Kratia turned to one of the chamber guards. “You. Escort this man,” here she nodded to the still angry and bewildered Drake, “to the back entrance. One of my men will be there to take custody.”
The guard narrowed his eyes at Kratia, then looked at Icon. Icon shrugged in acquiescence and the guard moved to escort Drake away from the Circle’s Chamber of Lords. Kratia leaned over and placed a delaying hand on Drake’s shoulder.
“You will be meeting General Messick, who is in charge of my security guards. At this point they are not particularly effective, but I am sure that you will be able to remedy that. Do not be afraid to ask Messick questions; I expect you to be familiar with all aspects of the current situation by the time you arrive at my castle.”
“I’d rather travel with you,” complained Drake. “I don’t know jack shit about this place, but from what I can tell, you are the one with the answers.”
“I have other urgent matters that require my presence. Messick is capable of giving you a proper briefing over the next few hours.” She raised her hands to his face, and pulled him to her for an unexpected kiss. Her mouth moved to his ear, and she whispered, “Be careful, Michael. I need you.” She drew back and Drake thought he saw a strange tight smile on her face, but the guard nudged him around towards the open doorway, where the guy in the ninja costume had just left with the old man and two guards.
The stairs were long and the guards uncommunicative as they descended. On and on they descended, seemingly for eternity, passing so many landings that Drake stopped counting. Finally they reached the bottom and went through a large double door and into a curved passageway. At the end of the passage were three doors: left, right and center. They went through the left door, and through what appeared to be a guard station, then into a barracks, and then through a door on the right and into a long, narrow corridor with no windows or doors, until they reached the end about 40 feet later. Then through a door and left into a much larger, well lit corridor that was very long and had many doors on both sides.
They marched the entire length of this great hall, at least 200 feet, then into a mess hall, then the kitchen, a food pantry, and past another guard station. At the far wall was a heavy door with a large locking crossbar, which the guards lifted. They swung open the door. Bright sunlight spilled in, making Drake squint. The guards pushed him out, and the door swung shut. A dull thud signaled that the bar had been lowered back into place.
“Long walk and a frigging rude goodbye,” cursed Drake.
Standing beside him was a short pudgy man in a shiny dark blue uniform that displayed as much silver braid and gold medals as it did of rich satin. A bushy mustache stretched across most of his face, and bobbed up and down as he talked.
“Mister Drake! Good to meet you, sir. Kratia told me to greet you personally, and so I have, yes.” The little man extended his hand, and Drake shook it, smiling. “I’m General Messick, commander of the Personal Guard of Lord Kratia. I’m to take you to Krashbrinae, I mean, Minas Palanar, so I suppose we’d better be going. We want to make it before nightfall, right!”
Messick waddled over to a triangular three-seat vehicle with wide, deeply treaded tires. There was no top to the vehicle, and for lack of better nomenclature Drake thought of it as a jeep. A driver was behind the single front seat. Drake was surprised to see a horizontal lever instead of a steering wheel, and the dash layout was sparse and alien.
Messick climbed in quickly over the top – there was no door – and into one of the back seats. He looked expectantly at Drake. Drake noticed the running board and put one foot on it, then let his body swing around to lean against the side of the jeep. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his tin of chew. He pushed a large wad into his mouth and began to chew slowly.
“Okay, General,” Drake drawled. “Before I go anywhere, I want to know where I’m going and why. Right now, I ain’t got much of a notion of neither one.” He spat on the shiny metal side of the vehicle, and watched the brown stain run down and drip to the ground. He liked the familiar color, odor, and texture of the tobacco.
“Mr. Drake!” the general implored. “Kratia said you were to come with me to her castle. That’s reason enough. Besides, it’s over two hundred miles from here. Even traveling over roads, we’ll be lucky to make it in under five hours. That puts our arrival at dusk. We don’t want to be traveling after dark.” He paused as if his statement were self-explanatory.
Drake stared at the man. Obviously scared, but probably more frightened of Kratia than of whatever danger hid in the dark. To Messick’s consternation, he slowly looked around and surveyed his immediate surroundings.
He had just emerged from a huge building – he faced a rectangular wall at least a hundred yards long and fifty feet high. Though he could not see the roof, a tall cylindrical tower stabbed at the sky, easily over five hundred feet high. There were openings up here, on the top, like some fancy top of the world restaurant, and he guessed that was where he had started this weird dream. The building at first appeared to be made of a light gray stone, but that was misleading. A coat of dust covered most of the building, but where it hadn’t settled the stone was an almost iridescent white.
Drake turned his head to look away from the building, aware of the general’s sigh of exasperation. There were several other buildings, all smaller than this, in fairly close proximity. He could make out about a dozen people milling about in the narrow streets. A very small town, or maybe an out of the way resort? There were almost no cars, and no smog. Beyond the buildings flat grasslands stretched into the distance. The horizon seemed strange. It was too close for level ground, but Drake had seen some mighty strange visual tricks of the atmosphere on his tours of duty. Still, this place looked different. It felt different, too. Really different.
He really didn’t have any idea of where he was; no place he had ever seen or heard of even remotely resembled this. He spit out the chew. Best to play along until he knew more.
“Okay. Let’s go!” he shouted as he jumped into the remaining seat. The jeep surged ahead silently, surprising Drake who expected the roar of a powerful engine. “Electric?” he asked.
The general looked at him oddly. “Of course. Did you expect horses? Better to save them for combat.”
Drake laughed, but the quizzical expression on the general’s face told him he hadn’t been joking. Drake looked around; they must be going at least 40 miles per hour already. He hadn’t thought electric cars possessed decent acceleration. “No, I didn’t expect horses. I expected a standard gasoline engine, though I can see some obvious advantages in having a fast silent jeep.”
The general arched his eyebrows. “But there are no advantages; in combat you have to use horses. Otherwise you get stranded by spells.”
“And horses aren’t?” Drake shot back sarcastically.
“Of course not,” the general replied patiently. Kratia had warned him the guy would be painfully ignorant of the most basic facts. “Animals have a very real advantage over mechanical devices.” The general paused. “Like people, animals can feel fear and pain. I heard that long ago, before the Blue Crystal, magic could affect living things without restriction; wizards were doubtless more deadly then.” Messick suppressed a shudder. “Though they are certainly powerful enough now, I assure you!”
“Not so powerful, if they can’t force their spells on people,” Drake commented.
Messick stared hard at Drake. “I strongly suggest that you curb such talk before you get to castle Krashbrinae. Wizards are the real upper class in this world; even more so than the Esafs and their court ‑ though you didn’t hear me say that! Kratia is a full Lord – a member of the Circle itself. And she fully expects the respect due her station.”
Drake wasn’t impressed. “Yea, I met her upstairs. Seems like a bitch to me.” He enjoyed watching mister pudgy squirm. Man, why was he so afraid of that piece of fluff?
“Anyway, I your point is that magic can’t do shit against living things,” Drake said. “And your army’s no better, running around with bows and arrows playing Cowboys and Indians. That’s why you need me. Somebody who knows how to kill something.”
“There’s plenty of killing in Salmineria, Drake. But I suppose you are correct in your analysis, since soldiers haven’t been able to kill the Rep nests, nor protect citizens from the Rep attacks. But don’t underestimate the Esafs. They are able to enforce their will throughout their countries, even on the Lords of the Circle. Ever since the end of the Demon War.”
Drake’s leaned forward, interested. “There was a war here?”
“A couple. But the most recent was decades ago, Drake. Ancient history. The Demon War started way back in 4729, ended in 4742 if I got my ancient history right. The wizards were getting their asses kicked by the demons until the Elves and the Rauder and Esafs came to help. Then things were pretty stable and peaceful. The Golden Years, some call them. Until the Wizard War, when the dark Lord went crazy. That was in 6907. That was a bad war. Ten bloody years. Ended in 6917. That’s only thirty-two years ago, but still before I was in the military. From what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen in the historical sensiballs, the wizards lost a lot of respect and political clout and social standing from that war, even though they helped to win it.”
“If the wizards lost, then why is a general working for a wizard?”
The general squirmed in his seat and looked away. Drake sat quietly. He expected an answer eventually, and he was willing to wait for it. Meanwhile he enjoyed the wind blowing in his face and savored the faint scent of unknown flowers and trees that flashed by. It was growing noticeably hotter as they drove southeast. That is, he assumed it was southeast, assuming that the setting sun was west of them.
The general gazed toward the driver, and suddenly stiffened. “Corporal! That wand is less than half charged!” he shouted angrily, pointing to the wand that glowed a bright red. “I told you to have it charged at the bank while I consulted with Kratia!”
“Sir!” the driver responded. “I did go to the bank. This one’s having a bit of trouble holding a charge. They would have exchanged it, but I didn’t want to wait. But I did get a charged spare.” The driver opened up a small compartment in the dash. A glowing white wand laid inside. “Figured this’d be even better, sir!”
Messick was quiet for a few minutes afterward, both relieved and chagrined. He looked back at Drake. “Kratia is not like the other wizards,” General Messick said slowly. “She is so intelligent, so ambitious, so beautiful, so absolutely perfect that men will follow her willingly wherever she leads; even to their doom. I know I would. She is the greatest leader this world will ever know. I, on the other hand, am scarcely a general. There are less than two hundred troops in my command. A rather paltry army compared to Esaf Condeu, but larger than any other wizard can boast.”
The general was turning morose and Drake decided to just stay quiet for a while, and think about his situation. But Messick shook himself out of the dumps and wanted to assert himself again. “At least I have some real combat experience. Not many on Salmineria can say that! The Esafs keep peace well between themselves, and the wizards are still gun shy from the past.”
“What combat did you see?” asked Drake, his interest perking again.
“The northern border of Condeu, up near Purgatorius,” the general replied proudly. “The Rauders had been making raids on the border settlements, and I was a lieutenant in the Esaf Condeu battalion sent to teach the Rauders some respect for our borders. We miscalculated their position; they had gone much further south than we expected, and too far east. So we ended up actually north of their band. They finished their raid and were riding north to avoid the expected patrols. They rode straight into it instead.”
“Must have been quite a surprise to them,” Drake said. “What were the relative troop strengths, armaments and casualties?”
Messick quieted again. “The Rauders aren’t like soldiers; they are berserkers; wild men on horses that care nothing of their own lives; they don’t have blood in their veins, just battle lust!” He spat out the words with quiet venom. “It isn’t fair to compare numbers!”
Drake stayed quiet. The general had more to say.
“We had the element of surprise, and that let us catch the first two with a dozen crossbows. I ordered a general charge, and the melee that followed was a disaster. Five of their band actively engaged us, while the rest withdrew to the frozen northern wastes. We killed those five, at a cost of forty‑seven of my men. I considered it a victory, and it did slow the frequency of the Rauder raids. But the Esaf Condeu did not consider the loss of forty‑seven men an equitable trade, and I lost my commission.
“I have no other aptitudes; I am a soldier. I would have wilted away to my death, except that Kratia found me, and gave me this job. I owe her.”
Drake nodded in understanding. Someday he’d love to meet those Rauders himself.