Leaning her head against the arm of the small couch, Cassie kept her eyes closed. She deliberately took slow breaths, while holding on tightly to the couch cushion. Silently fighting to stay conscious as her world spun out of control, the only thought she managed, not really dignified behavior for Mercury’s Messenger, is it? As if she had any control over her sudden blackouts, ever-constant urge to blow chunks, and incredibly weakened body. Without opening her eyes, she croaked, “you here?”
“Yes,” the novice line cook answered.
“Water.” Cassie managed to lift her hand up a few inches off the couch.
“Here,” she shoved the glass of sugar water into the Messenger’s wavering hand.
Careful not to spill, Cassie got the cup to her face, but was incapable of drinking in that awkward position. “Take it,” she ordered as she attempted to push herself up onto one elbow. During the process, she forgot to keep her eyes closed, and nearly hurled for her efforts. “Oh, I can’t,” she muttered as she fell back into the couch arm.
“Sick,” Cassie sighed as her head slumped over and her shoulders drooped.
“Oh shit! Hey!” the young woman put the glass on the table and focused her whole attention on trying to wake Mercury’s Messenger. “Hey! You gotta wake up. Wake up!” She shook Cassie’s shoulder, saying, “he’ll kill me if you don’t wake up. Come on!” After a solid minute, Cassie stirred, and the line cook exclaimed, “thanks be to Mercury!”
“You okay,” the girl asked.
“Yeah.” Cassie tried opening her eyes, and then promptly shut them. “No.”
“Don’t move. I’m going to get you a straw.”
“Please...don’t leave,” Cassie begged.
“Chef Preston said you need to drink.”
“Please,” she said again.
“Okay. I’ll be right here. Okay?”
The unconscious Messenger spurred the line cook into action. She stood in the door way bellowing, “STRAW! BRING A STRAW!” Without waiting, she returned to the chair next to the couch and moved the fallen ice onto Cassie’s neck.
Standing against an ancient oak tree in the middle of an oak grove, old Bonnie Taylor watched the fork in the river. Late. Capt’n’s never late. Absentmindedly using his pocket knife to scrape the dirt from under his fingernails, Taylor snorted, better not bring trouble with him. At that thought, he folded the knife, slipped it into his pocket, and then eased himself off the oak. The walk back took less time; such is the case with downhill travel. Before showing himself in the clearing in front of the beat up shack he let out a series of long and short whistles. A height deficient, stocky blonde woman, stuck her head out of the door and matched Taylor’s whistles note for note. Upon hearing her response, he meandered out of the brush and into the clearing.
When he got close enough to hear, she inquired, “well?”
“Nothing,” he shrugged.
“Come on. Let’s get everyone together. Time to figure our next move,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Aren’t we supposed to wait here?”
“We’ll talk about it inside,” he instructed, motioning for her to move aside.
She pushed the door out of her way, spun about, and strode down the short hall. As she passed the first bedroom, she called, “Siriah, come to the kitchen.”
“Okay,” Siriah Darin responded. To her mother she said, “I’ll be right back.”
“Was that Martin?” Daphne Darin asked.
“Uh. No, Mom,” Siriah said. “I’ll be back in minute, okay?”
“When Martin gets home, tell him I need garlic and onions for the soup.”
Biting her lower lip, Siriah’s breath caught. She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and took a moment. Patting her mother’s foot, she said, “I’ll let Dad know.” She then opened her eyes and saw Bonnie Taylor standing just outside the bedroom. With a half-smile, she followed him. Though her body ached from the wounds she’d received at the Inquisitor’s hands, the physical pain was nothing. I will kill him, she promised herself. Upon entering the kitchen, they were greeted by the cautiously expectant faces of the other rescued women. Taking a moment to clear her mind and check her rising emotions, Siriah navigated through the women to the sink, where she grabbed a cup out of the dish rack and filled it from the tap.
“Ladies,” Taylor said. He took the time to meet each woman’s gaze. “Capt’n Decker is late.” They each looked at his crazy overgrown goatee. “I realize you’re not familiar with the Capt’n. In short, he’s never late.” He let that sink in a moment before continuing, “it’s time for us to head to the next place.”
“But… I thought...tomorrow,” Siriah glanced in the direction of the bedroom where her mother was currently laid out.
“To be safe,” Bonnie Taylor nodded. “Nothing here feels right. We go now, we have time to move.”
“She’s not ready,” the blonde blurted.
“Ready or not,” Siriah muttered.
“We’ll go slow,” he reassured the women, who were hazarding nervous peeks at one another.
The twins, both of whom had never wanted to stay in the shack, spoke simultaneously, “when are we leaving?”
“Right now,” Taylor answered.
“Good,” agreed the twins.
While staring at the bloodied nudist, the Inquisitor rolled his shoulders, popped his neck, and cracked his knuckles. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time to play. Would that I could, we’d spend the next week having fun. As it stands, your presence is both an enigma and a hindrance.” Picking up his carving knife from the table, the Inquisitor pointed it at his newest subject, “what should I do with you?”
“You could let me go,” Commander Samuel Felis offered.
“Now, why didn’t I think of that?” the Inquisitor laughed.
“We can’t all have brains.” Felis barely got the comment out of his mouth before he was belted twice in the neck by Jougs, who was only too willing to let out his pent up aggression. “You’re fucked!” Felis yelled while attempting to look at the man behind him.
“Watch your tongue,” the Inquisitor warned, “I will cut it out.”
“That’ll make your interrogation difficult,” Felis retorted.
After nodding once to Jougs, who immediately began beating on the prisoner, the Inquisitor used a cloth to clean the blood off his knife. He examined the keen edge in the bright light, before placing it back into its slot in his toolkit. While the Inquisitor tended his tools, he spoke softly to Vorant, “make sure he’s alone.”
“Got it, Boss,” Vorant replied. Outside the Interrogation Room, he stood absolutely still. Calmly spinning to his right, he took a couple steps forward, and then paused to hear his own footfalls echo. At the bottom of the stairwell leading through the Heart of the Seven Faeries, he stopped again to listen. Shaking his head, he whispered, “guy’s buck-ass nekkid.” Rather than climbing the stairs to check the clearing, Vorant sped back down the corridor. The only sound was the clickety-clack of his heavy boots as the echo ran before him. Inside the Interrogation Room, Vorant found that Jougs was still pounding on the bound nudist and the Inquisitor was watching with the delight of a child waiting for an ice cream cone. Grunting, “clear,” Vorant shut the door.
An old patch of cord-grass began bobbing up and down at the base of Mt. Caliber, a few feet up from head of the tattered and practically abandoned Old Sea Road. Underneath the overgrown escape hatch, two disheveled soldiers from Poterit Dan grunted as they pushed up for a solid ten minutes. When the earth above the hatch finally gave way, they were blasted with cool salty air. The two men promptly exhaled the stale underground and hungrily gulped in the sea.
“Private,” Master Sergeant Maxwell Locos ordered as he locked his fingers together, providing the step up.
“Aye, Maser,” Private Richard Machine responded automatically as he popped his foot into the waiting hands and his head out of the hole. It took a bit of struggling to wiggle out, but once he was free and had verified the area, he dropped onto his stomach and offered a hand to Locos.
Upon standing up next to the hole, Locos gazed out at the Sovereign Sea, and said, “never been this far west or south before.” After a minute of observing the area, he added, “looks like Port Askance.”
“You’ve been to Port Askance?” Machine asked in awe.
“Yup,” Locos replied.
“Well don’t leave me hanging,” Machine insisted.
“You want a fish tale?” Locos asked, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
“I know you got one, Maser,” Machine laughed.
“More’n one,” Locos agreed. “Alright. Down in Merced. Maybe 17 years back. It was my second duty station. Anyway. We patrolled the route to Port Askance hunting illegal Montisi and Donians. The Port’s been derelict for what? 80-90 years? Typically, we drove to the Limits sign, then turned around and went back. This one day, ole Hargreaves and I talked about what a shame it was to get so close but never see all that water. We’re flatland boys; there’s just too much temptation in proximity.” He chuckled, and continued, “for an abandoned shithole, the roads weren’t bad. We drove right down to the docks, parked, and got out to walk about. We weren’t out of the truck 5 minutes before Hargreaves starts acting spooked.” He paused the story, moving his right arm back and forth with his forefinger extended while he tried to choose a direction. Deciding on away from the sea and going up Old Sea Road, he resumed, “he kept elbowing me every few feet, asking, ‘you see that?’ Now I hadn’t seen anything but the deep blue. So, I was getting pissed off about that little jackhammer slamming into my arm. Halfway down the road we come up on this battered old wharf. Seriously, some of the buildings and most of the docks were just missing. I was thinking how time sure does its own brand of damage, when that crazy son of a bitch practically jumps in my skin. He’s rambling on about the eyes watching us. And, I’m about ready to teach him a lesson, when I notice the damnable red eyes staring at us from the shadows between two crumbled up warehouses. Now. I wasn’t always the brainy chap you see before you,” he laughed, “that particular day, I threw Hargreaves off of me, and ran right at them eyes.”
Though they were walking on a partially overgrown road, Machine’s full attention was on Locos and the story. The private stumbled along, trying not to miss anything and nearly broke his ankle for the effort. “So, what was it?” he asked.
“The sun glinting off of...something.”