GASP! Can it be? A new story?! It is a bit rough and ragged. I had some trouble working on my REALLY BIG STORY and ended up on this one instead.
VANGUARD, Ch. 1:
I knew there was something wrong as I rode towards Fort Glory. I'd been gone two weeks not counting the days I'd camped at Haven and all the roads had been far too quiet on my ride south. The weather was warm but not too hot, the roads were dry and the sky was clear almost every day. Normally I would have counted myself lucky not to catch a glimpse of Ragara Damao's goons hiding in the woods, but tensions had risen so high around Lookshy that I was sure their absence was a bad sign.
I'd known for years that significant powers were moving around Wake's Raiders and that a larger rebellion was forming. Chrysalis had grown from its humble beginnings into a bloated organization with far too many members marooned all over Creation. Who was in charge, no one knew anymore. It was hard to believe that only twelve years ago Wake, Rhapsody, Devil and myself had been laying a trap for The Emissary on the roof of Gongfang's Fireworks in Nexus.
As you can probably imagine, the only thing harder than trying to trap an ancient Anathema is figuring out what to do when you actually catch him. It was doubtful that Wake and I would have ever attempted anything as audacious as blackmailing The Emissary himself on our own, but Rhapsody had a way of making very dangerous plans seem like very good ones. More importantly, after seeing Clever Devil in action, I fully believed that she could kill anyone that Rhapsody decided needed killing. Wake was no slouch with a blade either.
Of course, I played some part in the whole business myself. As many of my friends have often professed, I can talk my way into, out of or around anything. Over the years I've tricked a prince into proposing to me, weaseled my way into the most exclusive school of sorcery in the world, passed myself off as a Dynast and even convinced a pack of Lunars that a dead muskrat I'd found floating in a rice patty was really their missing mentor. That business aside, I have never traded words with anyone more treacherous than The Emissary himself. Though he ultimately agreed to all of our demands, I did find myself wondering afterwards whether I'd actually beat the Solar at his own game or not.
As for the rest of “The Founders” of Chrysalis... neither Wake nor I had seen Rhapsody and Devil in years, not since Devil had been shot at The Battle of The Gray River. While I still heard Rhapsody's songs sometimes as I traveled, the only word that ever came from The Emissary was sent directly to Wake and always reassured him that everything was still proceeding “according to the plan”.
Not that either of us knew what “the plan” was. It had a habit of changing frequently and the last version of it that we'd been parlay to was four years out of date.
Neither Wake or I had been part of Chrysalis's inner circle since the day we learned that all of our co-conspirators were Anathema. We'd never told our Raiders why we'd left the vicinity of Whitewall either. So many of the recruits we'd collected were people who'd been dealt the worst lot in life that Creation could offer. Experienced mercenaries like my old friend Nine Lives understood that there was often very little difference between “heroes” and baby-eating village-burning demons - but the starry-eyed kids who made up the majority of our forces usually quit with their first harsh dose of reality... and we simply couldn't afford to lose them.
It was better that our Raiders didn't find out the truth... that the core of Chrysalis, which touted itself as a “by mortals, for mortals” rebellion was actually comprised of Solar Exalted who made even the best bred Dynasts of the Realm look like incompetent children when it came to sorcery, intrigue, crafting, warfare and virtually everything else.
If the timing hadn't been so crappy, maybe Wake and I would have taken the moral high ground and thrown in the towel ourselves, but when you're entrenched for the winter in eight feet of snow with four hundred and fifty mercenaries and an army of Fair Folk banging on your doors... telling your men not to support the demons who are feeding them is kinda counterproductive.
Of course, why we hadn't given up when spring came was something I didn't really understand. For the most part, when The Emissary wanted to do things a certain way, it seemed safest for the rest of us follow orders and hope that we were still too useful to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Truthfully, if I was The Emissary, I would have seen no good reason to tell Wake or myself anything at all. Us Raiders had our own immediate agenda... and that was to steer clear of Lookshy while taking care of those who were starving to death in the countryside and killing as many Realm soldiers as possible. All things considered, it was what we were best at.
But since the first of Ascending Fire, the orders that Wake received from Chrysalis had been more vague than ever before and a few of my old contacts had recently gone missing. One of them had been murdered in a fashion almost impossible to describe. It made me sick to remember the scene as I'd discovered it and I could not shake how Dorian's scared little wife had told me that a dead man had killed her husband. “The plan” from on high was either coming together or falling apart, I couldn't be sure which... but I expected to see some major upheaval soon.
Like the predatory whales that swam in the deep blue waters surrounding my childhood home, I'd learned that the real monsters of the world tended to glide by underneath the surface of conflicts, invisible and unnoticed until they got very hungry. I still couldn't see the great big whales that were circling around our little war... but sometimes at night I swore I heard them singing.
Though Wake would surely say I was being paranoid again, the uncomfortable feeling stewing in my gut left me convinced that even our Raiders had outgrown the two of us as leaders. When we first started striking out against The Realm, we'd promised that we weren't going any further than Heian. We'd convinced ourselves that we would always stay close to home so that we could protect our own. The fall of Thorns changed all of that and “home” became Fort Glory. Now Wake and Strength of Many were talking about moving north.
I wasn't sure that the Anathema could be trusted and I didn't like how Wake hung on his every word. We were four days from Lookshy and our allies in Nexus were weeks away through territory that Ragara Damao controlled. Wake and I had only about a thousand men that were fully trained, not to mention too many old people and children to move. The further we pushed our limits, the more tenuous our grasp became. If we tried for too much, I knew we'd lose everything we had.
Of course, there was no use telling Wake that. Although he wasn't a Dragonblood himself, he'd been raised as a Dynast and there was very little that he did not think he could do. Sometimes it seemed as though he was overcompensating for what he perceived as his own unforgivable weakness – his failure to become one of the Princes of the Earth.
I reached the western gates of Fort Glory. The sentry sitting atop the wall was a boy I didn't recognize, probably not even fourteen years old. The black tabard he was wearing had been made for someone twice his size and he didn't even have a decent weapon, just a sharpened stick.
I reached under my cloak and produced Wake's seal for the guard at the gate to inspect. She wasn't much older than the sentry, and I didn't recognize her either.
“What's your name, recruit?” I asked.
“Sissy, ma'am.” She whispered, her voice scarcely audible. She was no soldier despite her attire, and the way she stood left me convinced that she'd never held a weapon in her life.
“Sissy?” I echoed incredulously. “Whoever heard of a guard named Sissy? Listen, recruit. From now on, you're called Steamroller!”
The girl gaped at me and someone above us laughed. It wasn't the boy who'd been serving as sentry but a grizzled old veteran I knew very well. He was tough as nails and if he hadn't been blind in both eyes I would have gladly entrusted the lives of Wake and everyone else inside Fort Glory into his care. As it was, his ears alone made him better than any four of our usual sentries.
“Is that you, Vanguard?” Nine Lives wondered.
“Yup, I'm still alive.” I tipped my hat in Nine's direction. It didn't matter that he couldn't see me. The sound of all the gold coins I wore jingling made my gesture obvious enough. Nine often bragged that he could hear me coming from a mile away. My usual attire made me stand out in the Scavenger Lands... but unlike Wake, I didn't ever want to forget where I'd come from.
Someday, if I lived to be old and gray... I was going to make it home.
“Wake will be glad.” Nine grinned. “Now what's this I hear about a Steamroller?”
I dismounted from my horse. Like a spider, Nine climbed down from his perch. I hugged him for as long as I figured he'd tolerate and then helped him over in the direction of the gate.
“This is Steamroller.” I introduced him to the girl.
“I... uh, I don't think I could answer to a name like that.” The girl admitted, looking embarrassed. As I evaluated her more closely, it occurred to me that I couldn't have possibly picked anything less fitting. She was so thin the looked fragile. Her skin was almost transparent white and I got the distinct impression that if I spit on her, she'd crumple up and double over like she'd been struck in the stomach with a cannon ball.
Of course, it wasn't my job to tell things like they were. It was my job to keep folks fighting without pay and without even the barest necessities. When our mercenaries were getting close to mutiny, that was when Wake always called for me. And when he called, I always came. Despite how disillusioned I'd become in my old age, I suspected it was because I still believed in our cause... at least a little.
“Sure you can!” I punched “Sissy” in the shoulder and she stared at me in confusion. “Y'see, Steamroller... most people only live up to what others expect of em'. So if I tell this kid that he's “Lucky”...” I jerked my thumb at the sentry, who blinked in surprise. “I figure that he will be. You tell yourself you're a steamroller and you'll be surprised at what you're capable of If it makes any difference to you, my given name is Hafizah.”
She laughed out loud at that... and then looked even more embarrassed. “I'm sorry, ma'am.” She whispered feebly. “Please don't be angry with me. It's just that you're...”
“The real ol' Vanguard?” Nine supplied. “Sure is. Don't let her young face fool ya. This lass is the one what roped me into Wake's Raiders.”
“You were drunk and you started a bar fight!” I reminded him.
“That I did! I was an honest mercenary back then! And now look at me, rebel scum through and through! Ain't even got me decent pair of boots to my name.” He snorted.
“Hey! I didn't make you stay with us!” I protested.
“Of course you didn't. You were too good to tell anybody they had to die back at Whitewall. That's why I couldn't go.” Nine replied with a roguish grin.
“For what it's worth, recruit... Wake named me Vanguard. I felt obliged to live up to it.” I winked. “Now are you going to let me in before ol' Damao gets here or what?”
With some help from Nine Lives and the sentry boy – the one I'd decided to call “Lucky”... little “Steamroller” opened up the gates.
I entered Fort Glory and went to find Wake, biting my tongue a little so that I wouldn't start harping on him about the age and quality of his guards.
Wake had promised when we started out that we would never put children in danger. The fact that the faces I saw around our camp were getting younger and younger worried me. Children panicked more easily than seasoned professionals and nervous sentries are almost as dangerous as lazy ones.
As it turned out, Wake was not in his office. It was a rat's nest as per usual... a mess of maps and correspondence stinking of cheap wine and the opium that he'd begun dipping into for his nerves. If someone had been rifling around in things that weren't their business, there would be no way of knowing it.
I'd tried more times than I could count to impress the importance of properly hiding or destroying certain documents upon Wake... and yet he still worked out ciphers on the same paper as the messages he received, completely defeating the purpose of coding sensitive material in the first place. I straightened things up a little, burned everything that seemed inconsequential as I read through it and left Wake a short note on his desk.
I cleaned up after you.
I didn't bother to sign with my name or any of my aliases. There were very few people in the Scavenger Lands fluent in Flametongue. Wake had only learned it in order to understand when Nine and I were making fun of him behind his back.
I finished replacing the floorboards to hide some of our better maps and sat down with a cup of tea. Not two minutes later, the sentry from the wall burst in.
Before I saw who it was, my hand was on my dagger.
“Vanguard!” The boy shouted. “Vanguard!”
He swallowed whatever he'd been about to say next when he saw where my blade had implanted itself into the wood of the door, a mere inch away from the top of his head.
“You know that you're not supposed to come in here without announcing yourself first, don't you?” I eyed him suspiciously. “What is it?”
“It's... it's Damao!” He stammered. “He's got Wake!”
As it turned out, Ragara Damao didn't even have the decency to send one of his own men to convey his demands. A panicked horse had come barreling up to our gates with the body of Gedden Swindon tied to it, an arrow in his throat and a knife in his back, pinning a note to his corpse.
The note was addressed generically, which made me wonder if Damao didn't know that I'd made it back to Fort Glory.
I was at a loss to guess how Damao had gotten hold of Wake in the first place, at least until I tried to call the Raiders together and discovered that Wake had taken Osric, Feather, Raj and anyone else who was worth their own weight out to investigate a series of bandit attacks taking place on the eastbound road.
It had been a trap, and not even a very clever one at that. In past years, before he'd started addling his own brain with opium, Wake never would have fallen for it. Though I still had the majority of Fort Glory at my disposal, the most experienced Raiders that I would have chosen to enact any kind of subterfuge – had all gone with Wake and were either captured by Damao or dead.
I took stock in what I did have... four hundred and twenty six men at Fort Glory, most of them older than forty or younger than sixteen. We had more soldiers in Haven, at Gray River and at Robber's Roost – but the nearest Raider-friendly village was four days away. I was missing most of my best officers, but I still had Nine Lives, whose obvious blindness made him easy to underestimate, Sakura, my protege... and the skinny little sentry I'd called “Lucky” who seemed especially promising.
Damao had made his intentions crystal clear. If we wanted Wake alive, the Raiders would disband. We'd turn over to him all of our documents and Fort Glory. And if we did so, he would let us all walk away.
There was something I didn't like in his tone. As an expert of deception myself, I have a certain knack for reading the words-within-words that most everyone conceals in their writing. I quickly made up a letter to deliver to Damao promising that we would give him whatever he wanted – if he would provide some indelible proof that Wake was still alive and also furnish us with a list of who else he was holding captive and how much he wanted for each of their ransoms.
Naturally, I had no intention of paying him anything.
As I worked out the gist of my plan with Nine, Lucky listened and watched us. I'd guessed him right... the boy was a sharp one. Though he was seventeen and looked much younger, I saw in his eyes that he itched to cut his teeth on some real work. He reminded me of myself, many years ago.
“I need this to work, Nine.” I finished, clasping his hand. He squeezed mine back and chuckled slightly. “Now, I know you and the Raiders can convince Damao that I'm planning on betraying him... especially since I am planning on it. But I need him to believe that I'm trying to waste his time and hold out for Haven to get here. It'll buy us a week, and I don't doubt that he won't furnish us a complete list of who he's killed or captured right away. If you have to, demand that he tell you what happened to “Steamroller” and “Lucky”.” I suggested.
“Steamroller?” Lucky frowned. “But nobody's going to know who that is!”
“Exactly!” I smirked.
“You're terrifying, Vanguard.” Nine reminded me.
“Only when I have to be.” I replied. Sighing heavily, I turned to Lucky, took Wake's seal from my neck and pressed it into his hand. “You and Steamroller. Take the fastest horses we've got. Now I'm sure that girl can't fight to save her own hide, but I'll bet she can run like nobody's business and she won't look like trouble. Go with her to Haven. If anyone stops you, you're siblings, traveling to get medicine for your ailing mother. I've got some herbs with me that come from Gem. They smell like the living dead and nobody will know what they're really used for, nor will they be inclined to test them. When you get to Haven, you're going to find “Mother” at The Amber Moth. Tell her everything. Then send Steamroller along with whoever “Mother” can spare – all the way down to Lookshy. They'll be looking for a place called The Plum Blossom. Bartender there is called Li Wei. Have Steamroller tell him - “We've been doing an awful lot of running around.” Those exact words, do you understand?”
“What about me?” Switch wondered.
“It's almost Calibration. You are going to Nexus.” I informed him. “Now I know you can't get there in the amount of time that we have right now, but if for any reason, this plan fails and Wake or I are killed... certain people are going to need to know about it immediately. We can't have Chrysalis sending us people who need protection if Fort Glory has been compromised or burned to the ground. There are a few people who can help you once you're in Nexus, but your best bet is to go straight to Harlotry and look for places that are hiring musicians. The words you need to say are - “I wear my heart on my sleeve”. Someone will get you in touch with Windswept Rhapsody.”
“Like the ballad?” He gave me a strange look.
“Yes, like the ballad.” I smiled slightly. Most of Creation was familiar with Rhapsody's favorite ballad – the one she'd arrogantly written about herself. Then again, Rhapsody did have more than a century of experience and a certain amount of supernatural mastery that made it very easy for her to write amazingly catchy tavern songs. Bards picked up her work like sailors picked up whores wherever they came to port... zealously, and with very little consideration of the consequences.
There was no sense in explaining to Lucky that Rhapsody was not named for the famous song but was in fact, its innovator. Admitting that she'd been roaming around Creation for more than a century was only slightly less damning than telling the whole truth – that she was a Solar and bloody dangerous even when she was nominally on “our side”.
“All right.” Lucky nodded. “Anything else?”
“Mm.” I paused. “If Rhapsody says or does anything particularly strange or has a... rather unorthodox method of getting you back here, just try to trust her.”
“That's all?” Lucky gave me an odd look.
“That'll be hard enough.” I sighed heavily. “Be careful, Lucky.”
“You know, I have an actual name.” The kid informed me.
“Doesn't matter. I want you to be Lucky.” I replied.
“What if I told you that my name was “Never Fails”?” He pressed.
“I'd still want you to be Lucky.” I tousled his hair. He had very unusual golden-colored eyes that would probably make him quite striking when he eventually outgrew his enormous ears and obstinate-looking nose.
“What are you going to do?” Lucky wondered, turning to look at me as Nine shoved him in the direction of the door.
“I've got a letter to deliver.” I smirked.
“But... won't Damao just take you captive then? Like he did Wake?” Lucky pressed.
“Not if he doesn't recognize me.” I replied. “And the benefit of dealing with Dragonbloods is that they never really look at mortals too closely.”
Taking her cue, Sakura stepped out of the shadows. Lucky stared in disbelief. While her disguise wouldn't hold up under close scrutiny, from ten feet away she could have been my twin.
“I'm meeting him as Sakura. The letter I'm holding says that I'm being returned to him as a gesture of good will. You see, about five years ago, Sakura here ran away from Damao's nephew. I'm sure the old man is going to insist on me staying in his compound until I can be returned to my rightful master. It'll give me a few days at best, but that's all I need to tear House Ragara apart from the inside.”
“Why can't someone else go?” Lucky wondered uneasily. “I mean, you shouldn't be the first one in, right?”
“Kid, do you know what the word “Vanguard” means?” Nine asked with a grin.
The boy only shook his head.
“It's a military unit. The vanguard are up at the front.” Nine explained. “They're always the first ones in.”