A band of Peacekeepers trying to keep peace within the Nexis, and any world it touches.
| The Wandering Inn|
Chapter 1 - Introductions
Jack Cole sat at a corner table, away from the hustle and bustle that plagued the rest of the Wandering Inn. The table before him was littered with leather scrip, some open, the parchments inside scattered, others closed, tied neatly with satin ribbons.
Running his fingers through his peppered black and gray hair he reached for his mug. He hated paperwork. The more he completed, the more there seemed to be. It came with the territory, he knew, and he kept up diligently, but no one said he had to like it. Such was the life of a Team Leader for the Peacekeepers. He raised the mug to his lips before realizing it was empty. Now when had that happened?
He raised the mug above his head, signaling Georgeanna of his need for a refill and went back to the parchment before him. The numbers swam and he rubbed his eyes with tired fingers. A movement to the side caught his attention and he noticed a pair of long legs stop beside his table.
"You look like you've been to the Abyss, Jack. Long night?"
Jack looked up to find Angel standing before him, hands resting easily on her shapely hips. No matter how often he saw her, the sight of his first lieutenant always amazed him. Angel was just under average height, but nothing else about her was average. Men had killed themselves over women less stunning than the Shar'kra'tar. She was full figured, her curves perfect in all the right places. Long brown hair the color of cinnamon flowed halfway down her back, always in a state of windblown perfection. Her face was bright with strong cheekbones and a thin nose, artfully turned up at the tip. Her lips were full and red, frequently adopting a pout that had set more than one man's heart aflutter. Her sky blue eyes were big and childlike, though they could harden to ice if she became angry. Ears much too pointed to be human peaked out from her hair at times, only adding to her exotic look. But her most distinguishing feature was the pair of feathered wings sprouting from behind her, colored like the gray-white clouds of her home world of Val'sax. Angel was her nickname, her real name being too hard for most humans to pronounce, but it fit aptly. She was indeed an angel, sometimes as gentle as an angel of mercy, other times as deadly as the angel of death. The sword she wore strapped to her back was certainly not for show.
Jack sighed and nodded in response to the question. "Feels like I've been here for days."
He gestured to the paperwork on the table. "I'm trying to make heads or tails out of these reports. Doesn't anyone around here fill these things out?"
Angel slipped into a chair beside him and pulled an opened scrip out from under his elbow. She leaned the chair back on two legs, placing a low-cut boot on the edge of the table, and made a show of scrutinizing the parchment on top. The miniature pair of wings gracing her ankle flapped lazily in time with the finger tapping her lips.
She looked at him over the top of the document, her eyebrows rising ever so slightly. "Yes, Jack?"
"You have the folder upside down."
Angel blushed, dropping the front legs of the chair back to the floor while tossing the scrip back to the table.
"I knew that. I was just testing your powers of observation. It's clear you haven't lost your touch for the obvious."
Jack hid a smile behind a well-timed cough. He never made fun of Angel's inability to read - the gods knew the vast majority of people on the myriads of worlds he had visited had never learned. In Angel's case it was a military matter. The scout and messenger cast of the Shar'kra'tar, of which Angel was one, was forbidden to learn the skill in order to keep secret the contents of the various epistles and missives they carried. Angel had left Val'sax many years back, but the traditions of her home world still bound her tightly.
"I'm tired, but not that tired," Jack said. "Still, I think I'm about done for the day." He began gathering up the paperwork, closing most of the open files, but leaving a few choice items accessible.
Georgeanna came by at that moment and wordlessly filled Jack's mug with the watery substance she called quality ale. Angel looked at the drink and shuttered.
"Can I have the usual, Georgeanna?" Angel asked.
The barmaid nodded. "A tall glass of rain water. Coming right up."
Angel reached into her purse for the required coin, but Jack stopped her.
"I owe you for the last time. Let me pay this time."
Jack dug into his own purse and produced a heavy coin. "Bring us something to eat too, would you Georgeanna? I didn't realize how late it was and I'm starving. I'll have the boar plate with a heaping of fried potatoes. How about you, Angel?"
Angel smiled as she slipped her purse back into a pocket of her breeches.
"Well, since you're paying. I'll have a bowl of steamed vegetables, please, with bread and jelly. Oh, and some of that delicious goldpetal flower honey, if it's available."
Jack's jaw dropped. "Goldpetal honey? Do you have any idea how hard that stuff is to find? And the cost!"
Angel folded her arms over her chest and pouted. "You offered."
"I can see where this is going. You're trying to break me!"
He pulled three more coins out of his purse and handed them reluctantly to Georgeanna. The barmaid smiled, fully amused, and winked at Angel before leaving for the kitchen.
Jack started to count on his fingers. "That's coming out of your pay."
Angel's eyes narrowed. She made a strange noise as Jack reached for his mug.
"Out of my pay? I have to sit here and watch you devour a piece of meat in front of me, and you think this should come out of MY pay?"
Jack smiled into his mug. They had gone through this routine many times before and he knew what was coming. He could recite her next words in his sleep.
"How can you even touch the stuff? It was once a living, breathing being, not a care in the world...and then some big dumb brute like you comes around and...."
Angel shuddered and the small wings on her ankles pulled tight against her skin. She shook all over.
"We've been through this before, Miss Angelina. I don't harp at what you eat, you don't harp at what I eat. It's just that simple. I don't see your rear stuck to that chair. You can get up and leave anytime." Jack ran his hands over his hair, adjusting the leather cord at the back of his head that bound the unruly mane into his trademark ponytail. He looked up a moment later to see Angel, still seated, glaring at him intensely.
"I see you’re still here?"
The glare softened slightly. "That was unfair. You know I can't leave. It's...."
"I know Shar'kra'tar law, Angel, probably better than you do. A Shar'kra'tar may not leave any table or gathering angry. That law has gotten you into trouble more times than I can count - with both boots off! When are you going to understand that you're no longer on your world? You can adapt, even change the laws that bind you, if you would only try. Problem is," he concluded, raising his glass to his lips and winking, "you're too bloody pig-headed."
Angel stared in stony silence, then smiled. Her fingers toyed with the edge of an opened scrip. Before long, it was riding along the edge of the table.
"I know I am," she said sweetly, "but what are you?" She tapped the scrip and watched as it fell, scattering parchments everywhere.
Jack jumped up, spilling ale down his chin and vest as he tried to catch the flying papers.
"You little minx," he cursed as he wiped his chin clean. "You did that on purpose! Do you have any idea how long it took me to compile that file?"
The hint of laughter in Jack's voice stole the anger from the words as he placed his mug down on the table and started gathering parchment up off the floor.
"I should turn you over my knee," he said and reached out and caught one of Angel's ankles, tilting her chair back precariously.
"Jack Cole, you best turn me loose," she squeaked. "If this chair breaks..."
Angel's eyes went wild and her wings deployed behind her as Jack brought her leg up higher.
"It won't do you any good to drop her on her head. She'll only wait until you're asleep before she slits your throat."
Jack looked up to see a suave, well-dressed man standing nearby. Hair the color of coal hung freely to his shoulders, framing an angular, boyish face. Eyes the orange-red color of autumn leaves peered down the length of an aquiline nose, and a twisted grin twisted the edges of a mouth outlined by a paper thin black mustache and goatee. A shiny gold globe dangled from his right ear, its color matching nicely with the man's deeply bronzed skin. His clothes were fine, brown cotton shirt and leather pants set off by his intricately stitched black leather vest. The knee high leather boots were polished to a mirror shine. As Jack watched, the man pulled his corn silk locks back and secured them with a single gold band. The severe hairstyle coupled with the odd golden hue of his skin gave the young man a leonine look, turning the smile into something almost feral.
Jack dropped Angel's foot back to the table with a thud and bent to retrieve the rest of the parchments. Playtime was over.
"I knew my day wouldn't be complete until you came by, Cades. What brings you here?"
Before the young man could answer, Angel was up out of her chair, brushing the feathers of her wings straight.
"A woman, no doubt," she said coldly. "That, or he's hiding from a jealous husband. On second thought, it's definitely a jealous husband."
Cades clutched at his chest, staggering to the table. His face bore a wounded expression. "I'm hurt, Angel. You know you're the only woman for me. All those others, they're just so I can keep in practice and build up stamina."
He winked at the winged scout. "I've heard about your race and how they breed. I'll need every ounce of strength just to keep you grounded and in my bed!"
Before anyone could move, Angel was beside Cades with a thin, tapered dagger pressed to his throat. A tiny drop of blood formed at the point of contact.
"Just try and bed me, shifter. We'll see if your race can heal as fast as I can cut. You'll be missing more than a few parts when I'm finished with you and the things I'll cut off won't be growing back any time soon."
Angel's eyes flashed as she pushed Cades away. She righted her chair and sat down, throwing her foot back up on the table as she used the dagger to clean under her nails.
"Oh, and I'd avoid any future discussion of Shar'kra'tar breeding practices if I were you. I may have to take you up on the offer. Then we'd see how well you performed at ten thousand feet...without wings."
A wicked smile spread across Angel's face.
Jack sighed as he returned to his chair. Cades was ever a source of contention among his team. If it wasn't for his usefulness, Jack probably would have dropped him a long time ago. Cades' attitude was lax, his loyalty questionable and his sense of humor on the 'in' side of decency. As it was, however, his unique skills made him too valuable to lose. A natural shapeshifter, Cades could go places the others couldn't and blend in invisibly. Jack needed his abilities, and the others would just have to learn to put up with him.
Cades fingered the prick in his neck, then brought the drop of blood to his mouth. He licked the finger clean as he pulled up a chair. This he promptly reversed, straddling the worn wooden seat.
"A bit touchy today, aren't we?"
He didn't seem upset by Angel's display of violence, and in truth, he wasn't. Cades was too often bored by the mundane aspects of life and he welcomed any excitement, even if he had to get it by goading one of his teammates.
The bronze-skinned young man held out a manicured hand towards Jack.
"I'm here for my pay, unless you have something else planned for it."
Jack snorted as he leaned back, interlacing his fingers behind his head.
"Pay, huh? You still owe me from that last mission I sent you on. As I recall, there was a very angry barkeep with a very young daughter...big doe eyes, even bigger chest - any of this ring a bell? I had to bail you out of jail - more of a bribe, really - and promise you'd never go near her again. Then, just two days later you caused an uproar with that shopkeeper's wife."
"Which one," Angel asked, tossing Cades an innocent look, "The redhead, or the tall, very fat blonde?"
"She wasn't fat! Just...." Cades words trailed off and he mumbled under his breath.
"What was that? I didn't hear that last part," Jack said leaning closer.
Angel answered for him, her more sensitive ears having caught the quiet words. "He said that she was just big boned. By the Abyss, Cades, dragons have large bones. That woman was fat! I'm talking a real porker...."
Cades actually blushed. "She was NOT fat! There was just more to her than what there appeared to be."
Jack chuckled at Cades discomfort. He remembered the blonde, a large woman with a very tight corset. He could still see Cades, shifted into wolf form, running down the long hallway with his shirt, pants and one boot in his mouth, a red-faced husband in hot pursuit. He was a thin, gangly man, but he could run. He would have caught Cades if his wife hadn't chosen that moment to step out in front of him. The sound the man made as he collided with his wife had been somewhere between a splat and a splatter. He never had a chance after she fell on him. Cades had escaped unharmed, minus one boot. Jack had been forced to pay another bribe to keep the husband from going to the authorities. Cades still owed from that mission and Jack intended to make sure he paid in full.
"Did you ever get your boot back, Cades? Weren't they your favorite pair?"
Cades just stared at Jack, hardly believing that the normally placid man could be so cruel. Angel laughed herself silly.
The corner quieted as Georgeanna returned with their food.
Cades gave Jack a small smile, signifying that there were no hard feelings, as he filched a potato from the man's plate and popped it into his mouth.
Jack pulled the plate to him and sliced a generous helping from the boar steak. He saw Angel watching him from the corner of his eye, a disgusted look on her face.
"You guys seen the others?" Cades asked. He had slipped one boot off and turned it over, dumping a small pebble onto the floor.
"They aren't back from the scepter run yet," Jack responded, chewing noisily, "But I expect them soon."
He turned to see Angel, eyes locked on the rare steak, turning a pale shade of green and a hand to her mouth.
"Oh, gods, I think I'm going be sick."
Snatching Cades boot away, she promptly vomited into it. She wiped her mouth clean, then wrinkled her nose and fanned the boot with her free hand.
Cades was dumbstruck. "Slek, Angel! That wasn't one bit funny!"
"No," Angel agreed, smiling wanly, "but it IS an improvement on the smell."
Cades practically came over the table after her and Jack had to place an intervening hand between them to keep his files from being scattered to the floor.
"Knock it off, you two. Don't either one of you dare mess up my files. I've spent too much time organizing them to have them messed up because you yahoos were being childish. Angel, give the boot back to him."
Angel reached a hand across the table and handed the soiled boot to a seething Cades. On its way back, her hand caught the edge of one of the open scrips and sent it plummeting off the table, parchments scattering to the floor.