Dark Mercenaries
Author: Neil Evans

Chapter 4

    "The final thing he wants--" Darell began, but was quickly cut off.
    "Good lord, the pig wants more?" The Empress blurted out. "Money is one thing. Slaves is another. Then he asks for prostitutes and has the nerve to ask for more!"
    "If you'll pardon me for saying so, Empress, he does have leverage. He isn't stupid, he will use it to his advantage," Darell said. "He can get almost anything he wants from the empire. He won't be so kind as to let us slip with money, or slaves, or . . . um . . . partners."
    "Very well," said Empress Abagail. "What is the fourth thing?"
    "This one is a little more strange, I'm afraid. . . . He wants a--how did he put it? A favor of nearly any caliber from you," Darell said.
    The Empress sighed. "I wish the gods hadn't given him such a graceful power, instead of someone more useful."
    "You mustn't judge the gods, Empress," Darell replied strictly. "I'm sure they knew who they were giving it to. The Clearance is a very, very special gift. If I remember correctly, there used to be another who had it."
    "What exactly is the Clearance?" Karen asked more than a little curious. "Is it some sort of weapon that could help us?"
    "Now look what you've done, Darell! No sense in lying to Karen now. You can explain it to her," Abagail said angrily.
    Darell drew a couple of breaths and tensed. "The Clearance is what we--holy men, Empresses, and horsemen--call a certain ability the gods give. Jack was apparently given this power. He can put himself in a state of mind and adrenaline so that he becomes the ultimate fighter. He could take down an entire army, if he needed, with the Clearance.
    "But the Empress and I seem to agree that Jack isn't the best one to be given that gift. It has made him so self-centered and pretentious that he would ask for such things as he has in exchange for little on his part. Is that enough explaining, Empress?"
    "Yes, I'm sure she understands now."
    "Is that why he thinks nobody else can do craftsmen work of his grade? Why he hates it when someone . . . lower than he deems himself touches his belongings he gets all fired up?" Karen persisted to ask.
    "I think we've talked enough about him," the Empress said, glaring at General Darell.
    "Agreed," was all Darell could say. "Pardon me asking, but what is going on anyway? Why the sudden need of Jack and Uskusto?"
    "I was sent a letter today. From the Emperor of Larklet. His empire is in grave danger. They have no supplies for war--though they will be making many in the next forty-eight hours--and no training. The Darqueue Empire has decided to declare war."
    "But they signed the Coarse Treaty!" Protested Darell.
    "The matter is out of our hands. We have to take a side and, to be frank, I think we should be taking one that agrees with peace, not war. So, we will ship supplies, horses, and two men to train the Larklet Empire's new warriors."
    "Why only two? Why not four? Why not hundreds?" Asked Darell, infuriated.
    "Darell, if you continue to be this way I will see you stripped of your title. We only send two because more than that would be suspicious. What if the Noir Desto II found out of us aiding the Larklet Emperor? He has a method of traveling other than steads and boats, you know."
    "It is only rumored the Darqueue have that beast, and you know it."
    "Even so, should we risk it?" Asked the Empress. This time, Darell stayed silent. "Now, I have informed the Emperor of Larklet about our contribution. I want the ship to have boarded the harbor of Wan within the next twenty-four hours. So, Darell, you get all the horses ready, I will get the other horseman to retrieve the weapons. Once you are done Darell, fetch Jack. And Karen, you are to return to your work. Finish cleaning the mess hall. But be quick. If anything should happen, I want to be able to rely on someone. Understood?"
    "Yes, Empress." They said in unity. They both left the throne room.
    Darell at once got ready for the voyage, gathering every horse possible. When ready, he waited for the Empress' instruction to leave. When a fellow walked out carrying weapons, he gave Darell a notice. He was to get Jack over to the palace as soon as possible. Darell did so without another thought.
    He trailed off, back to the outskirts. The empire being so small, it took little time for Darell to make it. When he approached Jack's porch, a man burst out the door. He carried with him two large bags. With Darell was the horse Jack asked for. A finely bred, black horse. Jack dragged the bags in front of the two horses.
    "You strap one onto that horse and I'll strap the other onto mine," Jack said quickly with sweat dripping down his face. "What is its name anyway?"
    "Jublient," Darell replied.
    "Male or female?" Jack asked as he prepared the horse.
    "I know how you like your horses, Jack. Male, 'because the females are only good for baby-making,' you said, dark-shade of fur so it doesn't look ridiculous, and runs faster than lightning is able to strike."
    "Good," said Jack. "Hope Jublient is ready to run until he dies of exhaustion, then. It is going to be one long ride, if this is a war big enough to call me in." Darell didn't reply. Instead, he slumped off of his horse and tied the cargo onto it. To his surprise, the thing weighed at least two-hundred pounds.
    "What do you got in here, Jack!" Darell exclaimed.
    "Whatever I might need. Swords, costumes--to fool the enemy, of course--axes, knives, sickles, you name it. Just be careful, finest quality there is, Darell. And if you screw them up, you might not even want to be within twenty yards of me."
    "I cannot be sure I want to be within twenty yards of you now," said Darell. They both rode off, not too fast so as not to exhaust the horses, to the palace. As they did, Darell thought of what it must be like to have the Clearance. How it must feel to contain such power. Darell knew that, if he had it, he wouldn't be so self-centered and pretentious. He was sure of it.
    After a quick discussion with Karen, it became obvious the Empress did not want Jack to set foot in the palace. Instead, they were directed to the harbor along with one-hundred other men, each carrying identical bags to their horses. "Now does this not just beat off?" Asked Jack. "Hold still, I got to mark our luggage." Jack wiped his hand across both bags. He seemed to do nothing. Darell didn't question him, though. Darell had seen far stranger.
    All of the men boarded the ship and dropped the luggage off in the lower quarters. The ship was massive, built for at least a thousand men. To Darell's surprise, the men all walked off the ship after unpacking. Before the last one left, Darell grabbed his shoulder. The man turned. "Where is Uskusto?"
    "He'll be boarding soon. You have to get off, though, the trip is only for Him and Uskusto. Anyone more will cause the whirlpools to go off." The man said. He then left.
    "I see," muttered Darell. He turned to Jack, "Looks like this is where we part." He held out his hand to shake, but Jack refused rudely. General Darell then took his horse to a stable and reported back to the Empress, to see what more he could do.
    Shortly after, Uskusto came. Uskusto was odd, if that. He had short blonde hair that stood on end. He wore a vest at all times. On his face was make-up that a jester might wear. "Looks like it truly is just you and me," Jack said with a hint of anger.
    "Don't think I like partying with your horse-ass either," said Uskusto. "The mages have set the ship for its destination. We'll be there in twelve hours, at best. I suggest we get used to seeing each others face. It will be a long voyage."


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