As always, thanks for reading, and we'll see you next Wednesday!
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Mondan Barrister walked ahead of Jax, who was dragged behind him by two guards. Every now and then, he would look over his shoulder at her and smirk. She made a point of scowling back at him every time. Her wrists had been bound behind her back, though she wouldn’t have been able to do much even if they weren’t. Her fight with the golem had taken far more out of her than she’d thought. Every single muscle in her body was a solid mass of pain, and she was more exhausted than she had ever been in her life. She was being dragged by the guards largely because she could barely walk under her own power. Even if the guards let her go, there would have been little she could do save fall to the ground. She mentally crossed “hand-to-hand combat with a giant stone monster” off her list of things to ever do again.
She made a point of observing her surroundings, however. They had made their way through the Twenties and the Teens, and were approaching the final gate to the Top Ten. It was impressive and ancient, set into a stone wall that loomed over them. Guards walked the length of the wall, eyes open and weapons ready for any who might attempt to scale it. When they reached the gate, Barrister exchanged a few words with the guards.
“Here, what’s this?” one asked, pointing to Jax.
“She’s the one’s been causing so much trouble down the Line,” the other said. “Don’t you read the reports?”
“No,” the first guard said. “My job’s guarding the gate, not caring what goes on outside it.”
“Mm,” Barrister said. “I’m sure that attitude will take you far. Now,” he gestured for his men to follow him, and they hefted Jax up from where they’d let her slide toward the ground, “I have a very important meeting with the First, so if you’ll excuse us...”
“Oi, not so quick there, Mr. Barrister,” the first guard said, holding out his hand. “We’ve inspection to take care of first.”
“Excuse me?” Barrister drew himself up, glaring at the younger man.
“Ah, come on, Rej,” the other guard said. “Don’t start.”
“I’d listen to your partner,” Barrister warned. “This woman is important to the First.”
“Ooooh,” the guard named Rej feigned fear. “Important, is she? Well, if Mr. Mondan Barrister, Chief Errand Monkey for the Top Ten, says she’s important, she must be, eh?” He grinned over at his partner, who had retreated, hands raised.
“Keep me out of this, Rej,” she said. “Far as I’m concerned, if the First wants her, she gets brought on through.”
Barrister smiled at her, inclining his head slightly. “You are a very sensible young woman,” he said. “You actually will go far.” He gestured, and his two men dragged Jax through the gate. Then, turning to Rej, he growled, “You may be certain that the First will hear about this, Rej, is it?”
Barrister sniffed, leaning in close. “Is that... whiskey I smell?” he asked.
“Uhh...” Rej took a step back.
“I do believe it is,” Barrister said. He motioned with his hand, and the other gate guard approached. “Lock him up,” he told her. “Drinking on duty is a flogging offense,” he said to Rej. As the young woman put Rej in shackles, Barrister smiled. “I’ll be back shortly to deal with the flogging personally. Be seeing you,” he cooed at Rej as he walked by.
“Staffing trouble?” Jax asked when he rejoined the party.
“It’s the way of little people,” Barrister made a dismissive gesture. “Give them a taste of power and they start getting above themselves.”
“Well,” Jax said, “I’m sure you’d know.”
The guards holding her both snickered.
“Right!” Barrister’s face flushed deep red and he grabbed Jax roughly by the hair. “Next time you open your mouth, I’ll shut it with my fist.”
“Try it, little man,” Jax said. “I promise it will be the last thing you do in this life.”
The look in her eyes made Barrister take a step back. “Yes...” he stammered, “w-well... I don’t-don’t want to damage the First’s puh-prize.”
“Sure,” Jax said, getting her feet under her. She stood up, glancing at each of the guards. “I have it from here, thanks,” she said. Standing was an effort, and she knew walking would be more so, but it was worth it to watch the color drain from Mondan Barrister’s face. “So,” she said, doing her best to tower over him, “when do I meet your boss?”
Later, she sat chained to a chair in a dark room. It smelled faintly of dust and old food, so she assumed it was a storeroom of some kind. Mondan Barrister had left -presumably to flog the disobedient guard- and she was alone with a group of beautiful people in elaborate finery. She couldn’t see the door, but she assumed it was guarded. One of the finely-dressed women, Jax assumed she was the First, spoke.
“Do you know what you are, Ms. Edison?” she asked.
“Tired?” Jax replied. “I’m also sore, dirty, and really really bored, so if we could move this along...”
“You’re trash,” the First said.
“Well,” Jax said, “that’s rude.”
“Someone else didn’t want you,” the First spoke over Jax, “and they dumped you here. Now, I can only imagine why someone might choose to rid themselves of such a ‘charming’ woman as yourself,” First went on, “but the problem is, I now have to deal with you.” She sighed. “Most outside trash has the good sense to stay deep in the Commons and learn to get along, but not you. No,” she shook her head, “you have to charge straight up the Line, causing no end of trouble for me and mine.”
“It’s my way.”
“I’m getting that,” the First said. “The fact that you can use magic here means we can’t just take your tickets and dump you back in the Commons like we normally would. There’s no telling what manner of trouble you’d get up to then.” She gestured, and a guard approached, pulling a bound man along. The man had a bag over his head. The First nodded to the guard, who stepped back into the deep shadows. She smiled at Jax, holding the arm of the captive man. “Know who this is?” she asked.
Jax shook her head, but an uncomfortable suspicion made its way through her mind.
The First pulled off the bag, revealing the bruised and beaten face of Ronas. “How about now?” she asked, laughing.
“Ronas!” Jax strained against her bonds. “Let him go!” she shouted. “He’s nothing to do with this! Once I told him what I was up to, he wanted no part of it! Please! He’s not involved!”
“Is this true?” the First asked Ronas.
He nodded vigorously. “Aye, it is,” he gasped. “I told her. I told her, ‘you can’t just go marching around like you own the place’. I tried teaching her the proper way to live on the Line, Mistress, I swear it!”
“He did!” Jax cried. “Please, he’s done nothing wrong!” She looked over at Ronas, desperation on her face. “Ronas, I am so sorry.”
The First sighed. “I would like to believe that,” she said. “I truly would.” She shook her head, gesturing for the guard to approach again. The guard stood behind Ronas, putting her pistol against the back of the older man’s head. The First shrugged at Jax. “I’m afraid I just can’t.”
“NO!” Jax cried. “Ronas, I’m sorry! I’m so so sorry!”
“Damn you to the deepest hell, Jax Edison!” Ronas screamed. “And damn me for helping you!”
A sharp crack was followed by a spray of hot blood across Jax’s face as Ronas’ head blew open. His body was dragged away by the guard that shot him, leaving a trail of blood and brains that Jax could not stop looking at.
“Such a shame,” the First said with mock-sadness. “And his last words were to damn himself, just for helping you.” She shook her head when Jax finally looked up at her. “Such a shame,” she repeated.
“You didn’t need to do that,” Jax said, fighting tears.
“No, I didn’t,” the First agreed, “but I wanted to. Do you understand, now, Edison?!” she stood over the bound and seated Jax, who glared up at her. “People like me do what we want,” she said, her voice rising, “and people like you,” her voice became a shriek, “DO AS YOU’RE TOLD!!”
Jax stared hard at the First, finally growling, “You’re going to regret this.”
The First laughed. “Am I? And who’s going to make me regret it? You?” She made a dismissive noise. “You’d fall right out of that chair if you weren’t chained to it,” she said. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you trying to use magic to stop poor, unlamented what’s-his-name from dying. You can’t, though, can you?” She laughed again. “That fight with the golem really tapped you out, and you’re finding it very hard to push through the interference caused by the crystals.”
“I am,” Jax said, her voice even. “But I’ve learned a few things about magic over the past year.” She smiled. “I’ve been teaching a lot about magic as well, but you know what they say: the best way to really learn something is to try teaching it to someone else.”
“Fascinating,” the First said, stifling a yawn, “but I have better things to do than sit here and listen to you, so I think we’ll just go ahead and shoot you now.”
“Of course,” Jax said, smiling. “I’d hate to hold you up. Please,” she sat back in her chair, relaxing as much as she was able.
“Right,” the First stepped back, slightly shaken by Jax’s demeanor. She gestured brusquely for the guard to step forward.
As the young woman raised her gun, Jax looked at her and smiled. “I don’t blame you, by the way,” she said. “For Ronas, or for what you’re doing now. I’m sure refusing to shoot either of us would have gotten the same or worse for you.”
“Umm,” the guard’s hand shook slightly, and she had to steady the gun with her other hand.
“Don’t listen to her,” the First ordered. “Just shoot!”
The guard pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.
Jax grinned. “Want to try that again?”
The guard tried again, but still nothing happened.
Snarling, the First grabbed the gun and attempted to unload it in Jax’s face. She was rewarded with a series of clicks. She roared at Jax. “What did you do?!”
Jax smiled. “It’s like I was saying earlier,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about magic. Funny thing, though,” she went on, “is how when you learn about one thing, you also end up learning about a whole mess of other things you’d never think were connected. Hang on a second,” she said, then turned to the shaken guard. “You’re going to want to run away now, honey,” she told her.
The guard stood a moment, looked from the First to Jax and back, then ran from the room.
Once she heard the door open and close -a few times, as other guards also took this opportunity to run- Jax smiled up at the First. “Where was I?” she asked. “Oh, right.” Her shackles fell to the floor with a clank and she stood, absently rubbing her wrists. “Magic,” she said, “and what I’ve learned about it.”
“How...” the First backed away quickly.
“I’m getting to that,” Jax said. “Have a seat.”
The First found herself thrown into the chair, and the shackles fastened themselves to her arms and legs. The others ran for the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Sorry,” Jax called out to them, “but anyone who was going to leave has left. You’re all trapped here, so come on back.” When the rest of the Top Ten were seated on the floor in front of Jax, she grinned down at them. “Well, I wasn’t being entirely truthful just then. While you are all trapped in here with me, I’m not actually sorry. Anyway,” she said, “I’ll get to the point. I know how busy you all are.” She smiled, and one of the finely-dressed people seated on the floor threw up. Two others fainted. “So,” Jax said, “the point is: all magic is energy, and all energy can become magic.”
“What?” the First blinked up at her.
“I know,” Jax said. “It surprised me too, when I finally figured it out, but it’s true. A master magician -and, I don’t want to brag,” Jax grinned, “but I am pretty masterful- can convert other sources of energy into magical energy.” She glanced down at the First. “Do you know how guns work?”
The First shook her head.
“No, of course you don’t. Why should you? Just point, pull the trigger, and someone dies. Well,” she said, “the thing about firing a gun is, there’s a lot of energy involved.”
“So, wait,” one of the others said. “Are you honestly saying...”
“That I took the kinetic energy of the bullets and converted it to magic?” Jax finished for him. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Then why didn’t you save that pathetic old man?” the First spat.
“Oh, I tried to save Ronas,” Jax said, resting one foot on the chair. “The problem is, I couldn’t take enough energy from that shot to stop the bullet. I slowed it down a bit, but couldn’t stop it completely. However, the energy I was able to steal from that shot made it easier to steal energy from the others. The second shot your guard tried to fire into my face gave me enough energy to punch through the crystals’ interference, and now...” she kicked over the chair.
The First cried out when her arms were pinned against the floor.
Jax looked down at the Top Ten, her eyes glowing, and spoke with a deep echoing voice. “Now I’m going to destroy all of you.”
Moments later, Jax walked out of the room and into a large kitchen. She assumed she was in a restaurant. The kitchen was empty, as was the dining room. She saw no one when she stepped out into the street. It looked much like the Commons, and the other sections she’d passed through, save that the street was paved with cobblestones, and the buildings were of greater size and elegance. She looked to her right, and saw that the buildings, and the street, ended at two massive iron doors built into the side of a butte. It was short, but very wide. Jax could have climbed to the top in a few hours, but it would take a few days to walk all the way around it. Two guards approached cautiously.
“Are they..?” the young woman who’d shot Ronas asked hesitantly.
“Dead?” Jax shook her head. “No, but they’re going to wish they were when I’m done.”
“What do you mean?”
Jax gestured toward the doors. “I’m going to open those, and then I’m going to open all the gates, and let everyone inside. Once that happens, no more Line. No more Line, no more Top Ten.” She raised an eyebrow. “Unless you want to stop me?”
The young woman shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She turned to her companion. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go open the gates.”
The other guard laughed. “Oh, this is going to be good,” he said. Once he’d run off, the young woman turned back to Jax.
“About what happened in there,” she said, “I’m...”
Jax shook her head. “I meant what I said. I don’t blame you. Go,” she told her. “Lead your people off the Line.” She smiled as the girl ran after the other guard.
Jax approached the doors, reaching deep into the world’s magic, draining the crystals of all their stolen energies. It was going to take a lot to open these doors.
“Stop!” a voice commanded her.
She turned and saw a trio of Monitors approaching.
“What do you want?” she asked. “I’ve got your bosses locked up back there,” she jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Why don’t you go and...”
The Monitors laughed in unison, which was more than a little off-putting, and stood between Jax and the doors.
“Those fools do not command us,” they said. “The first ten people in Line are no more important to us than the last. We monitor the Line, and all those who stand in it.”
“On who’s authority?”
“You’ll never find out,” one said, raising a gun of a design Jax had never seen before. It began to whine, a bright glow emanating from its barrel. The others raised similar weapons, with similar results.
“You are a disruptive influence,” they said, “and must be removed from the...” They touched the sides of their heads suddenly, lowering their weapons, which began to power down.
“A change in directive,” one said. The Monitors stood aside as the doors opened slowly, ancient hinges creaking and groaning with a loud echoing shriek. Jax looked inside and saw only deep impenetrable darkness.
“Enter,” the Monitors said. “She awaits.”
Jax took a step toward the open doors. Cold air wafted out, carrying a musty smell. She turned toward a Monitor. “Who awaits?”
Swallowing hard, Jax nodded and walked through the open doors. They shut behind her with a loud clang, leaving her in total darkness. She was about to create a luminous globe when a dim blue light shone in the distance.
“Don’t bother,” a woman’s voice echoed through what Jax could now see was a vast hall. The light illuminated a path through towering stone columns. “Just follow the light, and you will be with me soon.”
“And who might you be?” Jax asked, not moving.
The voice was silent a moment, then, “Why did you not kill them?”
“What?” Jax wasn’t expecting that. Almost despite herself, she began walking toward the light.
“The people from the Line,” the voice said. “The ‘Top Ten’, as they called themselves. Why did you not kill them?”
“You saw that?” Jax reached the end of the passage, and a doorway to another chamber.
“I see everything,” the voice said. “Answer my question.”
Jax thought a while, then said, “I wanted to. They killed someone who was kind to me, simply because he was kind to me.” She grit her teeth, swallowing a lump in her throat. “That sort of thing doesn’t sit well with me. So, I very much wanted to kill them.”
Jax stared at the doorway, and the blue light streaming through it. She wasn’t quite ready to walk through it. “And yet,” she sighed, “I made a promise, years ago, to people I loved very much, and another, recently, to one I love more than anything else in the world. No revenge.”
“But you said you would destroy them.”
Jax shrugged. “They are the latest generation of people who hold power and wealth due to their status within the Line. I figured opening those doors and letting everyone in would put an end to the Line, which puts an end to that wealth and power forever. They won’t die, but I don’t imagine life will be very pleasant for them.”
“And is that not vengeance?” the voice asked. “What of your promise?”
Jax smiled. “I let them live,” she said. “I say that keeps the spirit of my promise, if not the letter.”
The voice laughed. It was a sound like few others Jax had heard. “Well said, Jax Edison.”
“You know my name.”
“As I said, I see everything.”
“And now we come back around to my original question,” Jax said. “You know my name, so why don’t you tell me yours?”
“Step inside, Jax,” the voice said, “and we will meet one another properly.”
Jax stepped through the doorway, and was momentarily blinded by the blue light. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the light was cast by a globe floating between the hands of a giant winged woman. She was seated on a massive ornate throne, and towered over Jax. She looked down at her visitor.
“Welcome, Jax Edison,” she said. “I have had many names through the myriad Ages of this world, most of which would be unknown to you. You may call me Aael.” She smiled. “I have waited so long for someone like you to arrive. Come closer,” she said. “I have a great deal to show you.”
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
The steam carriage rolled along the country lane, sunlight glinting off the imperial seal on the door. Inside, Commander Huxley sat and watched the scenery go by. In the seat across from her, Julian Katzakos read through a series of reports.
“I’m impressed you’re able to do that,” Commander Huxley said.
“Do what?” he asked, not looking up.
“Read and write in a moving carriage,” she answered. “If I look too long at a map, I get queasy.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.”
She nodded, turning to look back out the window.
After a few moments, he said, “There is something that does bother me.”
She looked over and met his eyes, which were no longer on his reports. “What’s that?” she asked.
“The voice,” he said, “in the back of my head.” He nodded at the involuntary clench of her jaw. “You hear it too,” he said.
She turned away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do.”
She looked back at him. “Fine,” she said. “So what if I do? It’s just a nagging little voice. I can ignore it.”
We have a special understanding, you and I... don’t we?
“Shut up,” Commander Huxley muttered.
“I said shut up!” she spat.
He smiled. It was a smile she wanted to punch. “Were you talking to me?”
He shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Don’t you have work?” She gestured to the pile of reports.
“Right.” He returned his attention to them.
She looked out the window again.
“What?” she looked back at him.
“Well,” he said haltingly. “It’s... it’s just... I wish...” He shook his head. “Nothing,” he muttered. “Forget it.”
Sighing, she reached out and covered his hand with her own. When he looked up at her, she smiled at him. “You can ignore it, too.”
He shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “She’s in too deep. She...” He shook his head. “Do you know, it hurts me to be this far away from her?”
Commander Huxley sat back, arching an eyebrow. She was actually finding it easier to ignore the Archbishop’s voice in her head the further away she traveled.
He laughed. “Oh, yes,” he said. “It hurts because... because...” his laughter developed a hysterical note. “I’m in love with her.”
“Deeply and completely,” he said. He laughed again. “And madly, of course.”
She shook her head. “I don’t...”
His voice dropped to a near whisper. “She’s done... things... to me.”
“No no,” he said, holding up a hand. “No, it’s okay. I just wanted you to know how I feel, so that... so... that...” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Ohhhh... no no no no no!” He looked at her, pleading, with tears in his eyes. “Help me,” he whispered. “Please help me.” His body convulsed once, then he smiled at her. “Sorry,” he said. “Forget that little outburst. Now, where was I? Ah.” He fixed her with a stern gaze. “I want you to know that I know your mission. If you fail to carry it out, if you betray the Archbishop in any way, she will know. I’ll see to that.” He smiled again. “But enough of that,” he said amicably. “There’s no need for stern warnings, is there? No,” he shook his head. “We’re all friends, right?”
We have a special understanding, you and I... don’t we?
Commander Huxley nodded. “Yes,” she whispered. “Of course.”
“Good.” He smiled again. “Now, please excuse me, I must get back to...” he gestured at his reports.
“Certainly,” she said, nodding again. “Please, don’t let me keep you.”
Whistling a cheerful tune, Julian Katzakos returned to his work. Commander Huxley looked out the window.
It was another hour before they arrived at the Ravensdown Estate. Lady Ravensdown herself greeted them at the door.
“Commander,” she said, with a smile that stopped just short of her eyes, “and the Prime Speaker himself. This is an honor indeed.”
“No longer the Prime Speaker, your Ladyship,” Julian said with a similar smile. “I’m simply an adjunct to Her Holiness the Archbishop.”
“Yes, of course,” Lady Ravensdown said, her smile hardening. “Her Holiness dissolved the Council, didn’t she?”
“I’m sure you’re well aware of the current political climate, Lady Ravensdown,” Commander Huxley said. “Now, we can continue to exchange pleasantries on your doorstep, or...”
“Oh, where are my manners?” Lady Ravensdown stepped back into the house. “Please, do come in.”
Commander Huxley and the former Prime Speaker stepped into a lavish foyer. Broad hallways led off in two directions, and a staircase wound its way up to a second floor in front of them.
“You will have to forgive me,” Lady Ravensdown said, leading them into a well-appointed sitting room, “but I’m afraid my staff are otherwise occupied. You’ve no idea what I’ve had to do for myself lately.” She gestured toward a comfortable couch, indicating her visitors should sit.
“Yes,” Commander Huxley said. “I’m sure it’s been quite a hardship. Lady Ravensdown,” she stood abruptly, “this isn’t a social call. I have been sent under orders from Her Holiness to investigate whether or not you and the other nobles are raising an army against the Archbishop.”
“Have you?” Lady Ravensdown smiled. “I don’t imagine you relish that particular task.”
Commander Huxley looked down at Julian, who smiled up at her.
“I serve the Imperium, Lady,” she said.
“I know,” Lady Ravensdown replied, still smiling. “But, the Imperium isn’t what it was, now is it?”
“That’s not for me to say.”
“No,” Julian Katzakos said, “it is not. Now,” he began flipping through a small notebook, “I have testimony from several reliable eyewitnesses that you are plotting treason against your government. The Commander and I are here to corroborate that testimony. If you cooperate with us, I assure you...”
“Save your assurances, you officious little toad,” Lady Ravensdown spat. “I’m speaking to the Commander, not the Archbishop’s monkey.” She stood and approached Commander Huxley. “Commander,” she said, “I’ve followed your career. You’ve served valiantly in the legions for years. You are a woman of unimpeachable honor and unswerving loyalty.” The smile she offered the legionary officer was warm and genuine. “I find it very hard to believe that the woman who held the Oberon Pass with barely a cohort against a full legion for twelve days would willingly serve this... usurper who sits on the throne.”
“Well,” Julian Katzakos stood, “I have heard enough. Regardless of what we do or do not find when we search these grounds, attempting to lead an officer of the legions into treason is sufficient to...” his voice trailed off as he looked down the barrel of Commander Huxley’s pistol.
Ignoring him for the moment, Commander Huxley smiled at Lady Ravensdown. “More and more Legions desert every day,” she said. “I am in secret communication with members of the Twelfth, and they tell me that Her August Majesty has escaped imprisonment.”
“You lie!” Julian screamed. “You lie! If you knew that, Her Holiness would know that! You hear her in your mind, just like me! You cannot resist her! No one can resist her! Anything you knew, you would have told...”
“I am Carola Huxley, Commander of the Twelfth Legion!” she screamed at him. “I am no plaything for some outlander zealot, do you understand?! My mind is my own, my will is my own, and no one will ever change that!”
“But, the voice,” he whimpered. “Her voice, in your mind...”
“Oh, make no mistake, Julian, it’s there,” she said. “Deep in my head, scratching at my mind like a rat in an attic. And she will pay for that, I assure you.” She glared at him. “But she has not, nor will she ever, have control of me.” She pulled the hammer back on her pistol.
He nodded, tears in his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered. “Oh, please.”
Commander Huxley pulled the trigger, and a bullet finally silenced the voice in Julian Katzakos’ brain. She turned to the stunned noblewoman and holstered her weapon. “Now, your Ladyship,” she said, “I understand you’ve raised something of an army.” She bowed low. “Allow me the honor of training them for you.”
Lady Ravensdown returned the bow. “My dear Commander Huxley,” she said softly, “I was hoping you would ask.”