|"Sister Miligred's many garments weighed on her like a mass of iron chains..."|
Previously: Chapter 1 <Part 1> <Part 2> <Part 3>
Laurel sighed as she slowly made her way down the stairs. As if moving wasn't difficult enough, the sheer weight and stiffness of Sister Miligred's many garments weighed on her like a mass of iron chains. Laurel fidgeted with the unpleasant bodice, itching her neck under the starched lace collar. In one hand she carried the heavy black veil, which she would use to obscure her face when she emerged from the house.
There was only one thing left to worry her: between the five of them, only Carsius and Augustus could serve as escorts, but she knew that someone as prestigious as Sister Miligred would not dare show her face in public without four men carrying a canopy over her. And they must be men, not girls, Ewoks, or Kytarr in disguise; what would they do?
Laurel reached the parlor at the side of the house; speaking of the others, where were they? She had made it all the way there without seeing or hearing anybody. Why were they so silent?
Laurel sank gratefully onto the couch only to feel compelled to stand again as she saw the familiar silver device Augustus had produced the night of his arrival. The lights were still blinking. Laurel picked it up, intending to find a switch and turn it off when a noise in the hallway called her attention. She looked up, expecting to see Carsius and Augustus finally coming, but instead, two perfect strangers stood in the house. One looked to be about Renata's age, and his green eyes twinkled as he brushed light auburn hair from his forehead. The other cut a more menacing figure, dressed entirely in midnight black and wielding long, cruel-looking knives.
Laurel gasped as the two men gazed at her in wonder.
"Who are you?" she demanded breathlessly.
The younger man stepped forward. "Madam, was it not you who sent the distress signal?"
Laurel looked down at the device in his hand. "I—"
"Oh, come off it!" the dark one snapped, "Can't you see she's not even holding it right? She didn't send it—" he pointed a knife straight at her, "—so I'd like to know what she's done with the men who did!"
"They are whole and well, thanks to the hospitality of this Elf-maiden!"
To Laurel's relief, the others appeared at that moment, coming from the direction of the kitchen.
The dark man sheathed his knives red-faced, while the younger one gazed at Laurel in awe.
"You're an Elf? Are you a native of Eillumaeia, or have you been recruited by the Black Hand?"
Laurel smiled, choosing to overlook the young man's imprudence.
"I came here in answer to a distress signal before I had even heard of the Black Hand. I am my own agent," she gestured down to the stiff, uncomfortable dress she wore, "and the reason I am wearing this ridiculous outfit is for a mission we were just about to begin. My name is Laurel."
She offered her hand, and both men in turn took it and kissed it politely while introducing themselves.
"I am Atis, of Shinaa. It is an honor to serve with you."
"And I am Barmier, at your service, Milady."
Laurel smiled her acceptance, but as Atis and Barmier moved to greet the others, the smile faded into a frown and she stumbled weakly.
Instantly, Carsius was at her side, digging a wyrt out of the impossibly intricate collar where it had gotten in while Laurel was meeting new people and essentially learning new information.
Atis looked at them curiously as Carsius aided Laurel onto the couch.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
Carsius gestured to the chairs opposite.
"Sit down, Atis; you too, Barmier. I will tell you everything."
The men took their seats, and between them the five operatives explained the situation right from the beginning, from the Elitinati's oppression to the events of that morning.
"It's lucky you came when you did," Augustus observed. "We needed two more men for escorts, to pull off the ruse."
"Speaking of ruse," said Laurel, who had gotten some of her strength back after nearly being overtaken, "you four will not only be my bodyguards, but I do believe Sister Miligred has some livery her servants wear."
Augustus rolled his eyes, "You're just sore because you have to wear that dress!" he chided.
Carsius sided with Laurel, "No, she has a point; we must be in disguise too." he turned to the Elf-maiden. "What was your plan?"
Laurel nodded, "If I can get to the turret of the University, I think I will be able to latch onto that specific influence and turn it around. Once I do, the effect will hopefully begin to spread, and as long as I am engaged with pushing against the influence, you three," pointing to Renata, Gorrmunsa, and Deej, "can use some sort of method to fill the area with analthraxine vapor, to inoculate the people against being re-influenced."
Everyone nodded, but Renata laid a worried hand on her friend's shoulder. "Are you certain you'll be able to do this?"
Laurel nodded, patting Renata's hand, "The hard part was because the influences at this spot were too varied. Once I can get to a place with only one tendril of influence, that tendril is easily broken and turned back. Do not fear."
"If this is so dangerous," Atis wanted to know, "what kept you from dying earlier today?"
Carsius, Gorrmunsa, and Laurel glanced at each other; none of them had mentioned Ra'dith.
"My friends were always there to help me," Laurel explained. She stood. "It is the middle of the afternoon now. We have a few hours before eventide. We should depart as soon as you all are ready."
A short time later, Sister Miligred, garbed and shrouded, left her house for the first time in nearly a week. Inside her mansion, two furry beings and a redheaded young woman sat over a vat of analthraxine, loading it into carpules, which were then inserted into modified Kytarr T-703 Dispersor guns. Gorrmunsa took up his station by the window. As soon as Laurel entered the University, they were to follow, guns at the ready.
The Elitinati wouldn't know what hit them.