“We must not underestimate this alien, sir.” Thomas said as he waved for a pitcher to come their way, “He may be complacent, but our presence cannot help but to put him on his guard. Our ruse requires a further layer to work.”
James thumbed through the journal. As he found the pages that he wanted, he bent a corner slightly to mark them.
“Let Torquil and Cavil engage the men of this tower in sport.” Thomas said, “I see in their eyes that they would test us if they could, so allow it. Detail the Hamiltons to keep the peace, and let the others mix as they will. With their attention diverted, we can deal with our host and his aide directly.”
James nodded, seeing the wisdom in this plan, as it required little than to let men be men when the day comes to an end. Without a word, James gave consent to execute the plan.
“Torquil!” Thomas said, “Come now, friend, and show our elders your skill with knives.”
Torquil rose from his seat at the table and walked forward to the center of the room. Cavil tossed the wiry youth a belt of sheathed knives, which Torquil caught with aplomb, and girded it about his waste.
“Comrades!” he said, drawing some of those knives, “My master’s vizier puts me to the spot, but it is true, I have some talent with knives.”
Torquil began juggling a handful of knives, yet watched them not; his eyes scanned the tables, with the men—his own youthful comrades as well as the older men of the garrison—now closing around the center in a circle about him.
“As a boy, I picked up this habit as a pastime. My mother had me do it to keep me out from underfoot.” Torquil said, and the men laughed, knowingly, reflecting on their own time as a child, “Of course, she didn’t let me use knives. I used rocks until I was 10 years old, when my father had me learn to juggle knives as he taught me to throw them.”
As Torquil took and held the attention of the men, James and Thomas arose from their seats and moved about the gathered crowd. Thomas, following the plan, bade first the twin Hamilton men and then Cavil to do as James ordered- couched as useful suggestions. James, on the other hand, went to the commander’s table and bade him to retire to the elder’s office, which took no effort to achieve.
So both commanders, and their aides, quietly left the crowd of men entertained by young Torquil—for now—and his combination of tale-spinning, juggling and knife-throwing. A few moments later, all of them entered the much quieter confines of Commander Donaldson’s office.
Holding forth Thomas’s journal, James said “As I said before, I think it wise to compare our notes.”
As James opened Thomas’s journal to the first of the prepared pages, Thomas turned his eyes to the aide; he kept his eyes on Thomas, wary of the young wizard, as he retrieved duty logs and archived reports for review by James and Donaldson.
“Young Master,” Donaldson said, taking the articles from the aide, “you are wise to consult with me before moving on. We’ve had quite the run of encounters over the last few years with the sort of monsters you’re likely to come across as you pass into the frontier- and then into the wilderness beyond.”
“I appreciate your assistance, Commander.” James said.
Donaldson opened the logs and reports, placing them next to Thomas’s journal.
“Commander,” Thomas said, keeping an eye on the aide, “my master warned me of a distressing variety of antagonists out here and beyond. My journal has the details on those I’d been told to record in depth.”
“Likewise,” James said, “the Archmage took the time to inform me in some detail as to what is out this way.”
Donaldson stroked his beard, contemplating.
“Sir,” the aide said, “we’ve had continuing incursions with the mindless dead coming over from the east. Easily contained and put down, but their continued presence is troubling; it signifies that there is a terrible power over the mountains.”
Donaldson nodded. “Indeed, but those are just shambling things- and not true threats, like the mutant hordes.”
Pointing to pages in the logs, and handing a report to Thomas, Donaldson said “We’ve had an issue with raiders slipping past the border marches and striking deep into the interior. These are mutant men, often astride mounts equally monstrous, seeking to plunder our lands- and worse, had we not sent our women and children to the White Tower.”
Thomas passed the report provided to James, pointing to a particular item, and James immediately took note of it.
“You’ve taken casualties in your encounters, Commander.” James said.
“Yes, and I’ve had to send them towards the Hospital. The wounds sustained were such that we could not handle them here. My aide here, however, has so far enjoyed good fortune; he’s suffered several wounds, yet recovered from them all- even the impalement sustained from a goring by one those mutant beasts.”
The aide smiled, stifling a laugh, and said “Truth it is.”
“That is good fortune.” Thomas said, “Especially surviving an impaling wound like that, without attention.”
The aide rubbed his torso, saying “Apparently the beast didn’t hit anything vital.”
James and Thomas passed quick glances to each other.
“Commander, about these mutants: your report corroborates what we’ve been told, as they seem to press and probe across our border with the mountains. Similar raiders harass our boats and parties that range across the bay.”
“You imply a central leadership, and an overall plan.” Donaldson said.
“We have reason to believe that these raids are more than just probes, sir.” James said, “We believe that the enemy uses these raids to cover the infiltration of spies into our midst.”
Donaldson took the worse without apparent impact, as if he too thought so.
“The commander communicated such sentiments previously.”
James and Thomas turned their attention fully to the aide. Thomas drew a small disc-like talisman from an inside pocket as James scanned the logs.
“Did you now, sir?” James said, as he now shifted to the reports, “I see no records of such a report.”
“No doubt that it remains shelved.” Donaldson said.
The talisman turned red in Thomas’s hand, and Thomas revealed it to the others.
“Sir, the Coin of the Seer says otherwise.”
Donaldson looked on, staring in disbelief at the disc now glowing red in the wizard’s right hand.
“Commander,” James said, “your reputation is in danger. I ask you again: did you send such a report to the Tower?”
The aide, now skittish, quickly moved forward and took his superior by the shoulders. Shaking them, he said—stridently, not softly—“Sir, a moment’s search will do fine.”
Thomas waved the disc towards the aide in a single sweeping movement of his arm. The glow from the disc washed over the aide, and his form flickered a moment- like the flash of vision one sees in the night when a lightning bolt strikes during a storm. Donaldson shook his head violently, as if trying to throw off fatigue or a headache, which kept the aide’s attention off James long enough to draw his sword and put it to the aide’s neck.
Donaldson, his senses recovered, backed away once he saw James’s sword at his aide’s neck and gasped.
“Master James, what is this?” Donaldson said.
“An alien.” James said, “One that ensnared your mind, albeit with weak magic.”
Thomas, keeping the talisman’s face at the aide, moved to a save distance.
“Call for a man to bring a rope and some cloth. I intend to bind this alien, gag him and blindfold him.” James said, “Once secured, quietly, we shall interrogate him.”
The aide’s visage shifted. His skin turned pale, his hair red as blood and his eyes gleaming as jade. Donaldson froze in place; James and Thomas saw the elder man’s brand on his hand glow red- and now, both young men realized that this was more than just an outsider hiding amongst the People of the White Tower.
“Who—what—are you?” Thomas said, insistent.
“A chair.” The face changer said, “This will not be quick.”
Cautiously, James pulled forth a chair—keeping the alien covered—and then shoved him into it.
“As you see, what I am about to tell you is something that your elders are forbidden by your Eight Masters to reveal to you- something they never want you to know.”
James sheathed his sword, and instead put a hand on a knife.
“Go on.” Thomas said, keeping the talisman on their captive.
Donaldson also took a seat, now in a corner of the room, having been struck mute by the magic binding him.
“I was like you, once. I had a mother, father, siblings, friends, a lover. Though I don’t look it, I am easily Donaldson’s age. I remember how the world used to be, before—as you know it—the Rain of Azure Flames. Unlike your elders, I can speak freely about what it was- what it really was, not what you’ve been told it was. I know the truth, same as your elders- and especially as your ‘Eight Masters’ and the Archmage do.”
Realization crossed Thomas’s mind, and then his face.
“Yes, apprentice, I am one of the Lost Ones.”
The name—the label—filled James and Thomas with dread; before them was one of those that, as their parents told them, repayed the Archmage’s saving of their lives from the Azure Flames with ingratitude and eventually got banished from the Lands of the Tower.
“No, boys, I was not ‘banished’. I know your minds, and I tell you—truly—that I fled the Tower. I can tell that you’re both far too young to know the secrets that surround you about my former brethren, so allow me to start with my name. I am Mentat, and it is because of a failed magical working that I am the first of the so-called ‘Lost Ones’.”