Trace (5)

The morning found him rested, his hands pain free, and his stomach rumbling as he washed up and set out his clothes for the day.

He’d be talking to the royal brats today.

When they said they were leaving, Trace put a spell across their room doors so that once they closed them, they couldn’t be open.

He also wanted to talk to Arrick; the boy had kept looking past his shoulder at Lydia, as if surprised to see her. He would have chalked it up to curiosity if Arrick hadn’t suddenly turned pale.

Lydia had to have given him a dirty look.

To his credit, the boy quickly took up the slack, but not before Trace noticed, and he figured if he noticed, then so did Lydia.

He wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, especially, if he were to be honest, after she ‘helped’ him, so he hadn’t let on that anything was amiss, but she knew something.

He thought about confronting her, but it would be best to lure her in, so he decided to stick with his plans of questioning the heirs.

No doubt they’d be angry, but he’d make them see they almost made a big mistake, one that might have cost them their lives too.

*****************

The captain of the guard, with two others flanking him, was waiting for Trace.

“Good morning, Captain.”

“It won’t be for you, taint, if I have my way.”

Trace stopped walking.

“And why would that be, Captain.”

“If you’ve harmed them…”

“The only way they’d be harmed right now is if they did it themselves. I locked the doors, nothing else. I needed, and still do need, to ask them some questions, and they were going to leave.”

The captain’s brows arched in surprise.

He didn’t know, but he’ll want answers too. Good. I need all the allies I can get.

The captain turned to his guards. “Stand aside, then.”

They did, but they didn’t like it.

Of course, their jobs are at stake now, just like Lydia’s.

    The sense of menace in their stare was almost palpable, but he would ignore them, so long as they made no move toward him.

The doors to the children’s rooms opened, and they came storming out, furious, a million commands spewing from their lips to arrest, behead, flog, draw and quarter, flay, whip, beat, and hang him.

“Your highnesses, please!” He put his hands up, pleading for them to be quiet a moment. “He only seeks the murderer of your parents. The kingdom belongs to you now, whether you want it to or not.”

“Leaving would have put you under suspicion,” Trace said. “And the captain, as much as it would have pained him, would have hunted you down as fugitives. Better if you answer my questions now, in his presence, so there’s no mistaking what’s being asked and answered.”

He looked at the captain.

“Fair enough.”

He turned to the heirs. “He’s right; I would’ve come after you.”

“Well,” Kiharu said, taking a breath, “I’m hungry. I was unable to have anything  brought in to me for a snack.”

He gave Trace a meaningful look, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes.

He likes toughness.

“Are we feeding him too?” Anjallay asked.

“He’s our guest.”

“I’ll take my breakfast in my room then.”

“You will not. You will sit with us like a proper queen, and you will answer the mage’s questions, as will I.”

He is tough.

Trace felt the faintest hint of a smile on his lips.

*******************

The servants had laid the breakfast out, still hot, or at least, warm enough.

Trace glanced around to see if Lydia would come find him, but he stopped, realizing, Kihari was observant, and would pick up on it.

Trace gave him some attention, looked him over.

He was tall, but not large. His face was all angles, his brows thick, as well as his hair, which was well groomed, if a little long.

For now, he was clean-shaven, but custom here dictated that if he ascended the throne, he would have to grow a beard.

Trace guessed his age around late teens, with intelligence in his eyes beyond his years.

If he took the crown, he would be reckoning force.

The girl was another story: she was beautiful, and she knew it, and gave off an air of haughtiness just looking at Trace. If she wasn’t careful, it could be annoying and lead her down some paths that didn’t need traveling.

Civil enough for now, having listened to Kihari about sitting at the table, Trace had no doubt that she would find a way to make him pay.

Her eyes were a pale hazel, and her black hair framed her ivory face, hanging in rich, inky ringlets frosted by the morning sun across her shoulders.

He reached for the pitcher of pear juice the same time he did, and he pulled back.

“Ladies, first.”

He tried a smile, but she gave him one of her haughty looks as she poured the juice into her cup.

Power was crackling around her.

Trace’s eyes widened, surprised as the connection between them was established.

She has power.

Yes, and we can read your thoughts as well.

“All right, then. Let’s stop the formalities and pleasantries,” Trace said out loud. “It’s clear you don’t care for your parents, I got that, but don’t you at least want to find out who killed them?

“Have you considered, even once, that you might be, could be, next?

“That’s why we were leaving,” Anjallay said. “That is, until you interfered.”

“And Trace,” said Kiharu, “who called you here to investigate? We certainly didn’t.”

“Your doctor. He’d heard of me, and sent for me.”

“How did he know you were here?”

“He didn’t, and I wasn’t. I traveled.”

“How?”

“Magic. I’m a mage.”

He let a little edge creep in; they were stalling, and he saw right through it, but he couldn’t figure out why. Still there was no harm in answering, but he learned that with royals, you had to bully them, sometimes at the risk of your own head, to get to the desired result, so he asked his next question.

“The night I met you, you were on your way out; where were you going?”

They didn’t answer.

“Did you have a place to go? Palace living tends toward softness, and your sister  doesn’t seem like the woodsy type,” he smiled at her, and she gave him back a sarcastic one, but he thought she almost actually smiled, “So I’ll ask you again, where were you going?”

“We’d rather not say,” she said.

“I didn’t ask if you’d rather say. You were both prepared to leave; there was no surprise, no outcry other than the doctor calling me and controlling the panic. If you had a place that go, that means you were complicit in waiting for the murder to be carried out so you could leave.

“You do see how that looks suspicious, don’t you?”

The captain had gotten comfortable, sitting back with his arms folded, his eyes never leaving Kahiri, who was giving it some thought, but decided to evade the question.

“What would you have done if we left before you imprisoned us?”

“Like I said before: track you, find you, and do what we’re doing now, except I’d be a lot more forceful, a lot less nice. This is your chance to clear yourselves. You won’t get another.

“You need our help?”

“I’d like it. I have a lead, and I’d like your help in tracking it down. It will take longer if I don’t, but the result will be the same.”

She leaned forward, getting caught up in it, her curiosity piqued.

“You always get your quarry?”

“Most of the time, but not always.”

“What makes you think you can get this one?”

“I don’t know if I’ll catch them until I start pursuing them. There’ve been some close calls, but this is not the time for an interview. The longer we stay here, the further away they get.”

“You’re that confident you can find them?”

“If they’re not dead.”

“Tell us what you have,” Kihari said.

Since they revealed they had powers of their own, and the princess used hers to link them to Trace, things could go either way, but for now, it was a matter of expediency

“I’ll do better than that.”

Trace shared the vision, and for all that they said they hated their parents, their expressions grew tense with anger as they saw the murderer’s hands, almost lost in the folds of a bell-sleeved robe.

In them was a flask of something with a clear liquid which they poured into the wine cups, stirring it with a wooden spoon, the passing their right hand over it in an a pattern.

That’s new. I didn’t see that in the first vision, Trace thought.

***************

A low light pulsed in the dark wine, flashing like lightning, brightening the burgundy to bright red, like blood fresh from the vein. As it darkened and blended into the wine, they could all see the tendrils fanning out slowly, twisting and curling like smoke, dying out, and the wine looking like wine once more.

I didn’t get this the first time.

Trace felt a surge of alarm, a suspicion forming, and the face beneath the hood looked up.

Before Trace could see it, her eyes flashed and blinded them all.

They all cried out as they reacted, pushing back chairs and stumbling from the table.

The sudden cries and movement caught the captain off guard, jumping quickly to his feet and scanning the room, but he saw nothing.

Their vision began to return.

“Find them,” Kihari rasped, looking at the captain.

“She’s not here,” Trace said. “This happened days ago; she just added the details to what she wanted me to see. She must have felt the link somehow, and entered it. She manipulated it.”

Damn! I’ve got a Light witch to fight.

Without hesitation, he flung himself back through the collapsing link, risking dissolution himself.

She was in the forest, far from human eyes.

She’d teased him into it, letting him almost see her, but she didn’t expect him to risk traveling the sub-link; it was collapsing too fast though, so she saw him begin to disappear out of it, still looking at her.

As she began to see through him, she did finally look up, and smile, her small fangs gleaming, her large eyes the blue of a late summer sky, her hair a dull gold in the fading sunlight that came through her window.

Lydia.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

CYBERBULLY

1)

Keith’s mother was calling him for breakfast, annoyance creeping into her voice, not because he was late, but mostly because he wasn’t responding; even if he woke up late, he usually let her know he’d be down.
He was slow, big and burly, so she didn’t like to rile him. Built like his dad, was Keith, and had his temper sometimes.
She’d gotten the phone calls from the school, and told them she’d come in, promised to, even, until fear of her son got the better of her, and she made up excuse after excuse to keep avoiding the school’s administration.
They’d run out of things to do with Keith, and to him, and now, he pretty much did what he wanted, short of sexual assault, to anyone he wanted.
It made no difference to him: boys, girls, sometimes the same age as him, sometimes a little younger. He seemed to enjoy those especially.
The older kids around his age just got a look of resignation, knowing he could, and would, beat them if he didn’t get his way.
But the younger ones were the ones he enjoyed the most, the ones who didn’t know him, who grew all wide eyed and blubbery as he menaced them, and who bruised so easily when he hit them.
She was loathing calling him again, but she did.
“Keith! Your breakfast is getting cold, and you’re gonna be late! Come on, now!”
The front door opened, and she thought it was Keith, beginning to feel silly.
He just went out to get the newspaper.
But there was no one standing there.
Her stomach did a little flip, and she grabbed a kitchen knife, though she knew she’d more likely cut herself than an assailant; still, it might work.
“Keith?”
No answer.
She peeked outside. There was no foliage for cover for a potential thief, and the street itself was beginning to fill with students heading for the bus stops, smiling and laughing because it was Friday, full of chatter about weekend plans, or immersed in their devices, eyes intent, their facial expressions mostly serious, though some were laughing, mostly in mockery at someone they designated a ‘loser’ worthy of their derision.
Online was serious business these days; life and death dramas full of intense emotions played out there, and every so often, the internet got blood on its pixels.
She closed the door, breathed a sigh of relief, chalked it up to a random breeze rather than the inexplicable, and heaving a sigh, she went upstairs to see what her son was up to in that disaster of a room she’d long ago given up asking him to clean.

*****************
He still had his gaming glasses on, the ones that ‘immersed’ him in fantasy worlds of fantastical creatures, scantily clad elf princesses, impossibly large-muscled men who’d obviously be on steroids in the real world, all capable of doing ‘cool impossible things,’ as she once heard it said.
His head was tilted back at an angle; there was something wrong, and she hurried in, since he didn’t turn around at the sound of her coming down the hall to his door.
She walked up beside him, a tentative hand on the back of the swivel chair.
“Keith?”
She spun the chair around, and Keith’s head dropped to the floor with a loud, wet thud.
A piercing sound rent the air, and darkness claimed her as her scream of anguish and fear rendered her unconscious.

****************
Akihiro woke, squinted his eyes against the morning sun sneaking past the blinds, and was a long time trying to sit up before he finally managed it.
He finished the half bottle of water by his bed, and slipped off the edge of the mattress, bare feet in the small piece of rug that kept his feet warm before he put his slippers on.
It was Friday, and for that he was glad; Fridays meant forty-eight hours of respite from Keith Murray.
Keith Murray was what they called ‘the school bully,’ making it sound like a mascot or something.
Keith Murray had belittled Akihiro whenever he saw him.
“You’re so small you could probably drive a Hot Wheels car.”
Sometimes, Keith would forget he said the joke before; he had a few, some for size, some for the contempt he held for intelligence, and he never failed to barrage Akahiro with a few, standing in front of him, preventing his movement, cornering him, digging elbows, or twisting Akahiro’s arms.
The kids would laugh, some of them, just for the sake of having Keith think they were cool, but Akihiro could see the shame of the coward in their gazes, turning away when he found their eyes, their smiles faltering and disappearing when he looked at them head on.
Well, Keith Murray was no longer a problem.
Akihiro had seen to that, and he never even left the house.

****************
Akihiro’s dad sat on the edge of the bed while Akihiro was sloughing off his covers.
“Wake up, son.”
“I am, dad.”
“Hiro, why are your game glasses in bed? We talked about this…”
“I know, dad. I just had one more mission to complete, so I finished it.”
His dad shook his head and chuckled, rifling Akihiro’s lengthening hair.
“All right then; since you’re the ruler of the universe, with all the teachers
saying what a ‘delight’ you are, I’ll let it go this time. But keep your grades up, all right?”
Akihiro smiled and looked around his room. “Up where?”
His father laughed, and got up to leave, but something seemed to pass over him, something foreboding and he turned around to look at his son.
Akihiro was just getting out of bed, putting his slippers on, when his father saw light shining from his eyes.
It looked like black light, but that couldn’t be.
His heart was pounding, and he didn’t want to call his son, but he had to know.
“Akihiro!”
The boy jumped, visibly startled.
“What is it, dad? Geez, you scared me.”
There was no light, and his father shook his head.
“Nothing, son. Thought I saw something that’s all.”
“It’s just me here.”
“Are you…all right?”
“Yeah dad, I’m fine.” His eyes betrayed his fear, but his father chose not to press the issue, nodded, said nothing, and left as the feeling of panic subsided, but not the memory of the light.

2)

He was the last person Keith expected to see; he stood on the hill so Keith could see his avatar.
Keith was smiling, because the shadow his character cast dwarfed most of the others, but the smile vanished when he recognized Akihiro’s avatar.
Keith had been killing at will, at random, but he must have saved a rabbit somewhere in history.
Akihiro shuffled down the hillside toward him.
“You challenging me, runt? I’ll beat your ass here, too.”
Akihiro said nothing, and his character’s muscles rippled beneath his tight skin.
Keith’s character smiled, and charged, sword in hand.
Akihiro sent his mind streaming down the cable, becoming his character, the heat of the day oppressive, burning across his shoulders like a mantle of fire, the sizzling sand beneath him cooked his already calloused feet.
Keith’s CG warrior uttered a vile curse, and closed with Akihiro’s.
Keith was more agile as a warrior than a bully, and his character’s knife was fast, but Keith didn’t really know how to fight with it; he kept slashing instead of trying to get in close, where a knife was most useful.

Akahiro’s sword was longer, so he needed to keep his distance. If Keith cut him, he would feel the pain; Keith didn’t know that, and Akahiro wanted to keep it that way.
He pushed Keith’s warrior away, and managed to slash him across the chest, but it was slight, and Keith feinted right and came left, knowing that to be Akahiro’s weak side.
But Akahiro had been working on it…
With the ease of a skilled matador, Akihiro sidestepped the next attempt to slash his character, and as Keith pulled back to regain his balance, Akihiro kicked him back to keep him off balance.
Keith stumbled backward again, Akahiro’s long sword sliced through his throat, removing most of it, almost taking off his head.

Blood spouted, and hissed with steam as it sunk into the sands, and Keith’s warrior fell over backward, his head held on by a few missed strands of muscle, the sand billowing up like a shroud of made of gold dust.
The eyes of Akihiro’s CG warrior flashed a dark violet light, and Akihiro returned to his own body. 
It took time to come back to the reality of his own slightness after feeling the swell and pulse of being so strong, but the warrior was in pain too, and had a lot of scars that still burned in the desert sun. 
If not taken care of properly, he would be in serious trouble if he lacked mobility, even a little. 
Sometimes the enemy attacked in swarms.
But that was not the case today, and there would be no more battles for Keith.
Ever.
Akihiro looked at the screen; the body of Keith’s CG warrior lay broken and emptying out at his feet, the icon for his heart was now black with a red X over it.
He smiled, admiring his handiwork for awhile, and onscreen, the first of the vultures began to enter in from the right; a nice, realistic touch to an otherwise routine role playing game.
The thrill of the fight subsiding, the need for sleep growing strong, Akihiro took off the gaming glasses, showered, humming his warrior’s game music, and went to bed, the dark violet light pulsing under his eyelids to the rhythm of his heart.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015