I awoke– No, I hadn’t slept, of course. I became aware of Stanley, standing in front of me. I had been sitting at my desk since Zedda had left, worrying. The pain in my shoulder, which I had thought I would bear for the rest of my existence, was gone; and I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not. I couldn’t tell if Zedda had intended it, or if was an unforeseen side effect of his punishment. I couldn’t think of a reason why he would need me free of pain; but I didn’t dare think that it was an accident.
And then there had been the dream, sent to me by Lord Baera. As always, I couldn’t remember the details. But, I knew I had been scolded for calling out Zedda, and warned that it would be dangerous for me. But I knew that my Lord would be upset when I chose to send Irene to him. It was a calculated risk; I knew that Zedda might decide to destroy me, but he might also turn his powers against the forces that were already trying to destroy me. Whatever they were.
I had almost sent Stanley, instead. Perhaps I should have. Irene had been … hurt, by her encounter with Zedda. I truly didn’t blame her for lashing out at me; it was no worse than how I blamed myself. That young girl, having to confront the ultimate reality that is death’s own sting, the destruction known as Zedda…
But… she survived. I wasn’t sure that Stanley would have. He’s a good boy, and obedient, but he has a terrible temper. And a lack of respect, towards Zedda, is never a good thing.
Well, mostly obedient. I was fairly sure I had sent him home, along with everyone else. Cymphica Atri should be empty of all but me until tomorrow morning. Unless it was already tomorrow morning, of course. I glanced over at my screen, to check the date and time; it was still the same evening, though later than I had thought. Naturally; contact with the higher existence of my Lord tended to distort things.
“Boss, are you OK?” Stanley looked worried. Setting aside his temperament, Stanley Kurro was a smart young man. His parents, whom I had never met, had died while he was still quite young, and thus he grew up in one of the orphanages that I maintain. He was diligent, persevering, and unafraid of anyone else, no matter their status or background. Left on his own, he might have quickly run afoul of some of the more ruthless figures in this city, but fortunately, I noticed his abilities and quickly offered him a place in my organization; and he had never given me reason to regret that choice. I trusted his loyalty like few others. It was merely a pity that he didn’t have a little more common sense.
“I am fine, Stanley,” I finally replied to the boy. “Why are you here? I’m certain I asked you to return home for the day.”
The young man flushed a little, but straightened up with a stubborn expression. “I… thought you might need some help,” he said. “They came gunning for you again, after all…”
I smiled, but shook my head. “I assure you, I’m fine, Stanley. And we can’t be sure the assassin was meant for me, you know. Zedda has plenty of enemies himself; I can’t think of anyone who would actually wish for his presence.”
Stanley snorted. “That’s for sure. The cops were certainly in a hurry to get him off the street.”
“What!?” I jumped to my feet. “The police took Zedda?”
“Yeah,” answered Stanley, looking surprised at my reaction. “Grabbed him right on False Main, and marched off toward old CS24. He didn’t even try to get away.”
“Schirch,” I swore in my native tongue. “I told Cross not to provoke him. The last thing this city needs right now is a massacre in a Civil Station.”
“What? A massacre?” Stanley looked confused. “The guy didn’t look that dangerous.”
“Stanley,” I said dryly, “according to you, no one looks dangerous. I assure you, Zedda is the most personally dangerous being you will ever meet.”
“If you say so, Boss, but he didn’t look too tough after a few Deathkiller rounds…” said Stanley, with another stubborn look plastered across his face. I sighed, slightly, and seated myself again.
“He has been … out of touch … for nearly a century, Stanley. He had no idea those bullets were dangerous to him, and so he didn’t bother to defend himself at all. If he had…” I shrugged. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what Zedda would have done; but I was certain he had any number of countermeasures. He had lived for over a millennia, after all; I was certain that he would not be easily disposed of. “You might notice that, even after having his torso almost entirely destroyed, he still routed the assassin quite easily? Simple physical damage would barely slow him down.”
“Hmph. I guess so,” grumbled Stanley, obviously discontent. “So, did you figure out who the assassin was from?”
“Not yet,” I said, frowning. “I sent Shen after him, but he hasn’t reported back yet. Either he’s still chasing the cyborg, or he’s doing some sort of follow-up.”
“Or the cyborg might have tagged him,” Stanley responded grimly.
“No,” I said firmly, glancing at Serpent’s Grace, “at the very least he hasn’t been injured.”
Stanley must have caught the glance, because he looked surprised. “That thing can tell you that, too?”
“Serpent’s Grace has a great many functions,” I said, slightly proudly. “It was my great fortune that it found me compatible.”
“Huh,” he said, visibly impressed. “I thought it was just some sort of agility enhancer, or maybe a weapon.”
“All of that and more,” I agreed. “In this case, for people with a certain profile, it can connect with them, and grant them a small measure of its power. In return, I can always tell approximately where they are, and if they are hurt. A number of my top agents are bound to Serpent’s Grace. Sadly, not all of them are; there are certain requirements that must be met.”
“Aww.” Stanley looked depressed. “Why not?”
“Attitude plays a big part,” I explained, wryly.
“Huh? What’s wrong with my attitude?” he said angrily. I had the urge to giggle, but quickly repressed it.
“You’re fine the way you are, Stanley. Serpent’s Grace just requires people with… subtlety, that’s all.”
“Hey, I can be subtle if I need to,” pouted the young man. I had to laugh, and he flushed again at my gentle mockery. “Well, I don’t usually need to be, right?”
“That’s right,” I said gently. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Right,” he said triumphantly, like he had just won an argument. I shook my head slightly, before returning to my explanation.
“In any event, because of Chen’s unique abilities, I cannot actually seek out his location even with the Grace, but I can still determine whether he is injured. And he is currently fine, so I expect I will be hearing from him soon.”
“Well, that’s good,” said Stanley. “He’s kinda a creepy guy, but I’ve gotten used to him hanging around, y’know?”
“I don’t think he’s particularly creepy. Are you afraid of him?” I asked with concern. Shen was unusual, but I didn’t want him to be bullied because of his unfortunate origins.
“Of course I’m not afraid of him,” retorted Stanley, flushing with anger. “It’s just messed up how he can be standing right next to you without you noticing, that’s all! Hell, he’s not nearly as creepy as that Zedda guy, right?”
“Not nearly as dangerous, either,” I replied, slightly relieved. “I want Shen to have a home here in my organization. He’s had a hard life, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I read the report you gave me, after all.” Stanley sneered with distaste. “Those bastards in Derrick are bad enough, but those self-righteous cretins in Reflorin… Damn, is there anything those pricks won’t do?”
“Hm. Their predecessors were worse, you know.”
“Huh? Who were they?” asked Stanley, curiously.
I sighed. “That country… About three hundred years ago, they were known as the Cardimai, followers of the god Cardima. That god had a particularly nasty personality, and it reflected in its followers. Through various necromantic means, they turned their leaders into liches, and their citizens into ghouls, attempting to make an undead kingdom that would last for all eternity…”
“Yuck,” commented Stanley. “What happened to them?”
“Zedda happened to them,” I said solemnly.
“Zedda purged their leadership and priesthood, and scoured the believers of Cardima, for three full decades. It completely traumatized the survivors, and fairly directly led to their conversion to the worship of Daivirt.”
“The Holy Eagle,” said Stanley, grimly. “So that was his fault, huh?”
I shrugged. “You could put it that way, I suppose. I believe he wouldn’t have been so excessive, if Cardima and his brood hadn’t been so prolific. And I’d much rather coexist with Daivirt than Cardima.”
“Why? Cardima was an undead god, right? Wouldn’t he be better than a god that actively hunts you?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” I said with a sigh. “First of all, there is no such thing as an undead god. Cardima was a god of necromancy, among less savory things, and I have no fondness for necromancers. On the other hand, Daivirt is mainly a god of pursuit, without any particular prejudice as to what is pursued. It is his followers who decided to pursue the destruction of undead, that’s all.”
“Huh,” said Stanley, cocking his head. “Why do they call themselves a Holy Empire, then?”
“Because they are arrogant pricks,” I said firmly.
“Ah, got it.” The young man nodded in understanding.
“In any event, the Cardimai were certainly not the first to be wiped out by Zedda. For the most part, few were ever left to hold grudges, but he will occasionally draw attacks from those who believe that he will go after them, for whatever reason. It’s a foolish choice, drawing his attention; but perhaps they felt they had no other alternative.”
Stanley looked understandably skeptical. “That may be, Boss, but I had never heard of him before, and I get the feeling not many people have. It’s much more likely that the cyborg was gunning for you, y’know? You’ve gotta be more careful.”
“Don’t worry, Stanley,” I said soothingly. “I have no intention of sticking my neck out at this time. Certainly, I have no desire to interfere with Zedda’s investigation. That would be truly dangerous.”
“I just don’t get why you’re so hung up on that guy…” The young man started to complain once more, but trailed off after a moment as a thought seemed to hit him. He frowned, and slowly asked me, “Hey, Boss. You’re eight hundred years old, right?”
“Well, something like that. I’m a great deal younger than Zedda, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Nah, that isn’t it,” he denied. “I was just wondering… what happened to the country you grew up in?”
I looked at him with surprise. “That’s very perceptive, Stanley. Yes, Zedda destroyed it.”
Stanley winced, and started to apologize. “I’m sorry, Boss, I didn’t mean–”
“It doesn’t matter. They had it coming,” I interrupted him in a cold voice.
“Huh? So… you’re not angry at Zedda for killing you back then?” he asked. I blinked, before smiling slightly.
“Ah, no. You are mistaken. Zedda did not kill me. If anything, he avenged me,” I said wryly. “I was not his victim. I was killed as a sacrifice to our god. Atarain, the Ever-burning Flame.”
My office was silent for a while after that.
This one could have kept going for a while, so I divided it here. Stop chatting, you two! 😛