“The Messenger” – Part Three
The sun was setting when Warren exited the woods and stepped onto the main path into Fenway. He hefted his pack and then patted his leather satchel, reminding himself that it was there. He sighed, resigning himself to another day spent on the road.
As he walked, Warren took in the landscape around him. It was a symphony of bird songs and the the swaying of trees in the light breeze. Golden light saturated the air with that hazy contented feeling of a perfect day and Warren had had a perfect day. He had lounged on the riverbanks for hours, cat napping as his clothes and gear dried on the line. He had taken another swim during the warm afternoon in the cool waters of the pool. It had been glorious.
Coming out of his reverie, Warren strolled down the path, coming to the Fenway town limits after a mile or so. The town was not much to see in the daylight. Fenway’s center was ten buildings nestled among the trees. In the rain of the night before, Warren had only counted three. All together you could walk from one end of Fenway to another in about ten minutes.
Warren scoffed. It was no wonder he had never been to this place in all his travels. He had heard that Fenway was the seat of the entire First District of the Tenth Ward. All commerce and distribution from the other farming outposts was said to pass through here before heading back to the inner wards. That made Fenway the only real trading center for miles, but looking at it, it seemed more like a outpost. From where he walked, Warren gazed upon the hill that stood sentry over the town. At its crest sat a mansion of red brick built of pristine workmanship. Smoke danced from its well built chimney and into the evening air. Warren could smell the wealth of a Governor’s mansion from the other side of town. If the Agrarian Guild’s local authority was stationed here there must be something about the town that Warren was ignorant of. He shrugged it off and refocused on the road.
A crowd of fey passed him shortly, returning from the grain groves that circled the town. There were Naiadi supervisors with teams of human workers intersped with a few halfgenes. They all trudged, weary footsteps leading them back to Fenway. Among the procession, Naiadi women walked along with orbs of water floating around their heads. They gossiped and chatted with each other, hauling the liquid back to their homes. They all had the haggard look of people returning from hard labor, even the High Fey. Warren nodded to each individual as they passed but none looked up. He whistled low at the exhaustion that radiated off of them. “The Tenth takes its tithe. Even among High Fey.” His father had been fond of saying. Or was it his mother…
“Must have been a hard day in the grain grove,” he said to a passing human. The woman ignored him and trudged on. Warren shook his head and frowned, had once worked a grain grove been down south in the Tenth Wards’ seventh district for an entire year. It had been an incredibly grueling time full of climbing and broken branches and falling injuries. There was a reason he had opted for his current life rather than a “stable” one tending to arboreal grain.
The road forked ahead of them and Warren broke from the crowd to take the small road that ran on the outskirts of town and passed by Charlie’s Inn. It sat on the side of the road, the two story Inn bulwarked on all sides by deep woods. On a wooden patio of treekeeper shaped cedar, the Naiadi Charlie stood sweeping. She had her back to him and the light of the setting sun caught on the floral short robe she wore. As Warren approached she turned and waved at him. Warren waved back, double taking as he came closer. Charlie was bare chested under her robe, her breasts swinging to and fro as she waved.
“Ah, the infamous Tarly,” she said, stopping her sweeping to step to the railing. “Come to pay your tab, have you?”
“My tab, madam?” Warren said, pointedly looking into her eyes.
Charlie leaned forward, resting her elbows on the railing of the patio, “Yes, your tab. You owe me for the food and for drying your clothes.”
“What did we settle at?” Warren sighed, reaching for the money fold he kept in his coat.
Charlie’s face splint into a grin like a cat having found a nest of newborn mice, “I believe it was two, I mean… one silver mab.” she corrected as Warren glared at her.
Warren pulled from his leather money fold a rectangular silver coin as long as his thumb. He placed them on the railing next to Charlie’s elbow with a snap and replaced his money fold in his pocket.
“Aaaaand,” she said, her eyes on his coat pocket. “You still owe me for the damages.”
“The damages?” Warren sputtered. “I was accosted by patrons of your Inn. If anything, you should be offering me some compensation.”
“Or you can pay me for the damages,” she said, sweetly.
“That seems a bit ridiculous.”
“Is it though.” The smile still danced at the corners of her mouth. “You beat one of my customers senseless. I don’t think we’re ever going to get the blood out that carpet.”
“Maybe your customers deserved it.”
“Interesting thought.” Charlie said, nonplussed, “I think Master Trausse would love to have you explain that to him. He’s been asking around town about you personally. Shall I go fetch him?”
Warren paused, fuming.
“How much?” Warren hissed, yanking his money fold from his pocket again
“A gold dair.”
“For a carpet?” spat Warren.
“They’re exquisitely old,” she cooed, her grin widening.
Warren retrieved a gold dair from his money fold, showing it to Charlie. The coin was the same length and shape as the silver mab except it was adorned with the profile of their beloved Dair Olgar on both sides. It was fashioned with a rectangular hole in its center. The coin gleamed in the fading sunlight as Warren held it out for Charlie to take.
She didn’t reach out for it. Charlie pressed her arms together, squeezing her breasts forward and presenting the now ample cleavage to Warren. He looked at it, looked back into Charlie’s eyes and frowned.
“You’re joking, right?”
Charlie merely shrugged and then winked slyly.
With a sigh, Warren rested the coin into Charlie’s cleavage. Charlie gave a delighted sigh.
“Ok.” Warren muttered, stepping back. “I think that that is enough.” He tipped her a slight bow before putting his money fold into his pocket. “This was lovely. We should do it again sometime.”
“We’ll be here.” Charlie said, biting her lower lip, “Your money is always welcome at Charlie’s Inn.”
Warren rolled his eyes and turned back to the road north and the edge of town.
“You know what isn’t welcome though?” Charlie called after him.
“Depends.” Warren yelled back without stopping. “Are you referring to your hospitality or your prices?”
“It’d be Hank and those five Trausse thugs he took with him to the north bridge. They’ll be waiting for you to throw you a goodbye party. I hear it’s bring your own blade.”
Warren halted, looking back over his shoulder at her. “I will keep that in mind. But why tell me at all?”
“I like your face a little.” Charlie said, flipping the coins between her fingers. She blew on the gold dair and it vanished, “but I like your gold more. If you’re dead I can’t hustle you when you come back.”
“You think I’ll be coming back?” Warren asked with a quizzical grimace.
“You’ll be back,” Charlie crooned, a knowing look in her eye.
“Charming.” Warren returned his gaze to the road. “Goodbye, Charlie. Take care.”
“You too, dear.” Charlie gave a little wave. Warren didn’t return it.
* * *
Warren walked the packed dirt path out of Fenway with a determined step and a whistle on his lips. The song was a somber tune he had learned from his co-workers ages ago, but it’s melancholy minor key echoed splendidly off the trees. It filled the green tunnel of intertwined foliage with a haunting melody. Yet, even with the tune, the woods were dangerously still. There was only a quiet rustle of leaves on branches to add harmony to Warren’s song.
As he whistled, Warren kept his eye on the shadowy depth of the thicket, Charlie’s warning ringing in his mind. She’d been helpful but it was odd that she’d been so forthright with him,. It smelled of calculated risk. He’d have to keep his ears open about her when he returned. Maybe the Body could use an agent this far out. The idea made Warren laugh. The thought of Charlie being ordered to do anything but what she wanted to. Still, the idea had merit.
Soon, the trees began to thin, casting fading light upon him. The landscape opened as the trees ended, presenting an old stone bridge spanning a swift moving river. The stone worked landmark was backdropped by the sloping hills that were the border of the valley. Warren’s eyes followed the road up over the bridge and into the hills. Beyond those hills the terrain rose and in the distance Warren could see the dark outline of the Highdark Mountains. Even at this distance he could see mere brown scratches of the road he stood on. It would take him to those mountains and from there he could reach the absolute edge of Ammingrad.
“Hold there, stranger. We’d want a word with you,” a ragged voice said from Warren’s left. He looked, seeing four Naiadi walk smoothly out of the river, clothes dripping, shortblades clenched in hard hands. They stepped up to land and Warren’s nostrils flared at the sour stench of mildew and old saltwine.
“I’ll hold.” Warren answered tensely. He didn’t have time for these kaggers.
The Naiadi were a pitiful sight. Slicked in slime and dressed in once fine clothes, they slid, undignified, up on land and onto the road. One of them spat a wad of orangish phlegm into the dirt while another scratched inflamed gills. They walking with the confidence of violent intentions given no resistance. The lead Naiadi grinned, eyes narrowed as he issued a ridiculous giggle. Warren rolled his eyes. He was insulted. Was this the best they could do? Who did this Trausse think he was?
“Looks like we caught up with you,” the lead one said. He was the shortest and burliest of the lot. Green and gold fish scales covered his body and his eyes were too large for his wide face.
“It would seem so,” Warren answered as they began to circle him. “Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
“Is he cracking wise?” another Naiadi said. He was a tall fellow with stringy sea kelp for hair as purple colored as his beard. His mottled skin was grey, striped with white.
“Nah. He doesn’t look smart enough to crack wise,” another said. This one had salmon fish coloring like Hank. “Did you see him when we swam up? Had his eyes on the sky, looking like a drowned rat with his mouth open.”
“What were you doing? Trying to see the sights?” Purple Beard replied with a laugh.
“Depends. Are there sights worth seeing?” Warren said.
“The only sight you’ll see will be your head in a bag,” the frog-eyed one said, licking his green lips.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Wick,” interjected Purple Beard. “How’s he supposed to see his own head in bag?”
“Tahm’s got a point,” the salmon one said, flipping a coin in his hand. “Doesn’t make much sense to me.”
“Shut it!” Frog Face snapped. “It doesn’t need to make sense. It’s a threat! I’m being intimidating!”
“And you are doing a wonderful job.” Warren replied, hands resting casually on his pack straps. “But I’m late for an appointment and I need to be on my way, so if you gentlemen will move aside…”
The three thugs raised their shortblades, the ceramic tips and edges pointed in Warren’s direction.
“Wick told you true, Tarly,” the purple bearded Naiadi called Tahm said. “We’re here to give you a lesson in intimidation.”
“Hank told us you refused to pay.” the wide faced Wick chimed in. “Can’t have you walking away without paying something.”
“That wouldn’t be fair,” the salmon scaled one proclaimed, finishing Wick’s phrase.
“I guess that has a logic to it.” Warren sighed. “And it’s a courtesy you’ve shown me, you three trolls coming out of your bridge, warning me of your ambush. I’ll return the favor.”
The three Naiadi laughed. It was a cruel sound devoid of true mirth that held the sound of practiced cruelty and violent intent.
“Head back to town,” Warren said, his voice calm and cold. “This is your only warning.”
The three smiled, tightening their circle. Their shortblades stood out like white teeth in shallow waters.
“Big talk for a worm on a hook.” Purple-bearded Tahm showed pointed teeth. “We’ll put it on your grave marker.”
“Take him!” The salmoned skinned one grunted.
“Oh, for kags sake,” Warren sighed.
The two Naiadi leapt into action, Tahm lunging while Wick swung wide. Warren sidestepped, bringing his elbow up into the Tahm’s unprotected throat. The purple Naiadi gasped, stumbling back with his hands at his windpipe, his blade dropping onto the dirt. Warren counter stepped Wick, avoiding. The green-gold Naiadi toppled, fighting his momentum. Warren seized him, pulled forward and rammed his knee up. Wick buckled, knee cap crushing into ribs that splintered like sticks. Warren seized Wick’s thick hair, wrenching his head back and planted the heel of his hand to Wick’s face.
There was a sickening snap of bones and cartilage breaking followed by a scream. Wick tried to run. Warren hooked a heavy booted kick to the Naiadi’s temple and Wick dropped to the mud like a sack of wet kelp.
Warren spun, body poised for another attack, but found only Tahm struggling on his knees to catch his breath. While he fought for air he was reaching for his shortblade.
“Kagging fenners.” Warren cursed, shaking out his hand, “You don’t know when to take a hint, do you?”
He slammed the heel of his boot into the side of Tahm’s head, knocking him unconscious. The purple-bearded Naiadi fell backwards into the ditch, legs up in the air.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Warren went on, turning around.
The salmoned-skinned Naiadi stood a few feet away, frozen in place by the swiftness of the sudden violence. He opened his mouth to answer, but only a squeak escaped. Warren stepped over Wick, careful not to step in the inky blood Wick was oozing onto the road.
“That one is Tahm,” Warren said, pointing to the upturned legs, “and that one is Wick.” He gestured at the bleeding mess. “But they never said what your name was. What is it?”
“Marl,” the Naiadi said, his eyes wide and his knees shaking.
“Can you answer me a question, Marl?”
Marl nodded his head.
“Good. Because I don’t think I was being taken seriously. Do you think your friends were taking me seriously, Marl?”
Marl shook his head.
“I agree, Marl.” Warren replied, walking up to him, “But I can see that you’re a smart fey. Right?”
“Of course you are. Are you going to take me seriously?”
Marl nodded vigorously.
“I like what you’re saying, Marl. In the understanding that we are now friends, I’m going to walk away now. Is that ok?”
“Hank said that…”
“Marl,” Warren interrupted. “Did I ask what Hank said?”
Marl shook his head.
“Correct. So, I will say again.” He leaned in, looming over Marl like a cresting wave, “I’m going to walk away and you are going to take care of your friends. Understand?”
Marl hesitated and then began to stammer about Hank and his ‘job.’ Warren rolled his eyes.
“I’ll make this simple for you, Marl.”
He struck Marl at the base of his head with the meat of his hand. Much to Warren’s satisfaction, Marl crumpled.
“Why is it that you backwater thugs think you have something to prove against me?” Warren asked, shifting Marl onto his shoulder. “I come into town, you get a good look and then feel compelled to challenge me to a fight. Is it my face?”
Marl moaned and Warren nodded at it.
“I can respect that.”
Warren was dumping the three of them in a shallow ditch when he had heard a voice scream from behind: “What the fen do you think you are doing!”
He looked under Wick’s dangling form on his back to see Hank trembling with fury in the middle of the road. He was flanked by two other Naiadi thugs, each with an utter look of confusion and shock on their faces.
“That depends.” Warren tossed Wick into the ditch. “I think I’m doing a good deed by keeping the road clear of rubbish, but I feel that you have a separate feeling on the matter.”
“You killed them!” One of the thugs, a female with orange skin and black and white stripes, scowled.
“I didn’t kill them, ma’am,” Warren explained, “they’re just worse for wear.”
“No, I think he killed them.” The other thug shook his head so his thick urchin spine hair rustled.
“Look,” Warren warned, “We don’t have to do this again. If you’d just… “
“Kill him.” Hank roared, snapping his fingers.
Warren sighed deeply.
The stripy Naiadi shot toward Warren, a wickedly curved knife appearing in her hand. She swiped twice and Warren dodged. She swiped for a third and Warren caught her wrist, forcing it the wrong way. She screamed, dropping the knife. Warren silenced her with a swift fist to her windpipe. The whistle of a thrown blade reached Warren’s ears and he twisted instinctively, pulling up the retching striped Naiadi. He felt the dull thud as the knife embedded into her. Warren dropped her, pulling the curved knife from the ground and flung it, hearing the grunt of the urchin haired Naiadi as it struck true.
Warren whirled, meeting Hank as he rushed him, his full curved longblade singing through the air. Warren dodged, pulling his shortblade from his belt. Hank swung again, a roar of frustration tearing from his throat. Warren side stepped, feeling the wind as the blade passed his face. He reached out as the blade passed, gripping Hank and hurling him. He landed with a dull thud, the longblade falling from his hands but he twisted and was back on his feet, a shortblade now hissing at Warren. Warren back stepped the swipes and Hank grinned.
“Retreating already!” Hank sneered, “I expected more from…”
Warren cut Hank’s hand off. Hank watched, eyes wide, as the hand flopped to the ground. He fell to his knees, cradling the fresh stump, the pain evident on his contorted face. The scream that extended from him was far more animal than fey.
“Never talk while you fight,” Warren chided, as he checked over the sea urchin-ish Naiadi. He was dead, the curved knife protruding from his chest. The striped Naiadi was no better, the knife thrown at her having hit home in her throat. “Talking means you take your concentration off of the engagement. When you do, you make mistakes.”
“Kag you to hell you fenning tinker!” Hank spat. “You cut off my hand!”
“You left yourself open. Really not my fault.”
Hank didn’t answer. He just wept.
“Besides,” Warren offered, crouching down by Hank. “I used a heatblade. It’s cauterized, so you’ll be fine.”
“I’ll kill you,” Hank seethed, his eyes red and wild with rage.
“No,” Warren said, standing. “You won’t.”
Warren left them in the road and didn’t look back. Even when Hank screamed his name till he could hear his voice rip, Warren didn’t turn. Before long, Hank’s ragged shouts died away and the path lead him upwards through the trees.
Hours passed, and as Warren climbed higher the sparse trees thinned even more, giving way to rocky highland and scrub grass. The road snaked its way higher, cutting across rocky landscape, turned rosey hue of the last light of the setting sun. He stood on a pinnacle of rock as the sun and watched in silence as it dipped lowered. When it had gone completely he set his feet toward the looming Highdark Mountains and soldiered on, the lengthening shadows joining in to keep him company.
“I suppose I didn’t have to be so harsh with those thugs.” Warren mused to the darkness.
But they wanted to rob you! Warren’s conscience spoke back. You helped rid that little town of some terrible individuals.
Warren’s conscience always sounded like his mother’s voice, commanding, expressive and overly shrill. He’d given up as young fey trying to determine why it had possessed his mother’s voice or what it possibly meant. He’d especially worked to distance himself from what it meant.
“True.” Warren spoke aloud. “But they were following orders. If I had wanted to help the town permanently I could have taken out Trausse, or sent for a Intermediary to assess the town. All I did was make things worse.”
You don’t know that, his conscience retorted, Every action must be given time to see its consequences.
“That sounds more like a justification than an explanation,” Warren said.
Only if you allow it to be.
Warren huffed, screwing his eyes up and hissing into the darkness. “This isn’t helping.”
Who said I wanted to help? his conscience replied. Warren was sure he could imagine that it had giggled.
His conscience didn’t answer.
Warren expelled steamed breath into the air to mingle with light of the rising moon, Yara. It’s bluish light cast the world in a cold cast. This time was known as the Long Hour, when Yara waited in the sky for her silvery sister, Frida to raise and balance out the color. The world about him stilled as Yara rose and Warren’s mind stilled with it. His task took command of his mind and he had to ruminate on the last few days. He’d spent too long in Fenway and with a inward curse, he realized that he’d need to walk through the night to get to his destination before the designated sunrise. Pulling a map from his bag, Warren looked over his probable location, judging it by the position of the moon. He and his destination were further apart than he’d expect. He’d have to do double time to make it.
He hummed an old song as he ran. One from after the Arrival, when the First Dair and his court had come to this place from the World that Was. A song of remembrance of that world, of what had been lost there and the hope of this new world under a New Dair. Warren had learned the tune from his dying father and the words had been a lifetime in finding. His master himself had given the last verse of it to Warren as a boon for his deeds. He had sung it into his ear and they had seared themselves to his memory.
And now we come with mournful call
To sing the death of ever-living.
What cause we must espouse in all
Can be what everyfey is giving.
But be not sad, to see his death
Dair Ammin, his name thanksgiving
For one is here to take the breath
Dair Olgar, called the Outliving.
So sing the praise, the pure refrain
And be not found misgiving
We will tame this new domain
In this land most unforgiving.
An ancient song of sadness, but one of a steady beating rhythm. It helped Warren keep his steps as the night passed with only the wind and a hum to keep him company.
It was breaking dawn when Warren came within sight of the gates of the great border. The first light of morning cut its warm glow in a line upon the horizon, casting long shadows over the giant gate. He had been to the great border wall that ran around the city of Ammingrad like a enormous horseshoe many times, but he was always struck by how intimidating it was.
Many city fey he had met had never left the confines of their wards, let alone traveled to the border, and Warren derived great pleasure in asking them what they thought it looked like. The common answer was, “A huge fanning wall! Lots of big blocks of stones and smish a thousand feet high!” They were correct that the border was a wall, but it was not of ancient hewn stone placed one upon the other a thousand feet in the air. Rather it was five hundred feet of solid unaltered stone, as if several mountains had decided to stretch out and lay down around the city. At its base the border was two hundred yards wide and at its top, all along its crest, bulwarks and keeps had been built. These edifices were more what fey would expect, actual buildings with turrets and lookouts. They had been built after the wall had been raised and resembled great fortresses with wide ramparts that ran between them. This would be where the Guardians would stand watch, making sure that nothing would enter or exit the city without their knowledge.
It took another hour before Warren arrived at one of the many gates sit into the living stone. He puffed his way up the rough hewn steps to a pair of large iron doors set with the Dair’s crest at their center. There was no one there to greet him.
“It’s not like I was expected,” he muttered.
Warren drew his knife and knocked, striking the pommel against the metallic doors. The sound had barely begun to echo when a window, some fifteen feet up slid open and an Ifriti woman peered out. Her gaze raked across the doorstep before landing on Warren. He waved and she narrowed her yellow eyes.
“We don’t give handouts,” she barked before attempting to retreat.
“Wait a moment!” Warren cried. “I am not looking for a hand out.”
“You looking to enlist, then?” she snipped back.
“Can’t run the trials here. You’d best head to High Helm.” she interjected, “ It’s a three days walk south along the border, but you won’t find much luck there. A beggar like you wouldn’t get past the first mark. ”
“I’m not a beggar.”
She paused, sizing him up and down, “Could have fooled me.”
“Look,” Warren said sighing “I’m here on business.”
“What’s your business?”
“I’m a messenger from–”
“Messenger?” she squawked. “Like a letter? Why didn’t they just send a pixie?”
“My master isn’t fond of sending pixies, and the information I have is for the recipient only.”
“So, you’re a mailman.”
Warren’s mouth opened, and then closed it again. “Yes I suppose I am.”
The Ifriti’s eyes narrowed further. She pulled herself back into the window, sliding it close with a clang. She returned moments later at the door, pulling back a small window at Warren’s height set in the large metal door. He had to step back as a orange-skinned hand shot out toward him, black nails thrusting at his face.
“All right, Mailman. Give me your message, then,” the Ifriti Guardian’s voice said from behind the door.
“I told you,” Warren replied, stepping around the hand to the opening. “My message is for the recipient only.”
“And who’s your message intended for, Mailman?”
“Pinnacle Millicent Gainoor.”
The Ifriti woman scoffed. “You’re in the wrong place. The Guardian headquarters at Ironpeak is where you’ll find the Pinnacle. We’re just a humble little outpost.”
Warren closed his eyes and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m not in the mood for games, Guardian.”
“I don’t see anyfey playing any games here, boy. You can turn around if you don’t like it.”
She started to close the door and Warren grabbed it, holding it open.
“I’ve had a very trying few days.” he said, locking eyes with the Ifriti. “So you can either let me in or I can force my way in.”
The Ifriti laughed, then opened the door. Warren blinked, surprised, but the Ifriti held up her hand.
“You got a right large pair of balls on you, mailman. Challenging a member of the Order of the Rose is a grave offense.”
“Didn’t realize you were a member of the order,” Warren said, keeping his voice level.
“Eh, I don’t like to brag.” She winked at him and held the door open for him to walk through. “But I take it you ain’t no beggar and if you got a message for the Pinnacle then let’s see you give it.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Don’t,” she replied. “We’ll be debriefing her before she’s had her breakfast. I’ve seen her kill fey for less.”
* * *
Millicent Gainoor sparred against five other Guardians in a marked out ring. She wore no armor and very little clothing while the five Guardians stood in training leathers, longblades in their hands. Warren knew fighting fey when he saw them and each of the five held perfect stances as they flung attacks at her. They darted forward and struck with the precision of decades of instruction. It was, however, a stacked game; Millicent was destroying them.
For ever attack they pressed, she pressed back with two. For every advantage they took, she turned it against them. She bent like a willow branch in the breeze as she dispatched Guardian after Guardian. When one went down, another from a line at the wall would rush in and the line was dwindling fast.
“What’s she doing?” Warren asked the Ifriti Guardian at his side. They had arrived just moments before and she had shown Warren to a small bench along a wall of training blades.
“Just a light warm up. The Pinnacle likes to keep her skills sharp,” she replied, chewing on a strip of jerky.
A Guardian was flipped, smacking the stone floor with a sickening crunch. The line winched.
“She’s magnificent,” Warren said.
“Aye. That she is, and don’t you forget it.” The Ifriti stood. She gave Warren a final withering glare before she passed through an archway. Warren waved his fingers to her in goodbye.
Millicent dispatched the final Guardian with a kick that sent the poor fey into the wall with a thwap. There was a smattering of applause accompanied by a chorus of pained groans.
“Don’t applaud that!” Millicent spat, “You were sloppy. You were weak. You were undisciplined and careless. Do you think the next time a ********* comes ********** that they’ll ********?”
Warren shook his head, trying to shake the eerie hum of blank words out of his ears. He hated this. The words she had spoken had never reached him, instead vanishing out of existence as his soulbrands warmed to destroy their existence. It was the price they all paid for privileged positions.
The Guardians muttered their response to the Pinnacle as Warren shifted his attention back.
“Are you new recruits?” Millicent roared, “How do we answer a direct question?”
“Aye, Ma’am!” they yelled.
“That’s better. You are dismissed for mess.”
“Aye, Ma’am.” They stumbled to the exit.
“But I want you back in here afterwards,” she called in afterthought, “We have drills to run.”
The Guardians shuffled out of the practice hall, closing the door behind them. Millicent turned, fixing her eyes directly on Warren. He smiled back at her.
“Don’t give me that, Teague.” She marched toward him.
“I don’t know what you mean, maam,” Warren replied, giving a crisp Guardian salute.
“Cut the kag. If you’re here it means that your employer sent you, which means he has a message for me, which means more trouble and by Ammin I have had enough trouble this span to last me a two lifetimes.”
“That bad, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“That is correct, Pinnacle,” he replied. “The soulbrands won’t let me.”
Millicent narrowed her eyes at him and sighed. She walked to a rack of towels, pulling one off and wiping her face free of perspiration.
“I don’t have much time for your japes, Teague. ****** attacks are up to five times a span. My Guardians are spread thin and I’m nearly at my wits end with ******. Unless you have news that the Dair is sending me more troops, we have very little to discuss.”
“Then I shall not waste your time. My message is thus. Our master wishes hopes you are well. He is pleased with your current efforts. He will be re-deploying Guardians from the inner walls to help you in your efforts. You can expect them in a span.”
“Thank Ammin for that.” She dismissed Warren with a motion. He didn’t move. “Do you have more to say, Master Teague?”
“I do, ma’am. The Guardian news is secondary to my initial message. It is quite serious and I was told to tell it to you while you were seated.”
Millicent sat, her eyes concerned. “Please continue.”
“Our master wishes you… an extraordinarily happy birthday which, if his calculations are correct, I believe is today.”
Millicent looked at him, letting the silence linger. “Is that it?”
“That is the message, ma’am. I worked tirelessly to be here on time as he requested.”
“What a load of kagging scrap! What’s the real message, Teague?”
“That is the message, ma’am.” His smile began to grow. “But a message is different from a request and my master does have one of those as well.”
“You are such a little smish, Teague. Enough games. Out with it.” She ran her hands through her petals.
“The Dair wishes for me to go outside.”
“Outside the Border?” Millicent asked, shock sparking in her eyes.
“That is correct, ma’am.”
“And this is directly from your master? Not… one of the others?”
“No, ma’am. This is directly from him.”
“What does he want you to do?” she asked, tossing the towel into a hamper.
Warren responded and smiled when Millicent’s eyes widened with shock. Her hand went to her soulbrand on her neck. He could see it glow softly between her fingers.
“It’s that important?” she mused, awe apparent in her voice.
“Apparently. I’m only aware of the broad details, but a task is a task and it is not my habit to ask questions of the Dair.”
Millicent nodded at that. She understood duty.
“What is your time table?”
“Immediately if I can. I’d have gone to any of the main gates but my key does not seem to be working.” Warren pulled from his leather satchel a circular stone slab covered in arcane runes. It’s sacred geometry worn and faded by time and use. “I figured I’d have to seek you out before I could go any further.”
“You’d guess correctly.” she said, putting her hand out for the stone. Warren obliged her.
“It’s perplexing.” Warren continued as Millicent looked over the tablet, “I did an excursion a decade ago and it worked fine then. I’m thinking it might be an alignment issue. Perhaps a section of the geometry is off? Or it could be something more akin to fatigue. They are after all almost five thousand years old.”
Millicent snapped the stone in two and then dropped it to the floor, grinding it under the heel of her boot.
Warren made a sound that was not quite discernable to fey ears. It grew until it metamorphosed into a startled shout.
“What the kag are you doing!” He lunged for the pieces but Millicent held him back.
“Stand down, Teague.”
“Stand down?” Warren twisted to get around her, but she held firm. Dair, she was strong. Lithe muscles taunt under flawless green skin that held him back like steel coils. He shook himself. He couldn’t think of that now. “You destroyed a relic! A relic from the days of Ammin, specifically given to me by the Dair himself!” The thought of the Dair pulled Warren inward. “He’s going to kill me.” he said aloud.
“If he does” Millicent replied, letting go to him, “Then he’ll have to kill me and probably himself as he gave the order for the keys to be destroyed.”
“What? When?” Warren sputtered.
“About five years ago we had a breach.”
“A breach?” Warren blanched. “In the border?”
She smacked him lightly, “No. Do you think the city would have survived a full Border breach? We had a crime syndicate steal one of our universal keystones.”
“And what happened?”
“We’re not sure.” Millicent sighed. “A gate was opened but nothing came of it. Luckily they only took a one way key so if anyone left, they’re never coming back. But the Dair thought that it was time to disband the keystones. Yours was the last one.”
Warren looked to the pile of stone and then back to Millicent, confusion now written on his face. “But if the keystones are disbanded then how do we get out?”
“No one gets out.” Millicent said, tone flat, face impassive.
“Well, yes, of course. ‘No one’ gets out.” Warren replied with finger quotations, “But we do. So how do we do our master’s bidding?”
“We thought a long time about that and the solution is an elegant if dangerous one.” Millicent turned to the wall and placed her hand upon it, bowing her head in concentration. Within moments the stones began to glow, warping into a pool of molten light that opened onto a woodland glade.
“You’re the keystone?” Warren gaped, looking out into the outside world and then to her.
“I and several others of the Order of the Rose.” Millicent said, stepping back from the newly made portal, obviously drained of some strength. “We are the only way to leave Ammingrad now.”
“Millicent,” Warren said, taking her by the hand. He could see the sacred geometry burning on her palms, “This is insane! The amount of power you’d need to do this is incredible! Where are you pulling the equivalent substitution of energy?” Millicent did not meet his eyes and the realization struck him. “You’re using your own life force, aren’t you.”
“I told you it was elegant but dangerous.” She squared her shoulders. “And duty to my city is more important than my well being.”
“So you’ll cut years off of your life to play toll booth?”
“I’d already give all of it in a moment, so why not a bit here and there.” She settled into a parade rest, pulling her hands from Warren’s grasp. “It is always an honor to serve.”
“Milly.” Warren said stepping closer. “Milly, please.”
She looked at him, her eyes softening. Warren was flooded with memories of that younger Sylvani girl he once knew, back when she was Milly, and the hours they used to spend in each other’s company. In libraries and cafes, in practice yards and in dancing halls, spending days clothed and unclothed, his hands deep in her verdant petals of hair, an eternityfull of life and love. It all felt like a Seelie’s age ago.
Warren took a good look at her in the present. There were more lines than he remembered, more wither spots. Not enough to make her look older but enough to see the beginnings of the toll this burden of duty would take on her. It broke his heart.
“Oh, Milly.” he whispered.
“It’s alright, Warren. I don’t regret it.”
“But maybe I do.”
She smirked at him. “We talked about this, Warren. All that is done and buried.”
“Done and buried,” she said, a harder edge to her voice.
“Fine. But will you at least tell me what the exchange rate is for you?”
“A few spans per opening and then hours for keeping it open.”
Warren’s mouth dropped. “You’ve been losing hours of your life while I’ve asked you these questions?”
Her eyes gleamed. “Then you’d better get going.”
Warren stepped through the opening and into the outside, and when he looked back just once, Millicent smiled.
* * *
Warren found the glade just where the Dair had said it would be. A three day hike through woods so thick and ancient that the sun could barely reach the topsoil. It was like walking in perpetual night and while he had heard many things lumbering in the shadows, he had luckily not encountered any.
The glade was unmistakable, as it was the only section he had come across that broke to let in light. After days in the dark, he stepped, blinking, into the dazzling sunlight of a noon day and startled a six legged white deer, with antlers like ivory carved in swirling patterns. The creature blinked its purple eyes twice at Warren before it leapt into the undergrowth. Warren watched it go, keeping very still, alert for danger.
After a few minutes of listening, Warren stepped fully into the clearing. It was as perfect a circle as Warren had ever calculated, perhaps 30 feet in diameter with towering trees all around. The trees themselves were monolithic in nature but for some reason, they all grew away from this place, as if they leaned away from a fire.
Warren took out his notebook and began to take notes and sketch, taking note of all the oddities. The grass here was not green, but metallic gold, and yet it was as soft as lamb fluff. No other vegetations grew in this clearing and the grass looked manicured, as if tended by some unseen gardner. He walked the entire circle taking note of how few animals he saw, not even lindwyrms and the sounds of birds were almost nonexistent. It was as if nature itself saw this place as a temple… or a tomb.
He filled page after page of observations but ignored the most prominent feature of the glade until the last. He couldn’t tell if he held himself back from it out of awe or fear, but as he penned the last of his notations on how the gold colored grass stopped abruptly at the circle’s edge, he turned to gaze on the glades showpiece.
At the exact center of the glade a otherworldly sword twice his height was embedded into the earth. The sword itself looked worn and weathered, but the black blade shone in the sunlight marred only by silver vines adorned in bronze flowers that surrounded it. Warren got closer, sketching the sword and taking notes. It was only when he was closer that he noticed the armor. At first glance he had thought the sword was embedded in a small mound of gold grass but as he got closer he saw that there was an empty suit of intricate gold armor, sized in proportion to the sword that had been pierced by the black blade. Warren sketched this as well.
He finished his sketches before pulling his tools from his pack to gather samples. He took samples of the grass, the soil, a rock, a bit of vine, a bronze flower and even a bit of the air. He notated them all before turning to the armor and the blade. By the suit a large helmet rested, golden and decorated in elaborate script. He wanted to touch it, to just graze his fingers across it. He reached out his hand but recoiled at the last second, his master’s instructions calling him: “Touch nothing of the blade or the armor, if they are still there. Bring unto me only the samples I ask of you.”
Warren stood and sighed, looking at the helmet, the armor, the glade. He could hardly believe that he had come this far, that he was here. He wanted to spend months here, studying this place where it had happened. This place, where it all began. But he knew that he had a duty, as important and as strong as Milly’s. He pulled his leather satchel to him and opened it. In it lay a plaque of fiery bronze attached with a chain gold. He ran his hands along it reverently, tracing each word on its surface with care.
Here was slain Ammin, Dair of Worlds
The Wisest of us All
Felled by unclean hands
His memories live on
His might undiminished
His sight uncovered
We will maintain what you have begun
Warren tried to hang the place the plaque upon the crossguard of the black blade. He had to make the leap three times before finally resting it deftly in place. He surveyed his, hanging bright against the black blade and thought that the Dair would have approved. Satisfied, he packed his samples and tools before shouldering is pack to leave.
It was then that he heard the faint creak of the plaque shifting. He turned to see the plaque settling just an inch further, off setting the balance of the blade. The black blade moved with new weight, moving only a fraction before resettling. Warren noticed he was holding his breath as a sudden fear crept over him.
Then the world changed.
Red swirling clouds suddenly choked the sky, cutting the light from the sun off from the glade, casting the world in a red haze. A wintery chill pricked the air as Warren exhaled, releasing a plume of hot breath around him. The trees seemed to warp and twist as the ground undulated beneath him and he fell to his knees to keep from being thrown. Lightning flashed in tandem with wind that roared through the trees. Color bled from existence as Warren was overwhelmed by the sense that something enormous was coming. He was prey, aware of a hunter’s swift approach by some additional, deep-rooted sense other than the mundane five. It was like something was sprinting toward him from above, at this place. Warren did what he felt was the only sane thing to do.
He ran. He turned and ran for hours, away from that tomb, that sensation, that maddening sight. He ran, and he never looked back.
“The Messenger” was a three-part story by Drew Mierzejewski.