The Afflicted Ch. 15byChiShyGuy©
Frederique, Palo, and company waited patiently outside for Aimée to return with Brana. In New York, Palo, Scaurus, Seiko, and company had made great progress, but now, with Aimée's deplacing abilities, they looked very forward to mounting an even more efficient campaign against Arnet.
When a few minutes passed, they began to suspect something was amiss. Then, Frederique and Palo both turned to each other with concerned looks in their eyes.
"Did you see it, too?" asked Palo.
"I did," she said, sadly.
"What?" asked Jessamine. "What has happened?"
The newly-turned Afflicted girl was feeling particularly vulnerable. Only a few days before, she had been ready to live out her limited days in an Arizona whorehouse. Now, she was healed of syphilis and blessed with remarkable powers -- but she found herself in the midst of a secret war among an unknown race and a madman of whom she had only heard whispers. Now, her two lovers had been whisked away.
"They won't be coming back any time soon," said Frederique. "It was another one of those picture messages, but it wasn't from Abby. I think it was from the people Glennis belongs to."
Palo wore a concerned look. "All I saw was them in the woods, and the gist of the message was that they were among friends... and that they wouldn't be returning for an indeterminate amount of time."
"Fat load of good that does us," said Scaurus, cursing. "One deplaceur - one bloody deplaceur at our disposal and she's 'safe'. I don't give a shit about 'safe', we need a fucking deplaceur! I was sure we were about to turn the tide."
"There's nothing to be done about that now. I'll get to Brana," said Frederique. "We'll start with the cadets, get them organized for the fight, and work our way out from there."
Moments later the legendary heroine was standing at the entrance to the underground mansion. She was dressed in form-fitting, black and red battle leather. Every curve and every muscle of Frederique's body was magnified by the reinforced leather. Made by the finest craftsmen of the Afflicted, it would even serve as protection against blades. Only her exposed cleavage and neck were at risk from any darts.
"What about there?" asked Palo, pointing to the heart-shaped cut-out which revealed her fulsome breasts.
"Palo dear," she said, "I am Frederique. I have a reputation to uphold -- and an image to keep. Besides, there will be no darts getting near me."
"Let me come with you," said Palo. "My flying has improved immensely, ask Scaurus."
Scaurus put a reassuring hand on Palo's shoulder.
"I would put you up against the finest flyer among the Afflicted," said Scaurus. "But there are our finest, and there is Frederique. I would pit her against the North Wind - but it wouldn't be a fair fight. Poor wind, how sadly it would fail."
The upward hatch was opened and a black streak sailed across the night sky. At the same moment, Arnet, in his stronghold to the north, felt a chill on his neck. He had good reason. Frederique had come to the fight.
Aimée, Claude, Abby, and Jacob followed the man who led them into the clearing. There were torches set around the edges and in the center was a brightly glowing fire. Curiously, around the fire were several smiths who were attending to different mounds of coals and had anvils and hammers ready.
There were perhaps ten smiths and they were made up of an even mix of men and women.
Gathered around the clearing were hundreds of people. All of them were fair of skin, like Glennis, and they were all youthful in appearance. Yet, they were not young. (As one often noticed among the Afflicted, the eyes of the more long-lived people reflected the experience of many more years than the average human had ever seen.) Some stood, but most sat on their own chairs which were placed around the clearing in a pattern of intricate, yet indecipherable design.
The four were led to some chairs near the fires and it was indicated that they should sit. There were seven chair and they were shown the four which were meant for them.
Drums began to pound and music began. The players held implements which ranged from violins to lutes, from horns to recorders -- many of the instruments were of an origin none of the four had ever seen. In fact, no mortals or Afflicted had ever been witness to such music.
As the music reached full tempo, the smiths removed molten hunks of metal and began pounding in time with the beat. What they were making was soon forgotten. The cadence of the music changed and, as one, everyone assembled in the clearing rose and faced to the North as a procession entered.
There were delicate banners festooned with ornate lace and weavings. Four on each side bore a splendid canopy under which walked a gorgeous assemblage, at the heart of which walked Glennis.
Glennis had always had a regal, ethereal bearing about her, but now, begowned in white satin, her hair piled high in in ornate arrangements, and a delicate jeweled tiara in her hair, she was every inch a princess from the fairy tale books.
The procession continued and the canopy reached the four Afflicted. Glennis nodded to each of them with a smile and then sat down in her appointed chair. The poles which held the canopy were placed in pre-made holes in the ground. As they settled into their resting points, the edges of the canopy fell, leaving them obscured behind a curious mesh. The fires beyond the nearly-transparent glimmered through the fabric.
"Stand," ordered a woman whom they did not yet know to be a mother of Glennis. "You must be prepared for the feast."
Two of the fair ones kind stepped up to each of their garments. Though they were in plain sight of those in the tent and likely visible to those beyond, there was something in the manner of the people with them that made them lose any trace of self-consciousness.
Aimée smiled at the man and woman who removed her clothes. They gave her polite nods in return as they removed every trace of clothing. The woman picked up a bowl of what looked to be soap foam and began lathering it over Aimée's entire body from her neck downward. It tingled, and almost burned in a way, but not with any discomfort. The man took another sort of foam and began massaging into her scalp. When they were done, another attendant arrived with a bucket of warm water and poured it over Aimée's head. The water washed the suds from her hair and poured down over her body, removing the foam. Her hair was now glistening and her body had never felt so clean. She looked down to discover it was indeed 'clean'. Not a trace of hair remained anywhere on her body below her neck. The same had happened to the other four and they looked to each other with bemused expressions over what was being done to them.
Abby's own attendant toweled her hair and they began to braid it on either side.
"You may use my eyes," said the woman, with surprising understanding.
The woman touched her hand to Abby's temple and the blind girl could suddenly see what the woman saw. Surprisingly, Abby could feel nothing else. Usually, when she borrowed other's senses she could detect other emotions and often would pick up on memories. With this woman, it was the sight alone. This was much like what Abby had done with Yusef in her recent confinement.
Abby watched the woman's deft fingers braiding wonderful patterns into her hair. 'French' braid was an understatement, for the patterns the woman wove in Abby's locks had clearly been perfected over centuries. Parts of the braid were in the five weave, parts in a seven, and all in intricate loops and curls.
"You have lovely hair," said the woman. "It is the perfect thickness for our patterns.."
The boys were getting their own treatment, their hair being combed and gently trimmed.
As their hair was being finished, four attendants arrived with beautiful chests akin to what we might call steamer trunks. The containers themselves were the work of master craftsmen. None of the four could suppress a gasp when the lids of the casks were removed. Within the chests were garments of such fine make that the cloth alone was more beautiful than anything any of them had ever seen.
Their attendants began dressing them. Undergarments first, piled on by an inner layer, then another, and a final outer lay of clothing. Each layer by itself was substantial, but together the clothing was heavy. It wasn't a bad sort of heavy though, it gave them a similar emotional feeling as one might feel with a heavy quilt on a cold winter's night. It was protective and well-made.
Aimée's skin thrilled at the luxurious feel of the opulent clothing against her skin. She looked at the others and saw they wore involuntary grins from the feeling as well. These were not princely, nor even kingly robes. These were clothes built by the finest craftsmen the world had ever known. Even the finest work of the most talented Afflicted paled in comparison.
The curious thing about their new clothing is that it was not formal in purpose. Aimée had been given a deep blue dress with high boots. She felt more beautiful than she ever had in her life, but she knew that if she were in a race or battle, she would be able to move easier than in any clothes she had ever owned. Abby was likewise attired, though her dress was of a light green. Claude was dressed in a crimson doublet and black trousers, and Jacob had been given an outfit of dark green.
When the four were fully clothed, a separate smith approached each of them. Jacob and Claude were given wristbands with intricate patterns and countless jewels. The girls were given more delicate bracelets.
Curiously, there were still two empty chairs. The smiths set a wristband on each of the chairs, each one more generic in make -- as though the sex of the recipient was unknown. They noticed that there were small suitcases for clothes on each of the chairs as well. Before they had much time to ruminate on the missing players in this curious chess game, the music stopped.
Glennis, unbidden, stood. The tent walls rolled back up again and they looked around to see that all of the hundreds who had gathered there were now standing. The man who had met them beyond the clearing stood at the center of the entire gathering and raised his hand for attention.
"A welcome," he said. "A welcome to all of our kind, in this, our first full gathering in the new world. A welcome to our four guests, Abby, Aimée, Claude, and Jacob -- four bright stars among the newer, remarkable race who call themselves The Afflicted. Finally, a welcome to my daughter Shoenweil. As the heavens decreed, she left us as a child, but returns now -- confirmed as a bringer of destiny -- for good or for bad."
"I am Loenshellen," he said. "It falls on me to tell the story."
"We shall hear the story," said the gathered people as one. "We shall hear it and learn it again."
It occurred to Claude at that moment that the man was not speaking English or French. Yet, he understood him perfectly. It also occurred to him that Loenshellen was not speaking loudly, yet the hundreds gathered around them heard every word.
He listened more closely to his words and realized his words were going out to people's minds.
"Now sit," said Loenshellen, "for when the tale is told, it is told completely. It is a long story and I will not stop until I have completed the tale."
Everyone returned to their seats and he bade the five honored guests to sit as well.
Loenshellen bowed his head and prepared. A hush fell over the crowd. The story was about to begin. He lifted his head and spoke:
"In the beginning, we were one people. In the place now called Mesopotamia, on the great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, all the people lived."
"Those were times of peace. Food was plentiful and possessions were few. Man dwelt in the sun with few cares. Even the beasts and the serpents were happy. Man knew of them and befriended the peaceful ones, and avoided those who might harm us."
"Eventually, things changed. Leaders became chiefs and chiefs became kings. Kings spawned greed, and greed produced war. Many stayed and fought, but an unhappy few did not wish to watch the sad state man had descended to. "
"Those few left. They left that land travelled to the north. As they travelled it became colder and food became less plentiful. They learned to hunt and eat the meat of their prey, as well as make clothing from the skins of the animals they had regretfully slain. Further and further north they travelled. Children were born on the journey and parents passed on from age. Over hundreds of years they worked their way northward. At last our people found a beautiful valley. It was not full of eternal summer, nor was it perfect. Life there was hard, but food was plentiful enough and great homes were built from the trees which stood as tall as fifty men. The water there, especially, was clear and refreshing."
"For many years the people dwelt at peace in the valley and they prospered. They still kept the tales of the old home alive, however, and the tales were told every year, just as I am telling you our tale tonight."
"One year, during the telling, a surprising discovery was made. The storyteller was relating the tale of the journey to the valley, and the death of the parents. His tale was interrupted by a young girl who asked why the people had died."
"He replied that they had died from old age, at which point the girl asked what old age was. "
"The storyteller paused and at that moment they all realized the truth of the matter. In all of their time in the valley, only three people had perished; one from an accident, and two from attacks of the great bears that lived in the valley. The storyteller counted and was astonished to learn he was well over a hundred years old, but he was not bent, nor were any among them."
"They continued to live and flourish. Years passed into generations, generations passed into centuries. Ours was a peaceful existence."
"After countless generations, we began to miss our brethren from our ancestral home and it was decided that a party should be sent out to retrace our steps from long past. Twenty went out, and I was among them. For nearly a century our people in the valley waited and when we returned it was with more stories of war, greed, and abuse of the gifts of the planet.
"A few of our kind returned with mates from beyond. They were saddened to discover that those we brought back did not gain the ability to live forever as we had, nor did their children. Whatever had been in the water or the soil when we arrived at the valley had dwindled, and now only ourselves and children of our kind would be immortal."
"It was then that we began to call ourselves the Elders -- a race of men who had seen more of man's history than any others. We resolved then to set ourselves apart from mankind. We would observe from afar, but for the most part we resolved to dwell in our valley and seek to improve ourselves. With time and patience we began to discover the potential of the human mind and form. A few of us learned that we had the gift of flight (which is so common among your kind), others discovered the ability to levitate objects and from there the list goes on: reading minds; shaping metal; reading the stars; and on and on."
"We established outposts among the mortals and watched their wars and conflicts with sadness. In various nations of man, we saw women rise to positions of power and scholarship, only to be subjugated once more by ensuing generations."
"Eventually, mortals began to encroach upon our valley, though we put up wards around it to push them away. It became too much of a burden and we moved -- settling in a lovely valley in the land you know as Wales. Our time there was peaceful and fruitful. We gained knowledge in the arts and the sciences and still we studied the stars."
"It was in Wales that we saw the birth of your race. Though your hungers disturbed us, we were fascinated by your powers and your potential. We were pleased to see your kind evolve. However, we remained cautious as to what direction your path might take and we chose to remain unknown to you."
"Then, the sign came. From a great distance, our astronomers saw two comets approaching our system. One foretold that we would need to leave our valley in Wales and venture forth to the new world of America. The other carried dire portents. It told of a child of our kind who would be bound to leave our care at a terribly young age. The signs told us she would be safe and would flourish... and that she would find friends among the hungry race."
"The signs in the stars indicated a time of great peril to come, and that our child would play a great role in those times. Further, they pointed to the constellation known as the Pleiades - six stars in the heavens visible to naked eye, and a seventh obscured but no less important."
"We knew the names of the stars: The Elder, the Bird, the Blind Caretaker, the Spirit, the Grasshopper, and the Mechanic. The seventh, the hidden star, we still do not know its identity."
"Tonight, we welcome you. You are five of the seven in our prophecies. Our beloved daughter, Glennis, is the Elder of whom the prophecy spoke. Of that there is no doubt. The others among you are fairly self-explanatory. The Blind Caretaker is Abby, the Spirit is Jacob who can make himself invisible like a ghost. The Bird is Claude, who can soar in the skies, and the Grasshopper is Aimée, who can jump where she wishes about the planet. As for the mechanic and the unknown one, we do not know nor is it our lot to decipher. It will fall to you five to find the two missing from your number. That is the tale of the Elders and our path on this planet. The time draws nigh for you to fulfill your destiny. Succeed or fail, we are on the brink of monumental events."
The five listeners blinked and looked around at each other, stretching their limbs. The story, as described above, is merely an overview. The entire tale had taken Loenshellen many, many hours to tell and had described every episode in great detail. The telling had not been only the words of Loenshellen, but images as well. All who were gathered there had seen hundreds, if not thousands of images and scenes from the history of the Elders as he spoke. The sides of the tent were now being lowered. The sun was rising, but the four Afflicted realized they had nothing to fear. Even though they could see the rays of the bright, ascending orb, the mesh surrounding them would filter anything harmful to them.
"Loenshellen," asked Abby, "You said 'succeed or fail', what did you mean by that?"
"Caretaker, Abby, it is time now to explain the chore ahead of you," said Loenshellen in a very serious tone. "We have watched our kind with curiosity and concern. The stars ordained that we were not to interfere or interact with the progress of the Afflicted until the greatest crisis occurred. We quite nearly stepped in during your last war with the one known as Jacinto, but the woman Frederique averted that disaster before we had to interfere. Jacinto's son, it seems, is fulfilling the prophecy his father began. He is threatening the balance of the very planet and we have grave concerns."
"What do you plan to do about those concerns?" asked Claude. "It is obvious you are a powerful race. What will you do if Arnet does gain full control?"
"You are a perceptive young man," said Loenshellen. "I will confess to you that we have often wrestled with the decision surrounding what to do with the Afflicted. There were many times in the early days where, just as your kind debated over the fate of the clockmaker, we wrestled with letting your kind continue. "
"As a rule, we do not interfere with other beings upon our planet. However, the Afflicted came as a surprise in both your powers, your rapid growth, and your potential dangers. It has often been debated whether we should let your kind continue."