Dave found his older brother sitting alone at the table, his bandage on the tabletop whilst he tried and failed to load the small gun that he carried on his belt, after the fifth failed attempt he slammed it back down on the table in frustration. He saw Dave approach in his own scouting armour, looking slightly concerned at the scene unfolding in front of him. So, he tried to ease the tension with humour.
“Well, this is something I always dreaded. You in charge of this place.” Dave said, it was something that Jack had always joked about, that when he eventually got the keys to the manor, Dave would be first to get an eviction notice. Jack looked up, recognising that his younger brother was joking.
“It's only temporary. You don't need to worry about getting kicked out just yet.” Jack said and sighs deeply. He knew that he was in well over his head, at this point. Like a drowning man with no sign of land anywhere. “I don't have a clue what I'm doing little bro. I mean... Am I doing the right thing here?” Jack asked, moving his hand across his brow.
“Well, this is new, don't think I've ever seen you doubt yourself before.” Dave said, slightly taken aback at his brother’s self-doubt. As the two brothers were talking Vernon arrives and leans against a nearby part of the cave wall. As Dave continues. “Well, this place is going to be hard to defend. To many entrances and exits and a large empty space between the perimeter wall and our home. But we do now have more people to defend it this time.” He finished as Vernon walks up to Jack and Dave.
“It's going to be okay laddie. We'll hold this place don't worry about it.” Vernon said, but he had his doubts, although he saw no reason to raise them. That was until Jack raised one of them by himself.
“The last time this manor was attacked we didn't exactly come out of it in one piece. I certainly didn't anyway.” Jack said as he picked up the bandage and re applied it to his face, covering the gaping hole in his head that had been there moments before.
“Last time we were caught by surprise. And your brother's right. We do have more men to defend this time.” Vernon said as he walked up and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “All I know is that it is your job to defend her now Master Jack. Whether you like it or not.” Vernon finished and headed out of the cave.
It had taken Dmitri over an hour to locate Alden, who he eventually found placing landmines along the road, and marking off their positions. But this was important, he needed to know if what he suspected about The Answer and Lord Boris working together was true.
“Alden.” Dmitri said walking up to him, then noticing exactly what he was placing, he immediately regretted the careless way he had walked down the grounds to fins him.
“Imperial.” Alden said in respond. It was to be expected, this tone. After all they had been active enemy combatants for over two years.
“I need to ask. When you were serving that old fool. Did you encounter a man called Griefful?” Dmitri asked, this gave the IronEye pause for a minute, he seemed like he was deciding on whether or not to tell him the truth.
“The hooded man, yeah I saw him. He was the one who warned us about your raid on my lord’s fortress last year.” Alden said as he returned to laying his mines. This gave Dmitri pause. The raid had been a secret, nobody other than Codsworth and The Mayor’s along with his closest advisors had known about it. “That’s why we were on the other side of the river waiting for you to all get in. What you thought that we would be so stupid to let a raiding force enter our home.” Alden said as he got up and walked away, leaving Dmitri slightly dumbfounded. If what Alden said was true, and he had no reason to doubt it anymore, then they had been betrayed by someone close to The Mayor. He doubted that it was Osmund himself, the fat oaf didn’t have the brains to carry out a conspiracy on this scale, and besides. It wouldn’t have benefited him to leak their plans. He was in over his head at this point and he knew it.
“Dmitri, get in here!” Codsworth shouted from the house. And deciding to put this on hold for a little while, he obeyed the commander and headed back into the house.
When Codsworth And Jack walks into the entrance hall, they find Lieutenant Barca Godfrey, the twenty-five-year-old man, who Codsworth had promoted when he went to join the troops in the war against Lord Boris, standing at the head of what remained of Hawk platoon, consisting of thirty imperial troops that had not answered The Mayor’s request to crush the rebellion that happened in the city.
“Barca. Good of you to make it.” Codsworth said slapping the lieutenant on the shoulder in greeting. Barca did nod, but his main attention was elsewhere. He stares around looking at the mercenaries.
“Never thought we'd be fighting alongside these merc's.” Barca said, he had spent his whole career fighting against these men, which meant it had come as a shock to find out that he would be fighting alongside them. But he put that behind him and decided to just focus on the mission at hand. “What are we up against?” Barca asked looking around, he had heard nothing from the sources he had in Riveruster and surrounding Boris’ fortress since The Iron Company retreated up north. As he spoke Dmitri walks forward along with Charlie and Deryn, who limped forward on a cane.
“We're up against the figure known as Griefful. Whomever he or she is allied himself with the enemy. It would seem.” Dmitri said, this was almost for certain.
“Griefful. That hooded creep. I thought he was dealt with.” Barca said, like Codsworth. That was after all, what he had been led to believe, although he knew even less than the commander on that score. So, it wasn’t surprising to him that he was behind the times.
“That hooded creep is responsible for every event that has led to this moment. He's been playing an intricate game, using us as pawns to advance his master's interest.” Dmitri said to the shock of everyone around him. He turned to Codsworth. “Including the raid on Boris’ fortress. That’s why we lost so many. Griefful told them we were coming.”
“So, all those soldiers died, because we have a rat!” Barca said, shouting the last word, and slamming his fist down on the table in frustration. He had known a lot of those troops who had not returned from the raid, and now he knew why. He calmed his nerves however and chose to focus on something else Dmitri had said. “Who’s his master then?” He asked, that was the next thing. From everything he had been told, which wasn’t a lot, that Griefful was the big fish. Now that creep had someone above him as well.
“We believe that he is an agent of The Shadow. Crazy as that may sound.” Charlie said. At this Barca freezes for a moment, looking stunned.
“That cannot be.” Barca said, he had of course been taught about what had happened the first time that creature had invaded the world. He was now having second thoughts about remaining here, if they would be facing him.
“This is what the mercenaries have told us. Our satellites have confirmed that five black figures have been seen entering the former lord Boris' fortress. Less than two weeks ago.” Deryn said crocking slightly as he spoke. “Since then, we’ve had no word, but since then, nothing.
“The former?” Barca asked, he had been fighting a war against the Lord Boris, it seemed odd that he knew this little about what had happened to his enemy, whilst hostilities were technically still ongoing.
“Lord Boris. Is dead. He apparently exhausted his usefulness to Griefful, so he was killed.” Jack responded, it was hard to believe it himself, but it was the only explanation as to why The Iron Company were agreeing to help them.
“If it is him. Then why the hell aren't we running the other way.” Barca asked, it seemed completely idiotic to remain here if what they were saying was true. However, Dmitri countered that point with one simple argument.
“Run to where, exactly? Barca.” Dmitri asked. “Where would you suggest we go?” He too wanted to run, but the fact remained that if they ran now, then they would have to keep running. Maybe that would happen, but not today. Before the conversation could continue, Dave runs up to the small group, looking deeply concerned as well as out of breath.
“Jack, we've got a problem.” Dave said, leaning against a wall in order to get his breath back.
“What is it?” Jack asked, fearing the worst, rightly so, he thought, after what had just been discussed a few moments ago. His thoughts had gone straight to an imperial attack, or even worse, the enemy having arrived. But what Dave said next made his stomach plummet.
“It's Martin.” Dave said. at this Jack runs outside alongside Dave, followed by Codsworth, his guns at the ready.
They found the situation that Dave had spoken of outside. Three of the mercenaries; Taedr, the man who had been relieved of his command by Alden along with two others were crowded round a tree in the centre of the grounds. As they hurried down the lawn, they could hear Taedr yelling.
“Get away from it boy!” Taedr yelled. As Jack came into view, he could see what was causing the disturbance and the mercenary’s anger. Martin along with Echo were standing in front of the tree. The husky was snapping wildly at the mercenaries, although if that was because he didn’t like them, or because he was protecting his youngest brother, Jack didn’t know. All he knows was that he had to get this resolved, and fast, before things turned ugly.
“You're not cutting it down!” Martin shouted, waving his fists around, as threatening as any child could be in this type of situation.
“What's going on here?” Jack asked, looking around at the scene. Taedr turns to face Jack with an evil look in his eye. The look of someone who was ready to commit murder. This wasn’t good. This man had been willing to stage a kidnapping and a mutilation just because he had lost his boss. Meaning that a man this unpredictable was likely to escalate to murder at the smallest possible thing.
“This boy is stopping us from preparing this place for war, ungrateful little shit.” Taedr said angrily. As he spoke Martin turns to face Jack and Dave, tears running down his face.
“They wanna cut down mum's tree.” Martin said as he wiped the tears from his face. At the sight of his youngest brother in tears, Jack looks up at the tree. It had been planted by their mother a few weeks before she had died. Almost seven years had passed since then. His brain told him to tell his brother to let the tree go, it was the logical thing to do. But this was not about logic. He turns to Taedr, trying to sound as authoritative as possible, although deep down he was terrified of the man.
“This tree remains, if anyone tries to take it down will have me to deal with.” Jack said, he waited for the rebuke or, more than likely, the attack. Fortunately, neither comes to pass, as the three mercenaries look at each other before shrugging, realising that there were more important things to do than argue with what they considered children. And instead turned to their next task. After a brief moment where Codsworth allows the situation to cool down, he turns to Jack.
“Is a tree really that important.” Codsworth asked, to him it was no different from the others that they had so far cut down, in order to both; get enough wood so they could finish barring the windows and clearing the field of fire.
“Yes.” Jack said, he didn’t expect the commander to get it. That tree was one of the last connections that he or any of his brothers had to their mum. Before the commander could retort with logic, Jack walks off back to the manor with Dave and Martin alongside him, with Echo at their heals all the way. Leaving Codsworth to think on that answer.
It was the early hours of the morning when Dmitri walks through the manor and into the manor dining room where he finds Vernon and Jack standing by the fire looking into the flames. He coughed and Vernon looked up, Jack however did not.
“The defences are as ready as they are ever going to be. And the iron company have taken up their positions.” Dmitri said, it had been a hard task, convincing the imperials to go into the same trenches as the mercenaries. But between him and Barca, they had managed to stop any outright hostility between the factions.
“Good.” Jack said simply as he continues to stare into the flames. The plan that he had formed was a risky one, but it should work. At least he hoped it would, they had made the grounds of the manor as defensible as humanly possible in the short amount of time they had had. What was concerning him was that word had reached them. A force had left Boris’ fortress a few hours ago. Their intel had been sent from the city, a contact of Deryn’s had seen fit to warn them. Whether the enemy force was coming for them or the city, they did not know. What made it terrifying however, was that the report had made mention of five hooded figures marching with it.
“I would advise you send both Nick and Martin to the cave, during the battle. No sense in dragging them into the obvious slaughter that is to come.” Dmitri said. At this Jack does turn around. He knew that Dmitri’s heart was in the right place. But he knew his younger brothers even more.
“Thank you for the advice. But that will not be possible. Knowing my brother’s, they will not do as they are told.” Jack said before turning to face Dmitri. “But you're more than welcome to try Dmitri.” He finished shrugging. As the three are talking a hooded figure walks and stands by the doors unnoticed by anyone else in the room. Leaning heavily on a staff.
“As you say sir.” Vernon said nodding, he knew what the boy was getting at about his brothers reckless and downright dangerous attitude to common safety. But all the same he wasn’t happy about this anyway.
“Your plan is ready anyway Jack.” Dmitri said and from the corner the hooded man smiles before announcing himself by speaking up.
“That's great and all. But what's my part in this plan of yours? Son.” Alan said from the doorway. All three of them turn around at the sound of the newcomer. “Well, I asked you a question didn't I.” Alan continued as he limped forward, taking off his travelling cloak.
“I... I.” Jack stammered; he didn’t know what exactly to say. It had been over eight months since Alan had left the manor, to go who knows where. And now here he was standing there asking the questions as if none of it had happened. His father wanted a part to play though, so he’d give him one. “It would be dangerous.”
“Done.” Alan said simply.
“Master Alan. I don’t think you quite understand, just how dangerous it would be.” Vernon said, he was as confused as Jack. All of this seemed off, they had, after all, had no prior warning of his arrival, which made the old butler nervous.
“Vernon. Old friend. I’ve survived this long, what’s one more risk.” Alan said as he looked around at his home. Despite the influx of soldiers, the house seemed much quieter than usual. “How many troops do we have.” Alan said, getting straight down to business. Seeing this return to action, Jack made to leave the room.
“Master Jack.” Vernon called out. But Jack was already out of the room.
“What’s wrong with him?” Alan asked.
“Oh, I don’t know sir. Maybe it has something to do with his father leaving him with responsibilities that no fifteen-year-old should have to face. Then seeing the man who dumped those responsibilities on him, come back out of the blue, with no warning, apology or explanation as to why said father turned his life upside-down.” Vernon said, losing his temper rising with every passing word. The audacity of having to ask, angering him more than the fact that the question was asked.
“I know. And I’ll have to answer for that when the time comes. But that is not now. Lord Boris is dead after all, and we have very little time left.” Alan responded and followed his eldest out of the room.
“How did he know?” Dmitri asked. But the butler had no response, something was happening with Alan and he had no idea as to what it was.
Alan strode through the halls, limping on his staff with a case in his other hand, people turned around as he walked past them, curious as to who the newcomer was. Most got back to their jobs, thinking that it was just another new arrival who had come to join their doomed operation.
That was until he reached the entrance hall, which was even darker than usual, given the massive chunks of wood covering up the windows. ‘The kid has been busy at least.’ Alan thought to himself. His thoughts however were interrupted when he was knocked off his feet and crashed to the ground.
He looked up to see both Nick and Martin on top off him, along with Echo, who joined the fray a few moments later. It took him a few moments to dislodge himself from his two youngest sons and sit himself up.
“Where… Have… You… Been?” Martin shouts, aiming punches at his father between words.
“I wish I could tell you Martin.” Alan said trying to deflect the blows away from himself. He was distracted when a shadow came across him.
“Can you blame them da. I mean you fuck off to gods know where. And you expect them to just take it lying down.” Dave said, Alan was about to respond, when Martin’s aimed a punch right at his gut. He wheezed as he tried to get up.
“Alan.” Charlie said, having heard the commotion. Dmitri had told her all about what had happened back in the living room and had guessed what had happened after hearing Martin yell. “They want you back in the dining room.” Charlie said before heading off towards said room herself, as Alan continues to stumble back up to his feet, before kneeling down in front of his three present sons. Guessing that Jack was in the dining room with the rest.
“I’m sorry I left.” Alan said looking at the three boys. “I had something that I needed to seek out. But I’m back now.” He continued before Nick piped up.
“Are you staying for good this time?” Nick asked, he hadn’t got as visibly angry as Martin had, but he was still annoyed at being left in the dark as to his father’s sudden disappearance. Alan paused before answering.
“I’m staying.” Alan said, after a brief pause, which seemed to calm Nick, Martin and by extension Echo down. Which only left his second son. “I am staying David. I promise.” Alan said, he realised that it would be difficult, mostly due to the fact that he had no doubt gotten the lad into some serious trouble when he took off.
“Why did you leave in the first place?” Dave asked.
“For this.” Alan said picking up the case and looked at his sons, hoping that none of them would ask what was in the small case, as it would be better for them if they didn’t know. To his relief they didn’t, and with that he left to go and join the commanders for the final briefing.
The people in the room were already waiting for him, some with looks of shock, others with confusion. He walked up to the table where everyone was standing, and then sat down at his son’s right-hand side, who sat at the head of the table.
“We only have very little time before the enemy arrive here.” Jack said standing up and looking down the table at his assembled group. “The plan is risky, and there will be casualties. But it is vital that we delay them until morning. They cannot get what is here.” Jack finished looking around.
“How do we know that they are coming here?” Barca asked, looking at Jack, but it was Alan that answered.
“Because we have everything they need here.” Alan said and he placed the case on the table. Alden got up and looked down at the small box. As Alan opened it up. Inside was a sapphire-coloured gem.
“Is that what I think it is?” Charlie said, also getting up, she had wondered why Alan had needed to leave all those months ago. ‘This was obviously it.’ She thought, and as she drew closer for a better look, the gem began to glow slightly.
“They already have one. Curtesy of Lord Boris. We have the other four.” Alan said looking around the table.
“What of the sixth?” Codsworth asked, he would never have claimed to be an avid student of history, but he was pretty sure that there had been six of The Elemental Gems.
“No one knows where the last one is. It disappeared when The Shadow was first defeated.” Alan said, addressing the commanders concern, or at least, hoping that he was. “Dmitri and I have already claimed two of our gems, they answer to us. The one in our vaults has not been claimed yet, however. And this one.” Alan said looking down at the blue gemstone for a second. “Is ready to be claimed.” Alan finished and pushed the box towards Charlie.
“What?” Charlie said, first looking at the gemstone then up at Alan, not entirely sure what to make of this change in circumstances.
“It is yours.” Alan said simply sitting back down in his chair.
“How do you know? How can you possibly know that?” Charlie asked.
“I saw it. I know that is a terrible answer. In fact, it isn’t really an answer at all. But it is the truth. I saw you using it.” Alan said. Charlie only nodded and took the small gemstone out of the case, as blue lights shot from in between her clutching fingers.
“We need to hold out till morning.” Jack said. “Alden you and your mercenaries will hold the front lines. Barca, you and the imperials will hold the second line.” He continued looking around before posing the question that he had to but did not want to. “We need someone to act as bait. Draw them towards us so we can hold them off and potentially give the city some more time to prepare.” Jack finished looking around at the table at large.
“I said before kid. I’ll do it.” Alan said looking stubbornly up at his eldest son. “Besides with my gem, it will make me much more appetising target to those creatures.” Alan continued, he knew he was the right man for the job, as Xyla had told him. His chapter was ending soon, what was the harm in bringing the journey to end a little bit sooner. “That’s settled then.” Alan said and got up out of his seat.
“I suggest we get into positions; we have done all we can to prepare. No need to sit up here stewing in our doubts.” Vernon said before exiting the room. Followed by everyone else. For better or worse, they had cast the dice, and would now have to see how they landed.