Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chapter 66 - AFTERMATH

From far away I heard a voice I thought I recognized. “Liam, Liam can you hear me?”

In a way, I could, but something was wrong. Nothing seemed to work right. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t seem to move. I felt like I should be in pain, but I felt little or nothing at all.

“Come on, Heather. We’ve got to go. Bring the girls if you want to. They may not be safe here with Connor the way he is right now, but this is our chance.”

“Patrick, we can’t just leave him here like this. He looks like he’ll be dead in a few minutes; he’s loosing so much blood,” said the woman’s voice.

Detached like I seemed to be now, I could analyze what was happening around me. I now thought I understood what Haines was up to. He had been having an affair with the emperor’s wife and now he wanted to take her away. That’s why he hadn’t wanted me here.

I reached up and a hand gripped my elbow. “Take it easy, man. Heather, call the emperor and have him send the doctor. Tell him most of what happened and then we must go. If we don’t go now, we’ll never be able to get away. And Heather, I never came here; do you understand.”

Vaguely I heard the empress speaking in the distance, but I was tired and wanted to sleep. I tried to reach out to him again.

“Lay still, Liam. You’re hurt really bad. Let your magic heal you.”

My magic. I was having trouble thinking, but I could do that much I guess.

The next thing I felt was a cool cloth on my face (my face hurt so much) then I heard a female voice call the doctor. “I think he’s awake, doctor.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Liam, you have to let the emperor go. No one can get into his room. Can you open the emperor’s door from here?”

Could I? I didn’t know. Normally I’d say, ‘no problem,’ but everything felt so different somehow. I tried anyway. It felt like I was hanging onto a live snake by the tail. I don’t know if I succeeded. The drain was tremendous.

The next thing I became aware of was the bandage being changed on my arm and it stung. I must have flinched, because I then heard the doctor’s voice.

“Liam, you’re awake; how do you feel? Can you talk to me?”

I reached up to feel my face and discovered for the first time, and rather painfully, that I didn’t have a hand to feel my face with; I banged my raw wrist bones into my chin. As I realized what I had just done, I began to shake.

“Take it easy, Liam. You took the main blast of that bomb.”

“Tell me . . . .” I said. My throat was raw and I was surprised that I made any sound at all.

“Oh Liam, you’re in bad shape. I had to take your right arm off at the elbow and your left hand just above the wrist. Well really, there wasn’t much for me to take; all I did was make it a little neater. The concussion ruptured almost every organ in your body. Frankly, Liam, I’m astonished that you are alive; every breath you take is a miracle in my opinion. What I don’t understand is why your magic isn’t healing you like it did the last time you were injured.

“Something’s wrong,” I whispered. I tried to make something - anything - and I felt a brief tug and a drain of energy, but I’m fairly certain that nothing happened. I reached for a source of matter to draw on and found nothing so I searched for a source of energy, nothing. “Something is very wrong. Why can’t I see?”

“Shards of stone have riddled your face. The leather you were wearing protected the rest of your body from all but the biggest pieces, but even so, there were some I couldn’t remove, especially in your face.

I’m blind. I’m scarred up. I lost both of my hands. Now it seems like I’ve lost my magic. “I want to go home.” After all what good was I here now - like this - useless?

“You’re in no shape to go anywhere. Not for a long time. Without your magic, you’re on your own and it’s going to be a long haul.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Chapter 65 - AN ANGRY YOUNG MAN

The guards at the door followed Haines into the room just as I reached the end of the hall. I reached the door just in time to hear a very angry young man say, “I thought my phone call would be sure to bring him. What are you doing here?”

“What?” said Haines in astonishment. “You made that call this morning? Why would you do such a thing?”

I waited just outside the door and listened.

“Connor, remember your place,” said a female voice. “This is the captain of the guard you’re speaking to.”

“I know who he is, mother. I’m just tired of him coming around all the time, and don’t think I don’t know what you two do every time he’s here. It makes me wonder if he’s not Melody’s father.”

“Connor,” said the female voice again. It was obvious from the tone of her voice that she was appalled at the suggestion.

“Just shut up, mother. I’m going to kill him; I’m going to kill you all. Maybe that’ll bring father out here. It’s too bad I can’t kill him too.”

Then, both Haines and I made the connection at the same time. Haines was the one to put the thought into words, “Ronok, that’s you, isn’t it. Its Connor spelled backward, but we never spelled it right. How could you do those things? He’s your father; he’s your emperor. You would have been emperor after him, but . . . .”

“Don’t even think to tell me that I won’t take my father’s place after he’s dead, because I will. There’s no proof of what you say and with you all dead, there will be no witnesses to this conversation.”

“Connor, what is that?” said the woman. “What are you doing? Connor, no!”

I burst through the door then. I had heard enough. I still wasn’t sure what Haines was trying to do, but it was obvious that everyone in that room was in serious danger.

At a glance, I saw Haines sitting on a couch with a beautiful woman and two little girls. A boy was standing in the center of the room, and in one hand, he held a strange looking pistol, in the other, he held an orb that was flashing. Scattered on the floor, were four guards who appeared to have been either stunned or killed.

My abrupt entrance startled Connor, but that didn’t stop him from firing. He managed to get a shot off toward Haines before I was able to shield them. I wasn’t sure if he was hit, but he didn’t react like he had been.

Connor threw the orb at me and ran out of the room. I took a moment to remove the bars from the window before throwing the orb out, but it was a moment too long. The orb blew up just outside the window and I caught the main force of the blast that came back into the room through the window.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chapter 64 - THE MAZE

Oskan had trained me well, it didn’t take me long to find Haines’ trail since he made no effort to cover his tracks. He was running. I still couldn’t figure out why he ditched me, but I was thinking that he didn’t really want me dead; he just didn’t want me here. That could be the reason why he asked how powerful I was; he wanted to know if I could survive being ejected at high altitude. But why? Didn’t he trust me? He had put me at the emperor’s elbow when things were at their worst. What was different about this situation?

The compound came into sight through the trees ahead, but there was no sight of Haines yet. I extended my magic and felt him off to the left and yet there was the gate off to the right. I looked ahead to see what was on the other side of the wall directly in front of me and discovered that the wall, though very sturdy, was hollow. I also saw that there was an open courtyard on the other side of that wall so it wasn’t the best place to cross unseen. I took advantage of the hollow though.

Once inside, I laid my hand on the wall and sent my magic through the complex. A half hour later I had a passable understanding of the layout.

To the right, this passage led to a tower beside the great front gates and to the left, it soon went underground and turned toward the sub floors of the center-most building.

Seeing people this way was like seeing fireflies in a dark room only the light doesn’t light up the room at all. If I know the person, then the tiny light has an identity; otherwise, it’s just a light. Sometimes I can tell men from women, and children are usually smaller, but that’s about the only difference in the lights.

Without counting, there must be twenty or thirty people scattered through the whole compound. I can only assume that most of them are servants here to serve the royal family. There was a small cluster of lights in the middle of the big house.

My mental exploration was interrupted by the scratchy signal from the emperor. “Liam, what are you doing? I can barely hear you breathing. Where are you?”

“I’m inside the outer wall of your wife’s complex. Who built this place?”

“My great grandfather built it. You’re inside the wall; I didn’t know there was an inside.”

I changed my boots for tennis shoes and headed left at a run again. “Listen, this passage leads under the main building, so I’m going to be under ground for a little while. Haines has gone through some side door. He didn’t go through the main gate. Is everything quiet there?”

“Yes. Nothing has changed here since you left. Liam, Haines is not this Ronok fellow, is he?”

“No, I don’t think so. Something else is going on with him, but I don’t know what it is yet. You might not be able to hear me for a little while. Don’t worry.”

“I’m counting on you, Liam.” He sounded so worried, so helpless.

By now, I was heading down and I could barely make out the emperor’s voice. Ten minutes later, I was directly under the main house and I found a spiral stairway.

I paused for a few minutes and looked for the little lights again. Little had changed. Some looked to be posted like sentries around the edges. These were likely guards guarding the house perimeter. Had they gotten the warning too? Others were scattered around the house randomly, they may or may not be the servants.

Haines was on the first floor. The guard he had just passed was untouched. If he meant harm to the empress or the children, why wasn’t he eliminating the guards first? He was a known face though. His arrival might be unexpected, but wouldn’t cause undue alarm.

I headed up the stairs, confident I would reach the cluster of lights before Haines. I would have, only there was no door on that level. I could have made my own door, but I was trying to be inconspicuous and there were people in the hall, so I sped on upward.

The door at the top opened freely into a well-lit bedchamber. Of course, I was forced to wait about a minute before I could see that. The door was a secret door hidden behind a bookcase and I wondered if the occupant of this room knew of its existence since the emperor didn’t.

I didn’t spare any more thought on the house. I headed for the stairs to the landing below.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Chapter 63 - BETRAYAL

Haines and I jumped into a small two-seated lighter and took off heading east, climbing above the clouds in a steep climb. I wondered about this because I distinctly remembered the emperor saying that his family lived in the mountains. That meant we needed to be heading west, unless the mountains he was talking about was on a different continent. The grim expression on his face gave no indication of what was going on in his head.

“Liam,” Haines’s voice came in my ear. “Just how strong are you?”

I looked at him again. His hand was blocking the microphone of the headset I had made for the three of us to keep in touch. What was he keeping from the emperor? “I don’t know; pretty strong, I guess. Why?”

He didn’t answer; he just began to turn. By now, we had to be skimming the top of the atmosphere. Then he did something I never would have thought him capable of. He took the headset off and ripped it apart, and then he pulled his facemask solidly into position. After that, he slammed his hand on a knob on my side of the plane.

I was taken completely by surprise as my chair launched me through the canopy and out virtually into space. I was knocked out for a few moments, but I came around again in time to see him circle around; inspecting his handiwork, I’m sure.

I discarded my chair and used my magic to tie myself to his plane when he passed me. Riding in his wake was rough to say the least, but he couldn’t see me and if he did look back he would see the chair, if he could even see that much.

I’m sure the emperor heard the noise, but there was too much noise and not enough air for me to try to contact him. He would have to wait for an explanation.

While I waited for Haines to reach his destination, I changed my uniform into my leathers; they blocked the cold wind much better, though I was having no problem keeping myself warm; altering the flow of air to suit my comfort would have been felt by Haines.

Finally, some time later, the plane began to descend. When we finally came below the clouds, I was hammered with rain, and visibility was nonexistent for me. I knew we were approaching the ground when the landing gear came down and our speed slowed.

I waited until I felt certain I knew where he was going to land and then I let go, cushioning my fall with a shell of air. Fortunately, I didn’t hit any of the more sturdy parts of the trees I crashed through. When I finally came to a halt, I was unhurt though very dizzy.

I leaned against a tree to recover, and in the silence of the forest, I could hear where the plane was going. I was tempted to reach out and trap Haines in the plane, but I wanted to see what he was up to first.

“Emperor, can you hear me?”

“Liam, what was all that noise? Are you all right?”

“That was a very rough plane ride. You should know that Haines is a traitor. I don’t know what he is guilty of yet, but I’m going to find out.”

“Haines, impossible. Where are you?”

“Well, sir, since you never told me much about where your family was, I can only assume I’m not far away from their compound. All I can tell you is that Haines landed at a small strip in some mountains.” I was running by now up the side of this mountain and it was difficult to talk.

“I don’t understand. You’re speaking as if you are in a different place than Haines. How can you be when you took off together in the same lighter and he only just landed?”

“I can’t talk right now. I’ll explain later.” I had just found the plane. He was closer than I thought. Now all I had to do was figure out where Haines had gone.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Chapter 62 - SAVE THEM

I was back at the emperor’s elbow two days later with the rank of sergeant first class on my collar; I saw no reason to rattle around my apartment any longer than that. At any rate, it felt good to do the things I had grown accustomed to doing. Suffice it to say I was a bit less cocky now.

Attacks still occurred, but if I am to believe Haines, things were back to normal. It didn’t feel that way to me though. In my opinion, ‘normal’ would not be ‘avoiding the next assassination attempt every f-ing day’.

Guarding the emperor was a very stressful job, though I enjoyed it. Some of my stress was offset when the emperor hired the best swordsman on the planet to instruct me. He made it clear that my magic was never to enter into these lessons.

My new instructor’s assessment of my skill with a sword was that of a brute, so he made me start from the beginning. Why not? The beginning is always a good place to start. He definitely didn’t like it that he was the one who had to call an end to the lessons because he was tired.

Aside from my sword lessons, the next eighteen months passed in boring relative peace. When it did come, that next attack hit all too close to home. This time, it took a new form.

I watched as the emperor took a call early one morning before we left his rooms. He said little after he answered the ring, but his face turned so white I thought he might faint. He muttered something to the person on the other end that was unintelligible to me and hung up. The look on his face was one of utter desperation. It was something quite unsettling to see in a man who was usually so very composed and self-assured.

With a force of extreme will, he sought to pull himself together and stride past me as if to go about his normal day, but in a move that few would dare, I snagged his arm and halted him. “Tell me.”

He resisted the urge for a moment, but then, grasping for a straw, he said, “He got to my family.”

I didn’t know he had a family. “Tell me about it. Tell me about them.” I knew I had to find this family that no one knew of and get them out of danger.

He pulled a wallet out of his pocket and sank down on a nearby chair. I had seen this wallet before; the emperor carried it with him everywhere he went, but I had never seen him open it.

Inside were pictures, perhaps a couple dozen pictures of a beautiful woman and three children. “I have been married to my lovely wife, Heather, for almost twenty years now. We have a son and two daughters; this is Connor, who is twelve, Alyssa, who is eight and Melody, who just turned four. The man who called, identified himself as Ronok. He said he hated me, and since he couldn’t seem to kill me, he was going to kill them. Liam, if he kills them, he will kill me. They are my life.”

As he spoke of his family, he looked through the pictures, pointing out each member as he said their name. He touched each picture with loving fingers; fingers that had never been near any children since I had been here. “When was the last time you saw them?”

He fingered the picture of the youngest daughter, Melody. “It’s been almost four years ago now. I miss them.”

“Where are they? How have you kept them secret?”

There was a knock on the door; Brian had begun to worry. “Is everything all right in there?” he asked.

“Hold on,” I replied, and then turned back to the emperor for an answer to my questions.

“They are in an isolated compound in the mountains. Haines can take you there. I don’t understand how they were found out; only Captain Haines knew of my marriage. Everyone else thinks I take a short sabbatical every few years.”

A chilling thought occurred to me. What if this was some sort of diversion? Lure away the emperor’s strongest protectors and then take advantage of the gap. “Sir, I’m going to seal you in here. Call for a large contingent of guards to take up positions outside your door and in the courtyard below your window as well as on the roof. I’m going to seal the window and then the door when I leave, but I can’t seal it as tight as I would like because you can’t make your own air, so the guards are going to have to take up the slack.”

“You’re thinking that this might be a diversion, but who would know to use my family in this way?” Knowing there was no answer to his question, he sighed. “Do what you have to do. I’ll stay here, but stay in touch.”

I looked at the phone; but no, it was possible the kidnapper would call again and I didn’t want the line to be tied up at some critical moment. Then I had an idea; I brought three small radios from the equipment locker and changed the frequency. All they were was an ear peace with a tiny microphone that rested near the corner of the mouth. I handed one to the emperor who put it on as I put mine on and tested it. I tested the other one too; he could hear them both, as could I.

The emperor called Haines while I filled the window with shatterproof glass, then I went around and hardened the walls. By the time I finished the door, a nuke could level the place and this room would survive; well at least I hoped so.

Haines entered and got his orders and then we left. I handed him his radio on the way out the door, and while he was issuing his orders, I finished sealing the emperor’s door.