“Officer Brimley, for the last time, put that gun down. You are seriously trying my patience,” Celatrix Verna ordered from the morgue doorway. “We don’t have time for games. Mercury’s Elite are required to patrol. You are not to challenge them every two minutes. Your task is to observe and, if necessary, to defend. Not to attack.” The Celatrix exhaled her frustration.
“But, Celatrix, it’s not what you think…” Brimley’s plea trailed off as she holstered her weapon. She pointed at the kneeling soldier, “he…nevermind,” Brimley huffed.
“He refused to listen,” she blurted, “I told him no one was to enter while you were examining Kaiser Imler.” Celatrix Verna waited. Ensign Osborne smirked looking up slightly from where he knelt in the foyer. “I ordered him back, but he ignored me. I didn’t pull my gun until he tried to shove me. Well, actually…uh…I threw him onto the ground and then pulled my gun.” Brimley stared beyond Osborne, hoping the Celatrix would understand.
Chuckling Ensign Osborne stood up, “it’s true. She’s fast. I didn’t see it coming until I was staring up at her.” The ensign bowed his head and said, “apologies, Celatrix.” Then, he picked up the fallen supplies and asked, “now, may I return these?”
“You may,” Verna said. “Be quick. Once the ministers arrive, no one will be allowed in until the ritual is completed. Understood?”
“Yes’m,” he answered.
“Good. I assume you’re Ensign Osborne?”
“When you finish, I need you and the Silvans.”
“What for?” he snapped. She raised an eyebrow, then he quickly added, “my bad. I’ll get them.”
“Good,” Celatrix Verna said. “Tell them I need the phone. We’ll be just outside. Come get us.”
“Yes’m,” Osborne said.
“Brimley, with me,” Celatrix Verna ordered as she strode to the front door. Once they were several paces away from the posted guardsman, she whispered, “I have a task for you. I’ll have no arguments. Understood?”
“Yes, Celatrix,” Brimley said as lightning flashed.
“Yes, Celatrix,” the Amazonian woman stared warily up at the storm clouds.
“Return to the gardener’s house. Guard the occupants. Tell the lieutenant he’s to help you escort them here for midnight. Make sure they all arrive here a few minutes before midnight. Now, repeat the order.”
“Dammit, Dad!” Captain Randle Dante, Jr. exclaimed as he slapped both hands on the table. “How could you lose him?”
“How?” Commander Randle Dante, Sr. placed his hands on the table and pushed himself up from the chair. “That damn fool boy believed what he saw. He waited until Machine left to decapitate West and then made a run for it. We played the hand too close.”
“Why did Machine leave? You know what…I don’t care. Did you handle it?”
“I’ve got a man on it.”
“Well, Dad, don’t leave me hanging.”
“Locos took Machine to hunt the boy down. After Machine identifies Wheelock, Locos will kill him. Then, they’ll go directly to the pickup. I expect you to be available at a moment’s notice. He’ll signal you when it’s time.”
“So, you’ve been acting up to get me pulled from duty?”
“There wasn’t an easier way?”
“That was the easy way.”
Father and son locked eyes in a battle of sheer will. The rules of the game had been established when little Randy was an infant: no looking away, no blinking, no holds barred.
The ambulance emergency entrance at Ambrosia General Hospital was located on the south side of the seven story complex. The aging hospital was as much a feature of Ambrosia as was the Templus de Ambros, and though the hospital twice as tall, it only took up a fourth of the space of the sprawling temple. The temple and hospital were both filled with professionals intent on following their standard routines. Typically, the paramedics would pop the back of the ambulance, pull out the stretcher, and head directly into the drop off where they’d park the stretcher in front of the nurse’s station in the waiting room. Given the delicacy of the situation, the giant paramedic thought things would go smoother if they went straight to a private room.
“Wait with him,” the paramedic ordered Balin. “I’m going to arrange a room. Then, we’ll transfer him. Got it?”
Balin nodded, “sure. Wait here. I got it.”
When the paramedic climbed out of the ambulance, thunder cracked. The tuxedo cat took the opportunity to leave by jettisoning off Kent’s leg, causing the young man to yell out, “stupid fucking cat!” Both Balin and the paramedic had to stifle their laughter. The paramedic disappeared with the close of the rear door. Balin bit his lower lip and turned his head away from Kent. If the young Bard had been more observant, he might have noticed. As it stood, he pushed his head further into the thin pillow and continued to stroke Aeolus with one hand while Fulco nuzzled into the other.
After a few minutes, Kent said, “he’s dead.”
Unsure of what to say, Balin silently nodded.
“Did you hear me? He’s dead.”
“I heard. Yes, he is.”
“I didn’t know him. So, why does it hurt?”
To hide his surprise, Balin coughed.
“Don’t worry. I don’t expect you to have the answers,” Kent said. “I just—he’s my—ah, sweet Iphi! Fuck!” He used the hand he’d been petting Aeolus with to slap the gurney. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“We wait, sir,” Balin answered.
“Don’t call me that. What are we waiting for?”
“Yes, sir,” Balin answered automatically. “We’re waiting for a room, the doctor, and clearance. Then, we go to HQ. Once we get there, Colonel Dagon will help. You’ll see.”
“I’m glad you’re so damned sure,” Kent growled. “Quit calling me that.”
“Trust me, sir. Colonel Dagon will help you,” Balin squeeze the disgruntled Bard’s shoulder.
Kent winced in pain, rolled his eyes, and moaned, “whatever.”
The cargo van came to a stop two inches from an enormous oak tree. Hopping out of the van, Bonnie Taylor rushed to the back, opened the doors, and then tapped his crystal three times. He kicked off his shoes, tied the laces together, and hung the pair from his neck. Inhaling a deep breath, he dug his toes into the ground and gripped his crystal. On the exhale he relaxed his whole body. After repeating the exercise ten times, he pulled and tugged on the top left shipping container. Slowly, the container moved toward him. With great effort he yanked, the container nearly flew out of the van. Using strength drawn from the earth and his crystal, Taylor managed to remove all the containers. Once the last one was down he ripped off the lids, revealing six unconscious and drugged women. Bastards. I should have killed them. Brilliant white light filled the clouds, quickly followed by the ear-splitting thunder. The hair on his arms danced in the growing wind. Don’t worry ladies. You’re almost safe. Heaving the two Darin women over each of his shoulders, Taylor walked around the oak to a secret path which he followed down to a tiny hidden inlet in the Muddy River. He unceremoniously dropped the women into a waiting paddle boat, he muttered, “sorry ladies.” Then, he made two more trips to do the same thing with the remaining women.
Before climbing into the paddle boat, he unknotted his shoes, and put them back on. He glowered at the offensive paddles, without the earth contact to ground him the ache in his shoulder had grown commiserate with the efforts he’d just put forth. Closing his eyes, he envisioned the route he’d take to reach the barge. Though thankful for downstream currents, for the first time in ages he longed for an engine. Once he’d sat down on the bench and secured the paddles, he began the arduous and intensely painful process of shoving off. Any other man would have passed out. Bonnie Taylor ground his teeth, tapped his crystal, and made it happen. In a few minutes, he navigated through the stagnant inlet waters and into the Muddy River current. With any luck they’d be on the barge before the slavers found the van.
Though it had begun to sprinkle, Dagon continued his slow and winding route to the main offices of Sentinel Cemetery. Colonel Dagon finally had the opportunity and privacy to breathe a little, rain or not, he meant to make the best of it. He silently cursed the mess Adonis created, mourned the loss of a great leader, and worried about his ability to protect the boy heir. His stomach knotted and bile rose to his throat. He punched his hand and clamped his jaws closed to resist the undeniable urge to scream out his frustrations. Recognizing how inappropriate it would be for him to be seen flipping out, Dagon slipped into a small grove down the left path leading further away from the funeral home. Inside the grove was a beautiful small black marble gazebo surrounded by matching black marble backless benches. As he approached the gazebo, he realized the steps were etched. Upon closer inspection, he saw the entire front had been engraved with a variety of vaguely familiar symbols. Curiosity got the better of him, softly padding up the steps he stopped when he saw the giant pentagram engraved in the black marble floor. At the center of the pentagram was the very familiar Eye of Mercury.
Breath caught in Dagon’s throat. He stiffened. His eyes darted over the carved columns, the intricately designed railings, and the podium at the apex of the pentagram. The Messenger’s Portal is real. He gingerly backed down the water slicked steps. If the griffin king, messenger, and bard all exist and the bracelet and portal are real…OH SWEET MERCURY! Colonel Dagon slipped on the last step and fell onto the grass, cracking his head on one of the benches. The impact knocked him out.