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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

Everything was just fine in Gotham City — until some joker wrote Patrick McGowean a couple of tickets for parking his car on the set of "The Dark Knight," the new Batman movie being filmed in Chicago.

McGowean, a Teamster, was working for the movie on Lower Wacker Drive in July when the film crew needed extra cars for a scene involving the Batmobile.

McGowean offered up his Cadillac CTS, which he parked on the set. It wasn't until later that he found the tickets — one for parking in a rush-hour zone, the other for having no front license plate, which he had removed so crew members could replace it with one from "Gotham City."

He challenged both tickets, sending the city a note stating his car was used in filming and was covered by a permit allowing it to be on the set. An administrative law officer threw out the parking ticket, but upheld the ticket for not having a front license plate.
—The Chicago Tribune

My ax is wrenched from my hand as I feel sword-points prick my back, neck, buttocks. Beside me a gag is bound over Nan's mouth, just before a foul-tasting bit of cloth is stuffed into my own; our hands tied behind our backs and our pockets searched. Presently we are hustled to our feet.

I see the blindfold in the hands of the guardsman and quickly look about me for any sign of where we may be. Behind us lies a hillside, before us a gently sloping plain, dotted here and there with trees and thick bushes. The moon is directly overhead, half-full, and–

Nothing. The blindfold slips over my eyes and I am left to contemplate the image of what I have seen, the scent of the clear night air, the tips of the swords that still press in against my flesh. The leader of this patrol of Black Guard is hissing something to Nan now, about how her nefarious curse-work won't save her now, and then comes my opening — the swords move away, for just an instant, and I whirl, bringing my bound fists up before me.

This, it turns out, is a poor move. The cudgel intended for the back of my head meets my cheek instead, and I go down hard, face leaking blood.

The second blow is a better job, and I go out.

~*~

Awake, and barely. Muscles aching, my head pounding in hot agony. I see daylight through my blindfold, note this fact, and welcome the dark wave that washes over me.

~*~

Nighttime. A forest, if the hum of the insects and twittering of night-things is anything by which to judge. No sign of Nan, but some of the Dark Lord Kayne's guardsmen are talking, somewhere. I make out only bits:

"...there in two days, probably."

"I make it three."

"— shouldn't have to carry that one..."

"Thank Kayne there wasn't more of a fight..."

"...around 10..."

More is said, but their words are mostly obscured by the nigh-deafening whirr of the hum-bugs in the trees. Their monotone song comes in a long, rising wave, and I nearly fall with it. But my consciousness refuses to yield, even as I remain still, my limbs crying out in protest. Were they to hear me move... my head throbs at the thought, and this is enough. I slip away into the dark again.

~*~

They're fumbling at the blindfold's knot. I'd gladly help them, except that my arms have been tied twice over, and roped to the cords around my ankles. This morning they decided that Nan and I were good for marching, and though asking my badly mistreated limbs to carry me again was a new form of torture, I'm glad of the chance to stretch my legs again. Another few hours of walking and I may be battle-ready. If this cadre of guards numbers less than a dozen, we may have a chance, if I can lay hands on some sort of weapon...

It is midday, and if they are human — they seem to be, from what I saw the night Nan and I were captured coming out of the tunnel, out of the jaws of that keening, crystalline beast that pursued us through the caverns — our captors will be lunching soon. Why they now take it upon themselves to remove my blindfold, I have no guess. To my knowledge I don't require the sense of sight to eat, and I do not recall having been fed so far on this journey, though it is obvious Nan and I are to be kept alive for some twisted purpose. No sane mind can comprehend the grotesque thoughts that keep counsel within the evil mind of the Dark Lord Kayne.

"What's taking so long," the lead guardsman barks, as the fingers fumble more quickly. "I want them to see this."

At length the blindfold is lifted, and light pours into my squinting eyes. Immediately they tear up, and I squeeze them shut again until they adjust to the midday light, but beside me I hear Nan gasp.

We stand at the edge of a village. Or, more accurately, the gutted corpse of a village. Whole houses are bashed in, thatched roofs scorched and caved in. A wagon, half-burned and broken in two, lies across the high street; one wheel lies far down the road. At my feet lays what once was a sword, now melted and twisted into a surreal shape.

A haze seems to lay over this place, as though the dust kicked up by whatever destroyed this town never returned to the earth. Presently I am prodded in the back and Nan and I slowly shuffle ahead, picking our way through the wreckage with clumsy steps. We pass by a house with most of the front wall missing, and I can see a mother and two small children sitting inside, staring out at us with wide, empty eyes.

"What have you done here," Nan breathes.

"What have we done?" The lead guardsman spits. "Foul, deceptive witch. You would deny your own handiwork?"

I give him a sharp look and he laughs in my face. "Save your acting, Axman. We've already received word of what the two of you were up to in the Forest of Arboula, at the foot of the Summoning Tree."

"What we were up to?"

"The Lord Kayne sees all."

Nan makes a sick, choking sound, and I notice now a trio of spindly farmers standing a short distance away, watching us. The face of one is almost entirely covered in bandages; another is missing an arm.

"That's right," the guardsman continues, raising his voice. "See the very ones responsible for setting loose the horror that was visited upon your town. They stand before you now."

More stares, but nothing is said. Their glazed, watery eyes only watch.

We march on, past more bombed-out houses, the ground scarred with enormous claw-marks and patches burned to bare black. When next we stop, it is before a large, low mound, marked with a wooden cross that appears to have been fashioned from two broken roof-beams.

"Well, Axman?" the guardsman murmurs in my ear. "What say you about the fruits of your labors?"

"You're being lied to," I state. "Kayne and M'yrrgh called forth the beast. They have a slight problem, however, because they don't know how to control it."

"Liar," he snaps, raising his hand to strike me about the face, but Nan speaks. "He speaks the truth. We witnessed the whole thing."

"Then why did the Lord Kayne appear in this place in time to drive the beast away before it could destroy the rest of the town?" A bearded man appears from the other side of the mound, moving slowly on crutches. "We owe what little we have left to him. We hear word that he's done the same in other places your beast has attacked," he says, glowering at me. I stare back, but say nothing.

"Fear not, Mayor," the lead guardsman tells the man. "They'll pay for their crimes soon enough. They're saying that the Lord Kayne will preside over their public execution himself, at the palace. I'll see that you and your people are notified of the date." He grins at me. "I can't imagine it will be too long after we take you back there."

They exchange more such pleasantries, but I am no longer listening; I am looking through a gap in the trees at the edge of town, where a faint gray shape is visible — the peak of a mountain. The Towerfall Mountains, if my guess is correct. From here it would be less than a week to the palace, where King Mandrake once ruled. Where Kayne now fouls the throne with his cursed presence.

Soon we are hustled away from town and into the woods, but I pay little attention, the thoughts of my imminent execution, the frame-job Kayne seems to have orchestrated, and the memory of Mandrake all conspiring to sink me into something of a funk. I find myself so despondent that I don't immediately notice the arrow that has sprouted from the guardsman who walks before me.

A shout goes up and the air soon is thick with projectiles. Nan drops to her hands and knees, taking cover, but I twist sideways and throw myself toward one of the fallen Black Guard, aiming my body in such a way that I go down on his drawn blade, which slices the rope binding my wrists to my feet. I saw loose my hands, take his sword and find myself flat on my back and engaged in a fencing match with the lead guardsman. Despite my bound ankles, I hold him off long enough for an arrow to find his throat. I cut away the ropes around my feet, leap up, and look around to see the dozen or so Black Guard are strewn about the ground in various states of death or maiming.

And from the trees around us, climbing down tree-trunks, emerging from bushes, a group of camouflaged ruffians, bows drawn. They close, and I extend a hand to the nearest, as Nan gets warily to her feet.

"We're indebted to you, stranger," I say, but the man only looks at me, not putting down his bow. "Who can I thank first for freeing us?"

"Free you?" says another man, heavyset and whiskery, aiming an arrow at my chest. "We want only the pleasure of executing you ourselves."

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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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