Monday, May 22, 2017

Minus Valere

     Inside of the Regular Militia’s Subterranean Security Complex, 324 soldiers went about their business as if nothing were happening above ground. In fact, until the generals had arrived, not one of the troops permenantly station in the SSC had given a second thought to the City of Ambrosia. Most of the Regulars stationed at SSC weren’t even from the City, they were from all over Poterit Don, and they rarely gave the City more than passing consideration. Whenever their minds did finally drift to upper level freedoms their thoughts centered on which of the milbars they’d hit up and where they’d find some decent chow. They were brought together for one purpose only: maintain the SSC. At first, the only ones to notice as the generals trickled down were the gate security personnel. But as with wild fires, word spreads quickly. Some of the younger soldiers, who’d never seen a general before, made the rounds trying to spot one like birders try to spot a scaled ground-cuckoo. For their part, the generals had each mustered to their respective offices where they were preparing themselves for whatever bombshell the CQD revealed. Not that they’d be able to convene until the Praeceptor arrived.
     “What do you mean?” General Nelson Whistler asked his assistant for the fourth time.
     “As I said, sir,” the exasperated captain tried reiterating, “the Elite will not bring the Kaiser until they’ve ascertained the risk level. We’ve all mustered to our emergency stations and must await further instruction.”
     “Yes. Yes. We’ve mustered. Now, how can you receive further instructions, if the Advisers and Generals haven’t convened?”
     “General Whistler, sir,” the captain pleaded, “you have to wait until the Elite have cleared the Kaiser for entry.”
     “I don’t have to wait for the Elite,” Whistler insisted. “The Kaiser has to, but I don’t.” He stepped toward the door of his office, toward the wary captain, and ordered, “get out of my way.”
     “Yes, sir,” the captain said, stepping out of the way and rolling his eyes once his back was to the general. I tried, he thought. He shook his head, chewed on the inside of his right cheek, and then sped after the general who’d made it three-fourths of the way down the beige hall by the time he’d caught up.

     Pacing through the fog was too dangerous a game, even for the surly Mister Jougs, who had sat down on the curb in front of the safe house. He occasionally glanced over his shoulder like he could see the porch from his position, though he could barely see the mailbox standing right next to him. “Maybe it’s time,” he grumbled. Looking up into the white expanse that had been a stereotypical Donian neighborhood mere hours earlier, he spit, “alright then. Plan C it is.” Just as he stood up intent on disappearing into the fog, the front door squeaked open.
     “Fuck. I can’t see shit,” Mister Vorant stated, before calling, “hey dude, dinner.”
     Grinding his teeth, Jougs’ head drifted back and forth between the house and his freedom, not that he could see either. Without responding, he stepped further into the street, and then stopped. They can’t follow, so what are you waiting for? He urged himself into the fog, but didn’t actually move.
     “Man, I know you can hear me,” Vorant said, barely keeping his irritation in check, “I ain’t standing here all night. Get your ass inside or go fucking hungry.”
     Though Jougs stood on the deciding line, his stomach had already chosen. “Can’t see nothing. Keep talking asshole.”
     “Call me asshole again and this fog’ll be the least of your problems,” Vorant laughed.

     Sweat poured off the Messenger, who lay in the fetal position on the ugly red and gold paisley couch. The more she moaned, the paler Archel became. The Merc continued eating but watched the royals with the disinterest of one too involved in his meal to care about externalities. Meanwhile, Nina braced herself against the couch as a barrier to keep the Messenger from falling, absently held the Messenger’s plate, and helplessly watched as the boy king went ghostly in his chair. Precisely as Nina found her voice, Archel dropped his plate which landed with a thud that drew the Merc’s dawning comprehension.
     “He’s falling,” Nina exclaimed.
     The Merc dropped his own plate as he leapt from his seat in a bid to reach Archel before the boy landed. His effort wasn’t a complete failure, since he managed to grab hold of Archel’s shoulders and eased the boy’s landing. “Sire?” the Merc asked.
     “I don’t feel so good,” Archel mumbled.
     “What’d you do to them?” the Merc demanded.
     For her part, Nina registered the accusation with a meek, “nothing.”
     “They were fine until dinner!” his voice raised.
     Sudden deep anger hit Nina, who shot back, “he might have been, but she wasn’t!” She remembered Preston’s orders, took a minute to rearrange Cassie in a position where she wouldn’t fall off the couch, and then dug through the cabinets trying to find the sugar.
     “What are you doing?” the Merc demanded.
     “Sugar water,” she answered.
     “How’s that supposed to help?”
     “I don’t know. It just does,” she said shoving a glass into his hand. “Use the straw to stir it up.” He still looked incredulous, so she added, “it’s what Preston told me to do for the Messenger. That’s why she was on the couch upstairs.” At that Nina turned her full attention to Cassie, whose eyeballs were now properly seated though her head remained rolling at an awkward angle.
     “This is the craziest,” the Merc muttered to himself as he stirred. Cradling Archel, he put the straw to the boy’s lips and ordered, “drink.”
     The tension inside Raven’s Drop had only escalated as the sirens wailed and the guards locked down the prison complex. The immediate body count was two prisoners and six guards; while two more prisoners were missing and not a scrap of evidence was left that might detail where they went. Typically, Colonel Gawain Dagon left Raven’s Drop in the hands of Warden Dwight Winter. But, these weren’t typical times and when a high profile prisoner complicit in regicide manages to escape, the warden is reduced to one more guard who let it happen. Dagon wasn’t sure what he hated most, that the Oathbreaker had some how disappeared or that two of the men involved were killed before they’d been interrogated. The whole clusterfuck reeked of a next-level conspiracy and the only person Dagon could immediately hold accountable was the warden who had failed to up his game in response to the new inmates. Even though Dagon was tempted to lay into Winter, he held himself in check. If they were to recover the escapees, then the warden’s knowledge of the premises would be invaluable.
     Pacing from his desk to the window, Winter said, “Colonel, I’m at a loss. Since the delivery of the escapees,” he grimaced, then continued, “I increased personnel in all areas surrounding the medical facilities. I stationed additional guards on the walls and even reopened the outer check points. I just don’t understand how this happened. 27 years. Never. Not once,” the sleep deprived, wild eyed, and crazy haired warden plopped into his executive’s chair, which squeaked as he rocked backward.
     “Inside job.”
     “I’ve got six dead guards. If one of them helped, then the punishment’s been delivered,” he sighed, dropped his head into his hands, and pulled at his hair with two white-knuckled fists. “Six families have to be notified.” He looked up at Colonel Dagon, released his hair, and leaned back into his chair. They stared near each other, but not at each other. As calculating men, both had plenty to occupy their time. Suddenly the warden leapt out of his chair, his already wild eyes practically bulging. “I’ve got it!” He crossed the room, ripped open the door, and called over his shoulder, “come on, Colonel.”
     Prying himself up from the chair, Dagon followed the eccentric warden down a couple hallways, until the man opened up a nondescript door that said, ‘Authorized Personnel Only.” A floor to ceiling prison map mural was painted on the far wall. The warden stationed himself before the map section that contained the medical facilities. As Dagon watched, the warden marked out where the dead bodies were found and where all the nearby guards were stationed. The man worked from memory as he muttered to himself. In silent fascination, Dagon observed the distraught warden.
     Just as suddenly as he’d vacated his chair, Warden Dwight Winter barked laughter. “Thought you’d get away with it! Thought I couldn’t figure it out! Here. Here, Colonel,” Winter tapped the map in two places, “has to be one of these.”
     Winter cocked his head to the left, tilted his chin forward, and said, “no one else was attacked. They didn’t just appear out of thin air. They had to come in from somewhere and these two points are between the murdered guards and the next check points.”
     Having witnessed the Messenger appear out of thin air, the hair raised on Dagon’s body before he rejected the budding thought. “Get two investigation teams in those sections immediately,” Dagon ordered.
     Any normal night the warden might have taken offense, but tonight he nodded as he picked up a phone and relayed the order. When he dropped the receiver back in the cradle, he peeked at Dagon, and then returned to the wall. After a few minutes, he nodded to himself.

     “What happened?” Archel asked from his position in the Merc’s lap.
     “You fell out, sire,” the young man answered.
     The Merc shrugged, “beats me.”
     “I don’t feel good,” Archel stated. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth. “It hurts,” he moaned.
     “What hurts?” the Merc asked.
     Throwing the cook a slightly terrified look, the Merc whispered, “just take it easy, my liege.”
     Cassie, with Nina’s help, had returned to the seated position, though she remained with her head back and her eyes closed. Every time Cassie groaned, Archel mumbled about the pain; the cook and the Merc let their attentions dart back and forth.
     “There’s a hideaway over there,” Nina pointed to the wall to the left of the kitchenette.
     “Can you get it open?”
     Nina stared at Cassie for a second, then answered, “sure.” She hoped that the Messenger wouldn’t fall while she was pulling out the bed for the Praeceptor. As she took hold of the leather loop, she wondered what else would happen before she was finally able to get home. After the first couple of tugs, she got her answer. “Whoa! Easy you worthless bastard!” She threw up an arm to protect herself from the unexpectedly relenting hideaway bed and managed to slow the bed’s descent. Flipping her forearm up, she examined the area near her elbow, and cursed, “that’s going to leave a fucking bruise." She shook her head, “serves me right for asking.”

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