Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 1

A New Mission

Six extraordinarily good-looking young males sat around a conference table at the headquarters of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth. The Hands were the government's corps of elite troubleshooters empowered with plenipotentiary legal authority which could override that of any civil or military official, though the hands were answerable for the exercise of that authority to the Chief Hand and to the Governing Council.

The Chief Hand himself, Baron Jarmond, sat at the head of the table. On his right sat his right hand man or rather right hand frost giant Sir Finn Ragnarson. Quite unusually for this venue, the figure on Jarmond's left was none other than the Druid Lord Dahlderon. Short and slight of build and with fine-boned features which made him look to be no more than sixteen he hardly looked like one of the most powerful magic wielders on the planet. Dahl was dressed for the occasion in full druidic regalia including his magically morphing camouflage cape.

Also at the table were two human wizards, a pair of blond youths, identical twins, dressed in color coded sarongs to let others tell them apart. As always Jemsen wore green and Karel blue. At the foot of the table sat a pair of journalists, colleagues on the news-paper the Capital Intelligencer: the auburn haired reporter Drew Altair and his friend, roommate, and lover Corwin Klarendes, another stunning blond though shorter than the twins by a hand.

Baron Jarmond had just told everyone that the celebrated Corps of Discovery was being reconstituted for dispatch on a new mission. Looking down the table at the blond journalist, Jarmond said:

"Well, Young Klarendes, You missed out on the original mission, but here is your chance to go on a second mission as you have long hoped to. I trust all of you are willing? This mission is for volunteers only. Except for Finn who has been ordered to lead the mission though not by me but by the High Council itself."

"You will be using only two autogyros this time for a smaller corps of six. Two pilots, four passengers. I understand that both your personal aerocraft have been modified to replace the pair of open wells front and back with a single enclosed cabin plus a cargo hold."

"That's right sir," Finn nodded.

"You are a pilot yourself so you know that an enclosed cabin gives protection from rain and also lowers wind resistance. My own aerocraft was sized for a frost giant so even in its earlier configuration the twins had plenty of room in back. And the enclosed cabin expanded the capacity of Drew's red speedster to three. So Drew will be flying Lord Dahlderon and Corwin Lord Klarendes of Dalnot, to give him his aristocratic title. We are going formal on this mission, my friends, if only to impress the locals."

Corwin rolled his eyes. Though the son of a baron he almost never used his title. He thought it silly for older and wiser men to verbally subordinate themselves to a youth like himself. To his way of thinking hereditary titles didn't count for much. Those you earned were something else.

"So last time we headed north. Which way are we going now?" Drew Altair wondered aloud.

"You are heading West. Your mission is to explore the Western Dividing Range which separates our territories from the coastal lands beyond. As you know, since the annexation of New Varangia and the Far West including the former Despotate of Dzungaria, our writ now runs all the way to the foot of those mountains, though its borderlands are largely empty, and we have no outputs there at all. We need to learn who is who and what is what in the mountains themselves and possibly find potential trade routes through them to the coast. A later expedition will explore the coastal lands themselves.

"We know practically nothing of the mountains themselves and less of the lands beyond that broad belt of mountains. Trade carried overland is non-existent which suggests even pack trains cannot get through. It is commonly believed that the mountains are so high and so rugged as to be impassible to an army. Find out if that is true or if there are mountain passes through which roads could be built. Learn the lay of the land and make a general assessment of the situation in all its aspects: geographic, ethnic, political, economics and social."

"Do the peoples there speak the common tongue or do they have a language or languages of their own?" Dahl asked.

Jarmond shrugged. "We really don't know. If they don't speak our common tongue, or that of one of the main races, you Lord Dahlderon will communicate with them via Mind Speech. That is one reason why we asked you to join the corps."

"And the other reasons?"

"Your ability to open space portals specifically and your strong magic in general. Now a small group might find themselves in trouble so they need powerful magic for protection. The corps comprises a druid, an air wizard, an earth wizard, the strongest fetcher we know of, and a magical healer cum combat medic cum wielder of ball lightning. Finally the leader of the expedition is the avatar of a thunder god. I pity any foes who pick a fight with you."

"Why now?" Drew asked.

"Actually it is well past time. In this era of peace we face no threats from potential foes and have no troublesome neighbors on our borders. To the East the barbarians are quiescent. Reports are that social, economic, and political changes are afoot there making their societies both less barbarous and less belligerent. That can only be to the good, though we keep an eye on them nonetheless. To the Southeast lie our new dominions in Amazonia and beyond them the lands of our friends and allies the orcs, the Amazons, and the brontotheres."

"To the South the Great Inland Freshwater Sea is now a Commonwealth lake. Beyond the Inland Sea our territory extends to the Southern Ocean where we have a foothold at our naval base at Southport."

"That's where Liam has been posted along with Nathan Lathrop." Corwin pointed out. Jarmond nodded.

"Which is why Liam won't be piloting that large transport like the last time. The rest of the original corps have other commitments: the forest rangers to the New Forest and Axel Wilde to Sir Willet and his research at the Institute of Wizardry."

"To the North, thanks in large part to Finn Ragnarson and his diplomacy during the first mission, lies the Greater North Valentia Co-prosperity Sphere, a loose group of independent but friendly states linked by communications, trade, investment, travel and tourism, and cultural exchange to our Commonwealth."

"In short it is only in the West that the map is blank. It will be your job to start filling in the white space on it."

The six young men went back to their quarters. Except for Dahl the other members of the Corps of Discovery shared rooms on the top floor of a three storey residential hotel which looked out over a leafy square in front and spacious grounds out back. The greenery made it attractive to the young druid who was staying there in one of the guest rooms.

Theirs was an expanded suite constructed by tearing down non-load bearing walls to incorporate four suites. They had a common point of entry opening onto the hallway and out the rear a door on the outdoor balcony with a stairway leading down to the grounds out back.

Nine friends and lovers occupied the dwelling: Finn himself, the twins Jemsen and Karel, the reporters Drew Altair and Corwin Klarendes, the War Mage Sir Axel Wilde, and the naval architect cum inventor Karl-Eike Thyssen. Two residents were away on assignment at Southport: the War Wizard Sir Liam and the naval officer Lieutenant Sir Nathan Lathrop.

Not for the first time the resident inventive genius Karl-Eike Thyssen wondered whether he should not envy his friends for their readiness to drop everything and go off on one adventure after another. But that would have been against his nature.

Slightly built, slender, and smooth muscled with blond hair the color of sweet corn, Eike looked to be no more than sixteen though he was well into his twenties. He would stay that way for centuries thanks to druidical healing magic. Far prettier than any boy rightly ought to be, Eike had a flawless complexion and fine boned features including a broad brow which hinted at his intellect, high cheekbones, a straight nose, plus subtly pointed ears and chin which gave him an elfin appearance, Large green eyes were set wide apart under finely arched brows, their lashes too long to have ever have been meant for a male.

Eike had a gentle soul. He was very much a stay-at-home sort who preferred a naval shipyard or his laboratory and workshop to the great outdoors. Having spent five years as a castaway on an uninhabited island, Eike had had quite enough of the great outdoors thank you. In a city all the comforts and services were close to hand. You did not have to scrounge for food, just go to a restaurant or the dining room on the ground floor.

The hotel had all the modern comforts. The builders had taken advantage of the flat terrain of the city and the prevailing south wind to cool the building. Wind catchers directed the airflow downward and through the city's underground aqueducts where the warm air gave up its heat to the cool earth and subterranean water. Natural air pressure then forced the air back up into and through the building. All this was done without machinery. Awnings blocked direct sunlight from wide window openings which were not glassed in but set with wooden lattices which afforded privacy without blocking ventilation.

Pumps driven by vertical axis windmills raised water to a water tower and a set of tanks on the roof. The tower served the water closets in each suite and provided cold water for taps and showers in the apartments below. Tanks painted black provided solar-heated hot water. In short it had all the modern conveniences close to hand: hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and hot meals prepared downstairs in the restaurant.

Like the rest of the common space the new rooms were comfortably but simply furnished with extra sturdy furniture to accommodate a giant who stood eight feet tall and weighed six hundred pounds. The walls were hung with watercolors or prints of selected illustrations from the many books the residents had published. Shade tolerant house plants like ferns, cycads, and bromeliads were everywhere.

The staff at the hotel watered and pruned the plants as necessary. Indeed they took care of all housework. Chamber boys made the beds, cleaned the rooms, did the laundry, and ran errands. Meals in the restaurant on the ground floor were also included under the terms of their lease.

In any event to Admiral Van Zant of the Navy's Bureau of Ships his protege was much too valuable to risk off the reservation. Not only was Eike an expert in building the new style ships designed for sailing the outer oceans, his value to the economy of the Commonwealth was immense.

Eike had single handedly revolutionized personal transport with his wire wheels and new style bicycles then repeated the feat by inventing autogyros used these days to carry mail, passengers, and air freight as well as for air rescue and evacuation and military purposes. His air guns and magnetic cannon had had a similar impact on land warfare. Eike's inventions had made him rich beyond the dreams of avarice and had paid off handsomely for his investors as well, which included his roommates.

"I sometimes wish I could go off on another adventure like my journey to the Northlands. I saw new lands and met so many interesting people, and learned so much about my chosen profession from the master shipwrights in Nordstrand."

"And nearly got killed by that murderous gang of burglars." Drew pointed out.

Eike shook his head.

"No, Nathan and I had that situation well in hand. The odds may have been seven to two, but the miscreants had no real chance against us. A lifetime of practice has made Nathan utterly deadly with that naval cutlass of his. And with his enhanced strength, stamina, speed, and reflexes, he might well have taken his four without resorting to flinging electrum sparks to distract and disable them. As for the three I took out, I used my gift of Shaping to form the tangs of their knives into sharp blades which severed their fingers. After that they were easy to bring down even though all I had with me was my utility knife, a tool rather than a weapon."

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