Garth flicked his gaze back up to the priest. If the guy catches me staring at his goodies, that’s probably all she wrote.
“Good to meet you, priest. I’m Carl Jung from the north, and I was curious about your faith.” Garth said, holding out his hand as the chill of Pala’s blessing rolled off his tongue.
The best way to get a priest to stop talking about you is to get them talking about their faith.
“Well met, young man,” the priest said, vigorously shaking Garth’s hand. “I envy you the journey of discovery you are about to embark on!”
Garth barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes, then the man grabbed him by the shoulder and led him through the barrier, the magic sliding around them as they entered.
Garth’s heart skipped a beat as he was guided into the suppression field, but the enchantment keeping his skin human colored didn’t falter, thank Beladia. I wasn’t looking forward to washing priest off my hands today.
“The story of the Founder is a tale as old as time, the one truth that binds all people together….”
Garth started tuning him out, taking in the shape of the church once they were inside. The inside was just as lofty and grand as it had appeared from the outside, lit by brilliant sunlight streaming in through the beautiful, if historically inaccurate stained glass windows.
There were pews, and a pulpit, plenty of gold and silk, and behind all of that, a black statue of a rather curvaceous woman holding an orb about the size of a small beach ball. It was dark, dark blue green with a semi-transparent outside, and just barely visible beneath the surface were intricate carvings in a rather large core, buried beneath the glass protective sheath.
“And then on the third day, the Founder rose from the dead.”
“Wait, what?” Garth asked, his attention snapping back to the priest.
The man repeated himself, and Garth’s jaw slowly dropped at the sheer volume of things that had been lifted straight out of The Bible, with a few names copy-pasted.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
The man must have taken Garth’s slack jaw for amazement, because he grinned and continued to tell the story of Jim-Jesus the Founder.
“I don’t mean to sound like a nonbeliever, and I certainly don’t mean to cause any…violence, but what about, you know, the gods?” Garth asked.
“Oh, there’s no problem at all. He is Kolath’s son, made from himself. His is the word of the gods, because he is them.”
“Got it,” Garth said, nodding.
He didn’t get it.
“Was there anything more you would like to hear? You’re more than welcome to join our mass, and we’ve got a special program to help foreigners get settled into the city.”
I’ll bet you do. Anything more I’d like to hear, huh?
“I’d like to hear more about Garth Daniels.” Garth said, barely suppressing a grin.
“Wha, what?” The man said, blanching. “Why would you want to hear of such an evil…thing?”
Garth shrugged. “ Where I come from, they say a hero’s worth is told most clearly in the villains he fights. That’s why people like batman.”
“Old myth,” Garth said dismissively “Now how about that bad guy?”
Finn Jenson hustled through the white halls of the Imperial Palace, his round cheeks jiggling and the towering marble pillars whooshing by as he made his way to the Founder’s chambers.
He didn’t know what news he was delivering, but the person he was delivering it to meant that it was more important than anything else he’d ever been tasked with handling.
Finn’s usual boyish curiosity got stomped out hard when he considered taking a peek at the missive in his hand. That was grounds for execution, or worse.
Finn hustled along the pristine halls, passing maids and the occasional Senator, until he came across the Founder’s Chambers, guarded by two second-tier women who practically radiated power.
Well, they should have been. There was only a single woman guarding the Founder’s chambers, her cheeks red from exertion, a thin sheen of sweat on her brow. She was wearing heavy steel armor that covered most of her feminine features, save for her face.
Her apparent exhaustion didn’t seem to stop her from doing her job, though, leveling a spear at Finn’s quivering chin. He tried to back off, but somehow she kept the steel pressed against him.
“I have – have a message for the Founder,” Finn stuttered as the spear dimpled the fat on his neck, slowly holding up the missive. The scroll tube was lined with the purple jade of the Intelligence Department.
“He’s busy. Not to be disturbed.” She said, death in her eyes.
“It’s time sensitive, Time sensitive!” Finn bawled, “That’s what I was told. Please don’t kill me.”
“Don’t you know that only one messenger has been cleared to deliver here?” She asked. “And it’s not you. You being here is tantamount to treason, and you know what we do to treasonous scum like you.”
“Caroline, stop badgering the man. You know as well as I do that no one could possibly harm me.” The deep voice of the Founder reverberated through the solid oak door.
“But Foundeeer.” The veteran guardswoman…whined?
What is happening here? Finn asked himself, awestruck by the absurdity of it.
The Imperial guard scowled and stood out of Finn’s way.
“I’ll remember your face, fat man,” she whispered as Finn walked up to the door, shaking in his boots.
“I heard that!” The Founder shouted through the door.
Caroline – he was pretty sure that was her name – clicked her tongue and looked back out at the hall, once again an expressionless statue.
With trembling hands, Finn pushed open the double doors, and took a moment to parse the scene he was looking at.
Pieces of steel were strewn about the Founder’s bed,
The missing guard, shorn of her lower armor, was pressed face-first deep into a silk bed, her hips raised to meet the Founder’s, sending vulgar moans and slaps of skin on skin through the bedroom.
The Guardswoman made eye contact with the stunned messenger and let out a strangled shout, trying to push herself up.
“Don’t worry about it, Sasha, just keep doing what you’re doing.” The Founder said, forcing the inhumanly strong woman’s head back down into the sheets, until her face was pressed so deep into the covers, she could only breathe by turning her head to the side. He left his hand there until she began to thrust backwards against him again, ignoring Finn’s presence.
The Founder himself wore a short-chopped brown beard and hair. His lean, muscular body was covered in a sheen of sweat, looking for all the world like a god come to life. Finn had always wanted to look like that.
“So, Time sensitive message.” The Founder said, snapping his fingers to get Finn’s attention.
“I ah-“ Finn swallowed a tremendous lump in his throat, then cleared it. “I was assigned to bring you this missive from the Intelligence Department.” He raised the scroll case in his hands.
“Those old ninnies. Never quite been the same since Carolus retired. Well, read it to me.”
“wha, what?” Finn asked.
“Can’t you see I’m busy? Not exactly a stable surface to read on either, if you get my drift.” The Founder motioned to the hips in front of his own, punctuating it with a spank, causing the half-armored woman to yelp.
Finn decided to swallow back whatever retort he might have made against literally anyone else, and just do as he was told.
He pulled the vellum scroll out of the jade-capped canister, and began decoding the message, written in Spymaster Forian’s dry script.
“Founder, there have been whisperings of strange happenings in the west. The frontier city of Santo Descanso is dead center of a rash of Prima Regula activity. Added to this the census has been noting a sharp decrease in military age youths in the area, perhaps owing to aggressive recruiting on the part of the Prima Regula and their false queen.
There have also been rumors of strange occurrences happening among the city’s Garthspawn, but they haven’t been confirmed by the mouths of the nobles.
“That’s odd,” the Founder said, frowning before he shrugged. “Of course they wouldn’t confirm anything. They like to play things close to the vest. Anything else?”
“Several notable figures in the underworld have died or gone missing, and the minor nobility has begun to turn on each other. The Gonzales family has lost their entire harvest of opium and Cocaine, and the Bergstrom family has made a complete reversal of their fortunes.” Finn said, paraphrasing as he scanned through the lengthy report.
The Founder’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s a lot of upheaval for a small city. How’s the Adamantium trade through all this?”
“Holding steady, founder.” Finn said.
“Odd. Lemme see that.” The Founder said, releasing his guard to collapse into the bed, a boneless wreck.
Rather than take it out of Finn’s hands, he stood beside him so the two could both read the information contained within, far more detailed than Finn’s summaries, with charts and stale numbers so dry they almost concealed the intent of the message.
“You understood all this?” The Founder asked. “And summarized it to me in seconds? I’m impressed, kid.”
He took the scroll from Finn’s hand, scanned it once, then the message burst into hissing flames in the god’s grip. “Tell the Intelligence Department that I’m going to send Nathaniel, then meet my people at the West gate. I could use a secretary on this mission and you’re available.”
A cold shiver ran down Finn’s spine. The High Inquisitor wasn’t known for his merciful nature, and he didn’t always point his aggression at enemies of the state. He was thorough, though. Some would argue too thorough. The Founder had just put Finn in a very precarious position. The best bet was to blend in with the furniture.
Finn opened his mouth to say that he was in fact, still employed by the Intelligence Department, but decided the Founder was probably going to get his way, one way or another.
“I would be honored.”
“’Course you would. Sasha, up! We have to get dressed. People to order about.” the Founder began throwing clothes on, muttering as he tugged on a pair of pants.
I wonder why The Founder doesn’t have any Garthspawn to keep him company. Finn thought, not seeing any sign of the purple women that served the upper class as he glanced around the opulent bedroom.
The Founder cast him a withering stare over his shoulder, making Finn’s blood freeze in his veins.
“Because that would make me an animal,” he said, then shuddered, making faces and sticking out his tongue as he wiped himself down with a damp towel.
“Bleh.” He glanced at Finn. “You find your relatives attractive?”
“No sir.” Finn said, keeping his posture straight and his mind blank.
“Good. Because I might have had to look for another secretary. Git.” He pointed at the door.
Finn took that as an opportunity to escape, delivering the Founder’s return message to the Intelligence department.
They seemed surprised that the Founder asked for him specifically, but they didn’t question the decision, simply sending Finn to get fitted for some boiled leather armor and the Intelligence Department’s typical traveling pack, consisting of salt, dried rations, and a notebook.
‘take notes of everything. Especially Nathanial’s behavior.’ The head of the Department had told him.
Finn wasn’t one hundred percent sure why that was so important, but he had been trained long enough that he knew not to ask questions.
So when Nathanial, leading four horsemen in gleaming golden armor and four wagons full of support personnel arrived at the West gate, Finn simply made a note and guided his horse to join the expedition.
“Is that all you’re going to do the whole time you’re here?” Caitlyn asked, glancing over from her movie at Alicia, who was practicing her Mana Channeling in the living room of Garth’s lair.
How strange that Alicia still didn’t know who her patron was. The impulse to talk about it was maddening, but until Alicia knew who he was, the agreement she’d signed was still being enforced.
“Until it’s as natural as breathing.” Alicia said, her eyes closed, plump lips downturned in a frown as she manipulated the thread of mana in front of her.
“I’d bet you’d make more progress if you got more rest. Unwind a little.”
“Says the natural,” Alicia said sullenly.
Not like I wanted to be better at it than you, Caitlyn thought, shrugging and turning her attention back to the movie, as seen through the eyes of the world’s oldest human. Or so he said.
Caitlyn watched primarily the dramatic movies, mostly for ideas on real technology that had existed in the time Garth Daniels had been around. She had quickly discovered that science fiction and fantasy held a few too many leaps in logic to be useful to her, although some of them introduced interesting concepts, like spacecraft, bioweapons and Dyson spheres.
She was more interested in things like cars, planes, telephones, cell-phones, toasters, microwaves, and all manner of practical inventions.
She paused the movie during a scene where a car was making a jump, giving her a good view of the vehicle’s undercarriage and allowing her to make a sketch, when Garth stormed in, still wearing his Edward Disguise. His collar was loosened, and his eyes had bags under them, as though he’d stayed up for days.
“Ugh, that was terrible!” he shouted, unbuttoning his undershirt further, and fanning himself off, the commotion prompting Alicia to open an eye and peek at him.
“I gotta let off some steam.” Garth crooked a finger and mana wound itself around Alicia’s waist, lifting her generous buns off the ground. Her eyes went wide and she silently pawed at the air like a cat as she floated toward Garth’s bedchamber.
Caitlyn watched Alicia disappear around the corner.
“Huh,” Caitlyn bit her lip and returned to her sketch, desperately trying to keep herself on task.
It worked for a good half hour.
Then the muffled shrieking started.
Heart pounding, Caitlyn set the sketchbook aside, and turned the movie back on to cover the sound of her approach, feeling as if she were a spectator, watching her own body sneak toward the bedroom. The temptation to investigate was too great.