Commissar Hector Tarkus, Lord Ruler of the Dominion, had enough on his plate already without having to deal with the flaming wreckage of a plummeting skyship being dropped on his head.
He'd had worse, of course. After some medical attention from his private retinue, the only traces of the assassination attempt were a couple new scars to add to his collection. If anything, the injury to his pride was more impactful. He had been quite rudely interrupted, and in front of his citizens no less.
Let them see, he thought grimly. I'm still here. I'm not going anywhere.
Nevertheless, he had been displeased when the twisted remains of Zant had been recovered from the crash site. It was clear that the body had been desecrated before being subjected to the explosion, but his medical experts had thus far indicated that it was, in fact, his minister of intelligence. Tarkus couldn't discount the possibility that it was some sort of trickery, especially knowing Zant, but he didn't have the luxury of being certain. He had a war to wage.
Times like these acquaint a man with strange bedfellows.
The skyship drifted to a halt at the top of the steel rampart. Tarkus's boots made ringing noises on the metal gangplank as he crossed the gap to the wall. Gutter followed, a slight limp in his gait remaining from his injuries. Tarkus stopped to survey the scenery as more protectorate guards marched off the ship.
"Hail, Commissar. I see you're recovering well from the accident."
Tarkus's grey eyes shifted to regard her. She was a tall and slim woman, all hard angles and straight edges. She looked like she had some elven ancestry, back in her family line. Her hand was held in a salute to her forehead.
"At ease, Warden General Rubicon."
The Warden General lowered her salute, but her posture didn't relax at all. She nodded to one of her men, who stepped forward holding a tray. Rubicon took the object off its surface and handed it to Tarkus.
"A clock?" Tarkus turned it over in his hands. "Is that what it has been partial to recently?"
"Yes sir. I spoke with doctor Eggwater earlier today. He's as close to an expert as we have, which means he's only slightly less clueless about it than the rest of us."
"Interesting," Tarkus mused. "Last time I came here, it was scissors. How do you figure it out when its tastes change?"
Rubicon winced. "Trial and error, unfortunately. Eggwater makes some guesses, but it mostly comes down to bringing wide collections of items and hoping for the best. Four men were disintegrated before we figured out it was clocks this time. Enemies of the state, of course, but it's still rather messy."
Tarkus nodded. He'd make this quick.
* * *
The Commissar stood at the end of a long platform that stretched out from the wall top. Ten feet behind him, a dozen guards stood in tidy rows. Below him, Tarkus saw the crumbling architecture of buildings being overtaken by greenery. He didn't have to wait long. After only two and a half minutes, Tarkus saw red light beginning to well up from one of the nearby derelicts.
Thaum, Mad Baron of the Lost District, levitated upward until it was at Tarkus's eye level. The skeletal entity gleamed white in the overcast light. Ten brilliant points of crimson light circled the beholder-kin's head, and one large star of red fire occupied the central socket in it's skull-body. It's razor sharp teeth were held in a permanent death's-head grin. It's voice issued forth, deep and raspy like two cliffsides being ground together.
GOOD MORNING HECTOR.
Tarkus said nothing, instead holding up the small brass clock. Thaum's spiked jaw parted slightly, and let forth a sepulchral noise that could be generously interpreted as a sigh of satisfaction. A beam of red light extended from one of the eyes surrounding the head, enveloping the clock. It lifted off of Tarkus's palm, crossing the open air to hang directly in front of the death tyrant. All eleven of it's eyes seemed focused on the small object.
"Greetings, Baron Thaum. I have come to request your aid."
Thaum's attention remained fixed on the clock. It's voice rasped out again.
CLICKING, WHIRRING, TURNING LITTLE THING. IS THIS THE PORTRAIT YOU PAINT OF TIME? SUCH CURIOUS LITTLE VERMIN, BEARING BLINDERS OF YOUR OWN CONSTRUCTION.
Tarkus waited for the aberration to finish, his gaze unmoving. Eventually Thaum took some of his eyes away from the clock.
VERY WELL. SPEAK YOUR INTENTIONS, GENERAL.
"Lately I have been irritated by a group of renegades that call themselves the Stormguard. They began as a nuisance, but their activities have grown too significant to ignore. I have been told by my Wardens that you have mentioned them as well."
Dry, grating chuckles leaked out of the skull. THEY HAVE INTRUDED UPON MY HOME. WE HAVE TRADED BACK AND FORTH, BUT I HAVE TAKEN MORE FROM THEM THEN THEY HAVE FROM ME.
"With your assistance, I would hope to have them killed. You would be welcome to keep their remains, of course."
HMM. The skull's teeth ground slowly together in thought. It suddenly froze, then lurched forward with its eyes trained on Tarkus. ARE YOU IMPLYING THAT I WOULD BE UNABLE TO FINISH THEM MYSELF?
Tarkus paused, composing his response carefully. "I am certain that you could. However, you are significantly inconvenienced by the nature of your restrictions within the city."
Thaum seemed to consider that in turn, unsure whether or not to take offense.
"Then I believe we can both make each other's lives easier."
Behind him, Tarkus heard one of his guards sneeze. He shot a glance over his shoulder, and saw the guard with a hand clasped over his mouth, an expression of horror on his face.
HMM, Thaum said. Then a blast of red light flared out from one of its eyes, hitting the guard square in the chest. There was a clipped scream as the guard fell to his knees, then collapsed into a pile of fine grey dust.
VERY WELL, Thaum said as if nothing had happened. LET'S TALK BUSINESS.
-TO BE CONTINUED-