Saturday, 29 November 2014

Chapter twenty two


Pyrrho couldn’t get comfortable.  The cell, of course, wasn’t built for comfort, but still the bed he’d remembered as a child had been more comfortable than this lumpy  mess. Maybe he was just getting old. A distant thrum above his head implied the banquet was continuing unaffected by his plot. His father was probably back up there now, enjoying the limelight, celebrating his success in unlocking the Previous technology. Plotting his takeover of the rest of the lands. Designing his next set of experiments to get a handle of what the dark technology was truly capable of. Pyrrho shuddered, then briefly fidgeted to try and get the pain in his back to subside.
With discomfort, coupled with that ever present odd light from the walls, set to deny him any hope of sleep, Pyrrho replayed the events in his office back in his mind. He couldn’t decide whether his father had explained his plans to them in genuine expectation that they would willingly return to his service, or if it was more as a way to boast of his achievements, to rub their faces in what father saw as the error of his children’s ways. Perhaps it was just a simple case of megalomania as he had initially suspected.
The noise from above grew louder, the party must be picking up pace. Pyrrho sighed, thoughts now turned to his sister. Aesara had been led away by leering Drakhan in stunned silence. Knowing that the boy at the well who paid the price of her rage all those years ago had lived. More than that, knowing that he was her half brother. That would be too much to handle for even the most resolute warrior. Pyrrho wanted to be there for her now, a powerful sibling tie that he had thought broken all that time ago. He restlessly turned on the bed. The lump now digging into his side rather than back. Curious.
Pyrrho jumped off the bed and eyed the thin mattress suspiciously. Above him the raucous party began to bang and crash. Sounded like cutlery and pans banging together. The academics really can not handle their drink Pyrrho thought to himself. But his attention quickly returned to the bed, his hands pulling up the mattress. Nothing underneath on the hard ground. Made sense, too easy to check by the guards. But there was something sewn inside the mattress. Pyrrho began pulling at the seam, it took more effort than the slight man would care to admit, but after some exertion the seam popped and he could rip it open. He pulled out the rough wool stuffing, throwing it to the side. If the lump turned out to be nothing more than a dried pea then he’d be sleeping on the hard stone floor with not even the meagre comfort of an intact thin mattress. But it wasn’t a pea. It was a dagger.
It was his dagger.
He recognised the intricate design of the hilt, thin strips of leather wrapped in a tight pattern, the heel of the hilt studded in onyx. It had been with him for many years, until he had been forced to give it up at the Steed’s redoubt. Pyrrho frowned. No, not given up, rather given away. The frown turned into a smile.
Pyrrho was still sat among the innards of his mattress, knife in hand, a little while later when the footsteps began to approach. The bowels of the Previous dungeon-complex echoed sounds, and the approach of footsteps had been Pyrrho’s one advantage in his childhood. Gave him chance to feign sleep rather than risk another beating. More often gave him chance to hide whatever his latest construction designed to aide his escapes. This time it gave him the opportunity to conceal the knife in the waist of his trousers at the base of his back.
The lock in the door turned – no fancy Previous technology here, just retrofitted thick wooden construction. With the door swinging inwards, three Drakhan guards entered, all carrying knarled wooden cudgels. Time for a friendly beating thought Pyrrho sarcastically.
“What’s been goin’ on in ‘ere” the first asked surveying the torn mattress and wool strewn floor
“I was bored” Pyrrho replied
“Well we’re here to provide a bit ‘o entertainment” the second guard laughed at his own humour, slapping the cudgel into the palm of his other hand.
“Can’t wait” said Pyrrho, one hand slowly reaching behind him
“Time to get the show on the road then” said the third guard with a smile.
Said Niv.
Pyrrho’s old friend aimed a vicious blow to the back of the head of the second guard, while Pyrrho leapt at the first. Front on attack was not Pyrrho’s preference, but the element of surprise was. Closing the Drakhan down quickly, he slipped inside the stunned man’s guard and slashed at his throat. The two Drakhan hit the floor almost simultaneously.
“Just like old times” Niv grinned
“Never thought I’d be this happy to see you again” Pyrrho reflected the broad smile “Big risk on your part though, saving little old me”
“Nah, this gig ain’t for me Pyrrho, way too much messed up stuff going on here. Time to split. Saving your sorry arse is just a bonus”
“Thought you liked messed up stuff”
“In the privacy of ma sleeping quarters maybe, but you should see the weird stuff that creep overlord gets up to”
“I am afraid that I can imagine it all too well” Pyrrho looked uneasy “ So how do we get out from here?”
“Out da front door” Niv had poked her head out of the door and into the corridor, checking.
“We never were a front door sort of an operation, Niv, you getting rusty?”
“Well Volk was never some renegade leader before either. What you been doin’ to im?” she turned back into the room, satisfied no more company was on the way she began searching the bodies on the cell floor for anything useful
“I don’t follow”
“That racket you can hear?” Niv cocked an ear to the ceiling, the commotion above was still clearly audible “that’s your man at arms leadin’ the rebellion”
“Rebellion?” Pyrrho listened. The cutlery and pans he thought he’d heard crashing together before could easily be swords and shields depending on the preconception you approached it with.
“Yeah, y’know that mercenary crew you turned up with? Well he’d been thrown in the slammer with them over in the west section. Locked up proper, armed Drakhan all around. Took ‘im less than a day to organise a mutiny. The Drakhan are having to draft in reinforcements from the main gate. So, like I said, we leave by the front door”
“We’re not leaving”
“Ah, you gonna start goin’ on about honour an’ that? Cos you know me Pyrrho, not my style. Much prefer stayin’ alive in disgrace than dyin’ a bloody hero” Niv looked up from her search of the second body, pocketing some coins as she did.
“Won’t be any living disgracefully unless we stop your overlord. I need to get to him”
“No way, he’s got his elite guard with ‘im all the bloody time. You don’t screw with those fella’s”
“What about his research, who guards that?”
Niv smiled “Your lookin’ at her?”
“None other, I lead one of the watches down there. Done pretty well for myself. Mind you, not like you ‘av to be super solider to progress through the idiot Drakhan”
“Take me to it”
“That is more difficult”
“Why?” Pyrrho urged
“We guard the outside, overlord and his boffin cronies go in through some fancy Previous door. It slides right out the ceiling. Well weird.”
“There’s got to be a way in. Back door maybe?”
“No, not even through the stores that run underneath the laboratory, I checked, always good to know the best hidey-holes, that’s me payin’ attention to your learnings right there” Niv looked pleased with herself.
“The stores?”
“Yeah, its Elder kit mainly, the overlord is less interested in it now he has his Previous stuff to play with”
“What sort of kit?”
“Some writings, clothing, armour, no good weapons mind, as they’re over in the armoury”
“Anything else, anything we can use?”
“Don’t think so. There’s a lot of barrels down there gettin’ in the way”
“Barrels” a memory twigged deep in Pyrrho’s mind.
“Yeah, nothing good inside em though. I cracked one open a while back, hopin’ for a drop of booze. But na, just this black powder.”
Pyrrho smiled, the nugget of a memory sprouting into the warm glow of a devious plan. “Niv, there was a woman in the group we were captured with”
“Uh-huh, short, a bit dumpy?”
“A nice height and curved, but yes. Where is she being held?”
“Just down the hall, ready for interrogation, till Volk’s mischief interrupted”
“Good. And Aesara?”
“Big sis? She’s over the other side o’the complex, in the old cells”
Not great, but not insurmountable either “Ok” said Pyrrho, “First we go get Marcia, then you show us the stores, then I go get Aesara”
“You sure you don’t just wanna got out the front door?” a resigned Niv asked.
“We’ve never done it the easy way, no reason to start now” Pyrrho laughed. The two of them left the cell.
Marcia was waiting for them. Rather, more accurately, Marcia was waiting for them outside of her cell .
“About time Pyrrho. You getting sloppy in your old age or something? I’ve been waiting ages” Marcia greeted them
“What? How?” Pyrrho was again confused. He peaked into the cell, two Drakhan lay face down on the floor, snoring loudly.
“Security here is terrible. They’re all distracted by something going off over in the main section”
“I know. What did you do to these two?”
“Worked my charms as ever. That and a nice dose of your special brew that I smuggled in. So what’s the plan? Drakhan distracted, out the front door?”
“I like ‘er already” Niv gave Pyrrho a playful nudge
“And I am sure I would like you to, should your idiot of a companion ever care to introduce us” Marcia scolded
“Oh yes, Marcia, Niv. Niv, Marcia. Now can we get on with the plan please”
“What plan?” Marcia asked
“The plan that dun’t involve the front door” Niv complained.
“Stores. Boom. Aesara. Volk. Exit. Beer. Lots of beer” Pyrrho was getting more aware of the need to make progress while the Drakhan had their attention elsewhere.
“Sounds like fun” Marcia clapped her hands together.
“The last bit does, but if you gonna insist on the other bits, follow me” Niv set off at a trot down the corridor, leading the way to the stores.
It was like a rabbit warren. Occasionally Pyrrho would get sparks of memory from the certain way a corridor forked, or an odd looking door flashed by them as they maintained a brisk pace. All those years ago, this had been his domain, hours spent surveying the hallways and rooms during his frequent attempts at escape. Hours then spent in a windowless room being punished for trying to escape. He wanted to destroy it all.
Eventually they came to a wood and wrought iron double door. The guard post nearby was empty, all hands on deck above them as Volk’s insurrection refused to be put down. Niv produced a heavy looking key from inside her jacket and proceeded to open the doors. The room beyond them was cavernous. The eerie light from the Previous walls cast strange shadows among the racks of books and clothes stored there.
“Over here” Niv pushed on into the room, pointing towards the far corner.
They made their way through the narrow corridors created by the close packed rows of Elder materials. The racks then opened up into a wider space at the far side, filled with neatly arranged rows and columns of black powder filled barrels.
“Woah” exclaimed Marcia as they came to stand in the shadow of the mass of barrels.
“Indeed” said Pyrrho, as he ran a hand down a nearby wooden cask.
“What do we do with it all?” Marcia looked at him
“That’s where you come into it” replied Pyrrho “You’ve seen it being used close at hand, how do we make it do its thing?”
“Fire. But you don’t want to be close when the two substances meet”
“Can you set it up, get us a little time to get away, then bring it down?”
“I think so, but you sure this is how you want to do it?” Marcia looked unsure “You want to lose all the knowledge found here?”
“I don’t want to lose it. I just think it should be discovered more equitably. Not just the plaything of one man. One twisted man. Maybe if we all come at it more gradually then we won’t make the mistakes the Previous did”
“Ok. It will take me a little time to set up though. And a little help shifting these barrels around”
Pyrrho just looked at Niv
“Ahh, come on Pyrrho! I bust you out of jail and within ‘alf an hour you ‘av me riskin’ me neck in the middle of some Elder magics” Niv raised her arms in protest
Pyrrho kept on looking at Niv
“Oh altright. Geez. Ok”
“Excellent. I’ve got places to be” Pyrrho turned towards the exit
“Away from the boom” moaned Niv
“You going to get Aesara?” asked Marcia, look of concern on her face
“Common Pyrrho” said Niv “She’s all the way on the other side of the complex. Plus she can look after herself”
“She can” replied Pyrrho, his back to the two women “But I will not leave her to prove it alone. Not again” his head fell, then back up, look of determination in his eyes.

And also tears. 

Chapter twenty one

The bowels of the Previous castle were perpetually lit by an eerie glow from the walls and ceilings. No one knew how the old technology worked, but it proved highly suitable for its current occupiers. The workshops and meeting rooms we constantly inhabited by a range of experts from across the lands, puzzling at the ancient Previous riddles. This activity never ceased, shift after shift, hour after hour, day after day.
Deeper down were the cells, here the constant light served more as an instrument of torture than an aid to constant work as in the workshops above. Sleep was next to impossible, body clock soon out of rhythm. It made prisoners confused, more prone to cooperation, confession.
Aesara shivered as the memories came rushing back. They were being marched through the labyrinthine by a phalanx of Drakhan soldiers, some with the Elder weapons, others with wicked looking swords or axes. Resistance would be futile, but perhaps a desperate last stand would be preferable to their next meeting. She looked at Pyrrho, the cruel light highlighting the bags under his eyes and worry on his face.
They came to a halt against a matt black wall, one of the Drakhan banging on it with the hilt of her axe. There was a small fizzing noise, then a low whine as the wall, door, slid to one side. This was something neither sibling had seen before, the Previous building obviously yielding new secrets.
There was no time to linger at the doorway, rough hands pushed them forwards. The room beyond was not large, but its round shape and bare dark grey walls made it unsettling. On the opposite side to the door stood an elegantly carved desk. Dark woods inlaid with various gems and shiny metals. Much like Aesara's leg, but on a grander scale.
Behind the desk sat an elderly man, cloak hood now pushed back to reveal a bald head save for a wisp or two of white hair. Grey, close set, eyes peered at them from above a large pudgy nose and pinched mouth. He nodded the guards to stop their captives in the middle of the room, the Drakhan then spreading out to the curved walls, two with the Elder weapons stood either side of the desk, pointing them threateningly at the siblings.
 “So this is how we are to meet again. My own children seek to poison me?” the old man did not sound angry, but nor was he amused.
“We seek to stop your wicked plans” Aesara spoke up, although the wavering tone of her voice hinted at her nerves.
“And what plans are those?” their father rested his elbows on the table, knitting fingers together and resting his chin on them.
“Unleashing yet more dark technology, it is a dangerous game you play” Aesara replied
“It is no game. I bring a return of the modern world”
“You bring the curse of The Previous back upon us”
The old man chuckled to himself “Foolish girl. I thought we schooled you better than to indulge in that superstitious twaddle”
“Watching a thousand men and women die in an instant in front of my very eyes is a curse whether driven by technology or sprites”
“My technology saved your life not that long ago in the grand scheme of things” he nodded at her leg
“Kept me alive for your experiments”
“Those were difficult times for us all. I lacked for as many test subjects as I would have desired. Thankfully you and your brother bring me a fresh new crop” another chuckle.
Aesara shuddered, fell back into silence.
“Who betrayed us?” Pyrrho spoke for the first time
“Ah-ha, there's my boy, looking for an angle. All will be revealed dear Pyrrho. I have a question or two for you myself first”
“And I will keep being questioned till you have the answer you want. This will be like old times. A proper family reunion”
“The reunion is not entirely complete yet” their father smiled
“A shame mother could not be here then, what with being murdered on your orders” Pyrrho was angry, wanted to find a way to hurt his estranged father.
“Your mother was a drunk, you were better off with me”
Pyrrho couldn't help but laugh “Driven to drink by your madness more like. And if we were better off with you, I dread the alternative”
“You have been privileged to stand at the dawn of a new age, but instead chose to throw it back in my face”
“You play with technology you don’t understand” Aesara jumped back in, “You care not for the cost. Or for the fact it destroyed the Elders, then The Previous”
“Nothing destroyed them, my silly little Sara”
That use of her name, the original person to call her that, the memories associated. Aesara scowled, fists clenched tight, muscles taught. The Drakhan became nervous, both of the Elder weapons were now pointed at her. 
“What do you mean?” Pyrrho interjected, aiming to give his sister time to calm, time to lessen the urge to do something stupid.
“If you had stuck around, then you would now understand” his father chided “The Elders. The Previous. Ourselves. We are one and the same”
“What…?” Pyrrho scrunched his face up in confusion, but he was also intrigued
His father smiled, recognising the curiosity of his son in himself. “You have a nasty habit of turning from questionee to questioner” he snigger once more “But I will indulge you. Never got much opportunity to read you bed time stories before” Aesara growled, but their father ignored her and continued. “The Elders were not a single group, or a single period of time. They existed from the dawn of mankind, they were mankind, for thousands of years. They made rapid progress, developing the written word, then the technologies that would be recorded on paper to be hunted down eons later by the simple folk at the university” a casual glance at Aesara. “They progressed fast across the fields of human endeavour. Gunpowder, medicine, construction, farming. They had ambition, unlike the feeble excuse of today’s mankind” a frown “They learnt to control lightening, light, fire. Giant machines did their bidding, producing automated carriages or little trinkets. They left this planet to visit the moon”
Aesara laughed. “This is indeed a bedtime fairytale” she said. The laugh made the Drakhan even more nervous than when she was angry.
Her father continued, unperturbed. “They moved beyond simple paper. Their knowledge committed first to box like machines, then the very air we breathe. Communication was instant, global. The Elders became The Previous. With no need for paper, the Previous abandoned such an outdated form of recording knowledge. Elder archives were abandoned, or destroyed to make room for more advanced pursuits. Not out of malice, but out of a lack of need for such anachronisms of a previous age.  At the height of their powers, the Previous carried the sum total of their entire knowledge with them in a tiny personal device. Try doing that with your stuffy archives” he nodded at Aesara, who just shook her head in reply; her father had finally succumb to a madness long promised by his previous conduct .
“And you seek this technology?” Pyrrho spoke
“Not seek it, for we have now found it” their father smiled, reached into a draw on his side of the table and produced a small grey rectangular box. It was smooth, like a pebble, but straight edged. “Finding these was easy” he stared at the device “for they litter the Previous cities”
“You enter the cities?” Aesara
“Of course, so would you if it represented a short cut home, you are not superstitious like most Aesara”
“But I would not linger to play in the ruins”
“As I have already said, it is not a game. These machines” he held up the device “are the key to my, our, next great step forward”
“So if you already have the machines, what have the university been doing?” Pyrrho’s curiosity well and truly had the best of him by now.
“Having the machine is one thing, making it work another. From what we can understand, the demise of the Previous coincided with an event that rendered their technology non-functional. But now, with the university’s help,  we can turn them back on”
“An event” Aesara mocked “So you admit you know not what you deal with. The event the Previous stumbled into despite all their advances”
“That is for the historians or philosophers of your collective to puzzle over. Maybe it was a war, or a natural disaster. What is more important is that I, we, can open up the Previous’ entire knowledge at once. No more scrabbling round in the dirt for a torn half a page of outdated Elder ramblings. I will change the seven counties forever. I will rule them. A society based on research and progress. Can you not see what you sought to destroy will benefit us all?” eyes wide, eyebrows arched.
“A society based around one man and his insatiable desire for progress, no matter the cost in human suffering, is not a society I want to be part of” Aesara’s retort was said with venom.
He father put the device on the desk and rubbed his eyes. “Then you won’t be part of it” he said, exasperated. “You will spend your days back where you started them. I will not have you get in the way of my, our, glorious future. How about you, boy?” he looked at Pyrrho “I had hoped to convince you both of your prior follies, to join me as I unlock the untold secrets of the Previous. But it seems you sister is a lost cause. Too damaged by past misfortune to see the way ahead. But you were always more aware of the bigger picture”
Misfortune?! Is that what you what I suffered on your orders, at your hands?” Aesara’s anger was flaring again, the Drakhan around the room shifted uncomfortably.
Pyrrho put a hand on her shoulder, she almost through it off in rage, but there was something about his touch. Reassuring. They were in this together.
“I do see the big picture, father” Pyrrho said “Tell me this, the Previous, did just one person have all of this knowledge you talk of? Or was it shared among them?”
“Some had more than others”
“But all had at least some?” it was Pyrrho’s eyebrow that was raised now “No one had a monopoly, no one person, especially not one person as, as twisted as yourself” the eyebrow was now accompanied by a snarl. “I shall have no part of this dangerous power trip father, it will not be a family affair”
Their father chuckled. “Not quite true. Not all of my blood are as closed minded as yourselves” he nodded at the Drakhan near to the entrance way, one of them proceeded to press something in the wall and the door swished open.  “Please allow me to formally introduce your half brother” he said to Aesara and Pyrrho with an ominous smile.
Onatas entered the room.
“What the…?” Aesara anger was subsumed by surprise, confusion, alarm.
Onatas carefully made his way round the circumference of the room, careful to stay out of reach of his two older siblings, also careful not to make eye contact. He stood behind the desk, to the right of his father.
“You see my daughter, I did care for your wellbeing despite what you may think. Wanted to keep you safe”
“This little pipsqueak was to keep Aesara safe?” Pyrrho spoke, Aesara still too stunned to make sense of the situation. “More likely you wanted to keep an eye on her, make sure she didn’t get in the way of you plans”
Their father held his hands up “I admit, there was an element of self preservation. But our interests aligned; I used my growing influence to stop her being taken in by any of those undesirable warlords, keep her safe from their bloodspill. But then that idiot Steed accepted her into his retinue” he frowned at the memory “that mess was a little harder to resolve. She progressed in his ranks as we all knew she would be capable of. Maybe she would even have succeeded the Steed himself one day?”
“So you engaged the Drakhan?” Aesara still could not rationalise all that she was seeing and hearing, but her tactical instinct, the warrior of her mind, was still thinking straight as it always did in the turmoil of battle. “You bogged the Steed down in combat. You oversaw atrocities carried out, the perpetual cycle of violence. When I had left the battlefield for good, you moved to destroy the Steed for good”
Her father gave a gentle clap “I already had contact with the Drakhan, providing gradual improvements in armour and weaponry. They shared my desire to unify the lands”
“To dominate the lands” corrected Aesara
The old man continued “So it became easier to influence their tactical advances, to push the Steed, to free you from his grasp. Can’t you see I wanted to protect you?”
“Protect yourself. The Steed was set in his ways, I had fresh ideas that could have turned the tide”
“And I exploited that difference of opinion. You were kept safe and, yes, so was I”
“I don’t mean to sound self centred, but where do I fit into this? You had no fear that I would return to extract revenge?” Pyrrho still had many questions
His father chuckled in response. “In the early years after your, hmmm, sudden exit, you were a long way away, with your lady in Fortunestone. More preoccupied with petty town intrigues and affairs of the heart than threatening my goals. When you left to enter the periodic service of the Steed I had my concerns, but you always seemed to be more about the thrill of the chase than any wider goal.”
“Any wider megalomania you mean” Pyrrho interjected
“However you put it, you were of only minor concern to me. Now your woman, you former woman, she was of more interest to me. I look forward to meeting her later, find out if she enjoyed snooping around my preparations for the Steed. You know I have little tolerance for people breaking into my territory” he gave Pyrrho an ominous look. The younger man now looked more like the one to crack with rage, Drakhan weapons moved to point in his direction.
“So where does he come into this” it was Aesara’s turn to rest a hand on Pyrrho’s shoulder while she nodded towards Onatas, the apprentice still stood silently by the desk.
“That was where things began to come together quite nicely for me” replied their father “There was only so much progress I could make myself, the Previous secrets required more manpower. Onatas was making good progress with me, but was capable of more. At your university he could both learn, influence, and keep an eye on you”
“And take me out of the way when you needed the university to accept your proposition to move here”
They were interrupted by Pyrrho, now a little calmer at his sister’s touch, slapping his forehead. “I should have known! Idiot” he chided himself
“Known what?” asked Aesara, their father sharing her questioning look.
“That that tubby little brat knew more than he was letting on”
“Let me guess father” Pyrrho ignored her question to ask his own “The Previous, as they developed, as they committed their knowledge to the air, did their language change? Did their writings?”
“Their society progressed universally, writings included”
“And that was why Onatas was able to read the Drakhan surrender deman at the Steed’s redoubt when no one else could. You had communicated in Previous writing rather than Elder. He was the only one there that understood it. That was also why it took Marcia’s code-breakers so long to translate the note sent to Fortunestone” a riddle solved, but Pyrrho was far from satisfied.
“Always an eye for the intrigue” his father slowly nodded “I had worried that Onatas would be unmasked, that perhaps one of you would recognise him, even”
“How would we recognise him?” Aesara frowned “We’ve never met him before”
“We have” Onatas spoke for the first time, a low resentment in his voice “Many years ago admittedly, but it was a time that I would suggest stuck in the memory for both of us” he continued
“I don’t understand” Aesara shook her head
“You were not the only one to suffer misfortune in your childhood, sister. I suffered mine when we first met…

“…at the old well”

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Chapter twenty


The day preceding the banquet was excruciating work. All of the sentries had been seconded to the labourers, lugging furniture or equipment up the hill to the Previous castle. This was in full dress uniform, to present a smart face to the Drakhan, as mandated by the Celcus with more than a hint of Marcia's involvement. Part of the uniform was tall boots, one of which now stretched over Aesara's false leg. It made walking that bit more difficult. It made walking up a hill lugging a heavy box of ancient Elder writings downright painful.
A back room in the castle had been given over as a store room for the university. It led into what was currently a bare room that Celcus had designs on turning into a museum celebrating the university's work over the years. Something to make self-centred small talk with the Drakhan high command over canapés and fine wines.
Aesara couldn't help but shudder as she entered the Previous castle for the first time in almost two decades. While she had never visited the rooms they were in now – reserved as they were for presenting an acceptable face to visiting dignitaries - they were enough to stir memories of what lay below in the bowels of the building. Of the horrors that had occurred down there. She didn't know how Pyrrho made it look so easy, as the small man fluttered among the university stores and groups of workers, sharing a joke or slyly poking fun at the nearby Drakhan. He was also, unbeknownst to Aesara, trading information and instructions with the group of soldiers that had accompanied Marcia and himself from Fortunestone. They had come to the Drakhan base in various guises, but mainly as labourers for the merchants of the nearest village and source of supplies for the Drakhan.
Marcia had left the labourers behind to become Celcus' personal event planner. She was wandering about, looking entirely in her element, giving out instructions, berating any perceived slackening in the quality of food preparation or room decoration. She had more latitude to also mingle with the Drakhan, seeking clarification of where what elements of the banquet were to be held where. This formed a useful opportunity to speak with Volk, the big man in his patched up trousers stood guard over the Drakhan contribution to the event; barrels of wine and other drinks along with various delicacies from around the recently conquered lands.  Perhaps he had not managed to work his way into guarding whatever lay in the depths of the building where the real secrets were to be found, but a potentially useful position all the same. 
The day drew on and Aesara became, if not comfortable, then accepting of her position and task. The three of them had spent much of the previous night planning what they would do once they were at the banquet. They need to get to him, the master of this chaos, the orchestrator of the dangerous new wave of dark technologies. Perhaps they would need to eliminate his disastrous influence, or perhaps they could just destroy the research and save the seven counties. They needed answers, and tonight they would either find them, or die trying. Death would be preferable to Aesara than a fresh capture, and she suspected the same was true for Pyrrho, despite his confident outward demeanour. 
By early evening the preparations were complete. Aesara stood in the line of sentries that formed a guard of honour up to the front of the castle. She'd cursed the dress uniform earlier as uncomfortably restricting and too hot in the late summer sunshine. However now she was glad of the warmth it provided as the shadows lengthened and wind picked up. They were kept waiting for close to an hour, but eventually she could see the small precession start to wind its way up the hill from the university camp below them. A slightly larger sized group of senior Drakhan moved to meet them at the gateway to the grounds that the Previous castle stood on, the two groups pausing to animatedly chat, laughter shared. They then headed towards Aesara's guard, itself now flanked by smartly dressed Drakhan infantry who had more sensibly waited inside while the various dignitaries got their acts together. Volk gave her an uneasy wink from across the way that Aesara returned with a nervous smile. Aesara's Drakhan admirer from when she had tracked down Onatas gave them both dirty looks.
The mixed high council and senior Drakhan delegation slowly made their way through the guard of honour. Pausing from time to time to exchange a word with a familiar face, or issue a patronising comment on how well turned out everyone was. Celcus himself had stopped in front of Aesara, looked like he was going to say something before thinking better of it and moving on. Did he suspect something? Would he betray them? Aesara's imagination ran wild with speculation, she had to force herself to breath more slowly.
With the delegation disappearing inside, the massed ranks of sentries and Drakhan filed over to the side of the building where Maria was dictating the final order of events. Some of the sentries were to act as attendants to the guests, but most, including Aesara were on background duties. Pouring trays of drinks, plating meals and various other menial duties. Aesara did not mind too much, it kept her busy ahead of the final move. Over the way she saw Volk slip into the drinks storage tent, package in hand.
Pyrrho drew close to her as she arranged cuts of meat on a pewter tray.
“How do we stand?” he asked in a conversational tone; had he started whispering conspiratorially it would have stood out. As it was the din of the preparation area was more than enough to keep anyone else from listening over them.
“Volk has delivered your special brew. I've got the mugs arranged ready. Still think this is an overly dramatic way of doing things. Thought you were more about the subtle manoeuvring?” she didn't look up, instead contracting on arranging the food stuffs.
“Normally am. But the toast is the only time when most of the Drakhan grunts will also take a swig. We don't have enough people to overwhelm them otherwise”
“The gossip is that the Overlord will attend the toast”
“Not like you to engage in camp tittle-tattle” Pyrrho smirked at his sister's slow entrance into his own world of intrigue “But it's be good if he did. Make a grab for him and get out of here”
“We got enough people to break out?”
“Touch and go. Hope you're up for a scrap”
“As ever” Aesara growled
“Excellent” Pyrrho turned and left, Aesara looked up to watch him go.
“Good luck, dear brother” she said under her breath.
The ringing of a bell interrupted her sentimentality – an unusual emotion for Aesara – and she hurried back into the tent where the neat rows of mugs stood to attention like the gathering masses in the main hall would be. Marcia bustled into the tent.
“Right everyone, this is it, get pouring, we need to get this to them as soon as possible” she instructed. Volk clumped into the tent, barrels under both arms and large buckets carried in each hand.
“Get it while it's fresh” he said, attempting to mimic the light hearted voice of some market trader.
Aesara moved over and grabbed one of the buckets. She was immediately taken aback by the smell. The specific process of mulling the wine had been found in one of the oldest Elder manuscripts owned by the university. While the recipe yielded and almost unpalatable brew, it was considered a delicacy given its provenance. The strong taste and foul smell would also mask the extra ingredients Volk had added, a concoction well known to Pyrrho in his line of work, the ingredients gathered by the allies outside the camp as instructed by the notes Aesara smuggled out.
The recipe called for the brew to be drank quickly after pouring, less the full impact of the taste be lost. This was undesirable from both the point of view of keeping up the university's appearances  - something admittedly Celcus would care about more than Aesara – and unmasking the bitter taste of the added ingredients.
Mugs topped up, Aesara grabbed a tray and headed over to the main hall. Volk followed with the other serving staff, Marcia alongside, although she did not deign to carry a tray. At the entrance Drakhan guards blocked their entrance.
“Out of the way” instructed Aesara “this needs to be distributed quickly”
The gruff Drakhan in front of her, the one that had groped her before sneered. “We're to take 'em in darlin' ” he said “The honour of the, er, toast, er, pertains to us” he stumbled over the unfamiliar words, obviously instructions from higher up the command chain. Aesara frowned.
“There a problem?” Marcia strode up to them
“He says the Drakhan get the honour of passing them out” Aesara nodded disdainfully at her Drakhan admirer.
“I've discussed this with your commander” Marcia said in an authoritative tone, although the following pause implied she was making up what had been discussed on the fly. “The honour is to be shared, half from the university, half you and your comrades.”
The Drakhan squinted at her “Commander Boots said that”
“Yes, the dear little man was very keen to be seen as fair, now come come, time to go in”
“But commander Boots is a woman”
“I was speaking figuratively, now hurry up you silly man”
“Alright” he said “But I'm takin' 'er tray” he nodded at Aesara “She don't deserve no honour”
Aesara looked to Marcia for guidance, who nodded. Aesara handed over the tray and watched the Drakhan go in, winking at her as he turned away.
Volk went to follow the Drakhan in, but had his way blocked by a squat man in a lieutenant's uniform. “Not you fatty” he said in a sneering tone “You've got orders to go guard that stupid museum” and with that he snatched away Volk's tray.
“It makes no difference” Marcia said after the Drakhan had disappeared inside. “Might even serve us well not to be at the scene of the crime”
“Something not right though” said Aesara, soldiers instinct for trouble shouting at her.
“That's just pre-performance nerves speaking” Marcia attempted to make light, although her own instincts were also urging caution.
“Madam Marcia” they were interrupted by a squeaky voice, one of the camp messenger boys tugged at Marcia's robes.
“What is it?” she asked briskly
“One of the displays in the museum..” he squirmed under Marcia's angry gaze “ got knocked down, labourer Olbas did it” the latter confession said at rapid pace, the messenger then taking off at a sprint lest he be grilled further.
“Olbas is a clumsy oaf” Marcia grumbled, setting off for the temporary museum.
Aesara took long strides to catch up “Does such a triviality matter right now?” she urged
“We keep up the pretence till the objective is complete. Makes denial easier if things go wrong”
They caught up with Volk along the way, who had set off for his new guard duty as instructed. Aesara made eye contact with him as they drew level, trying to see if he too shared her concerns. He didn't hold her gaze, instead played nervously with the mean looking mace at his hip.
Inside the space set up as the museum was chaos. Labourers, sentries, kitchen staff all bustled about. Most in some state of confusion. Marcia went to survey the damaged exhibit, but Pyrrho soon took her place at Aesara's side.
“We going to make a move soon?” she asked her brother “I don't like this waiting”
“Patience sister, the brew will take a little time to work its magic. For now we keep....busy” he stopped, looking about quickly. Face falling as realisation dawned.
“What's wrong?” Aesara was quick to pick up on the change in mood.
“The people here” Pyrrho continued to look about
“What about them?” Aesara also began to look around, but could see nothing odd about them.
“I know them all”
Shit, we've been betrayed. Aesara, get out” he pushed her towards a door, signalling to Marcia over the other side of the room to do the same.
Aesara still didn't follow, but complied all the same, her brother's tone signalling fear and urgency. It took a few seconds for them to get through the throng of people and across to the main doors.
Just as they slammed shut.
Aesara banged and kicked at them, but the heavy wood, iron framed, offered no give. She turned back to the room, searching for another exit. Then she saw Pyrrho, who was looking up at the balcony. The balcony now filling with Drakhan military, each carrying a version of the weapon Volk had fallen foul of back in the hamlet. She saw the big man cower by one of the exhibits as he saw the same thing.
The crowd in the museum fell silent. All of Pyrrho and Marcia's small force of soldiers come infiltrators in the same place. Someone had known their secret. That someone entered the balcony above them all. He wore all black, culminating in a large black hood that hung low over his forehead. There was now little natural light in the room, but what there was picked out wrinkled skin and sagging jowls.
He spoke in a horse voice, tired almost, resigned. “Aesara, Pyrrho. I believe we need to talk”
The two siblings first looked at each other, then back to the man.

“Yes, father” they said as one. 

Chapter nineteen

“This stew tastes like feet” Pyrrho struggled to swallow the sentries’ brew
“It tastes like heaven on a long night’s patrol, not that you’d know such an honest, hard night’s work” it had not taken long for Aesara’s prickliness towards her brother to re-emerge.
“My night time endeavours tend not to involve stew, that much is true” Pyrrho put his cup down and edged towards one of the gaps in the wall of their tumbledown rendezvous. “And my night time endeavours are normally harder work than infiltrating this camp was. The overseer wants sacking”
“For once you will not find me disagreeing with you” Aesara conceded. Malic’s scheduling plus the chaos of a watch changeover meant that another sentry would not come this way for the best part of an hour yet.   “But you evaded the Drakhan guard as well?”
“You’re the weak spot. Rest of the complex is more heavily locked down, but with you lot they’re more worried about escapees than new entrants. Worries me when that happens with the Drakhan”
“Protecting their investment” Marcia spoke for the first time since the hurried introductions. She’d wanted to let the siblings catch up, plus she was actually quite enjoying the stew. “They don’t want word leaking out of their research. Tallies with how well they kept Steed’s ambush a secret”.
“So what nasty surprise are they working on now?” Pyrrho asked
“Wish I could tell you” replied Aesara
“A simple sentry not privy to the research?” Pyrrho prodded
“Not privy to anything that makes sense.  I know a fair bit of the Elder writings, but am not an academic. Far as I can work out, the Drakhan have them working on bits of something larger, something they’re putting together up on the hill” Aesara nodded out of a rear window that looked up towards the looming Previous mansion on the horizon.
“We need to get up there” Marcia stated the thought that was already on the minds of Pyrrho and Aesara.
“Can your man, Volk, get us in?” Aesara looked at her brother
“Not likely. We took a gamble inserting him today as it was. Been some reinforcements arriving recently, figured that was our best chance to get a guy in. But there’s no way they’ll put him guarding the treasure so soon”
“Who does have access?” asked Marcia
“Your council visits regularly” Pyrrho remarked
“For the hospitality rather than the research, Celcus has a vociferous taste for the Drakhan’s wines” said Aesara
“Sounds like my sort of man” Marcia smirked “Does he want a date?” she joked
Pyrrho’s look turned studious. Aesara regarded him with suspicion, then said “I think the Drakhan, not to mention Celcus, would be more than a little suspicious if a new face was to suddenly join the council for one of their night’s festivities”
“Of course, we wouldn’t send Marcia in directly. But if there was a bigger event at the house on the hill, they’d need more serving staff, more labourers, more..” a wink at Marcia “ladies of dubious morals”
“There is nothing dubious about my morals” said Marcia snootily “they are quite clearly depraved” a wicked smile flashed across her face.
“But we can’t suddenly demand they have a big party” Aesara was confused, uncomfortable amid this growing talk of intrigue
“You don’t need to demand anything. A word here, a nudge there. Your man, Onatas, has the ear of the council does he not? There’s another route in”
“I rarely see him these days. They work them hard”
“All the better, a suggestion of festivities will be more believable from him” Pyrrho had started pacing, waving his hands animatedly as he did so. A familiar trait when the seed of an idea began to grow in his mind.
“I’m not sure I can orchestrate this Pyrrho” Aesara hated admitting weakness, especially in front of Pyrrho, but there was no way she was capable of such discreet manipulation.
“You don’t need to” he stopped and turned towards her, big grin on his face “We will” he indicated himself and Marcia.
“None other. It’s best we stay in the camp anyway, Drakhan security too tight to risk getting back out.”
“But you’ll be detected”
“Aesara, this is what we do” he put a hand on Marcia’s shoulder, who made no complaint “give it a month and Marcia’ll be running the place and I’ll have all its dirty little secrets. Give it a week and we won’t have as much, but we will have a pretty big party planned”
Aesara was about to complain. To point out that although the university camp was made up of many people, many different trades, it was still close knit. Much like any small village or community. But she stopped herself, the spark in Pyrrho's eye spoke of a confidence that outweighed any concerns on her side. Instead she just shrugged her shoulders, grabbed another cup of soup before Marcia finished it, and resigned herself to watching a potential disaster from a front row seat.
But it was very far from a disaster. The biggest risk turned out to be Aesara herself giving the game away by gawping at Pyrrho or Marcia happily wondering round the camp in various guises. The two infiltrators, though having spent a long time apart, quickly slipped back into old techniques, tried and tested tactics. It would have been noted if all of a sudden a new labourer turned up with a well integrated working party, but if that new person was first seen talking with others from a different section of the camp workforce like old friends then the integration was easier. Especially if the new person came with dark tales and juicy gossip of the activities elsewhere in the camp. Likewise it would be unusual for a new cook to suddenly arrive at the kitchen tent ready and raring to go. But if that person was specifically noted on roster's going back many weeks, then perhaps the head cook would put it down to the person being quiet, or themselves being too busy to notice.
Pyrrho would happily stop and chat with his sister out in the open. It both served his purpose of displaying a familiarity with long standing and well known camp followers and, increasingly importantly, it got him precious respite from peeling potatoes. He'd explain to Aesara how things stood, and what she was needed to do. Her tasks were generally straight forward, either representing a lack of confidence in her abilities – which she would have been annoyed about had she not shared the feeling – or showing Pyrrho's confidence in his own handling of the situation. The most frequent request of Aesara was to get word to their allies still on the outside of the camp. But rather than a dangerous excursion through enemy territory, this mean little more than folding a scrawled note around a rock and throwing it over a certain section of the cliff top during her patrol. Occasionally on patrol she would come across a note thrown back. How they timed this for her patrol rather than anyone else’s was a mystery to Aesara. It seemed that Pyrrho and Marcia knew Malic's schedules better than the man himself did.
Her one difficult task had been to talk to Onatas. She'd needed to do it quickly after Pyrrho's arrival in camp, lest the young apprentice give them away through shock. Onatas was not the best at hiding his feelings. But he had proven pretty adept at hiding himself, indeed actually locating him had been the first challenge for Aesara. He had not been in the archives, nor any of the small working groups set up by the council to work on the various parts of the Previous technology. Aesara's excuses for wondering round the camp asking after him were starting to wear thin. The dining tent was easy to check without raising further suspicion, Aesara glad of the opportunity to grab a bite to eat. That was until Pyrrho served it her with a nod and a wink. Food only half eaten, she had headed to the sleeping quarters. She only knew roughly where the apprentice's slung their cots, so had to ask around, her requests often greeted with a lurid comment about why she might want to find his bunk. A few annoying minutes later, and a couple of black eyes dished out, she had satisfied herself that he wasn't there either.
Much as she had with Volk, she near bumped into Onatas outside the high council marquee. Aesara was taken aback when she recognised her former travelling companion. He also looked awkward, face reddening amid the hood of his grand cloak. She fell in to step with the group alongside the apprentice as the group from the council began their now familiar path to the Previous construction.
“I see your time spent learning under me paid dividends, what with you being promoted to the council now” she remarked with the flash of a smile.
“No, my, er, expertise has been requested at the castle” he made no effort to reflect her attempt at humour, instead staring at the large Previous building up on the hill. 
“No need to sound so nervous. I don’t think they bite. Not much, anyway” another attempt at breaking the tension that seemed to have surrounded Onatas.
“I am sure they do not” Onatas did not invite a response in his tone. Aesara frowned in consternation. 
“Don’t think the little fella wants to be you friend no more” the mocking voice came from behind Aesara, “you can come talk to me if ya want”
She glanced round disdainfully. The Drakhan immediately behind them winked at her. Aesara's face hardened. Both at the unwelcome comment from the Drakhan, but also the fact he was in earshot of her and Onatas. But she did not know when she would have another opportunity to talk with him. Once again, she did her best to channel her inner Pyrrho, albeit accompanied by a sense of distaste.
“You are among friends” she noted in an attempt at casualness.
“The council honour me with their company” his eyes were still set dead ahead.
“Old friends. From outside” a quick glance to the Drakhan behind, see if he suspected anything. She just got a wolf whistle for her trouble.
“I know”
“You, er, do? Excellent” Aesara felt increasingly awkward. “They are, er, shy however. They appreciate, er, discretion”
“Of course. Goodbye Aesara” he glanced quickly at her, look of anguish, confusion on his face. But no way for Aesara to ask what caused it. Their immediate Drakhan company was too close, and the gates from the university camp drew near.
Aesara stopped as the group headed through the gates. Too perplexed to even retaliate at the pat on her backside as the leering Drakhan walked past her. Job done, she told herself, but could gain no satisfaction from it.
A few days later Aesara and the two infiltrators were back in the sentries' hideaway. Pyrrho this time stirring a concoction more palatable to him out of stores liberated from the kitchen. “We're on” he said, before taking a small sip from the cauldron and nodding his approval.
“Already?” Aesara was surprised at the speed of events
“Would have been sooner if madam here” a nod at Marcia lent against the wall “could drag herself away from whispering sweet nothings to Celcus”
“You're only jealous that I shall be on the top table while you serve me rare delicacies” Marcia retorted.
“Turns out they've had a few breakthroughs recently. Made Him up at the castle amenable to a more lavish banquet than the usual” Pyrrho nodded out the window and up the hill at the Previous building, referred to by most as the castle, even if Aesara thought it more resembled a haunted house.
“And you both have invites?” Aesara asked
“We all do” said her brother has he ladled out three cups of steaming broth.
“Uh-huh” he passed the cups around, Marcia began greedily devouring hers but Aesara just stared at Pyrrho.
“He will recognise me” she said
“After fifteen years away? Even when we were there, his visits were infrequent, unless testing something on us”
“But I have a more distinguishing feature than most” Aesara raised her false leg, gems catching the light of the small fire.
“You can disguise it, you have before. Plus, you'll be in the kitchen with me, away from prying eyes”.
The three lapsed into silence as they ate the rich broth, each contemplating the day, and night, ahead.

Outside in the cold wind of the evening, prying eyes watched on.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Chapter eighteen

Aesara knelt at the side of the old well. It hadn’t been used in years, the bucket missing, the walls crumbling and weeds pushing through the surrounding cobbles. It was located in what was now a disused part of the complex, a ghost town of crumbling Elder single story buildings. She was supposed to be guarding the southern approach to where the university had set up its new home, but it had been easy to slip away as Malic became increasingly confused by the schedules he was attempting to set up. Idiot. Not that his idiocy would be shown up, it wasn’t as if the camp sentries served any real purpose, surrounded as they were by the greater Drakhan workings of the complex. High walls and well armed soldiers. The university was paying lip service to its independence, but no more.
The journey to the complex had been uneventful. Aesara’s new found cooperation drew suspicious glances from the Drakhan accompanying them, but not direct challenge. The Drakhan horse commander she’d injured had kept ample distance between them, instead spending his time forlornly watching his still horse-bound comrades.
Conversation amid the academics as they travelled had been muted. The previous excitement of their new endeavours giving way to trepidation as more fearsome looking Drakhan joined the convoy, hemming then in. They had snaked their way up the coast road, the distance too much and the guard too numerous for Aesara to slip away to the hamlet to look for word of Pyrrho. She consoled herself that her brother would eventually make the same journey that she was doing, although could think not of a way to find him. Instead she needed to trust that he would find her. Trust had never been much of a feature of Aesara’s personality since her childhood, however.
The work of the academics had begun in earnest almost as soon as the university had been assigned its new home. Their tents intermingled with squat, creeper strewn Elder buildings. The large archive had been set up anew at the centre, tight between some of the buildings, no room for their traditional open space in its vicinity. In fact there was little space for socialising at all, the cramped confines of their camp constricting movement as well as moods. Nor was their time for social pursuits, the high council, presumably urged on by their new overlords, pushing the academics for quick results on the technologies they were investigating. Aesara hadn’t seen Onatas since they had arrived.
Leaving the complex was impossible. Aesara had attempted to take a walk in the neighbouring country side early in their stay, but had been promptly rounded up by Drakhan outriders. She attempted subsequent sojourns, but each was met by a similar result. Security had certainly been tightened in the years since leaving the complex. She hoped getting in was easier for Pyrrho’s sake.
The only people permitted to leave the camp were members of the high council. They made frequent trips  up a narrow path from the complex to the imposing Previous building at the crest of a hill overlooking them and out to the sea beyond. Aesara knew the building well, she’s spent seven years living in its bowels after all, but she enjoyed watching members of the council nervously fidgeting on the days of their visits. As senior academics they made protestations against silly superstitions, but Aesara smiled when watching what happened when they were directly challenged on this front. It would take years for them to become even slightly at ease with the building’s imposing façade and brooding, hunched, construction. Just as it had for her, and just as it had for the grizzled Drakhan that served as their jailers. The Drakhan were a superstitious lot, but this elite guard had been hardened by years of service. Made them all the more dangerous, more desperate, in Aesara’s embittered experience.
Aesara stood up, brushing dust from her sentry’s breaches. She couldn’t rationalise her now frequent visits to the old well. It gave her no closure on past misdeeds, just reopened old regrets. But she was still drawn here. Perhaps it was a form of self flagellation, or some kind of prayer to the innocents hurt by her actions. A pledge never to fall that deep into her anger again. She shook her head. Whimsical nonsense, she chided herself. A dangerous self indulgence, a waste of time when she should be preparing to seek the answers to a life’s riddle.
She picked her way back through the broken down buildings and out onto the cracked grey concrete path that led back to the university camp. If she timed it right, then she’d merge back into the sentry roster on the southern approach with no one the wiser as to her absence, thanks to the nonsensical patrol routes dreamt up by the incompetent Malic. If only the Drakhan security was as lax, she sighed.
Back at the well the rubble dust stirred up by Aesara’s exit gradually settle back onto the ground. Dappled sunlight fell across the weeds and grasses that had sprouted there. A gentle breeze lapped around a small stubby tree that clung to the side of a half collapsed wall.
A figure emerged from behind the wall, dark cloak drawn around its head. Walked to the side of the well and contemplated the disturbance in the dust and detritus that Aesara had left.
Onatas frowned.
 Back on patrol Aesara lapsed into a slow marching pace, memories of her early days in the Steed’s ranks as a young cadet. She’d dreaded the night patrols the worse. Cold, often wet and always lonely. Bleak hours spent attempting to give the impression of alertness, but instead time was spent in the dank confines of her troubled mind. At least the Steed had taken her, plenty of warlords at the time had scoffed at her disability, despite the often violent proof otherwise that she was a more than effective soldier.
The patrol pattern looped up and round the east side of the camp. Here the true nature of their captivity was more obvious as her route followed an imposing wire fence. Back in the confines of the camp the council could convince themselves that they chose to stay here voluntarily, but the fence told a different tale. Freshly installed, five metres tall, it was an impressive feet of engineering for the current age.
There was also a hole in the base of it.
Aesara frowned, pace slowly as she cast a furtive glance. Someone or thing had attempted to cover the hole up with some rocks and undergrowth, but the wind had knocked the top of the hastily erected disguise down. She then looked around, no sign of the trespasser. But more tellingly, no sign of other guards – there would be a couple of minutes blind spot here every hour if her recollection of Malic’s dismal presentation to the sentries this morning was anything to go by. Aesara stooped down to look at the hole. Could it be an animal? The cuts in the wire looked a little to clean for that. Plus it would be a big animal that needed a hole this large. And a clever animal that sought to hide their handy work afterwards. She worked quickly, looking at the edges of the hole for something. Ah-ha. She quickly grabbed it, stood up quickly, checked about for any witnesses. Still no one. She pulled some more rocks and netted ivy from a derelict building nearby and working fast, covered over the hole, making sure to have some heavier items at the top to prevent the wind from unmasking it again.
Long strides caught her back up to where she should be on the patrol, the route leaving the fence to follow a cliff top path. It was more open here, she could see another sentry on the headland across the way from her position, so she kept her evidence concealed in a jacket pocket. In another half a mile the path head back towards camp, low buildings crowded round the track way. Aesara slipped into one of them where a small fire burnt below a pot of thin looking stew. Trust sentries to find a way to keep warm on route, even if at the cost of camp security. It was an old trick that she would have clamped down on if still overseer, but as a mere sentry she fed the fire with a couple of sticks, took a small cup of stew, then topped it up with a nearby flask of water and a couple of withered vegetables she’d dug out of the ground near the headland. As she gratefully sipped the stew, she drew out the item she’d taken from the hold in the fence. A torn rag of clothing. Dark blue one side, a livid red the other. Aesara frowned, these were the colours of the Drakhan guard. Why would they be attempting to sneak into the university complex?
Taking a final sip of stew she put down the cup and went back to finish the patrol route, the Drakhan rag folded away insider her jacket. She was still considering this latest puzzle as she wound her way back through the university tents and commandeered Elder units. She was about to clomp into the overseer’s office, report nothing unusual to Malic, but a group over near the council marquee court her eye.
“That you Sara?” the voice from within the overseer’s tent. Malic use of her shortened name caused Aesara to grimace.
“Yes, sir” said through gritted teeth.
“Get in here then, stop messing about”
Aesara gave the Drakhan a final appraising glance before entering Malic’s tent. The new overseer looked up at his predecessor from behind a paper strewn desk. Aesara had been similarly messy when in charge, but she suspected that these papers were more for decoration than planning.
“Anything to report?” demanded Malic
“No, sir” Aesara’s use of “sir” always half a beat slow. Not enough to risk discipline – she had no desire for another stint in the brig – but just enough to hint at disrespect. Malic bristled at the repeated slight.
“You are back on duty tonight, don’t be late” he dismissed her with a wave of a quill in his hand, but Aesara remained. It was not the extra shift that was playing on her mind, rather something about the Drakhan.
“Malic, sir” she began “Who is on escort duty currently?”
“Escort?” Malic sounded unsure
“Yes, the Drakhan at the high council”
“Why would they need escorting?” Malic frowned
“They are on university grounds. The pro-vice chancellor was very specific about our independence. And they are at the council now. What if Celcus sees no sentry presence outside of his own domain. Could be embarrassing”
“Yes, er, I was about to appoint an, er, escort. In fact,” he selected a paper and started waving it “right here, I have you down for escort duty”
Aesara could see that the paper waved in her direction was blank, but said nothing other than “Yes, sir”
“Get going then. What have I said to you about tardiness?” Malic urged. Aesara couldn’t help but smirk as she turned on her heels and left the overseer’s tent.
Back outside and she momentarily thought that she had missed her opportunity, the Drakhan were nowhere to be seen. But then she heard Celcus, moaning about something or other, from the other side of the council marquee. Taking a shortcut, Aesara nipped between a row of tents and came out onto the path a few metres in front of the Drakhan party.
“Pro vice chancellor” she greeted Celcus, ignoring the Drakhan guard for the time being “Overseer Malic said that we are to provide an escort to all none university staff when on university grounds”
“Overseer Malic can suck my…” came the grizzled comment from one of the Drakhan.
“Yes, oh yes, so you should” Celcus looked at Aesara with the hint of a question in his eyes, but was happy to play along “You may escort us to the front gates, gallant sentry” he concluded, the part of Drakhan and council members moving off again.
Aesara marched alongside the group, surveying the Drakhan. The usual mishmash of reprobates and sociopaths she surmised. They varied in size and armament. Dress standards slipping Aesara noted to herself as she looked disdainfully at unkempt hair, un tucked undershirts and open laced boots.
That big fellow even had a rip in his trousers.
That big fellow who looked oddly familiar. Their gazes met for a split second, but neither said anything. Both were professionals. Instead Aesara slowly dropped to the rear of the group, making small talk with council members as she did so, a pretence of normality in this twisted landscape. After a while at the rear of the group the big Drakhan slowed his pace to march alongside her.
“You have friends at hand” Volk said under his breath.
“Friends may be stretching it” replied Aesara, “but I am glad all the same.”
“The sentries’ retreat, meet them there tonight at patrol changeover”
They were close to the gates, the head of the group surveyed by waiting Drakhan. Aesara feigned a trip, fell into Volk, shoved the rag into one of his pockets. “Might come in handy for patching your trousers up” she remarked, Volk reddening imperceptibly, before marching towards the gate.

Aesara stayed where she was for a little while, watching the group head back towards the house on the hill. A couple of the guards at the gate jeered her, but she just smiled in response. Revenge would soon be at hand. 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Chapter seventeen


“It’s been three nights Pyrrho, I don’t think she’s coming” Marcia lay across part of the tumbledown wall that led to the barn in the old hamlet. She enjoyed the rare outbreak of sunshine on her face, the warmth radiating through her body.
“I know. It was always a long shot, but I just thought…” Pyrrho’s voice wafted down from the rafters of the barn where he kept vigil on the approaching roads”
“That the sibling connection would bring her to you?”
“Something like that”
“Sounds like mumbo jumbo to me”
“Me too, but it’s weird”
“What is”
“I hadn’t thought of her for years, but since we met up again, it’s like she’s a constant companion in my mind”
“And you take comfort from that?”
“Not really as she mainly spends her habitation of my thoughts criticising me!” he gave a resigned laugh
“There is so much to criticise, after all” Marcia goaded him
Pyrrho pulled away from the gap in the roof of the barn and swung down off the rafter to land with a small thud on the ground floor. The barn was untidy, a mix of sleeping covers, cooking pots and other detritus from their habitation. The time spent in the hamlet, while failing to yield Aesara’s arrival, had at least given them opportunity to better integrate the two groups. All were soldiers by background, but from a variety of schools of combat. Neither Pyrrho or Marcia were in a position to school them, coming from a background of infiltration rather than face to face combat, so the first day of inactivity in the hamlet had been spent with the soldiers sizing each other up, looking for an advantage.
Volk had, once again, come to the forefront. With the Steed’s former soldiers close to blows with those of Fortunestone the big man had strode to the middle of the dust up, grabbed one from each side and smashed them together like a set of symbols. Not a subtle approach by any stretch, but effective. He then sat down with them all, suggested that they all talked about their feelings.
Each, to a man or woman, had burst out laughing at him.
The larger man had pressed on, urging them to talk about their hopes and fears. The laughter continued unabated. He suggested some role play, try to see the issue from the other side. Both sides wept with laughter, slapping each other on the backs and sharing impressions of Volk, effecting deep voices and barrel chests. With the hilarity showing no signs of abating, Volk retired from the group, shoulder hunched low. Pyrrho had been watching, then followed Volk to offer his commiserations – he had clearly tried his best to integrate the groups, but it was not to be.
Pyrrho had caught up with Volk at the well, near to the centre of the hamlet, in a small square of broken cobbles, surrounded by  collapsed buildings and abundant weeds. Volk’s heart was in the right place. Indeed, since the unfortunate incident with the scavenger in this very hamlet, the big man had obviously been reassessing his approach in life. Just this time the more hands on, feelings heavy  approach had not worked.
Apart from the fact that it had totally worked.
By the time Pyrrho and Volk returned from the well, the entire group of soldiers were still laughing and joking with each other. United in their mockery of Volk, but united all the same. Another couple of days training together, coupled with Volk occasional “motivational” speeches and Pyrrho had remarked to Marica that they almost had a semi-useful unit on their hands.
All that Pyrrho needed to do now was work out if this had all been deliberate on Volk’s part or not.
He was still considering his man-at-arms as he left the note for Aesara. Volk had produced the scrap of paper from about his large person and Marcia had a stubby charcoal stick that he was now scrawling in. He was still also concerned for his sister. It hadn’t quite been the month they’d agreed as the time period to denote their reconvening, but part of him had still expected some word from her. She had always been the impatient one waiting on his arrival in their childhood, the roles reversed felt uncomfortable.
No great scribe, Pyrrho gave a rough approximation of the situation at hand. His destination, the force at his disposition. What he didn’t add were his fears of what lay ahead of them. Of his concern at what they may discover if they kept on looking.
The short note complete, he piled up a small pyramid of stones in the centre of the barn for Aesara to find. Folding the note at the centre of the pile, he topped it off with the broken telescope that had still lay in the barn when they returned to the hamlet. No scavenger had dared venture this far into the warzone again. 
 “Done?” Marcia asked as Pyrrho came blinking into the sunlight.
“Uh-huh. Where are the others?” he glanced about, but it appeared the two of them were alone in the hamlet.
“Volk’s taken them up onto the heath-land for some exercises” Marcia swung her legs round and down from the wall
“Something about reaching inner peace. He always like this?” Marcia came to walk alongside Pyrrho as they wandered out of the hamlet.
“No. He’s always been a bit, well, soft headed. His conscience nags at him, scars of previous misdemeanours I think. But since he accidentally came to lead the, how would you put it? The Fortunestone insurrection?” Pyrrho gave a short laugh “Since then he’s changed. Becoming more of a leader”
“That going to be a problem?”
“What? For me? Nah, he’s his own man”
“Not quite true, he’s been your man for years”
“But things change”
“That they do” Marcia solemnly conceded.
The two of them met up with the others, who were sitting in a circle animatedly chatting, on the Hamlet’s northern approach. A sarcastic turn of phrase found its way on to Pyrrho’s tongue, but he resisted uttering it. Volk’s earnest face, as the big man stood at the centre of the circle, looked serious. Now was not to undermine his new found confidence, calculated Pyrrho. Instead he beckoned Volk over and informed him that they needed to depart. Volk nodded his acquiescence and rushed back to the group of soldiers to make preparations.
It didn’t take long, no one had much in the way of baggage, and so they set off once again. The clouds turning grey above them. Marcia shivered, then wrapped her long coat around herself more tightly instinctively.
“Do you worry for your sister?” she asked Pyrrho after a while.
“She will be alright”
“But that is not what I asked”
“You will think me weak minded, sentimental”
“Ha! Sentimental is not something I would associate with you of all people”
“I know, but as we approach this cursed place, where it all began for Aesara and I…” Pyrrho trailed off
“You grow more concerned for her” Marcia finished the sentence
“It’s funny, because as kids she was the one who looked after me. Even after her, her opperation”
“The leg?”
“She was lucky to survive such a procedure, most don’t”
“Lucky is a relative term. Most don’t grow up in the cells beneath a mad man’s layer”
“A layer we now find ourselves returning to”
It was Pyrrho’s turn to shiver, but he lacked a cloak to pull about himself as a comforter. Instead he spoke, “How much do you know of it?”
“A little, rumour and hearsay mainly. It is a long way from Fortunestone and so is not, was not, an immediate concern. But I did look into it a little when….”
“I left town” it was Pyrrho’s turn to finish an incomplete sentence. “You tried to find me?”
“No, I was too angry to try and find where you had gone, but did try and work out where you had come from. What may drive your disappearance, what drove your actions towards me”
“The skeletons in my cupboard?”
“Maybe one or two, I have a feeling that were I to find all of them I would need a whole cemetery to accommodate them”
“So what did you discover?”
“Nothing I could substantiate from so far away in Fortunestone. But I spoke to traders from the area, noble people coming to the feasts, servants, soldiers.”
“Tell me what you could not substantiate and I shall tell you if you’re close”
Marcia briefly stopped walking in surprise. Head tilted as she looked at Pyrrho pacing ahead of her. “What is this madness? The ever mysterious Pyrrho is actually prepared to share his tales with me?”
“Like I feared, perhaps I am getting weak willed as we approach our destination?” Pyrrho shrugged his shoulders.
“Then I must take advantage at once” Marcia trotted to catch up with Pyrrho. “There was talk of a far off war”
“There is always war”
“I have not finished. There was a war, a refugee caravan found itself in the middle of it. They were slaughtered.”
“Unfortunately nothing too unusual in that also”
“A mother defended her two children. Fought like a demon, armed with only a cleaver she dispatched countless foes. But eventually the numbers worked against her, she was overwhelmed.”
“Sounds like a poor fire side legend to me”
“Then care to correct me?”
“Mum was blind drunk. It wasn’t a caravan, she’d heard of a travelling mead merchant had been knocked over in the fighting, took her kids scavenging”
“But she fought hard?”
“Because she suspected them of trying to steal her rightful booty. When she got knocked down her daughter attempted to defend her. Aesara was what, ten or eleven? But she was the one with the cleaver. Then one of the soldiers, a Drakhan, overpower her guard, shattered her shin with an axe blow. He would have finished her off, if it wasn’t for a comrade remarking that Aesara was sort of pretty, making some joke that if their master could patch her up she wouldn’t be able to run from him” Pyrrho shuddered at the distasteful memory.
“And what did the other child do?”
“He hid, like a rat in the shadows”
“He maintained his freedom though?” asked Marcia. Talking about Pyrrho indirectly made it easier for both of them to discuss his past.
“For a while. Attempted to get to his sister, found his way past the sentries, into the gaol, to her door”
“He couldn’t get the door open. Managed to pick pocket some keys, but couldn’t find the right one. Took too long. Got caught.”
“Imprisoned?” Marcia’s responses were getting shorter, eager to leave Pyrrho the space he needed to tell his story.
“After the torturing, yes. They were keen to discover how he’d made his way into the depths of their hellish installation. Who he was working for. They were reluctant to believe that a simple child could have outwitted their defences. It took a long time for them to be convinced of the boy’s story.”
“How long?”
“Seven years”
Marcia stopped again in surprise. But then quickly caught up again, wanting to hear more, but unsure how hard to push. “Seven years of torture?”
“Off and on. Mainly on.”
“What did he….what did you do?” she lent a hand on his shoulder, left it there for a second or two. A wolf whistle from the group behind them drawing an angry glance.
“Hid. Both up here” Pyrrho tapped his head “And in the warrens of their lair. Sometimes it took them a few hours to find me, some a few days.”
“Why didn’t you escape properly?”
“I couldn’t leave Aesara behind. Couldn’t abandon her to defend herself again”
“What was happening to here during this time?”
“We didn’t get opportunity to talk all that much, but from what I could work out, by day she watched the soldiers train in the square below her cell, learning their techniques, practising. I think she took up carving as well, honing her new leg.”
“And at night?” Marcia almost dare not ask
“She honed her defensive skills” was all Pyrrho was prepared to say, memories of the sound of the night time visitors to her cell down the hall from his. The sound of struggle. The sound of his sister crying.
“Your ultimate captor, did you meet him?” Marcia spoke quickly to change the subject as she felt Pyrrho recede into himself.
“On occasion”
“Did he strike you as capable of achieving the technology we’ve seen the Drakhan using?”
“He was capable of anything and everything”
“What drives someone to delve into these dark technologies?”
“Simple. Power. At first I think he was almost as much of a captive as we were. But as his knowledge deepened, so did his influence. Progress no matter the cost became his motto”
“The stories I heard of the region painted him as a mad man, an eccentric. But how would such a person operate in these dark days without something to trade? Simple economics. I should have investigated sooner” Marcia’s shoulders shrank lower.
“There was no way you could conceive the threat, not from so far away” Pyrrho attempted to soothe, almost grateful for the focus to be taken from him.
“But now the threat laps at my town’s walls” her head bowed, but then came back up, she looked at Pyrrho. “Tell me one more thing”
“How did the both of you escape in the end?”
Pyrrho gave an uneasy laugh, “we finally tried working together. Only took seven years to realise. We’d each become more introverted under the conditions. But when we came together, we clicked”
“That simple, uh-huh?”
“The planning took time, but the execution went almost to plan”
“I’d scoped the route out, but it had to traverse a guards post. Had only expected one to be on duty at the time, but there were three.”
“You were discovered then?”
“No, that bit actually went smoothly. Aesara destroyed them, no other word for it. She unleashed something that day” he paused “a rage she could no longer contain. It scared me.”
“But it got you out of a tight corner?”
“At a cost. Aesara was still not herself as we made our way out of the complex, the rage still coursed through her veins. The route out went via a small well, much like the one back at the hamlet. Aesara stopped to wash the blood from her hands, to splash it on her face. I urged her on. We were still on enemy territory. But she ignored me, just scrubbing at her hands. We were discovered”
“More guards?”
“If only it had been. No. It was a young boy, seven or eight, no older than I had been when we were first captured.”
“What happened to him?”
“Aesara happened to him. We could have just left then, fled. But she wanted no witnesses, no way of following us. After what she’d been through, Aesara was not going to take a risk with her freedom”
“Oh” Marcia could think of no other response.
They walked on in silence for a while, but Pyrrho was compelled to finished his story. “Aesara calmed in the following days as we trekked south. But if anything, that made things worse. She could make no more sense of her depth of her actions than I could. We both pulled back into ourselves, became near strangers again. At the first fork in the road we went our separate ways.”
“Until the dawn of the Steed’s final charge?”

“Yes. And now we come back together to finish our story once and for all. One way or another.”