- Issue #61 – Higher Education
- Issue #62 – Poor Relations
- Issue #63 – Storm Cage
- Issue #64 – Stormfall
- Issue #65: Fond Farewell
- Issue #66 – City by the Lake
- Issue #67 – Emet
- Descendants Special #6 – Things to Come
- Issue #68 – One Week
- Issue #69 – Crashers
- Descendants Giant-sized #2 – After-Party
- Issue #70: Gold and Glory
- Issue #71: Yellow
- CynQuest: Yellow Fallout
- Issue #72: Turmoil Returns
- Descendants Annual #6
Issue #71: Yellow
A procession of riders, pack horses, and remounts left the north gate of the city two hours before dawn that morning. The guards were convinced to allow them through by a writ from the Queen herself and sworn to secrecy on pain of treason.
In the morning, trusted servants would report to the court that the Queen and her entourage were off on holiday at her holdings at Dawson Bay. The minor scandal of her departure without notifying anyone would be an issue she would address after the defeats of the master of the Canker-in-the-World. If all was successful, she could tell a version of the truth. If not, there would be greater concerns.
With Melissa’s Device keeping the horses hale enough for it, they rode hard until noon when they took their rest in a forested glade out of sight and hearing of any known roads or game trails. During a tense, quiet midday meal, the Sorceress, seeing as the Queen had already revealed her name, showed herself to be the Lady Slate, formerly of House Ortega and the wife of a knight named Slate.
That served well enough to get people’s minds off the dire nature of their journey as the conversation began to bloom with either expressions of shock or discussion of ‘clues’ to the Sorceress’s identity that were now obvious in hindsight.
“Do you think Jonathan knows?” Warrick asked as they were packing up to resume the journey. “We talk often and while he’s a good friend, I never thought of him as the kind of man to keep secrets this big.”
“He must know.” said Christina. She’d spent her time repairing and reinforcing her strange Neo-Device armor instead of eating and had just returned from rather effortlessly helping replace the pack horses’ burdens. “Do you think I could be a highly placed and powerful servant of Her Majesty without you knowing?”
Cyn made a rude noise as she tightened the belly straps on her horse’s saddle. “I think you underestimate Mother. If she sat you down and took time to explain things to you, I imagine she might even convince you to dance for the court in your shift and bare feet.”
Christina gave her a look, but Warrick interrupted whatever she was going to say with a laugh. “You’ve never really talked to the Queen directly, love; Cyn’s right about this. I don’t even think it’s part of her Device’s powers; she’s just that good at persuasion.”
Across from them, Cyn spotted Melissa standing over someone who was sitting on a fallen log. Her back was to them and blocked whoever she was with from view, but she was bending in such a way that it looked as if she was laying hands on their head.
“What’s going on over there?” Cyn asked.
Christina, taller than both of the others, was able to lean a bit and steal a glimpse of the other person. “I think its Captain al-Utt. I wonder what’s wrong?”
“He couldn’t have gotten hurt sitting down to lunch, could he?” asked Warrick.
“Give me a moment and I’ll find out.” Cyn touched the Amulet d’Fac’smil and used it to sharpen her hearing. At the same time, she reshaped one ear, allowing her to swivel and position it like a dog’s so she was picking up exactly what she was listening for.
“…nothing.” the Captain was saying in his usually soft-spoken manner. “Riding into the bright sun hurts the eyes after a time and I’m not surprised that it gave me a headache.”
Melissa sounded, for once, hesitant, “The pain wasn’t in the correct portion of your brain for that.”
Cyn sharpened her hearing more, listening for how they spoke on top of just what they said. When she did, the nervousness and aloofness in the Captain’s voice sprang to the forefront instantly. “What is it in the correct position to indicate?”
“I… have no idea. I’ve never sensed a headache emanating from there before.” Melissa conceded, upset at being forced to admit she was stumped.
“He knows damn well what it is.” Cyn said, folding her arms.
“Say what now?” asked Warrick.
“She’s been acting strangely… even given her usual behavior.” said Cyn. “Talking strangely, mentioning things that make no sense…”
It was only then that Cyn remembered she had an audience. “It wasn’t that this time!” she said hotly, forgetting to keep her voice down. Then, more measured, she added, “I was talking about Captain al-Utt. He knows why his head is hurting, but won’t tell the healer.”
“If that’s really what he’s doing, there’s a good reason for it.” said Warrick.
“Not good enough for me.” Cyn was already striding toward the Captain. She slowed only long enough to watch Melissa shake her head and return to her own preparations. Captain al-Utt shook his head once, raised a hand to rub his temple, then got up from the log. That’s when he found the princess in front of him.
“Captain.” Cyn said firmly, using her most regal tone.
The Captain stood at attention, then bowed deeply at the waist. “Princess Cynthia. How may I serve you?”
“The truth would be a good start, Captain.” she said, dialing it up to maximum haughtiness. “What did you consult the woodsman’s daughter for?”
Captain al-Utt didn’t flinch or dissemble; he answered directly. “The truth of the matter is that I did not consult her, Your Grace. She noticed that I am suffering some small discomfort and offered her aid. I accepted, though I did not believe she would be able to help me.”
More than lies, Cyn particularly hated well-crafted truth that avoided answering her questions. A more polite person would have taken his cue and left him his privacy, but she was emphatically not a more polite person. “And how did you know that?”
Again, there was no wince of discomfort, no sigh of resignation. He was cornered and he accepted the inevitability that was Cyn when she set her mind to a subject. “I suspected,” he emphasized the word without a hint of insubordination in it, “because the problem is related to my Device.” Unconsciously, he raised a gloved hand to fiddle with the golden buttons on the Ephemeral Mantle.
Instead of prompting him verbally again, Cyn just stared at him. She had a good stare, the kind found on librarians and nuns; it was pervasive even when the target looked away. While she was doing so, she marveled at the fact that someone her age had risen to Captain-of-the-Guard. She didn’t talk with the Captain often and wondered if the conversation might have gone differently if they had been more friendly.
As good as her stare was, his was somehow worse for the placidity that welled up from his eyes and in his posture. While he was always on alert, he was also perpetually at peace, it seemed. He also understood that an explanation was expected of him. “The Mantle allows me to perceive the mental landscape; the Astral Plane. My great works of mentalism can be attributed to this, but the truth is, while I wear my Device, I am ever capable of sensing the astral just as you are capable of smelling even when not thinking of it.”
“And that gives you headaches?”
“Not under normal circumstances.” He shook his head. “However, as we move North toward this Canker, the astral is… I cannot say that it is in flux because this is too subtle to describe it that way. It is… wrong. Just wrong enough that it is as if I were looking at the world through someone’s spectacles; the astral has become distorted in such a way that I am getting headaches simply by perceiving it.”
His piece said, Captain al-Utt glanced toward his horse. “That is all I can tel you, Princess. In all honesty, I do not understand it myself. By your leave, I do need to re-saddle my mount.”
“One more thing.” Cyn said, “Does Mother know?”
“It is nothing that the Sorceress… Lady Slate… hasn’t informed her of already. The Canker-in-the-World is just that: a corruption that should not be here and spreads the longer it remains.”
Cyn pursed her lips and thought on this. Finally, her curiosity and compassion combined to force one more question from her. “If it gets worse, are we going to have to send you back?”
The Captain closed his eyes and smiled a small, gentle smile. When he opened his eyes, loyalty was unmistakable in them. “Your Grace, I am the sworn Captain-of-the-Guard. Above all of the royal retinue, it ultimately falls to me to defend you and your mother. If it comes to that, I will shed the Mantle and fight sans Device.”
Wil and Callie, the group’s scouts, rejoined them a few hours after the group got moving again. While Callie reported to Laurel and Lisa, Wil came straight to where Cyn, Warrick and Christina were riding in a group. Cyn had been trying her best to get Warrick in trouble with his wife via tales of their previous exploits when the pseudo lady-in-waiting brought her horse up beside them.
The first thing Cyn noticed was that her companion’s right hand and upper arm were bandaged.
“What happened out there?”
“The wildlife.” Wil said, too tired to show proper respect. She was practically lying across her horse’s back. “Something has them panicky and acting really strange.” Up came the bandaged hand. “This was from a ground hog. It barreled right out of its hole and latched on. I think it was trying to eat me.”
Warrick stated the obvious. “They don’t eat meat.”
Wil shook her head and touched her good hand to the bandaged wound at her bicep. “Neither do sweet little cottontail rabbits, but one took a strip out of me while I stopped to fill my canteen at the stream. I could swear it was following a game trial too.”
Trying to sit up taller in the saddle, Wil looked over to where Callie was giving her account. “Callie says that it’s worse closer to the tower. The trees are all green again in the middle of autumn and they bear strange fruit that smells like something burning. All the animals have left that area completely. She says it’s as if everything were dead… or should be.”
Cyn groaned. “This is reminding me more and more of Morgan le Fae or the daoine. Weirdings spreading out into the land, things like that. Give me something I can stab or punch any day instead of the ancient magic.”
“You did ask for an adventure, Princess.” Wil said. “Those are never about the hero doing something easy.”
They rode for some time after twilight, the path lit by Lisa’s sorcery until they finally arrived at a spot Wil picked out for them. At one time, it had been an Americ Union fort, but it had been lost to history and partly reclaimed by nature. While the walls were crumbling, they would hide the light of their fires and still make it difficult for someone to ambush them.
They drew watches, and even the Princess and Queen were included in the process. As it happened, both women drew second watch and set themselves up on a surviving battlement that gave them a good view of the camp.
Without any of the primness or propriety she showed at court, Laurel stretched her legs with a satisfied groan as she sat down beside her daughter. She was dressed for travel and for a light skirmish; a padded leather jacket, tough denim trousers with leather patches over vulnerable spots, and vambraces on her arms. A stout oak staff rested across her legs and a solid steel baton courtesy of Warrick was tuck through her belt.
“It’s been a while. For a lot of things, actually.” she said.
“Hmm?” Cyn’s mind was elsewhere. Something about her conversation with Will earlier had been bothering her and she couldn’t put her finger on it.
Accepting the other woman’s distraction, Laurel settled down and spoke anyway. “Alexis, Ian and even Melissa once or twice; they often went with me on trips outside the city. Of course Father would never hear of his kitten going on state sanctioned missions, but we always did out best to ferret out something the looked like an adventure to us.”
Cyn smiled at this. She knew she was adopted, but it always made her happy knowing that in a way, she still managed to inherit things from her mother. Down below, a horse snorted and she jumped before realizing what it was. To cover she asked, “And what else has it been a while for?”
In the darkness, Laurel smiled. “It’s been far too long since you and I had time alone. I feel like it’s been years and years. Are the rumors I hear about the Sneak Thief and you true?”
A small, polite cough. “I’m sure I’ve never heard these rumors.” Even as she fought back a blush, her brain kept skipping back to talking to Wil and settling there.”
“Oh come now, Cyn.” Laurel laughed. “I might not necessarily approve of you being involved with a thief, but I do find his supposed motives intriguing. Part of the reason I want him captured in fact is because I’m sure he knows far more about crime within the city’s walls that even Callie has flushed out.”
Cyn’s eyes caught the light of the fire as they widened. “So you’re… okay with it?”
“I’m okay with anything that makes you happy.” said Laurel. “Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be careful. This is a man who professes to take from the rich and give to the poor—keep in mind that as princess, you are by default the richest around. Keep an eye on him.”
“He’s more of the ‘take from the corrupt and give to the poor’.” Cyn defended, then remembered her actions when she thought he’d stolen the scion’s stone. “And you don’t have to remind me to be careful. Actually, I think I might be too careful.”
There was movement below and her hand went to her sword. However, it just turned out to the one of the horses; one of the pack animals. It had left off grazing and was wandering closer to camp.
“Something we’ll have to talk about another time when we can have clear heads about it.” Laurel said with a frown.
Cyn smirked. “Thank you for changing the subject, Mother…” Her voice trailed off as once more, her mind drifted back to what Wil had said. “Callie told you about all the strangeness?”
“She did. Lisa says that she’ll be able to ward us from the effects once they start becoming noticeable. She also says that if what little she knows or suspects of this corruption is correct, simply being thinking, abstract minds will serve as a level of protection.”
“So we won’t go predator like all the fuzzy woodland creatures?” Cyn scanned the camp and saw another of the pack horses meandering toward the fire. Pack horses were fantastically stupid, she idly thought, all they were taught was how to follow other horses and that was just a different version of their herd instinct.
“We’ll be able to notice someone having out of character moments long before it gets bad enough that they attack us.” Laurel assured.
Again, Cyn felt her eyes widen. Out of character moments? Everyone seemed out of character at time to her. Who the hell called Tink ‘Christina’ besides Kareem? And why was Jun acting so level-headed instead of her usual soft and fluffy self? And Warrick acted like he barely knew JC…
She stopped and held her breath. That wasn’t right. It wasn’t them who were acting out of character. No one seemed to notice the inconsistencies with them. No, it was her that got all the strange looks and people questioning just what the hell she was on about. Her. It was her. Was whatever magic the Canker was using corrupting her as well and from far greater range?
A third horse sidled toward the sleeping folks in the camp. Only now that she was semi-distracted, she wasn’t just seeing stupid horse behavior. It wasn’t horse behavior at all. Nor was it meandering. It was circling. Like a pack of wolves.
“Horses are animals.” she muttered.
“Hmm?” asked Laurel.
“Horses are animals!” Cyn cried out and leapt to her feet. Now she knew what had been bothering her, the question she should have asked, “And packhorses are really stupid animals. If being an abstract thinking is a defense against the Canker’s woogie—then the packhorses are defenseless!”
She drew steel and leapt from the battlement. “To arms!” She screamed. “We’re under attack!”
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