"Clouds of Tyranny"

By J. R. Pond All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

The Welcome Home

Lock awoke the next morning with a grueling headache as he replayed the previous night’s events in his head over and over again. Alex was flirting with him less than two minutes after he threatened to kill her. Was it an act or is she just like him and believes that there is thick line of separation between business and emotion? Lock forced his body to get out of bed and get dressed. He went over to the sink and splashed some water on his face and gargled some antiseptic.

As Lock walked into the dining area he saw Ray standing next to the ‘Returners’ door staring toward the middle of the room holding a cast iron mug that shot out steam like a chimney.

“Coffees ready,” said Ray not looking to Lock as he spoke.

Lock stared at Ray who looked hypnotized. Lock turned his head in the direction that Ray’s eyes were fixed on and he too froze at the bizarre sight. The twelve archers from Velxeer we standing at attention should to shoulder in the center of the room staring dead ahead at nothing.

“What are they doing?” asked Ray out of the corner of his mouth.

“Like I would know?” scoffed Lock.

They shifted their gaze to their left where Reuben and Smith were emerging from the ‘Returners’ door.

“Hey Reub, something’s wrong with your men,” said Ray handing the mug to Lock.

Lock smiled to himself as he put his palm under the hot mug and quickly slipped his finger in the ring handle.

“Captain Antleon,” corrected Reuben.

“Yeah stupid,” said Lock sarcastically.

The Captain walked past them over to his men as Lock and Ray shared a laugh until they saw Smith who was glaring at them.

“We ain’t in Velxeer anymore,” said Lock.

Smith gave Ray a look and walked to his usual table as Lock took a sip from their mug.

“What was that look for?” asked Ray confused.

“Sit!” yelled Reuben at his soldiers.

The twelve of them sat down at the table with hands folded in their lap waiting patiently for breakfast.

“I knew they were drones,” chuckled Lock.

Lock and Ray got two fresh mugs of coffee and sat down at their table and were soon joined by Lars and Clyde. The Velxeer archers were served first at breakfast, which prompted Lock to look to Smith.

“That was your doing wasn’t it?” asked Lock which Smith didn’t as much as turn his head to face his accuser.

When Lock and his friends received their food finally he kept wondering where Alex was; did she leave again? Then, halfway through his breakfast Alex came strolling out of the door leading to the women’s dorm.

“Hey guys,” she said as she sat down with Lock and the other two men.

“See our new guests?” asked Ray.

Alex looked up from her breakfast of oatmeal and brown sugar to see the thirteen people at their own table wearing exactly the same outfit with the exception of the Captain.

“Hmm, who are they?” she asked.

“Velxeer archers,” said Lock, “They’re gonna help us in Harmon, but I’m skeptical.”

“Really? How come?”

“Never mind that. Where have you been the past couple days?” asked Lars glaring at her.

“Pan’dier. Reconnaissance and enlisting more fighters,” answer Alex stirring her oatmeal.

“I didn’t okay that,” said Smith turning around to look at her.

“You weren’t here and it seemed like a good idea. Anyway, I got fifteen more that will meet us in Harmon at dawn on the day in question: they’re Returner supporters”

“Next time clear it with someone, don’t go rogue like that,” said Smith in a thankful way, “How’s the imperial situation in Pan’dier?”

“Died down, it seems,” answered Alex eating her oatmeal.

“Honey?” asked Clyde holding up the jar of sticky, golden honey.

“I’m allergic,” answered Alex.

Another weakness, thought Lock.

After breakfast, Alex went back to the women’s dorm to use the lavatory and when she came out she saw that one of the archers from Velxeer was a female and was sitting on her bed above Ruthie’s. Alex walked over to the girl.

“Hey there, I’m Alex.”

They shook hands professionally as the woman nodded.

“Ten.”

“Excuse me?” questioned Alex with widened eyes.

“My number is Ten.”

“Oh, I get it. What was your birth name?”

The woman froze for a minute like she was shocked at the question, or maybe she just couldn’t remember her name.

“We go by number.”

“I’ll address you as Ten in public. Come on, what’s your name?”

Ten thought hard for a moment before answering the bizarre question.

“Jillian.”

“Much prettier.”

Jillian smiled at the compliment; it was obvious she didn’t get talked to like a human very often.

“Come on, Ten,” said Alex walking toward the door leading out of the dorm.

Jillian leaped off the bed and followed.

It was early afternoon as Lock and Ray were sitting at a dining table looking over a map of Harmon.

“What do ya think?” asked Ray.

“I like it. Okay so there it is: you and Clyde at the rear, Pearl and Lars take the side, Tara, Ruthie, and myself at the front gate for a surprise assault, and Alex on the north roof with the snipers, and Captain corned beef on the east roof with his men. And the rest will be scattered among the town.”

“What about the Retriever?”

“He’ll be everywhere as always.”

Suddenly the two of them heard chattering coming from the tunnel entrance that led to the wayfarer’s wall. They stood up ready to greet more fellow Returners; people they haven’t seen in years. In walked close to thirty bodies, only a few being female.

“Welcome to headquarters,” said Ray putting his hands up.

Lock greeted them all one-by-one; some of which he was meeting for the first time.

“What kind of moron would make you second in command?” said a deep voice from behind Lock.

“Ask your uncle,” joked Lock referring to Smith as he opened his arm, “Come here you SOB.”

Lock hugged the older gentleman that was about Lock’s height with a clean shaved face and head, an eye patch over his right eye; beneath the eye patch was a scar that peeked out of the top of it.

“Ray, this is Smith’s adopted nephew…I can’t seem to place your name,” joked Lock.

“Fuck you,” laughed the man punching Lock in the arm, “How ya doin’ brotha, Sam’s mah name.”

Ray shook his hand respectfully as he was Lock’s friend from the past; must be a very old friend considering Ray had known Lock for years.

“Ray.”

“Ray!” yelled a voice from within the large group of Returners, Ray turned attention to the crowd and saw a figure running towards him, a girl. She jumped towards him and they both fell to the ground, she sat on top of him.

“You’re here, your actually here,” said the girl.

“This must be Eve,” laughed Lock.

Ray was thriving in pain from the impact his back made on the floor; he pointed a finger up at Lock.

“Bingo! Eve, Why do you have to be so rough?” he said as Eve crawled off of him.

“Oh stop it ya big baby,” retorted Eve as she helped Ray to his feet.

“Attention!” yelled Smith from behind them as they all looked at him, “Welcome to Returners HQ. Make yourselves at home. We will be talking shop later before dinner, so in the meantime just relax.”

The large crowd went back to reminiscing and meeting new allies. Lock looked around at the tables and saw Alex who was watching them all congregate. Lock waved Alex over who agreeably stood up and headed over to the crowd.

“Sam, there’s someone I want you to meet,” said Lock patting Sam on the chest which was as solid as a brick wall.

“Crap, this is never good.”

Alex walked over and Sam saw her with his eye.

“Wow, your beauty makes me wish I still had my other eye,” said Sam as he grabbed her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you, Sam. I’m Alex,” she said smiling.

“You’re a lucky man, mah boy.”

“See, I told you,” joked Alex sarcastically winking at Lock.

“This is Eve,” butted in Ray.

Alex shook Eve’s hand; Eve was a petite girl in her mid-twenties only a few inches shorter than Alex with pale skin and midnight blue hair down to her shoulders wearing denim shorts, a tight black sleeveless shirt, and donning a large knife on her side.

Lock, Alex, Sam, Ray, and Eve went to Lock’s room to catch up and discuss more battle strategy. Ray sat on the floor with Eve behind him, with her legs spread and her hands wrapped around his stomach, Sam sat in the same chair that Alex’s metamorphosis took place in. Alex sat on Lock’s bed while Lock himself was busy in the cabinet fetching a few liquor bottles.

“Here it is, I been saving this for a grand occasion,” exclaimed Lock as he turned around holding two bottles.

“What’s that?” asked Alex as she finished rolling a cigarette.

“Two bottles of scotch, both over a hundred years old,” answered Lock walking over to his bed sitting next to Alex.

“May I?” asked Eve motioning to Alex’s cigarette.

“Sure,” smiled Alex throwing the cigarette towards her and began rolling another for herself.

“When did you start smoking?” asked Ray.

“I’ve always smoked. I just never let you catch me when we were together.”

Ray frowned. Lock opened the first bottle, took a swig and passed it to Ray who was the closest to him.

“That’s good stuff,” said Lock, “That’ll put hair on your chest.”

“That explains a lot,” said Alex licking her cigarette putting the finishing touches on as she winked at Lock.

Ray took a long gulp of the scotch while Eve lit her smoke and took a deep puff. Ray’s face shivered after the sharp liquid went down his throat and passed it behind him. Eve took a very small drink and handed it to Sam who was to her right.

“That’s it?” asked Alex.

“I don’t want a hairy chest,” laughed Eve.

Alex laughed at Eve’s turn of phrase as she lit her own cigarette and inhaled, held it, and exhaled. Lock rubbed Alex’s wrist as he slid his hand toward the cigarette to ‘borrow’ it and took a puff himself. She smiled at him.

“How long you two been together?” asked Sam handing the glass bottle to Alex.

“Hmm,” thought Alex out loud, “Counting tomorrow it will be…a day.”

Everyone laughed except Lock who was holding in his emotion. Alex took a long chug of the whiskey trying to show up all the boys and she accomplished her mission. Lock handed the cigarette back to Alex in exchange for the bottle; he took a swig and then gave it to Ray.

“Alright,” said Lock pulling out the map of Harmon with names written on the entrances, “Business time. Sam, I want you at the side entrance with Lars, she’s not a strong fighter once he runs out of ammo and he never packs enough.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Sam as he relieved Ray of the bottle after Eve waved it off.

Alex was looking over Lock’s shoulder at the map.

“Eve?” asked Alex looking her, “How agile are you?”

“Very, I’m a martial artist. Trained since I could walk.”

“Well,” said Alex, “She’d be perfect for a surprise attack from the rooftops like me.”

“Happy to do it,” said Eve holding her fist up.

“Okay,” said Lock passing the map to Ray, “Everybody memorize it and no matter what Smith says, this is our battle plan, got it!”

Everyone nodded affirmingly as Lock looked to Smith’s nephew.

“We’re with you Lock,” said Sam taking a gulp of the liquid.

From across the hall they all could hear a door opening; Lock’s eyebrow lifted as he stood up and opened his bedroom door.

“Welcome home,” said Lock.

“Thanks,” said Pearl from across the hall, “I’m gonna take a nap, then we’re all supposed to meet in the training room for the battle assessment. Ninety minutes.”

“We’ll be there.”

Pearl’s door closed behind her.

Tara and Ruthie went straight to the women’s dorm upon arriving back at HQ.

“That was a nice little getaway, Ter,” said Ruthie throwing her bag on her bed as she noticed that the bed above hers had someone’s belongings on it.

“New one?” asked Tara.

“Looks like it.”

“We are here to aid the Returners in their cause,” said Ten from the bathroom doorway.

“We?” asked Tara.

“Correct, Captain Antleon and the Velxeer archers,” she said saluting at the girls.

“Velxeer?” said Ruthie confused, “Does Smith doubt our ability to handle this?”

“That is none of my concern, ma’am.”

Tara and Ruthie’s eyes widened.

“Ma’am?” they said in unison.

“No no no,” laughed Ruthie to herself, “That’s Tara and I’m Ruthie. You are?”

“Ten,” said the woman without emotion in her voice.

“Ten what?” asked Tara.

“My number is Ten, Miss Tara.”

“No miss. Just Tara.”

“Ter, soldiers in Velxeer are given numbers and ordered to abandon their real names.”

“But why?”

“His majesty doesn’t want heartache over the loss of a soldier,” explained Ten, “Numbers make us less like people and more like weapons built for war.”

“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Death should never be taken lightly, it’s tragic no matter what people call you, be it a number or a name. Wouldn’t people cry just as hard if my name was forty-two?”

“Yes we would, Ter. Don’t try and understand Velxeer, you’ll die confused.”

Ten walked over to her bed and climbed on it and laid down staring at the ceiling waiting to be summoned. They both scoffed at her robotic-like nature and started for the door.

“I wanna go see Lock and I’m sure you miss Lars,” giggled Ruthie.

“Maybe a little,” laughed Tara.

Tara and Ruthie walked into the dining area where Tara saw Lars sitting at a table by himself reading some sort of document.

“I’ll catch you later Ruthie,” said Tara making a B-line for Lars.

“A little? Right!”

“Shut up,” giggled Tara.

Tara snuck up behind Lars like a covert assassin sneaking in for a kill and hugged him from behind.

“Welcome home,” said Lars putting his hands over hers before turning to face her, knowing whom it was that had their grasps upon him.

Once he turned around, she put her hands on his cheeks and gave him a sensual kiss with just the smallest hint of tongue brushing his lips.

“I missed you,” whispered Tara rubbing her nose against his.

“I missed you too, Tara.”

They released each other and Tara sat down next to him at the table to catch up.

“Whatcha doin’?” asked Tara squinting at the papers that sat in front of Lars.

“Going over some blueprints for a gun I’ve been working on. Did you guys have fun in Sandria?”

“Oh yes, Sandria was incredible. I think Ruthie might’ve had a little too much fun,” laughed Tara, “She’s a bit of a horn dog. Ever been there?”

“Horn dog, you mean?” sarcastically asked Lars cock-eyed.

Tara giggled as she kissed his left cheek.

“No goof, Sandria.”

“Yes, of course. Well, before I joined the Returners I made a living doing various carpentry jobs across the coast; building, hunting, what have you. Anyway, did you see the logged inn in the center of Sandria?”

Tara gave an affirming nod.

“I had the pleasure of lugging the wood for that structure along with several other men who were less than enthusiastic, but for me work means food.”

Tara smiled at Lars and held his hand as they looked into each other’s eyes. Ruthie saw the look in their faces and sighed playfully.

“Virgins,” she said as she walked further away from the disgusting display of affection and headed through the ‘Returners’ door.

Ruthie pressed her ear to Lock’s door and heard several people talking, then knocked hard on the door so he was sure to hear it.

“Who is it?” yelled Lock.

“Oh, just me,” said Ruthie sarcastically.

Within seconds the door flew open and Lock was hugging her as she rubbed his back.

“Welcome home, Ruthie,” called out Ray.

Their hug ended and she peeked in the room.

“You having a party in here? We didn’t win yet.”

Ruthie looked closer at Ray and saw that he had someone lounging against his back.

“Ruthie, meet Eve,” said Ray introducing his old friend.

“Smith requested the assistance of some soldiers from the other Returner camps,” said Eve explaining her attendance.

“Does he have zero faith in us?” asked Ruthie angrily.

“Ruthie, it’s the Empire, not a few bandits exactly,” answered Lock knowing the threat that they would soon face, “And you remember Sam?”

“Damn! The little mouse turned into a little woman,” said Sam walking toward her.

“Sam!” she said overly excited to see him as she jumped up to hug the gargantuan man as he held her in the air.

“How was Sandria?” asked Alex.

Ruthie jerked her body around to see Alex who she had yet to notice so far, who was progressing herself deeper and deeper into Lock’s life.

“Wonderful like always. Watch yourself Alex, Tara learned a new trick.”

“What might that be?” asked Alex.

“She learned to fly…well, glide.”

“Using the wind, you mean?”

“Yup, you read about that too?” Alex stalled for a moment realizing she shouldn’t know about that, “Yeah.”

“Lock!” said Smith from the doorway, “Round everyone up and meet in the meeting room in five minutes.”

“Yes.”

Smith nodded at Ruthie and walked away.

“Alex,” started Lock, “Show Sam and Eve the way while me and Ruthie round up the soldiers. Ray, get the floor plans and meet us there.”

Everyone nodded and rose to their feet; time for business.

Ruthie and Lock walked down the hall and into the dining area with conviction.

“Tara, Lars, meeting room!” yelled Lock into the dining room.

They waved in agreement.

“Alright Ruthie, you get the women’s dorm, every volunteer and Ten,” ordered Lock.

Lock walked into the men’s dorm and looked to Reuben.

“Captain, get your men and follow me.”

Lock turned his focus from Velxeer onto the rest of the room.

“Anyone bound for Harmon in two days go to the meeting room.”

A dozen young men nodded and rose to their feet abandoning their cards games, cigarettes, and books. Lock led the way through the dining area where all the visiting soldiers from Returner camps were waiting to follow and down the hall leading to their destination. As he was halfway down the hall Pearl emerged from her room looking fully rested; she nodded at Lock for she knew that it was time to be real. Everyone settled in the meeting room where maps and floor plans were sprawled across the large table. The Returners and Reuben sat around the table while the soldiers stood along the walls, and Smith stood at the head of the table counting soldiers.

“First thing’s first,” spoke Smith, “The gentleman to my right is Julius representing the Returner camp lying deep within the Sangrohl Mountains to the north. He has brought seven soldiers trained in swordplay. All of you know Lock of course and to his right is our newcomer Alex. To Lock’s left is Sam from the southern camp, accompanied by nine soldiers and then there’s Eve who had graciously brought thirteen of her girls to fight as well. Eve comes from the subterranean base to the east, far south of Velxeer territory. Next to her is Ruthie, Clyde, Tara, Lars, Ray and Pearl, my Returners of course. To my left is a visitor from the kingdom of Velxeer offered to us by King Luther along with the twelve Velxeer archers. How many of my men do I have?”

Twelve of the boys from HQ raised their palms into the sky. Smith nodded appreciatively at them.

“That leaves us with sixty-five bodies plus the volunteers from Pan’dier makes eighty.”

“Eighty-one,” spoke up Lock, “Retriever.”

“Yes, of course…him,” grimaced Smith, “Alex, tell me about the Pan’dier soldiers.”

“I wouldn’t call them soldiers, but they are bodies that have acquired rifles from the imperials. They are currently camping within the Pan’dier woods waiting to travel’ they’ll meet us in Harmon at dawn.”

“Good, we’ll position them on the roofs of the businesses in the northern part of town near the rear entrance. Since you got them, they’re your men.”

Alex nodded.

“Lars,” said Smith, “That weapon you’ve been designing. Is it ready?”

Lars cleared his throat not wanting to verbalize his problem.

“I need a gear: three inches by five millimeters.”

“And the chain to go with it?”

“I have one plus a spare just in case.”

“Good. Captain Antleon, your men will be positioned atop the roofs in the east part of town above the residential buildings.”

Reuben nodded his head ever so slightly.

“Lock, I understand that you’ve been working on a battle plan for the Returners?”

“That’s right. Sam, Lars, and Pearl will handle the west entrance, Clyde and Ray in the rear with the explosives, and Ruthie, Tara, and myself concealed around the front entrance for the surprise assault.”

“Sounds plausible, you want to add Julius to the north entrance?”

“That’s doable.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan,” said Smith smiling as if he did this all by himself, “What about the extraction?”

Lars stood up and cleared his throat again before speaking.

“Easier than we ever could have imagined. Apparently, for over a year the town’s people have been digging a series of tunnels hidden beneath the town, they could live underground for months. They started this project when the empire started attacking small towns.”

“Excellent, when you all reach the town the night before in the midst of the darkness, that’s when you will position your shoulders, but think it through; this will be a complicated chess game. I have a scout in mountains to the north of Harmon, when you see smoke from its peak that means you have an hour before the imperial’s arrival. Good luck!”

The soldiers along the wall left the meeting room in single file as the Returners stood up.

“By the way,” said Smith, “Tonight’s dinner is compliments of Julius.”

Everyone made their way to the dining room, which was flooded with the scent of poached salmon; something they weren’t used to. Lock made it to the dining area last after a few last words with Smith about the battle. Lock entered and saw Julius sitting by himself as his men were sitting with the rest of the soldiers; Ray was standing at the doorway waiting for Lock.

“Maybe we should sit with him…get to know your ally type of thing,” suggested Ray.

Lock nodded and they walked over to the muscular African skinned man with a shiny baldhead and handlebar mustache.

“Any more room?” asked Lock.

Julius looked up at them.

“Plenty.”

They sat together without anyone saying anything till Lock broke the silence.

“Julius, since Chuck is not present at this time I was thinking you could stay in his bed in Lars’ room.”

“Um, I was kinda hoping to have it all to myself,” said Lars from the table behind Lock where he was next to Tara.

“Gonna have to be another time,” said Lock sternly as Lars sighed and Tara began to pout, “Despite what you had planned.”

Lars quickly turned his head to escape the accusation. They fish was delivered to each person and was served with lemon and herbed rice.

“Looks wonderful,” said Lock trying to compliment his new ally.

Julius nodded as he ate his food while he looked at it. Lock frowned thinking what he could do to make him feel more at home.

“Why doesn’t anyone ever have fish for breakfast?” asked Ray out of nowhere.

Julius looked up wide-eyed in bewilderment.

“What?” said Julius not fully understanding his new partners.

Lock smiled and swung his head from side to side knowing where this was going.

“No, think about it,” said Ray, “You have steak for breakfast, grain, dairy, pork, spice. Hell, the Spanish even have chicken for breakfast. It just blows me away that you go to a diner at an inn and ask for fried sea bass and they look at you like you’ve lost your damn mind.”

“And they’d be right!” yelled Eve from two tables away where her and Ruthie were sitting; they looked like sisters complete with the exact same bubbly smile.

Ray gave her an odd look before continuing.

“Or how bout shrimp over eggs benedict, huh? Catfish omelet maybe?”

Julius was staring intently at Ray then turned to Lock.

“Yes, he’s always like this,” said Lock.

“Ah, I see” smiled Julius.

“So,” said Lock cutting into his fish, “You’re from the Sangrohl Mountains. Wish I knew that a couple weeks ago when I was hiding out in a shack with Tara, might not have gotten attacked.”

“I know, we were there,” said Julius.

“Excuse me?”

“We were watching you and created a distraction while you two escaped, there were a dozen on your tail after you reached the tunnel leading to the plains.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“We pride ourselves on being invisible, that’s why we position ourselves deep in the mountains and only enlist dark skinned men and women.”

“Well, thank you.” Julius nodded in affirmation.

BURP!!!

“Excuse you,” said Lock rudely after Ray burped in his direction.

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Ray getting up from his seat and walking over to where Eve was sitting.

Ray walked over to Eve’s table where she was sitting next Ruthie and Ruthie was sitting across from Alex; Ray sat next to Alex.

“Good fish,” said Ray rubbing his stomach.

Eve reached over and grabbed Ray’s hand and held it in the middle of the tabletop as she smiled at him. Alex smiled at their display of public affection.

“So, how’d you guys meet?”

“I saved his life about three years and he couldn’t help but make me his girl,” smiled Eve devilishly.

“How modest of you,” said Ray sarcastically, “I was traveling through the haunted forest-“

“In the south, I’ve been there,” said Alex, knowing the dangers.

“Right, and I was attacked by the blood wraith…I know, I thought it was just a myth too. When out of nowhere came this tiny little girl from the tree tops planting her knife, which is bigger than she is, into the back of his spine as he flailed around not knowing what had happened. Then, it just vanished.”

“I remember walking over to this grown man lying on the floor bleeding from his left arm that had been scythed by the wraith’s sickle,” explained Eve making it sound like he was a weakling.

“So, I’m laying there dying and she says, ‘kinda big to be so weak’ with a huge grin on her face,” scoffed Ray.

“Dying? Barely a flesh wound,” said Eve.

“That’s when I joined the Returners and we were a couple for almost a year before I was sent here.”

“That was the hardest day of my life,” frowned Eve.

“Wow, that’s a great story,” smiled Alex at Eve.

“I never get sick of hearing it,” said Ruthie rubbing Eve’s back.

Alex looked to their hands intertwined on the table.

“So, what now?” Eve and Ray looked at each other desperately, knowing that they couldn’t be together since they were so far away from one another; the Returner’s cause always came first.

Lock and Julius finished their fish and walked through the ‘Returners’ door and down the hall to Lars’ room.

“Here it is,” said Lock, “The sheets were already changed according to Smith.”

“Sounds good,” said Julius admiring the room that was canvassed in painting done by Lars, “Did Chuck do these?”

“That’s all Lars’ doing, but if you find an apple core or chicken bones lying around; that’s Chuck’s work,” laughed Lock.

“Lock?” said Smith from the hallway standing with Sam and Eve, “I’m going to put these two in the spare room.”

Lock nodded affirmingly.

“Fine, but there’s only one bed, unless one of them doesn’t mind sleeping on a gurney; the infirmary has a few vacant ones at the moment.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Eve, “I’ll sleep in the women’s dorm with my people, and I’m not above that.”

Eve smiled at Smith and went back toward the dining area.

“I’ll take him to the spare,” said Lock to Smith.

“Very well,” said Smith before making his way to his own room. Lock looked back at Julius, “Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”

“Thanks Lock,” said Julius.

Lock led Sam to the spare bedroom that lay far from the rest of the rooms down a separate corridor adjacent from Smith.

“How’s Bella?” Sam hung his head as they walked, “She passed, Lock.”

“How? When?”

“About six months ago. Imperial ambush at the camp costing us eleven soldiers; that’s why we moved our location.”

“Geez, well here we are,” said Lock opening the door to the spare room.

Sam walked in after Lock, it was a fair sized room with a bed, a small round table with two cloth-padded chairs on either side, a small stove made specifically for cooking canned food or heating water for coffee. The walls were matted with imperial-issued swords, guns, and a bloody imperial flag.

“This was made into an imperial anti-shrine, hope it doesn’t make you too uncomfortable,” said Lock going over to the cupboard in the corner of the room.

“I like it! I have a sick sense of humor as you know,” chuckled Sam.

“Don’t we all?” said Lock confidentially pulling a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet as Sam gave him a confused look.

“It’s also where I store a few of my things, help yourself.”

Sam sat down at the table and was joined by Lock who was removing the top from the half drunken bottle.

“Now we can catch up,” said Sam taking the bottle and drinking some.

“I remember when you were injured, does the eye still itch like crazy?”

“Nah, don’t even notice it anymore. But I still don’t look in the mirror.”

“Neither do I.”

“Hell, if I had a beard like that I wouldn’t either,” said Sam pointing at Lock’s sloppily growing facial hair, “Looks like in between the legs of the last woman I was with.”

They both laughed maniacally at Sam’s cruel joke.

“I haven’t had time to shave,” said Lock making excuses for himself.

“I don’t blame you. If Alex was my girl I’d never get out of bed.”

“Pretty nice, eh?”

“Mmm, that doesn’t begin to describe it. I bet she’s a tiger in the sack, am I right?”

“Well…”

“What? Don’t tell me you’re shy all of a sudden. I remember back in the day you used to let me smell your fingers.”

They both chuckled and Lock cleared his throat.

“No, I mean…”

“Oh! I get it! You haven’t had her yet. Where’s the old Lock I remember? The man that used to dominate a girl before he even knew her name.”

“There’s something about her. She reminds me of Alisa…except for the hair of course.”

“Physically maybe, but on the inside she’s the complete opposite,” said Sam implying he already knew her very well.

Lock took a long chug from the bottle as he thought about Sam’s words.

“Maybe your right, but there’s something else…”

“What?” asked Sam taking a drink.

“She’s tough, possibly the toughest woman I have ever met.”

“That’s a turn on!”

“Tell me about it.”

“Ain’t she a little skinny for you? You usually go for the fatties.”

Lock scoffed heavily.

“They weren’t fat, they were-“

“’Thick’, I know I know. You call ’em thick, I call ’em fat, husky, hippo-ass.”

“Image is nothing when you get to see the inner beauty of a person; their strength, their weakness, their perfection, and their flaws.”

“This is true, my friend.”

“Enough about me, how’s your old lady?”

“Karen? Oh she gets better every day and more beautiful. We have a second on the way.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks, hope I get a son this time, but if I don’t I’ll love another daughter just a much.”

“But it would be nice to have someone just like you, only smaller.”

“Here here!” yelled Sam holding up the bottle.

After Tara spent some quality time with Lars, she made her way to the women’s dorm that was now full what with all the visitors from around the western region of the continent. She walked toward her bed where Eve, Alex, and Ruthie were talking while Ten sat on her bed staring into her book.

“Hi Ten,” said Tara not expecting a response.

Ten looked over at Tara and smiled politely without being verbal.

“Hey Ruthie,” said Tara, “What’s goin’ on?”

Alex and Tara just gave each other an uncomfortable look.

“Hey Ter, this is Eve,” said Ruthie cheeringly.

Tara extended a friendly hand.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Tara Bordague.”

“Yes, the spell caster, right?” asked Eve.

“Yeah, but I’m still learning,” she said pitifully wishing she knew more about herself.

Alex casually left the group, due do its awkwardness and went to the other side of the bed where Ten was reading with her back turned to the other girls.

“Jill?” Whispered Alex, “Do you drink?”

Ten’s eyes drifted up from her book to look at Alex and nodded a ‘yes’. Alex began walking towards the door as Jillian leaped off her bed and followed. Eve watched the two of them till they left the room.

“Wow! You can cut the tension with a knife,” said Eve.

Ruthie chuckled at the obviousness of it.

“They a little bit of a spat a while back. Alex called out Tara in the training room and Tara blasted her with a spell. All over Lock.”

“Oh,” said Eve realizing what prompted the feud, “Cuz she stole your man?”

“What?” yelled Ruthie and Tara simultaneously?

“You know, cuz their together.”

Tara eyes became lifeless with realization that Alex and Lock were a couple. Eve’s spirit fell to the floor.

“Sorry, I thought you knew.”

Tara felt downtrodden. That little slut, she thought, Will she steal Lars from me too?

“So, that’s why there’s friction between us, I don’t hate her, it’s just she needed to be put in her place. I’m better for Lock,” explained Alex to Jillian.

“Interesting, something like that would never fly in Velxeer, my captain would simply get rid of one of us if that had happened. Different worlds.”

“Very different. So, Jill, tell me: you got a man back home?” Jillian frowned at the question.

“In the Velxeer military it is forbidden for a man or a woman to be involved romantically or sexually; it segregates us from our duties.”

Alex raised an eyebrow at Jillian’s answer.

“I didn’t ask for the answer you give to your superiors when asked of your policy, I’m asking you as a fellow soldier and a woman; days of war and nights of love, right?” Jillian smiled at the realization of being caught even though they tried to be professional about her ‘job’.

“His name is Edward. He owns the armor shop in town, please don’t tell anyone.”

“Relax Jill, your secret’s safe with me.”

“Thank you. Thankfully we have yet to be caught. All I want is to be with him for the rest of my life. I can leave the military in ten years if I wish. Velxeer allows you to leave when you either serve twenty years or become useless.”

“Allows? That’s awful. Just run away and marry him. Open a little shop somewhere in the south.”

Jillian sighed at the difficulty of it all.

“I can’t, I have an obligation with my people and my kingdom…though I want to.”

Alex took a big drink and passed it over to Jillian.

“How’s the bed play?” said Alex winking. Jillian blushed as she took a long sip trying to keep up with Alex.

“It’s very romantic the way he makes love. It makes war bearable.”

“I know exactly what you mean. Release is vital.”

Alex pulled a cigarette from her pocket and offered it to Jillian.

“No no no,” said Jillian, “I’ll throw up if I have one of those.”

Alex shrugged.

“Suit yourself.”

Alex lit the cigarette then took a long puff. After several more drinks Jillian got up, put on her ‘Ten’ face and retired to the dorm as Alex sat there and smoked a few cigarettes as she contemplated everything going on right now; Lock, the battle in Harmon to come, and the growing hostility between her and Tara..

Sam was beginning to feel tired from all the alcohol in his system.

“Alright madam,“ said Lock as he stood up and headed for the door, “Get some sleep. See ya in the morning.”

Sam crawled to the bed and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Lock laughed as he closed the door very quietly. Lock killed the bottle as he walked down the hall back to his room; he wasn’t drunk but feeling ‘happy’. He was almost back to his room when he heard a warthog attacking a mongoose coming from Pearl’s room.

“Man, that girl can snore.”

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