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TODAY

Saturday, April 20

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Airbags

Gov. Rod Blagojevich spent Thursday defending his decision to attend a hockey game in Chicago rather than stay at the Capitol to work for passage of a mass-transit fix that failed.

"I prefer to watch a game that wasn't rigged," said Blagojevich, who watched the Blackhawks' 5-1 win Wednesday night as the House voted down his plan.

Politically embarrassing visual evidence of Blagojevich watching the Blackhawks at the United Center dominated conversation Thursday in the Statehouse, where lawmakers were perplexed by the governor's lack of support for a solution he publicly endorsed.

"Perhaps a stint in the penalty box would be appropriate," said Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville).
—The Chicago Tribune

The jubilation is palpable. The four of us nearly dance our way down the mountainside, joking and making merry, our feet light over the rocks and down into the tall grass of the foothills. The laughter of Rhett, the rebel chief, booms loud and often, and the sorceress Nan titters alongside him; even the boy Alfie can be heard chuckling from time to time, a rare sound indeed from the lad, who tends toward morose introspection.

Yet I keep my own counsel, even as I smile along with the others. True, it appears that several large barriers have been lifted from our path — the Dark Lord Kayne's terrible Beast, driven off the edge of a cliff, along with the shady wizards Osgood and Weiland — but something gives me pause. Always, even in the rosy days of King Mandrake's rule, I grew more suspicious when others gave themselves over to celebration and cheer, as I waited for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Now I anticipate its fall again.

The only question is when.

Still, when Rhett claps me on the back and hands me a flask of the spirit, I gladly take it and share in the memories of the previous day's battle, when we routed a squadron of Kayne's Black Guard just before the appearance of the Beast. With the cursed creature gone and Kayne's forces in disarray, our path would be clear. We must strike quickly, and the aim of our ax must be true.

Soon we are passing among trees, our footsteps softened by the bed of leaves and grass below our feet. Rhett and the boy take the lead, directing us to the encampment where Rhett's rebel band awaits our return, and news of what will come next. If things go as I hope, this will involve wholesale violence and destruction for Kayne and his Black Guard.

~*~

Evening approaches and we near the camp, but all at once the boy signals for us to stop. "Something's not right," he murmurs, and creeps ahead without further explanation.

After a moment we follow, moving quietly to the low rise behind which he crouches. He turns to mark our reaction as we take in what he already has seen — the Black Guard, setting flame to an enormous stack of dead bodies. All that remains of Rhett's rebel band.

The noxious scent of kerosene is heavy, and when the torch is touched to the gruesome pile, great flames leap upward. My breath catches in my throat — I have witnessed such acts before, but it has been many years, and I could have lived many more without seeing it again. Beside me Nan curses softly, and we turn to Rhett.

But Rhett is not there, not in any recognizable form. His eyes seem to crawl forth from his skull, colored orange in that loathsome firelight, his jaw trembling, fingers opening and closing. Before I can stop him he wraps his hands around his cudgel, leaps forward and lets fly an earsplitting screech.

I look at the boy, sigh quietly, and go after him with my own ax at the ready.

Before we arrive in the clearing Rhett already has incapacitated two Guardsmen, thumping one over the head, smashing the cudgel down onto another's shoulder with a sickening wet crack. I bring my ax down on the latter's neck out of pity as much as my own desire to end his girlish wailing, then turn to face the next attacker, a burly Guardsman brandishing a long knife. We swipe and circle, stepping just out of each other's reach, until Nan appears behind him, dagger in hand, and slits his throat. We nod at one another and turn to face our next opponents.

Some alarm seems to have gone up, and Black Guard pour forth from the half-ruined buildings of the village that had been home to Rhett and his men. I see him now, moving amongst a swarm of the enemy as leaves swirl in the wind, his cudgel flying this way and that, leaving a trail of broken, twisted carcasses in his wake. It is too far to see, but I know that his eyes still burn with that insane gleam as we battle in the light cast by his men's burning bodies.

Two more Guardsmen I chop down and I find myself fighting alongside the boy. After I dispatch another with a particularly powerful blow to the torso, I pause to marvel at his swordsmanship — his blade flickers in the firelight, almost liquid as it draws deep red lines in the flesh of his opponents. One attacker falls and another takes his place, only to be felled himself moments later.

Nearly a dozen Black Guard appear from somewhere, rushing the boy and I from the side, and it occurs to me that we may be overmatched — but within seconds a jet of flame leaps out from the bonfire to wrap itself around them, and the stench of seared flesh thickens. Nan's hand is raised, her lips moving, and with a flick of her wrist the fire disappears, leaving only charred remains.

When the last of the enemy have fled we join Rhett, who stands with his cudgel still in hand, staring at the shrinking bonfire. The boy lays a hand upon his shoulder and I see the first tears on Rhett's face, cutting lines across his dirty cheeks before disappearing into his beard.

~*~

"A good omen for the day," I announce, striding into camp with a pair of fat rabbits slung over my shoulder. I hand them to the boy, who sets to skinning them while Nan stokes the fire. Rhett speaks not, but I note the way his eyes linger on the carcasses that will make our breakfast. Slowly he is emerging from the horrors of the previous evening.

Sated, we set to traveling again, more to occupy ourselves than anything else. We have no immediate destination in mind. The boy says he heard of another rebel enclave somewhere to the southwest, near the capital city, but Rhett does not confirm this. Indeed, he has been silent since last night's battle.

At midday we see the first broken treebranch, the splintered white of the inner wood laid open like a wound. A few footsteps more and we see another branch ripped loose and flung upon the forest floor. Further ahead an entire tree is uprooted, another split near in half. I look down, where Nan kneels to examine an enormous clawed track. My stomach turns, for I know immediately what it means.

She looks up at me. "It's fresh."

I nod and look away into the woods, thinking. A few empty seconds pass before Rhett bellows and hurls his cudgel into the thicket.

"It was for nothing!" he howls, clenching his fists. "They died for nothing... the Beast still lives..."

The burly man falls to his knees, pounding the dirt. No one says anything, but I soon find both the boy and Nan watching me, looking for a reaction.

"Not for nothing," I say after a time, helping Rhett to his trembling feet. "We carry on. We stick to our road. We take the fight to Kayne."

"What?" asks Nan. "The four of us?"

I nod. "Perhaps if we destroy him and M'yrrgh, we'll find some clue as to how to defeat the accursed creature."

Nan knits her brows. "Not sure how that would work, exactly, but..."

"Have you any other ideas?"

"Not really," she says. "I'm game, I suppose."

The boy shrugs, nods.

"Rhett? Will you join us?"

"Aye," he growls, fishing his cudgel out of the undergrowth. "For glory... and for Mandrake!"

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at blagg@gapersblock.com. His column appears every other Saturday.

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