With Keltz’s help, Nalya rose to her feet and brushed herself off. She regarded the newcomers curiously. He was tall, sandy-haired and was dressed very strangely. He wore light blue trousers made from some material she couldn’t identify. His shoes were colored in shades of black and white, but it was his shirt that drew most of her attention. A strange pattern covered the surface of the material which looked remarkably like eyes. Many, many eyes. In a strange font, the word Tool was emblazoned across it.
Behind him, standing on the other side of the now-resting red beast, was a girl no older than Nalya. She was short and quite thin. Her hair was red, the color of blood, and she was dressed in a similarly strange fashion.
Nalya worked her jaw for a moment before speaking. The words her uncle had told her were running through her mind.
He will have many eyes, he had told her. And she, hair that flows as blood.
“My name is Nalya dels Avirne el Ruus,” Nalya said, recapturing her composure. She was still shaken from nearly being run over by the beast, which as she had surmised, was rather a carriage of some kind that operated without the use of a beast of burden. “I am a Captain of the Halish Empire.” She turned and gestured to the others. “This is my First Lieutenant, Keltz Wicket, and my bodyguard, Bayne Dalon.” She looked to Arie and Tam. “This is Arie and Tam, of Shavi.”
“Of where?” the man asked. He seemed confused. “Look,” he said. “There’s some weird shit been going on around here, and you guys are definitely not from around here.”
“They’re no’ Freemen,” Bayne said. “No Freeman could build that.” He gestured over to the giant red metal beast. “I’ve never seen the like.”
“Freemen?” The man asked. “What the hell are you talking about? Where are we? What is this place?”
“You don’t know?” Keltz asked. “You really have no idea where you are?”
The man threw his hands up in the air. “Isn’t that obvious?”
“Calm down,” Nalya said. “Please, I’ll answer any questions you may have, but we have a few ourselves.”
The man calmed down for a moment. Long enough for Nalya to walk up to him and look him in the eye. “I’ve told you our names,” she said. “Please, will you tell us yours?”
He kept eye contact with her for a moment, then broke it off. “Ryan,” he said. “Ryan Stills. This is Terra Murphy.”
“And where do you hail from, Ryan?” Nalya asked.
He pointed down the road. “Back that way,” he said. “Dunsmith, it’s our town.”
“Town?” Bayne asked. “This deep in the Disputed Lands? Bullocks!”
“Yeah, tell that to the eight thousand people down over those hills,” Ryan shot back. “I’m pretty sure they think this whole thing’s bullocks, too.” He cocked his head. “Disputed Lands?” he asked.
Nalya nodded. “You’re in the southeastern region of the Disputed Lands, along the Aegel Coast.”
“The Aegel Coast?” Terra asked. She looked to Ryan “Is that on Vancouver Island? I’ve never heard of it.”
Ryan shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s not.” He looked to Nalya. “We’re from Canada,” he said. “Have you ever heard of it?”
The five of them looked at each other, but slowly shook their heads.
“What about planet Earth?” she asked.
“Earth?” Arie asked. “Planet Earth?” She looked to Nalya briefly, then back to Ryan. “It’s what we call the ground beneath us, but our world… our planet. No, we are in the Pactlands.”
“Christ,” Ryan said. “What about that?” He pointed towards the strange planet as it disappeared over the horizon. “Can you explain that?”
“The Azure Dream?” Arie asked.
“Azure Dream? Okay, that answers that. So what’s an Azure Dream?”
“The Azure Dream watches over the Pactlands,” Nalya said.
Ryan looked over at Terra. “Are you confused yet?”
“I was confused long before I started hearing these names,” Terra replied. She looked over to Nalya. “So… the Disputed Lands. That’s where you’re from?”
Bayne made a disgusted noise. “Ach, no!” He exclaimed.
“We are representing Halen,” Nalya said. “It lies to the north of the Disputed Lands.”
“Which is where we are– right?” Ryan asked.
“Okay, so for my next question… Why did you bring us here?” Ryan asked.
Nalya blinked in surprise. “Bring you here? We… we had nothing to do with that.”
Ryan nodded. “Didn’t think you did,” he said. “But I had to check.”
“We should call Boone,” Terra said. “I’d say this qualifies for a situation update.”
Ryan nodded and reached into the front of his vehicle and pulled out a small black box.
“Boone,” he said into it.
Bayne looked at Nalya and gave him a look that left no question as to how he judged Ryan’s sanity.
“Boone, you there?” he asked again.
When the voice erupted out of the box, it caused a flurry of shock and awe from those assembled.
“Yeah, I hear ya,” the box said.
“Oh my,” Nalya said. She looked straight at the box. “Is there… how is that…?”
“Ye have someone inside the box?” Bayne asked. He seemed ready to reach for his sword.
Ryan looked at them in confusion for a moment. He looked over at Terra. “Hey, listen. I’m going to give Boone an update. See what else you can find out.” With that, he walked down the road.
“There’s nobody inside the box,” Terra explained. “We use it to talk to people in the town over a long distance. It’s called a radio.”
“A radio? How does it work?” Nalya asked. “Magick?”
“Magick?” Terra asked. “Uhh, no. We send signals through the air, and they’re picked up by little radios like that one. We can talk back, and have a conversation with someone who is miles away.”
“Amazing,” Arie said, piping in. “It’s like what the Psimagii can do. Can anyone use it, or do they need to be gifted?”
“Gifted?” Terra asked. She suddenly wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “No. No, anyone can use it.”
“Vehicles that move by themselves,” Bayne said. “Radio-boxes that can send a voice over miles.” He shook his head. “I don’t like it. It sounds like bad magick.”
“No, no. It’s not magick. It’s science. Technology. You understand science, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Nalya said. “But no science we study has ever led to the creation of such wonders. Studies in the magicks have produced many things to make life easier– but the sciences have rarely done so.”
Suddenly, Terra got the impression that magic wasn’t just an explanation for something they didn’t understand here.
In fact, Terra thought as she looked up at Tam. I bet they understand it pretty damn well. Terra swallowed.
Oh God, She thought. Dunsmith landed smack dab in the middle of the Lord of the Rings.
“Boone, we’ve got a… err… situation here,” Ryan’s voice crackled over the radio.
Oh shit, Boone thought. What now?
“It’s not another dinosaur, is it?” Boone asked.
“No, on the contrary. We’ve got people up here. Four… maybe five,” he said.
“Maybe five?” Boone replied.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure the fifth one really counts as… well… people. He’s a giant rock.”
“What?” Boone asked. “He?”
Boone had had enough. First crazy lights, then weird planets and dinosaurs. Now it was crazy kids going off about people-rocks.
“I know how it sounds,” he said. “But you have to believe me. I’m looking at four people– three of which are wearing armor and carrying swords. They say we’re in a place called the Disputed Lands, and they’re representatives of a nation to the north called Halen.”
“You’re serious,” Boone said. It wasn’t a question.
“Look, I really don’t know what I should be doing here. They’re willing to answer our questions, but they have no idea how we got here.” There was a moment of silence. “There’s something else,” he said.
“Well, if I’m really seeing what I’m seeing– that is, a giant, walking, talking pile of rocks– then that means something else is at work here.”
“What are you trying to say?” Boone asked.
One word came back over the airwaves.
“Magic,” Ryan said.
“Magic?” Goose asked.
Boone nodded. “That’s what the kid said. He said there was a some pile of boulders that was moving of its own free will, and there’s a bunch of folks up there dressed in armor and wearing swords. He thinks they’re locals.”
“They speak English?”
“Apparently so,” Boone replied.
Goose’s mind started reeling. Magic? It was absurd. Everything he’d ever learned about stage magic his entire life flooded through him. There just was no substance to it.
But since the Blacklight…
“If that wasn’t all, apparently one of these people claim to be some Captain or something from a Goddamned nation somewhere north of our position.”
“A Captain? As in army?” Goose thought on it a moment. “That was quick. Almost like they were expecting us.” He gave Boone a dark look.
Boone nodded. “That’s what I’m thinking.”
“I’m also not so sure about the idea of a ‘giant pile of boulders’ running around this town,” he said. “How do we know these people are safe? Are those kids armed?”
Boone hesitated. Just for a moment. “I don’t think so.”
“Jesus, Gerry!” Goose exclaimed. “What are you thinking?”
“Well, I sent ’em before the T-Rex,” Boone said. “I didn’t think–”
Goose put his hand up. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Not right now, anyway. If they were gonna kill them, they’d have liquefied them by now. I don’t know about bringing them in– especially with a walking mountain. It’s something I’ll have to confer with the committee about. But until the phones start and the power’s back up–”
He was interrupted in mid-sentence by a sudden roar of life around him. Lights turned on, computer screens booted up, printers beeped and began to run their motors. Even the little radio in the mayor’s office started to play static.
“Oh, sweet technology,” Goose said. “That was quick. I must give Brad kudos. Oh, the things I would do to that man if I wasn’t so damned straight.”
“What?” Boone asked. His face twisted up into a look of utter incomprehension.
“Never mind,” Goose said. He picked up the phone, dialed nine, then frowned. After a moment, he put the receiver down.
“Damn,” he muttered. “No phone network.” He sighed, then perked up. “But we’ve got power. That’s a plus.”
“That still doesn’t tell us what to do about our friends in the woods.”
Goose looked up at Boone. “Okay,” he said. “I’m not so sure about this, but I’ll face the wrath of the committee and allow them into town. But I want an eye kept on the Thing once it gets here.” He sighed. “You got any officers free?”
“Littleton’s got the SUV,” he said. “But I sent her down to Kamper’s Korner for now. Shephard should be coming back into town any time now. I’ll reroute him up the logging roads.”
Goose nodded in agreement. “Good,” he said. “I want those kids to have a police escort. At least that’ll deter any funny business.”
“Okay,” Ryan said, coming back to the ragtag group mulling around his truck. “They’re sending up Constable Shephard, then we’re going to head on into town.” He looked over at Tam. “But… uhh…”
“What?” Tam asked in a deep, nasal voice.
Ryan almost jumped. “Jesus, you can talk?”
“Well of course I can talk!” Tam exclaimed. “And my name is Tam. Not this Jesus fellow you keep referring to.”
Ryan worked his jaw, trying to form the words, but losing them on the tip of his tongue. Tam could talk. The giant stack of boulders with no mouth with which to speak could actually speak.
And he was a smartass!
He heard Terra snicker from behind him, then he had to laugh himself for a moment, even just for his nerves.
“What’s so funny?” Tam asked.
Ryan shook his hands. “No. Nothing. I just thought you were– I didn’t know. Hey, you’re my first golem, okay? I’ve never seen anything like you.”
“Golem? I’m an Elemental, you insidious buffoon!”
“Tam, please!” Arie snapped.
“Bah,” Tam said. “Fine. I can forgive you, but please try to remember my name next time.”
“Remember your–” Ryan started. Terra started to cackle loudly and he shot her a look. “No, no,” he said. “I’m not calling you Jesus, I’m just… well…”
“He’s invoking, Tam!” Arie explained. “He names their gods!”
“Ahhh,” Tam said. He nodded. “I understand. I forgive you then, sir.”
“My gods? I.. well… yeah. Yeah, I guess that’s it,” he stuttered out, then shook his head.
“Look, our… uhh… leaders want to meet you,” he said. “But there’s a catch.”
“A catch?” Nalya asked.
“Well, they obviously don’t want me coming into town and tearing up the place like some horrible monster, now do they?” Tam offered. “Not that I would, and I’m insulted at the suggestion, but I can understand the concern your people may have. Elementals are often banned from cities. It’s no matter, though!” He jabbed a boulder in the air. “We have no business here!”
“Now, Tam,” Arie said. “It may be wise to–”
“We’re going to Caede, Arie,” Tam exclaimed. He looked at the others. “And I don’t want to have this conversation here. That’s that, and I will not take no for an answer.”
Arie turned red for a moment. “Tam,” she said, her voice low and serious.
“What?” Tam asked. “Arie, this is not our concern. The plight of these people must be left to them. We’ve got our own problems to deal with!”
“I’m sorry, Tam,” she said. “I don’t agree.”
“You don’t agree? What are you–” he asked, and then suddenly fell apart. Ryan nearly had to leap out of the way to prevent himself from being crushed by a two-ton boulder.
“Christ!” Ryan exclaim. “What the hell was that?”
“I’m sorry about that,” Arie said. She walked over to what used to be Tam’s chest and plucked a fist-sized granite stone with a symbol carved into it right out of the boulder. Ryan’s eye bugged out when he saw her fingers literally flow into the rock as she grasped the stone. When her hand pulled away, he could see the trails left where her fingers had pushed into rock. It was like a hot knife through butter, the stone simply receded away from her hand. Ryan felt faint.
“What did you do?” Terra asked.
“I didn’t agree with him,” she explained. “He gets like this sometimes, and he needs to be reminded that sometimes there are people who don’t wish us harm.” She looked Terra in the eye. “And I want to see the kind of place things like this come from.” She gestured towards Ryan’s truck.
“I don’t get it,” Ryan said, his eyes bulging. “He’s in the rock?”
Arie nodded, then tucked the stone into one of the deep pockets of her robe. “Yes. He won’t interrupt us now. I’ll keep him in the talisman until it is safe for him. But I think our odds of survival are better with you.”
Ryan almost looked at her sideways. “Why would you think that?”
“Well, you say there are thousands of you?” she said. “Any Vectoran Patrols would think twice on raiding you.”
Vectoran Patrols? Ryan thought. “Why don’t I like the sound of that?” He looked over at the blond woman. What was her name? Nala? Naya? “What’s she talking about?” Nalya! That was it.
Nalya nodded. “She’s right,” she said. “If you’re well fortified, well armed, and your guardsmen well trained, the Vectoran Patrols may think twice,” she said. “But if word of your presence reaches the ears of Ajjiro Ryde, he will stop at nothing to destroy you.”
“What? Who? Why?” Ryan asked. “Wait.” He concentrated. “Who is Ajjiro Ryde?”
Nalya sighed. “He’s the Lord General of the Vectoran Forces here in the Disputed Lands. One of his main forces is stationed somewhere to the south of us now– perhaps three days from here.”
“And… why would he destroy us?” Ryan asked.
“He will perceive you as a threat. The Pact long ago stipulated that a settlement of greater than five thousand souls in unclaimed territory must be in place for one half-year. For a thousand years these lands have laid unclaimed, but none have made any serious attempt to seize them. The last claim to these lands was by Shavi, nearly four hundred years ago when they attempted to lay claim to the Old City, Asha’Nigh. Within a week every soul there was dead.”
“Whoa, whoa. Hold on. Dead?” He looked nervously up at the forest. “There was a T-Rex,” Ryan said. “At the south end of town, a little while ago.”
“A Teerecks?” Bayne asked. He looked confused. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s like a dinosaur. A.. big.. big head, big teeth. About twenty feet tall?”
Bayne looked down at his foot. He pulled it out of his boot and examined it for a moment. A moment later, he put his boot back on and proudly declared. “A spiketooth!” he said. “Small arms, aye?” He waved his arms around pathetically in an attempt to mimic them. Terra laughed.
Ryan nodded. “A spiketooth,” he said. “Is that what killed them?”
Bayne blinked. He almost laughed. “Boy, a whole pack of spiketeeth couldn’t have done it. No, it was a magick death, what happened at Asha’Nigh. The first morning found them lifeless, turned from the inside out.”
“Hold on,” Ryan said. “Just how many dangers are there in these parts?”
The four newcomers looked at each other for a moment. Nalya was the first to speak. “I’m afraid it’s hard to say. There are too many to count. These lands are vastly wild, and many of its inhabitants, feral.”
“Aye, too true,” Bayne said. “It’d likely be easier to count the hairs on yer head, or the stars in the sky.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Ryan said.