Jill entered the tall apartment building. It had been around for decades, without much updating to it. She had to go up three floors to get to her place. Her high heels hit the concrete floor as she entered, echoes announcing her presence. The groceries in her hands felt heavy enough to burst through the sacks. Perhaps it had been a mistake to visit the salon before buying food, because she always had to look her best when getting her manicure, but the combination of high heels and heavy groceries made her wonder if she would get blisters on her feet. After all, the nearest bus stop was three blocks from her place, and with the car in the shop, it was the only means of transportation she had left. She didn’t think it should have been all that unusual to bring groceries with her on the bus, but that day everyone must have agreed to make her look like a fool.
On the way home she had stopped three times after getting off the bus to set down the bags and examine her hands. One of the nails broke during the trip home, and there were creases where the plastic had bit into her hands. One time, a dog had come over, sniffing her food, and she had to clumsily chase it away without tripping. Her husband always told her to wear shoes with wider heels, but she thought they looked ugly. If only he had stayed home today like he had said he would. Then he could have gone shopping, or taken care of the baby.
Jack was a great husband and she knew she should not complain, but he sometimes acted strange around the neighbors, as if he did not trust them. One time he told her he thought the woman above them had drilled a hole through their ceiling and was spying on them. Most of the time, his theories were so funny, she had to stop herself from laughing. She still was not sure if he was serious or if he was joking. She suspected that the time he had sustained a concussion in football as a teen still affected him. But all of this had not stopped him from being a good husband and father.
Maybe it was because she was thinking of him that she began feeling it. When she on the last set of stairs before getting to her place that she realized something was wrong. It was too silent. There was a tenseness in the air. She chastened herself for getting so worked up over nothing. She was imagining things. Yet she couldn’t help but feel something had happened. Her steps became slower, more languid the closer she got, as if wading through water. Her heartbeat was the only thing that sped up. Even these warning signs, though, could not prepare her for what she saw when she arrived on her floor and saw her apartment ahead of her. With a gasp, she let go of the groceries, food spilling everywhere.
Jill looked at the crime scene, all emotions numbed. The blood that stained the floor cruelly held her gaze. How could that have been her favorite color? She idly twisted her curly hair, thinking that it was nothing like the color of blood, even though she had been called red headed all her life. The man who had died, her neighbor, was middle aged, only a little bit older than her husband who had first asked her out when she was still in high school and he in college. She wondered if her life would come to such an abrupt stop when she reached this man’s age. What would people think of her? She was nothing more than a housewife, although her mother would have told her that it was nothing to be ashamed of. Who would remember her if she died right now? Her son was too young still; her husband would obviously remember her, at least until he remarried. She did not have many friends, since she had moved here up in the northeast to be with Jack. Her father always complained about that in the family reunions she could attend, saying that she was turning into a liberal Yankee.
Through the far apartment window, she saw the falling orange leaves. The police were telling her to leave now, that there was nothing to see, but their words were like butterflies, slow but elusive. How silly they were. There was plenty to see. She shivered.
“Ma’am, please allow us to conduct our investigation. If you want, we can assist you with your groceries.” She looked down at the bags, one yellow at the bottom from the broken eggs, and then back at the man in the uniform. He must have taken that as a nod, because he looked over at a reporter and told him to help her. Vaguely, she saw him resist, but he soon gave in and started collecting her bags as well as the food that had fallen out. Annoyed, he nodded for her to lead him to her apartment, but she wanted to continue looking through the open door, past the yellow tape. In the back of her mind, she knew it was morbid, but that part was not in control at the moment.
This man, James something, had been her neighbor for about a year. He was single and apparently never had been married. Her husband always commented that a man his age should have settled down a long time ago, that he must be hiding something and that she should stay away from him. She had not been so suspicious of James, and sometimes had pleasant conversations about nothing with the man. Not that they had ever been close friends, although today she had trusted him with…
Jill swore and ran into the man’s apartment, breaking the yellow tape and ignoring the yells of the police. “My baby! My baby!” Where was he? If he were…she would never forgive herself. Panting, she rushed to the crib that she had left with James when she went out. She looked in, but there was nothing inside. Where was he? The police grabbed her arms and pulled her out, forcefully. She struggled. She did not care about not disturbing the crime scene. They only got her out with a big struggle, leaving her crying. She slumped against the wall and put her face in her hands. Someone came over and tried to comfort her, but she ignored him. The tears flowed between her fingers.
Later, she was in her apartment. The reporter had brought in the groceries and then had taken the opportunity to interview her. Each question had provoked more tears. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? The police then told her they would do everything they could to locate her baby, since they had found no other body except that of her neighbor. These had been the longest hours of her life. Now they were all gone and she was picking at a bowl of macaroni and cheese mixed with tears. She heard the door open. Getting up, she tried to prepare to tell Jack the bad news. He had not answered his cell phone all day. She didn’t think she would be able to without becoming a total mess. She had cried for hours after getting home, and the tears had recently dried up, but rainstorms threatened to fill up the empty riverbeds of her face again.
When he came into full view, Jill gasped. “Jason!” Her son was alive! She ran over to Jack and took her son from his hands. “How, where was, when, I was so, what?” The cog that linked her mouth and mind stopped functioning. She could not believe it. Even though her son was frowning, his face looked as if it were glowing, the most beautiful sight in the world. She imagined that he was happier now that he was with his mother. She stared into those blue eyes, her hours of grief healed in the instant they blinked. She stood there with her son for several minutes, crying, ignoring everything around her, including her husband.
“Honey,” Jack eventually began, his tone not reflecting her delight. “Why did James have our baby?”
Jill still couldn’t speak, though, and his words sounded like another language. She looked her baby in the eyes. “Honey. I came home early and heard Jason crying, but it did not come from our apartment. When I realized that James had him…like I always said, I never trusted him, and I thought he had…or you and he…”
“Poor James!” Jill exclaimed, snapping back to reality at the mention of her deceased neighbor. “You do know what happened, right?”
“Why would I know what happened?” Jack said defensively. Then his cheeks colored. “Oh, that. Yeah, it’s a real tragedy. Good thing I got Jason out of there before it happened.”
“Wow, I hadn’t even thought of that. Here I was, sitting at home, worried sick, and you protected our son the whole time. You really are a great husband and father, Jack.” Jill looked at him earnestly.
Jack scratched the back of his head, forcing a smile. His sandy blond hair was reflected in their son, who burped at that moment. Jill turned to her husband. “Jack, why are there dark spots on your pants?”
Jack looked down at his pants and looked like he had woken up from a strange dream. “I…went to check on the car in the shop, honey. Behind the counter, they were showing highlights of the game last night on the TV, so I leaned in to get a better look. I guess it was pretty dirty, or greasy, because after, my pants were like this. Worse, even.”
“How is the car, dear? You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through today without that thing, and all to come home to this.” Tears started trickling down her face, and she tried to wipe them, but with Jason in her arms, she had a bit of trouble, having to shift the baby. Jack came over and hugged her, wiping the tears away as if it would erase all the pain. Jill looked at him and pouted. “Promise me this will never happen again, dear.”
“What do you mean? I can’t stop people from dying.” Jack avoided looking into her eyes.
“Just promise. Please.”
“Fine. You won’t have to suffer through this any more.”
Later that night, Jack got up and went to get a snack. Jill watched him go, pretending to be asleep, but in reality she was wide-awake. The day’s events had taken a lot out of her, yet she could not fall into darkness’s forgetful embrace. She was relieved her son was fine. She felt bad that James had died. But there was something that weighed down on her mind more than anything else, and she had no idea what to do about it, or if she should tell anyone about it. Sometimes she wished she didn’t know Jack so well.
This day had brought so many surprises, and Jill did not know how to handle them all. Sure that Jack was occupied for the time, she quietly picked up the phone receiver. She needed to get this off her mind, and perhaps it would be best this way. What was someone to do in this kind of situation? Maybe she should wait until he was at work the next day. But she would not be able to sleep with this on her mind.
Her fingers trembled as she pushed each button. Who knew three numbers would be so hard to punch in? When a voice came through, it felt glaringly loud. She looked up and glanced around, hoping Jack hadn’t heard her. It didn’t look like he had, so she began whispering into the receiver.
“Hello. My name is Jill and I have some information on a murder committed today…”
“Miss, there is another number you can call to help the police in solving a crime. We deal in emergencies.”
“But this is an emergency. You see, I am in the same house as-”
Jill dropped the phone as she felt his hand on her shoulder. It bounced on the floor a few times before stopping, and then the only sound in the room was the static noise coming from the receiver, almost making out understandable words.
“Jill,” Jack whispered. “That was not a good idea. Not good at all.”
He spun her around and in the dim light, with a faint green glow from the phone buttons, she looked into the face of her husband. Except he was not her husband anymore.
This was the face of a murderer.
“No Dalin!,” Kaleb yelled. This was not their mission.
Too late. The gun tore a hole right through the light blue abdomen, searing everything the energy touched. The creature collapsed, dead. The others looked horrified. Some jumped back into the sea, others rushed forward to actually attack the humans this time. Kaleb found himself running towards them, not sure what he hoped to accomplish.
Foelhe was the next to act, Dalin too shocked at what he had done. He shot another of the blue men from afar. It fell back and its twisted bones could be heard from where Kaleb was standing. With the help of his helmet, of course, but that noise haunted him. Foelhe was going to take out another when Kaleb pushed him to the side. They both fell down.
The others with Dalin took aim, hesitantly. The hesitation cost them. Somehow, a large wave reached them, pulling them down to the depths. They let go of their guns and tried scrambling out, but out of the wave came more of the blue things, grabbing them and preventing escape. As long as they had their armor on, they would be all right, but if the creatures found a way to break in, they would drown.
Kaleb watched helplessly as three of them disappeared. Dalin was running, not trained against this type of fear. Foelhe punched Kaleb off of him.
“What are you doing? We have to kill them, or they’ll take us down with them.”
Kaleb didn’t have an answer, but still couldn’t allow his companion to slaughter the natives. Their job was to explore, make contact, and set up a friendly base. Killing them all would put an end to that idea, permanently. They might have ended it already.
His visor was full of mud and pebbles, so he tried wiping it clean, but didn’t get much off. He did see Foelhe’s figure get up, though, and take aim again. “Stop it, Foelhe! We were to make contact, not come as conquerers.”
“Maybe these savages need conquerers,” Foelhe said. Kaleb imagined him sneering. “We were never going to lower ourselves to their level. We were going to civilize them. Make them in our image. They have nothing they can offer us.”
“What about control of the waves? Maybe they could teach us,” Kaleb tried to reason.
Foelhe snorted. “They weren’t controlling the waves, they saw it rising and swam in it. Now stop annoying me, I have to show them their place.”
Kaleb stood up, placing himself between Foelhe and the natives. His back camera showed that the natives stopped chasing Dalin and were looking at him curiously. Maybe he could convince these they came in peace.
“Kaleb, you are making a mistake. I didn’t come here to try to learn a language, or make peace offerings to these primitives. I came because it was the only way to get these suits and guns outside of a virtual sim. I want to hunt, and these violent monsters make the perfect practice.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’re being recorded, you know.”
“And I’m fully justified in everything I do. I doubt the men up top will care enough to listen, anyway.” Foelhe waved his gun in Kaleb’s direction. Kaleb spread out his arms in protest.
“I am the senior companion,” Foelhe said. “You have to obey my orders. So get out of my way.”
Kaleb felt his suit struggle to obey, but he quickly overrode it. Foelhe’s influence wasn’t as complete as he thought.
“Fine. There are natives that want to kill me. You won’t let me defeat them myself. So I must use force.” With that, he shot Kaleb.
It was a low setting, a warning shot, just stunning him. Fear entered into his mind. Foelhe was more dangerous than any animal on this planet. He had the mind of a killer, but had never had the chance to use it until now.
Foelhe was between Kaleb and the natives. Kaleb tried to focus his attention on himself. “You don’t want to do this, we can still make peace.”
Looking at him, Foelhe laughed. “You’re not going to change me, Kaleb. If you don’t want to be a murderer, sticking to some vague principle of rightness, do that. But I am not limited by your moral system.”
By then, some of the blue natives had crept up behind Foelhe. They looked ready to attack. Kaleb began to talk to Foelhe again, ready to say anything to distract him, but Foelhe ignored him, turned around, and started blasting the creatures.
The back camera.
The screams would haunt Kaleb’s mind for many sleepless nights, if he ever walked away from this. Taking out his own gun, he resolved to stop this. His finger reached the trigger, but the vague principles of rightness made him hesitate. The hesitation cost him, as Foelhe immediately turned around and shot him. This time at full power.
Kaleb breathed, straining. Finally he was able to feel the sand as it crept into his armor, now compromised. His bosses would not be happy with that. But it did have a unique texture. Foelhe’s voice was no longer coming through the speakers, but his movements showed his glee. Vision going double, Kaleb shifted his gun in the sand.
Only one shot. No suit-aided aiming. It was all him.
Kaleb stayed silent as Foelhe’s screams mixed with the weeping natives. Dalin and the others were nowhere to be seen. Hopefully he had made some sort of difference. It was cold, even though it wasn’t supposed to be cold on the beach except at night. The sun was shining. It looked different through the atmosphere. Not so lonely.
Both Foelhe and Kaleb died around the same time. Only thirteen point eight five seconds separating them. Dalin and his subordinates remained down there, but Helman decided to let them fend for themselves for a bit longer. His interest in Foelhe and Kaleb occupied his mind right now.
He went to the pod. Gas steamed out as it opened. Waving his hand to clear it away, he looked in, seeing a familiar shape. Kaleb’s body looked like a baby’s, cuddled up in a fetal position, with only skintight underwear on. He looked cold. Wires were coming out of every part of him.
A meter away, another pod opened. Helman put himself between the two. Foelhe’s body looked much the same as Kaleb’s from this perspective, just that his skin was a bit lighter.
Slowly, the two of them awoke, fingers twitching, eyes moving before they finally opened. Kaleb let out a breath of relief. Foelhe clutched the edge of the pod, eyes open wide.
“Well, good news for both of you. You’re not dead.” He let them take that in, since he was sure they didn’t want to see him in an afterlife. “You never went down to the surface. That was a lie. You’re still here, in Zeta. We got you all dressed up in your environmental suits, and had you sit down in what you thought was the ribbon, then drugged you and brought you back here.”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” Kaleb said, words blurred by a trembling mouth.
“The suits walked here on their own and deposited you,” Helmen said with his tight smile. “This whole thing was a test. We needed to know how well you would handle it.”
“So did we pass?” Foelhe asked, anger lacing his voice like an iceberg.
“I think we all know the answer of who passed and who didn’t,” Helman said simply. Foelhe glared at him, but he didn’t even see it as he was looking at Kaleb.
“Us men up top do listen.”
“So what happens now?” Kaleb asked.
“You get to go down with others who have passed, if you want. You see, none of our technology works down there, except for the most primitive devices that don’t rely on electricity. No one knows why that is, and we need someone to find out.
Someone who will establish relationships and find the information we need,” he said, finally looking at Foelhe. “Not someone who will think he’s better than the sentients down there,”
Kaleb smiled. “Someone to make first contact.”
John Remalto knocked on the door. Knock knock. They had told him this would be a story that only he could do, that they only trusted him with, no one else. He had no idea what was so special, but then, as an award winning journalist, it was his job to find out.
After two minutes, the door opened slightly. A chain kept it from opening more. “May I ask who you are?”
“I’m John Remalto, we have an appointment.” John wondered if he had the right address. He looked down at the touchpad in his hand. Before he could double-check, though, the door closed. Why is everyone so rude? John thought, about to turn around.
“Sorry about that, I had to make sure you weren’t some crazy out to get me,” came the voice again as the door opened, this time all the way. Great, this guy’s paranoid. But he was a professional, and didn’t say anything, just smiled. “Come in.”
The apartment had papers strewn all about, so that John had to look closely to see if there was a carpet, or if that was the papers’ function. It was not like most people used much paper these days. John had his touchpad out, ready to take notes, record his conversation, and set to block any calls from his wife. This had better be worth his time. He noticed the window to his right was open. John had lived in this city when he was a child, so he glanced out from where he stood and tried to recognize anything from his youth. The buildings were familiar, but there was a mental ward below that he did not recognize. He tried to remember what had been there before. A dove flew past the window.
“Have a seat,” came the voice again, this time with a body. John surveyed his newest story. Glasses, graying hair, white suit coat (even in his own house?), bad posture, and piercing blue eyes. He was holding a little necklace in his hands, fiddling with it. John sat down on the couch facing the window, surprised it wasn’t covered in papers as well. The middle aged man sat down in front of him on a stool, backlit by the gray sunlight streaming in. The paper crumpled as he walked over it.
“So you are the famed Dr. Mark Nitlin, renowned scientist and theorist. ” John stated. The man nodded. “Nice place you have here.” Dr Nitlin looked around, embarrassed, as if suddenly aware of the state of his apartment. John waved a hand. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to judge, I just want your story. They tell me you’ve discovered something that could change our lives forever.”
Dr. Nitlin straightened up when John started mentioning the discovery, and his whole appearance changed. No longer was he the timid and awkward man from before, but one full of pride and self importance. Much better that way for John, because now it would be all the easier to coax any information from him. “‘I have only shared it with other trusted scientists, but now that I am ready to publish my findings, I also want an article published, so the public at large could understand its significance, without having to know all the scientific details.”
“Makes sense to me.”
“Alas,” (Who says that nowadays? John asked himself) “I believe some rumors have already leaked out, though, and my discovery has already made me enemies, which is why I was hesitant to open the door for you.”
“Enemies, huh? Must be pretty important. And if it is, I assure you, we will be best friends.” Controversies always sold more. It looks like he had come to the right place.
“My discovery is not so important by itself, I will admit, no more than any other number of discoveries that have come before it. I am not even sure there are any practical uses for it.” What? If there was no practical use, then what use was there? John became worried. “What exactly does your discovery entail, Doctor?”
Instead of answering directly, the scientist stood up and went to the window, looking out on the artificial environment below. Where there had once been trees, now public projector screens played endless advertisements. “In the past decades, especially in the early 2000’s, there have been several major scientific discoveries. With each one, humanity was able to let go of false traditions and turn an eye to the future, towards independence. My breakthrough has scientific importance, but more importantly, it had social and culture relevance.”
What is he getting at? thought John. If there was no real story here, then he had wasted his time. He knew he should have used the teleconference option, instead of coming to meet the guy in person. The man beckoned him to the window, and reluctantly John got up, leaving the soft sofa. Paper crumpled beneath his feet. At the window, Dr. Nitlin rubbed his necklace, which had the number six on the end, and pointed to the mental ward John had noticed earlier.
“Do you know what that building was before?” Nitlin asked him.
Thinking hard, he came up with an answer, to the surprise of them both. “It was a church.” He remembered his mother taking him there once, although he had been bored the whole time. Dr Nitlin scowled.
“Once, it was used to psychologically treat people’s depression, with little success. Now it medically treats it, with much greater success. With our new knowledge and tools, we are evolving as a society. Just like with the Greek Gods, the notions of the past are systematically being replaced as science gives us new understanding of the human condition, our place in the universe, and where we came from. In fact, that is precisely what I discovered.”
Now we are getting somewhere, thought John, wanting to get away from the subject of religion. Any mention of that made him queasy. His purpose in life was to make a lot of money, and he was doing well with that, so trying to make him feel bad for anything else he had done did not sit well with him. Although, sometimes he wondered where this world and humanity came from. If the doctor would get on and actually tell him, his visit might serve two purposes, one he had not even foreseen.
“What I have done is to complete what so many other scientists, conscious of it or not, have tried to achieve. I represent the culmination of their efforts. The evidence is undeniable; my colleagues agree with me. This is why I have enemies, because there are always people who oppose humanity’s progress. Soon, the voice of reason will make the blind fools give up, and this part of humanity’s history will come to an end.”
I doubt any discovery you made could be so important as to mark an era in history. This guy’s full of himself. “All right, Dr. Nitlin, you’ve got my attention. What is so important about your discovery? Give me a title for the article that is worthy of your achievement.”
“Science has always warred against ignorance and superstition. Well, now, I have dealt the deathblow. Science has come out triumphant. What I have proven means there is no longer a need for the struggling churches. John Remalto, you want a title? Well, here it is.” John looked at the scientist; he seemed almost in his own world now, the eyes not focusing on anything. His fist clenched the necklace. Chills went down John’s spine as the doctor spoke.
“I killed God.”
Within fifteen minutes, he arrived at the gates. With the help of some of his guards, after dispatching Jadek’s, he pushed open the doors in a dramatic gesture. Light from the cloudy sky filled the hall. His footsteps echoed all around him.
Going in deeper, dispatching more guards, Brom entered the hall to confront Jadek. He wanted Arabella, and no one would stop him. Clenching his sword until it hurt, as well as his teeth, he scanned the dark room. At the back facing him was his nemesis.
“You have broken the treaty, Brom,” came the voice from the shadows. Brom’s vision adjusted to the darkness. Jadek looked like he wanted to jump out of his throne and strangle him. Brom almost wanted him to try.
“The treaty was meaningless once you kidnapped my wife,” Brom said with deadly calm.
Jadek looked incredulous. “That is what this is about? You pillage my city for a girl?”
“You brought this upon yourself. Now where is she? Locked away?”
“I’m right here,” Arabella said, coming out of the shadows to the right of Jadek. Lush golden hair, delicate face, cherry lips, swaying hips. Brom lost his breath. “You should have left us.”
“Let her go free!” Bloodlust threatened to take over Brom.
“I want to be with him, Prince Brom!” Arabella yelled, becoming even more beautiful. “I never wanted to be with you!”
Brom couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She was to be his wife. She couldn’t hate him. He had done so much for her. No, this was a mistake. She had been manipulated. This wasn’t her talking. He knew it. She would never say something like that in her right mind. Jadek had some leverage on her.
“What have you done to her?” Brom cried out. “Face me now!”
“You’re insane!” Jadek yelled. “Guards, stop him.”
Thus began the battle, Brom’s guards versus Jadek’s. Brom helped, giving the advantage to his side. The fight lasted several minutes, and Jadek escaped with Arabella, but Brom couldn’t get through. His own side suffered several losses before he disabled the last of them.
As soon as possible, he took off after Jadek and Arabella. He wasn’t sure where they had gone, but could guess. The castle wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Because Arabella wore heels, she slowed them down, and Brom found them trying to escape in the back entrance.
“Jadek, it’s over.”
“Why are you doing this, Prince Brom? What did I ever do to you?”
“You took my wife.”
“She’s not your wife yet, and she came to me. We love each other; she didn’t want to get married to someone she couldn’t love. Will you not allow us happiness?”
Brom sheathed his sword, breathing hard. He walked up to Jadek, each step a battle. Glancing at Arabella with regret, he held out his hand. Jadek took it, hesitantly.
Grabbing onto his hand, Brom took out his sword with the other and impaled Jadek, pulling him closer. Arabella screamed and ran to Brom, hitting him with her fists. Brom ignored her. Jadek’s eyes grew lifeless and he coughed blood.
Brom pulled out the sword and let Jadek drop to the ground. Tired of hitting him, Arabella dropped to the ground as well, putting her body over his and crying. Brom left them, sighing.
A month later, they were married. Brom was crowned prince of Thromwell as well, ruling in absence of his father. Arabella promised she would hate him forever, and did not let him in her rooms ever, not even on their wedding night. He didn’t have the will to argue.
A few days later Brom was on the throne in a pose of deep and sad contemplation. Trumpets started blaring, shaking him from his mental fantasy. The doors opened and in strode a regal figure. someone with a purpose. It reminded Brom of himself so recently, coming in on Jadek.
“Father,” he said simply.
“Brom Filmor,” his father, Reginald, said. Although he said it pleasantly enough, undercurrents of anger were manifest. “I have come for an accounting of the stewardship I left you.”
“Leave us,” Brom ordered everyone in his court.
“Let Hadrian stay,” Reginald said. “I do not wish to be completely alone with you.”
Hadrian stayed, but did not look pleased.
Brom sighed. “Hadrian, if you please.”
“Remember your promise, my prince,” Hadrian began.
“Yes, yes,” Brom said, waving his hand and turning around. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Hadrian counseled me against all of this, and I didn’t listen.”
Reginald stayed silent, but put his chin in his hand. Hadrian cleared his voice and began the report. “There was an…altercation. It ended up in a battle between Thromwell and Filmor. In the end, we lost two hundred and twenty three soldiers. Thromwell lost many more, mostly civilians of fighting age. Also, Jadek, king of Thromwell, was killed. Without heirs, and in the confusion, Brom declared himself king of Thromwell.”
“Prince,” said Reginald, signaling Hadrian to continue.
“Prince Brom took Lady Arabella Faus as wife, and they were married three days ago. I have nothing more to report.”
“Very succinct,” Reginald said. “Thank you for the report, Hadrian.”
“Thank you, majesty,” Hadrian said, bowing. “If I may be so bold, how fared the war with the Mithics?”
“Let me put it this way. After the heroics of my son, now with so few soldiers to call upon for reinforcements, you need not call me majesty much longer.”
“You lost?” Brom shouted, then remembered himself. “Father?”
“We had to resort to the defensive. The Mithics will be coming to invade soon. I had hoped to recruit from Filmor and Thromwell to put together one last defense of our kingdoms, but with the needless losses you caused, I don’t know if it will be enough. Plus, we cannot count on the morale of Thromwell’s troops, now. They might prefer Mithic rule to our own.”
“I’m sorry, father!”
Reginald took a step forward, his anger finally showing. “Is that all you can say? Sorry? You destroyed the kingdom while I was gone! All you had to do was nothing! Was that so hard?”
“I didn’t want Jadek to steal Arabella away!”
“Oh? And how did that work out? How’s the marriage?” Brom didn’t answer for a few minutes. “Hmm?”
“You obviously know, so don’t taunt me!”
They stared at each other. Reginald finally spoke up. “Hopefully the Mithics will allow our family to continue ruling under them. Even though it’s unlikely you’ll be producing heirs anytime soon. I hope you enjoyed being the hero, son. You conquered a kingdom, now we will be conquered. We need great leadership in this time of change. Which means no more heroics.”
“My liege, Prince Filmor, we hate to bear bad news, but we have just received word that the Lady Arabella has been abducted in route to the city.”
Brom straightened up on his seat, situated by his father’s throne, empty as usual. This was the first tiding in days that had interested him. In fact, he had been caught up in a daydream about his future wife. He had only met her once, but that had been enough to leave him smitten. Declared one of the beauties of the land, Arabella’s smile, so timid but so knowing at the same time, enchanted him. His thoughts had wandered to the wedding night when the unfortunate news came.
“Arabella!” he said, rising from his seat and whisking his cape in back of him. “Something must be done. Who kidnapped her? Where were they heading?”
“To the west,” one of the quivering messengers said, kneeling at his feet. The man was scrawny, unlike Brom’s own physique.
What lay to the west? “Jadek,” he said, that one name taking on power.
“It would seem the logical conclusion,” one of his advisors, Hadrian, said. “What course of action would you suggest in the absence of your father? Diplomacy? Espionage?”
“Heroics,” Brom said, ignoring the messengers kneeling uncomfortably on the hard floor. “There will be no tolerance for such an audacious act. Prepare the military.”
“My prince, I would advise against such drastic terms. We have a trade agreement with the Thromwells, and marching an army into their territory would be an egregious break of trust.” Hadrian, with his balding head, furrowed his brows, making him look more ancient than his forty years.
Brom remembered the messengers, waiting to be addressed, and waved them away. Most of them left, but one stayed near, half bowing, looking hesitant. Brom waved him away more energetically; annoyed he had to waste so much energy on the man. The messenger smiled and left, running after his coworkers. Hadrian and Brom were alone now.
“Any treaty Jadek Thromwell had with us is null in light of this kidnapping.”
“But Brom, you have no idea it was Jadek in the first place.”
“I saw how he was looking at her in the feast. Father Morander would be ashamed to have someone so full of lust attending the event in his memory.”
“Perhaps, but I know your father was ashamed to have his son drooling after the same girl.”
“I was not drooling. Anyway, I saw how much he wanted to have her for his own, and how jealous he was of me when my father announced our betrothal.”
Hadrian sighed. “You are the regent while your father is gone, and you have every right to be concerned about the welfare of your future wife, but remember that I recommended against it. Only you will answer to your father when this is over.”
“And receive all the praise,” Brom said. “Really, this won’t even be an issue. Don’t fret, I will cast you in the best light possible.”
“As you will, my prince. I desire the best for your journey. I will notify the general of your decision. But please, do not make enemies lightly.”
“There is nothing to fear,” Brom said, fearing he would be the same when he was older. “The princess will return safely and we will soon be wed.”
“Assemble the men,” Brom ordered from his horse. The flag bearer raised the horn and blew. Brom felt the vibrations pulsing as they reverberated through the valley. His men offered up a cheer as the march began. He smiled down on them as a loving father would. He yelled out as loud as he could, hoping his thousand men could hear him. “Your future queen, Arabella, has been kidnapped. We must rescue her. We believe she is held captive in Melfor with the Thromwells. Once we arrive, leave no house, no store, no alley unsearched.” Thinking about Hadrian, he said, “Avoid violence, but use it as necessary. And do whatever is required to save the princess’s life.”
The city of Melfor stretched before them, vast as the clouds in the sky. In the distance stood Thromwell castle, where Brom was sure he would find Arabella. In case Jadek, the elder son who recently inherited the throne after his father died of the yellow fever, saw Brom coming and sent Arabella away into the city, he would have his men enter in and search every house. Luckily, most of Jadek’s men were with Brom’s father, fighting in the alliance against the usurpation of the Kingdom of Grim by the Mithics.
They made it to the gates of the town before getting any response. One of Jadek’s guards came out to meet them, dressed in violet finery, but looking annoyed. “What is the meaning of this, Prince Brom? Just because your father didn’t bring as many troops with him to war as we did doesn’t give you the right to trample into our fair city.”
“You know why we’re here. And do not insult my father, who is actually fighting, unlike Jadek.”
“As well as you,” the guard replied, sneering.
“Someone needs to run the kingdom!” Brom said, losing patience.
“What is your name?”
“I am called Firion, son of-”
“Firion, if you can’t give me Arabella right now, I am going to take over this city and burn down every house until I find her.”
“Arabella? Who is she?” There was a look of such confusion on the man’s face that for a moment Brom thought he might not know. Only for a moment, though.
“Put up your guard, because I am going to rescue her!” Brom charged Firion with his sword raised. Firion barely had time to take out his sword and block the strike which left him trembling.
One of the men escorting Firion backed away and pulled out a horn. It took him a few tries, but it sounded throughout the city, while Firion and Brom fought. Brom’s army marched forward, ready to take on the opposing host.
Brom had to admit, the guard was a good swordsman, but that was no surprise, given his position. Still, Brom was bigger and used his brute force to his advantage. His troops marched past him.
Swords clashed, ringing nearly as loud as the horn. Thrust, side slash, feint, parry, thrust again. Brom pressed down, hoping to break Firion’s stance. When that didn’t work, he slid down and slid his foot in an arc, trying to trip him, but only managing to unbalance him.
So he jumped on him.
Firion fell down, Brom on top. Not about to take any chances, Brom plunged the sword into Firion’s chest, pushing through the armor. Firion just gurgled in surprise, eyes already going blank.
Taking his sword out, blood dripping, he stood up and shook it before wiping it on Firion’s clothes. Red specks covered the ground.
Inside the city, people were running out of their houses, screaming. This only encouraged Brom’s army to chase after, pillaging and plundering. Brom hadn’t meant for this to happen, but getting control of them now would be nearly impossible, and he had to get to Castle Thromwell. Taking a unit of disciplined soldiers, he left orders with the general to round up the army and he took off.
A few peasants tried to stand up to him, yelling, calling him names, but he just cut them down. The castle stood like a white beacon, and everything else in sight was just a distraction. Arabella was waiting for him.