Author's note: This story will actually only have two chapters. Enjoy the first.
Not for the first time in the past months, Aldon questioned whether winning a war against a nation that was formerly the most powerful in the world was really worth the hassle.
It was not the first time he'd wondered that, in fact. He was an administrator, little more than a glorified clerk. Perhaps for the military types, the notion of conquest had more appeal. However, once they took over this foreign land, piece by piece, city by city, once the formerly great nation of Ezyria started to be slowly taken over by the Kingdom of Ferndahl, the Ferndites found themselves facing another great battle: dealing with the civilian populace.
Despite Ezyrian propaganda, the Ferndites were not savages. Even in a war of conquest, there were rules. While, undoubtably, there were quite a few voices that suggested "removing" the cumbersome Ezyrians, the King chose the civilised approach and ordered each conquered city, town and settlement to be taken fully under Ferndite administration. True, the plan hadn't gone without a hitch. There were simply too many people. So, after a few relocations, hindered by countless difficulties, a makeshift system had been established. Administrators-- a type of bureaucrats acting effectively as overseers-- and a whole slew of enforcers (little more than military police) were shipped to every major city in Ezyria and quite a few medium and minor-sized ones as well.
Which brought Aldon to Vixenport. Chief Administrator Aldon Einerfehl knew he probably didn't have it as bad as others. Vixenport was the largest city in the southern region, but the inhabitants were mostly docile and the only hostility shown towards the occupational forces was perfunctory, at most. Resentful glances, angry muttering, name-calling, the occasional act of vandalism, but almost never violence or rebellion. Truth be told, Ezyria (or rather, Ezyrian officials) had started this war, against the protests of nearly the entire population. Perhaps because most non-combatants remained for the most part unmolested by the Ferndites, while the officials responsible for the plight were now on the run and fighting an increasingly disastrous war, perhaps this was why most Ezyrians felt an odd sort of vindication. They'd known this war would be pointless and impossible to win and now, being proven right, they were eager to rub salt into the wounds of the pompous politicians that had constantly belittled their opinions and condescendingly called them "uninformed" and "cowardly".
That did not mean the defeat was taken lightly by any of them. The Ferndites were not as easily tolerated (because Aldon often felt like he as tolerated by the Vixenportians, while they awaited any excuse to drive him away) in other parts of Ezyria.
The ease of Aldon's mission came from the fact that Vixenport had been a free city and neutral during the first two wars between Ezyria and Ferndahl. There was no real historical animosity, like in other parts. However, mostly, this was because Vixenport had always been a spiritual centre. Temples, sanctuaries, altars and many assorted religious monuments littered the city and the most powerful class was, not surprisingly, the Clerum -- the holymen, the priests, monks, nuns, clerics and scholars. It was part of the reason Vixenport had been conquered and integrated so easily into Ezyria. It was, first and foremost, a city of peace. And as long as the Ferndites respected this peace, Aldon suspected they would be tolerated.
Vixenport was a sightly city. The architecture was old and tasteful, though sparsely decorated, when compared to Aldon's home city. The most peculiar aspects were in the shape of three towers. The two smallest towers were each on the edges of the city, barely inside the city walls. They were roughly twice the height of the walls in question. The tallest tower was at the exact half point between these two smaller towers. It was five times taller than the tallest building in Vixenport and it was the only one of the three to be known as "The Tower of Vixenport". Vixenportians were very proud of this tower, where they hid their most valued artifact: the Bloodbead of Ruana.
One of the first acts of the Ferndites upon occupying the city was to confiscate the Bloodbead of Ruana. The deal was simple: behave, of the Bloodbead would be "lost". With this leverage, the Clerum was removed from power and Chief Administrator Aldon Einerfehl replaced them. Needless to say, many curses were said to be levelled against him.
Aldon did not much care about this. Ferndites had long since renounced magic. Few places still practiced it, because it was oftentime more trouble than was worth. Once people found better ways, once they became more self-reliant and stopped trying to overturn the order of the universe to serve their goals, they also found themselves unshackled from a state of stagnation. Vixenportians were not as eager to renounce their ways, however, and that was why most Ferndites saw them as uncivilised, uncouth primitives.
The Chief Administrator's office was set up in one of Vixenport's own administrative buildings. More like a palace than an office, it was perhaps considered luxurious by Ezyrian standards. Officers stood guard at the entrance and at several strategic points, but they were clearly not very concerned about any breach in security. The docile population had not attempted anything of the sort and didn't seem inclined to.
If a citizen of Vixenport had urgent business and needed to contact the Chief Administrator, there were, of course, proper channels. Vixenportians detested proper channels, however, and once in awhile, one of them would breach protocol and try to contact Aldon directly. It was days like these Aldon was grateful for the military enforcers.
As he inspected a renewed list of resources, he'd stopped at the door of his office, right in the hallway. The piece of paper perplexed him slightly-- surely there'd been a miscount somewhere-- and he stood there, hand on the doorknob. He soon became aware of a persistant exchange further down the hall. One of the voices he recognised as Perrick, one of the enforcers, but the other was female and unknown. This last voice bore a soft Vixenportian accent.
"Even if he were here, you wouldn't tell me, now would you?" the female voice said in a clipped tone. "So you can't really convince me he's not here."
"If you would just go through th--"
"If you say 'proper channels' one more time, so spirits help me, I will kick you. In. The. Shin."
"Madam, I'm not allowed to--"
"Is that him?"
Aldon realised with a start that she'd spotted him. While his instincts told him to seek cover in the office, he turned his ead and looked in the direction of her voice, as if to confirm she as talking about him.
"It is him. I'd recognise that stupid goatee anywhere. Let me through."
Aldon dashed inside the office and sat at his desk. The woman would not pass Perrick. From what he'd glimped, she was a slim little creature, no real threat.
Well, at least that was his hope until the woman burst through the door and quickly locked it behind her. Perrick yelled and brutally knocked on the door.
"Well, Chief Administrator, I've been waiting for some time to talk to you," the woman grinned at him, ignoring Perrick's noise.
Aldon sighed. She was, indeed, rather unthreatening looking. Her garb was dull in colour-- mostly grey and black-- but of fairly good quality. A long black overcoat from some kind of wool, a dark grey pair of loose trousers, almost skirt-like, and a lighter grey shirt, as well as a passably decent pair of boots. Middle class, most likely. Her hair was muddy-brown in colour and slightly wavy. Her face was rather sharp, not entirely unpretty, though her forehead was maybe a bit too large for his tastes. Aladon looked at her, mildly displeased by her presence.
"Don't be like that, this is important," she shot him a grave look, like she was reprimanding him for his lack of enthusiasm.
"Quiet down, Perrick!" Aldon yelled.
There was a pause, then Perrick's voice, muffled through the door. "Are you sure?"
"She's inside with you, though," Perrick insisted.
In a rather flippant manner, the woman unlocked the door and cracked it open.
"Look," she shot at him, "I'm not holding him hostage. Not yet, at any rate. But if you don't leave right now, I'm making good on my shin promise."
Perrick muttered unhappily, but went back to his post.
"Right, so what is this racket about?" Aldon asked, considering if he should pour himself a drink. It was too early for that, but then again, it was also too early to be harangued by some crazed shin-kicking woman.
"You must return the Bloodbead of Ruana to the Tower," she said bluntly.
"No," Aldon replied, just as bluntly.
"Before the storm comes!" she insisted, now slightly more anxious. "Do you have any idea what could happen if you don't?"
Aldon sighed again. Many of the Clerum had come to him lately, insisting that something dreadful would happen if the Bloodbead wasn't returned to the Tower before the next storm. Each time, they'd failed to argue their case in any way. "Just because" was not a very compelling reason.
"No, madam. I do not. I do not because not one of you will tell me. Now if you'll please--"
"Aldon Einerfehl!" she said in a high pitched voice. Not quite panic, not quite annoyance, but a great deal of pushyness. She continued in a slightly more subdued tone. "If you want to know why, I will tell you. However, don't think you will sleep easily for many nights to come."
"Very well," Aldon retorted defiantly. Vixenportians could be ridiculously dramatic at times.
She looked at him, almost softly. She had stern green eyes, but there was nothing threatening about them. She approached him and took his hand, placing it on her wrist, over a chainmail bracelet studded with dark blue gems.
"The Towers are our protection. Whenever the potent storms come here from across the great waters at this time of year, they carry... energies, you could call them. The three towers form a nexus that absorbs and dissipated these energies before they hit the ground. The reason they must not hit the ground is because..." she inhaled shakily. "Because beneath the city, there is the Chasm. A place so deep and dark, that they say the dark gods themselves dug it into the earth to swallow the world."
Aldon became sharply aware all of a sudden that the bracelet was starting to burn his hand. He tried to pull it away in a panic, but the woman still held it clasped to her own wrist, her grip uncannily strong.
"And the reason we do not talk of it, Chief Administrator," she spat the title like it was bitter on her tongue, "is because when we do, holy objects burn from the evil of its mere mention."
Now she released his hand and he pulled it back hastily, inspecting the skin. It was red and angry-looking, it stung, but it did not look burnt. Looking at the woman's wrist, he could see a burn under and around the bracelet. 'Suits her right,' he thought for a brief moment. She seemed unconcerned with the injury, however, and caressed the bracelet, as if it were a loyal pet.
"Who are you?" Aldon asked pointedly.
"I am Urbana. I represent... certain factions of Vixenport," she replied.
"And you do this because of some silly superstition?"
She looked at him evenly. She lowered her eyes just for a moment, but that action made Aldon look down as well, at her bracelet. She pushed it lower on her wrist, off the burn marks, but the burns had disappeared.
'Wonderful,' Aldon thought. 'More Vixenportian tricks.'
"Look, I need a serious reason to--"
"How's your time here been?" she cut him off.
"Peaceful, yes? Not much trouble from the locals?"
"If you don't do this, you will have a rebellion on your hands. You see, Chief Administrator," she leaned down and placed her palms on his desk, looking him straight in the eyes. "The folks here don't know you took the Bloodbead. Only the Clerum knows. The ordinary people think they're safe, because the Tower protects them. If, for even a second, this safety were taken from them-- Well, I'm guessing you won't like the lynching very much."
"Is that a threat?" Aldon narrowed his eyes.
"It is freely-shared information," Urbana replied dryly.
They locked gazes for a few moment. Something not quite like a battle of wills took place between them. Aldon would cede to her request, of course, but not without putting on a defiant front first.
Aldon sighed deeply and checked his timepiece. As convened with Urbana, it was noon and he was waiting in front of the Tower for her arrival. With him were Perrick and Fheder, his most trusted enforcers, as well as a heavy wooden chest which hid none other than the Bloodbead of Ruana.
He wondered, rather resentfully, if he should wait past the agreed meeting time or leave, simply out of spite. He would have done the latter, perhaps, if he wasn't as terrified as he was of lynch mobs.
Through the wrought-iron fence around the Tower, he could see passer-bys. Ordinary Vixenportians, clad in their typical gaudy and colourful clothing. Some gave long, revering look to the Tower, others gave the Ferndites contemptuous glares. Some were quite suspicious to see the Ferndites there, but none paused more than moment to observe the three men. The sight of the red enforcers' uniforms had become a common thing in the city and even Aldon's neat Ferndite-style black suit marked him as an important bureaucrat therefore detestable, but not interesting.
Finally, he caught glimpse of Urbana, making her way towards the Tower at a brisk, but not very hurried pace. She was wearing a dress, dark blue with cream and black patterns, completely different from her more conservative dress the other day. Aldon recognised the strange garb as something women in Vixenport wore on holy days. It was peculiar, because as far as he knew, the next holy day was at least a few weeks away.
"You join us at last," he remarked sourly when she finally came into view.
"I join you at last," she retorted playfully. "It's unseemly for a lady to arrive early," she added.
Aldon merely shook his head. "The Bloodbead is in there," he said, pointing to the chest.
"Good. We should move quickly. The winds are picking up." She brushed a lock of hair nervously. The air was still, though, and had been so the entire day. Aldon put the remark down to Vixenportian oddity.
The Tower was dark. It had only one window, at the very top, where the Bloodbead chamber was, but other than that, nothing. Aldon would have expected, in such an important building, at least gas lights, but as soon as they entered, Urbana used some flintstone to light a torch on the wall.
"We'll have to make our way to the top. I suggest you be the one to place the Bloodbead back, Chief Administrator."
"Why is that? Perrick and Fheder can do it as well as anyone," Aldon replied.
"Then so can you," Urbana turned to look at him as she delivered the sharp words. "It will be a gesture of appeasement."
"'Appeasement'?" Aldon repeated, annoyed. "Who is it that I need to appease?"
Aldon sighed again. He was doing that more often, as of late.
"Close the door," Urbana said, in a tone all too commanding for the Ferndites' liking. Perrick threw Aldon a glance and the latter nodded slightly, so the enforcer nudged the door closed.
The Tower was massive and the bottom chamber stretched its entire base, only a flight of stone stairs extending from near the farther-most wall, upwards. On one side and the other of the staircase's first steps were two orbs, made of some glass-like material, each on top of its own dais.
"Let's go, then," Aldon said, annoyed.
"Not yet," Urbana murmured, looking around expectantly. "He must know we're here." The last remark, though spoken aloud, did not seem to be adressed to any of the men in the room.
"Who?" Perrick asked cautiously.
Suddenly, the two orbs flared up with light. One was yellow and the other blue, resulting in a sickly-green coloured light covering everything
"Ah," Urbana vocalised, as if the colours revealed some deeper meaning. "He's not completely hostile, then."
"Who?" Perrick asked more persistantly, his hand raised to the pistol on his hip.
Urbana looked at him curiously and said two words that struck immediate terror in the Ferndites' hearts as if the answer had been obvious all the long.