. There is no need for us to cooperate with the less pious races. Should the Key come our way, we shall deal with it on our own. Should it pose a threat, we shall dispose of it in the same way as the last Demon King that tried invading our realm. If that is not enough for you, then I suggest you re-evaluate your faith in The Goddess and in your disgusting preoccupation in the physical trappings of this world.”
Trappings like flavored food and soft clothing, thought Raul as he eyed the burlap habit that was Cultairs only garb.
“Cultair, you know very well that the only reason your people can live so ‘piously’ is thanks to we who ‘donate’ to your kingdom. It’s in your best interests to help us, since if the nations who support your people fall, then all of the High Elves will starve.”
“Then we will starve.”
Even Raul couldn’t believe what he’d just heard, and made a sound that almost seemed like the word “What.”
“My people are no strangers to fasting. And if it is The Goddess’ will that this world perish, then our people will go to meet her with the purest souls of all the multitudes.”
“You wish for your people to perish,” asked Raul warily.
“Not at all. If we are threatened, we will retaliate by swiftly annihilating the aggressors. But if the situation can not be resolved through diplomacy, faith, or violence, then we shall simply follow the path of all life on the planet and return to The Goddess’s side. Well then,” said Cultair, standing up while Raul was flabbergasted, “I believe enough has been said. I’m certain the High Elven Kingdom can expect another donation from The Holy Capital next month.”
“We shall see,” was The Holiest Raul’s surly answer.
“Yes,” replied Cultair knowingly, “We shall. Should the world remain intact, I’m sure the High Elven Kingdom can expect your next visit in about… thirty years time.”
Cultair turned and would have swaggered out the door but for his intense discipline, or piety, while Raul glared at his back like he was trying to light it on fire with his mind.
“What happened to your head?” asked Callic as soon as he saw me with a displeased air.
Great, first thing in the morning and I have to put up with this?
“I dunno,” I replied, with extra snark. “What happened to your face?”
Callic sneered at me, then went off to do something else. In response, I yawned while reclining against the bed-wagon I’d just crawled out of. It was going to be a little longer until breakfast was ready and I didn’t feel like wandering camp. Oh, sounds like Aase’s waking up.
In reply to a very loud yawn that sounded like it accompanied a stretch, I poked my head into the wagon and said, “Good morning.”
Aase rubbed her eyes while replying with her own “Good morning,” and then unconsciously untied the band she used to keep her extremely light blonde hair in place while she slept. She stretched, and I could once again see the flexing of the muscles of her arms that formed “girl guns” that were usually hidden by her sweater, but were now laid bare by the shortsleeved shirt that were her pajama tops. Aase was in good shape. Probably had more muscle than me, though that’s wasn’t saying much.
After wiping her eyes again, Aase took her first look at me of the day while I was telling her that breakfast would be a while yet. Aase interrupted me with a gasp and asked, “What happened to your head?!”
Okay, now I was worried.
I started patting at my face asking, “What? What is it?” Aase flusteredly said, “No, not your face, your hair!”
Oh, God! I’ve gone bald!
In a panic I grasped the top of my head and found… it was still fluffy with hair. I kept patting it down a little and then tried a stress test to see if it was falling out, as if I’d been dosed by radiation. Nope, no problems.
“Don’t scare me like that, Aase. I seriously thought something was wrong.”
“No, it’s not your hair! It’s your hair! Your hair has turned completely black!”
“As far as I can tell,” said Daphne after bending back from her inspection, “It’s nothing more than a change in hair shade. Your hair is still normal hair, and there is no latent alterations to its structure. It’s strange, but it doesn’t seem to be dangerous. But I’d like to check your hair again at specific intervals over the course of the next few days, just to make sure.”
“Alright,” I said, “Sounds goo-” snip
I quickly turned around at the sound and exclaimed, “Mercy, did you just cut my hair?!”
Mercy quickly looked to her left hand with a tuft of my hair in it, that really was as black as night, and at her right hand holding a pair of scissors, before looking back at me. Did the thought of denying it cross her mind for a moment? After another beat for her to form a thought, Mercy said, “I’m just taking a sample for analysis.”
“What the hell are you going to analyze it with?” It was a valid question. Mercy no longer had a lab or equipment. Undaunted, Mercy took a sharp intake of breath, then held it as her face showed a confused expression, then she muttered, “Oh, yeah. Well, I’ll hold onto the sample anyway.”
Then Mercy walked off.
“Why did we call her over, again?” I asked Daphne.
“Cause she’s the expert,” said Daphne as though she was trying to convince me and herself.
“Whatever,” I said, and then spoke to the relieved Aase who was perched nearby, “Let’s go get something to eat. We’ve got another long day ahead of us.”
And we did. We were starting to get near the edge of the reclaimed area, apparently, and closer to more settled territory. But for all the importance of that fact, my day still consisted of a few hours walking, a few hours riding, a few hours talking, and a few hours of just plain boredom. Didn’t help that I’d notice Mercy spying on me every once in awhile. And while our travel party noticed some creatures shadowing us in the woods at one point, there was no combat. Just another sun drenched day of compulsory hiking.
Well, at least it’s easy to sleep well after moving my body so much. And as we were getting dinner served up as twilight started to fall I noticed that Aase’s ultra blond hair had taken on a new luster from all the sun drenching it’d been going through. As the beef and veggie stew with a side of oaty bread smeared with roasted garlic was handed out and eaten, I found myself looking over at Aase a little more often than I was doing a few days ago.
She and I have been getting along better lately, far better than on that first day especially. She’d opened up to me, and I to her. That was rare for me to do even back on Earth. Especially since Chelsea. …Let’s not think of her.
But sharing the bed with Aase had been nicer than I thought it would be. The mattress had also started to take on a bit of her smell (and less of Lumpy’s) which was nice. And we seemed to get along together? I dunno, is there something there? But she might be too young. The only times I asked her age, she toyed with me, so I still didn’t have any clue. Her purse and wallet didn’t transfer with her so there was no way for me to clandestinely check her driver’s license.
Before I knew it, I was taking more than just furtive glances at Aase and taking really good looks. The last gasps of day played with her hair, causing it to reflect the final golden hue of the sun just before it surrendered its hold over the sky and darkness began to settle. When the reflective gleam of pure sunlight left her shoulders, that was when I noticed it.
I dropped my empty soup bowl and hurried to Aase’s side while calling for Daphne and, what the hell, Mercy as well. “What,” asked Aase worriedly, “What’s wrong?”
Sitting Aase down on a stool in the center of the camp with everybody looking on, I gave Aase the news. “You’ve gone white.” I grabbed a stray bit of her hair and held it up before Aase’s eyes, which went wide in surprise and panic. It was a natural reaction, since her hair had gone from a bright blonde to a pure white.
The medical inspection by Daphne and Mercy was quick, efficient, and thankfully without surprises. Daphne eventually said, “It appears to be the exact same physical change that presented itself in Xander this morning. As far as I can tell, there are no lasting physical problems, but I’d like to check your condition alongside Xander if you’re okay with that?”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” said Aase distractedly. “But why is my hair white? Xander’s turned black.”
Mercy immediately answered, “The mutations between the two of you will obviously present differently since you are two completely different people. The first evidence of this was the eye colors. But now that we have a second mutation event I can postulate that whatever mutations present themselves, Xander will experience them first, soon followed by Aase. Exactly the same but for the minute cosmetic difference. I must admit, the two of you really are fascinating sub-… people.”
After I scrutinized Mercy for a few seconds for very nearly using that forbidden word, I turned to sum up, “So we don’t know what is happening to our hair, but it doesn’t seem dangerous, is that-” snip
All eyes turned towards Mercy, who was running a cut length of pure white hair through the fingers that weren’t holding a pair of scissors. When she noticed the glares, Mercy asked, “What?”
Corte was the very epitome of the being known as “The Butler.” His garments were always impeccable, he himself was unflappable, and could move swiftly through the chambers of his master’s abode while carrying a silver tray with a letter upon it without his feet making any more sound than a hushed whisper. He swiftly reached his master’s bed chamber where the married couple always ate their breakfast in private before dressing and meeting their days head on. At that chamber door, Corte knocked gently, knowingly interrupting his master’s meal time. He would never have done so if the seal on the letter had not been green wax, with a second seal of pale blue.
The annoyed “Enter” of Corte’s master reached his sharp ears and he opened both the chamber doors wide using only the force of one hand while holding the silver tray steady with the other. Such a needlessly complicated act was expected of a Butler like himself, and for a Butler of his position, it was required that he perform such acts often and flawlessly. He did so again today.
“An important message has just arrived, my Lord and Lady, meant for your eyes only,” said Corte from a flawless bow. After being given permission to approach the dining table, Corte set the silver tray down directly between the two who were seated there. The man was tall, powerfully built, and had dark hair cut close to his head and combed back. His features were stern as stone, with the only blemishes being a white patch at one of his temples that a low born lout would call a Skunk Spot, and a few age lines. The woman was brown haired with eyes of such a light blue that they held the same color as ice from an ancient glacier.
Corte turned and walked out of the bed chamber without his existence being affirmed or denied by his employers, and closed the great double doors behind him, fastening the latch without a sound. After ensuring that the letter that had been directly passed into his hands had been given to the rightful recipient, Corte stood in front of the door and sharpened his senses to ensure that there were no others around who could eavesdrop on the matters the letter would contain. Of course this meant that Corte would overhear every word of the ensuing conversation. But at the same time, Corte would register nothing. It was a part of a Butler’s job description to hear everything and nothing, after all.
“It’s a report on the facility beyond the Four Brothers. I’m sure I don’t need to name it” said Corte’s master.
“You do not. What does it say?”
“The resupply delivery came upon the base, ruined from it’s own disposal charges.”
“Somehow I knew that research base would not come to a decent end. Does it say who attacked it?”
“Be quiet, I’m still reading. Hmm… The agent’s conclusions suggests against an attack. It seems the base was evacuated, and then destroyed while empty.”
“Evacuated? I don’t remember you giving Braug such an order.”
“That’s because I didn’t.”
“Then it couldn’t have been evacuated. His collar would not allow him to defy your wishes.”
“Yet it seems he somehow did, for the agent goes on to describe the eyewitness reports of the townspeople in a nearby settlement concerning a wagon train of people matching the uniforms and descriptions of the stationed soldiers, commanded by a man in a long black leather coat.”
“Braug, then. He does so love that coat of his.”
“Indeed,” Corte’s master said, malice and anger dripping from the word. “Braug has somehow disobeyed my orders and destroyed that facility before results could be had. And he spared the lives of the soldiers against my expressed wishes. Considering the collar, that should be impossible.”
“Could someone have overwritten your control over him?”
Corte’s master was silent for a few moments before saying, “We shall find out. We must move the Kingdom’s army immediately.”
“No. The timing is poor for such a thing. With this new Demon King and the proclamations of The Faith, any unwarranted military actions will bring the highest scrutiny down on us. We can’t be seen to have any knowledge of that damned facility or it’s research, or it may mean our necks. I told you we never should have-”
A dry impact floated to Corte’s ears, as did the sound of a person falling to the ground.
“You haven’t the right to tell me anything. The benefits of an army of heroes under my command outweighed any and all other risks. But that won’t happen now… So we merely need to clean up the mess. …Who do I control that can be moved without fearing a military inquisition?”
“…No one I can think of. Not for a search and destroy mission, not without either arousing suspicion or compromising any of our other holdings.”
“…Yes. You are right. No one I control. …But what about Mur?”
“Mur? Our eighteenth child? You mean to sortie the Seventh Knight Squadron? They are a blunt instrument, this situation calls for a silent clean up.”
“No, it requires resolution and the destruction of all evidence. Besides, Mur has inherited my blood and heritage more strongly than any of our other children. Mur’s loyalty and silence are assured. Now then, I believe I will send the Seventh Squadron to the towns in the reclaimed lands first to dispose of the witnesses, and chase Braug down after that.”
“No, you won’t.”
Corte heard another dry impact, followed by a few more as his master strictly said, “You presume to order me?”
“I presume to protect the people, and us! I will not have our child recklessly murdering civilians!”
“You are in no position to make such demands!”
“Yes, I am! Either we constrain Mur and the Seventh Squadron only to purging people who know where Braug was and what he was doing, or I stop cooperating with you in public! Imagine the backlash you’ll receive, the loss of power and authority, if our private affairs were exposed to daylight.”
“It would mean your life if you did that.”
“It would be worth it.”
There was a long silence, a calculative silence, before Corte’s master finally said, “Very well. The squadron will have orders to strictly control their activities. Search and destroy for all confirmed compromises of our secrets… and capture for Braug. I will find out how he freed himself of the Enslavement Collar. Now, let us finish our breakfast, we have a busy day ahead of us.”
Hearing the resolution of the discussion, Corte left his position immediately in order to fetch the private healer his master employed, and paid well, to keep the unexplained bruises and broken bones hidden from all the rest of the world. It seemed that Corte’s masters were in need of the healer’s services before they appeared in public today.
And it was a Butler’s duty to anticipate his employer’s every need.
The great doors of the western parade ground of Terranos, the fortified capital of Fulchas, opened under the weight and effort of two soldiers per door. Out through the great doors rode the assembled eighty knights of the Seventh Knight Squadron upon their furry, fanged, and war trained mounts in as organized a trot as the wild nature of the beasts allowed. The way before the knights was cleared by dashing heralds, calling out for all streets to be cleared of traffic so as not to hinder the Holy Military of Fulchas.
Only the bravest or slowest of citizens remained on the sidewalks to gaze upon the mounted knights, while all the rest peered from the safety of curtained windows at the advancing unit known as “The Brute Squad” to all the kingdom’s people. A knight squadron that exclusively used heavy maces and axes instead of lances and swords. A squadron most well known for their work clearing labyrinths and mercilessly crushing monsters, heretics, and bandits that made their fortifications in burrows and other tight conditions. A squadron that had no room for spell casters, and believed only in crushing their enemies with ferocious might.
At the head of those eighty knights was the mounted form of their commander, Mur the Unrelenting. Mur’s body was covered from head to toe in dim steel armor that, despite its enormous weight, seemed no more bothersome to the rider than a heavy winter jacket. The form of Mur was a shade under six feet in height, but the dignity and underlying power of the captain made him appear larger and infinitely more stalwart. No onlooker would believe that Captain Mur was a mere twenty years old, or that he came to his position at the age of fifteen. An appointment that was timed with the purge of the reclaimed lands beyond the Four Brothers, which the Seventh Knight Squadron spearheaded. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the success of the entire campaign was due to the brutal charisma and ruthless power of Mur himself and the great halberd he carried into battle.
As Mur and the Brute Squad made their way through Terranos towards the southern gate, a great many of the city’s citizens gazed upon their forms. Some gazed on in terror. Others in envy. And some starry eyed youths with the dreams of joining the ranks of those very knights one day. But underlying all those emotions, all the onlookers shared one feeling in common with each other. A sense of dread and pity for whoever it was that the Brute Squad had been set upon. For when the Brute Squad is set to action, only destruction in left in their wake.
Eating tonight’s stew, I mulled over the current situation. “We reach a real city tomorrow, eh?”
“I thought you would be happier,” said Daphne to me. “After all, you complained about the smaller towns we passed through more than enough.”
“Because their facilities couldn’t even be called inns or motels! The beds were dirtier than a Cuban outhouse!” Really, they were filthy to the point that I gladly chose to sleep in my wagon bed.
“We would have had a higher risk of insect bites inside those rooms than out here in the wilderness,” agreed Aase as she nodded her head.
Me, Aase, Daphne, and for some reason, Mercy were seated on stools near each other while we finished eating. I had already finished my meal, though I was distracted the entire time. Actually, I might have eaten faster because of the distraction… I should test that out sometime. But the matter at hand was more pressing by far.
“I wasn’t really worried about it in the podunk towns, but now that we’re going to be going through real cities, with proper security, I have no idea how we’re going to explain those leather collars and cuffs everyone is wearing. And that’s on top of the military uniforms. We may as well be advertising the fact that I’ve enslaved a squad of soldiers.”
“Please, who’d notice something like that,” said Mercy absently.
Aase instantly said, nodding her head, “They’d notice. They’d definitely notice.”
It was true, the collars were not as big as they could be, but they were larger than the fashionable chokers from Earth. They were sturdy enough to chain someone up with, but not too big to be covered by an ascot, like Lumpy had. But there was a decided lack of ascots in the camp.
I sighed heavily. There was nothing I could do about the uniforms, they were the only clothes we had. But it would have really been nice if I could have done something about the chokers and cuffs.
“I don’t know if we can risk tromping our people through the main gates with everyone wearing those collars. The chance of them being recognized as Enslavement Collars is too high,” I said to the air.
Daphne tugged at the collar about her throat lightly and said, “Yeah. It’d be really nice if we could take them off. They start chaffing easily.”
Daphne lightly scratched under her own collar as I stared at it. The leather, the metal, the buckle; really taking a good look at it. Wait a second.
“Why can’t you just take it off,” I asked. “I mean, it’s buckled on, not welded on.”
Daphne looked at me sorrowfully and said, “Every time I try, my head starts hurting until I stop.”
I looked at Mercy and asked, “Is there really no way to remove the collars?” Her reply was a noncommittal shrug. Well, that was ambiguous enough to look into. So I called for Dellon Selcote to come over. When he arrived, I said, “Dellon. I hereby give you permission to remove the leather collar and cuffs. Go ahead, take them off.”
Dellon looked surprised, then anxious as he tried the buckles, and then happy when he took the leather accessories off. Hmm. No obvious signs of pain or gruesome death from removing the collar. “Is there a way to check to see if he’s still Enslaved,” I asked aloud.
“Ah, slavery magic is part of Light magic. Let me inspect him,” said Mercy. Dellon tried making eyes and a smile at Mercy as she studied him, but I don’t think she noticed. After a few minutes, Mercy said, “I wouldn’t have felt it if I wasn’t looking, but I’m pretty sure the curse is still active.”
…Pretty sure wasn’t good enough.
“Dellon, slap yourself in the face,” I ordered. He did so, looking confused and pained. “Stand on one knee.” Dellon stood on one leg. “I said, ‘on one knee,’ not one leg, buddy.” Dellon corrected his stance to get on his knees, then balanced on one of them. “Now cluck like a chicken-dog.” Dellon had no idea what to do until I repeated the order. With an almost desperate air, I heard Dellon making a sound kinda like a cluck-woof, while still balancing. “Go punch Callic in the face.” Looking horrified, Dellon stammered a request for mercy even as he was moving towards Callic, and then sucker punched the man.
Needless to say, it took a very short amount of time for Callic to ruin Dellon’s day in return. Okay, my scientific curiosity was satisfied.
I broke up Callic’s fun, gave Daphne a chance to heal Dellon, and then called the entire camp to order. In a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone I said, “I hereby give every one of you permission to remove your Enslavement collars and cuffs. Except for Mercy. Please have them removed and disposed of before we reach the city tomorrow. The fewer awkward questions we’re asked, the better.”
Everyone did so quickly, and gladly. Many of them laughed aloud in happiness. The entire mood of the camp brightened and everyone seemed to have a palpable feeling of relief
Everyone except Mercy, who sighed in resignation.
With this, everything should be as ready as it gets to pass any inquisitive guards tomorrow. Let’s hope my first exposure to Meaorh’s civilization is a positive one.
I suggest you reread Wheels Within Wheels, the last four chapters, all in one go if you’ve been reading the chapters weekly. They were intended to be read in one sitting, but Within Wheels was so long I had to break it into parts.