|Tomb of the Dark Ones
Author: Shawn30 PM
AU. Chapter 3. Countess Venom carries out her deadly orders. The Knights and Rangers reach an agreement as they tour the treachery of the Highlands. Governess Divatox has a visitor...Rated: Fiction M - English - Drama/Romance - Kim H. & Tommy O. - Chapters: 3 - Words: 36,586 - Reviews: 19 - Favs: 11 - Follows: 14 - Updated: 07-03-09 - Published: 10-06-08 - id: 4580215
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: "Tomb of the Dark Ones"
Written by: Shawn
Summary: Countess Venom carries out her deadly orders. The Knights and Rangers reach an agreement as they tour the treachery of the Highlands. Governess Divatox has a visitor...
Category: Action-Adventure/Romance/Drama/Mystery Rating: MA
Timeline/Spoilers: None. This is my AU-verse. I consider it a hybrid of sorts, similar to the worlds of King Arthur or Dungeons and Dragons: a medieval land of magic and mystery Expect the unexpected.
Characters. Tommy, Kim, Jason, Trini, Zack, Billy, Aisha, Rocky, Adam, Katherine, Tanya, Zedd, Goldar, Zordon, Dulcea, and Rita - I will honor the heart and souls of the characters as we know them, tempered only by this new world that they inhabit. Some of their names will be changed slightly, but trust me, you'll have no trouble at all knowing who they are.
Special Note: While those here at and my Yahoo Group will see the full story, I'm creating a very special addition of each chapter that can only be found in the Tommy/Kim story section of the "Perfect Chemistry" forum. I've updated my FF fanfic profile and you can find the link there.
Authors Notes 1: All will be revealed in the story. Trust me.
Special Thanks: To Liz and Missa, my wonderful amazing art creators who inspire my imagination in this universe. And to Vivian for her insight and help in the fantasy world I'm trying to create. You're priceless.
"I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion."
~~ FREDERICK DOUGLASS, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
"If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost."
~~ Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC), Politics
"Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results."
~~ Andrew Carnegie
Home to the Duke and Duchess of Mecha
The land of Eltar
A tense, ominous mood settled inside the legendary castle.
From the long, broad stone balcony above the regal-decor of the main dining floor, a group of well-trained, battle hardened mercenary swordsmen stood as proof of the enhanced security measures implemented by the royal family as rumors swirled of a possible offensive. The silver and black clad masked warriors took their posts at opposite ends of the hall near the twin red carpeted staircases that led to the dining hall below.
"Six long seasons ago I entered our family into a blood pact with Governess Divatox. To be certain, her fierce ambition and unstoppable drive were astounding leadership qualities. Furthermore, she possessed a spark that made you feel she could steal the sun out of the sky and clench its fire to nothingness within her fist. She was clever and fearless... a soul without a moral core, and had no problem playing on the end of the King's leash so that one day she could choke him with it. So with the offer of absolute power, new lands, and freedom to do as we pleased beyond our wildest beliefs, I joined 'The Ring' with eyes wide open," Duke Mondo stated with a echoing flair to his booming voice, courtesy of the massive dining hall. Long, oil-lit torches adorned the ancient gravel walls of this fortress, providing a natural glow to the ceiling-high red Mecha Empire banners hanging from the rafters.
Around Duke Mondo this cold evening at the long dinner table sat his wife, Duchess Machina. His son, Prince Gazket, and his wife, Archerina. The royal family of Mecha, gathered this night to discuss their future. "We were the secret society... the hidden third government in this world, loyal to no one save ourselves. And for a time all went according to plan. The other six members divided the Highlands equally, while Governess Divatox ruled the whole and kept the King in place. We amassed fortunes we would never live long enough to exhaust, and stayed out of each other's way. Business was good to say the least."
With his steely gaze locked on the jeweled goblet being refilled with his favorite Elf wine, Duke Mondo reclined his large, portly physique. Rich in immense wealth and girth, even as he favored his family, he eyed them all with a small wedge of suspicion. "But as the Ring's silent influence grew, so did Governess Divatox's lofty aspirations. From my personal vantage point, there comes a time where you have to take a step back and watch events unfold. For the Governess, she has pushed and pushed until notice of her actions have begun to spread. And while fear is good for business, rumors of unspeakable arcane horrors are not. She wasn't content with our lucrative operation as it was. She wanted more... and sought the dark arts to obtain her goals. To that end, I can sense a dark cloud of impending doom looming over the Highlands. That is why I have tendered my resignation from the Ring."
Gasps were heard around the table, none more shocked than from the Duchess herself. For her husband to have taken this drastic course of action meant he knew more than he shared with her. A chilled tingle swept over her. "Surely you jest? Governess Divatox's reach stretches too far these days. She won't let us go."
"Not to mention our empire depends on the mining colonies she controls," Prince Gazket noted with a predatory glare at his father. "Leaving the Ring at this time could prove costly for all involved. What if the other members took us to war?"
"War, you say?" Duke Mondo tempered his smirk before downing his goblet until it was empty. With the back of his hand he wiped his face, and then gestured for the attendants to begin clearing the table. "Son, if King Zordon learns of what the Governess has allowed to take place in the Highlands, the Ring will be no more. Even if all the members private forces combined, they wouldn't be able to stand against the Grand Army of Eltar. So no, I do not fear war with the Ring, or Governess Divatox." His gaze darkened as he seized the attention of everyone in the room when his large fist pounded the table. "I fear a world war! I fear Governess Divatox is ignoring the ramifications if rumors of Lord Baron Rancore's forces operating in the Highlands are true. And I fear that our dear Governess has gone mad with dark magic. She is a treacherous being that I no longer want any part of. Unnatural death surrounds that wench."
Sensing the winds of change wasn't something that escaped Princess Archerina. Not only within the family's relationship to the Ring, but between father and son as well. She knew well her husband's ruthless greed and hidden motivation to upend his father and rule the empire himself. She was fine with that... for as soon as he claimed the throne, she intended to ensure he claimed a headstone right next to his father. "Without the mining colonies, what will we do for iron and steel?"
Duke Mondo leaned back, craning his thick neck about. He was a businessman first and foremost. But beneath that, he had no mercy for anyone that stood in his way. "I feel Governess Divatox has outlived her usefulness. Mechanical engineering and not magic are the wave of the future, mark my words well. In ten seasons time the world will rely on what we build today, so we must remain vigilant in staying our course. Whatever we will need will be provided by whoever takes the Governess's place when she is no more. The only true question is who do I use to slay her?"
Suddenly the balcony above the dining hall erupted with chaotic screams. The violent clash of sword and steel could be heard, but not seen... until the dining table itself was presented with a new offering from above.
The severed head of a mercenary guard, his eyes locked open, forever frozen in the guise of death.
"GUARDS!!! GUARD!!" Duke Mondo shouted while drawing his jeweled dagger from his belt. When his eyes lifted, the sight that greeted him froze his heart cold. "...the Ghost."
Leaping onto the smooth black marble railing, Countess Venom sneered down at the royal family. Youthful and lovely, her silver hair was as much her trademark as was her terrifying presence. Enveloped in dark attire, her twin swords drenched in fresh blood, she somersaulted off the railing, landing dead center on the dining room table.
Prince Gazket drew his sword, confident as the twin staircases soon filled with mercenary swordsmen. "I thought you were dead!"
"I am delivered." Racing down the length of the long table, she advanced upon two guards, flying over both with a perfectly executed leap. She parried the deadly lunge of one swordsman, slicing his throat from ear to ear, before jamming both swords behind her as the second attempted to attack. Her blades stabbed through his belly, killing him instantly. She withdrew her swords, eying the rest of the guards approaching fast.
"Kill her!! Kill her now!" Duke Mondo ordered while ushering the Royal family out of the way.
Countess Venom engaged three warriors, her speed far superior to anyone they'd ever fought before. The clash and clank of steel on steel resounded until at last she threw both swords with deadly accuracy, driving them into the chests of two of the mercenaries. She leapt over the the third, reached for his head in mid-air, and upon landing broke his neck with such force that bone tore through skin, drowning the front of his clothing in crimson. The lifeless body slumped to the floor with a thud.
Walking slowly to retrieve her swords, she grabbed them, ducking just before Prince Gazket's blade severed her neck from her shoulders with a wild attack. With her guard raised, they vigorously battled back, and then onto the staircase itself. Neither could gain an edge on the other, their motions lightening swift as they warred up the stairs. The Prince saw her as no more than a skilled woman, his male chauvinist persona ever evident. He sliced sideways, missing her, but connected with a fierce backhand blow that caused her to lose her footing and almost fall off the side of the staircase.
Prince Gazket narrowly missed her neck with a ferocious slash, and then felt the cold steel of her twin blades crossing his neck. He had no time to react. "I assure you, Countess. Your next trip to the Underworld will be the last!"
"Then prepare a place for me. For I won't see you soon." Her blades met at his Adam's apple, beheading the crowned Prince of Mecha. The dismembered object rolled down the stairs, trailing blood until it reached the bottom floor.
Duke Mondo watched in stunned silence, and then a violent roar tore from his chest, "MURDER HER!! A FORTUNE TO HER KILLER!!"
Countess Venom, trained since birth for this very purpose, viciously annihilated everything in her path. Swordsmen attacked from all sides, and were met with her deadly unorthodox fighting style. She leapt around the hall, using every angle, and anything to her advantage. She was death personified, a blur of raging fury. In her mind, the Governess's arcane teachings flooded her senses. Even when she questioned them, those thoughts faded to the back of her mind. Her life belonged to Governess Divatox.
She had no other reason she knew of to exist.
The dead, broken bodies began to litter the marble floor all over the luxurious dining hall. Swordsmen attacked Countess Venom two and three at a time, attempting to use their superior height and strength to their advantage. It didn't work. She massacred all who opposed her until every single piece of furniture dripped with crimson... until the last mercenary swordsman fell at her feet, his heart clutching onto one of her blades. "It is finished."
Countess Venom watched the heaving, snarling Duke Mondo as he was held by two of her assassins. "Governess Divatox sends a message."
Swallowing harder than he ever had before, Duke Mondo watched her slowly approach him. "What is her message?"
Leaning into him, her warm breath fanned his ear. "Resignation accepted."
Countess Venom drove a dagger into his chest several times while his wife screamed for her husband. She turned sharply to the widow. "Duke Mondo has ordered the deaths of over one hundred innocent people. He has several mistresses and countless bastard heirs all over the land. Tell me... will you truly miss him?"
Duchess Machina stared at the young woman, and then her husband's bloated, bloody carcass. Years of pain and betrayal forced her hand. Her survival instinct kicked it. "Will the Governess allow me to work with her?"
"Then so be it. The Empire of Mecha is at her command."
"Wise choice," Countess Venom left her with, walking away... her footsteps stained in blood.
The ancient Church of Elpis
Former home of worship for the people of Shia
Home to the Rangers
The land of Eltar
Seated on a armless wooden stoop, Jacen allowed the old stone fireplace to warm his weary bones, while Bulkmier's thick and spicy meat stew filled his hungry belly. Dry commoners clothes, courtesy of Tatanya's kindness replaced his rain-soaked attire. The comfort was greatly appreciated, as he and the other Knights thanked her. Tonights battle had taken a tremendous physical toll on all involved, but he sensed a great deal of good would come of it. Surrounded by his beloved Knights, he listened intently as Trinity and Kaiesha wove the sad origin tale of the Rangers, and the current lawlessness corrupting the Highlands. Shocked and appalled best described his gut reaction, though he kept it to himself until he had all the information they came after. For now though, as time passed and wounds healed, he began to view the Rangers in a new light. One not marred by the endless rumor mongers or unjust bias.
Never mind the cruelty of the hard life they lived prior to this one, those four courageous women carried a nobility he swore the vast majority of those bearing that lofty title couldn't hope to attain.
Allowing the delicious food to settle, Jacen gazed about the modest decor of the old church. From the outside by moonlight it appeared whithered, as if a strong storm might spell its doom, causing it to fall in on itself. But the interior was designed as a fortress of sorts. Rebuilt and erected to stand the test of time, there was a basic eloquence to it.
Aged tables, chairs, and beds were obviously rebuilt with a carpenters skill. Red and gold tapestries hung from the walls bearing quotes of hope and triumph over adversity. The structure carried the ambiance of a home and a war room at the same time. The religious history intrigued Jacen as much as the two able men who spent seasons rebuilding it. The upper and lower floors were sectioned off into rooms of sorts, with this main area around the fireplace meant to plan and tend to the sick. Swords, maces, staffs, shields, and maps adorned the walls. A section in the far corner seemed like a workstation of sorts. Probably where Skullovitch designed his gadgets. Out back the Rangers had a barn filled with medical supplies, clothes, and food for anyone who needed help. They risked their lives trying to help a kingdom that had failed them, and never kept the spoils of their victory.
Treasure chests of gold were donated to orphanages, soup kitchens, and houses of worship that took in the homeless and those down on their luck. The Rangers saved enough to survive, but no more. Their story did more than fill in the gaps of their lives.
It inspired Jacen. He was truly touched.
With Tommy being tended to by Adama for his multitude of external injuries, Jacen caught sight of the mysterious glances shared between his co-leader and the leader of the Rangers. Kimberly of Hart looked as though she'd just fought a war, the same as Thomas. But while the room discussed and listened, they silently observed one another. Curious indeed. "So there are only four of you?"
Leaning against the dark brick wall with her arms folded, Trinity gave a nod. "Subterfuge and mystery allow us to appear as more than we are. Fear is a weapon we take great care to cultivate."
Jacen respected their cleverness. "At the very least allow me to begin formal introductions. My name is Sir Jacen. The man to my right who your leader tried to use as a carving post is Sir Thomas." His brother-in-arms shot a angry expression his way. Good. Jacen considered Thomas probably needed the minor dent in his immense pride. "We are the leaders of the Grand Knights of Eltar."
"My name is Lady Dulcia," she chimed in next, and gave a polite bow. "The man attending to Sir Thomas is Sir Adama. Seated on the left is Sir Zachary, Sir William, and Sir Rockford."
Trinity's gaze roamed the newcomers, favoring each with a gentle look of surprise. "I thought there were more of you?"
"The years have been treacherous," Sir Zachary offered while nursing a steaming pottery cup of tea, his mind ghosting past the faces of fallen comrades. Dark times... "We are all that remain of the Knights."
Kaisha remembered before her village was destroyed tales her father told her that the Grand Knights of Eltar, protectors of the Kingdom, numbered over a hundred not even ten seasons ago. Her sharp tongue toward them tempered. They didn't posses the clean faces of uncaring nobles she expected to find when the inevitable came to visit the Rangers. They were warriors, bearing the marks, scars, and hardness of a team that had withstood the underworld of hell and lived to tell about it. She quietly contemplated if she'd grossly misjudged them. Only time would tell. "My name is Kaisha."
"I am Tetanya," the Rangers other Nubian female noted. "Against the wall is Trinity, and the girl bleeding all over the place is our fearless leader, Kimberly of Hart." A snort of a reply from their leader amused Tetanya. "We are the Rangers."
"It is a pleasure to meet you ladies. Our first encounter notwithstanding, I look forward to working with you. Now that introductions are out of the way, on to matters of great importance." Mindful of all that she's learned thus far, Dulcia felt it was more than time to come clean with their new allies. At least she hoped they would become allies. "The rumors of corruption and excessive violence in the Highlands have reached the King's ears. He dispatched us in secret to learn the truth and then report our recommendation for rendering justice."
"He's years late, and there's a great deal of blood on his hands." Kaisha could hold her tongue no longer, though perhaps they didn't deserve her wrath. "The Highlands is in deplorable condition. There is crime of every sort in every single city. Forced slavery runs rampant, as does murder if you do not cooperate with Governess Divatox. She rules with an iron fist and an apparent lack of fear of the King."
"Hey, we got here as fast as we could," Rocky chimed in with a grin, only to reel from the blunt glares of the female Rangers. His mood turned serious. "I wish the King could be everywhere at once, and we had the resources to cross the world anywhere we're needed. But unfortunately we don't. The plagues in Mafir and the flooding that ravaged the Zentile lands stretched the Kingdom's resources very thin."
"Tell that to the families burned at the stake in Kithiria," Tatanya stated while cleaning the wound on Kimberly's arm, and then dressing it. "Still, there is much work to be done here, and finger pointing won't fix anything. Now we can sit here all night and fight about who should of done what and when, or we can work together to find a solution."
"My sister must be removed from her station," Dulcia announced to the room, flames illuminating her face by firelight. She didn't need to reveal her personal connection to the Governess, but felt if fostering trust with the Rangers would help, then she would have to extend it first. "Governess Divatox is my sister, but rest assured I am well aware of what she is capable of. And while I require more proof, I sense you are telling the truth. She must be taken into custody and tried in the High Courts."
"I say we kill her," Kimberly declared while gazing into the fire, her cursed sword by her feet.
"Murdering her without a trial would make us no better than her," Thomas argued, drawing her attention. Gazing into the brown depths of the woman he tried to kill, and who in turn tried to kill him, captured something elemental between them. There was a tense pull of some kind. "I have wanted to kill many enemies I have faced, but only in battle. Slaying her outright in the peoples eyes will place us at her level. We would lose even in victory."
"You're naive if you think she will just allow herself to be taken into custody, Thomas. She would butcher anyone to remain in power."
"Have the years so hardened you that outright murder is your only solution?"
Kimberly's eyes narrowed as her expression drew tight. "Have you ever been a slave, Thomas?"
He sighed as her meaning struck home. "No."
"Then do not presume you know of the years I've lived." Silence engulfed the room during their exchange. Kimberly peered away, fighting off a grimace from the flaring pain in her recently stitched forearm. Not to mention the splitting headache she suffered. "At least we all agree Governess Divatox must be taken down. Now how do we go about that?"
Adama finished dressing the stitched wound on Thomas's back. "Kimberly, I think all of us would like to see the Highlands first hand. Perhaps be shown what is transpiring in the cities. It isn't that I personally don't trust you."
"That's more than reasonable," Tetanya acknowledged, sharing a easy going grin with Sir Adama. She had to look away when it dawned on her how much she liked his smile.
While trying not to stare at Trinity, William found his shyness yet again a disadvantage. From the moment he saw her he hadn't been able to take his eyes off of her. Alas, the last thing he needed now was a distraction. "These lands are your territory. You know them best. Where would you take us?"
"Brielle," Trini explained to the Knight with the nice blue eyes, in her opinion. She fought off the notion that it was cute when he looked down upon noticing her attention on him. "There you will see the corruption of Governess Divatox's authority, and the severe poverty of its many people. Rest assured it is a place you will never forget."
"And Ismyr." Kimberly slowly stood on shaky legs, and was thankful when Skullovitch took her other forearm to help steady her. She favored him with a smile, and then caught a flash of something cross Thomas's face. The definition of, she wasn't sure at all. "Child prostitution and slavery are openly flaunted. If that place does not convince you to act then nothing will."
"It's settled them." Thomas struggled to his feet, drawing a dry shirt over his shoulders with Adama's help. "We shall split up and travel to those cities."
"Trinity and Kaisha will take some of you," Kimberly ordered.
Jacen sat his bowl aside. "Myself, Dulcia, and Rockford will go with them."
"You shall escort me to Ismyr," Thomas noted to the Rangers leader with something of a sly grin.
"Is that an order?" Kimberly fired back, her brow arched.
"A request," he amended softly. He thought she fended off a smirk... ever so slightly.
Kimberly's voice rose above the group. "The others will stay here. Tomorrow at first light we ride out. As for tonight, Bulkmier will show you to where you can sleep for the evening. We'll work out the rest in the morning."
Thomas watched the way Kimberly walked gingerly toward the stairs with Skullovich's assistance. "Are you going to be alright?"
"Are you?" she left over her shoulders, never looking back as the others conversed around them. And still she felt his gaze upon her...
The next morning...
The city of Brielle
The land of Eltar
"Welcome to Brielle," Trinity proclaimed upon clearing the towering Great Gate and its sword-wielding guards, steering her mare towards the sprawling fenced stable yard dead ahead. Kaisha, Dulcia, Jacen, and Rockford rode closely behind. "These days we call it the City of the Damned. Soon you'll see why."
Having traversed Mystique's far-reaching boundaries many times over, Jacen had never visited this city before. The second largest habitat next to the capital city of the Highlands, Brielle was known as an engaging metropolis. A melting pot of magic, wealth, invention, and rich diversity. Settled within a mysterious dedicated fog, Brielle's buildings, famous inns, drink taverns, shops, brothels, and trade guilds spanned blocks in every direction. The cobble-stone streets were crowded for this time of day as the Knight had rarely seen such a well-populated city, noting the vast wealth and obvious poverty all around him. Nobles clad in colorful silk and lace rode elaborate chariots pulled by Draikeels. Powerful three-legged creatures with scaly green skin and a mean temper to match. They were five times stronger and durable than horses, but required a great depth of experience to train and control. They were the preferred status symbol of the rich and powerful.
They meant nothing to Jacen. Showing off for the public while others starved around you made him sick to his stomach.
As they approached the stable yards, Jacen saw beggars being ushered from in front of a large fruit stand by a loud, rowdy owner. Their dusty clothes best resembled rags, and they appeared malnourished and in poor health. There were just so many of them... his heart ached. Gambling and other games of chance littered street corners, garnering crowds of onlookers and those looking to try their luck. Further down the street he recognized scores scantily clad women attempting to garner amorous attention from the wealthy men who rode alone in their chariots. Their fake smiles and bawdy charm didn't betray the emptiness he found in their hollow eyes. He knew pain when he saw it. But he also knew, unsavory as the thought was, that when you were starving you did what you had to do to survive. Times were hard here. Such sights didn't exist near the capitol of the Eltar. The poor were taken care of as mandated by the King. None went hungry or unclothed. There were shelters and religious houses where those down on their luck could receive help and support. From what Jacen had seen so far, Brielle deeply underscored where Governess Divatox's priorities laid. Anger flashed across his face. "How long have there been homelessness here?"
Kaisha rode alongside the Knight, favoring him with a cool expression. "For as long as I have been in the Highlands. As a warning, brace yourself. You will see far worse than that here."
Sensing her chilly tone, Jacen shook it off without feeling insulted. With what she'd been through personally and seen in the Highlands, he knew that to her the Knights represented little difference from Governess Divatox. In essence, both looked the other way when it came to the peoples suffering. He hoped in time her opinion of them would change.
As the group reached the stable yard, a portly one-eyed Elf waddled his way towards them. "Welcome, welcome," he greeted them in a high-pitched tone, his face adorned with the same fake smile he'd given the last twenty travelers. His gaze quickly swept over the new arrivals. They lacked the clothing of nobility for certain, but didn't appear to be paupers either. Any gold was good gold as far as he was concerned. "My stable yard is at your disposal. Twenty coins of gold will suffice for the entire day. I ensure your horses will be watered and fed. May I assist you?"
Trinity swung her leg off her horse onto the ground. Her dark brown cloak hung just over her shoulder. She reached inside a pouch on her hip and produced a handful of gold coins. More than what was required. "We'll be back well before sundown. Be certain that our horses are well taken care of." The Elf nodded gleefully, counting his gold while the others dismounted and joined her. Stable hands quickly escorted their horses away.
Now alone, they could discuss how this was going to play out. Trinity stood before them all. "I know what I want to show you in particular," she addressed the Knights. "On the way there you'll have more than enough evidence to condemn the Governess."
"Lead the way." As the Knights followed the Rangers down the street into the heart of the city, Dulcia exercised her breathing techniques to calm herself as she took in her surroundings. Kressen farmers peddled their goods in old wooden carts that had seen better days. Soup kitchens had greeters stationed outside, offering samples of steaming beef stew that could be purchased inside. But nothing was freely given to the obvious hungry that begged nearby.
And then there was evidence of the Grissom plague in the outer appearance of Brielle's various races that caused a troubled glare to cross her face. Proper treatment of the plague left no lingering outward evidence that it had ever been there. But dark red welts were signs that only part of the healing treatment was done. She recognized scores of humans, elves, Dacrons, Lirens, and Z'ars bearing the raised scars of the plague. How could her sister allow so many to suffer without proper treatment? Was she truly as heartless as the Knights feared? The haunting gaze of dirty children running in packs nearby tore at her soul. Every single one of the children bore traces of the plague. In its lesser form, it could bring about incurable blindness, severe weightless, and painful tremors.
At its worst it could...
"By the Gods!" Rockford swore, covering his nose and mouth with his hand as they rounded a stretch of tall buildings to reveal a shadowed clearing that ended in a wide scorched alley. The horrid scent greeted them before the sensation of sight found their eyes. "I've never smelled such a wretched odor."
Trinity stood watch behind the Knights, her arms folded, her eyes averted. She felt a momentary sympathy for them. "I'm sure you've seen traces of the Grissom plague here. It ravaged the Highlands for weeks. The Governess told the people that the King couldn't be bothered with this sickness, but that she would be our savior. She didn't have her men hand out the cure. She sold it. Those that were able to buy, barter, or steal healing potions were give watered-down versions that barely saved them. Those that weren't so lucky were brought here and burned alive."
Charred bones rose thickly from the ground to level with the roof of the tall building attached to the alley, branching so far that they resembled a wall of the dead. Hundreds upon hundreds of bones lay whithered from an obvious fiery blaze. Unburied and horrific.
"That is barbaric!" Dulcia growled upon taking a slow step closer. So many of the skeletal remains were small... were children. They were given know honorable passage into the Netherworld. This was unholy in her eyes. The corpses were piled so high she had to crane her neck to see where they stopped. "I swear on my life that Governess Divatox will pay for this."
Trinity quietly backed away, a bit startled by the vehemence of the Governess's own sister. "There is more to see. Come."
Side-stepping a street card game, Jacen observed as they made their way through the crowded city that Dulcia and Rockford were just as shaken as he was. The King's honorable empire was crumbling before their very eyes. Justice did not live here. Not when Taz'millen men and women, the cursed race who fought alongside the Eltarian army and helped win the war, were shackled to polished Blackstone pillars and sold into slavery before their very eyes. The stage where the bearded man compared their strength and endurance to animals made his stomach retch. The crowd bid on them as they would a prize mare. The Taz'millen deserved far better than this. Their natural gray skin and lack of outer hair meant that the sexes were separated by body types alone. They did not smile nor cry or show much emotion at all, but among them were some of the worlds most incredible writers. They could express such emotion in words. A decade ago in the King's time of greatest need that peaceful race rose up and took arms to fight for the kingdom of Eltar.
Without them the war would have been utterly lost.
To see them now... the proud Taz'millen being sold like cattle caused Jacen to grip the hilt of his sheathed sword. Out the corner of his eye he saw Rockford do the same, and found the scowl on Dulcia's face menacing. They wanted to act, but there was a bigger threat at play. Justice required patience. For now they would remember all that they saw, and then deal with the Governess. All in due time.
Silence accompanied them down a side street where four red armor-clad Ventress guards, Governess Divatox's personal law enforcement cabal, were arresting two women for selling Hyphren. The crushes ashes of fairies, a very powerful and addictive drug snorted through the nose. It was the scourge of the Eltar kingdom, having spread across the country like wildfire. The fact that an entire species had to be murdered to create the drug wasn't bad enough, the mind-altering effect of the drug often created heights of emotional responses. Some boisterous. Some sexual. Some very violent.
The Ventress guards took the drugs from the women, sold in small leather pouches, and sent the women on their way minus all the gold they had. Snickering amongst themselves, they casually entered a nearby tavern after having split the drug dealers earnings. Eltarian law required that they destroy the drugs and arrest the dealers.
The law didn't exist here. And it hadn't for a very long time.
"The King cares for his people," Jacen offered quietly as they toured the western end of the city near the work guilds, noting the beautiful architecture and stained glass windows. Most were closed down or boarded up. There was no surer symbol of poverty than a lack of work. "He would be appalled by what is happening here. And when he learns of this we will put an end to Governess Divatox immediately."
"Why has it taken so long?" Trinity questioned, her hands clasped behind her.
Dulcia gently took Trinity's wrist, capturing her attention. "With all do respect, have you any clue the immense size of the entire Kingdom? Now while that is no excuse for the pain and suffering taking place in the Highlands, the lands are spread far apart. So many are in dire need of assistance. Plagues in other areas, warring tribes, and natural disasters have taken their toll. The Kingdoms resources, both in man power and supplies, have been stretched to their limits."
Retracting her wrist with respect, Trinity looked away, sighing. "Who was looking out for those that were suffering here?"
"The Governess, unfortunately," Jacen interjected, shaking his head. "The King is human. As with all humans, he is not perfect. Neither are those chosen to govern. But I promise you, Trinity. The King would not ever stand for this if he knew."
The conversation continued around Kaisha, but her attention was away drawn to Rockford, who had quietly departed the group moments ago. She saw him round a corner and slowly followed for reasons she couldn't quite explain. The screams of a child soon caught her notice and she considered that maybe he sought after the same. Stopping behind a shackled horse-drawn wagon, she found the Knight standing before a very tall, lanky Norseman in front of a food market. The long-haired Norseman appeared to be the owner or manager, his apron bearing the same name as the swinging oak sign hung above the open front door. Beside the metal pens housing chickens and pigs, a thin middle-aged woman stood holding a crying infant, with two younger children standing behind her. The younger of the two, a little girl with flame hair, held the hem of her mothers ragged dress. Like many here, they appeared homeless and scared.
Kaisha did not approach, choosing to keep watch instead. She could not hear the conversation Rockford had with the store owner, but when he reached for his hip the Norseman took a step back. Instead of unsheathing his sword, he produced a pouch of what looked to be gold glinting from the partially open top. He gave the entire bag to the Norseman, and then motioned toward the family. Sighing, the Norseman nodded his head and stepped aside from his store's entrance. The woman drew the Knight into the dearest hug the Ranger had ever seen, and then quietly disappeared inside the sword with her children.
With the Ranger looking on, the Knight waited until the woman gathering what she wanted. She ended up needing a wagon for all the food she purchased. The mother left the market with tears in her eyes, thanking the Knight over and over. His gift came at a time she desperately needed it. All the while the Knight's face betrayed no great pride. He favored her with a sincere smile, and then walked away.
Having hated the ruling body of Eltar for so long she wasn't sure when it began, Kaisha felt startled by a new feeling. Guilt. Perhaps she'd been wrong about the King and those that followed him didn't care for anyone but themselves. Perhaps she'd created a false image of them due to the cruelties she'd seen. Maybe there was more to the story...
She shook her head clear, taking a long way around so that the Knight wouldn't know of her presence. When she rejoined the group Rockford was already with them, listening in on their conversation without adding a word. She playfully rapped her knuckle over his shoulder. "You disappeared for a little while."
Shrugging, Rockford tossed a sidelong grin her way. "Just touring the city." He said no more, and never told the group of what he'd done. He didn't try to gain support or change her mind about him. Wasn't looking for praise. He simply performed his duty as a Knight was supposed to.
Falling a step behind him, Kaisha had to admit she was impressed... and a bit charmed. He had a nice smile.
The group toured the city completely until morning gave way to mid-day. The Knights had more than enough visual evidence to condemn the Governess. They navigated through the busy crowds, now freely talking amongst themselves. Not necessarily as friends, but far from the enemies they were just last night. As they traded stories upon retrieving their horses, a depth of respect began growing between them all. It was the beginning of a partnership.
And so much more.
The city of Ismyr
The land of Eltar
"I think the work your Rangers are doing is remarkably honorable."
While Thomas's warm voice caressed her by sunrise, Kimberly led the Knight through the guard checkpoint into the den of perversion that was the city of Ismyr. Though enjoying his compliment for a brief heartbeat, she quickly fought off the alluring emotion. After all, just last night they were trying to kill each other. He might not be her enemy, but he certainly wasn't her friend. "I don't recall asking for your assessment."
Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas caught the barely stifled smirk of Skullovitch. Throughout their entire ride this morning whenever the Ranger's leader verbally bit at him, the whelp had the nerve to enjoy it. He couldn't help the curiosity he felt over what Skullovich's true 'relationship' with Kimberly might be. "Fine. I won't offer it again."
Thomas's annoyed silence as they made their way through the city was a welcome gift to Kimberly. It was bad enough the trouble she had last night trying to banish the vision of the very striking Knight from her dreams. There was just something about him that clawed at her subconscious. Sure, he was the most skilled warrior she had ever faced. And yes, she wasn't so little a woman in spirit that his handsomeness was lost on her. But there was more. Something deeper and far to new for her to be able to name. For now she felt bad over the guilt of Skullovitch's dear smile when she asked him to accompany them here at dawn.
When in reality she wasn't so certain she wanted to be alone with Thomas. For the Devil of her she didn't know why.
Wide pebble-rock roads led to amazingly beautiful multi-story inns, a towering main street Cathedral, Gilenhall bank, two market districts, and a handful of old taverns throughout the small city. Tiny homes clustered together lined side-streets, while the imposing Guild Hall building and it high number of guards protected the city. Boisterous side-walk vendors peddled everything from silk scarves to expensive jewelry and magical items. Vibrant, colorful fresh flowers adorned all windows and porches, while slim row-boats sailed the crystal water lake that nearly circled the entire city. Wagons and chariots of obvious wealth moved about, showing off its upper-class noble society.
Those that walked the busy market area they passed through were dressed in some of the finest clothing Thomas had ever seen. Jewels lit by sunlight from rings, bracelets, and necklaces showed off their owners immense luxury. As it were their little group arrived arrived today as humble commoners, their clothing a collection of lighter and darker browns. "I've never seen such wealth outside the capital city of Eltar," the Knight noted while closely shadowing Kimberly down the crowded market street on a warm, sunny morning.
"Riches are spent here on the backs of women and little girls. Sex is the city's most profitable trade. If there is even a trace of goodness in you, then this place will sicken your stomach." When she side-stepped a small band of traveling musicians, Kimberly tried not to be moved by Thomas's close proximity. "Rest assured your eyes have never witnessed the depravity they will this day," she darkly noted.
Well-dressed attendants standing in front of the elegant Valderen Inn at the corner escorted two male rider's horses to their nearby stables while the men quickly swept inside the building. Thomas could all but smell the heavy scent of ale on them when they passed by. Their stumbling steps spoke of drunkenness, while their faces bore hunger for female flesh. When a golden chariot pulled in next, the fur-clad nobleman and his male entourage were personally led inside. Stray pieces of their conversation fell to his ears, all focused on the carnal tastes they intended to satisfy. Whoring was illegal in Eltar, though it was widely known that didn't stop the trade. But to be featured so openly for the public was appalling to him. "How many brothels are there in Ismyr?"
"At the moment, eight that I know of," Skullovitch answered while trailing behind the duo, as well as watching out for pick-pockets. "All of them are highly profitable. They now outnumber the taverns, stables, food vendors, and other legal businesses. They are horrid places."
Of that, Thomas couldn't agree more. The Knight scowled at the sight of two young girls, barely twelve seasons he would estimate, being walked inside another brothel down the street beside a busy clothing market. Their downcast gazes wore blank, disconnected expressions. Were they... Thomas leaned down to Kimberly's ear. "As young as those?"
"Younger," Kimberly declared while gazing ahead, unable to stare into the face of another child-whore sold into sexual slavery. "Men's lustful tastes are fowl and relentless."
Thomas gently took her arm, turning her to him. He would never ask if during her time as a slave she was ever sold in such a way. But he dearly hoped to begin changing her mind about some things. "Not all men. Certainly not I." Her painful wince quickly drew his hand away. "Did I hurt you?"
"Last night," she exhaled, unwilling to allow him to see her discomfort any longer. "I needed four stitches to close the sword wound you inflicted on my forearm."
The savagery they battled with last night still lingered today. Only now the tension was different. Alas, he hoped to lighten the mood a tad. "You bettered me then. I needed six on my back and four more on my shoulder." He thought he saw the hint of a small smile favor her pretty mouth, but as swiftly it departed. Skullovitch stared daggers at him and now all was revealed. So, Kimberly was wanted by this man. But she was obviously not taken. At least not by him. Begrudgingly, Thomas couldn't blame him for being drawn her. And he'd cut his own tongue out before admitting that.
The Rangers leader left them a few paces behind. Now Thomas could feed his curiosity. "Have you something to say?"
With Kimberly a few steps ahead, Skullovitch walked step-for-step with Thomas. He made no effort to hide the coldness in his voice. "You almost killed her last night."
"She almost killed me," Tommy reminded him.
"Then consider yourself lucky that you're still alive. But be mindful that I am watching you. And I am not blind to the way you look upon her," Skullovitch warned.
"No more than I of you, kind sir." Thomas tipped his head wearing a knowing smile and then walked off after Kimberly, saying no more. He felt the man's gaze bore into his back.
Approaching a familiar haunt, Kimberly took the six stone stairs to a corner tavern's entrance and then spun around to wait for Thomas. He approached her slowly, as if giving her a good look at him. By daylight he was a beautiful man to behold. Tall and lean, graced with such fury and passion in the way he fought. Her teeth gritted when she realized she was actually staring. "A good friend of mine owns this establishment. Its called 'The Wild Horse'."
A gentle breeze blew the wooden sign bearing the tavern's name back and forth. Unable to resist, Thomas deftly invaded her personal space as her back pressed to the entrance. His voice lowered for her ears only. "So a hard ride is guaranteed then?"
Kimberly swallowed. Deeply. A crackle of sensual electricity passed between them. Unwavering, she met his obvious intent head on, pursing her lips seductively. "Provided you could handle it."
"I can handle anything."
"You thought that last night as well. Before I broke you."
"In your wildest dreams."
"No... in yours." She left him grinning while fighting off her own, pushing through the double swinging doors into the smoky depths of the Wild Horse tavern. The airy main hall was, as expected this time of day, mostly empty. But not so empty as some required the spirits to start their day no matter what. The interior felt old and welcome, like coming home from a long journey. A cooking fire-pit steamed in the far corner with two maids preparing spiced meats that tickled the taste buds. The delicious scent of food filled their air. The paneled walls were covered in many colorful Guild flags, both legal and otherwise. All were welcome here no matter their affiliation just so long as they played nice with each other and brought gold.
Up ahead, several of the ten round oak tables were empty. A lone drunk having already had his fill this morning. A trio in one corner, and a gambler counting the last of his gold coins wearing a scowl in the other.
From behind the long bar counter, a gentle smile favored Kimberly from a man as round as he was jolly. He circled the bar to reach her and then gave her big hug. Friendly eyes appraised her. "There's a bruise on your neck, milady. Have you been fighting... again?"
Ernie's fatherly teasing aside, she hadn't had time to visit him in weeks. His playful ribbing was sorely missed. "Little Ole me?" She even fluttered her eyes.
Looking past his good friend to those behind her, he laughed, "This one is trouble."
"Of that I have no doubt," Thomas pointed out, his gaze never wandering from Kimberly. She dared meet his for a heartbeat and then looked away.
Ernie shook Skullovich's hand next, having met the young man a number of times. The other was a stranger. "Who do we have here, fair Kimberly?"
Though secretly cringing whenever he called her 'fair Kimberly,' something he playfully knew annoyed her, she pushed it out of her mind. "This is Thomas. He's a... uhm..."
"Gentleman caller?" Ernie just had to tease.
"NO!" both Kimberly and Skullovitch replied at the same time, vehemently shaking their heads.
Thomas found the scene most amusing. "A riding companion for the day. No more." He then added upon looking around, "This is a wonderful establishment."
"In a corrupt town, I'm afraid. But the complement is appreciated just the same." Tending bar for as many years as Ernie had left him with a quick and sharp perception, honed over many seasons. There was definitely something amiss between Kimberly and this Thomas fellow. As well as Skullovitch's obvious disapproval of the other man. Interesting indeed. "What affords me the luxury of your presence, milady?"
"For the moment, a round of drinks for myself and the men. I would speak with you in private afterwards." Ernie was one of Kimberly's best sources of information in the Highlands. Men tended to loosen their lips the more they plied themselves with the spirits. That information has saved a number of lives in the last year. "One Cahors wine for me."
Ernie nodded while leading the trio to a empty table against the far east wall. "Skullovitch?"
"The same as the lady." That earned him a small smile from Kimberly. And a eye-roll from Thomas.
The tension between the two men could not have been more obvious to Ernie. Whatever mischief was Kimberly up to these days? Interesting. "And you, Thomas?"
"A plate of hot food will suffice. My morning meal was quite lacking in taste," Thomas enjoyed saying as he knew Skullovich would take offense.
Skullovich, though a nice guy by all regards, really wanted to stab Thomas. Repeatedly. Especially when he pulled Kimberly's chair for her. Something she looked woefully unaccustomed too. Dammit, why hadn't he thought of it first.
Meanwhile, Kimberly physically brushed past Thomas to take her chair. The hot sensation of their bodies touching quickened her heart. What magic was this man's mere presence working on her? Nonetheless, she graced him with a "Thank you."
"My pleasure." Thomas took his seat next, across from a scowling Skullovitch. From all that he's learned since last night the Ranger's inventor was highly skilled in many trades and a good, loyal man. All qualities the Knight greatly admired. He had no quarrel with this man in any way... except that to Skullovitch, he was some sort of a rival for Kimberly's affection. At least that was how it seemed. How that assumption could be possible considering how he and Kimberly were trying to murder each other last night was beyond him. Still, he would be lying if he said the Ranger's leader did not sway him in any way. She was a Lioness among other women. She had his attention.
Easing back in his chair, Thomas made note of the three burly barbarians closely watching their table. They were the type that kept watch out for anyone who appeared to be a easy mark for robbery. His hand grazed the handle of his sword. Nonetheless, it was time to get back to business. "Why bring me here?"
"You'll see soon enough," Kimberly said.
"That's not an answer."
"It's the only one you're getting right now." His seething only amplified her pulse. Thomas, arrogant as he was a gentleman, looked better than any man had a right too. She hated that she noticed. She also hated the way his eyes drank her in. She loathed that his attention made her feel something. "Are the Knights in the Highlands only because of your suspicions concerning the Governess?"
Beautiful and perceptive. Thomas had even more to admire concerning her. She had to have considered that five battalions of soldiers could have done what they are doing and that there had to be more to their mission that simply looking into the Governess. "Yes."
Kimberly watched him closely. "You're lying."
"Then get the truth out of me," Thomas challenged, his gaze engaged with her own. "How can you expect cooperation when you offer only veiled answers to my questions and not so veiled insults at every turn?"
Her expression reflected her internal struggle - he got to her. "You have not earned my trust."
"And you have not earned mine, but the fact remains we have to work together for things to change."
Brown eyes pierced her own. Her jaw tightened. He was right, angry as she was to admit it. "I like trying to kill you far more than working with you."
"You failed at one, so please do try to have more success with the other."
"Failed?" she practically snarled. "My dagger rested against that paltry package you call manhood before your friend saved your life."
He heard Skullovitch snicker from the 'paltry package comment'. "My sword was at your throat as you were beaten. Perhaps if we weren't interrupted I would have been less of a man, but you would have been dead." He leaned across the table. "You lost and you know it."
She wanted to hit him. Hard. "I lost? Is that why your friend spent half the night tying your flesh back together? I carved you up like a pig roast."
Rage spiked in Thomas. "You were the one on your back at night's end. Be thankful your head is still attached to your shoulders."
Kimberly's hand grazed the hilt of her sword. "We can go outside and finish this right now, Thomas," she threatened without fail. "You couldn't handle me on your best day."
Her words hung between them, fierce and hot. "I 'will' take you."
"No... you just want to." Their gazes locked tight. The world around them faded.
Skullovitch was never more thankful in his entire life than when Ernie arrived with the drinks and food. If he had to watch Kimberly and Thomas verbally spar... or flirt anymore, he'd lose his mind. Their was a hot spark of something when they fought that he absolutely couldn't stand. Kimberly seemed incensed with rage at the Knight in a way he'd never seen her act towards a man before. Thomas was equally focused, only he hid his entertainment at their arguing far less than she did.
Both seemed to like the agitation between them far to much.
Sadly, yet again he was reminded that while he was a trusted, good friend to Kimberly she did not see him as a man. A real man who drew her passions. And in less than a day he knew Thomas had burrowed under her skin. He got to her. The revelation burned him with jealousy and a somber regret that he could never inflame Kimberly the same way. Their friendship, begrudging as it was to finally admit that was all it was, never came with arguments or fire. They teased, but never flirted. They bantered, but never passionately. They hugged, but without any sort of amorous affection.
Right here at this table he saw more pure heat between Thomas and Kimberly than the scorching fire that burned Elpis to the ground. Damn... now he needed two mugs of wine.
Small talk ensued as Kimberly and Skullovich began laying out the city and the brothels by name, factoring in when the Governess got her cut of gold from the whore-houses and how long that had been in practice. Thomas made mental notes while eating, and was most appreciative of Skullovich's detailed review of the movers and shakers in town. While Kimberly was the fist of justice, it was obvious the man and his friend Bulkmier were spies of sorts. They blended in and retrieved vital information wherever they were. His respect for Skullovich grew rapidly.
Thomas finished his food, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. As they talked the tavern began to fill around them. The wide open windows showed the streets filling with growing crowds as mid-day approached. "Where are the girls taken from?"
"Small villages, camps... and some are sold by their starving families. Others are kidnapped because they are pretty or fit a certain type someone wealthy was looking for. They are beaten and trained to be whores. Some kill themselves while others are resigned to their fate. It is a life of utter horror where you are nothing but a tool to generate gold coins." Kimberly deeply exhaled, recalling when she was sold into slavery. Though she was blessed without human masters and their lustful desires, she was treated horribly during her time of captivity. But compared to what some of those young girls deal with, her past didn't seem to rate at all. At least she still had her innocence. "Thomas, I brought you here because all of the brothels send 'Lookers' into the taverns. They're usually attractive, striking females who introduce themselves to the men and invite them to the brothels at a discounted price for the first visit. Its a effective practice. And after a couple of drinks most men wouldn't mind the company of a woman."
"The men I associate myself with do not seek women who sell their bodies," Thomas interjected.
"What about those that are simply sold against their will?"
Thomas shook his head, understanding her deeper meaning. He had not meant to offend. "In most cases I know where the true blame should be placed. I blame the law breaking owners of the brothels and the Governess. They allow this disgusting lifestyle to become a part of the city's culture. And they ruin so many lives. But their end is coming, I promise you that."
Last night when they fought Kimberly had never met such fiery intensity in battle. And now that she knows Thomas is a Knight, her distrusting heart warmed to the sincerity of his eyes. For every reason she had not to believe him, something in her stirred that she should. She sensed he was a man of honor. One who couldn't seem to keep his eyes off of her. The attention was to her... appealing. "I will hold you to that promise, Sir Knight."
The thought of her holding him closely tempted his tongue with a flirtatious reply. Thomas quelled it... for the moment.
"So Thomas, any Princesses or fair maidens awaiting you back at the castle?" Skullovich just had to ask. He secretly watched Kim, noting her apparent disinterest. He hoped he was reading her right. He hoped Thomas would be on the swiftest horse ever back to Eltar by nightfall.
Thoughts of Catherine and the complex situation he was in came to him in a flash. Lifting his mug, Thomas finished his drink before replying, "Not in the widely understood meaning of the term."
"Yes or no will do," Kimberly interjected out of nowhere, unsure why she did.
Before Thomas could say another word a startlingly beautiful woman with long red hair, fair skin, and lovely green eyes in a matching silk dress marched into the tavern. She leisurely gauged the taverns patrons, observing and searching for the right look. Upon catching site of Thomas, she smiled brightly and headed straight for his table.
"That's Calis. She's a Looker," Kimberly explained before they were greeted.
"Excuse me, gentleman," their new guest greeted warmly them, minus any acknowledgement of Kimberly. "My name is Calis and I represent the well-known Marshall House across the street," she pointed to the three-story tan villa that doubled as a brothel. "Its such a beautiful day today and I bet the two of you wouldn't mind enjoying the company of a beautiful woman. And since I do not recognize your faces, I'm sure a beneficial first-time arrangement can be reached."
"We are already in the company of a beautiful woman," Tommy spoke up, having seen enough. His words stalled Calis dead in her tracks until he caught sight of something that sent cold dread throughout his body. He now had to think fast. "But perhaps you are right, Calis. I would not mind at all to enjoy meeting another beautiful woman this day. And if you don't see a problem... my wife here wouldn't mind either."
Eyes sharply widening, Kimberly's face froze, though she kept her cool. She had no idea the game Thomas was playing, but something within her trusted him to see it through. Or at least wanted too. "Its early in the day, Beloved. I would not be opposed to... making a new female acquaintance," she graced Calis with a simmering smile, and was sure the other woman came to think her sexual preferences were flexible, so to speak.
"That can most certainly be arranged at Marshall House, milady," Calis replied with a knowing nod for Kimberly. "Now if you will allow me a moment to speak to the house-master, I would be glad to see to your ever whim. Even personally in this case," she winked at Thomas and then took her leave of the tavern.
"Whatever are you doing?" Skullovich questioned Thomas angrily. Kimberly wanted answers as well, her arms crossed, waiting.
Sighing, Thomas leaned across the table, speaking in a quiet tone. "I just saw three Belfast Norsemen enter that brothel. They are hunters employed solely by Lord Baron Rancore and are enemies of the Eltarian Kingdom. For them to be here represents our greatest threat. I must follow them and discover why their purpose."
Before Skullovich could protest, Kimberly raised her hand. "I will accompany you."
"Thank you." Thomas stood and walked toward the bar counter where Ernie was, paying the man what they owed. Behind him he heard Kimberly and Skullovich arguing over him and what he was about to do. The Ranger's leader respected her good friend enough to hear him out, but made the decision to join Thomas nonetheless. Yet again her courage touched him. But now he would have to trust her. She earned that much putting herself in harms way on his word alone.
With apologies to Skullovich, Kimberly returned to the Knight. "Let's go."
"Kimberly," he stopped her briefly. "You know of the treaty between Lord Baron Rancore and King Zordon?"
"Yes. And I know of Lord Baron Rancore's men moving about the Highlands."
Thomas blinked. It seemed nothing escaped her. "The Belfast Norsemen's mere presence here is violation of the peace treaty and an act of war. But we truly fear the reason for their presence. Rancore can't win a war against us. He no longer has the manpower, even with his dark mystics. So why are they here risking a doomed war?"
"That's why you're here, isn't it," Kimberly concluded with certainty. "To find out why?"
Thomas bowed his head and conceded. "Yes, it is."
The truth at last. Kimberly accepted it without a second thought. "Then if war is on the line we haven't a moment to lose. Skullovich is going to return to Elpis and tell the others."
"Thank you," he offered sincerely, and with a gentle note of intimacy
Kimberly simply could not explain the powerful kinship she felt toward Thomas. "You're welcome," she replied as something soft and elusive passed between them.
Thomas hadn't meant to take Kimberly's small hand into his own simply to further the impression they were married as he stated. The ache to touch her was something he pushed to the back of his mind as they crossed the crowded street and took the long stone path towards the garden entrance of Marshall House. The beautiful three-story villa was bathed in fresh flowers and lovely female attendants who greeted all guests. They were led inside where Calis waited in the white main hall.
Wanting this to go as smoothly as possible, Thomas retrieved a satchel of gold coins he brought with him as that would settle any consideration Calis had that they could pay. They were, after all, dressed as commoners. "We've never been to a place like this before," he began a bit nervously for effect. "We noticed how beautiful your villa is when we saw those three men enter it a short while ago."
"Never mind those brutes, kind sir," Calis flirted with a gentle swipe of her tongue over her lip, watching this most attractive couple. "They've wandered to our top floor where a more aggressive brand of entertainment is offered. I'm going to assume that's not what tempts you this day, right?"
"Not at all," Kimberly declared, looking to Thomas with a smile before addressing Calis again. At least now they knew where the three Belfast Norsemen were. "I must admit my nerves are on end as I have never done this before. I feel a bit parched all of a sudden. Could I trouble you for a glass of wine?"
Calis motioned to the colorful couches filled with pillows behind them. "I will see to it that a glass of our finest red wine is brought to you immediately, milady. Make yourself at home while I find the ladies Enles, Helena, and Pascion. I am sure one of them will be to your liking. And if not... I'm sure I can provide what you seek." There was no mistaking her hidden meaning. She departed, leaving them alone.
And as a new group of wealthy nobles arrived in front of the villa, the attendants walked outside to greet them. Kimberly saw opportunity knocking. "This is our chance."
Thomas quietly followed Kimberly into the main hall, and then further into the villa. They saw downstairs door being shut by a young girl with honey blond hair appearing less than fourteen seasons of age. Her companion inside was far older... Such was life in Ismyr. Her innocence, life everything else in this filthy city, was for sale.
Further down the hall led them to a spectacular round staircase featuring a spiraling iron handrail. Brilliant streams of sunlight beamed in through windows along the staircase as they swiftly made their way to the top floor. Thankfully at the top they found a empty short hallway with five rooms, two on the left and three on the right.
They treaded carefully until carnal sounds of sex became unable to ignore. Wishing to be rid of this fowl place as quickly as possible, Kimberly tried to ignore it as best she could, especially with Thomas being so close to her. "There were three of them and I doubt they are all in one room. Unless they like to play that way."
"I've heard that they do, but we need only one of them to interrogate. Hopefully one among them wanted some privacy." Further down the short hall Thomas heard a woman's laughter, followed by the tell-tale accent of a Norseman. Only one of them. "Here," Thomas pointed to the ruby red door. "We will seize him and..."
Steps from the spiral staircase could be heard. Kimberly reacted without thought, grabbing Thomas's hand and reaching for the knob of the nearest door. Whoever was inside was going to just have to be dealt with. As it were, she drug him inside a dark, narrow, coffin of a closet. They barely fit, with their bodies pressed tightly together as she gently shut the door and prayed no one saw her. Soft footfalls passed the closet followed by harder ones. A woman leading a man. Their luck hadn't run out yet.
Kimberly turned her ear from the door and sighed, now faced with the strong allure of the warm masculine body she was pressed fully against. Heat lanced through her as she warred to ignore her body's traitorous reaction. "Hopefully Calis will think we decided to take a pass."
"Yeah..." Really, that was all Thomas was capable of saying. As his eyes adjusted to the mild darkness, he swallowed as fiery arousal came over him. Here was the same woman who just last night tried to kill him. And now all that he could envision was possessing her in every way a man could possess a woman. The seductive feel of her robbed him of his sanity. All that he could do was inhale the scent of her skin while gazing at the utter beauty of her mouth. Mercy, had any woman ever captivated him so? Never. Last night they fought like animals. Today the intensity was just as passionate, only now there was no where to run from it.
The steady thumping of a bed rocking against the back wall signaled their Norseman had only just begun to enjoy his escort. Those were the last sounds Kimberly wanted to hear as her own thoughts were centered on the man she was so hopelessly attracted too. Dammit, she hated to admit that to herself as it just made no sense at all. But there was something about him she couldn't deny herself of. She wanted him. Why... she'd figure out later. "So we wait him out, then burst in, knockout the girl and interrogate him?"
Unconsciously, Thomas's hands found their way to Kimberly's hips. Her lips parted when he touched her, and he swore the tiniest moan escaped her lips. He was so hard and knew that if she hadn't already noticed she would soon. And it has been so long since last he was with a woman. "Sounds like a plan."
Shutting her eyes briefly, Kimberly knew she did not just feel... She 'felt' him and her heart raced. A subtle twitching over her belly that was marked by a smirk crawling slowly over her face. "That Norseman turning you on next door?"
"Hard being the appropriate term," she teased with a whisper, though when his hands squeezed her hips she quivered. Her bottom lip gently caught between her teeth. "Stop that," she whispered.
"Stop what?" Thomas asked evilly and then did it again, eliciting the same reaction from her. Red tinged her cheeks in a blush. "You don't want me to stop."
"You just don't want to stop."
"Perhaps you wish it were Skullovich you were trapped in here with?"
Her smile shined in the dark. "Absolutely."
"Takes one to know one," she fired back while daydreaming about running her hands all over his body. "Being a coward doesn't become you."
"Rest assured I am no coward."
"Then take what you want." Whatever the origin of that bold declaration, she would never discover. All coherent thought fled the moment his warm mouth captured hers with such hunger she whimpered. Instinctively her arms curled around his neck, while their lips vigorously swayed back and forth in a deliriously passionate kiss that seemed without end. Her heart pounded a war drum inside her chest while thoroughly kissing him with such lust she had never known before. His arms held her closely now, drawing her tight to his chest. She couldn't seem to get close enough to him.
Caressing her back through her clothing, Thomas savored the sheer sensation of kissing her with reckless abandon. Never had he ached for a woman so as he did for this one.
With a audible gasp, Kimberly departed his mouth, panting hard. "Satisfied?"
"To bad. That was a once in a lifetime kiss. You best savor it for it will never happen ag..."
Thomas muted any further protest with his tongue, drawing strongly from her soft mouth in another ravenous kiss they left them both moaning and groaning into each others mouths. This time he pushed his hands into her silky brown hair, clutching the back of her head while plundering her sweet mouth with one wet kiss after another. Her tongue lashed at the lower part lower lip, and then surged back inside his mouth, gliding alongside his. They held each other, lost in the pure heat of devouring each other.
Desire spiked hot within Kimberly. Such feelings scared and excited her as she considered if he would lift her against this wall and claim her... "God," she panted hotly over his mouth. "Oh God..."
It was Thomas's turn to relinquish her delicious mouth before he lost sense all control. She felt perfect in his arms. "Tell me, Kimberly. Do you belong to any man?"
"No one. And never you." She tempted his anger, and before he could react her right hand fisted the collar of his shirt and she drew his mouth back to hers, drowning him with such passion. The lazy-sexy way her tongue slid over and around his had him throbbing powerfully against her. Her left hand fisted over his stitched back as she felt him shudder. One of his hands grasped her forearm, surrendering to her the same pleasure/pain she had given him. She felt him... wanted him... took his very breath as her own until his hands slowly began inching her dress up. Mental cold water dashed her back to coherency as she heard the door next to their closet open and shut. Light footfalls again. "Thomas, wait."
Panting heavily, Thomas stared at her. "What?"
"The girl... she just left the Norseman next door."
About ready to damn his duty, he somehow came back to his senses. Begrudgingly, he left her go. For now. "Come on,"
Gently, Kimberly pried the door open. They quickly entered the hallway, both drawing their swords. Sharing a look, they walked to the door. She turned the knob as they entered, swords raised. They needed to subdue him quickly and as quietly as possible.
What they found was a fully dressed, passed out Norseman lying face down on the bed. Thomas came around to the side where he found a half filled cup. The drinks scent was strong as it caught his attention. He also realized what it was. "There's Bylian in this ale. I can smell it."
"What's Bylian?" Kim asked.
"A powerful sleeping potion that causes a person to forget recent events. I think some of the girls here are skimming a little extra off the top for themselves. When this guy wakes up he'll think he had the time of his life."
"But we heard the bed rocking."
"Maybe the girl faked it," Thomas noted as he checked the Norseman's gold satchel. It was empty. But a traveling bag on the floor looked very interesting. He drug it up on the bed, and then began looking through it. Inside, he found a map of the Highlands with red marks on it. As well as what appeared to be a scripture of some kind written in a language foreign to him. "Kimberly, take these things."
She accepted the map and scripture. "What are you doing?"
Removing a bronze coin from his side pocket, Thomas slipped it inside the Norseman's bag. "These are cursed coins. William has a spell he can use to track them wherever they are in the world. In the short term if we wake this guy up we may get some answers. But we'll learn far more if we can follow him."
Kimberly moved back to the door, keeping lookout while Thomas finished going through the Norseman's possessions. Her lips still stung from the heat of their kiss. She couldn't get it out of her mind. Now she knows how he tastes. How his body feels nestled against her own. And loathe as she was to admit it, she wanted more of him.
Owned by Governess Divatox
The land of Eltar
A lone slender figure emerged from a torch-lit corridor walking towards a broad stone-cut veranda up ahead. 0Approaching her master from behind, Countess Venom halted a few steps away and felt to one knee, bowing her head. "The gathering is complete, milady."
Adorned in the finest fiery red silk cloak and black-jeweled headpiece, Governess Divatox meticulously surveyed the main dining hall's collection of Ring members from her lofty perch. The enormous feast her twenty cooks prepared filled their bellies to overflowing with hot bread, spiced meat, thick soup, and plentiful wine before she made her grand entrance to discuss Ring business. She observed them without a trace of envy, so tremendous were her growing powers in the dark arts that she no longer needed food for sustenance. "Good. Ensure that my guard detail maintain a close watch on our guests traveling companions in the south hall."
"As you wish, milady." Personal bodyguard details, mistresses, horsemen, and sorcerers often accompanied the various members of the Ring organization at all times. They were a dangerously paranoid lot, wealthy and powerful, each of them. But secretly they all feared the Governess. She was the very life-blood of the Highlands and its true ruler in every way. Countess Venom, nonetheless, kept silent vigil on all potential enemies as a threat to her master was a threat to her as well. After all, overconfidence was the path to destruction. "I shall take my leave for now, milady."
With but a casual wave of her well-manicured hand, Governess Divatox sent her incredibly highly skilled personal assassin on her way. The young woman's soul remained one of the Governess's most priceless possessions. For all the days of Venom's life she would serve and butcher for Divatox alone. Enough musing over her prot g . Her gaze again focused on the rowdy guests below. Seated around a archaic marble and brass table covered with a thick tapestry that bore the Ring's ancient symbol of a rusted bloody ring were the members themselves.
Rarely in history had such a deadly assemblage of heathens been amassed under one ruling body.
The Tribal Warlord Bane, as gruesome a hulking bald figure as one could imagine, tore meat from a bone as if he'd not eaten in days. Dragon-skin covered the dark sleeveless vest he wore, the hot-iron branded tattoo's burned onto his powerful arms were evidence enough of how deadly a man he was. Built like a fortress with legs, he was a man of little words and extreme violence. The tribal warlords he commanded numbered in the hundreds, but were worth thousands of regular swordsmen. If he had his way and a army of warlords, he would attempt to conquer all of Eltar himself. For now, he owned the mountains and death to anyone who said different. He was not a man to be trifled with.
Wulf's barely restrained animalistic behavior was evident as he ate, or did whatever semblance of the word best described him. Ragged, razor sharp teeth wrenched meat from bones while he made the most profane noises. Cursed by gypsies, he was the first of his kind and never lost his beastly form irregardless of a full moon. Ashy black fur covered his entire body, while his face betrayed the most minimal of human qualities. His cursed kind ruled the northern woods and no army yet that ventured there returned with even a tenth of the men sent. Wulf barely spoke, though he understood wealth. In fact, the Governess was certain he understood a great more than he let on. He wasn't half the mindless fool the others thought him to be. Sometime his black eyes gleamed with wisdom, though he hid it well. But not from her.
Enigmatic and precise, Duchess Machina drank slowly from her golden goblet, no doubt observing rather than making her presence felt. Governess Divatox smiled. She was smart to listen and learn rather than attempt to overtake her husband's heavy-handed position. She was also a widow now, and perhaps a black one. Though the Governess doubted she lost much sleep over her immensely unfaithful husband's demise, her son might be a different subject. For now though, the Mech empires iron mines and weapons factories were worth any future risk. Still, she was one to keep close watch over.
Horde, as always, fancied showing off his latest baubles. Born handsome, blond, and raised with historic nobility, he not only wanted to be among the most wealthy in the land, but he wanted everyone to know it. And he didn't care who he had to kill, manipulate, or destroy. His lusts were legendary and as varied as the sparkling jewels on his wrists. It was said he's sired twelve sons and nearly as many daughters. Whores stayed at his mansion on call day and night for whatever desires he awoke with. His empire was rich with precious gems and fertile land that stretched for miles. If only his loyalties were as affluent as his gold satchel...
Last, but certainly not least, the shriveled Lady Shizra impatiently waited for the Governess to arrive, having never enjoyed the spending time with the 'boys'. She came from old money, older than the silver hair and lined wrinkles that spoke of her advanced age. It was said a more hated woman has never existed. Her family built their fortune on the slave trade and owned half the brothels in Ismyr. Lady Shizra had no son, nor heir of any kind, and no lovers. Power sustained her. Gold gave her purpose. And hell to anyone that stood in her way. She was simply mean and filled with ugly greed. It was said she didn't love a single living being in this world. Not even herself.
Governess Divatox expected that at some time in the future, be it near or far, she would have to slay them all. A more distrusting lot there wasn't in all the world. Alas, for the moment they all served their purpose. Or more to the point they serve her.
Her musing ended. It was time for the meeting to begin as the Ring members had their fill of the feast. Governess Divatox exited down the warm corridor, past her guards and through a long treasure-lined hallway that marked the castle's luxurious interiors. Her nails slid along the oak railing that twirled round as the staircase she took to the bottom floor below. She entered the main dining hall to a chorus of applause.
Flat-stone walls decorated with breathtaking flags bearing Governess Divatox's Phoenix crest gave the appearance that you were in the presence of royalty. The high ceiling, with its curved stained glass dome lorded over the magnificent dining table where the Ring members sat. The far back wall was a huge crackling fire pit that warmed the entire sprawling hall.
Surrounded by her cadre of deadly swordsmen, the Governess took her throne at the head of the table. She settled back, her hands clasped in in a prayer-like pose. "We have a problem."
Wiping his meat-sauce coated mouth with the back of his thick hand, Bane offered, "Who needs to be killed?"
"Its not that simple," Governess Divatox declared while meeting the troubled gazes of all present. "The Ring is only as powerful as we are united. If any part breaks then we are no more." Rising to her feet, she began touring the table slowly, hands locked behind her back. "This organization was created to consolidate our individual strengths into a omnipotent whole. And in doing so, we've accomplished great wealth and influence. Though King Zordon sits atop the false throne of Eltar. we are the true power in the Highlands," her voice echoed powerfully around them. She owned their full attention. "Any threat to that power must be swiftly removed."
Wulf clawed at the table's tapestry, snarling the entire time. "Do those tasty Phantoms concern you, dearest? Shall I tear their flesh to pieces?"
"No," she replied in a hushed quality. "Their misguided attempts to bring justice back to the Highlands cover our own activities. When the time is right to finally deal with them we shall blame them for everything. Until then their presence is to our benefit. Leave them be."
"Aye," Bane interjected. "The mystery they spread aid us greatly. But if they are not our issue, Governess. Then what is?" Out the corner of his eye he observed Horde shift nervously.
Traversing the table at a casual pace, Governess Divatox's eyes hardened. "Sadly, we lost Duke Mondo in recent days. But Duchess Machina has gratefully taken his place." Grumbles around the room, but none so disagreeable. "Even that is not my issue this evening. For it has come to my attention that one among you has betrayed the Ring."
Accusations and threats swept through the room like wildfire until the Governess shouted, "ENOUGH!" Silence... "Lord Baron Rancore has minions loyal to him operating in the Highlands."
"The hell you say," Lady Shizra broke her silence. "If you have evidence of what you say then that is an act of war. Such news would be extremely troublesome."
Governess Divatox nodded respectfully, standing behind Bane's chair with her hands resting behind her back. "Alas, I have made contact with Rancore myself and brokered a quiet deal with him. We are choosing no sides save our own. And while the Lord is many things, he is no fool. He's searching for something he will not reveal to me, but his men's access to the Highlands was worth three dozen chests of gold." Shock around the room as she smiled. "I am nothing if not a shrewd business woman."
"Obviously," Duchess Machina complimented.
"Thank you. So as we will all afford Lord Baron Rancore's men full access to our lands we shall watch them like hawks and report every single thing they do. Lady Shizra, have your whores pay extra special attention to them. Pleasure tends to loosen mens tongues even faster than good wine."
Lady Shizra gave for her what counted as a smile. "As you wish, milady."
"Now to deal with our problem." Extending her hands across the table, swirling green smoke shoot from her fingertips, electrical sparks igniting within as it struck Horse. "You cut your own deal with Rancore, excluding us. And for that you will pay the ultimate price."
For years to come they would all remember Horde's choking shrill of a scream haunt their nightmares. The green smoke whirled around his body while he shook violently, his hands rising to his throat as he could no longer breath. But that wasn't the worst of his problems as his clothing melted away layer by layer, taking softening flesh and blood that revealed muscle and then bone. He dissolved before their very eyes, viciously ravaged and consumed by Governess Divatox's immense power.
At last the only remains of Horde were his skeleton, arms raised to hold his throat, a final death pose for all to witness.
Bane snickered. "I never liked him anyway."
"A filthy thing," Wulf added while picking his fangs. "Though his bones look quite tasty."
"Help yourself, Wulf." Governess Divatox rule was absolute and any who betrayed her would die. There would be no exceptions. "Now that bit of unpleasantness is behind us, let us better discuss this Lord Baron Rancore situation. I feel that..."
A sudden, detonating explosion from above shattered the entire stained glass dome, raining huge razor sharp fragments all around them. The Ring members scattered for their lives from the glass shards, drawing weapons as the dining hall filled to overflowing with swordsmen. The deafening blast shook the very floor beneath their feet, but it was the unexpected being that caved-in through the ceiling, landing dead center on the marble and brass table drew their undivided attention. His silver-plated mask reflected their gazes back at them, while he stood to his full towering height. A more imposing figure there had never been.
Zedd pointed his sword at the Governess. "We have business to discuss, Divatox!"
Roaring the dark arts within her to life, Governess Divatox's hands began glowing with ominous green fire. "Who are you?"
"Your new master."
"I have no master," she swore. The emerald flames blazing her hands grew blindingly powerful. "If you seek the Underworlds Grim Reaper, allow me to arrange the meeting."
The End of Chapter 3
Divatox Vs. Zedd, Catherine fears her father secrets, William begins decrypting the scripture while Kimberly tries in vain to stay away from Thomas.