Story by Will Coleman
There was a terribly heavy knock at the door and Enzo was roused in a flurry of panic.
Casting a glance around, he assumed it was Chief who had moved him to his room. He crawled out of bed and tiptoed to the top of the stairs just as Chief reached the bottom.
The rain had continued through the night with a constant volume; many of the streets were likely flooded.
Enzo’s heart beat with terrible force, and each thump shook his vision. Visser’s ears were up, so Enzo felt no immediate danger. “Thank you,” Enzo heard Chief say. “Would you like to come in? I know it’s awfully cold outside.”
“That would be excellent!” Enzo heard a woman say in a voice that was too bright for the dreckish night. Enzo knew this was none of his business, but continued to listen.
“I can brew tea, if you like,” Chief said graciously. Their voices and footsteps faded toward the kitchen, passed the parlor.
“Yes, please. With cream if you have any,” the woman’s voice carried politely. Visser moved down the stairs, placing his paws precisely at the end of each step so his claws would not scratch and tick. Enzo moved to follow him, hoping his weight would not set the floorboards creaking. With his bottom on the landing, he placed his feet two steps below and slid his rump forward on the next stair down. He continued this snail-like crawl until he was near the end of the flight, but did not dare round the corner. Visser skulked in the shadows, acting as Enzo’s eyes.
The kettle whistled. Lips sucking hot tea made a supping noise, and Enzo could almost feel the satisfaction of hot tea running down his throat and warming his belly on such a cold night. “May I?” Chief asked.
“It’s why I’m here,” the woman said. There was a brief pause.
“The Purge?” Enzo heard Chief say. His heart leapt in his throat: what about the Purge? “This early?” Enzo leaned forward and covered his mouth to suppress his suddenly hastened breathing. What was early? The Purge?
“It is very important that the Empire finds recruits.”
“Yes, always. Yet the season is not right. The cold persists, as you’ve seen. The winter has not been fully blown out just yet.”
“Under Imperial decree,” the woman said. An Empire’s Man! She must have been a Messenger, but what news did she carry? Enzo leaned forward and trained his ears.
“Strange times,” the Man stated.
“Indeed. Today, it seems, there should be a blue moon,” Chief let out a quick bark of grim laughter and it disappeared.
“Strange things happening today?” the Messenger asked, hardly above a whisper.
“Yes. You arrived—“ Chief laughed and so did the Man. The laughing died and then Chief said, “And four Empire’s Men— the sort that have been on the field too long and have lost a bit of their civility—“
“I am well-acquainted with the sort.”
“Yes, well four of them were here today, claiming to be an aid group to a neighboring tribe, though the tribe never contacted me. As you know, Pleas for Avail are rather rare, considering the time it takes for the plea to reach the City and return.”
“Great flaws reside with the naturally great power of such centralization.”
“Yes,” Chief said. Sipping. “As well, there were only four, and not a horse between them. They claimed to have unloaded their goods at the Brightpine village, yet I can’t imagine how they will return to the Imperial City.
“Perhaps it is that they are not to return.”
“A group deployed to the southern front?”
“Would you believe that the four of them were a part of a larger deployment to the front and that such a small group would be burdened with aiding the Brightpines before returning to their ranks?”
Enzo was feeling a bit lost. He did not know what was typical or a-typical when it came to the conduct and protocol of Empire’s Men, and it frustrated him: he felt naïve.
“Perhaps. They could have been Warriors, and not so bound as Skirmishers or Diggers or a more rigid Class of the like.”
Chief made a noise of confoundedness. “The southern front resides three hundred miles below us.”
The Messenger cleared her throat. “You may find that changed.”
“I’m sorry?” Chief said and Enzo was turning red because Chief seemed like he was accosting the Man.
“As you say: these times are strange. The fronts in all four cardinals are receding.”
Chief gasped as if he had seen a dead body. “By how much?”
“You will find the southern front some twenty miles closer to you.”
“Twenty miles!” Enzo’s fingers were cramping from holding the edge of a stair like a vice. Twenty miles? In a single year? How? How many Men were stationed in the south, and how many were dying, that they could be pushed back so severely?
“Tribes once sitting comfortably north of the southern front find themselves now well within Abomination-controlled territory.”
“The northern front is suffering greatly; some hundred miles in the last year have fallen and been usurped.”
“Ancients, how?” Chief yelled. Enzo jumped.
“We are not sure,” the Messenger said. “And as a Messenger— and the best of the sort— I can assure you I am well informed, that I might disseminate this news as far as I can; yet I do not know how such a thing happens.” Her voice continued to be chipper, as if she was in denial of the facts, or if she did not understand the weight of the words he carried. “Whether it is a loss of Men or strike of boldness that has possessed the Abominations, or whether the terrain is naturally advantageous to the wretched creatures, I cannot say.
“I can say, however, that a Trace has been sighted in the Balk Mountains, just near the border of the front.”
“A Trace?” Chief whispered as if conspiring. Enzo had learned all about Traces in his school. They were, in essence, ‘mini-Auras’ that occurred when the Aura grew too powerful to hold itself in one piece. A chunk of the tangible energy went flying off into space with the force of a million cannon blasts. When it returned to Thegraen, it rested somewhere on the ground, and any sentient being— Man or Abomination— who touched it, would absorb the energy within the Trace. The bigger the Trace, the more energy it held, and the more powerful the thing that absorbed it became. Enzo wondered if the Trace was good or bad. Would the Empire’s Men get it? How big was it? Did it have the potential to turn the tide of the battle in the north? Could the front collapse if a big Abomination absorbed it? Enzo’s head spun and he felt sick to his stomach. He did not want to see an Abomination near his village again; why were the Empire’s Men failing to protect the people of Thegraen? He felt faint and now the rain was not soothing, but cacophonous and startling.
Lost in his thought, he had missed the conversation between Chief and the Messenger.
“— Will see,” the Messenger said happily. There was a long pause.
“Yes, please help yourself. If you pardon me, I plan on keeping you up rather late.”
Enzo could hear water pouring into a mug and then it was gone as the Messenger said over it, “It is only appropriate. Now, will you tell me more of these Empire’s Men?”
“Surely. Four of them, I said. My son thought they were Abominations while he was hunting—“
“And your huntsmen?”
“He had fallen behind,” Chief said, and his voice was low and Enzo’s ears and face rushed with the blood of shame. “My guards told me he appeared through the forest looking wretched and pale, yelling, warning of the presence. The alarum went up and the village went for shelter, which, fortunately, was done easily, as most were seeking shelter from the rain anyway.
“I sent an eighth of my guard— seventy-five men and women— to seek it out in the forest, and they came back with the four. I brought them into my home and they were brusque and condescending. They told me their story, and told me they had chased a Stag clear from Brightpine territory— some three leagues to the west. I would normally have been quite grateful for their courage, yet they told me they had not killed the Stag, and pinned me for this, claiming I had drawn them from the hunt. I dismissed them— I must admit—spitefully. Some time later, we heard a black-powder explosion over the rain, and unless they duped us, I interpreted it as the killing shot.”
“I do not believe you have been cheated.”
“The villages in this area are far from the front and all rather secure.”
Enzo smiled and was proud for himself and his fellow Woodmans.
“Yet,” the Messenger said, “I am sorry for that. I can only hope they did not taint the name of the Empire.”
“Of course not,” Chief said. “Hail the Empire.”
“Yes, yes,” the Man with the happy voice said. Her voice warmed the whole house, and Enzo could not even feel the cold wood under his bottom.
“Have any Heroes been ordained recently?” Chief asked.
“No, but likely soon. The Man who absorbs the Trace in the north will be ordained without a doubt.”
“Are you confident it will be a Man?”
Chief hmmmed. Then he said, “Speak to me of harvests.”
“Speak to me of commerce.”
“Commodities in Thegraen hold high values against Sysgodian luxuries. Investors in the Imperial economy are reporting fair trades and fair profits.”
“The usual growth of about two percent a year.”
“Good,” Chief said. There was another long pause. The Messenger sipped and sipped away at her tea. “Excuse my suspicions,” Chief offered, “I should be honored that the Purge is upon us once again. It is always a time of beauty in our village and we are always pleased to see Empire’s Men. We’re simply so accustomed to the wont season of the Purge.”
“Ah,” the Messenger observed lightly. “Of course, this will be no inhibition to your students.”
“My son is to be Purged this year.”
“Excellent! I wish him the best of luck! There were heated contentions over moving the Purge in light of what occurs afterwards,” there was a pause. Afterwards? Enzo wondered. He began to think out what it could be, but as the Messenger’s voice rose up again, he concentrated on her. “But a massive and diverse board of Bureaucrats decided that no extra knowledge is garnered by students in their last month. Rather, it is spent studying.”
“So they are hopefully as well-prepared as any other in history.”
“Hopefully,” she chimed. Enzo wished now that he had not listened, and a part of him wished he had remained peacefully ignorant up in his bed. The Purge was worrisome enough, and the Messenger’s words did not console him. There was a pause. “And the harvests here fare well?”
“They do. Send no Plea for Avail to the City upon your return. The Woodman Tribe fares well, I assure you.” Enzo swelled with pride again. “Yes, there is no sense in wasting Imperial resources. I must send a messenger of my own to the Brightpines to query their lack of communication. I, perhaps, could have aided them. My people are more than capable.”
“So it would seem!” the Messenger piped cheerily. “Your guards are indeed rather,” she cleared her throat and Enzo could sense the stalling discomfort, “thorough.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I found a javelin uncomfortably near me.”
“My sincerest apologies,” the Chief rushed. “I will call a convention so you might identify the perpetrator. He’ll have his position changed.”
“No, never, never, man!” the Messenger encouraged. “Would that you could convene, that I might identify the man and have him promoted to captain of guard!”
Enzo had not taken it for a joke, but the Chief’s relieved chuckle floated warmly through the house. “There is no captain,” Chief continued, “each man and woman is equally diligent to their tribe.”
“Well,” the floorboards creaked and moaned. Visser cocked his head to the side. Curiosity rose up in Enzo’s heart and he moved ever so slightly forward, just to be able to peek around the corner. He wanted to see that illustrious burgundy. “If the people who remain in your village live with such a zeal, I greatly look forward to seeing what those worthy enough to be Purged can prove.”
“Soon you will, it seems,” Chief observed.
“Soon we will.” The Messenger set her tea down with a light bump of clay against wood.
“We would love to have you as an honored guest.”
“I do not want to have you disturbed, nor cursed to breathe the smell of wet horse the night through. I’ll prefer the inn tonight, Chief.”
Chief breathed hard. “Good. All well and good. I must ask, though, that you exchange further words with me.”
“It is my duty.”
“You are an excellent Man.”
“In the name of the Empire.”
“Allow me to send my guards off,” Chief said.
Footsteps. Visser darted up the stairs. Enzo shimmied as quickly and quietly as he could.
He crowned the stairs in time to see Chief reach the door. Outside, two guards stood facing the door, their breaths swirling visibly as if the men blew smoke in the rain. “Double up the guard for the night and shift every two hours, lest your lungs fill with this water. I will send for a guard to escort this Messenger to the inn in some hours.”
“Yes, Chief,” one said, and they made a clatter as they ran.
Chief and the Messenger moved near the hearth and as Chief moved about with a kettle, Enzo lost the conversation. He would have continued to listen, but their voices were faint murmurs now, and he would be forced to risk exposing himself to them. Enzo was exhausted, anyway, and the warmth and downy softness of his bed called to him.
Enzo quietly ran into his room and threw the covers over himself. He closed his eyes and breathed deep breaths. With his mind unoccupied for the first time that day, Enzo thought of the running Man. And then, all at once, he stopped. In all his innocence and naïvety, he suppressed the image of the man’s wide eyes and his gasping breaths. The Empire’s Men were a wonderful and noble people. The image of the sallow man’s dark eyes melted away and was replaced by the image of four Men sprinting through the woods, chasing down an evil Abomination to its final breath. He forgot the fact that the Men die, and that the Abominations were getting closer to his village, and ultimately, to the City. The thought of the Men protecting him made him smile, and the last image in his mind’s eye before he drifted was of himself in a burgundy jacket.