The Glasstree Mountains were a huge disappointment. There were no glass trees at all! Just boring, solid, brown ones, exactly like every other tree he’d ever seen. They weren’t even coloured like glass! Whoever had named them, Remy Auclair decided, had been a real big doodoo-head.
Wait, does glass have colours? Is see-through a colour? Does air have colours?!
Distracted by the thought of polka-dot air, he stopped paying attention to where he was going, and walked right off the edge of a cliff.
He yelped as he tumbled forward, disappearing from view. A few moments later, there was a cacophonous crash, followed by many smaller ones.
At the bottom of the cliff, Remy hopped gracefully off of the trunk of the huge tree as it rolled to a stop, then plopped himself down onto the stump of one of the others, heaving a dramatic sigh.
“They don’t even shatter like glass!” he complained to the empty forest around him. “This country sucks.”
The trees had no response to this.
With another sigh, he hauled himself upright, dusting the wood chips and dust off of his clothes. He was wearing a long grey coat with a fluffy hood, and he spent a few minutes meticulously picking fragments out of it, ignoring that his black-and-blonde hair was also completely filled with them. Once that was done, he casually kicked the large trunk with one foot, sending it spinning away to knock down a swathe of trees off to one side, and resumed walking, hands in pockets.
He wasn’t moving very fast, a brisk stroll at best, and his path switchbacked up over the mountain, and yet his progress was practically blistering. If one was paying attention, though, the reason quickly became obvious – he didn’t stop. Hour after hour, he kept strolling forward, whistling or humming or singing or pontificating, never stopping or breaking. In fact, one would also notice that he never even stopped to drink or eat.
If one was extremely attentive, they would also notice that, during the infrequent periods of silence, he stopped breathing entirely.
The sun had begun to set by the time he reached the peak, painting dim orange across the crowds, and glinting off of the lights of Kaila at the other end of the valley. It was generally considered to be a beautiful sight, but oddly, there were no lookouts or paths up the side of the mountain, despite there being a small city at the foot. Instead, barely visible through the foliage even from above, there was a small concrete outpost, unmarked and unobtrusive. From below, it was completely invisible – as were the numerous others positioned at regular intervals along the mountain range, uniform in design and height.
Remy stopped on a small ridge just above the station, and puckered his lips as he stared at it. Then, he shrugged, and kept walking, moving straight down the mountainside past it.
He’d only made it a few metres before the small, metal door in the side of the outpost banged open, and two men came stumbling out.
“Stop!” they both yelled, slightly out of sync. They were both Westerners, with fair skin and dark hair, but one was quite tall and broad while the other was short and slim. Both looked to be maybe 30, or a poor late twenties, and they wore identical uniforms of black and red, with stiff coats and trousers. A small emblem was stitched over the left breast, an antique-looking helmet with a sword stabbed straight through the top.
They were both also carrying large automatic weapons, which they levelled at Remy as he turned to face them.
“Freeze!” the taller of the two men yelled. “Put your hands behind your head and get on your knees!”
“In which order?” Remy asked, confused.
“Should I kneel and put my hands behind my head, and then freeze? Or should I freeze and then… put my hands behind my head… without moving…” a frown settled over his face, and his brow furrowed. “Okay, if I do it in like, robot-style, does that count as moving?”
“…robot style?” the shorter one asked, and was immediately fixed with a withering glare by his companion.
“Yeah, you know, robot style!” Remy locked his head and arms up at stiff angles, and began moving them as independent sections in swift, jerky motions. “See, so like that way I’m not moving? Or like, I am moving, but I’m moving less? Is that okay?”
“Put,” the taller one repeated, “your hands behind your head, and get down on your knees!”
“And then freeze?”
“Okay!” Remy began to move his hands, but then stopped. “Actually, you know what? I think I don’t want to.”
“This is your last warning!”
“Sure,” he replied with a shrug, and began walking again in the same direction he’d been going before. “What happens after-”
Both soldiers opened fire.
Remy frowned, looking almost wounded. Emotionally, that is, not physically.
“Guys!” he protested. “Why’d you do that? I thought we were getting along-”
They shot him again.
“Gu-uys!” he wailed, tears beading in his eyes. “How could you do this to me?”
“What the fuck are you?!” the tall man yelled at him, voice trembling.
Remy sniffed, pouting, and raised a single hand towards them with an open palm. “I really thought you were nice.”
He took a step forward, both soldiers took a step back, and then they both disappeared into thin air.
For a moment, he just stood there, frozen in place. Then he shrugged, lowered his hand, and resumed walking the direction he’d been going before. After a moment, the arm he’d raised began to twitch violently, until he reached out and tapped the trunk of a tree with one finger.
The twitching instantly ceased, and with a deafening crack, the ancient redwood exploded into powder and splinters.
“He’s not even going to question it?”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, dear Myra, but our Messer Auclair isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, I suspect he may well be a spoon.”
They watched as Remy disappeared over a small ridge, once again beginning to hum a simple tune, with an excess of enthusiasm and a deficiency of skill. Or, Dr. Khoura watched, at least. Myra was trying to, but most of her attention was consumed with dragging the unconscious soldiers over to the side and propping them up against a tree.
“And he’s who the Tenebrate sent? Wouldn’t they want someone…”
“Competent?” the doctor finished with a warm smile, making Myra blush. “Yes, quite.” She was an older woman, olive-skinned, wearing a beige headscarf over her hair and neck. A tall, aquiline nose supported a pair of half-moon pince-nez, and the hazel eyes behind them were lined with a warm humour. She, too, wore a uniform, although one could be forgiven for not noticing: it was utterly unlike those the soldiers wore, considerably finer and better-fitting. In addition, its trim was not red, but instead a purple so pale it almost appeared white. The uniform’s coat was slung over her shoulders, and the cane in her hand was simple varnished wood with an undecorated handle.
Myra, on the other hand, had removed her shirt and tied it around her waist, the white tank-top she wore stained with sweat. As she moved, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the rich blue trim that it bore. She was considerably taller and broader than the doctor (and by extension most people), built like the brick outhouse that brick outhouses use. Her frizzy black hair had started to come loose from its bun, and as she reached up to fix it Dr. Khoura didn’t bother to pretend she wasn’t enjoying the view.
Myra noticed and blushed, dropping her arms quickly. “Why him, then?” she asked, hurriedly, shrugging her uniform shirt back on. “Heck, I’m kinda surprised the entire Blackguard isn’t knocking on our door right now, if what they’re saying is true.”
“That’s certainly a possibility,” Khoura acknowledged with a tilt of the head. “But, if they’re too aggressive, everybody else starts looking at them and wondering things like ‘now, can we really risk having a faction this volatile around?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be safer if they were removed?’ and all the other eloquent justifications for killing people and taking their stuff that make up the core of world politics. Spiders and spider webs, dear Myra, spiders and spider webs. Every action reverberates outwards.”
Myra frowned, brow creasing in thought. “So he’s… a probe?”
Khoura nodded. “Exactly. They’re testing the waters, if you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors.”
“If they can prove this business with Metzin is true, then the blades will come out, and those will be some dark days for us all. If they can’t, though…” she shrugged a shoulder. “Well, he’s just one novice, and a rather dim one at that. If he sticks his elbows out too far and violates Stonelaw, well, no great loss.”
“…that’s awfully cruel, don’t you think? He’s still a person.”
“If you had seen the evidence I have, Myra, you might be more amenable to there being one less Blackguard in the world.” The younger woman folded her arms, clearly unimpressed, and after a moment, Khoura sighed, her features softening. “But, yes, you’re right. It is cruel, to be so blase about the loss of life. Unfortunately, sometimes that is just the way of the world.”
“…y’know, I hear that a lot, but somehow, the people saying it are never the ones who actually suffer from ‘the way of the world’.”
“I-” Dr. Khoura paused, then chuckled, shaking her head slightly. “You are right, Myra, you are absolutely right, I’m sorry. I knew I kept you around for something.”
Myra relaxed, her posture softening, and a quick smirk crept across her face. “Oh, so you’re not just using me for my body?”
“There can be multiple reasons.” They shared a quick smile, then Khoura dropped her hand and turned back towards the valley below. “Now, let’s get these two back to their post before they wake up, and swear them to secrecy and whatnot.”
“…you really think that will be enough? You’re not worried about the Oracle?”
Khoura scoffed, waving a hand. “These days, that imbecile couldn’t predict his own bowel movements. Besides, they gave me an operational command – they don’t get to be mad when I make operational decisions. And, as you just touched on, I’d rather not be part of an organisation that is willing to dispose of its own soldiers so casually.”
“Easy for you to say, when you’re not the one who has to carry them.”
She grinned. “Truly, Myra? I’m disappointed you believe I would make moral decisions just to avoid doing work.”
“But you would make them just to have an excuse to get me all sweaty,” Myra grumbled as she bent to pick them up.
“Oh, please,” Khoura said with a wink. “I don’t need an excuse for that.”