"Clouds of Tyranny"

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The Call of Velxeer

Alex and the two Returners were the first to return home that evening, the orange setting sun was dipping behind the hills to the west. Pearl led Alex and Ray into the entrance seeing as how she was the one in charge for the mission having the most seniority.

When they walked through the entrance corridor and into the dining area they saw the young women setting the tables for dinner and the young men cleaning the floors and wiping the tables. The only person in the room that was not involved in some type of chore was Lars who was pacing around the room; hands behind his back looking at the floor until he heard the three of them enter. Lars’ head popped up in expectation with a smile, but quickly slumped his head and frowned when he saw who had arrived. Ray saw this and was confused as usual.

“Ray, go see the Doc,” ordered Pearl.

“Why?” “Cuz I said! How’s that for a reason? And, they could have gotten bacteria on you.

“Fine,” sulked Ray, “See ya later Alex.”

“Bye,” smiled Alex.

“I’m gonna go rest,” said Pearl, “Meet me in the meeting room in one hour.”

“Alright,” nodded Alex as she turned and walked back to the dorm.

Pearl went over to Lars who looked like a nervous wreck.

“Hello young man,” smiled Pearl.

“Hey, glad you made it back safe,” he said looking at the rear door hoping for someone to emerge.

“Yeah, it was successful. I think you’re good for her,” she said smiling at him.

“What?” asked Lars turning his head to look at her.

“Lars. Honey, it’s very obvious.”

“It is?”

“Yes, and it’s incredibly sweet that your worried about her. That means you actually care for her safety.”

“I do, I can’t explain it but there’s something about her that makes me nervous whenever she’s near me. I felt it the day I met her and when I was away she was all I thought about. How she was adjusting, that she was sleeping okay, and that no one gave her any trouble.”

Pearl saw the love in his eyes when he talked about her.

“Trust me, she can handle herself.”

“Yeah,” chuckled Lars, “I heard about what happened in the training room. I hope I never make her angry.”

“I don’t think you’re capable.”

“You think she’s okay?” Pearl’s eyes strayed over Lars’ shoulders, “Ask her yourself.”

Lars swung around to see Lock walk in with Tara and Ruthie on his coat tails. Tara looked around and saw Lars standing in the center of the room as she walked over to greet him.

“Lars, were you waiting for me?”

“Yes.”

Tara smiled wide and wrapped her arms around him for a big hug.

“How are you?” asked Lars.

“Pretty good.”

“Not a scratch on her,” said Lock as he approached, “We are even.”

Lock winked at Lars and started walking to his room.

“Huh?” questioned Tara at Lars.

“Don’t be mad, but I asked Lock to stay close to you and protect you from danger. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad. That was very nice of you. Maybe next time YOU can protect me.”

“I’d like that,” smiled Lars.

They shared a long stare into each other’s eyes.

“Hello!” yelled Ruthie.

The two of them looked over at Ruthie realizing they were being watched.

“Welcome back Ruthie,” said Ruthie sarcastically.

“Sorry, just…” began Lars.

“Blinded by loooove?” teased Ruthie.

“No!” choked Tara and Lars simultaneously.

Ruthie rolled her eyes at their synch.

“Great, two shy people. At this rate you’ll be dating by your golden years. I’m going’ for a nap.”

Ruthie walked away and Tara and Lars were blushing while they looked at each other.

Almost an hour later, the necessary people met in the conference room; Alex, Lock, Pearl, Lars, Smith, and Chuck.

“Okay first thing’s first, the Retriever?” asked Smith to Lock.

“It’s a go. He’ll meet us in Harmon before dawn on the day of,” answered Lock.

“Good. Pearl! Do you have information on Harmon?”

“Yes sir!” answered Pearl, “We have to evacuate close to thirty civilians, a dozen children; none with special needs. Also, I have blue prints here.”

Pearl removed several folded papers from her pocket and slid them over to Smith. Smith picked them up and began scanning through them.

“Alex suggested that if we were somehow unable to extract the town’s people than we could place them in the attics or basements, which I have blueprints for,” exclaimed Pearl patting her new friend on the back.

“Yes, I can see that,” groaned Smith, “How’d the set-up look?”

“Not bad,” started Alex, “I’ve been there before, so I knew what to look for. You can position a surprise attack on the rooftops; they have a sharp arch so they’d be unseen. There are three entrances: Front, west side, and a small rear entrance. The front would be perfect for a surprise due to its low visibility from outside the town, basically hide behind the wall bordering the entrance and no one could get through. The side door could be barred, that’s simple. And the rear looked a perfect place to set a trap; pendulums, explosives, pits, what have you.”

“Yes,” agreed Pearl, “Not to mention in the center of town is a large courtyard with zero obstacles for a full scale fight if need be.”

“Good to have a backup,” nodded Smith, “Charles? What do you suggest for traps?”

“Well,” pondered Chuck, “I’ve got a new one I just created, but it’s difficult to acquire the ingredients, so after I use these five we are out. But, the bright side is that it explodes on contact without being set by fire or lever. And I could rig a few pipe grenades to the side door so when they finally do break through that barred door they get a rude awakening. Granted I’ll need to see the town for myself, but it sounds good so far.”

“Agreed, Lars and you can go for your own reconnaissance two days prior to set up traps and begin the extraction, then the rest of us arrive the night before the empire’s attack.”

“Yeah,” began Lars, “But I will do a few late nights in the meantime. Just to look around, I won’t be seen.”

“You never are,” smiled Smith’s wrinkly face, “So, we should be able to succeed.”

“We?” smirked Lock from across the table opposite of Smith, “So, you’re coming?”

“Sorry, can’t make it. Too busy protecting our home.”

Lock scoffed and crossed his arms waiting for the meeting to end.

“Alright, I think that’s it. Lars and I will work on these blueprints and we’ll all talk again tomorrow.”

When Lock eventually made his way into the dining area he saw that everyone else had already settled in their seat and Smith was standing in the center of all the table probably preparing to make a speech. Tara was laughing as Lars told amusing anecdotes, Ruthie was sitting with Clyde who had been allowed to leave the infirmary, Pearl was rolling her eyes as Ray told Alex an incredible boring story at which she pretended to be interested, Chuck was holding his stomach melodramatically as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, More like hours, thought Lock laughing to himself.

He went over to the spare seat that Alex had saved for him and sat down as the waitresses began serving plates of a steaming meat product and green beans. Before the plate touched the top of table Chuck had fork in hand.

“Attention everyone!” yelled Smith deeply in order to get the attention of the whole room.

Chuck put down his fork, which already had food stuck to it, and began to pout as he crossed his arms.

“As most of know, or have heard, a violent time is about to enter our lives. I wanted to take this time to assure you that we will prevail and we will not falter. I will need everyone that can hold a blade or a gun to volunteer; the more people the better. Please, come to me in private and I will let you know how you can help. We leave in eight days in order to reach Harmon under concealment the night before the attack. With that being said, I am allowing everyone, that wishes it that is, to leave for six days to clear your mind and see your friends and family. The tunnels will be at your disposal. Those of you with obligations here: do not fret. If I must I will cook the meals and clean this entire place myself. Now, please enjoy your meal and I will see you all in six days, thank you.”

Smith sat down as he heard random claps from every direction. Smith turned to face the Returners.

“I’m sorry, but I need some of you here,” he said looking at the soldiers who worked the hardest.

Pearl’s eyes began to fill with tears.

“Except you Pearl. I know you’ve been planning a trip for a while now…and take Tara. Tell Elizabeth I said ‘Hello’.”

“Yes sir!” smiled Pearl.

“Alex, you may leave as well, but be back in four days.”

“Right,” saluted Alex.

He turned back around to begin his meal. Lock sneered at Smith’s back knowing that he’d never get a vacation; even though he wouldn’t know what to do if he got one.

“Well Tara?” asked Pearl, “You want to go on a trip? It’s on the coast, beautiful beaches, beautiful people, and beautiful meals.”

“Love to, thanks Pearl,” thanked Tara.

Pearl looked over at Ruthie who was staring at her.

“And of course your invited as well, just us three girls.”

Ruthie was honored by the invite but was unsure in her mind if it would be responsible to leave.

“I don’t know. I can’t leave-“

“Don’t even say it, you’re going little girl,” ordered Clyde.

Ruthie hugged her big protector.

“You sure?”

“Won’t hear another word about it.”

“This’ll be fun,” cheered Ruthie throwing a fist in the air, “Ooh ooh! This the time of year when the Leviathan appears isn’t it?”

“That’s right Ruthie,” grinned Pearl.

After dinner everyone retired to their respectable rooms with the exception of Tara and Lars. When Alex retired to the dorm she saw that just about every single girl was packing a bag except the few with no families. She walked over to her bed and jumped onto her top bunk and unsheathed her sword. She looked down at Ruthie packing as she sharpened her dragon blade.

“I hope that didn’t hurt your feelings,” frowned Ruthie, “But Pearl doesn’t quite know you yet. Granted she doesn’t know Tara that well either but they just hit it off from the start.”

Alex carefully sharpened her sword masterfully.

“Forget it. I’ve only got four days anyway and I’d hate to travel back alone,” said Alex smiling in forgiveness.

“Where you gonna go?” inquired Ruthie.

“Hmm, don’t know. Maybe I’ll challenge myself somewhere.”

“Not a Tagmyte?” gasped Ruthie.

“No,” chuckled Alex at the very idea, “I learned my lesson. To the north is Sangrohl, the mining town?”

“Yeah, I know of it.”

“Well, up there is a large population of Grohlrats and more importantly a beast that guards the biggest diamonds you’ve ever seen.”

“Alex, I hadn’t really pegged you as a diamond girl.”

Alex laughed hysterically.

“No, not cuz they’re pretty and shiny. I’ve always wanted to make a diamond-bladed sword but never found a piece big enough.”

“Oh…now THAT sounds more like you.”

“Yeah, but I have no clue what lives in those caverns. Hope it’s not a bread of worm, I hate those things,” shuddered Alex.

“Wormaphobic eh?”

“Yup, that’s me, Ruthie.”

They smiled at each other.

“I like you Ruthie, too bad me and Tara don’t see eye-to-eye. The three of us would make a killer team.”

“Maybe you just need to get to know her,” commented Ruthie.

“Heh, I bet you say that to everyone about everyone, don’t you?”

Ruthie thought to herself for a moment.

“Maybe I should stop that.”

“No, that’s who you are.”

The dining room was dark except for the little flickers of the candle that sat on the table in front of Tara and Lars as they sat on the same side of the table facing each other. All the cleaners and cooks had hurried to clean the tables and dishes so they could pack and get ready to leave, in fact some had already made their way out through the tunnels and front entrance.

“You should have seen it, I was awesome,” gloated Tara as she told the story of her mission earlier that day.

“I bet you were,” smiled Lars as he had his hand atop hers on the table.

“What did you do while I was gone?”

“You mean besides worry about you?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Studied some blueprints and planned out a time frame for extracting the people of Harmon.”

“Fun.”

“Yeah, I was giddy with excitement.”

Tara giggled while she blushed then got serious.

“What did Lock mean when he said you were even? What did you do for him?”

“I saved his life. About a year ago we were on a mission together with Pearl and Ray when we were ambushed by a dozen imperials. We managed to slay them all, but not before one them got Lock from behind and asphyxiated him with a piece of piano wire. I performed a mouth to mouth breathing technique on him and he woke up after being dead for almost four minutes.”

“Oh my,” gasped Tara holding her heart; not for Lock’s near death experience but for Lars’ lifesaving skills.

“You’re a hero, Lars.”

“Just helping my fellow man. I’d do the same for you.”

“I know you would.”

They just sat there in silence for several minutes enjoying each other’s company.

“Come on,” said Lars as he stood up. Tara stood up with him slowly,

“Where?”

They went into the Hall leading to the private rooms and entered Lars’ room, which he shared with Chuck. They closed the door behind them and she looked around, aside from a snoring Chuck, there were paintings spread around the room, clay sculptures of beasts, a dimmed lantern, and a large tapestry on the wall. What am I doing? thought Tara, With Chuck here? My first time making love and there is a man sleeping a few feet away. Tara was in a daze.

“Over here,” whispered Lars pulling up the tapestry revealing a hole in the wall.

Tara cautiously walked over to the hole and walked through it. Once inside the hole she saw a beam of blue light coming down from above. Tara looked up to see the moonlight seeping in through a hole in the ceiling and a ladder going up the wall to the light’s source. Lars followed her in and began climbing the ascending ladder.

“Follow me.”

When he reached the final rungs he unlocked the caged hatch and pushed it open. When Tara made it through the hole Lars was standing above her offering a hand to help her up with. He closed the hatch after her feet were clear of the hole.

“See?” he said looking at the stars and the moon above them.

Tara looked around, she realized she was on top of the wayfarer’s wall. The beauty above her was mesmerizing, while Lars was mesmerized by her. Lars couldn’t look at anything but Tara; to him she was the most beautiful thing in this world.

“It’s so beautiful Lars. Thank you for this,” thanked Tara smiling at this man hating herself for what she thought his intentions were mere minutes ago.

Tara was nervous on the inside but her skin was surprisingly still, being with him felt right and natural. Lars brought his face close to hers as their noses rubbed against each other; they didn’t have to kiss, this was magical all by itself. Tara breathed against his lips and took in a whiff of his scent then put her hands around his strong back, closed her eyes and dove in. The kiss was soft and romantic as they held each other in the breezy night air. Their lips quivered against each other as they opened and closed for deeper kisses; more sensual than sexual. They took a break from kissing so they could see each other’s face.

“Tara, I like you a lot,” he said abruptly discharging his feelings.

She rested her head on his chest and interlocked her fingers with his.

“I have never felt this way before,” sighed Tara.

“Neither have I. My heart beats faster when you’re around and my skin tingles. That kiss was the greatest thing I have ever felt in my entire life.”

Tara smiled as she closed her eyes just enjoying being in his arms; she didn’t want this to end.

The next morning, Tara awoke with a spring in her step, though nothing sexual happened, she hadn’t been this happy since before her mom passed away. She skipped to the dining room with her duffel bag for the trip thinking, Lock who?

When she got to the dining area she saw that there were bowls of fruit on each table, warm bread, and only half as many people as there usually was. People were by both at the front entrance and the rear door leading to the tunnels. People were preparing to leave and others were saying goodbye to those who were staying behind; that made her remember that she would have to say goodbye to Lars. Tara began to feel depressed.

“Ter,” yelled Ruthie from across the room, “Over here!”

Tara jogged over to the table that Ruthie and Pearl were at.

“Alright, let’s get the hell out of here,” said Pearl getting up from her seat as she picked up her bag.

“Got your bikini?” asked Ruthie.

“Uh, well,” hesitated Tara.

“Oh! Shy, I forgot.”

“Don’t want to sound like I’m still working, but,” said Pearl, “Let’s get moving, on the double.”

“Wait,” begged Tara looking around until she saw Lars hanging out in the kitchen peeling an orange.

She dropped her bag next to Ruthie and ran to Lars with open arms. She jumped him and he caught her as she wrapped her legs around him as they kissed,

“I’ll miss you,” she whispered.

“Me to Tara, but try to have fun.”

She nodded as she looked into his eyes, and then gave him a last kiss. She jogged back over to Ruthie and Pearl.

“Now we can go,” she said with a big smile.

“You little slut,” joked Ruthie.

“Stop, it’s not like that,” argued Tara.

“Huh?”

“I know what she means,” said Pearl.

They left through the rear door into the tunnels as Lars watched her leave. One-by-one the inhabitants of Returner’s HQ left their home and after late morning the lair felt empty.

Eventually, Smith came into the dining room to explain why he had asked people to stay behind.

“Well,” asked Lock, “Why can’t I go away for a week?”

“Quiet, it’s not like I want you to mop the floor, Lock,” said Smith in desperation, “Velxeer has called for our help. It’s a chance for us to not only get much needed supplies but to also find out what there up to. I don’t know about you all, but I’d like to know if there’s a chance of them herding with the empire. That would be bad.”

“To put it lightly,” scoffed Ray.

“What’s the job?” asked Lars.

“All they said is that they wanted my top MEN, they were specific about you being male.”

“What if it’s a trap? Maybe they are under imperial rule and this is their chance to cut down our numbers,” question Chuck eating half a cantaloupe.

“Because,” sighed Smith, “It came from the king himself.”

All got quiet. Smith cleared his throat before continuing.

“The king’s right hand will be here within the hour to discuss the details and provide transportation. Suit up men!”

After finishing their so-called breakfast they all went to get ready for travel; weapons, clothing, and spare medicines. Lock, Smith, Ray, Chuck, Clyde, and Lars waited impatiently in the dining area. Lock sat there sighing in and out while he picked his fingernails with a throwing dagger. Lock kept thinking, Who is going on this mission with me? he thought.

Lock prayed that Smith wasn’t going; he did need to watch HQ after all. All was quiet until Smith stood up and everyone’s eyes pointed to the entrance. In walked a man around the age of twenty-four wearing black pants with a red pin stripes going down the side of each leg, a black dress shirt with red buttons and red sleeves, and a regency styled rapier hanging from his left hip. The man’s face was like his garb; sparkling clean and neat, framed by his long silver hair.

“Mr. Smith?” asked the boy.

“That would be me,” answered Smith holding up his palm in the air.

“Sir, this is for you,” said the Velxeer guard handing a rolled up document to Smith. Smith unrolled it slowly and began reading as the boy waited patiently with back straight and eyes forward.

“Hmm,” hummed Smith as he read to himself. Smith rolled the document tightly and slipped it into his pocket.

“Who will be joining me back sir?” asked the boy looking around at Smith’s team.

Smith looked at his standing men, except for Lock who hadn’t budged from his seat. Clyde had a huge grin on his face, Chuck was eating as he stood, Ray didn’t seem to care one way or another as he looked at his arrows that lined the inside of his jacket, and Lars wasn’t even paying attention to the room; his mind was elsewhere.

“Well, there’s Lock, my best. He’ll be a lot of help. Ray over there in the long jacket, and Chuck,” said Smith, as the boy looked at Lock, whom he knew, Ray after the description was given.

The boy looked to the rest of the mean trying to decipher who chuck was.

“The one with no neck,” chuckled Ray.

“Muff moo, moo puth,” mumbled Chuck with a mouth full of food.

The boy was very professional, not as much as a cracking a smile before turning back to Smith.

“Anyway, if your men are ready we should go immediately.”

“Of course, they are ready as am I,” said Smith as Lock’s spirit dropped to the floor.

“Alright, Lars you know what I want you to do,” ordered Smith.

“Yes, I’ll take care of Harmon,” nodded Lars.

“Uh, Smith?” questioned Clyde as he raised his hand.

“I don’t think you’re ready for travel yet, my boy. But, I promise you that you will be a very large part of Harmon,” said Smith reassuring Clyde who was now sulking.

Smith walked over to Clyde and whispered something in his ear. After Smith went into his room to retrieve a weapon the five of them set off for northeast of the wayfarer’s wall where the Velxeer train was due to pick them up. The Velxeer railroad stopped only when appointed to pick up Velxeer citizens or military personnel.

It only took them a couple hours to reach the tracks. Within ten minutes of their arrival the train arrived, the train was eight passenger cars long colored the same as the Velxeer guard’s clothing and flag; crimson and black with gold wheels. The double doors in the center of the third car parted gaining the Returners entry to the train where two armed guards stood; two at each door no doubt. Inside the car was luxurious with bench booths surrounding tables; about eight sets in this car. The four of the Returners sat down as the guard that had led them to the train walked the opposite way after showing them to their table.

“I’ve never been there. How long will it take?” asked Chuck.

“This train can get us there in a matter of hours,” answered Lock.

“I’d like to know what this is about…or is it a secret?” asked Lock directing his question to Smith.

“It’s just a treaty signing as far as I can tell, but stay on your guard all the same,” said Smith clearing his throat as a Velxeerian waitress walked toward them holding a tray of cups.

“Fresh coffee gentlemen?” asked the young girl.

“For everyone, yes,” Said Smith answering for everyone.

Smith waited for the girl to leave before speaking further.

“Hold it!” ordered Smith pulling out an eyedropper filled with a white thick liquid.

“Let’s find out there real intentions,” said Smith squeezing a drop into each cup.

The coffee didn’t change.

“Okay, it’s safe. No green,” assured Smith.

“You aren’t very trusting, you know that?” said Ray smiling.

“Lock?” said Smith ignoring Ray’s comment.

“Yeah?” said Lock looking at Smith as he picked up his steaming cup of coffee.

“I need you to do me a favor.”

“A favor? I didn’t know we were that close.”

“I need you to be respectful of the king, which means bowing and being polite.”

“The king? He’s a kid, more like a prince.”

Smith glared at Lock.

“Damn,” moaned Lock, “Fine, I’ll do it. I’ll be respectful, but I refuse to be ‘nice’.”

“How much further?” inquired Tara as the three of them climbed over the small mountain trail leading to the coast.

“Just over that next hill,” bubbled Pearl who was giddy with excitement to see Elizabeth.

“You’re gonna love Sandria, Ter,” chirped Ruthie.

Tara wasn’t much of a climber but as making due. Tara looked up the top of the hill where Pearl was standing and Ruthie was extending her hand to help Tara up. When Tara was finally pulled up to the peak of the small hill she saw what Pearl was gazing at; the coastal town of Sandria.

It was truly beautiful with straw huts raised off the sand along the coast as close to the water as humanly possible, brick diners with colorful roofs and their names spelled in bamboo, and a large building made of logs with dozens of windows sat in the center of it all. Sandria was closer than Tara had first thought. Pearl began to run down the other side of the hill toward Sandria as Ruthie and Tara followed her lead.

After a brisk jog they arrived at the entrance to the large log building that served as a motel/hut rental. Pearl went up to the service desk followed by her two companions.

“Pearl! How have you been?” asked the desk attendant; a middle-aged woman with curling dark brown hair and full lips.

“Busy,” answered Pearl, “Any huts available or rooms?”

“We have all.”

“Great,” said Pearl turning to Tara and Ruthie, “What would you girls like?”

“We’ll share a hut. Right Ter?” giggled Ruthie at Tara.

“Sure,” nodded Tara.

The attendant handed a key to Ruthie as her eyes caught something behind them as she smiled at Pearl. Pearl turned around to see a woman in a silk wrap around her legs going down to her ankles and an orange bikini top, with blue eyes and golden blonde hair. Tara stared at the tall woman thinking that she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, Why can’t I look like that. Pearl walked up to the woman.

“Liz,” she said as the woman’s eyes shuddered.

They wrapped their arms around each other and shared a long sensual kiss complete with swirling tongues and heavy breathing. Tara’s jaw dropped. She leaned over to Ruthie’s ear.

“That explains a lot,” choked Tara in shock.

“Can’t believe it took you this long to figure it out,” retorted Ruthie.

“I need to get some practice,” whined Clyde at Lars.

“No, I’m in charge and I say you can’t leave HQ till the Doc says okay.”

“How am I gonna be loose and ready for the battle if I can’t even stretch my legs?”

“Fine, I’ll tell you what: tonight you can accompany me to Harmon. It will be late so the danger should be minimal.”

“Now you’re talking.”

“Can I go?” asked Alex walking into the dining area.

“I don’t see why not-“said Clyde before being cut off by Lars, “No! Official Returners business. Sorry.”

“Okay, I’ll just find something else to do in the meantime,” said Alex walking back to the women’s dorm.

Chuck stared out the window while Smith reread the document over and over again, Lock sat stoic in thought, and Ray was taking a snooze. After less than two hours of railroad travel Chuck saw Velxeer castle approach in the distance. The castle had a large door at the entrance with six guards standing in front as well as a balcony wrapping around the top of the castle with many more guards walking back and forth watching for threats to their kingdom.

The castle was not only a home for the king and his men but within the castle walls lay the town of Velxeer complete with inns, blacksmiths, doctors, a church, and numerous shops. Hanging around the castle is numerous flags with the insignia of Velxeer; a red flag with black stripes going down the edges with a bow and flaming arrow in the center pointing toward the sky. Lock, kicking him from under the table abruptly awakened Ray.

“Huh?” he said gurgling awake.

Lock pointed out the window toward the town they now approached closer and closer. The castle was a beautiful monument, ironically surrounded by a vast desert. The train let out a loud horn followed by a cast iron gate lifting from the west side of the outer castle wall. The train slowed as it came closer to the now agape entryway. The boy who delivered them to the train entered their car.

“Gentlemen; this way,” said the boy pointing them to the door they boarded the train at.

The four of them got up and Ray followed the guard along with Chuck and Lock until Smith stopped Lock by putting his arm across his chest.

“Remember what I said,” urged Smith to Lock.

“Yeah yeah.”

When they exited the train they saw the city of Velxeer; the courtyard was abundant in green grass, cheery faces, and a reflecting pool in the center with a statue of a burly man in full knight’s armor holding a broadsword up to the heavens while he stood over the body a large tusked beast. Lock tipped his head down in remembrance.

“Who’s that?” asked Chuck.

“King Stratus, the current ‘kings’ father,” answered Lock, “He was a good man.”

The first thing Smith and his men had to do was meet the current child-king and discuss whatever it was he needed from the Returners. After waiting an obscenely long time for their audience they finally were shown into the king’s chamber. The four of them walked up to the king, who was sitting patiently in his throne, and kneeled before him and bowed their heads; Lock hated this, he hated bowing to any man.

“Arise,” spoke the king and the four of them stood up to face him, “I am King Luther.”

He was a very young man, no more than eighteen, he was only a king due to his father’s death but was seasoned considering he had been acting as king since his father passed four years ago.

“I have asked you here for diplomatic purpose. The imperials are pressuring us to offer up our kingdom for their use; building camps, refuge in my castle, and supplies for their cause. When I say ‘pressuring’ I mean of course threatening us with invasion.”

Lock nodded, as he knew very well of how the empire worked.

“Give it to us or we’ll take it,” said Lock.

“Precisely. So, what I propose is that rather than sign a submission of land to the empire, we sign an agreement of treaty with the Returners that would say whenever you need Velxeer’s help, you have it. This agreement would be delivered to the empire and if they so much as stop in Velxeer to make a bowel movement they’d be declaring war not only with Velxeer but the Returners as well. Maybe that would make them think twice.”

“That sounds like a reasonable plan,” confirmed Smith.

“What do you get out of it other than words?” asked Lock.

“Well, when we call on you for assistance, you oblige us. That and everything you know about the empire I want to hear,” answered the king looking at Lock.

“Is that it? Or do you have a mission in mind?” inquired Ray.

“Yes, I do need something from you before you return home,” said the king standing up.

“Which is,” asked Lock.

“I need a few days of your time then I need one of you to stay for several more weeks,” requested the king.

“Impossible I’m afraid,” said Smith pivoting his head from side to side, “We have something planned in eight days that requires all my best men.”

“I will send a dozen men back with you in exchange. Will that help?” said the offering king.

Smith looked to his men as he thought of all the use twelve soldiers would be to him.

“Yes it will.”

“Who’s stayin’?” asked Ray.

It was early evening as Alex rod her S250 iron horse across the plains approaching Pan’dier. As she raced through the grassy horizon, she thought of what had transpired in Pan’dier a few days ago, when she had first met Lock. What would it be like when she got to Pan’dier? Would the Empire have evacuated since they had left or were there more of them now? She’d be back in the lion’s den in less than an hour, but luckily it’d be dark when she arrives.

The air was getting more chilling in Sandria as the night closely approached. Tara sat in the sand looking at the sun dip into the beautiful ocean with her arms resting on her knees in her newly purchase yellow sun dress.

“Mmmm. I like this,” she whispered to herself as she listened to the waves crash in and slowly recede.

Then, she heard the door to her and Ruthie’s hut open from several yards behind her. Tara turned to look and saw a young boy of about sixteen walks out the door and turn around to kiss Ruthie lightly on the lips. They smiled at each other as he walked away to go to the inn. Ruthie saw Tara and quickly skipped over to her and sat down.

“This is magical isn’t it?” asked Ruthie.

“I don’t know, I wasn’t watching or listening. That’s your business Ruthie,” joked Tara.

“No, silly. This place is magical. So beautiful. I wish the rest of the continent was beautiful like this and empire-free.”

“Who was he, I didn’t have time to ask before,” inquired Tara.

“An old friend I enjoy being with when I can. It’s getting cold, you should come inside.”

“Just a few more minutes.”

They sat together as they watched the orange sun cool itself into the ocean until finally putting itself out for the night. They walked back to their hut and slipped into their respectable beds. It was dark except for the tiny beam of moonlight that peeked in through the hole in the ceiling.

“Tara?”

“Yeah Ruthie?”

“Thank you for being my friend.”

“No, Thank you Ruthie.”

For the last mile leading up to Pan’dier, Alex thought it best to walk the vehicle to the town seeing as how it was a noisy machine and it would give away her presence. She parked her vehicle in the forest behind the town in the same bush it was housed a few days earlier. She slowly stalked around the town looking for threats; she dared not enter back through the underground corridor beneath the library seeing as how what happened last time she was there. She climbed over a tall wooden fence and found herself in the middle on someone’s backyards that had a bunch of junk; rusted sheet metal, dried weeds most likely being turned into mulch, and lots of dead grass.

Alex stealthily crept up to the backdoor and peeked through the small window to see the living room filled with sleeping imperials. Alex put her back to the outside wall and took a deep breath as she rubbed her amulet with her right hand, the gripped the brass door knob and began turning it clockwise very slowly. She walked through the door and closed the door leaving it gaped a crack as to not make any unnecessary noise to alarm the Empire’s military.

She tiptoed through the sleeping men struggling not to slaughter them all in their sleep. She eventually made her way to the front door and looked back at the sleeping men, then exited through the front door. She peeked her head out to see nobody patrolling the town; only guard dogs. She looked down to see a burly Doberman looking up at her and wagging his tail. Alex kneeled down and began patting him on the head.

“They didn’t tell of my defection, did they?”

Alex’s view of the dog became black and she felt a hard thump on the back of her head.

Alex awoke with a splitting headache and felt her hands numbed from the roped binds that tied her wrists together, behind her back as she sat in a chair with her ankles tied to the front legs of the cold chair. She slowly opened her eyes, which only increased the pain in her head, to see the dark room around her with two shadows across the room. Alex pulled her wrists and felt the tightness of the rope around them.

“Déjà vu,” sighed Alex.

“What’s your name, imperial?” said one of the figures moving slightly closer.

“I’m not an imperial, name’s Alex Gematria. I’m a Returner.”

“Returner? The dog embraced you as a friend,” said the other figure without moving.

Alex thought for a moment, If I tell them I’m an ex-imperial, they’ll probably kill me anyway.

“I have a gift for animals, they always like me. Is that a crime?”

The two men came into the beam of the moon to show their faces. The man on the left was an inch over six feet with a five o’clock shadow, dark eyes, and short brown hair.

“I am Tarance and this is Franklin,” said the tall man motioning towards his friend.

To Terry’s left was a shorter man with beady eyes, long sideburns almost to his chin, and long auburn hair down to his shoulders.

“What are you doing here?” asked Tarance.

“Scouting for more soldiers to assist us with a counter attack in Harmon,” responded Alex.

“What’s happening in Harmon?” inquired Franklin.

“Well, we have obtained an anonymous tip that the Empire will be attacking Harmon in about a week. Their goal is to make Harmon just like Pan’dier. So, you guys can let me go or you can come with me.”

Franklin’s eyes got wide as he heard Alex speak, giving her the assumption that he was game.

“We’ve got our own problems,” said Tarance sternly, “Untie her and send her on her way.”

Franklin removed a small cutting knife from behind his back and walked behind Alex in order to reach her wrist bindings.

“I wish you luck,” said Tarance turning around and headed for the door.

“Meet me in the forest in one hour,” whispered Franklin as he cut the ropes from around her wrists.

They were now free and she began rubbing her palms together in an attempt to try and get the blood flowing once more while Franklin cut off the ropes from her ankles. When he was finished he stood and looked at her as he handed her dragon blade back to her and held up his index finger. Alex gave an affirming nod to the fact that they’d be meeting in the forest in one hour; this seemed promising.

Alex sat on a log several feet from her hiding bush, smoking a cigarette and waiting for Franklin to show up. She needed a smoke after that little capture, at first awakening she had thought the Empire had once again captured her and this time there would be no escape. She sat there thinking about her fellow soldiers; Lock, Ray, Pearl, and the rest whom she hadn’t yet spent much time with. She hoped that Lock was okay without her and hoped that Tara would somehow get hurt on her little vacation.

“Where’s your blue?” asked Franklin approaching her from the trees.

“Left it at home, not a welcomed garment by the Empire, you know,” retorted Alex.

“Anyway, I can get you ten shooters and ten rifles to go with them to Harmon, just tell me when and where.”

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