We descended the mountain the next day after the army broke camp. Their organization was superb and precise, and we were ready to go in under an hour. Again, I was impressed with the way the officers maintained harsh discipline and cruel efficiency among the ranks of the workers. As an officer, I couldn't condone this behavior, although it fit the pattern they were presenting to me. The more I observed, the more I was of the opinion that the officers were trained to be inhuman and to treat others as if they were nothing but animals. This was surely the work of Chaos.
We didn't have far to go before we reached a small bay. There were a dozen boats pulled up on shore, but I didn't see a single sail or oar to any of them. Instead, on the back of each boat was lashed an odd metal device. The men loaded their gear into the boats while each officer stepped into one boat. We were told to take a seat in each of the boats, and we shoved off.
The officer in my boat flipped a switch on the metal device in back and pulled at a cord. A loud ripping roar sounded, then the device growled like an angry bear. The officer flipped another switch and held firmly on to a lever. The boat began to speed forward against the wind and rolling surf.
Ingenious! I was amazed at the advanced nature of their magick, and their ability to manipulate forces to spare men from a labor which would surely break their backs, yet move slower than we were. The sun had risen to the third hour by the time we reached a ship larger than any war vessel I had ever seen. It was made of steel and had neither sail nor oar, like the smaller boats. I wondered how it stayed afloat, and decided that their magick must be extremely advanced. However, I remembered Stu complaining about a problem with magick in this world, and wondered at it. Perhaps these people used up most of the available magick for their tools, leaving less for mages like Stu to draw on. I put this thought in the back of my mind to ask him later.
We boarded the new ship and were quickly shown small staterooms where we could stow our gear and make ourselves comfortable. Everything rocked and swayed with the waves and tide, and I found the whole thing a little unsettling. I kept expecting this vast metal monster to capsize and sink. After I'd put everything away, I sat and meditated for a little while until the uneasiness went away. Someone came and knocked on my door, calling out in their foreign, gutteral language. I went and opened the door.
One of the lesser soldiers was talking to me in spite of the fact that I couldn't understand him, and was gesturing for me to follow. I nodded and gestured for him to lead the way. We walked through a few corridors near the edge, heading toward the stern.
We passed Stu leaning over the railing making pathetic wrenching sounds.
"Do you need a cleric, Sir Mage?" I asked lightly. He could only glare at me helplessly before another bout of sickness overcame him. Of the magicians I've known, few liked to travel. I thought it had something to do with the nature of their calling, but every mage I've ever suggested it to glared at me and stomped off in a huff.
I figured I was probably right.
We traveled by this boat for a several days and some of the friendlier soldiers began to teach us a few words of their language. We learned that this vessel belonged to the Argentinians, a people friendly to the soldiers. It was crewed by swarthy, friendly sailors whose language differed greatly from the soldiers. It was slow going, and I've never had much of a talent for tongues. However, there was little else to pass the time, and although it impressed them to watch, I could only run through sword forms and drills so many times in a day.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the ship came to a stop. I doubt I would have noticed except for the sudden silence where there had been a constant humming and throbbing from what they called the engine room. I came out of my cabin to find all the soldiers running about shouting and preparing for something. I asked with my limited command of their language, "What's happening?"
One of the more genial soldiers paused long enough to shout something unintelligible before hurrying on. I had no idea what he meant by this, and went in search of the others.
Chance was up at the bow, and half of our group was there with him. He looked at me and waved for me to join them. "I haven't been able to talk to anyone to find out what's going on, but we're apparently going to leave this ship," he told me once I was in earshot.
I looked around. All I could see was an endless expanse of ocean. "Leave? To where? There's nowhere to go!"
"I know, but they apparently have some sort of plan. All of the soldiers have been packing up. I suggest we do the same."
I nodded and left to get ready. Fortunately, I didn't have much to gather. When I got back to the group, everyone had arrived and was packed. Bethany was looking distinctly pale, and I doubted she had Stu's problem.
Elizabeth pointed and cried out, "There!" We followed her gaze and saw a great metal beast rise up out of the water. My hand went to my sword hilt unconsciously, but I released it when I saw a hatch open and men climb out of the tower at the top of the beast. They wore different uniforms than the soldiers, but they had much the same bearing. It seemed that our new transport had arrived. I shuddered at the thought of travelling beneath the water.
The metal beast slowly circled the boat and maneuvered close to the port side. A line was cast from our ship to the metal fish, and soldiers began to offload equipment before they themselves boarded the fish. A small detachment approached to take us with them. I shook my head, and Bethany joined me. "I'd rather travel where I can see the sky," I said, although they couldn't understand me. We chattered back and forth to each other hopelessly until the officer in charge barked something at Chance and turned away.
"Well, what did he say?" Bethany demanded.
"He said we can either go with them now, or suffer the consequences," Chance replied. He gave an eloquent shrug and quickly followed the officer. Everyone else joined him, leaving only Bethany and I standing at the bow alone.
I looked at her. She had the look of a deer in pursuit by wolves. Then her body began to dissolve until she reformed into a small rock. I picked her up, and discovered she weighed much more than an ordinary rock would at this size. I joined the others a little slower, burdened with the extra weight under one arm.
We crammed into the small metal confines of the strange vessel with some discomfort. Crewmen showed us to bunks, which we would share with common soldiers. They bade us to not wander around too much, but otherwise make ourselves comfortable, as it was to be a long journey. A few minutes later red lights appeared overhead, and what was obviously a siren came on. We looked at each other nervously, but there was nothing we could do. We were trapped. A severe jolt rocked the ship under our feet, and a hissing noise drifted away until there was only silence. Then I made out what had to be an explosion far away. I looked at the others in horror.
"What did they . . . ?"
Chance listened to the excited conversations of the crew. "They fired something they call a torpedo," he translated. "Probably destroyed the other ship." He had a grim look on his face.
"Who are these butchers?" I whispered.
"Why? What be the matter?" Siralos demanded.
"We think they just destroyed the ship we came from," Stu replied. "There were still a lot of people on that boat."
"They dinna want evidence o' us ta reach anyone else," Dukoth muttered. "It's as if were ta be ghosts ta this world."
I nodded mutely. I prayed to Klia to accept the souls of the innocent men aboard the doomed ship.
It was three weeks before we saw land again. We saw daylight infrequently, but the vessel mostly ran on the surface of the water instead of underneath. Chance inquired and told us that this was to save their batteries which powered the ship once we were submerged. I thought I was going to go mad from idleness, and I know that few of the others were any better. Bethany, for instance, never moved out of her rock form. The exceptions were Stu and Chance, who took the opportunity to browse through musty old tomes and books throughout their waking hours. I noticed Dukoth had a curious interest in those books, although I don't know if he had an opportunity to actually read them. I thought it odd that a thief would be interested in magical tomes, but I didn't waste much energy worrying about it.
The ship itself was large compared to what I was familiar with, but it was so full of machines and people that the confines were stifling. It also stank of odd grease, oil and unwashed humanity. I took every opportunity I could get to stand on the surface, as did most everyone. It appeared that this privilege was mostly enjoyed by ranking officers, although they made us welcome. However, on an infrequent basis we were rushed below decks and would dive beneath the surface of the seas. After the third time I began to watch the skies to see if I could spot magickal watching devices, and on two occasions I noticed high-flying birds with odd shapes drifting overhead. As soon as they were noticed by our hosts, we would be sent below. When I remarked on this to Chance, I realized they were odd in that their wings never moved. They also seemed large enough to be rocs, but didn't act like them. I don't know if Chance inquired about them or not, as he never told me.
At the end of the third week, excitement rippled through the ship. With my growing command of the language, I discovered that we were near land, and would shortly be arriving at a port city that was near their home. I was overjoyed; I wanted out of this stinking metal trap. My companions were similarly pleased.
We were able to see much of the world we had been cast into, and I found it pleasingly rustic. There were odd magickal carriages they called "automobiles" here and there, but mostly I saw men on horses and carriages, tilling farms or transporting goods to some local market. The homes looked sturdy and pleasing, and there was an abundance of life everywhere. It felt like home. We were bidden to stay below more often, as if they didn't want people to see us. I asked for and received clothing which allowed me to blend in a little more easily, so I could go above without as much worry. I was still very large in comparison, but it was nothing to make me stand out as anything other than what I looked: one of their own. They were pleased by this request, and one of the officers stood by while another man took my measurements. I later discovered that special alterations had to be made to their uniforms to accommodate me, but the officer felt that it would be good for our (and his) image. I was counting on this, and was trying to think of a way to use it to my advantage. Even this close to home, when the most hardened officers would relax their standards a little, these men were driven as if their every act could bring hellfire down upon their heads.
We made port in a large city they called "Bremerhaven." A large crowd had turned out to cheer our arrival, and we were quickly rushed through the crowd into smaller versions of the "automobiles" I had seen on our journey here. The going was difficult, as the crowd was closely packed and yearned for any sight or touch of us they could get. Eventually, we made our way through and moved at dizzying speeds along a series of streets between tall stone buildings. I was amazed by the architecture. The city had no fortifying walls, yet appeared to be a major military center. Even the Ebony Keep couldn't match this splendour, and I was told that these were rather ordinary structures. The roads were remarkably well-kept, being of cobblestone. The newer buildings looked like long solid slabs of stone. The word they used was "concrete," but didn't elaborate further. Some of the buildings had large, graphic paintings on the outside walls, many of them depicted war scenes and official-looking representatives whom I took to be their leaders. There were scenes of workers in factories. Most of them bore images of extremely good-looking, muscular men defending a home land, holding back an unknown ominous enemy.
The automobiles stopped in front of an exceptionally tall building, and they bade us to go inside. It was an inn, but an inn the likes of which I'd never seen before. The floor was tiled with marble, and great stone pillars supported the ceiling with ornamentation the Emperor might have commissioned. Our guides called it "adequate," until better could be made ready.
We climbed into a metal box they called a "luft" to reach the top levels of the building. An old man worked a metal lever which, when moved, caused the box to go up. We were shown separate rooms and bid to rest the night, and all our needs would be cared for. The room I was shown to was luxurious, and the view from the window indicated that we were high in the air, possibly higher than the tallest spire of the Ebony Keep. I noted a lantern on a table that didn't have a candle (I didn't know what to make of the small glass thing inside, except that it reminded me of a crystal and I didn't touch it) and a picture on the wall that showed a mighty river passing through a forest. The next day we would be presented to the leaders of the land. I slept uneasily.
The morning broke with a parade. I looked out my window and squinted against the sunlight until my eyes slowly adjusted. Dozens of feet below, I discovered that the people of the city had turned out in force to greet us. Many banners and placards were hoisted, and people were shouting and cheering in a deafening roar. From the faces and attitudes I saw, they didn't look angry. Nevertheless, this had an artificial flavor to it. I saw brown-shirted youths and blue garbed men moving through the crowds, prompting some of the cheering.
A stout, blond and busty serving wench knocked at the door a little while later to inform me that our presence was requested at breakfast. She carried my altered uniform in her arms. After waiting for me to dress in another room, she led me to the luft where a nervous young man pushed the lever that started us in a controlled descent. The way the serving wench was eyeing me made me wonder precisely how far these people were planning to go to care for my needs. I was a little too wary to desire female companionship at this time.
I was among the first of our group to arrive at breakfast, but old, stern men in strict uniforms were already seated. They looked at me appraisingly and spoke amongst themselves. I saw them nodding and caught the word "soldier" in the conversation. I realized they were comparing me to a high-quality painting of me they had propped up against a far wall. It was eerie for two reasons: the speed in which it had been completed without my knowledge, and its the exactness in detail. The oils were only black and white, but it still impressed me. It seemed they wanted to use me as the image for their outdoor paintings.
I asked if these were the leaders of the land and they roared with laughter.
"Not yet," was the reply. There was a delay of some sort, something about a royal monarch in a neighboring kingdom had abdicated to marry his love. I had never heard of such a precedence, and it appeared that they hadn't, either. The meeting would happen some days from now; until then we would be guests. Once the others arrived we ate, and the breakfast was unusual yet filling.
We spent several days like this, being shown off to different officers and asked to demonstrate our talents. The only person whom they didn't treat well (by her opinion) was Elisabeth, although I'm sure they meant well. These people had obviously never met a halfling before, and they mistook her for a child. This was enough to make Elisabeth bare her teeth (as it would most halflings I've known), but to make matters worse I came to understand that they thought her an idiot. There was talk of fitting her with a dress bespeckled with colorful ribbons. She was decidedly unhappy with this prospect, and I didn't know how long her temper would hold, so I kept near her.
Not quite a week after we arrived, we were told in the morning to prepare ourselves for an important banquet held in our honor by their native prince. It was to be a formal affair, so I made sure the dress uniform they had prepared for me was ready. That only took a few minutes, so I went down to the gymnasium for exercise.
I was used to a lot of attention from the soldiers and officers, so I made sure to schedule my exercise when there wasn't going to be a crowd. This time, it seemed that everyone was there to watch me. I went through my warm-up slowly, stretching my muscles carefully. I was still fairly sore from the abuse of recent; I had never been so close to dying before, let alone twice.
When I began my run around the room, many of the younger men fell into step behind me. It appeared that they wanted to test themselves against the new standard that I represented. As we ran, I noticed several disapproving looks from the officers, and realized that I was being set up for a test. Maybe it was because of this that I pushed myself a little harder this day, ran a little farther and a little faster. By the time I finally stopped, drenched with sweat, there were only two men still with me, and they dropped to the floor utterly exhausted. However, there were smiles on their faces and their speech (not quite as unintelligible) was friendly. We clasped hands and parted on good terms.
I spent twice as long running through cool-down exercises, and my body screamed at me through every step. What I wanted more than anything was to stand underneath their marvelous magick water streams and soak up every erg of heat they produced. However, I was only halfway through my exercise, and I wasn't going to cut it short under the eyes of the officers. Therefore, I picked up my sword and began to step through the forms with slow, deliberate motions. I regretted the lack of pells to practice against, but the forms would do for now. Moving slowly forced my body to handle the weight of the blade and maintain my poses longer, which would build back my strength. It wasn't long before the sweat was streaming from my brow and the veins were popping out under my skin. I kept it up until I couldn't stand it any longer, and sheathed my blade to prepare for the final cool-down before I went to clean up.
As I drove the sword home in its sheath, one of the officers stepped forward and spoke simply to me. "Are you good with that?" he asked, pointing to the sword.
Very subtle of him. I shrugged and replied haltingly, "I am good enough."
He stood up straight and grinned at me. "I am the champion -" I didn't know the word he used. "- of my school. Will you duel with me?" The pride in his voice and bearing of his stance told me that he considered me an inferior, and was deliberately provoking me. I decided I would play his game.
"I will." I picked up my blade and walked out to the center of the room. He gestured imperiously and called for his own sword. The weapon they brought him was a thin saber, and very fast. He would have the advantage of speed over me, even with my skill. I was counting on the fact that I had forced myself to move slowly through my forms, and he would not be expecting the speed I could produce. I waited until he was ready before I drew my sword. "I thank you for the honor of learning from you, and hope the lesson will not be too painful." He promised to be easy with me.
He saluted me solemnly with his blade, and I returned it. Then we both settled into alert stances. He chose a classic fencing pose, while I held my sword low and to the side. A brief moment passed while we shuffled back and forth, gauging each other's defenses, then launched attacks at the same time. I felt the tip of his saber slash along my shoulder as I shifted to one side, then I watched the edge of my blade dance across his forearm to open a wide gash. He dropped his saber with a gasp and cradled his arm. Half a dozen men dashed out to him to help bind the wound. Most of them stared at me in shock as I cleaned my blade and returned it to its sheath, then walked off to dress my own wound before standing under their miracle of hot water. I was insufferably pleased with myself to have returned some of the suffering on him that I knew he enjoyed inflicting on others.
That evening I knocked on Elisabeth's door before I preened in the hall mirror. She wrenched open the door and glared at me. "Well, aren't you just the prettiest thing? I suppose you have all the women falling over themselves to share your bed."
I stopped adjusting my collar and turned to face her. My reply was stopped short by the sight of her costume: they had given her the frilly dress they had threatened her with, and done her short hair up in pigtails. The result was perfectly horrendous, and I couldn't blame her for her foul mood. "Who's idea was this?" I asked.
"How am I supposed to know? All I know is that this female troll barged into my room without so much as a by-your-leave and wrestled me into this stupid dropcloth! If I hadn't promised Bethany not to kill anyone, I would have tossed the woman out the window as soon as she arrived." Elisabeth pulled at one of the ribbons in her hair, and it came undone swiftly. She stared at the strip of bright cloth in her hand for a moment, then pulled at the other one so her hair was back to normal. "Gods, how have these people survived, treating grown women like this?" She tossed the strips into a nearby wastebasket before walking toward the luft and pressing the button to call for the device.
"I'm sure I don't know," I replied honestly. I figured it would be prudent to keep my mouth shut on the way down.
The dinner party was terminally boring. The food was passable, but most everything was set out in bite-sized portions that failed to do more than whet my appetite. Many things were described to me as "rich," "tasty" and "luxuriant," but I failed to appreciate any of them. Marisa, Chance, Bethany and I huddled in a corner and spoke quietly among ourselves.
"I'll bet they think shoving pins up their asses is great fun. All they talk about is how superior they are and how they're going to walk up to every nation of the world and take over with impunity," Bethany said with her mouth full of something I found absolutely foul. She called it "caviar."
"Who are they?" Marisa asked, glancing over her shoulder. "What gives them their delusions of grandeur?"
"Whoever they are, they're butchers one and all," Chance said. "I overheard them talking about some of the things they've done to the Jews they told us about before. They treat them like they aren't real people! Their leader wants to kill them all for the 'purity' of the race, he says. It's disgusting."
I took a sip of the thin wine I had poured for myself, and shook my head. "Not all of them, Chance. A lot of them, and most of the older officers, but not all of them." I related the earlier events of the day.
Chance laughed out loud. "Serves him right! I hate to say it, but these idiots could make me rethink my beliefs about peaceful resolutions."
Marisa waved her hand to shush him. "Be careful! Your translation amulet works both ways, you know. Keep your voice down."
I nodded my agreement with her. "Everything that I saw when we first met this army has been reinforced by what I see now. I've never seen such discipline in the ranks, even when they're off-duty. They're not as individually impressive as most of the men I've served with, but they're more numerous and they're organized well enough to face down any army I can think of. Any attempt to confront them directly and we're likely to become worm meat very quickly."
Bethany gave an eloquent snort of derision. "I really don't think these buffoons are capable of hurting anything more than themselves. They're all wind and pretty words, but they never actually do anything."
Chance and Marisa both stared at her incredulously but she forged ahead recklessly. I'm sure my expression was no less comical. "I mean, just the other day this precious little boy approached me with flowers and tried to give them to me, and had them snatched out of his hands by an officer. The officer then tried to tell me that he had ordered the boy to fetch the flowers for him to give to me. Of course I didn't dispute him, but then someone else tried to give me candy, and the whole day it was just one bit of nonsense after another. These men don't have the brains to be dangerous."
I couldn't decide if Bethany's meandering was a genuine display of naivete or a thinly veiled attempt at fishing for a compliment. Either way I excused myself after making what I hoped were appropriately consoling noises and made my escape.
I found the two dwarves huddled together in a corner, but from the black looks on their faces, I decided I would find better company elsewhere. Stu and Duragan appeared to be engaged in heated conversation with some important-looking official or another, and I had no wish to get drawn into whatever it was. The half-breed, Orthad was nowhere to be seen. It then occurred to me that I hadn't seen Elisabeth since we'd come down.
A loud shout, followed by the crash of breaking plates told me what I had been afraid of: Elisabeth had finally lost her temper. I hurried over to the scene to find her holding the collar of a young, well-dressed man whose nose she had bloodied. "If one more overdressed clown calls me a little girl again, I promise I'll kick your teeth so hard you'll be chewing with your ass!"
Several guards were leveling their guns, but unwilling to shoot for fear of endangering the man she held captive. I quickly interposed myself between Elisabeth and the guards. "Elisabeth, stop! You're going to get us all killed!"
"So what?" she spat vehemently. "At this point I'm so fed up with the whole charade I'd rather die in battle than be humiliated like this again!"
"We have more important things to accomplish than appease your vanity," Chance said from behind me. "We have to get back to find the next Artifact if we're to have any hope of accomplishing our mission. Assaulting their royal Heir Apparent isn't going to help."
A swift chill ran through my body as I contemplated possible consequences of threatening a member of their Royal House. Had we been back among the Dornali, the perpetrator would have been lanced through the feet and hung upside-down from the Ebony Keep until the carrion birds stripped his flesh to the bone.
Elisabeth continued to grumble and glare at the young Heir, but attempted no further attacks. I offered my hand and she took it, so we left the room quickly under the watchful stares of the guards. I saw knuckles whitening as I passed, and I breathed a prayer to Hythalia to stay their hands.
Whether Hythalia was in a good mood or Elisabeth's crime didn't warrant immediate punishment, I'll never know. In either case, we were allowed to pass unmolested and we retired to our private rooms.
"It might be wise to remain unseen for the next few days," I advised as she opened her door. "We have no idea how these men are going to react to you now. It's best not to tempt fate."
Her face darkened, and she opened her mouth to protest, but then stopped and sighed deeply. "I suppose I should have controlled myself better. Sensei always said my temper was out of balance, and would ultimately be my downfall. Thank you, Amagor, for your help."
I smiled and knelt beside her. "My pleasure, Little One. Let's see if we can't watch out for each other." I kissed her hand as if she were a lady of high birth, and continued on to my room. I am an old, ugly soldier, but even soldiers such as I know when a compliment is needed. I looked forward to a good night's rest.