“Where is my badge, sire?” Caitlyn asked, hands folded over each other in as dignified a posture as she could manage.
“Your badge?” Maken senior asked.
“This one,” Caitlyn said, pointing at her upper left shoulder, where Garth insisted everyone wear their badges.
“Ah, I knew something was different. That was it.”
Cailtyn was also wearing a candlestick strapped to her head by a strap of cloth she’d cut from her sheets for the purpose of testing her new Blessing. She’d spent hours deciding which God to go with, and had finally decided on Tom, because of how much better her survivability became in unpredictable scenarios simply because of his Rationalization Aura.
Being able to sneak out of her room and leave the palace without raising any kind of fuss was liberating.
It burned her up inside that she didn’t pick Elora, and if she ever got the opportunity she would…those Blessings sounded heavenly.
“I know, you outmaneuvered me on this, I admit I was naïve, and I know you’d much rather I not have access to it while I’m a guest, but it’s a matter of grave importance.”
The king stopped eating breakfast and looked at her. Really looked.
Maybe he’ll make a deal about the candlestick, or at least say something about it. Caitlyn Thought with trepidation. If he noticed something out of the ordinary, then her backup plan of snooping through the palace until she found what she was looking for was dead on arrival.
He looked at her, up and down, gaze never lingering on the candlestick. Then he shrugged and continued working a knife through a hunk of meat that filled his plate with a thin sheen of blood. It seemed a little raw.
“I don’t want to keep your badge from you. What use would I have for it?” Maren asked. “There was probably a theft in your room. The servants have sticky fingers sometimes. I’ll do what I can to assist your search for it.”
Playing coy, just like I knew he would, Caitlyn thought with an internal sigh. At this rate she would never get her badge back. Somehow she had to get through to Maren.
“Look. I have to contact my master and warn him. There’s something evil on his planet. It calls itself his brother, but it looks like a monster.”
Caitlyn’s thoughts turned inward. What gave the creature the gall to call itself Garth’s brother? Matter of fact, why did it spare me? Caitlyn briefly thought of the times Garth would mention that he was only responsible for the stories in the west, and his brother was responsible for the others.
….the one who ate Chicago?
How does someone become brothers with a living plague?
“Don’t worry about it.” Maren said, between mouthfuls. “Of all the people who could help, Your master is one of the least likely to actually do so.”
“Of course he would do something! Do you think he’s a coward?” Caitlyn demanded.
Maren chuckled and brought a napkin up to his chin, wiping a bit of juice off his lips before speaking.
“No, my dear, that’s not what I mean at all. About eight hundred and forty some odd years back, your master and his brother signed an Evil Twin Nonaggression Pact with the intention of avoiding stupid clone tropes.”
Maren shook his fork in faux anger before chuckling as a creeping dread wormed it’s way into Caitlyn’s stomach. He shouldn’t know those things. He’d never seen Garth nor this monster before in his life. He was universes away. How on earth did he know more than Caitlyn did about the history of Garth and this monster?
Caitlyn could think of only one explanation, and it chilled her to the bone.
“How do you know that?” Caitlyn whispered, the hair on her neck going up.
“Anyway, your master is highly unlikely to retaliate against this monster as that would break his pact and expose him, you, and that bountiful bottomed young lady to retaliation.”
Maren sawed off another bit of raw meat and popped it in his mouth with relish.
“Do you even know where my badge is?” Caitlyn asked the monster in Maren’s form in front of her.
“I told you, I had nothing to do with it. It was probably someone who works here, though.” Maren winked at her.
“Well. I guess I’ll have to go find out myself. Can you direct towards someone who could help me who isn’t you right now?”
“Mmmn yes,” he said, wiping his lips again before pointing. “My spymaster has barricaded himself inside his office, claiming that people are being replaced with dopplegangers. He’s as likely to cut off your head as help you, since he’s obviously gone insane, but if anyone knew where your badge went, it’d be him.
Caitlyn looked back at Maren and frowned. “Do you know what’s happened to you?”
“What?” Maren asked, brows furrowed as Caitlyn’s hair stood on end.
“What was our conversation about?” she asked.
“You asked me about your stolen badge, and I offered to help you find it. Go see Jorkson, my dear. And be careful. As I said, the man’s obviously completely lost his mind.”
Okaaay then. I can see why, Caitlyn thought as she walked away from the table, her meal unfinished.
Who even knows what they’re serving today? She thought, shuddering as she watched Maren wolf down the mystery meat with gusto.
Caitlyn reached up and tore the candlestick off her head. She was no longer in the mood to test out her new Blessings, she was in the mood to get the hell off the planet.
She glanced at the candlestick in her hand, her heart sinking a little as she turned and went in the direction Maren had indicated, searching for this Jorkson fellow’s office.
It took a couple minutes of asking around, but Caitlyn was finally able to find the man’s office, at the end of a series of winding halls that formed a labyrinth inside the palace.
She knocked on the solid oak door.
“I said leave me be, hellspawn!” a deep voice reverberated through the wood.
“Hello, Jorksen, my name is Caitlyn, And I don’t think something as simple as a door is going to protect you from what is going on here.”
There was silence, then a clatter and scraped of furniture being moved. Finally a small slot in the door slid open, revealing the brown eyes and green skin of an orc.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Caitlyn, the king’s guest. The one I’m assuming you arranged to steal from?”
“Bigger problems than your jewelry, come back never.”
He slammed the slot shut, then opened it again a moment later while Caitlyn was still processing.
“And while you’re at it, get out of the city, if you know what’s good for you. King’s not himself any more, and only the gods know who’s really themselves and not some insane doppleganger.”
He slammed the slot shut again, and Caitlyn began to hear the shifting of furniture again.
“That’s what I want to talk to you about!” Caitlyn shouted through the door. “With my badge, I could call for help, but I need them to do that.”
“Prove you’re not one of them.” Jorkson’s voice came through the door.
“How am I supposed to do that?” Caitlyn asked.
“I cut one of their hands off and it grew a fucking face and started crawling around.”
“Each separate part of this creature’s body has its own brain, can survive on it’s own. Wants to survive. That means there’s an easy way of testing this.”
“And that is?”
The view-slot opened again.
“Cut off your hand. If it starts walking around on it’s own, then you’re one of them.”
“I’m not cutting off my hand, and I’m not one of them.” Caitlyn said, crossing her arms.
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Jorkson said. “But Maren, he doesn’t even know. The creature surfaces now and again in his words and behavior, but he doesn’t remember any of it. I can tell it’s not acting. That creature in there still thinks it’s king Maren.
He held a bloody rag wrapped over a stump up to the view slot.
“I know for sure that I’m not it.”
“Oh, gods, are you okay!?” Caitlyn asked. Maren wasn’t exaggerating when he said the man was off his rocker.
“ Agonizing pain? Yes, Woozy, yes, sleepy, a little, but okay? Okay? I haven’t heard a question that stupid in years!”
“How long has it been off?” she asked.
“A couple minutes, I think…” Jorkson said, his eyes darting to the side.
“I can help reattach it, I can heal you. Would you like your hand back?” Caitlyn asked.
“Yes,” Jorkson’s voice came through the door as a whining half-sob. A man close to breaking. Then his eyes widened.
“But not until you prove you’re not one of those creatures.”
Caitlyn thought fast.
“How about blood? That’s a part of me. Take a little blood and put a hot knife through it. if I’m the creature, it would move around or something. Would that do?”
“Damnit, that’s a much better test,” Jorkson muttered, then left the door, and she heard some clattering on the other side.
“Here,” he said, poking a hand-made crystal shot glass through the viewport. “Put your blood in there, where I can see you. And no tricks!”
“I need a knife.”
With a bit more muttering, a pearl-handled knife came through the slot.
Caitlyn was not a fan of pain, but compared to the level of concern bordering on panic that was building inside her, this was more than worth it.
She winced as she made a deep cut through her palm, dribbling blood into the shot-glass.
With a single pass of the white, cleansing mana, the pain in her palm went away and the wound closed without a scar. Caitlyn handed the glass with her blood over to the spymaster.
She sat there in silence for an awkward minute, cleaning off her hand, when finally she heard the sound of more furniture being moved away from the door. A moment later, the door opened revealing an orc with an imposing barrel chest and gut to match, dressed in silken finery.
“Come in, quickly,” He said, motioning to her. “And don’t try anything funny.”
Caitlyn ducked into the room and studied it as the rightfully paranoid orc started re-barricading the door, moving furniture with one meaty hand.
The office was tasteful and expensive, but that really boiled down to a lot of very heavy hardwood furniture to put in front of the door.
“You don’t seem like a spymaster.” Caitlyn said.
“That’s the point, isn’t it.” Jorkson said, putting the last piece of furniture down before turning to her.
“Now, my hand.” He said, unwrapping his stump and pointing to a severed gree hand in the far corner of the room.
“Right, right,” Caitlyn said, running over and grabbing the hand.
She lined it up with the man’s gushing wrist as best she could and tried to fuse them back together with Heal.
On a hunch, Caitlyn made the Heal spell into a sieve, a kind of strainer mesh of Heal, that she pulled through the man’s arm from one side of the wound to the other, straightening out the crimped edges of the veins and aligning the pieces as best as they could.
She kept at it for a full minute until the orc hissed in pain.
“Ah, fuck, it stings like I’ve been sitting on it for months. That’s a good sign.” He reached over and grabbed a bottle of alcohol and downed a third of it.
“Ah,” he exhaled, his breath liable to catch fire, looking down at his left hand slowly curling and uncurling.
“I owe you. Now, what did you want again?”
“My badge?” She asked. “I was hoping you could help me find it.”
He looked her up and down.
“Oh, no need for that. here.” He went up to his desk that was currently pressed up against the door an opened the drawers, pulling out an ivory box, twice as long as it was wide.
He set it on the desk, beside the recliner that was stacked on top of it, then unlatched it.
The box opened to reveal a pitch black interior that seemed to bee far deeper than it should be, coated in a shiny, reflective surface.
“Goodies we got from the Dan-Ui for contraband,” He said by way of explanation as he took her badge and Status Band out of the box, handing them to her.
“Oh, thank the gods.” Caitlyn said, pinning the badge to her chest and slipping the status band over her wrist.
She felt the distinctive rush of power and clarity as the band drastically boosted her attributes.
Without wasting a second, Caitlyn touched the badge and contacted Bel.
Bel, I need to warn Garth, there’s a monster on this planet, and it’s taken over the king.
Bel’s voice echoed in her mind.
Garth dropped out of contact hours ago. We’re talking to this Elder lady who came in on a handsome ship, and she says he might be some kind of cataclysmic event, which is a weird thing to say about a person.
Elder of what!? Caitlyn demanded.
The Dan Ui.
Cailtyn’s heart stopped for a moment, then she made her choice.
“Beam me up.”