“What is that,” I asked lightly, but with a hint of WTF in my voice.
“A warning shot,” said Aase bemusedly from a comfy chair in the mansion’s living room. It had been turned to look upon the bound prisoners who were lined up and kneeling at the opposite end of the room. The prisoners were looking very nervous, with sweat glistening on their brows. It made sense, really, because there was a spike of ice the size of a man’s leg stuck in the wall just beyond them at about torso height. The man who was sitting just beneath the spike of ice seemed to have a wet spot on his pants. There were some other guards in the room, sure, but it looked like Aase was the one keeping the fear of God in these people.
A bit much, but effective, it seemed. But really, for Aase, that was probably on the lighter side of her magic abilities. She seemed to have a lot of magic power, like I did, or more. But Aase’s ability to control it was not so nearly fine tuned. Her magic was expelled in bursts of power, while mine could be directed with more finesse. That was the reason I didn’t want Aase to get involved in the fight unless things went south, because if Aase let loose, then Nigeman’s mansion wouldn’t have survived it. And I had wanted a chance to loot the place, build up the caravan’s coffers a little.
Aase’s precision and finer control of her magic was getting better in our practice sessions, but I don’t think we’ve found her niche in magic just yet. …On further consideration, maybe I’ve been spending too much time exploring Aase’s magic than my own, since the fight with Nigeman had been harder than it probably should have been until I realized I could cast without gestures.
Okay, let’s put that on the mental to do list.
“Well, keep up the good work,” I said to Aase, then turned to Janette. “How’s the inventory going?”
“Inventory? On that?”
Janette seemed a bit frazzled, but damn it, this is not something that should be dismissed!
“The inventory of the contents of the safes, Janette! I had them sent to you!”
“Oh! They’re right there,” pointed Janette to a couch near Aase. “I haven’t had time to get around to them yet.”
To my credit, only a hint of exasperation entered my voice. Or at least that’s what I though. Janette kind of shrunk back a little and the urchin who was at my side slid a little away from me. Was I really that scary? I’m starting to not care any more.
“Take a breath, Xander,” said Aase calmingly. “Your eyes are flaming.”
I closed my eyes and laid my hands on my hips. I took three deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth. Having calmed down a little, I opened my eyes and took a cursory glance at Aase, who gave me a nod. Then I turned my gaze back to Janette, who was holding her clipboard up like a tiny shield. I asked a lot more calmly this time, “Why have you not even started on the inventory?”
Janette glanced a couple directions and then started, slowly at first, “I… thought I was suppose to finish identifying the prisoners. I’m nearly done recording their physical descriptions, and I’m only satisfied that a few have given their true names so far.”
“Then it’s a good thing I brought-” the urchin? No, if I’m introducing him then I should use his actual name. What’s his name? “What’s your name?”
Wyatt. You know, it just really hit me, but this world has the strangest miss-mash of fantasy names and Earth names. Okay, ask about names, added to the to do list.
“-Wyatt,” I finished up my previous statement. “He’s going to help you confirm who these guys are and what their roles under the dearly departed Nigeman were. After that, compare them with the list we got from our previous prisoners. Make notes of absences or discrepancies. After that, start on the accounting. And give Wyatt a Sul for his fee.”
“A full Sul,” asked Janette aghast.
“I don’t know the worth of money yet, Janette! Just give the kid what I promised!”
Janette held her clipboard shield up again and Aase gently chided, “Xander. Eyes.”
I closed my eyes and kneaded my forehead with the thumb and index of my right hand as I said, “I’m sorry. I just need a minute. Is anyone in that room?” Janette shook her head as I opened my eyes to look at her. “I’ll be using it for a little bit. I don’t want to be bothered unless it’s important.”
I walked through the door, leading to the room where I blasted the hole in the wall. Wait, it’s furnished like a living room, too. This guy had two living rooms? Or was it a drawing room? Den? No, I’m wasn’t doing this right now.
I went to a comfy looking chair and sat down. I leaned back into the chair and rubbed at my forehead a little before dropping my arm onto the cushy armrest, letting myself relax even more.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now,” I breathed aloud for only my ears to hear.
I wouldn’t say I was moving without a plan until now. But my plan had been fueled by anger, wrath, and revenge. I was going to tear Nigeman’s organization apart in one fell swoop, and then do… something with the remnants. I know I thought I was going to do something so smart and awesome in a poetic justice sort of way, but whatever the finer details were, I’d completely forgot them. Or they had never existed in the first place. So now, I had a bunch of prisoners, illegally obtained cash from a murdered “merchant,” and an entire garrison that I had gathered and put on alert that would love to sweep this whole thing under the rug. I’m sure I’d be up for despoiling some more people before the night was through if I were in the mood, but the problem was… I wasn’t.
My desire for revenge had already been sated. And that was a really big problem.
I was raised Christian, believe it or not. Taught to turn the other cheek by my mother, and taught to stand my ground, even if it meant killing the other guy, by my father. And I was naturally revengeful. I mean, not in a “Burn your house down with flaming lemons,” kind of way. But if you screwed me, I got you back twofold, and then forgave you. But the problem with this world was, there’s a distinct lack of infrastructure for me to get away with forgiving my enemies. And I sure as fuck wasn’t going to be forgiving my enemies all the way to being thrown into a lion cage for the amusement of others, like the first generations of Christians were like to do.
But wrathful thoughts didn’t come easy when I wasn’t pissed off. And right now, I was far more tired than I was angry. The lack of electric lights during travel had led to me going to sleep when it got dark instead of playing video games or studying. Mercy’s light spell was useful for my habit of staying up nights, but my sleeping patterns had definitely shifted. Meaning it was now past my bedtime. And the fatigue of the fight with Nigeman had dog piled on top of my desire for sleep, leaving me completely worn out.
Then there was the mental pressure of my current situation. At the moment, it just felt like a tangle of cause and effect, balled together like a bundle of yarn as I tried to think about what I should do to try and come out ahead. Because now my enemy wasn’t Nigeman and a bunch of goons. It was the entire garrison of soldiers in this town, commanded by a corrupt captain and lord. Soldiers who would be equal in skill and training to my own. And they wouldn’t have had a night of fighting, or two weeks of traveling on foot to complicate their side of any battle I had with them.
“There might even be more garrison soldiers than I have in my caravan. There’s no way I can have a stand up fight with them,” I said wearily.
With me and Aase in the mix, we’d probably win. Assuming she and I don’t get sniped by bows or magic or something. I’d rather not risk either of our lives in battle, not unless there’s no choice. In which case, if I’m going to fight the garrison… I’ll have to be the one to attack them. Ambush them. Bust into the garrison like I did Nigeman’s estate, blast the walls down and raid them while they’re not expecting it. Kill them in their beds.
“Except I ordered the soldiers to gather inside the garrison,” I said with a sigh. “They’ll be armed and paranoid. Yay, me.”
Why did I even order the soldiers to gather in the first place…? Oh, yeah, to keep them out of my way, so I could do whatever I wanted without them trying to stop me, or question my identity. If a single person could ID me as NOT being Colonel Lumpy, I was running the risk of dire consequences to come. How dire? No clue, I just knew I didn’t want to blow my cover. …Probably only the people in the garrison or the local lord would know Colonel Lumpy by sight. Or maybe a retired soldier… It wasn’t impossible. I’d have to curb using the Colonel’s name in public as much as possible.
“Maybe Aase and I should just nuke the garrison and lord’s manor? Kill ‘em all and take the town over? All hail the Overlord.”
I said it as a joke and it got a few chuckles from myself. But I started seriously considering the possibility. But no way. Nigeman was a knight or something, right? He wasn’t uniquely skilled or powerful by this world’s standards, at least. He was caught flat footed and still nearly killed Callic. The asshat nearly killed me, too. My personal nightmare was going to be having a squad of knights like that guy coming after me for blood from now on, screw the assaulting colors. And if I conquered a city in this nation, claiming it for my own, I was going to have an army of guys like those bearing down on me. No, conquest was out of the question, which meant fighting was too.
“So I have to settle this without fighting somehow…”
Okay, course of action decided. Avoid fighting without claiming to be Colonel Lumpy in front of anyone else, while getting the fuck outta Dodge. If the Lord was in charge of this city, he couldn’t chase after me when I left. And he wouldn’t be able to send anyone else after me without tipping his hand. And I doubt Nigeman was important enough to Lord Bowel to take revenge on me. Unless Bowel was angry about the lost revenue… but that would be the kind of revenge that could only be indulged without getting anyone else involved. No. I’d probably be in the clear if I got out of town.
So. Logic dictated that I follow the most important strategy that Sun Tzu espoused. Run away from combat when it’s not worth fighting. Pack everyone up, leave tonight. Maybe torch Nigeman’s manor with everyone working for him tied up inside to boot. That would be one heck of a way to finish off the night.
But, no. No more killing tonight, if it can be avoided. IF it can be avoided.
“And I’m sure as hell not going to let Nigeman’s crew go.”
Cutting the head off a snake may kill the body, but organized crime can just elect a new leader if you don’t crush the organization. The Sopranos taught me that. And I’m not the sort to leave a task half done… unless I’m feeling lazy, but you gotta have a work ethic for the important things, right? And it wouldn’t feel right, crushing Nigeman just to let one of his cronies step up and keep the protection racket going. Because if you’re gonna save someone, and I guess I’m talking about the shopkeepers of the city, you should save them all the way. Otherwise, it’s the type of hypocritical fair weather kindness that ends up destroying people’s lives.
“Okay. so I have my objectives,” I said groggily, the words slurring slightly.
- Crush or capture the rest of Nigeman’s organization. The process of gathering the info needed to do that was happening right in the next room. At least angry me was able to lay the ground work for that.
- Have the remains of the criminal organization dealt with. But not by me. I don’t know the justice system of this world, but I’d be willing to bet Nigeman’s cronies had broken a lot of laws. But they hadn’t been arrested, probably because no one had come forward. Corrupt cops will do that to a community. So I’d need witnesses to get these goombas arrested and tried. But how did you make people WANT to throw their fear and personal safety aside…?
- Don’t fight with the garrison. Some of my people would die no matter how that battle shook out, and I’d be getting hunted, by more than just the shadow of a conspiracy. God, I was looking forward to getting out of this country. So I had to get the garrison to take care of prosecuting my prisoners without resorting to violence or threats, because military men didn’t respond to threats well at all. So I’d need to manipulate the garrison into not pursuing me, while wanting to lock the real criminals away.
Except I was now guilty of cold blooded murder, breaking and entering, and robbery, which actually made me a criminal as well. …Let’s put that aside for now.
- Cut ties with the city and get out as fast as possible. This is important, as the longer I was here the more likely things were going to go wrong. We dropped our names and the platoon number at the front gate, if those got to the ears of anyone who knew we were in that research facility, we were all brown bread. And I had to do this without dropping Colonel Lumpy’s name any more than I had before now.
Objective one isn’t too much of a problem, as long as I acted tonight. News won’t really start getting around about what happened here until dawn and the rumor mills started circulating. I hoped. Objective four required the fulfilling of objectives two and three. And I somehow doubted I’d be able to stir up some brave witnesses before midday at the earliest. Once people were use to being cowards, they didn’t ever want to be brave. Coaxing and pushing would be required to make even the bravest step forward on their own. So witness hunting would burn a lot of time and would be highly risky, as it would show too much of what I’m trying to keep under raps, that I wasn’t actually military and had no right to arrest people myself. And I somehow doubted I’d be able to keep the garrison pacified long enough to hunt for brave people in this town. The lord and garrison commander would probably be looking to tie up loose ends shortly after breakfast.
That meant that whatever I did, one hour after dawn was the latest I’d have to pull it off.
That span of time was too narrow. It was impossible to fulfill objective two and then objective three in that amount of time. And even after I fulfilled objective two, and I cleaned my hands of this city, what’s to stop the corrupt law enforcement from trying to kill me to keep my mouth shut afterwards. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, just like it does in dark corners or dungeon cells. So I couldn’t waltz right into the garrison with the prisoners, turn over the book that potentially incriminates the lord and garrison commander, enjoy a spot of tea and walk away with a back sanz dagger in it. If I kept it confidential, these guys would try and murder me and my people.
So whatever I did, it had to be in public, shortly after dawn, with witnesses to what I’m doing, and witnesses to Nigeman’s criminal activities, while giving people the courage to testify, and keeping the garrison from seeking to silence me and mine. All while turning over all the evidence of Lord Bowel and the garrison captain’s wrongdoing, leaving them free and in the clear so they don’t come after me for fear that I would blackmail or arrest them at a later date.
…Wait. That sounds suspiciously like a solid plan to me.
The corners of my mouth lifted upwards in a slight smile of personal satisfaction, as total relaxation swept over me.
Oh. I fell asleep. It would be really nice if I didn’t wake myself up from a pleasant nap every time I issued a snore. It’d been a thorn in my side whenever I needed a couple minutes of shut eye at the college and didn’t feel like returning to the dorm room.
I tilted my head back up from the cramp inducing angle I had fallen asleep in and blinked hard. After I scratched at the corner of my eyes a little, I stretched and pleasantly remembered the plan I’d come up with just before consciousness failed me. It brought another smile of self satisfaction to my face. I still had it on me as I opened the door to the first living room in time to see Aase yawning hard in her seat, covering her mouth with an open hand.
“Hey, Aase, how long was I gone for?”
“Hhhm? Oh, let’s see,” Aase said, a little drowsy herself. “About fifteen minutes or so?”
“Okay, good. Where’s Janette?”
It was only after specifically looking for her that I realized Janette was gone.
“She finished up with the prisoners and went upstairs to do the inventory. She took the money and Wyatt with her.”
“Really? That’s good. When was this?”
“Hhhm? Oh. About fifteen minutes ago or so?”
“Didn’t you just say that was how long I’ve been gone?”
“Did I? Sorry, I haven’t been checking a clock. What time is it anyway…?”
“Uhhh.” Really. What time was it? “I’d actually like to know, too. You okay where you are, Aase, or would you like me to reinforce these guys so you can nap?”
“Oh, no, I’aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahm okay,” said Aase, yawning hard. Then she screwed her face into a shape to open her eyes as wide open as possible.
I waited a beat to make sure I wouldn’t crack up at the cuteness before saying, I’ll send some people to relieve you. When they get here, go ahead and find a nice bed on the second floor to crawl into, okay?”
I left the living room and sent the first few guys I saw to relieve Aase, and to bind the prisoners more securely while they were on guard duty. I wanted them wrapped up like gifts for the party that would be happening this morning.
I very nearly bowed to my desire to issue a random peal of maniacal laughter.
Instead, I proceeded upstairs and found Janette in the study, with Wyatt, who was whining at Janette as she was counting the money on the study table.
“I dun see whys I canst have un now, lady.”
“I already told you, I can’t pay you your Sul until I finish the count! Payouts only happen after an accurate count of the funds have been made.”
“Tha’ sounds stupid. It’s only a Sul, lady.”
“It’s procedure, and we have to operate according to procedure.”
“Ugh. Fiiiiiiine. Ow much more ya gots’ta count, lady?”
“…I dunno, you made me lose my place.”
Wyatt moaned loudly, as though he was performing such that the entire world could know his misery. Oh, there’s Aase ducking into a room over there. Must be a bed inside. Anyway, the floor show’s gone on too long.
“Hey,” I said. You’d think the word was a shotgun blast with the way Janette reacted. She started stammering and apologizing for the amount of time she was taking. I started pacifying her reflexively, but honestly, I think I might be overworking her. And she seemed far more suited for mundane inventory keeping and the like than more advanced requirements. She never lost her cool once keeping track of potatoes in the camp, but I could see she was trying to count the Sul using her fingers, and there were a lot of scribbled out numbers on the blotter pad on the desk. Finally I was able to say, “I’m actually here for the notes you made Janette, and for Wyatt.”
“Oh, whys tha, sir?”
“It’s about how you’re going to earn that Sul I promised you.”
Wyatt’s face screwed in surprise and indignation. Very much exaggerated forms of both, in fact. “But I alredy earns it, sir!”
“That’s another lesson for you Wyatt, learn to read and write fast so you can write contracts and recipes. Without those, anyone you deal with in verbal contracts is free to change their mind on you whenever they want, and screw you over. Use this to make yourself a better businessman in the future. Always get it in writing. But even you have to agree that what I asked you to do wasn’t enough for a full Sul’s work, right?”
Right? I seriously didn’t know, so I was guessing. Wyatt eventually shrugged and gave a half nod of assent.
“So, I’m going to need your help for something else tonight. We’re going to be snapping up all the rest of Nigeman’s group, and getting rid of them all, once and for all.”
“Ows you gunna do tha, sir?”
“You’ll see. First things first, though. I’ll need you to carry a note to Callic, and then you’ll need to stay near him and do what he tells you to do. Alright? Do that, and you’ll get your Sul. Janette, loan me the pen and some paper.”
I scratched out the orders I had in, well, not exactly good time. Or in proper hand writing. But it was legible. It also had orders to wake me up once the orders were fulfilled or some emergency came up. And so, after testing the ink to make sure it was dry, I folded my orders along with Janettes notes and handed them to Wyatt, who bounded down the stairs to find Callic standing guard outside.
Well, that’s taken care of. Nice having subordinates. It’d be nicer to have a personal secretary, but work with what you got. Ink actually dries really fast in this world, doesn’t it? I wished Janette fun with counting the swag and made my way towards the room Aase went inside. The power nap had helped, but I was fading fast now that I’d set my plan in motion. My mind was starting to scatter.
You know, I thought old style ink needed sand and blotters to prevent running. Whatever, convenience is convenience.
Yeah, just like that.
I stepped into the room and from the light bleeding in from the shining quartz in the hallways I saw Aase fully dressed and curled up on top of the bed. Mercy was also fully dressed and asleep on top of the bed. Mercy was also holding onto the sleeping Aase. Their hair was wildly flayed about and intertwined on the pillows as they breathed gently, holding onto one another. It was perhaps titillating, or adorable, or something. But I couldn’t think what, most likely from the fatigue. And is it alright for a stalker type like Mercy to be so close to Aase?
Ah, screw it. I was too tired to care about details.
I laid down on the bed in an open spot, fully clothed, and closed my eyes. Peace and slumber quickly started pushing their way into my mind and everything else was pushed out. There felt kind of like there was some movement on the bed and something pressed on me.
At the time, all I could think was… it felt nice and warm…
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