Cythera Chronicles: For the Fun of the Game
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Response to Cythera Chron Challenge #1
For the Fun of the Game
Timon gestured towards the empty shelves with a sweep of his hand.
"You see, Sideline? They took every tome in the new first-degree hall."
Sideline inspected the empty doorway. "Impressive," he murmured. "They couldn't get through the door, so they took out the whole frame."
"But why break in at all? Any student enrolled at the Magesterium is allowed access to this room. And why take only the first level tomes, when they could have obtained volumes that are far more valuable, not to mention more powerful and dangerous, from the upper-degree halls? It's not as if they'll even be all that hard to replace - which was Selinus' only concern, naturally."
Sideline pondered the questions for a moment. "When someone becomes accustomed to working by stealth and secrecy, it's sometimes hard to imagine operating in any other way. I'd guess the more straightforward approach didn't even occur to them. As to why just these tomes… perhaps they wanted to see if whatever they're doing with them works, before expending the effort of obtaining the higher level books. Which answers the question you didn't ask - they plan to use them, not sell them for profit."
"That's another thing that doesn't make sense. Now we know how vulnerable the books are, we'll be taking extra steps to ensure their safety. Why would they tip their hand like this if they were planning to come back?"
"It suggests that they're confident that they can defeat whatever new precautions you take. That, in turn, shows a remarkable degree of contempt for the abilities of you mages, which seems rather out of place. Most people either respect or fear you, if not both."
Timon slowly shook his head. "It worries me, Sideline."
"As it should." Sideline replied. "Right, I'll start looking into it. I may need to bring in a little help on this one, though - and I know just who to ask."
Captain Ansehlm stepped out onto the porch in front of his office into the bright Cytheran sunshine, yawned, and stretched expansively. Business at his training camp was going well. Recruits were turning up at a rate he and his staff could easily handle, and while few of them possessed anything like a military-grade skillset, well, that's what he and his drill sergeants were here for.
He strolled unconcernedly around the various divisions of the compound where the various levels of his little army were being put through their daily paces, until he eventually arrived at the lists, where the latest batch of recruits were being put through their paces and assessed.
"How do they look?" he enquired of drill sergeant Cain.
"As well as can be expected, sir," Cain replied, as a great lumbering ox of a man loped down the list and knocked himself out on the training dummy.
"Most of them are your average farm hands and stable lads," Cain continued, "thick as two short planks, but willing enough to give it a go. Not much real talent in the bunch, but -" He suddenly cringed, as a tiny slip of an elven girl let out a blood-curdling battle cry, then dashed, tumbled and somersaulted her way down the list. The practice dummy disintegrated into a cloud of straw under a lightning assault with twin daggers.
"- that one scares me," Cain finished.
"Hmm. You there," Ansehlm called out, "come here a moment."
The girl strolled nonchalantly over, spinning a dagger in one hand. "What?" she asked, slouching insolently in front of him.
Ansehlm quickly inspected the girl, taking in the thin white scar on her tanned cheek, and the challenging cast to her grey eyes. "That hair can't be natural," Ansehlm thought, staring at the bright red shoulder-length bob that barely reached as high as his armpits.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Call me Jax," the girl replied.
"Nice job," Ansehlm commented, deciding on the soft approach. "Where'd you learn to handle yourself like that?"
"Around. Surviving, and dealing with those who'd rather I didn't."
"Hmm. Very good, you may return to your training."
"Some definite skills, there, I think," he commented to Cain, when Jax had left.
"Yes, sir, but she's a wildcat. Do you think we can control her?"
"We'll see, sergeant, we'll see."
Ansehlm returned to his office, made himself a coffee, and set himself to going over the camp's books. "Damn bean counters," he thought, "get their knickers in a twist if a single oboloi is unaccounted for." He'd just ground to a halt tracing one particularly twisted paper trail, when there was a soft knock on his door.
Sergeant Cain poked his head in. "Just thought you'd like to know, sir, the archery instructor's passed Jax with flying colours."
"She, uh, apparently got bored with shooting bullseyes, and carved the target into the shape of a bull's head, sir."
"With those daggers?"
"With arrows, sir."
"From thirty yards, sir."
"Ah. Well, very good, carry on."
Cain closed the door, and Ansehlm steeled himself to return to the world of high finance. He'd just finished tracing the missing sum, only to discover that it was all due to a mistake he himself had made right back at the beginning, when there was another knock at his door.
"Uh, sorry to bother you, sir."
"What is it, Cain?"
"Well, you know how sensitive lieutenant Marfart is about her craft, sir?"
"The fencing instructor? What about her?"
"She's locked herself in her quarters and won't come out, sir."
"Good heavens. Why?"
"She feels humiliated, sir. She was sparring with Jax, something about 'teaching the insolent young pup a lesson', sir."
"Jax cut holes in the lieutenant's fencing uniform, sir."
"While the lieutenant was wearing it, sir."
"Was Marfart hurt?"
"Well, no sir. Then Jax pinned her to the wall, sir."
"Oh, good grief."
"With the lieutenant's own sword, sir."
Ansehlm rubbed his eyes. "Very well, sergeant, find someone to cover fencing instruction for now. I'll try and smooth things over with Marfart later."
"Very good, sir," and the sergeant closed the door.
Ansehlm pushed the completed budget aside, and started going over the quartermaster's list of requisitions. "Outrageous," he muttered, drawing a line through one of the items. There was yet another knock at the door.
"Me again, sir," said sergeant Cain. "Uh, sergeant Douglas is in the infirmary, sir."
"What? What happened?"
"Cracked rib, sir. Kicked by a horse during riding instruction."
"But Douglas has been around horses all his life. He knows better than that."
"Yes, sir. He claims it was deliberate, sir."
"Yes, sir. He put Jax on one of the unbroken horses, sir, to 'buck some of the arrogance out of her.'"
"Yes sir. It seems she not only won the horse over, but made it kick on command."
"That sounds a little far fetched, sergeant."
"Ordinarily I'd agree, but - this girl - she's strange, sir."
"I suspect Douglas is just trying to cover up for his own incompetence. Very well, Cain, arrange an alternate, and I'll deal with Douglas later, too. That will be all."
"Very good, sir," Cain replied reluctantly, and the door softly closed.
Ansehlm began going through the list of cadets in the top class, checking off the instructors' recommendations as to which of them were ready to graduate. There were no outstanding candidates, which he found a little disappointing, but not every class had someone in it with Jax's potential. Eventually, he narrowed it down to a list of ten names.
Striding into the outer office, he dropped the list on his secretary's desk. "Cut orders for the cadets on this list to be transferred to combat command," he ordered.
The outer door opened, and Cain entered once again.
"What now?" Ansehlm demanded.
"Uh, we'll need someone to take over unarmed combat instruction, sir."
"What happened to sergeant Cato?"
"Concussion, sir. Medics say he'll be out of action for a week."
"What happened, did he trip on the mat?" Ansehlm's voice dripped with scorn. He was becoming rather annoyed with his instructors.
"Well, you know that motivational speech he gives, about being able to beat anyone in thirty seconds, sir?"
"Apparently Jax was being disrespectful, so he decided to use her as an example."
"Oh, not again."
"She knocked him out, sir."
"Yes, I guessed that."
"In twenty seconds, sir."
Ansehlm paused to think. "You know, sergeant, we may have found our first really competent recruit. Send her out on the evening patrol."
Cain was startled. "Patrol, sir? But she only just arrived here today!"
"And she's cut her way through the teaching staff like a hot knife through butter. Let's give her a chance to show what she can really do."
"If you're sure, sir," and Cain once more departed.
Scarcely had the sergeant left, than a serious looking man in civilian clothes entered. The atmosphere turned decidedly icy as the two men's eyes met.
"Ah, Captain Ansehlm."
"Captain Barker. How may we be of assistance?"
"Could we perhaps retire to your office?"
"Of course, of course," holding the door open and waving the visitor through.
Once they were both seated, Barker handed Ansehlm a large sealed envelope.
"Preliminary plans, for your comment and to guide your training methods."
Ansehlm broke the seal, slipped the papers half out of the envelope, glanced at them briefly, then tossed them on his desk.
"I'll peruse them in greater detail later. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Just a room for the night."
"I trust your usual quarters will suffice?"
"That will be fine. Oh, and I'll need somewhere to park my wagon, under cover. It wouldn't do for the cargo to get wet if it rains."
"Of course, of course. I'll have it moved to the stables."
"If you insist." Ansehlm was surprised by the demand, but knew better than to ask questions.
"Excellent! Those materials are vital to the success of Operation Upgrade. Well then, Captain, it's been a long day, and I'd like to retire."
Ansehlm showed Barker out, locking the inner office door behind them. His secretary had already left for the evening. As they stepped out onto the porch, sergeant Cain ran up, panting.
"Sir! Jax caught an intruder, sir!"
"Well, well," Barker said. "My faith in your security is rising. Gentlemen, I bid you good night," and he departed for his quarters.
"Lead the way, sergeant," Ansehlm ordered.
The two men hurried to the guardhouse, where they found a disheveled man in nondescript clothes seated at the only table, hands bound in front of him. A bluish-black bruise had formed around his left eye. Jax leaned back against the wall in the corner of the room, with a self-satisfied air.
"Jax, well done."
Jax simply inclined her head in acknowledgement, and strolled out into the night.
"Who are you, and who are you working for?" Ansehlm demanded.
"I'm Sidney. I work for Brink. Please don't hurt me!"
"Brink?" Ansehlm queried Cain. "Why does that name sound familiar?"
"Local trader, sir. Introduced coffee."
"Ah, yes. Of course."
"That's right!" the man exclaimed. "I'm a trader! We heard there was someone setting up a place here, and we were hoping to make a deal to bring in supplies! Maybe an exclusive deal?" he finished, hopefully.
"You know, sir, he might be telling the truth."
"Possibly, possibly," Ansehlm muttered. "Lock him up for the night, sergeant. We'll get to the bottom of this in the morning."
Ansehlm marched out of the guardhouse and to his own quarters. Barker was right, it had been a long day, and he was looking forward to getting some sleep.
In spite of his tiredness, he lay awake for several hours pondering the day's events. First, there was the problem of Jax. She showed a lot of promise, but what was the best way to harness that potential? It seemed the girl chafed under authority, but left to her own devices, was a formidable asset. Perhaps she would be better suited to one of the covert commands, and maybe, eventually, full induction into the organisation.
In the almost-dark, he examined the tattoo on his right wrist. It was a long and strange road he'd travelled to get to this point, and he hoped in the end it would be worth it.
Barker's presence was always unsettling. The two men had been rivals almost since they first joined up. Ansehlm had no idea what 'Operation Upgrade' was, but Barker seemed to be quite obsessive about it. Safer not to ask.
Then there was the detainee. Spy, or innocent trader? No way to tell, yet. Tomorrow would be time enough.
Ansehlm was just starting to dream, when he was woken by an insistent banging on the door of his quarters. Quickly pulling on his breaches, he opened the door to find a panicking sergeant Cain.
"This better be good, sergeant!"
"The prisoner, sir! He's escaped!"
"Oh, bloody hell!"
Ansehlm grabbed his tunic and rushed to the guardhouse. One guard as slumped over the table, and the other was stretched out on the floor. Both were unconscious. The cell door was wide open, with a fist-sized hole where the lock had been. It looked like it had somehow been shattered, like glass.
Ansehlm pointed at the lock. "How could that have happened?" he asked.
"No idea, sir," Cain panted in reply.
"Sound the alarm and start a search," Ansehlm ordered. "Report when you've found anything. I'll be in my office." He whirled, and stalked out into the night.
The alarm gong sounded before he was halfway there, and Barker caught up with him just as he reached out for the outer office's door handle. Ansehlm cursed under his breath.
"What's going on?" Barker demanded.
"The prisoner escaped," Ansehlm replied, tersely.
"My cargo!" Barker exclaimed, and raced off again. Ansehlm sighed in relief. At least he'd be spared the torture of the man's company.
He fished the key to the inner office out of his pocket, and reached for the lock - but there was no lock there, only a gaping, sharp-edged hole, just like the guardroom cell door. He entered the office, lit the lamp, and quickly scanned the room. As he knew it would be, the envelope was missing from his desk.
Cain burst in just as Ansehlm tiredly eased himself into his chair. Cain gaped at the hole in the door, then saluted.
"Sir, I'm sorry, but we haven't found anything yet."
Ansehlm sighed. "That report a few months ago, from the collapse of Operation Doppelganger. There was mention of a cell door that was broken open, just like these ones were. There was something else, too - elves? Silver haired elves… but it could have been dyed…"
"Sir? I don't understand."
" Jax, sergeant. We were set up."
Ansehlm was saved from Cain's incomprehension by the arrival of Barker. The visiting Captain slumped down in a chair, and sighed in relief.
"Well, the wagon and its cargo are fine."
"But the preliminary plans are gone," Ansehlm replied, bitterly.
Barker waved it aside. "They were just preliminary, after all. They can still be changed. We escaped a greater disaster here, tonight. Thankfully, they were probably ignorant of what I'm escorting."
"Lucky for you," Ansehlm thought, "but Arctus will probably have my head."
Sideline glanced up from his position, seated against a tree, as Jadia returned from the nearby stream, towelling her hair dry after washing the dye out. The false scar and tan were gone, melted away under the touch of Undine magic. Altering her hair was beyond her skills, however, and had required a cruder means of disguise.
"You missed a bit," Sideline commented.
"I decided to leave the tips red," Jadia replied. "What do you think?"
"Actually, I think it looks good. But your mother will have a fit."
"I'm leaving it, anyway."
Sideline shrugged. Flynn and Moonshadow could deal with their daughter's little bit of teenage rebellion, but he wasn't brave enough to get involved.
"Why'd you get me to give you that awful black eye, anyway?" Jadia asked
"Disguise. Just like yours, only more subtle. Give someone something prominent to look at, and the general features get lost in the background. With luck, none of those guys will have any idea what I really look like."
"Oh. There's one more thing I don't understand," Jadia mused. "Since we stole their plans, and they know we stole their plans, won't they just change them?"
"Sure, but that wasn't the point. I wanted to get more of an idea of how they operate, and the material we've got now will give some insight into that."
"OK, fine. As long as you're happy. Me, I'm just glad of any chance to get back at those guys for what they did to Dad. It was fun - and nobody got hurt!"
Sideline leaned back against a tree, closed his eyes and nodded. That was precisely the attitude he'd counted on when he'd recruited Jadia for this little operation.
"There," Trinias said, pointing to an otherwise unimpressive spot in the jungle below their hilltop vantage point.
"Got it," Sideline replied, peering through a long tube with a piece of curved glass at each end - one of Wolmark's many inventions.
"Now, we wait."
The two men made themselves comfortable, while maintaining a clear view of the point of interest.
"Explain all this to me again," Trinias said.
"Simple enough," Sideline replied, "it's all about diversion. That was Jadia's part, and she carried it out perfectly. Thinking that all we were after was the plans, they felt safe enough to carry on with the wagon, which you followed here."
"But I could have followed the wagon anyway, even without the diversion."
"Yes, but then we couldn't have replaced the cargo."
"Oh, so that's what those packages you had me toss over the fence to you were."
"Right. And the ones I tossed back are now safely back where they belong, in the first-degree hall at the Magesterium."
"So what are we waiting for, again?"
There was a sudden puff of smoke from the location they were watching, followed a few seconds later by a loud thunderclap.
"That," Sideline replied, with some satisfaction. "And so passes the renegade school for mages."
"What happened?" Trinias gaped. "Were the packages booby trapped?"
"I had the mages at Pnyx cook up some replacement books, containing spells that were designed to, shall we say, wreak havoc. The spells themselves were the booby trap - they blew themselves up when they tried to use them. Hopefully, that'll make them think twice before starting something else here, in Cythera."
"What if your plan had failed, or you were caught?"
"Then aside from everything else you did, you were Plan B."
"Plan B? What was that?"
Sideline grinned. "Thankfully, neither of us had to find out."
In a dark room in Cademia, secretive men secretively met.
"It seems our observer here is doing rather more than merely observing," one said.
"Indeed, he seems to more suit the role of 'agent provocateur'."
"Is that going to be a problem? Will we need to take action?"
"I think not. This may yet work to our advantage - and remember, he's a native of this land. That may prove a far better screen for our activities against the Blade here than we could possibly have foreseen - or even hoped."
"I hope you're right. Still, even if he falls, all is not lost. Joran, what do you say? You've had more experience here than anyone else."
The third man leaned forward into the dim lamplight. "For now, it's very good for us indeed. Another Blade plot has been foiled, with no involvement from us whatsoever. In fact, this model of recruitment may well be worth exploring on other worlds. But we must take pains to distance ourselves, just in case." He stood up, effectively bringing the meeting to a close. "There must be no more Draco lives lost, if it can possibly be avoided. There are too many dead, already."
He snuffed out the lantern.
Jehezekel_bot last edited by
CrazyChick_bot last edited by
Wooh! Scary! I reckon if you wrote more like that, you could get it published or something!
Fantastic! I agree with CrazyChick—you could be an author.
Dark Jet_bot last edited by
Great read, and nice writing style