"Dark Stag" - Chapter 9


            He was one of the little mongrels running around town that I desperately tried to keep out of trouble! However, today was a bit different. My ass was on the line! He saw me, growing exited.
“Mercury!” He smiled, rushing over to give me a hug.
“Hey, Preston! How’ve you been? Keeping out of trouble?” I asked.
“Eh, ‘ve been trying but um… People are stupid.” He said scratching his head.
“Why?” I laughed, not expecting the response.
“Just, okay… I’ve been trying to do better, living in the shelter to stay off the streets. But not everyone in those shelters want better for themselves! A lot of my shit has gotten stolen, stuff I’ve actually worked for and you know how I get….” Preston said, those grey eyes expressing just how he felt!
“That’s definitely fucked up. Walk with me…” I said to him. He looked at me peculiarly.
“Don’t you have to go to work?” He asked.
“Yeah, but I still have an hour. Want something to eat?” I asked him.
“Sure.” He said, following. The boy could tell something was up, “How’ve you been?”
“Good, just busy... So,” I said, wanting to focus on his issues rather than mine for now, “Have you told the shelter supervisors what has been happening?”
“I have but you know, I don’t have the best history so it’s like trying to talk to a brick, pretty much. They just nod, say they’ll see what they can do about it and do absolutely nothing about it.” He said, “I’m just going to concentrate on saving up to get my own place. I’m worried that they’re gonna steal my money though…” This was a shock to me.
“You’re really are pushing for a change aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yeah. But I can’t have nice things! As soon as people learn you have money, they want it!” He said, seemingly shocked.
“Well I could have told you that.” I said, as we entered the vending market, “I’m in the mood for some crepes.”
“You always are…” Preston said, rolling his eyes.
“Don’t act like you’re not…” I laughed. A smile began to spread across his face.
“How’ve you been, Mercury?” Preston asked again.
“I told you good!” I said. He cocked his head, looking through me.
“Not so… I’ve known you since you first joined the Officer Academy. You’re… not!” He said.
“Damn, this is a long line…” I sighed, as we arrived at the pastry stand.
“Yep, all the more time you have to spill.” He said.
            Preston was like my little brother. Though he was a thief, and in some extremes even a murderer, he had a special place in my heart! No one looked out for him or his friends like I did so it was about time he returned the favor.
“I might be in trouble…” I sighed.
“Does it have something to do with that really bright skinned Illisian boy you were with the other day?” He asked.
“It has all to do with him… I was told that officials will be using tracking hounds to scent him. They could possibly scent him back to my location… I need someone to take out those hounds for me… do it without a trace.” I said.
“Damn, just throw this on me, will ya.” He said, not pleased, “This Illisian boy better be worth it!”
“He is!” I said, caring for Kijus deeply.
“You know I can’t do this, right?” He said. My eyes darted back and forth before landing on him.
“I didn’t ask you to…” I said back.
“But you were! I’m trying to stay out of trouble! You’ve been trying to keep me out of trouble since I was eleven! Why all of a sudden you want me to drop all I’ve been doing and risk my life over some stupid dogs?” He asked.
“Because I’m in this shit neck deep!” I said as the line moved up. Preston’s arms folded as those eyes began to pierce me.
“Why’d you do it?” He asked.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Why’d you go out of your way for that Illisian boy?” Preston wondered.
“I don’t know… He’s just… If you knew him, you would too.” I said back.
“I probably wouldn’t…” Preston said shaking his head, “I can’t believe you want me to revert back to my old ways over someone you haven’t known for long…”
“I’ve known him for a while!” I argued back.
“No you haven’t,” Preston said, again seeing straight through me, “A few months at best…”
“Okay, you’ve got me. I haven’t known him long… But I haven’t met a person like him!” I said in my defense.
“Are you two in love?” Preston asked, concern written all over his face.
“I don’t know… It’s complicated.” I shrugged.
“Where is this guy now?” Preston continued.
“He’s…” I began, unsure if I could trust Preston with this valuable amount of information. The boy folded his arms and rolled his eyes.
“Let me guess… you can’t tell me?” He said.
“Yeah, I can’t.” I said, feeling awful.
“You’re gonna get hurt fucking with him…”  Preston said, shaking his head. It made me look at him peculiarly.
“Why do you say this?” I asked.
“I don’t have to know much to see plainly that you’re in this neck deep in shit. Whatever it is, he’s gonna walk away from this and you’re gonna be the one with shit on your face…” He said.
“No, no! Kijus isn’t like that! He’s honest, naively so! All he has is his morals…” I said, defending him.
“I’m not talking about Kijus. I’m talking about everything else around you! He might not get you fucked up, but this place will.” Preston said, deeply worried.
“Well, if you don’t want to do it then that is fine…” I sighed.
“Oh no… I’m going to do it.” He smiled, “Killing some dogs sounds fun… Can I take a few shots at the officials too?”
“Try not to um… bring too much attention to yourself. I’d like you to stay alive.” I chuckled.
“What ever…” He said, just as we made it to the front of the line.
“Hi, what will you be having today sir?” The cashier asked, pen and notepad in hand.
“I’ll take a cinnamon brown sugar crepe with sweet cream cheese on the side.” I said, turning to face Preston, “And what about you?”
“I’m good…” He smiled cheaply, arms folded. They boy was obviously upset.
“Really…” I offered, looking at him with concern.
“I said I’m good…” He shrugged. I turned back to the cashier.
“That’ll be all.” I smiled. The cashier wrote down the order as I paid, “You know, I can never tell what you usually like… You switch it up so often…” There was no response, “Preston?” I said, turning around. The boy was gone.
            It made my heart twist. The boy was good at keeping his word, but it felt so damn wrong having him do this for me when he didn’t want to. He also was trying to change his ways for the better.  If anything happened to him because of this, it’d be devastating. I scanned the horizon for the boy seeing no signs of him. My pockets were still full so he didn’t steal anything. I wanted to search for him but I had little time. There was a lot to be done at work today.
            The walk to work was short. I entered the office seeing everyone busy on their grinds. Chief Loka was also just getting in. He smiled, always loving to see the officials busy.
“Good morning sir.” I said. He gave a delayed smile before nodding.
“Good morning.” He finally said back. It was strange but the man had a tough job. He was over the audit and inspection order which was a lot of paperwork.
            As soon as I sat down, my group supervisor plopped a huge heap of paperwork on my desk.
“Can I get comfortable first?” I asked.
“Sorry, we got a caravan coming in in a few days and we’re backed up. You do filing the best so…” He smiled, walking away.
“Fine…” I sighed, opening the folders. Sitting before me was all the paperwork we ran for the last audit, the audit that brought Kijus to these lands. It was a daunting task… That day, several caravan companies were inspected bringing the number of slaves we had up to seven hundred.
            The initial paperwork we did was to segregate the slaved from each caravan to not get them mixed up. The first caravan to come across the audit that day was High Pansum… They passed the inspection, not bringing anyone within the city walls that didn’t qualify to be slaves. The next to arrive after them was the Ambient Doll House, probably the most responsible of the all the brothels. In there six years of operation, they have never received a violation or sanction. Last to come was Felker Distribution, the biggest and most powerful brothel in the Southern Ziggurat. They themselves brought in over fifty percent of the slaves we had to inspect. One of the captives were Kijus.
            Once we sorted through the slaves, found Kijus and deemed him unqualified for being a
slave. We came down on Felker Distribution hard! It was their second offence this year. The first time we hit them with a sanction that they easily paid off. This time, we hit them with operational restriction and an even harder sanction to pay off. As a result, it brought their income down for the quarter due to a lack of leeway to operate.
            That in itself was an enormous amount of paperwork since my superiors were too lazy to write a summons for court. That would mean the law offices across the hall would have to deal with this paperwork and not us, something Supervisor Licho wasn’t counting on and why I was sitting here having to sort through all of this shit… And it wasn’t organized at all! The nearly thousand pages of paperwork was all jumbled up across three binders.
“Who the hell fucked this up?” I sighed, incredibly daunted by the task.
            Nonetheless, I began sorting through the documents, separating all the audit information by brothel house owner. That alone took several hours. Then came the documents from Kijus’s case which I realized were copies and not the original documents… This could explain why the binders were so unorganized if someone got the documents. But why? 
            “Licho…” I called out.
“Yes?” he said, coming over from his cubicle, “Damn, you’ve gotten far!”
“Yeah okay, but these,” I said holding up the Kijus case documents, “Are not the original files! They’re copies…”
“What? Really?” Licho said, coming over to inspect them, “Well damn… I’ll run these by Chief…” He left, leaving me to sort through the documents for the Felker Distribution sanctions.
“Why the hell didn’t we just court martial them?” I asked myself. This was beyond frustrating have to sift through this jumble of files, put them in chronological order when they have no date or time on them then separate them for filing.
“Okay,” Licho said coming back, “Chief said, it’s fine… just keep them…”
“Why would someone put copies in here and take the originals? That’s just strange…” I asked.
“Damn, you’re almost finished?” He asked.
“Yeah… Just gotta do the Kijus case documents…” I responded, taking the files from Licho. They were already chronalized, so all they had to be done was stapled and placed on top of the Felker Distribution audit and sanction files. Licho stood to watch.
“Damn you’re a hell of a little yeoman…” Licho smiled. I just glared at him.
“I hate you!” I said plainly, “How the hell did you let this shit get this unorganized?”
“I’m sorry!” Licho chuckled, “We should have court martialed! They specialize in that type of paper work…”
“I might fucking crossover…” I said under my breath.
“No don’t do that! I’ll tell your father!” Licho threatened.
“My father?” I laughed, “Actually, he’d be mad… He was so hurt when I didn’t make it to be an interceptor. Going from yeoman to courthouse squire would piss him off…”
“I’ve seen you ride…” Licho said, “You can easily be an interceptor…”
“It’s not just riding. I’d have to be an expert marksman which I’m not, I’d also have to take swordsmanship which I hate, and I’d have to be a falconer, which I just loathe…” I laughed.
“You’re an oddity… Everyone loves having a raptor…” Licho responded.
“I’m always doing paper work and roves… When would I have time to take care of one?” I asked.
“Then get you something like a bay-wing. They’re light, don’t need to be flown daily and are extremely social. They actually seek human attention…” Licho enlightened.
“But still… It’s something I’d have to feed and take care of which I don’t want to do.” I shrugged.
I understand... “ Licho smiled, “I’m putting you on a ninety minute lunch break. Go do you, boy.” He walked away, heading back to do his work.
“Alright, thank you.” I said.
            I got up, heading out into the town. There was a lot running through my mind. I hadn’t stopped thinking about Kijus since he left. It had only been a few days. Just thinking about what he’d have to face in the brothel made me shutter. It was not a very kind place and there typically was a breaking down process. Since Kijus was a very strong person, they’d more than likely have to go to extremes to get inside his head.
            These thoughts prevailed as I picked up some lunch for this late shift. I sat there eating it, wondering of Preston’s whereabouts. They boy just had vanished so  quickly earlier. I had no doubts he’d go through with it but still, he was like a little brother. Knowing he was safe would have been nice.
            I went to a pastry shop, picking up several dozen donuts for the guys back at the station. SP. Loka liked raspberry filled donuts, while Chief prefered mini donuts with french vanilla glazing. I personally liked mine with good old fashion glazing with milk to dunk on the side. And that was precisely what I got.
            Upon entering the headquarters, everyone gave me prolonged glances. Something felt off.! Maybe I was being paranoid but it was hard to shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. I placed the boxes of donuts in the lounge before taking Chief's personal selection to him. His door was cracked, he and someone else having a conversation in the office.
“We can’t catch him…” Someone said, to Chief.
“I’m so confused…” Chief responded, sounding very upset, “What do you mean?”
“Someone has been taking out our scent dogs with toxins in their kennels and even using blow darts to kill them. They’re doing everything they can to throw the chase off their tail.” The official in the office responded.
“I can’t believe you think he is behind it!” Chief said back, still stuck on a previous matter.
“He is and you must accept it! I don’t know who he knows, but he’s obviously willing to go to lengths to make sure his trail can’t be followed. With our scent hounds gone, the trail goes cold. However, we got to find the person responsible for killing our dogs… They will pay!” The official countered.
“He is one of my best most workers! You’re saying what he did was treason? As a member of the Official Guard, he’d know the consequences for those actions. He doesn’t even fly raptors or even jockeys. You expect him to put himself in this type of danger?” Chief argued.
They were talking about me. I walked away from the door, heading back to my work station. I placed Licho’s donuts on his desk, the man looking quite stressed.
“Thank you…” He said.
“No problem.” I responded, sitting at my desk. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the oddities of this day alone. The thing that I couldn’t get out of my mind were Kijus’s missing case files. Crude copies were left in it’s place for some reason and that was just odd. This office kept all original documents and sent out copies. Not to mention, everyone in the office seemed to know something was wrong, and it was clear they could tell I was involved. Chief and Licho obviously knew, however they said nothing. The official in the office was obviously from the upper royal court or the crime investigative service. To know his dog’s had been poisoned was a definitive sign of Preston’s work. He loved himself some poison to kill others with. How he managed to slip the poison into the dog’s food is beyond me but the boy undoubtedly was capable of such.
            It also made me worry for him. Like Kijus claimed to be, Preston was desensitized to killing others and had indiscriminately done it before! If anything went wrong, Preston wouldn’t hesitate to take a life. Considering the Ziggurat law officials valued their hounds as much as they valued each other, they wouldn’t hesitate to go after Preston. It was a sad reality but one I was willing to accept, need be. Better him than me.
            Cheif came over, pausing as he could see the worry on my face. I smiled, holding his bag of donuts.
“Thank you…” Chief smiled, “You okay!”
“Yeah, I’m fine!” I said back swiftly. He nodded, continuing to the rear to where Licho was. He and Licho talked discretely. I tried my hardest to listen but I couldn’t tell what was being said.
            This all made me wonder why I’d go to such extremes to help someone. In all honesty, Kijus was extremely selfish for this! He dragged me and a number of other people into this mess and it was starting to boil over faster than it could simmer down.
            Hours of assisting with paperwork later, the shift was over. I left, mounting my horse beginning the long ride home as the sun rose. The middle ring gait seemed daunting, as though something was preventing me from passing. I just couldn’t go home without checking to see if Preston was alright. I turned the horse around, heading back through the slums to the group home.
            The receptionist seemed friendly enough.
“How may I help you?” She asked, looking at me from up and down. She could tell I was an official with the long trench coat and badge on my chest. The floppy brimmed hat didn’t hide it well either.
“I’m here to see a friend. Preston Akigan?” I smiled.
“Give me a moment.” She smiled back, going to a rear room. She returned seconds later as we both waited. A staff member returned, shaking his head, “He’s not here.”
“That’s fine…” I smiled leaving.
            Worry began to consume me as fears of what I brought upon the boy lurked around in my mind. I searched his normal hideouts, unable to find him anywhere. However, the boy also was very good at disappearing when he didn’t want to be found. I was counting on this being the case, however it was completely impossible to rid the worry from my mind.
            Upon returning home, something definitely wasn’t right. The fields were generally filled with falconers and jockeys, but this morning it was empty. I reached my stables, looking around before entering. My door hadn’t been latched the same way it was when I left it yesterday evening. Someone definitely had been tampering with it. I took one quick glance over the fields before I entered, tying my horse up to the paddock.
            I was careful to make sure I did this quietly. As I did, I went to the rear of the stable, searching for the weapons vault hidden behind the stairs. It was relieving to see this hadn’t been tampered with. I put in the combination, taking off the holster buckled around my waist. There were some daunting decisions left ahead. Typically, I’d put my weapons up for the night but not today. I was changing my normal holsters out for my wrist mounted holsters.
            These were weapons that all the officials were trained to use, having two tiny revolvers for close range fire. Killing someone was something I never thought I’d have to do, but need be, I would! I closed the safe, making my way up the stairs. Slowly I crept, reaching the door. Surely this was all for nothing, I hoped. I unlocked the door, entering the home.
            Sitting on the couch was a official, one I had seen a few times in the palace. There were a number of other officials in my home as well. My stomach twisted into knots as I realized just how screwed I was. The official sitting on my couch turned to me.
“You had a good run.” He smiled, “You had it all thought out but I’ve been in this game longer than you’ve been born. You can’t outsmart me!”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, not trying to play dumb but to see what evidence he had stacked up against me.
“...About how… you had my dogs taken out, you did everything to cover your tail, but it didn’t work. I had dogs all over the city, not just in the lower ring. Some of the dogs tracking Kijus scent, led to this place… You know where he is! I’ll give you two options. You either can tell us voluntarily or we’ll get the answer out of you.” He responded.
“So between now and months ago of which these scents can last in this cold dry climate, you think I know of Kijus’s recent whereabouts? He was here but months ago. We haven’t seen each other in a long, long time.” I said back. The official rolled his eyes.
“You know where he is… You wouldn’t have had my dogs killed if you didn’t know.” The official argued.
“How can you be so sure? There’s no way you can pin this on me.” I said back, “Is it because we’re both Illisians? How discriminatory… Is that the only lead you got? Kijus and I may be of the same race, but we couldn’t be any more different! I know nothing of his culture and he knows nothing of mine. Now I’m going to ask you to leave my house and not come back unless you have anything else besides anecdotal evidence.”
“We have witnesses that pinned you two together! Witnesses that have seen both of you with dark stags! While you’re talking about anecdotal evidence…” The official said.
“Still not concrete…” I said opening my door, “I’m going to need you all to get out of my home!”
“Arrest him. He’s not squirming his way out of this…” The official demanded.
            I drew both arms, cocking them as the men closed in. Everyone froze.
“I need to see a warrant for my arrest before you take me in! If you have a warrant then I’ll surrender just fine, but without a warrant, you’re not taking me in alive.” I responded. I knew what these people did during interrogation! Their practices were nothing shy of torture and they were not going to torture me!
            The official grew angry.
“I am the KING’S GAURD, his most TRUSTED ADVISOR! I don’t NEED A WARRANT!” He shouted. I looked at him intently.
“Is that what you really want?” I asked him.
“You won’t do a thing! You’re soft… a pussy!” He said, confident.
            Without hesitation, I aimed my pistol at the official, firing at his head. The tiny pistol’s aim was shoddy so it shot him in the shoulder. He screamed out in agony, falling to the floor. His guards rushed forward. One was shot in the head, the other in the neck. I fled the house rushing down the stairs. As I did, it was shocking to see a number of officials already in the stables. I quickly aimed my guns, wishing I had something with more power.
“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TAKE ME ALIVE!!!” I screamed, firing my pistols. I hit several of the guards but these low powered pistols didn’t have the lethality I wanted. Many were able to take cover in the paddocks. They returned fire as I hid behind the railing of the staircase.
            This was getting nowhere. It was a dance of ducking and returning fire! A round hit the rail just in front of my face. I screamed ducking down, they shot almost killing me.
“He’s down…” Someone said. It shocked me! The thudding of footsteps on the stairs made me clench my knife. I dug in, sitting low as the first black silhouette came forth. He was expecting to see a dead body in a pool of blood, but no. I lurched forward stabbing him in the groin then in the shoulder. I pushed him down the stairs onto another man rushing up after him.
            A number of guards took aim however my pistols were quicker. I fired, shooting a number of guards in the chest, neck and head. The others took cover. Suddenly an intense pain bludgeoned my back. The force sent me down the stairs head first. I blacked out. After God knows how much time, I woke up in searing pain. My shoulder felt like it was hanging by shreds of skin. I looked down, seeing it wrapped up in gauze.
            The lights turned on suddenly revealing I was in an interrogation room. My hands were secured to the chair, my ankles secured to the floor. The light was really, really harsh, a tactic to make it extremely uncomfortable for whoever was being interrogated. The lead official stood in the door, closing it behind himself. He had a cast on his shoulder, looking very upset.
“You better be glad we need you alive.” He said, “Allow, me to introduce myself. I’m Sir Socoshian. You,” He pointed at me, “Killed quite a few of my men and injured more… You really didn’t want to be taken alive, didn’t you?”
“I know these interrogation processes. When you don’t have answers, you do everything to get the answer that you want…” I said.
“That is because we’re always adamant who we bring into this room is guilty… We don’t bring anyone in here unless they have evidence stacked up against them.” Sir Socoshian smiled. He slammed a folder of paperwork on the desk. It was the original Kijus case files that were missing, “You were on the audit that day several months ago. You discovered Kijus was literate and tried your hardest to get him his freedom. You let him meet your KING!”
 I looked at him as though he were full of shit.
“Lies…” I said plainly, “And you think just because I was close to the case that I was responsible for him going missing?”
“You…” Sir Socoshian began, trying to find the right words to say, “Are so caught in this, I don’t even think you can see the truth anymore! Just tell us where Kijus is before this get’s ugly.” I looked at the man defiantly, “Very well… Since Kijus met the king… You will!”
            He left. Moments later, he returned with a number of others, including the king. The king didn’t look happy either. He looked at me as though a revelation hit him. 
“Oh yeah, he definitely knows where he is!” The king said without hesitation, “Look at him… They are the same! He wouldn’t have went through all this trouble for someone who is different… I want you all to get the answers out of him anyway you can! I have to get back to the brunch, tell my kids what’s going on.”
            Sir Socoshian smiled at me as he followed the king out. Minutes later, officials came in. They didn’t look happy to do what they were about to do. However, they were ordered to do it. They beat me, and beat me bad, demanding I tell them about Kijus. However, I couldn’t reveal Kijus’s whereabouts to these people! They’d most certainly kill him and despite his selfishness, I couldn’t live with that.
            The torture lasted for a long time, the sun arcing across the sky into the night time. The torture changed from beating, to rag and bucket drowning, to slashes. The interrogators were growing frustrated. However, at this point, I wasn’t cooperating because I was just exhausted. I couldn’t even hold up my head any more.
“Speak…” An official said, grabbing my face.
“Is he going into shock?” Another asked.
“I’ll make him go into shock…” The official holding my face said. He left. The other one paced, around.
“This is ridiculous… It’s clear you didn’t do it. We’re going to end up killing you, Mercury.” He said. I couldn’t even look up. I knew this man, not by name but he worked in my department. I filed his cases quite often.
            The other official returned, looking excited.
“They found him…” He said before looking at me, “You thought that we wouldn’t, that we were that incompetent…” The other one looked at me, shocked at all of this seemed to be true. It shocked me too, my stomach twisting into knots at the thought of being confronted with this. They couldn’t have found Kijus.
“Wait what?” The other asked.
“This kid just walked into the headquarters and began flinging toxic darts at people! He gutted quite a few of us but we put a bullet in his shoulder. They’re wrecking his ass right… as… we… speak!” The official said, giddy with anticipation. He turned to me, seeing the shock written across my face, “Oh no… Maybe he’ll spill without me having to remove some parts…”
“Don’t hurt him…” I said.
“So now you speak…” He responded.
“Don’t hurt him…” I repeated.
“Mercury, what’s going on?” The other official asked, shocked that I was involved with this.
“Please… I’m begging you.” I continued.
“He should have thought before he killed our men. He’s getting what he deserves. You want to see him?” The other official asked.
“Let him go… He doesn’t need to be here.” I demanded.
“But he obviously did this for you.” The official smiled. I looked at the man menacingly.
“Don’t you dare…” I said through the grit of my teeth. He left, leaving the door open.
            Horrible sobbing filled the halls as distant footsteps became louder. They brought the boy in. Preston was in rough shape. He looked up at me, seeing I wasn’t better.
“I tried…” Preston cried, “I heard they took you…”
“You shouldn’t have…” I said, disappointed with the boy.
“I knew what they were going to do to you!” He said back, not upset with the way things turned.
“But look at you now!” I said, the boy having blood pouring down from his shoulder, blacked eyes, a number of bruises, bumps and swells. He was barely recognizable.
“Yes… look at him now…” The official said, “So sad what happened to him. At least I know what’ll make you talk now…”
“You leave him out of this…” I said through the grit of my teeth. It was what the official wanted.
“Or what? What will you do?” He said, grabbing his knife. He began peeling layers of flesh off of Preston’s gunshot wound. The boy screamed out squirming in the arms of the guards that held him.
“HE’S A CHILD!!!!” I begged, unable to bear the boy’s screaming.
“He’s a child that did some very grown up things…” The official said back. Even his colleagues could see he was pushing things.
“Okay, okay OKAY!!!!” I said, unable to bear it anymore, “I’ll tell you…”
“No...NO! NO!!!!” Preston said through the grit of his teeth, “We’re both here for a reason! We can’t do that Mercury…”
“What’s more important to you, the sanctity of what you stand for or this?” He said back, weeping through the pain.
“You! Before there was Kijus, there was us! We’ve been brothers for years… YEARS!!!! I’m sorry but I can’t let them do this to you…” I said, unable to hold it in anymore.
“So it’s true?” The other official asked, the one I had worked with previously.
“Yes… He’s inv…”
“The WINDOW!” Someone said. I was confused.
            Suddenly, glass shattered. A white hooded figure flipping in, swinging combat batons. He dispatched the officials. A number of reinforcements rushed in however they were followed by a black hooded figure holding a falchion and scimitar. The black hooded figure moved with shadow like speed, spinning and flipping around with the blades.
            It was a bloodbath, the black hooded figure not wasting any time in killing the officials. There was so much angst with his strikes, so much hatred brewed in his attack. Yet, he remained fluid, moving like a flash flood through the large interrogation room. The fight ended, with blood everywhere. The black hooded figure broke my chains, helping me to my feet.
            The white hooded figure helped Preston up, toting the boy on his back as he combined his batons into a staff. He looked at the black hooded figure, both wearing red masks that concealed their faces. They seemed to talk but without words, as if this was rehearsed. The two began to walk us out the interrogation room, down the hall where the door was canted open. It then hit me! These two were busting both Preston and I out.
            Pain had me delirious as we inched our way out. The hall was very long, or maybe the agonizing pain made it feel so. As we neared the halfway point, more guards had come in the defense of the head quarters. They took aim with firearms, telling the perpetrators to freeze. However, the two masked men leaned us against the wall, gearing to face off with the guards.
            The black hooded figure wore a barbary turben wrapped around nearly his entire face. His torso was covered in a black gauze like fabric that made him look like a living mummy. Around his waist were thin sheer robes that showed, powerful, dark thigh and calf muscles. One red slipper stood in front of the other as he extended out his falchion with his left hand. His right hand held his scimitar which he held the butt of facing down over the falchion. This was an ancient style of swordsmanship, only very few knew.
            On the other end, the white hooded figure wore a white trench coat that stopped just at the ground. He had white tights, a utility belt and armor plating that made his look seem regal in comparison to the black hooded figure. The white hooded figure had boots, that seemed to be made of metal. He had his staff hanging to the side, his leg stance firm as he stared back undauntedly at the guards at the other end of the hall.
            Suddenly the lights went out. The hall was pitch black. All that could be seen was the muzzle flash and the occasional silhouette of the whole hooded figure. Bullets bounced off his armor as he walked towards them. As he did, the sound of meat being cleaved and screams of the guards rang out in the darkness. Soon, the sound of the staff striking and breaking bone made a sickening and bludgeoning contrast to the gorey sounds of meat being punctured.
            Minutes later, Preston and I were again picked up in the darkness. We were being toted towards the door, it becoming brighter and brighter as we came closer. Soon we were out, two dark stags waiting on us there. This couldn’t be a coincidence. One was big and mature, the other young with two white stripes running down the length of it’s spine.
            We were tied, secured and hoisted up on the back of the older stag. The two hooded figures mounted the younger stag. It was now a race through the city, heading towards the outer perimeter. It was getting hard to tell what was going on, hard for my eyes to stay open. Everything went black.
            The next time I woke up, I was lying in a bed. Everything part of my body was hurting and moving was out of the questions.
“I’m sorry I don’t have the medical supplies you need…” A thin male voice said, “You’ll just have to heal the old fashion way…”
“What…” I began, unable to see who talking, “What happened?” I tried to prop myself up but the pain kept me laying there.
“Easy… Don’t tear your stitches. I’ll explain to you what happened.” The man said, coming into view. He was an easterner, a gorgeous easterner who seemed to float across the floor. He wore white robes of the finest silks, his hair slicked back into a neat knot. The man sat down next to the bed, “You were in a grave state. I and a friend saved you after receiving information that you were indicted. Your friend, the young one, is okay. My grandmother has been taking care of him. You have people in high places looking out for you.”
“What?” I asked, unsure what this meant.
“Roi and Brija, two of the king’s children… Roi arrived first. He couldn’t take any more of his father’s antics. Brija came with yesterday morning with the news that you had been indicted. Roi wrote Kijus but we couldn’t just stand by. We had to get you out out of there so I prepped, planned, thought it all out. Then we got a letter from Kijus…” The easterner responded.
“He was the one in the black hood….” I said. The easterner smiled.
“You’re a smart one…” He chuckled.
“How’d he get out the brothel?” I asked, confused. The easterner shrugged.
“It’s a story for another time.” He responded.
“I can’t believe it,” I said clenching my head, “He was lethal with those blades… I thought he was lying about his past…”
“No…” The easterner responded, “I know Kijus’s family. They’re nomadic but his father was the third youngest prince of a great dynasty in south Tanzania. It’s a warrior tribal tradition. His father was a trading partner with my grandmother and we knew he trained Kijus well. Kijus was doing very, very mature things since he could think on his own…”
“Where...Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in a trader outpost in Northern Mesopotamia, a long way from the Ziggurats. You’re safe, very, very safe.” The easterner responded.
“Wait, what about Kijus’s money?” I asked.
“It’s here. We made sure of that…” He responded, “You are free now… Free of everything that kept you bound to the Ziggurat. You can start over, now.”
“And this is supposed to make me feel better, because?” I asked, unsure what he was getting at.
“This has become bigger than you and Kijus’s relationship. This is an issue with the Southern Ziggurat, one that Kijus’s actions brought to light. Even though it might not make you feel better, it is the truth…” The easterner said back.
“The truth? The truth made me realize that Kijus is full of shit! He put everyone else in danger for his own selfish reasons. One of my best friends, a child, was about to die last night because of him! I’m not putting up with that any more! I could have lost a brother over him and my relationship with my brother is far more important that whatever Kijus and I had! Everything Kijus is doing, is for himself and himself alone!” I responded.
            The easterner looked heartbroken, but he knew my point was unwavering. He nodded, leaving before returning with a tall, dark urn.
“It’s rum. It’s the only pain medicine I got but I have some good medicine on the way…” He responded. He left, not wanting to make me upset any more. Poured some of the rum into a cup, drinking it. It was strong, burning everything on the way down.
            Eventually, the room started spinning and I was off to sleep. Hours later, I woke up even more sore. I had to get out of this bed, though. With every ounce of tolerance I had, I moved the blankets off me. The pain was incredible, the most I had ever felt! I stood, the room spinning. The buzz from the rum was still in my system. The stitches also were tight around the gunshot wound on my back.
“Oh fuck…” I moaned out.
            I took a step. The ground still was spinning but I refused to fall. Then I took another step. It wasn’t easy but I made my way across the ebony hardwood floors to the door.
“Hello?” I called out.
            This home was gorgeous. All the floors were black, the walls a warm cream tone. The stairs were equally as gorgeous but brutal to travel up and down in this pain.
“Preston? Hello? Is there anyone here?” I said out once again.
“Why are you out of bed? Do you know how hard it was to get you up the stairs?” The easterner asked.
“Where’s Preston?” I asked.
“Sleeping… Like you should be!” The easterner scolded, fetching water in a jar. He rushed towards the door. I followed, “Oh my god, go back in the house…”
            He walked down a flight of stairs that were carved into the cave side. I didn’t know where we were but I followed. The easterner arrived at the bottom of the staircase. He headed across a wide open group of paddocks to an open space. There a rather tall young man was saying commands to a dark stag.
“What is going on?” I asked, continuing to watch. The young man had a hand book, stating words in a foreign language. The dark stag listened to him, going around in a circle. It would pause, take a step, back up and continue on in a circle. Every repetition of the event resulted in the stag being rewarded with dry grass pellets.
“This is not easy…” The young man said. He had a face somewhat obscured by his hair but freckles were discernable under the curls. He looked familiar but, I couldn’t figure out who he was.
“Roi, take it easy out there!” The easterner warned. Roi! He was the eldest of the King’s sons, the extremely perverted one… He and Kijus were working together? I would have assumed Richard would have been the one to risk it all for Kijus rather than Roi. This situation just seemed all the more twisted and I didn’t want to be a part of it any more.
“Can you take a break?” A feminine voice said.
“No, Brija… I’ve been at it all day and am finally making progress. He said that he needs the young stag ready…” Roi said back.
            Brija came from another part of the cavern, wearing a gorgeous sundress. She was a very, very pretty girl. The easterner kept taking prolonged glances at her. He definitely liked her. However, it did nothing to change how ridiculous Roi looked with the youngest stag.
“What the fuck is he doing?” I asked, finally catching up to him.
“Go back to bed!” The easterner said, “You don’t need to see this…”
“Why is he doing this?” I continued.
“He’s,” Brija responded, “Training Bastion… The boy’s been at it all day. But he’s making progress…” She sounded impressed.
“You all are trying so hard to save Kijus. Have you ever thought about the fact that he’s just a selfish foreigner out to throw anyone under the caravan for his own game?” I sighed, unable to understand these people. It seemed to shock Brija.
“And who are you, precisely?” She asked.
“I’m another person who Kijus manipulated… a victim just like you all.” I smiled. Brija’s face wadded up in anger.
“You obviously don’t know Kijus…” She said, turning to continue watching.
“Oh, I know him better than you might think.” I laughed, “I let him use me for practice before turning over to the brothel…”
“Then isn’t that your fault?” She retorted. It stunned me. This girl was pretty witty, having a come back for everything I had to say. She rolled her eyes, standing with her arms folded. She didn’t even pay me any mind.
“Roi you need food and water. You haven’t eaten or drank anything since you got here.” The easterner said.
            Roi whistled, Bastion coming over. He and Roi rested their foreheads on each other before heading separate ways.
“Okay…” He responded, “Remind me to pin my hair up next time.” He pulled his hair from her face, tying it up. His beauty was staggering! He had an immaculate jawline and eyes that were like daggers! It was hard not to stare at him. The fact that Kijus had the willpower to turn him down was shocking.
            The easterner handed him the water. Roi drank it, not realizing just how thirsty he actually was.
“Shit, this is good.” He said, chuckling, spilling a little water down his chin. He then looked at his sister, seeing she seemed upset, “You okay?”
“Fine…” She said.
“Food?” The easterner asked, seemingly frustrated. Brija looked at him with a smile. She placed her hands on his shoulder, pushing him towards the stairs.
“I guess so.” Roi shrugged.
            They began making their way up the stairs heading back to the home. I followed going up the stairs, this being much harder than descending. The easterner turned to see if I was making it up the stairs. He sighed, coming back down the stairs.
“This is why I told you to stay inside! You’re not well enough to go out…” He said, supporting my weight to make it easier to walk, “I swear if you tear your stitches, I’ll let you bleed out…”
            Brija sighed, rolling her eyes. Roi was confused.
“Was there something I missed?” He asked.
“Nope…” She said continuing up the stairs. He followed, feeling this was all strange.
            We made it back to the home, Roi holding the door open for us. The easterner nudged me a bit more to hurry up. We made it back to the home. Brija took off her slippers, placing them beside the door. Roi looked down at his clothes, covered in dust.
“You don’t mind?” He asked the easterner.
“Go ahead…” The easterner said, rolling his eyes.
            Roi stripped out of his clothes, handing them to them to the easterner. The young Prince’s body was gorgeous, if a little thin. He had muscle definition but a ton of ribs. The freckles on his face were all over his body too and they added quite a contour. It felt so wrong to stair, to find him attractive. He was quite a horrible person.
“Food is ready!” An older female voice said. It was the easterner’s grandmother.
            Brija slowly turned to Roi, wondering if he was willing to go in the kitchen with just his underwear on.
“I’ll be back down.” He said laughing. Brija nodded, heading towards the kitchen. I followed, the food smelling great. I had never smelt cuisine like this before.
            The kitchen was very advanced, having electric everything! Who were these people and how could they afford such luxuries? The elderly woman cooking in the kitchen didn’t look too happy. She had plates made for us. It was rice, with chicken and mixed vegetables. It had so many aromas in one it was a sensory overload.
“Thank you elder Yun.” Brija said, giving a short bow. The elderly woman bowed in return before continuing to cook more food.
“FUCK!” Someone screamed from the stairs.
“I got you…” Roi said. Both Brija and I turned to see Roi helping Preston walk to the kitchen from the living space.
            Preston froze when he saw me, his eyes welling up.
“I thought you were dead!” He cried, limping over to hug me.
“Who told you that?” I asked.
“She did!” Preston pointed to the old eastern woman, “She said you were gone.”
“What?” She asked, her accent very strong, “I said he good not gone!” In truth, it sounded like she stated gone twice. Preston looked at the woman not pleased.
“Shit…” He sighed, easing into a chair, “I’ve been in that room all day, too upset to move… then I smelled food…” That made me smile.
            Brija looked at the boy in disgust, wondering who he was and why he was here.
“Problem?” I asked.
“No…” She said, rolling her eyes. Roi caught it, but he was busy reading a lengthy letter. Brija snatches it from him, “You’ve been hogging it all day…”
“I need to read what he wants me to do for the dark stags! It’s a lot of details…” He pleaded. Brija began reading.
“There are no details about how he’s been doing. He’s only responded to what we told him…” Brija noted.
“I know…” Roi said, sounding worried.
“So Kijus finally wrote you all back, huh?” I asked. Both Brija and Roi looked at me as though I wasn’t a part of this.
“Yeah…” Roi said back. All I could do was shake my head.
“You two are both tools…” I laughed. Roi’s bright and inquisitive look gave way to something more serious and penetrating.
“What makes you say that?” He asked.
“Kijus is doing nothing but using you for your power. As soon as he gets what he wants he’ll leave you. I got hurt trying to help him…” I pointed to Preston, “He got hurt trying to help him… He’s manipulative…”
“He might be…” Roi said turning in his chair to face me, “He might have let you down… But he’s been there for me, the ONLY one who dared to try and understand what I was going through! When he initially started his plan, he didn’t come to me, my brother or Brija… He was going to do it on his own! When he told us, we all decided we’d help.”
“And you can’t see how he’s manipulative? He does these great things for you to make you feel as though you owe him… He holds himself up in this false high regard to make you think so well of him when he’s nothing more than a savage, a barbarian, a con. He got me and got me god!” I said back.
“You don’t fucking know SHIT! You don’t know what’s going on in the royal court! You’re just some little official lucky enough to get the job. You don’t know why I’m here, why Brija’s here and why we support Kijus or what our actual plan is! He might be in it for selfish reasons but so are we! Kijus started a chain reaction and I got faith that he can finish it. I’m just gonna get him to where he needs to be anyway I see fit…” He said.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked, it sounding the the boy was just rambling.
“I came here for nothing…” Brija said, “I left as soon as father said they had you in custody… I was the one who told Roi to write Kijus and tell him! That same NIGHT he busted out of the brothel to save your ass! And you think he’s that selfish? He has his reasons but YOU volunteered to help.” She pointed at me, getting up from her seat, “You put yourself out there! When you agreed to help, you signed up for all the hell that’d come your way! You could have said no… But… you… didn’t…”
“That’s the thing! Kijus is manipulative! He plays on your guilt, your conscious! He makes you care for him… It’s his power! I wish I could have said no. If I would have known what this was…” I said shaking my head.
“So you think Kijus somehow exploited your weakness? It was still your decision! Don’t ACT like you had second thoughts! We all did...  You’re just pathetic…” Brija said, leaving.
“I have my reasons!” I said pointing to Preston, “This kid is the closest thing I have to a brother and I almost lost him last night! I gave so much to Kijus, sacrificed my livelihood, my peace of mind and my future for him. And I let Preston follow me blindly into it… That was a line I wasn’t prepared to cross and fucking with Kijus made me come too dangerously close to crossing it! I’m not sacrificing Preston’s or my life for that boy’s anymore…”
“Very well…” Brija shrugged, “We will… We have our reasons…” She continued onward, heading up the stairs.
“And I’m telling you, whatever the reason is, it’s not worth it…” I chuckled.
“How about,” Roi said rushing over to me, “The fact that the man responsible for ruining my life is trying to kill my father… My father has been on drugs for a very long time and his supplier is the very man who did things to me when I was too young to fend him off! It is a man who is power hungry and will do anything to get to the top, the real threat here!”
“Who…?” I asked, still not moved.
“Sir Socoshian…” Roi said, glaring at me. It made me freeze. Things started to make sense now, “He has my father strung out on these drugs that make him a different person! My father used to be a reasonable man! I left because that man is dead and Sir Socoshian is responsible! I want to take out Sir Socoshian so bad but he has too many people close to him to protect him. I haven’t given up on that kingdom yet, I just have to fight from afar…”
“And coming here helps?” I asked, this still not making sense.
“Yes! Gou has resources, contacts, people who can help… However, Kijus’s plan WILL WORK!!!” I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Get out of my face…” I said, rolling my eyes. This was all a joke. Roi left, fuming.
            It left Preston and I alone.
“Who are they?” He asked.
“Royals… Naive as can be. We’re done, by the way. We’re of no more assistance. We’re a long way from the Ziggurat. We can start over, it just be us! Brothers!” I said, grabbing his hand.
“That sounds nice…” He chuckled, extremely relieved.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this… You didn’t deserve any of what happened to you…” I responded.
“Shit…” He sighed, taking a bite from his food, “Happens…”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s seven forty two. This day is almost gone…” Elder Yun said.
“So we agree? This is our fresh start?” I asked. Preston smiled, extending out his sore arm to hold my hand.


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