Standing at the edge of the grove surrounding the Heart of the Seven Faeries were a handful of Mercs summoned there after Patrick Field had rushed the Phoenix Rose. Private Mack’s incapacitation by the cries of the Phoenix kept Field alive long enough for the groundskeeper to report everything he’d seen to Santos, who didn’t want to believe it but was duty bound to investigate. As such, Santos had run at top speed to the barracks north of the Heart where he grabbed the first men he saw, all Mercury’s Elite. The Regular Militia had been dispatched after the attack to protect Avalona and to maintain the borderlands.
Santos stared at the seven bronze faerie statues forever dancing a circle around the fountain. Their right hands held up a giant carnelian stone shaped like a heart—not a cutesy Cupid heart, rather an actual bivalve human heart—and their left hands all held ancient bladed weapons: a cutler, an ensis, a ferrum, a gladius, a mucro, a pugio, and a sica. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, at first. Motioning to two of the Mercs nearest him, they cautiously approached the sacred fountain. The men circled it, looking every which way yet seeing nothing. Santos was about ready to call the effort off, when one of the Mercs stopped, tilted his head, and raised an eyebrow.
“Lieutenant,” the Merc pointed to one of the faeries’ ocrea which had a crimson streak. He gingerly touched the still wet line on the leg greave, then held his bloodied finger in front of Santos. He had no idea why he was summoned with the others, he simply followed orders. His hackles raised. “This,” the Merc said while staring at his finger, “is blood.” Now that he had blood on his hand, he wondered what was going on. “Sir?”
“Keep looking,” Santos ordered. The nervous lieutenant stepped up to the faerie and inspected the bloody mark. It seemed to disappear into a seam in the statue. In a flurry of brilliance, Santos began pushing and shoving on various parts of the statue. It did not budge. “Both of you, look for a release mechanism.”
“What?” the second Merc asked.
“There must be a passage or something under here,” Santos explained, “the blood disappears. Look for some way in.”
“Halt!” one of the Mercs yelled from the edge of the grove.
The three men spun towards the noise and saw Fintan the Bard approaching. Kent was stumbling along after Fintan. The young man was still dazed from hitting his head when he passed out earlier.
Fintan stopped in his tracks and announced, “I know the way in. The Phoenix showed me everything.”
The Mercs recognized the bard for who he was, though all were suspicious because of Santos’ failure to explain anything. Santos motioned for Fintan to approach and for the soldiers at the edge of the grove to continue watching the area.
Fintan spotted the blood and ground his teeth in anger. “The Phoenix showed me what happened. The gardener spoke truth. Our Kaiser is dead.” Without wasting any more time, Fintan pushed up on the hilt of the bloodied faerie’s gladius. The statues slid over about two feet, the bottom of the fountain seemed to drop out though no water spilled, and a set of stairs was revealed.
Santos waved his men over. He ordered four to guard the directions of approach, two were placed at the entrance to the underground chambers, and the rest were told to follow him. Fintan led the Mercs into the Heart. Kent waited near the fountain and for once did so silently.
Commander Dante kept his eyes on Willy Jessup and still managed to take in the entire room. The Sanctuary City Medical Center chow hall was decorated in the light browns, yellows, and burnt oranges of harvest festivals. Soldiers in casts and with obvious signs of physical trauma were clumped together with nurses and doctors. The low rumble of multiple conversations permeated the background. “Why did you join, Mister Jessup?” Dante asked.
“Mister Jessup’s my daddy, call me Willy or Jessup.”
“Okay, Jessup,” Dante nodded.
“My whole family served,” Jessup shrugged, “it was my turn. Plus, I always wanted to. I love our country. We have to stand up for what’s ours. You know?”
“I read in the Poterit Times that a couple spies from Don and Montis were recently caught. That just chaps my hide. We’ve got to protect ourselves from people like that. I thought I’d be sent to the borders. But, the only thing I’ve done since joining up is clean shitters, polish brass, fold fucking clothes,” he smiled, “and iron.”
“Not what you bargained for, eh?”
“Iphi knows it ain’t!” Jessup leaned toward Dante, “what was the point of training me to kill if I’m just gonna be a glorified cleaning lady?”
“Good question,” Dante pursed his lips, “so, you wanted action and got domestication.”
“That’s it exactly,” Jessup looked around the room, “I look at these fools,” he glanced at a table of soldiers, “and wonder if they’re feeling the same way. We aren’t fighting anybody but each other. Where are all these subversives we’re supposed to be on guard against? I guarantee you, sir, the majority of these injuries come from drinking, fighting, or fighting while drunk. You ask me,” Jessup’s voice dropped to a whisper, “there’s something going on that they don’t want us knowing about. They must think we’re all dumbasses. Someone’s making a power play and all the soldiers this side of Iphigenia are twiddling their thumbs.”
“Mmm,” Dante nodded. He watched Jessup’s eyes dart around the room. The young man quite obviously wasn’t working with a full deck. Then again, it doesn’t take crazy to know that Jessup was also right. Everyone in the military was purposefully granted a limited piece of the puzzle. The separation was, in part, designed to prevent the enemy from gathering enough information to be able to stop any military action. The problem was, though Don and Montis were technically enemies of Dan, there hadn’t been any significant altercations or skirmishes in nearly a century. Every scandal and bit of political subterfuge that had gone on in recent years was usually created by a small group of Danian insiders. Dante leaned over his empty lunch tray and whispered, “have you ever heard of the Sons of Guru?”
“Shh,” Jessup shushed Dante. The hair on Jessup’s arms stood up. He looked left and right. When it became clear no one was listening, he spoke softly, “not here, sir. It isn’t safe. They have ears everywhere.”
Uncertain of what to do while they waited for Patrick Field to return, Cassie tried to calm herself by cleaning up the lunch mess in the threshold between the kitchen and living room. It wasn’t everyday that she learned who her father was, and then watched him take two between the eyes. She stifled a scream as it rose in her throat. She needed to do something to keep her mind from replaying the...she bit her lip and looked at the unconscious griffin, at her brother. Archel lay where he’d fallen when he passed out. She contemplated placing one of the couch cushions under his head but couldn’t bring herself to touch his giant eagle’s head. Birds freaked her out with their crazy eyes and wicked beaks. It took everything in her power though to refrain from soothing Archel by petting his lion’s fur as his legs twitched and he moaned in his sleep. After opening all the cabinets in the kitchen, Cassie found the trashcan and cleaning supplies. The moment she got a whiff of the food her stomach growled and she remembered that the last things she’d eaten were the craptastic sandwiches she and the Kaiser had made from pilfered food. Cassie fell onto her ass in the kitchen and wailed.
The sounds of Cassie’s lamentations woke Archel. He attempted to sit up, but couldn’t get his legs or hands to work. As his eyes adjusted and he saw his paws, the boy freaked out and screamed. The abnormal screeching of a young griffin yanked Cassie from her mourning. She staggered off the kitchen floor and into the living room where Archel was struggling to get up.
“It’s okay,” she said, though she doubted her words.
“What? Look at me! It’s not okay. I’m not okay! What happened to me?”
“The Kaiser was going to tell you. He,” Cassie took a deep breath, “he just didn’t get the chance. He told me last night. I—I.” She couldn’t say the things she needed to say, couldn’t hardly think. The Messenger, she nearly choked on a sob. She bit down on her courage and forced the words out, “he’s our father.”
Archel whipped his feathered head at her, “WHAT?”
“You’re…” Cassie breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and said it, “you’re the king now, Archel.” She knelt down in front of him, “I mean, Kaiser Archel.”
“D—don’t!” Archel stopped himself from screaming at her, “don’t call me that. Not ever. Kaiser Imler is the king.”
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. Archel knew the last words he had spoken before passing out from the pain and shock. He also knew the words Cassie had spoken when she teleported to him. She was the Messenger. She couldn’t lie to the griffin king if she had wanted to do so. The magic that bound them forbade it. Cassie remained kneeling, waiting for his hand or paw or some acknowledgement. He desperately wanted to flee, but he could barely get his body under control. Obviously, Cassie was speaking truth. The Kaiser was his father, his current predicament proved that much. Wait, she said ‘our father.’ He focused on the thought, “our father?”
“Yes, my liege.”
“Don’t do that!” Archel growled. “If we’re siblings stand up and don’t ever call me that again.”
Cassie stood up.
“The Kaiser is…was our father. H—he tried to explain to me. I don’t. I didn’t understand. He wanted to wait. I, uh, I don’t know why. I guess I’ll never know.” She sat down on the couch, “we talked about a lot of things last night. He was funny,” tears spilled down her cheeks. Her shoulders slumped and she sobbed.
“Who killed him?”
“The Chief Justice hired a guy from Dan,” she hazarded a glance at Archel. The young griffin king had gotten his feet to cooperate and was pacing the tight living room. Every step brought his wild serpent’s tail once inch closer to knocking down pictures, decorations, and random knickknacks. Any other day Cassie might have thought the scene hilarious. As it was she doubted anything would ever be funny again. She fought the urge to vomit and failed.