Cale pulled his Crown Victoria onto the long, winding dirt road behind Dunsmith and frowned. It had been a long night, and it was beginning to look like an even longer day. He was supposed to be off-shift at six, and it was now closer to seven o’clock. The town had been completely cut off from the rest of the planet for just under three hours, and they were still frantically trying to figure out exactly what had happened.
Cale felt a well of hope spring up from inside of him when he got the call to head out to the logging roads, saying he was to escort some ‘locals’ back to City Hall. These locals might have the answers Cale needed. Hell, answers the whole damn town were looking for.
He knew the old dirt roads well. Many a time had Cale had to drive around them in order to bust a bush party, or deal with a derelict car that had been set aflame by local troublemakers. This was, however, the first time he’d ever had to head up that way during daylight hours. He glanced nervously up at the sun, and briefly wondered if the day would last as long in this new place as it had back home. The sun came up just about the time the sun back home would have risen, so that had been a good sign.
Cale stopped at a familiar fork in the road and looked up further into the hills. The unnatural ridge could be seen in the distance, and he followed it as it curled around the landscape in a perfect circle.
“Shephard, you there?” Boone’s voice came over the radio.
Cale chuckled at the lack of proper radio protocol. Boone had always been a stickler for it before. He entertained the idea that this was to be the catalyst for the breakdown of society, but soon dismissed it. If they were cut off from the rest of the world, then society had already broken down, and the residents of Dunsmith were the last remnants of a world once populated by over six billion people.
However, there were locals here. Locals who apparently had a few surprises.
Cale caught a glimpse of Ryan Stills’ truck through the trees, and he knew he was approaching them quickly. It had only taken him a few minutes to get there once he’d had the car up on the logging roads. He finally rounded the last corner, coming into full view of Stills’ truck.
The first people he noticed were Stills and the Murphy girl– he recognized her almost instantly. He had been the one who had shown up to take her into custody after she had been found with a quarter-ounce of pot in her locker at the high school a couple of years back. Since that time, Cale himself had noticed her go through a veritable rainbow of different hair colors and styles. He also noticed that she’d gotten herself a nice collection of tattoos since that time. It wasn’t as if he knew her on a personal level at all, simply that she was easy to pick out of a crowd.
Next, he noticed the others. There were four of them. Cale raised an eyebrow and looked around. Hadn’t there been five? That’s what he’d been told. They watched him closely as he pulled closer. He finally pulled the cruiser to a stop and got out.
In his days at the RCMP Training Academy in Regina, Cale had gotten used to chains of command. He’d learned to recognize who, in a group of people, was in command simply through body language. He’d made an art of the study, and quickly identified the tall blond woman as the one in command.
“About time,” Stills said. Cale looked over at him and nodded.
“I got here as soon as I could,” he said. He looked back over at the locals and briefly thought about what to do. “Isn’t there supposed to be one more?”
Ryan nodded, then pointed at the younger of the two woman. The girl dressed in dirty rags. “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t ask me how, because I don’t really understand it myself, but he’s in a little rock in her pocket.”
“It’s a Soulstone,” the messy girl corrected. “Not a rock.”
Cale wasn’t quite sure what he’d meant, but he was sure he didn’t want to ask. “I’m Constable Shephard, “ he said. “With the Dunsmith RCMP.”
“Constable?” the older man said. He seemed to smirk. “That’d make ye a lawman, would it not?”
Cale nodded. “That’s what RCMP stands for. Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”
The older man smiled. “Aye, and I’ll say that’s some fine mount ye’ve got there,” he said sarcastically. He motioned towards the Crown Victoria.
“Bayne, please. Manners,” the blond girl said. “Please excuse him, your ways are still very new to us. My name is Nalya dels Avirne el Ruus,” she said, then motioned towards the older man. “Bayne Dalon, my bodyguard, and Keltz Wicket, my First Lieutenant.”
The younger girl decided to speak for herself. “I’m Arie,” she said, then displayed the small granite stone in her hand. “This is Tam.”
Cale looked at the stone and raised an eyebrow. He looked over to Ryan and Terra.
“Don’t ask,” Terra said. “You don’t want to know.”
Cale only nodded, then regarded the red truck which sat nearby. He looked over to Ryan. “How many can you fit in there?”
“Besides me and Terra? Three,” he said. “We could always throw the extra person in the bed, but the ride will get bumpy, and I’m pretty sure they’re not used to moving at the speeds we’ll be going.”
“There’s a bed in there?” Arie asked.
“I think he means the flat part, in the back of the contraption,” Bayne suggested, pointing it out. “The box.”
Cale nodded. “That’ll have to do– I’m not really set up for passengers, and I wouldn’t want to put anyone in the back of the cruiser,” he said. “It’s not the most comfortable place– especially wearing armor like they are.”
Ryan nodded. “Okay,” he said, then looked over at the others. “Are you ready to go?” he asked. “Last call, all aboard!”
It took them a few moments to organize their seating arrangements, but ultimately they settled on having Nalya and Bayne seated in the cab, behind the drivers, Arie in the passenger seat, and Keltz in the bed of the truck. Ryan moved a few things around to better accommodate them and their armor, and climbed in the truck.
“Okay,” Cale said from outside the driver’s side window. “Take them straight to City Hall, I’ll be right behind you. Give a holler if you’ve got any trouble.”
Ryan nodded, and started to turn the truck around, pulling out in front of Cale.
There was a surprised yell from Keltz as he fell over. He scrambled back to a seated position quickly, then looked in through the window at the others.
“You all right?” Ryan asked.
Keltz nodded. “Fine. I just lost my balance for a moment.”
“Just hold on to the sides,” Ryan suggested. “You should be fine.” He finished turning the truck around and started driving down the road, moving slowly for Keltz’s benefit.
“But it doesn’t creak and groan like a wagon over the bumps,” Bayne commented. “It’s smooth, moves like a ship across calm seas. How fast does this beast move?”
“Depends where you’re driving. Off-road? I don’t really like to go much faster than we’re going right now, especially with someone in the back. On solid pavement, though, I’ve hit speeds up to a hundred-ninety kilometers per hour.”
“What’s a kilometer?” Nalya asked.
Ryan sighed. “It’s… a unit of measurement,” he replied. “It’s hard to explain. A kilometer is a thousand meters, and a meter is about… the length from the front of the truck to where we’re sitting.”
“Two paces,” Bayne said. He thought about it for a moment.
“Three hundred and eighty thousand paces,” Arie said, puzzling the answer in her head. “You travel at three hundred and eighty thousand paces per hour?”
“With speeds like that, we could be in Rasza by tomorrow afternoon!” Bayne exclaimed. “It’s unheard of! The skin would peel from your face from sheer force of wind!”
Ryan shook his head. “Well, I’ve still got the skin on my face, so obviously not.”
“Ye must be mistaken, lad. Such speeds are impossible,” he said.
“Impossible with someone sitting in the bed, yes. Wait until the bed’s empty, then I’ll take you for a ride,” he said.
Bayne squinted his eyes. “Very well, lad. I’ll hold ye to that offer.”
Ryan turned a corner and the first evidence of there being a town in the mountains below made itself evident. He heard a sharp gasp from behind him, as the newcomers took in the view of the landscape. They were high up on a cliff road, overlooking the town below. Only a few subdivisions could be seen thus far, but the telltale sight of the Dunsmith Harbor was beginning to peek up at them from the trees below.
“That’s no town,” Bayne said. “That’s a bloody city!”
Terra looked back. “Not by our standards,” she said. “Cities have hundred of thousands of people. Dunsmith only has eight thousand or so.”
“Eight thousand? If there were as many Freemen as you, the Disputed Lands wouldnae be disputed anymore!”
“Your building style is very peculiar,” Nalya said. “Very colorful. I can see right from the beginning that your people are very different than ours.”
“And yet we speak the same language,” Terra said. “We’re from very different places. Worlds apart, and we both speak English.” She looked back at Nalya.
“The Common Tongue,” Nalya said. She nodded. “Spoken widely throughout the Pactlands.” She thought for a moment.
“So the question begs to be asked,” Ryan said. “How is it that we can speak the same language even though we’re from different worlds?”
“I couldn’t say,” Nalya said. “Perhaps this is evident of some greater goings-on, for reasons we can’t yet fathom.”
“Something greater?” Ryan asked. “Like what? God? Did God have something to do with this?”
“Gods?” Nalya asked. She shook her head. “No, the gods have been gone for eons. There are not many forces I’m aware of that could have done such a thing.”
“Holy crap, you guys actually have gods?” Terra asked.
“Aye,” Bayne said. “Gods and goddesses.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “But that lot of fools has long since been absent. They had their wars and left the world to rot.”
“Yes,” Nalya said. “Those gods that still lived at the end of the War of the Ancients have long since left us.”
“Abandoned us, more like,” Bayne said.
“Many were killed during the War of the Ancients,” she said. “Long before the Signing of the Pact. Long before Eventide.”
Ryan exhaled. At least he didn’t have to worry about a physical god coming to have a chat with him about the various sins he’d committed.
They continued to drive down the logging roads, chattering about the various differences between Earth and the Pactlands, and before long, they reached the entrance to the logging roads. Cale was right on their tail the whole way down.
The four newcomers were awed into silence. If it wasn’t the paved roads, it was the colorful wooden buildings, and the sheer amount of parked vehicles along the road. Arie seemed to have trouble believing that the people of Dunsmith didn’t have magick, for all the wonders in the city. Cars crisscrossed the streets in front of them. Ryan was relieved to see that the traffic lights were working– which meant they had electricity. Keltz seemed abnormally fond of those lights, and began asking all sorts of questions. How they worked, what power they were derived from, how the colors change by themselves. Bayne had grown silent, and seemed to be turning a little pale. Carsickness, no doubt.
Ryan thought it strange that he seemed fine on the logging roads, but as soon as the truck pulled onto paved road, he started to look a little green. They drove through town and eventually arrived and parked in front of City Hall.
A crowd had already gathered. News had spread fast of the newcomers, and people from all over town were arriving to catch a glimpse of them.
“Aye, but this is a strange place,” Bayne said as the truck drew to a stop. People all around were staring at him. “Ye’d think they’d never seen an outlander before.”
“Not from another world,” Ryan said.
“Hah!” Bayne exclaimed. “But I’m not from another world! You are!”
“Bayne,” Nalya warned.
Boone emerged from the crowd and walked up to the driver’s side window as Cale parked behind them.
“Any problems?” he asked, and shot a glance at the three outlanders in the cab.
Ryan shook his head. “No trouble. They’re cool,” he said.
“And the… ah…” Boone stammered for a moment. “The rock?”
“You mean Tam?” Arie asked. She held up the Soulstone. “He’s right here. He’ll be no trouble.”
Boone only regarded at the girl for a moment.
“Okay. Well, Goose wants to see whoever’s in charge,” Boone said. “Alone.”
“She’ll go nowhere without me!” Bayne said, and gave Boone a menacing look.
“Bayne, stop!” Nalya said. “If they had meant us harm, they’d have done it by now.” She looked at Boone. “This… Goose. He is your leader?”
Boone nodded. “As much of a leader as we have right now, I guess,” he said. “We’ve arranged to accommodate you and your friends for as long as you’re here–”
“Which won’t be long, I’m afraid,” Nalya said. “My men are stationed just outside your borders, but if we don’t return by the morning, they’ll come seeking us.”
“Your men?” Boone asked. He shook his head after a moment. “Look, I’m just a grunt,” he said. “You talk to Goose about all that. He’s inside.” He shot a thumb over his shoulder, pointing towards the one-story City Hall.
Nalya nodded. “I’m going to go speak with their leaders,” she said to Bayne and Keltz. “Stay with Ryan and Terra.”
“What will you speak to him of?” Keltz asked.
Nalya only remained silent as she climbed out of the driver’s seat. “If I’m not back in a half-hour, get back to the men and leave this place,” she said. She then looked over at Terra and smiled. “It’s not that we don’t trust you,” she said. “But one can never be too careful.”
Nalya entered the building with Boone escorting her. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust to the strange light which illuminated the inside of the building. The lights seemed to be coming from small rectangular panels in the ceiling. They flickered rapidly, and Nalya’s eyes had trouble adjusting right away. There were several desks in the room where people were seated. Some were paying full attention to Nalya, while others still seemed engrossed in their task of tapping away on a strange device on the desk in front of them, their eyes glued to a large white box. Nalya gasped as she caught a glimpse of one box, a screen which seemed to respond to whatever clicking they seemed to be doing on the small devices in front of them. It was a wonder to behold. One of only a hundred she had seen since arriving in the town, and most definitely not the last wonder she’d witness before leaving.
Boone led her past the clicking people at their desks and knocked on a door. There was a muffled shout from inside, and the door swung open.
Behind the desk in the room, staring at his own white box, was a short man with a curly crown of brown hair. He was an older man, who wore a set of large-lensed spectacles. He stood up once he realized Nalya was there, and smiled.
“Hello there,” he said.
“Greetings,” Nalya said. “You are… Goose?”
Goose nodded. “Goose Payne, at your service. I’m the chairman of the Dunsmith Emergency Committee. It seems our Mayor didn’t come with us, so that leaves things up to me here. And you are?”
“Nalya dels Avirne el Ruus,” she replied. “In service of the Halish Empire in the Disputed Lands.”
Goose only stared back at her, not sure what to say. “Right,” he said. “You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t understand the significance of that, as you could probably already tell, we’re not exactly from around these parts.”
Nalya nodded. “That was explained to me as well.”
“Good!” Goose exclaimed. “Makes my job easier. He wore a sly smile. “Now… Nalya– do you mind if I call you Nalya?”
“Please,” Nalya said.
“Great. Nalya, I’ve heard a few things about you already, but mostly second hand. I have a lot of questions for you–”
“And I for you,” Nalya said.
“Good, so we best get to the business of answering each others questions,” he said. He looked over to Boone. “It’s all right, Gerry. You can leave us.”
Boone nodded and left without another word.
“How does shot-for-shot sound to you?” Goose asked.
Nalya cocked her head in confusion. “I’m… I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“It’s simple. I ask a question, you answer it to the best of your ability, and then you ask me a question, and I do the same thing.”
Nalya nodded. “That sounds fair.”
“Excellent,” Goose said. “First question– I’ve been told that you’re traveling with a creature made of stone, and that perhaps magick might be involved somehow. How’s that possible?”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“I mean– once again, you’ll have to forgive me,” he said. “Simply put, we don’t exactly have magick. I mean, not the type that will animate stone. Our magick is strictly limited to card tricks and sleight of hand. Which isn’t real magick, but it’s the closest we have to it.”
“You have no magi?” Nalya asked. “No healers? Nobody here with a gift?”
Goose shook his head. “Magi?” he asked. “No, not one.”
Nalya took this in and seemed to weigh it in her mind for a moment. Her expression turned very grim. “Magick is common here– at least in this corner of it. Every known nation has magii, gifted peoples who can command all sorts of different forces. Flame, water, wind, stone. Even those born without the gift can call upon its forces sometimes. Not having the command of these forces is an unheard of rarity,” she told him.
Goose nodded. “Well, frankly put. In another time and place, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m told you have no knowledge of how we got here, but from what I’ve seen so far– magick seems a likely culprit.” He sighed, then looked up at her. “Your turn.”
Nalya seemed to gather together her words before she spoke. Then, wearing a grim look on her face, she looked at Goose and asked, “How many men do you have in your army?”
“How many..?” Goose said. He mouthed the words as if he didn’t understand. “This is just a small town. The closest Armed Forces base was a two hour drive away from town. We don’t have an army.”
Nalya gave Goose a grave look. “Well, then, Goose Payne of Dunsmith,” she said. “I suggest you put one together. Quickly.”
Cale lingered around outside of City Hall as he watched the blond woman, Nalya, go inside with Boone. His eyes were starting to grow heavy, after all, he had been up all night. He wasn’t about to ask Boone if he could go off-shift, not in light of the emergency, but he hadn’t been told what to do quite yet.
“You, lawman!” Bayne called from over near Ryan’s truck. There were a number of people assembled around it and the newcomers, and Cale could hear questions coming out of every mouth. Cale watched at Bayne made his way through the crowd and approached him. “How long have you practiced for?”
Cale blinked. “Practiced what?”
“The protection of the innocent, of course,” Bayne said. “For how long have you called yourself lawman?”
“About six years,” Cale replied.
Bayne nodded. “Aye, I was twenty years under the banner myself.”
Cale stared, obviously not getting it. “Under the banner?”
“A lawman! Like you!” Bayne exclaimed. “Aye, but ye people are daft.”
“You were a cop?”
“A what? Nay, I was a Lawkeeper. I used to prowl the streets of Ourum at nights, looking for cutpurses and thieves. I did it for twenty years. Made a great many friends, and an even greater number of enemies.” He seemed proud of himself. “To this day the people of Ourum either bless my name, or curse it.”
Cale laughed. “Sounds about right. The life of a.. a lawkeeper, eh?”
“Aye indeed,” Bayne replied. “I wouldn’t trade but for all the gold in the Council’s holding. ’tis a respectable profession, I say.”
“At times,” Cale said.
Bayne laughed and slapped him on the back. “One thing, though,” he said. “I notice you’re without a blade.”
Cale nodded. He knew where this was going. “I don’t need a blade. I’ve got this,” he said, and motioned to the gun in his belt-holster.
“What? That? What are you going to do? Toss it at ’em?”
Cale looked around. He knew he would get in trouble for this if Boone saw, but who was there to get in trouble with? Boone could write him up all he wanted, but the fact remained that the Justice Institute was a world away. He pulled the gun from his holster and ejected the magazine.
“It works like this,” he said, showing him the magazine. “We put the slugs in here, they’re little pieces of specifically shaped metal. After that, it’s slid into the base of the hilt,” he clacked in back in to make his point. “After that, you remove the safety, point, and shoot.”
“Shoot? Like an arrow?”
“Kind of,” he said. “Obviously you don’t have to nock it, it’s already all set to go. All you have to do is squeeze the trigger, then blam! The slug come out of the end of the barrel really quickly. Anything that it hits, if it doesn’t kill, it seriously wounds.” He looked back. “I’d demonstrate for you– but it’s damn loud, and I’d likely get in trouble for firing my weapon in public.”
“How long between shots?” Bayne asked.
“However long you want, really. By the time you’ve fired the first shot, the second one is ready to go whenever you pull the trigger.”
“Ingenious! How do you make the slugs go? Are they made by Alchemists?”
“Uhh… no,” he said, then thought about it for a moment. “It’s hard to explain. I confess I don’t really understand the science behind it all that well.”
“Shephard!” he heard from nearby. “Get that fucking weapon back in your holster! Christ!”
Cale and Bayne looked over to see Boone, looking irate. He had a look on his face that spoke volumes of his mood.
Cale hastily replaced the gun in his holster. “I was just showing it–”
“It doesn’t matter. What, you think just because there’s no Canada anymore that the rules don’t apply here?” he grumbled, then looked over at Bayne, studying him for a moment. He threw his arms in the air. “Whatever. Look, you’ve had a long shift, so I’ll forgive you this time.” He looked back at Bayne. “Your friend is in there talking to Goose right now. They shouldn’t be that long. If you need it, Old John at the Highway House Hotel is willing to put the four of you up for the night.”
Bayne nodded. “I thank ye, Lawman,” he said.
Boone only looked back at him. “Right,” he said, then turned back to Cale. “You willing to put a few more hours in?”
Cale nodded. “If I have to,” he said.
“Good,” Boone said. “Head up into Whitepoint and start patrolling. Try to keep people calm. Last thing we need is a bunch of trigger-happy farmers shooting at the first thing they see.” He shook his head. “Remember, when people get scared, they get violent.”
“Okay, so if I have this straight. These Vectorans are ruled by a guy named Tammil Cuerian,” Goose said. “Just correct me at any point here.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Nalya replied.
“Okay, and they’re currently trying to lay a claim over these Disputed Lands, in which we are currently situated?”
Nalya pulled a map out of her pack. She unfolded it on the table. “Yes. We are here, in what used to be the Aegel Coast. From what I can tell, Dunsmith has replaced it entirely.”
“Okay. So Halen, to the north here,” he pointed at the other nation. “Where you’re from, is here to contest their claim?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “Halen has made no formal objection to Cuerian’s claim as of yet. For now, we are simply to observe and report on their movement in the Disputed Lands. If Cuerian or his General make any movement against Halen, only then can we contest their claim, but Nadus Hillbreaker wants to avoid a costly war if at all possible.”
“So Halen doesn’t want the Disputed Lands? You’re just trying to prevent them from getting their hands on it?”
Nalya nodded her head.
“All right. So what kind of numbers are we looking at here? How many of these Vectorans soldiers are there?”
“In total? Probably a hundred thousand. At least ten thousand already within the Disputed Lands.”
Goose blanched. “Those aren’t good numbers,” he said.
“How many are…”
“Eight thousand, as far as we can figure. Could be more, could be less. We don’t exactly have time for a census. What kind of weapons do they have?”
Nalya shrugged. “Thousands of swords, archers, siege engines, although it would be nearly impossible to bring those through the thick forest. Contingents of Warmagii and Elementals to be certain.”
“Whoa, whoa. Warmagii and Elementals?” Goose exclaimed. “As in magick?”
Nalya nodded. “Yes, as in magick.”
“Oh we are so not prepared for this,” he said, putting his head into his hands.
“You have skills they lack,” Nalya said. “Your mastery of craftsmanship may help turn the tide against them once they discover your presence here. I have seen many things in my short time here that would stop them dead in their tracks.”
“Like what?” Goose asked.
“Like your instant communication, carriages that run under their own power, music that comes from small boxes. These are all wondrous bits of magick–”
“Yeah, but that’s not magick,” Goose said. “That’s.. like… science and technology.” He trailed off for a moment. “But you’ve never seen anything like it…” He smiled and snapped his fingers. “That’s it!”
Nalya was taken aback. “What? What is?”
“They don’t have guns or knowledge of explosives, do they?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by guns, but some Pyromagii can explode things.”
“And I’d sure as shit bet they have no idea what a land mine is,” he said, then stood up. “Okay, I have to speak with the Committee about this. Let them know to prepare for a fight.”
“There may be more I can do to help,” she said.
“How so?” Goose asked.
“It’s… difficult. Can you take me at my word?”
“Your word? What do you mean?”
“I can take three of you with me– back to Halen. I can arrange a meeting with Nadus Hillbreaker, the King, and you can petition his assistance.”
“Will he help?”
“He could not afford to refuse,” Nalya said. “Halen is locked in a vice-grip by Vector’s advances and their manipulation of the Pact. But if you can commit to protecting these lands and claiming them from beneath Vector, I am sure he would happily lend any assistance he can muster.”
Goose nodded. “So noted. I’ll bring that up with the committee,” he said.
“There is something else,” Nalya said.
“Why don’t I like the sound of that?” Goose asked.
“Ryan Stills and Terra Murphy. I believe it to be important that they be two of the three who come with me.”
For a moment, Goose didn’t know who she was talking about, but then it occurred to him. “Wait, those two kids?! The ones who brought you into town?”
“It’s a long story,” she said. “One I will share once I receive your promise of secrecy.”
Goose sat down in his chair and mulled it over.
“Secrecy from whom?”
“Hard to say,” Nalya stated. “I would not ask that you hide these things from your committee, only that you’re careful as to which ears this may fall to. There may be more at stake than either of us fully understand.”
Goose thought for another few moments, then sighed. “What choice do I have? You’ve got your promise.”
Goose watched as a strange invisible weight seemed to lift itself from Nalya’s shoulders. “Goose,” she began. “Are you familiar with the concept of prophecy?”