"Clouds of Tyranny"

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Casualties of War

Tara had spent the morning trying to avoid all the inhabitants of the Returner’s lair who all seemed to have questions about her ‘abilities’ until Smith found her and managed to keep everyone at bay.

Now, Tara was with Smith and Ruthie in the training room; a place where their soldiers could practice their swordplay and target practice. Smith had set up several wooden structures about six feet in height for Tara to practice with that resembled that of large unpainted bowling pins.

“Okay, fire away,” said Smith with arms crossed waiting to see what she could do.

Tara reached to her side where her firearm sat.

“No. Use a spell,” ordered Smith. Ruthie interjected with “She can only heal injuries.”

“All I ask is that she try,” retorted Smith. Tara released her grip from the .45 pistol that still lay in its holster and stared at Smith.

“Just look straight to your target and concentrate.”

Tara let out an aggravated sigh and looked to the wooden object Smith expected her to destroy, thinking as hard as she could. She thought back to when she pushed that imperial soldier out the window and he flew several yards away when he was twice her size. She felt her palms tingle.

Maybe if I use my hands like a gun, she thought. She stretched her arms in front of her and pointed her palms toward the wooden structure. The object twitched for a moment, like the last bowling pin that always stays up when it looks as if it’s going to fall, then she closed her eyes and strained her mind to obey her will. She heard a loud crash. When she opened her eyes, the object that was once twenty feet from the wall was now lying next to it on its side.

“Coooool,” wooed Ruthie.

“Good,” said Smith, “Now, lift it.”

Ruthie looked over at him still smiling a little.

“You mean with…” questioned Tara.

“Yes,” responded Smith, “With your mind.”

Tara pointed her palms once more at the object and strained her head so intensely that she felt as if she were going to break a blood vessel behind her eye.

“Come on Ter,” whispered Ruthie to herself.

“Mmmmm, “groaned Tara. The object kept rolling itself into the wall periodically.

“You’re pushing! Lift!” yelled Smith.

Tara was getting annoyed at being told what to do: as if moving things with your mind is the most natural thing in the world to him. She kept straining for several minutes with Smith’s words constantly badgering her self-esteem.

“Lift, dammit!” Smith kept yelling.

Tara was red in the face; her eyes were narrow, teeth grinding against one another with a loud squeak with each grind.

“Lift!!!” yelled Smith again. Tara’s ears were raw with his constant yelling. Tara was done.

“Shut up!” she yelled as she thrust her fingers forward.

A red stream shot out of each set of five fingers hitting the object on its side which was against the floor. A geyser of flame erupted from underneath it lifting it ten feet in the air. When it dropped, the wooden object was engulfed in flame around its now black surface. Tara and Ruthie jumped back in unison. Tara reflected on her rudeness towards Smith and felt bad.

“Yikes!” yelled Ruthie as Tara just stared blankly at what she had created just out of anger, Good thing I wasn’t facing Smith just now, she thought.

After Smith put out the crimson flames with a white powder they kept in the training room for emergencies, they exited and walked into the main dining room where people ate and conjugated.

“Good work Tara, really great,” commended Smith to Tara, “Sorry for yelling back there, but I needed you to push everything else out of your mind. That’s how these spells work; they are created by channeling your body, mind, and spirit into a single force unstoppable force.”

“Yeah, that’s what I read,” chimed in Ruthie.

When they reached the main room near the entrance they saw a small group of people crowded around something.

“Dammit! Give him some room!” yelled Pearl dramatically.

The crowd backed away and Tara, Ruthie, and Smith could now see what the fuss was about; Pearl, Clyde, and Ray were back from their mission. In the corner, the black shepherd was whining in his big dog voice.

“Its okay, Hans,” said its master.

The three of them were side by side; Pearl and Ray were holding up Clyde who was in the middle. Clyde’s blue bandana that once was a clothing garments atop his head was now being used to pressurize the wound on his right shoulder, but blood still dripped through the blood soaked cloth turning it violet purple. Ruthie was in shock at the sight of her brother. Aside from the shoulder wound, Clyde had gunshot wounds in his right shin, upper left leg, and the very center of his stomach.

“Clyde!” screamed Ray, “you have to walk!”

Pearl looked at Clyde’s face as she strained from the weight of her comrade.

“Your big, man, we need your help. Come on, just a little further.”

Smith went over to the left doorway leading down the hall towards the infirmary and yelled for the Doc, the Doc knew that when Smith called him the situation was dire; he came running down the hall as fast as he could.

“Geez. Stop right there!” ordered the Doc, “Carry him gurney style!”

They stopped and Pearl got behind Clyde and cupped her arms under his armpits and Ray put his own head between Clyde’s ankles and the both lift him so he was lying flat in midair. They speed walked him into the infirmary as Ruthie stood there with her hand over her mouth and tears raining down her face at the thought of her big brother not making it through this. Tara put her arm around Ruthie’s shoulders and Ruthie leaned in against Tara’s chest and put her arms around her. She sobbed violently as Tara comforted her as best she could by stroking her hair.

It was late afternoon in Pan’dier when Lock and Alex managed to escape the core of the town and were now in the tree line that bordered Pan’dier.

“Well, we made it, Lock n key.” Chuckled Alex.

Lock just looked at her with a blank unfriendly stare.

“You know,” said Lock, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Alex looked around at all the trees that surrounded them from all sides.

“Yeah, we just got in the woods.” She stared over at him hoping for at least a little laugh at the pun…nothing.

“I gotta think. Where is the nearest tunnel?” said Lock out loud to himself.

“Tunnel? The sun bothering you?” asked Alex.

“No, that’s our way back to HQ. Unless you’d rather walk for about a week dodging your buddies the whole way.”

Alex made a bee line to a large bush surrounded by redwoods.

“I was thinking more along the lines of-“Alex dug inside the bush and eventually pulled out a large steel device; it was metallic red with glossy black stripes, a large bar above the front wheel (which Alex was pulling it out by), a wheel in the rear behind the long seat (Lock assumed you straddled it much like you would a horse), and a wheel in the middle.

“An iron horse?” questioned Lock.

“Mmm, horse of a different color. But enough puns for the day.”

She dragged it as they walked through the remainder of the woods.

“Okay,” said Alex, “Where is your ‘HQ’?”

“North,” answered Lock, “Northwest, by the wall of separation due south of Sangrohl.”

“Hmm, okay. We should probably stop somewhere first and rest till the morning; the empire will be looking for us.” Lock nodded at the smart idea.

“We can stay in Magdore, to the north. I have friends there and they would never give me up if the empire were to ask questions.”

“Good for you,” said Alex.

They were approaching the end of the trees and woodland debris.

“Alright, “said Alex as she jumped onto the seat and gripped the handles, “All aboard.”

Lock looked at it like a cat looks at a dog its own size, not afraid but curious. He slowly lifted his right leg over the rear end of the seat and eased himself behind her looking at what she was looking at; a series of switches beneath the handles and a red coin sized button in the center. She flipped a few switches, then pushed in the small red button with her thumb. RRRRRRROWR!!! The vehicle made a loud growling sound, then quieted down and just rumbled and vibrated beneath them. There was a dial around the right handlebar; the ‘iron horse’ growled louder as she turned it. Alex, flipped a switch underneath the red button, “Hold on!” she yelled over the sound of the wheeled beast.

“What?” yelled Lock as the machine shot forward and instantly cupped his arms around her belly as they traveled with tremendous speed through the grassy plains toward Magdore.

Ruthie and Tara were sitting at a table waiting for the doc to come and tell them Clyde could have visitors or at least that he was alive. Ruthie was trembling at the thought of the worst news imaginable; that her brother was dead. Tara had yet to see Ruthie like this; little miss happy-go-lucky was a wreck from the inside out and looked as if she was about to lose her sanity.

“Ruth?” said the Doc as he stood over them.

Ruthie leapt up to face him hoping for only the best of news.

“Yeah?” she asked holding her own heart.

“He’s sleeping now, but you can see him. Just be quiet, please. He needs his rest.”

“Will this be the last time?” asked Ruthie as her eyes filled with tears.

“Not by any means, Ruthie. He’ll be fine. No missions for a while and I wouldn’t suggest you jump on him or roughhouse like you usually do. He’ll be on bed rest for at least a week, then I just want him to take it easy for an additional month before leaving the base or doing any training.”

Ruthie let out a long sigh of relief.

“Whew. Thanks Doc.”

“Of course,” he responded then walked over to a table and sat down waiting for Ruthie to go see Clyde so they could have privacy.

“Come with me Ter,” Pleaded Ruthie.

“Okay,” she responded as they walked to the infirmary door.

“Go ahead Ruthie. I’ll be out here.”

“Thanks.”

Ruthie walked in and Tara stood by the door that was slightly ajar. She could hear Ruthie’s movements; metal chair scraped against the tile floor as Ruthie sat down. It was quiet for several minutes.

“I am barely speaking to you,” said Ruthie to a sleeping Clyde as she paced back and forth along his bed, “You a real ass, you know that? Making me worry. You promised you’d never make me cry…and ya did.”

Tara peeked through the crack in the door and saw Ruthie holding Clyde’s hand in both of hers as she stood over him; his large hand was as big as both of hers. Tara could see Clyde lying on the bed in only his white underwear and gauze wrapped around all of his wounds as Ruthie sat down in a chair next to the bed. On the side of the bed opposite Ruthie was an IV drip running into his arm. Ruthie was holding his hand and looking at him sleep with tears running down her face and smiling at him. Tara was confused about the relationship between Ruthie, Lock, and Clyde, Are they real siblings?

It was just before dusk when Lock and Alex arrived in Magdore; they could see the orange sun setting to the west. It would be very romantic if they knew each other a little more; Lock was definitely attracted to Alex despite her flawless physique. Lock could never stop himself from getting attracted to strong women; soldiers turned him on. Alex circled the town.

“Over there!” Lock yelled as he pointed to a building on the edge of town with a large steel door used for storing and shipping products.

Alex jerked the vehicle hard to the left toward the large steel door, her knee almost scraping the gravel road surrounding Magdore. She pulled up to the door and flipped the switch under the red button causing the machine to come to a complete silence as it slowly coasted to the door.

Lock dismounted the ‘iron horse’ and walked over to the steel door and banged on it with the bottom of his fist three times sending a thunderous echo through the room behind the steel door. There was a wooden door next to the large one with a small viewing window.

A head popped up on the other side of the window framing the middle-aged man’s facial features; big brown eyes, messy black hair, and a thick push broom mustache.

The man pressed the side of his face against the window to get a good view of who was knocking. His eyes met Lock’s as Lock waved and the man’s eyes widened and put up a ‘just a minute’ finger. The steel door slowly raised and Lock and Alex could see the man pulling a chain downward with both hands to raise the door until it was about halfway up; a few feet higher than Lock’s head. Alex dismounted and began pushing the vehicle inside.

“Long time,” said the man; he was a short stalky man wearing jeans, a brown long sleeve shirt, and a blacksmith’s apron.

“Too long,” said Lock as he shook the man’s hand.

Alex rolled the machine inside and leaned it against the brick wall in the back of the man’s shop. Alex looked around; she saw broken doors, many types of locks, panes of glass, and sheet metal with tools sprawled all around the storage room. She walked over to introduce herself and noticed the man had been looking at her the whole time with a big grin on his face.

“Who is this?” said the man lustfully.

“Alex, nice to meet you.”

“This is Milton,” scoffed Lock casually.

“Lock, you know I don’t judge,” said Milton with his palms up, “But, did you join the empire?”

“No,” said Alex, “I quit the empire.”

“Oh, fair enough. So, tell me, what I can do for you, my friend.”

Lock looked at Alex’s attire then his own.

“Clothes would be nice. And a place to bathe and rest, and maybe some food?” “No problem, I’ll arrange for lodgings. In the meantime, go upstairs and see my wife for clothes. She just locked the door for closing time, so the place is all yours.”

“Thanks,” said Lock as he walked toward the stairs that led to the shop upstairs.

“Oh,” Said Milton, “Two beds?”

“Of course,” scoffed Lock.

“Well, we don’t wanna waste clean sheets,” smiled Alex devilishly.

“Two will be fine. Thanks Milton,” said Lock with assertion; Alex winked at Lock assuring him it was a joke.

In the clothing shop, Lock was going through various things as he chit-chatted with Milton’s wife.

“Staying long,” she asked.

“Just for the night,” answered Lock as he picked out a few garments, “How’s business Hilda?”

“Pretty tasty actually. Best we’ve ever done.”

Lock looked across the store at the dressing room door that was still closed.

“You should get another dressing room for when Alex is in town,” joked Lock.

“Wow!” yelled Alex sarcastically from the other side of the dressing room door, “Jokes huh? What? Did you have a drink when I wasn’t looking? Or did you just pull the stick out?”

“Just hurry it up will ya?” he said getting serious and impatient.

“Can’t I just wear my fatigue pants and like a T-shirt or something?”

“I told you. The man in charge can’t know your previous job, he’ll have you killed along with me.”

“That’s not very nice. What if I let him have me? Wink wink.”

“Will you get dressed already?” “I been dressed for like fifteen minutes.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No, why?”

“Then why in the hell are you still in there?”

“Cuz you’re gonna laugh…hell, I wanna laugh but I don’t wanna hurt my own feelings. I’m torn really.”

Lock stomped over to the dressing room door.

“Alex, I really am gonna need a drink with you around aren’t I?”

“You have any?”

“Dammit, now!”

“Okay okay, geez. But, laugh and I’ll go back to the empire.”

“I won’t laugh Alex.”

Alex cleared her throat and walked out; she had a sapphire colored ribbon tying her hair into a ponytail, her mother’s pendant sprawled down across her exposed neckline, an jade colored silk dress with thin straps going over the top of her shoulders, the breast of the dress plunged into a V showing off her cleavage (which was ample) and the base of the dress hung just above her knees, and her brown army boots on her feet. Lock just stood there and gazed at her in silence; the way she looks reminded him of Alisa. Lock felt lust inside of him at the sight of her in this beautiful dress.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Alex.

“Like what?” retorted Lock trying to sound nonchalant.

“Like, if I took another step I’d step on your tongue.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No she’s not,” whispered Hilda as she walked behind Lock.

Lock gave Hilda a dirty look and looked back at Alex,

“I was just trying to hold in my laughter.”

“Oh. Is it that bad?” asked Alex thinking he was being sincere.

“Nah. Except…I’d lose the boots.”

“What? How am I supposed to break ribs in sandals or heels?” she said being less than sensible.

“Anyway,” said Lock turning his head, “Our room is probably ready.”

“Is there a general store or the like here?”

“We can get food at the inn.”

“No, I need something else.”

“What?” asked Lock.

“I wanna get you all liquored up,” she laughed sarcastically, “HaHa. No, I need tobacco.”

“Oh, sure. At the inn you can get that.”

Lock picked up the clothes he chose and started walking toward the stairs leading back down. Alex caught something out of the corner of her eye and picked up the shiny garment and rubbed it against her face.

“Can I take this too?”

“Of course sweetie, “said Hilda as she looked over at the stairs and saw that Lock had already descended.

“Now, don’t hurt him too bad,” said Hilda winking at Alex.

“It’s been a long time. I ain’t promising anything,” giggled Alex.

It was dinnertime at the Returner’s hideout and they were eating watered down chicken noodle soup. Tara was sitting with Pearl, Ray, and the Doc while Ruthie fed soup to Clyde back in the infirmary. Tara ate her soup very well-mannered all while hearing a symphony of slurps from around the room, which made her cringe at every sound.

“Ray?” said Tara.

“What?” “What’s it like?” asked Tara looking at his left arm, which had a metal cylinder around it with small arrows protruding out of it.

“What? Oh, you’ve never…It is magic the first time you experience it. The feelings, the sensations, the final release. It only gets better as you get older. The good news for you is that it’s better for women than it is for men.”

Pearl sighed before cutting him off.

“She meant to kill a human being, you moron.”

“Oh,” he sulked.

Tara looked back and forth between Pearl and Ray, What was he talking about? she thought. Tara stared into blank space for a moment.

“Oh! You thought I meant…Haha, that’s funny. I already know that.”

“Do tell,” said Ray jokingly as he rested his cheek in his palm mimicking a gossipy schoolgirl.

“Come on, Ray,” she begged.

“You killed, kid.”

“Not on purpose,” blushed Tara.

“Tara,” said Pearl, “Killing a person for the first time face-to-face in a fair fight damages you. When you kill someone and you see the light go out in their eyes you die a little yourself. Everything around you gets a little dimmer. For some people it is the definition of bliss; those people are imperials. The only way I can live with myself is that every time I kill a member of the Empire I tell myself I just saved five lives by taking one of theirs. The greater good, you see?”

“I think so.”

“How did it make you feel when you pushed that man to his death? Did you feel guilty?”

“A little. But, I did it cuz he was gonna shoot Lock and Lock saved my life. Why shouldn’t I do the same for him?”

“Exactly,” said Ray pointing at her.

“It’s different for everyone,” continued Pearl, “Just try not to think about it, hun.”

Tara nodded and went back to eating her soup quietly as she thought about death.

Lock’s hair was wet from the bath he had just finished and was in his underwear sitting on his own bed organizing, cleaning, and sharpening his blades with his sharpening stone. He was finishing up his Damascus when he heard water movement from inside the washroom.

“Damn, she takes forever at everything…except killing apparently,” whispered Lock to himself.

He gave the length of his sword a final wipe and laid it on the floor with the rest. He reached over to the table that sat between the heads of their beds and grabbed the bottle of whiskey that stood next to seven cigarettes that Alex had rolled while he was in the bath; she took one in with her along with a bottle of white wine she obtained at the general store; the clerk couldn’t stop staring at her breasts, then couldn’t stop staring at her boots. Lock took a quick swig and placed it back on the table.

Lock was ready for bed, just waiting for Alex so he could shut off the lantern and go to sleep. The door creaked open loudly and Alex walked to see Lock turned with his back to her.

“We should probably get some sleep “said Lock as he turned; his speech cut off mid-sentence by the image of Alex.

He could see in the washroom her dress was hung up and she was wearing something she obviously grabbed at the last minute from the shop. It was a lavender colored silk nightgown that came down to her upper thigh (she couldn’t bend over without showcasing herself), it had thin straps going up her shoulders and crisscrossed in the back. It was paper-thin; it displayed every curve she had to offer including her breasts that had reacted to the cold air against her flesh. Alex smiled a smile that was easy to read.

“Hi,” said Alex seductively.

“Good bath?” asked Lock nervously.

“Mmhmm.”

“So, uh,” Lock cleared his throat, “How do you like to sleep? Dim or all the way dark?”

“With someone.”

“I’m serious,” he said as Alex laid on her bed stomach down and breasts pressed against her blanket with her legs bent draping over her own behind; her skin glistened from the water.

“So am I,” she said as Lock swallowed hard.

“No, we can’t.”

“Come on,” Alex begged as she held up her index finger and her thumb a half an inch apart, “just a little?”

“How do you have just a little sex?”

“If you don’t know I’m not gonna tell you…but I can show you,” said Alex as she bit her bottom lip.

“I know that having the job we have, it sometimes gets lonely and frustrating.”

“My eyes are up here,” smirked Alex.

Lock’s head jerked up to look at her face; he didn’t even realize he had drifted elsewhere.

“You just remind me of someone.”

“Your girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t have a girlfriend. Having a girlfriend just complicates an already complicated profession.”

“I completely agree,” said Alex as she pressed her clean firm breasts closer together.

“Good, that’s why we can’t-“

“What? I’m just talking about tonight, Lock,” she said as she sat up on the bed resting her butt on her feet.

Lock looked at her incredible body and searched for the power to resist her. “No.”

“Geez,” complained Alex as she push one of her straps over her shoulder so it draped across her strong bicep, “How many hints do you need?”

Lock took his feet from the floor and slid them onto his bed and Alex perked up and smiled as she licked her lips devilishly. Then, Lock tucked his butt on his pillow, raised his legs and lowered the blanket so he could lay it over him. “Goodnight Alex,” he said as he turned his broad shouldered back towards her.

“Nite,” sighed Alex as she picked up a cigarette and struck a match to light it.

Lock was frowning, but Alex could not see. His brain was telling him he did the right things but every other part of his body disagreed. His pelvis was throbbing inside his underwear.

“Oh, shut up!” he said to under the sheets.

“What?” asked Alex.

“Nothing.”

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