Avalona’s tavern, Goldie’s Revenge, was one of the few buildings that had remained unscathed by the attack, it was saved by its location on the far west side of town. Colonel Gawain Dagon sat on a tall stool at the main bar. Four sheets of paper were laid out before him, each held down by empty shot glasses. By the time Dagon arrived, the Regular Militia had already surveyed the damage; in the process, they found and treated three severely wounded but still living villagers. Emergency crews from the city of Ambros put out some of the fires, cordoned off dangerous piles of rubble, and continued the search for Avalona’s 1,000, or so, missing villagers. Dagon angrily stared at the four sheets of paper, under the bar, his hands clenched and unclenched quickly. His fists matched the rhythm of his grinding teeth. The tendons in his neck stuck out an inch. A vein pulsed on his right temple while his carotid artery echoed its beat. Three of the papers were taken by Militia Medics describing where the survivors were found and each was accompanied by testimony from the survivors. The fourth paper was found by the first team to arrive on scene; it was recovered from an abandoned makeshift camp located just outside of Avalona. The plan detailed the destruction of Avalona, Markt, and Morley, with an eventual inward push towards Ecirava. If those four towns were destroyed, the citizens of Ambros would be pinched between North Iphigenia and hostile forces in the southeast. They’d be able to call on some of the southwestern towns like Dervishaw, Hank’s Grove, and Baroport, but even with the quickness of the Bell system, troops would arrive late. Likely, too late. The Kaiser had to be notified. If only they could find him.
“There’s a boy here. Claims he was sent by Kaiser Imler.”
“Bring him in.”
Dagon turned to the tavern doors, where a young boy approached cautiously. Upon seeing Archel, the angry colonel brightened up immediately, “Archel! How did you get so far from home? I’m sure Chief Justice Adonis is worried.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Archel mumbled.
“What are you doing here?”
“Kaiser Imler,” Archel started, paused looking at the handful of soldiers, then walked closer motioning for the colonel to come down from his stool.
When they were face-to-face, the colonel bent down, “what is it?”
“Kaiser Imler sent me. He’s on the outskirts. I can bring you to him. But…well… he needs something to wear,” Archel pulled the colonel’s shirt to whisper in Dagon’s ear, “he ripped his clothes when he…you know what.”
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Dagon forced a smile, “follow me. Martins, continue to direct the newcomers to the school where we need them most. Carson, make sure all the villages between Markt and Morley have at least one squad ready for action. They’re not gonna hit us again without a fight. Santos, with me.” Dagon shook his head in disbelief, “this day.”
“Where we going, sir?” 1st Lieutenant Santos asked.
Colonel Dagon ignored the question, walking briskly towards his antique hybrid solar-electric truck, an Iago Comet, equipped with sideboards, toolbox, snorkel, 6 inch lift kit, and a winch holding 250 feet of solid steel cross-threaded cabling.
“Damn, sir!” Santos whistled appreciatively, “I knew you had one, but this thing’s a beast.”
“Want to drive it?”
Santos didn’t say anything, he looked at his boss with one of those smiles that begs, ‘do you really need an answer?’ Colonel Dagon knowingly nodded his head and put his hand on the jet black door, which clicked as the lock disengaged. Reaching behind the driver’s seat, he grabbed a bug-out bag.
“You’ve got the biometric upgrade?” Santos nearly whispered.
“Archel, hold this,” Dagon handed the bag to the boy, who stared at the truck with fascination. “Climb in, Santos. I’ve got to add you as secondary.” Santos did not have to be told twice, he was in the driver’s seat before Archel could blink. The colonel placed his hand on the center of the steering wheel, when he did, a holographic user display popped up. “So damn hard to see these old HUDs in the daylight,” Dagon muttered as he pressed different areas of the steering wheel. “The new HUDs have glare reduction, a brilliant invention, if ever,” Dagon removed his hand, “grip the wheel, like you’re going to drive.” Santos placed his hands at two and ten o’clock, a slight electric pulse surprised him, but he kept his hands on the wheel. “That should do it. I don’t have to tell you, don’t crash, do I?”
“I’m hurt, sir. I have the best driving record of all the Mercs and Regs combined,” Santos got serious, “I only crashed that one time,” he grinned, “and, it was the old lady’s fault.”
A laughing Colonel Dagon shrugged his shoulders, “wish you told me that sooner. I would’ve brought Carson instead. Take Betsy, here, around town, make sure everyone’s working. As long as you don’t get out, they’ll think it’s me making the rounds. I’ve got an errand to run. Meet me…” he paused, “where’re we headed, Archel?”
“Uh,” Archel thought about it, and then said, “those woods south of town.”
“Meet me at the head of Ranger Station Road. You know where that is? Second right turn when you’re headed towards Avalona Forest.”
“I was born here, sir. The Marshal’s live in the big yellow house on the corner. The Bradley’s live in the white one across the street. Well,” he looked off at the burning remnants of his town, “they did if they’re still standing.”
“Give me an hour. If I’m not there…wait.”
Santos put his hand on the center of the steering wheel, Betsy coughed, struggled, then started up. “Sounds like she needs a tune up.”
“Drive her. Don’t try to fix her,” Dagon scolded.
“Yes, sir!” He closed the truck door and puttered up the road.
As Betsy and Santos turned the corner, Dagon leaned down to Archel, “tell me everything. I want to know how you got down here, where the Kaiser’s at, and what in Mercury’s name has been going on.”
“I can only tell you what I know, sir.”
“Lead the way and start talking.”
The main chambers of the Antigone Courts were bustling with activity. Eight of nine justices sat at study desks where they poured over the laws while their assistants darted back and forth fetching tomes from the bookshelves in the antechamber. The justices were searching for any information regarding how to handle a state of war without a Regius Quidnunc statute from the Kaiser. Thus far, they had had no luck finding any precedent in the myriad RQ Tomes; 1,000 years of keeping RQs and there was nothing even hinting at a procedure. They needed the Kaiser or they’d have to vote on a declaration of war which would allow the Chief Justice to control the Regular Militia during the interim.
“We have to wait,” Justice Seeley Songtree urged her colleagues from her position in the rear left quadrant of the main chamber, she stood up from her study desk, “even if we find something, we have to wait. The Kaiser will return. We cannot—”
“What if something’s happened to him?” Justice Frederick Mayfield interrupted. He took his glasses off, rubbed the bridge of his bulbous nose, then continued speaking, “we have to be prepared. If he shows up, great. But, if he doesn’t, the people have to know that they’re protected.”
“Fat lot of good that did the people of Avalona,” Justice Travis Scott retorted. He sat back in his chair stretching, when his back cracked he sighed, “all these books and nothing.”
“Keep looking. All of you,” Justice Levi Bayleaf ordered. Bayleaf was the longest running justice and likely the oldest man to ever hold the position. He had originally assumed his role long before any of the other Justices were conceived. Twelve times he had declined the Chief Justice position, always stating health reasons. In truth, he found real power was wielded behind the scenes. He kept his hair well-shorn to blend with the ever-growing bald patch which had long since earned him the nickname “Justice Shiny Baldleaf.” Few were brazen enough to call him that to his face, though he’d seen the epitaph scrawled across more than one wall in the city. As a morbid reminder of his duty, he frequented one that was written on the northern wall of Raven’s Drop:
To: Justice Shiny Baldleaf
Innocence did you cleave,
sentencing to Raven’s Drop
a tool, a fool, a mere prop.
Me thinks you well knew
it wasn’t guilt you slew
as off da’s head plopped
and red gutters slopped.
It had shown up 15 years earlier, on the same day that four men were executed for their crimes against the people of Poterit Don. The men were sex slavers, accused and proven to have abducted 216 virgins, who were trafficked across the Iphigenia Mountains and sold to rich Danians. Three of the four had children of their own. But one, Grayson Whittaker, had a 14 year old son in training for the business. The boy had been a tool used by the slavers to lure young and unsuspecting girls. The 216 children missing from their families rankled old Justice Bayleaf. Although, today, it was the 1000-plus dead or missing Avalona villagers that had him infuriated. “Fraunx made the announcement this morning. In three days, the Bells will toll. If the Kaiser is here, he’ll issue a new RQ, and lead us to war. If he is not, we will issue one in his stead, and Fraunx will lead us.”
Justice Scott laughed callously, “that’s just what Fraunx wants. Perhaps, he’s got something to do with the Kaiser’s disappearance.”
“Watch your tongue,” Justice Mayfield said, while glaring at Scott. “Show some respect. The Chief Justice has done nothing to deserve your contempt.”
“He’s done plenty,” Scott replied, “have you forgotten…oh, who am I kidding? You’ve buried your head so far up his ass, for so long, you really believe shit smells like roses.”
Fredrick Mayfield slammed his palms onto his desk, “I’ll not be insulted by you anymore, Travis. There is one certain way to settle—”
“Damn it,” Justice Bayleaf bellowed, “this is no way for Justices of the Antigone Courts to behave! You two will calm down. You will continue searching for anything that might help us. And, if you don’t, I swear, I’ll have you both in a disciplinary tribunal before the Bells ring again.”
The two men shot angry glances at the elder justice, before conceding to his logic. They sat back down at their desks and pretended to scan the law. Both were far too pissed off to actually read the convoluted texts.
The Inquisitor eye-balled Chief Justice Fraunx Adonis, “what do you mean, you want a transcript of the sessions?”
“I need to know everything that they told you.”
“I’m not a transcriptionist.”
“I know what you are,” Adonis shot back.
“Then, you should know that I’m a professional. I can, of course, give you a full recording of the sessions. But, I will not transcribe them for you. If you want that done, hire a secretary.”
“A recording, then,” Adonis turned his full attention to the one-way mirror where the vacant room was once again blood free. “What did you do with them?”
“Do you really want to know, Chief Justice?”
“The husband was put in a vat of lime. The women are currently doped up in transportation coffins. We’ll take them back to Dan, where they’ll be sold. Of course, the old lady won’t fetch quite as much, but we should get a princely sum for the daughter. The proceeds will go to my crew as a bonus for their outstanding efforts during this enterprise.”
“Is that wise?”
“Sir, we’ve taken precautions. They’ll not be able to speak nor write of the matter to anyone. Should they recover the capacity to write, they’ll have no memories of what transpired. They’ll wake up in Dan as completely docile specimens ready to be trained into the servitude requirements of some of our finest members of society. Trust me. I have a reputation to maintain.”
“Trust is earned, not given blindly. Until Typhon sent you, I had never heard of you.”
“A testament to my craft. Do you not recognize the skill with which I handled this situation?”
“I don’t know if what I saw could be called skill.”
“Then next time, I suggest you do your own interrogating. You’d be surprised by how many people do not have the stomach for the truly brutal techniques required to ascertain valuable information. It is not the threat of death which gets confessions and testimony. It is the fear of living; precisely, of living with deformities. Can you deform a person?”
“I’ve never had call to.”
“Sir, I was called to deform for you. You’ve had call and allowed another to handle the dirty work. Now, I’ll take my 30 pieces of silver, you’ll get your vid, and my crew will be gone from your lands.”
“Do you have another pressing engagement?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’ve call for more dirty work and chosen to hire it out.”
“Get me the recording. I want a day to review it. After which, I will tell you the job in its entirety.”
“Splendid. Once you’ve explained the work, I’ll give you a quote. You must know that I only work with my crew. They are handpicked and quite trustworthy for dastardly rogues.”
Adonis chuckled, “if you say so. Do you have a recording for me now? Or, should I come back?”
“I’ve a copy ready,” The Inquisitor pulled a plastic holder with a disc out of his tool kit and asked, “will this suffice?”
“A disc. How quaint. I’m sure I can turn up an old player. May I?”
“Certainly,” The Inquisitor handed the disc over, “tomorrow, then. Same time? Same place?”
“Of course,” Adonis smiled as he took the disc, “I haven’t seen one of these in years.”
“A trusty medium; although, they tend to scratch in rough hands.”