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TODAY

Sunday, February 17

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Airbags

Dear Blagg,

Please watch the following link and weigh in as to whether or not the CTA should send these kids to Springfield to help state their case for more funding. Thanks.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rx3iAZhi8WE

—funkyplaidcoat

Now and again, it suits a man to take stock of his situation and station in this life. I find myself engaged in this pursuit at present, and after mulling my recent misadventures, it is becoming plain to me that I probably am in the wrong profession. If my goals are indeed to depose the Dark Lord Kayne, avenge the fallen King Mandrake and restore this realm to its former glory, then running about and getting captured on a regular basis surely seems a poor way to go about getting things done.

Yet here I am — out of the dragon's teeth and into its belly, as the saying goes. Trundled along, hands bound to my belt (a novel yet effective tactic), blindfold over my eyes, an occasional blow about the head or shoulders to ensure my shuffling remains at a steady pace. The sorceress Nan is somewhere near, I know, and I occasionally wonder if she too is rethinking her life's path.

Perhaps I have wronged some arcane deity in my wanderings. Who can know? I think back to Rheidling, the port city where I found myself a prisoner after I was caught dallying with the lovely Eveleth, wife to one of Kayne's Black Guardsmen. An error in judgment, certainly. The same could be said for the trust I later placed in Wilhelm Warhammer, my old ally from the days of the true king, loyal if unbearably annoying. Or so I thought, until he led me into the clutches of the wretched Kayne himself, as the cursed usurper summoned forth a terrible beast from some nether-world. Surely it would have been my end, had Nan not appeared at the crucial moment.

But what then? Our escape plunged us into a raging river, then down into an underground sea, where we were set upon by a horrid creature of crystal that likes of which I hope to never meet again. We made it out with our lives only to be immediately taken into custody by the Black Guard. After conducting a guided tour of the destruction wrought by Kayne's creature, our captors were ambushed by hidden bowmen, whose greeting amounted to a few days' stay of execution. They desire to slay us themselves, it seems.

Bah. Mere circumstances. I was trained an axman, not a skulking assassin who cowers in shadows. Give me a fair fight, and these outcomes would be different, with the possible exception of Kayne's hideous monster.

A stone catches my toe and I stumble, shaken from my reverie. We are heading uphill, I have suspected it for some time now, and I sniff the air as I am led up several stone steps. It must be nearly a full day since Nan and I changed hands from the Black Guard to our present ruffian hosts, but they show no sign of slowing their pace. They travel hard, and I allow a bit of grudging respect between hunger pangs. Neither Nan nor I have eaten in several days.

After the air has cooled for a few hours, we halt abruptly for a few minutes while several of the group head off; they return and silently we move a short distance, at which time my blindfold is roughly torn away.

It is night, and we stand before a broken, burned building. Most of the roof remains intact, and I am shoved inside, with Nan following. We are allowed to sit upon a pair of mouldering crates as our captors hold a conference at the door. Only their dim silhouettes are visible; beyond them I see more wreckage.

"Everyone's out, then?"

"Aye. Gone to the caves."

"There's room enough?"

"Less than a dozen survived, Rhett."

At this both heads swivel in my direction. A mistake, apparently. I comb my memory but cannot recall anyone by that name that I have wronged, intentionally or otherwise. I turn to Nan, who is staring at them.

"What do you know about this, then?" The one apparently named Rhett turns to look at me, the dusk sky outlining his blocklike head, his voluminous whiskers.

"It's useless," murmurs his companion, "no point interrogating a madman–"

"Mad, am I?" I spit, my anger finally rekindling after what seems a lifetime of ache and fatigue. "Perhaps I am mad, to believe that things could go back like they were, the Dark Lord dethroned, green things growing again on long-blackened earth, that —" Rhett gives his companion a look and I realize that I am raving. I close my mouth.

"This beast that tears apart the land," Rhett says, "tell us what you know of it."

"What I know?" I pause, look at Nan again, who shrugs. "Kayne called it into being at the foot of the Summoning Tree in the Forest of Arboula nigh a week ago, as far as I know his plan was to use it to crush the spirits of the people..."

"Lies," Rhett's companion growls, and I glower at him. Rhett silences him. "And how is it you know this?"

"I was there. I saw him conjure the monster into being. I was being held captive, but escaped with her help." I indicate Nan, who inclines her head in a wary nod.

"That's interesting," Rhett says, "because only two nights ago we got a report that it was you who summoned the beast. We understand that you mean to use it to destroy the kingdom."

I gawp at him, and Nan snorts, which I do not believe helps matters much. "Who told you this?" she asks, incredulous.

"We got the information from a gnome, bearing the sign of the Black Guard."

"A gnome!" I almost grin. "Of course he'd tell that to you, he was there, which is to say, he was with Kayne, he helped Wilhelm Warhammer betray me..."

Rhett cocks an eyebrow. "The gnome didn't tell us. He told a unit of the Black Guard. We overheard him, just before we emerged from hiding to slaughter the lot."

"Who are you people?" Nan demands.

Rhett and his companion look at one another. "We're the last who would stand and fight the Dark Lord," he says. "Organized years ago, in secret, under the banner of old King Mandrake. We've waited long years for the day when Kayne would be weak, distracted." He looks at me now, his dark, squinting eyes shining. "The time's finally here. But thanks to you, Axman... there may not be a kingdom left to save."

"What makes you think Blagg would set loose this creature?" says Nan. "Even if he could? He serves Mandrake, just as you do."

"Our sources tell us his mind is gone, consumed with anger," replies Rhett's companion. "We hear tell that he was involved in the destruction of Rheidling..."

"I can explain that —" I begin.

"...and that he freed the evil sorcerer Weiland from his underground prison there."

"That was, ah, an accident..."

"And that you returned the Hag Queen's Seeing Eye to her possession."

At this, I stare down at the ground. I know that Nan is looking at me.

"It's a pity," Rhett growls. "For years, we looked to you as a hero. Imagined you out there, still tugging at Kayne's cape, wherever you were. When we heard of your battle with Gort in the Towerfall Mountains, we found hope again, after Wilhelm Warhammer had gone over to Kayne's side. But now..." He turns to his companion, who folds his arms.

"Now, you'll face the same penalty as do any of our men who betray the cause — being run through with a sword."

"Not very imaginative," murmurs Nan.

"Nevertheless," says Rhett, then falls quiet as someone approaches.

"The silent kid's finally back from patrol, chief," says the newcomer. "I guess he cut down five Black Guard today. He's ferocious."

"Say anything yet?" inquires Rhett's companion.

"Not a word."

"Fair enough then," Rhett tells the patrolman. "Tell him to come here — we've got a couple more fish for him to gut before dinner. And I want all the men to be on hand." The patrolman nods and leaves, and Rhett looks down on me again. I see the pained disappointment in his eyes, despite the dark, and I cannot meet his gaze.

Nan, meanwhile, mutters "Balls."

Moments later the men begin to assemble and we are hauled outside the wrecked shack. They surround us, murmuring, their accusatory eyes darting away from my own. Then I hear the voice of the patrolman: "Make way, he's coming through."

Anxious whispers: "the silent kid." "He'll make it quick, no doubt." "Took out five today, by himself." "I heard 10."

He emerges from the crowd, the one who is meant to take my life. He stops, mere feet away, and our eyes meet over the tip of his sword.

It is Alfie, the boy I rescued from the sorcerer Osgood. The boy whose father died on my watch, the boy who cursed my name.

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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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