The ensign panted while standing before 1st Lieutenant Santos. His curly red hair danced in the light breeze as he caught his breath, one hand in the air giving that universal wait sign. Santos impatiently tapped his foot, staring at the ensign.
“Com-mander Fe-elis,” the ensign gasped.
“Just breathe,” Santos ordered.
Nodding, the soldier took a deep breath, “sorry, sir. I ran.” After another deep breath, he said, “Commander Felis is on the way. Has an investigation team. He’s pissed.”
“Halt!” the large Merc, posted to the west of the Kaiser’s body, shouted at a slowly approaching old man. The barrel-chested Merc held a hand over his cudgel, as if contemplating whether or not to bludgeon the elderly with it.
“Dammit! He was serious,” Santos cursed when he saw General Marshall Michaels. “Ensign Osborne,” Santos addressed the still panting ginger soldier, “escort General Michaels. He’s not to touch anything. Get his statement and keep him away from the Kaiser. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Ensign Osborne nodded, his curls bouncing with the movement. He straightened out, then proceeded to intercept the general. Covering the distance, he called out, “relax Ensign Ford. This is General Michaels.”
Dropping his hand from the cudgel, Ensign Ford stepped out of the general’s way.
“Ensign Ford?” General Michaels said while looking up. “Let’s see, by the square jaw and those dimples, you wouldn’t be related to Jeffrey and Anna Ford, would you?”
Surprised, Ensign Ford grinned. “My grands. But, how’d you know, sir?”
“You’re the spitting image of their boy. Oh, what was his name? Now don’t tell me. Craig? No. Chuck.”
“Charles,” Ensign Ford corrected.
“That’s it. Charles,” the general patted the ensign’s bulging forearm. “How are they?”
“Making it, sir. None of them have taken to retirement,” Ensign Ford sighed.
Ensign Osborne shook his head at the thought of retirement, far better to die in battle.
“Quite understood,” General Michaels bobbed his head. “Speaking from experience, it can be less than exciting.”
With a grunt, Ensign Ford replied, “I wouldn’t call this exciting, sir.”
“Young man, you have no idea. If you survive to retirement, you’ll mark this as the day the excitement began.”
The general patted Ensign Ford’s forearm again, “mark my words. Now. If you’ll excuse me.” He carefully moved his cane forward and purposefully followed it. “Ensign? I can’t read your nametape. What’s your name?”
“To the lieutenant.”
“Not yet,” Vorant whispered.
Jougs held a lighter in one hand and in the other a half full bottle of alcohol with a bunch of paper towels sticking out of the neck. On the floor next to him were two more firebombs and three kitchen-crafted explosives wrapped in tinfoil.
Vorant raised his hand, then dropped it. Jougs peeked over the window ledge, lit the paper towel, and silently counted to three after which he launched the first firebomb through the window. In rapid succession he followed up with the rest, glancing over the ledge between each throw. Three men wailed at first in shock, then started screaming in agony. Jougs chanced one more look over the ledge and smiled to Vorant. He whispered, “now.”
Vorant lit a smoke bomb, tossing it through the broken glass pane into the front yard. He jerked open the door. No one was in the street. Lighting and chunking another smoke bomb further into the yard, the two men darted toward the thickest part of the smoke. Vorant tossed another smoke bomb into the street, which they followed to the manhole cover. Hoping to make any observers think they’d crossed to another house, Vorant lit and threw a final smoke bomb across the street. After a brief fight with the solid steel cover, Jougs and Vorant disappeared into the sewer. As Vorant slid the steel cover into place, the screaming of the burning men was cut off.
“To the rendezvous?”
“After all that? No way,” Jougs smiled at his partner. “The safe house, first.”
An army of cumulus clouds marched across the sky over Sentinel Cemetery, pushed forward by Aquilo, the eagle-wind, who came down from the mountains in the northeast of Iphigenia. Watching the brilliant white rolling charge, 1st Lieutenant Juan Pedro Ramon Garcia Santos, thought of his greatgrand Marta, an auguratrix who frequently spoke of the four Chief Winds. She once said that Aquilo always brought a downpour. Santos didn’t see how huge fluffy white clouds portended rain, but he knew well Mema Marta was never wrong when it came to the flight of birds or the behavior of wind. Two teams, led by the bards, were still out searching for the culprits. The Kaiser’s body was secured, though not in any kind of dignified manner. Santos wasn’t looking forward to the passdown, but was more than ready for Commander Samuel Felis to take the reins. A pulsing ache, the size of Iphigenia, knocked on his temples.
“Lieutenant!” General Michaels called.
“Yes, General?” Santos responded automatically.
“Has anyone contacted the Silvans?”
“Who?” Santos asked while slowly pressing the middle and ring fingers of both hands into his temples.
“The Silvans…the family of morticians who run Sentinel. Well, not their son Jared, he maintains the Gryphon Gardens.”
“Oh,” Santos exhaled. “Not that I know of, sir.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, Ensign Osborne and I will take care of that for you. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Colonel Thompson was here. While we’re at it, we’ll keep looking around. I’d like to find her before that storm arrives.”
“Of course,” Santos nodded absently, thinking of the groundskeeper’s house. “Ensign, you have your orders.”
“Yes, sir,” Ensign Osborne said, rolling his eyes. The old general was a talker, fortunately, he was knowledgeable and occasionally said something useful. “What storm, sir? Those aren’t storm clouds.”
Their conversation faded from Santos’ hearing as they headed towards the main office. “Ford!”
“Lieutenant?” the Merc hollered from his post.
“You’re in charge.”
“Roger that,” Ensign Ford stood up a little straighter.
“When those two return with someone from the funeral home, you four escort the Kaiser. Get him out of the elements. No matter what, you stay with him.”
“We will, sir!”
Before Santos could take a step, the Merc posted to the south, shouted, “attention on deck!”
“Belay my last, Ford,” Santos said as he abruptly changed direction and headed toward Commander Felis.
“Lieutenant!” Commander Felis growled, “what in Mercury’s name is going on? Ten of my soldiers did not report for muster. Ensign Osborne tells me there’s an emergency and that you called the men to action. You’ve broken with protocol. Explain.”
“Orders, sir!” Santos took a deep breath, and then quickly explained his standing orders from both Colonel Dagon and Kaiser Imler. He ran through the screaming of the Phoenix, finding the blood at the Heart, and using the bards to locate the Kaiser’s body, which Santos showed to Commander Felis. Finally, Santos added, “I’ve got to check something out, sir. The last order the Kaiser gave me, before,” he glanced briefly at the covered body and back to Felis’ chin, “I don’t know if I should believe it, sir.”
Santos leaned close and whispered, “that the servant boy is the Kaiser’s heir.”
Commander Felis’ eyes widened, but he managed to tighten his mouth into a straight line. Through clenched teeth, he ordered, “go. If the boy is, then protect him and send me word. If not, bring the liars to me.”
With that, Lieutenant Santos headed to the back wall where, only the day before, the Kaiser had led them into the Gryphon Gardens. Once at the stone wall, he scrambled over, and jumped aiming for the not-so-soft patch of grass. He took off at a jog, intent on reaching Patrick Field’s house before anything else could go wrong. I should have stayed with the Kaiser. Too late now. Just keep going. Get to the gardener’s. If the boy really is a grif—don’t think about it. Figure it out when you get there, Santos kept running. His aching head thumped to the tempo of his heartbeat as his feet pounded the southernmost gravel walk inside the Gryphon Gardens. Any other day, he would have taken in the beauty of Aquilo’s charge over the magnificent scenery of the Gardens, but today, he only saw the gravel as it disappeared under him. When the walk split, he took the right fork; had he continued left he’d have eventually circled around the entire compound. A short way down the path, he found the mailbox labeled “Field” nearly lost in the hedges. Apparently, the man had spent so much of his time tending to the Gardens, he’d neglected his own hedgerow. Santos pushed through the little cast iron gate. Upon seeing the front door standing open, the hair on his neck raised. He charged up the porch and through the door where he skidded to a stop.
In the middle of the groundskeeper’s living room paced a young griffin. The girl who’d accompanied the Kaiser and the two boys up from Avalona was earnestly speaking to Patrick Field who seemed unable to take his eyes off the griffin. Three heads swiveled toward the stuttering Merc standing in the exact same place Patrick had when he’d realized his living room was occupied by a griffin. Immediately, Santos fell to his knees, head down, hands up.
“Not again,” Archel muttered in the language of the birds.
“It’ll happen for the rest of our lives,” Cassie responded in kind.
“Santos!” Patrick exclaimed, thankful he’d advised the two kids to wait. “Finally.”
Archel crossed the room, careful not to knock anything else off the walls. He slowly placed his paw in the Merc’s outstretched hands, saying, “please stand up.”
Joining her half-brother, Cassie touched the Merc’s shoulder, adding, “it is good you’re here. We need your help.”