“It came through here not long ago. Maybe a day,” Hatsch said as he knelt in the dirt, looking over a large footprint. “A bull.” He stood up and brushed his hands off, then looked to his Lieutenant.
“Damned spiketeeth,” Burz said. “How far would it be?”
“Hard to say,” Hatsch replied. “They don’t usually stray far from their territory. That village we raided the other day is to the northwest, and they would avoid humans like the plague, so we could very well be on the cusp of its territory, but then, these are the Disputed Lands. I couldn’t say whether or not this particular breed operates in the same fashion as those back in Vector.”
“Still, we should hunt it,” Mis interjected. “It would make a good trophy, and its teeth are worth a lot of favor back in Nostra.”
Burz chuckled. “Not to mention with Shalo Cahl,” he said. “That old wretch would give his left ball for a handful of spiketeeth.”
“He might even give us one of those Stone’s Mouth virgins to play with,” Mis joked.
Burz didn’t think it was funny. “You’ll get your chance with them when we return to Anastae,” he said. “The Lord General has made his rules quite clear. Not a virgin is to be touched until she’s been seen to by the Summoner. Those that are left after he’s done are to be put to the tents.”
“Yes, the tents,” Mis said. He looked to his Lieutenant. “How long must we scout these lands, anyway? They’re as empty as my belly, and twice as noisy. There’s not been so much as a hermit in these lands for centuries.”
“The Lord General insists these lands be made clear,” Ynnia said. “There’s to be new ground broken along the coastline to serve as a port of call.” He looked to Mis. “We’re to remain for as long as it takes for relief to come.”
“Of course,” Mis said. He looked away for a moment. “Fine. No matter, then. Shall we put it to a vote? Hunt the spiketooth or not?”
“Let’s wait for the scouts,” Burz said. “They should be back shortly. It grows dark soon.”
Mis just nodded and remained silent. Hatsch lolled around the camp, taking a moment here and there to study the ground for more tracks. Surely enough, the sun was just lowering down to touch the horizon. Soon the Azure Dream would be in full glory. Prime hunting time for spiketeeth. They were usually weak from the day’s hunt, and they couldn’t see well in the dark.
Burz looked out over the camp in the failing light. He only had twelve men with him. Not enough for a raiding party– but he was meant to scout the eastern coasts and secure them for the eventual groundbreaking party, which was to be sent up from their main camp in Anastae, in the Southern Disputed Lands, once the city had been developed enough to be self-sustaining. That could have been anywhere from weeks to months away.
And so Burz Ynnia, a simple Lieutenant in the Imperial Army of Vector was made to watch over the ragtag group and keep them in line. Better a whore or a lapdog be put to the task. Burz felt it a complete waste of his time and ability.
Still, Burz was smart enough not to voice his displeasure, at least not loud enough for the news to fall upon inquisitive ears. Burz had no doubt that he’d be whisked away in the night and given to Shalo Cahl for one purpose or another. Though the ground had only broken in Anastae a month prior, Shalo Cahl had already erected himself a suitable dungeon to house his pets.
Burz had even been responsible for disposing of failed experiments for a short while. It was a job that changed hands often.
But now, he was out enjoying the fresh air in some blasted forest in the middle of nowhere. Not a village, not a whore, not a drop of ale or wine. Plenty of animals, though.
“Lieutenant!” he heard.
Burz looked up. He saw the small scouting party he’d sent north to map out the shoreline making their way back into camp.
“Report?” he asked as they drew nearer.
“There is a strange settlement over the next rise,” he said. “Colorful boxes of many shapes upon wheels. There appear to be people living in them.”
“A village? Out here? It wasn’t on any map I’ve seen.”
“It was no village like I’d ever seen,” the scout said. “There are no livestock,” he said. “No crops. And, strangest of all, they have wide roads of flat-laid stone that lead into the distance. We didn’t want to be seen, so we spent little time exploring and instead chose to report. But indeed, it seems to be just the surface, this small village of boxes. Like as though it were a part of a larger city.”
“We’d have known if there was a city in these parts,” Burz said. “You think they might be Halish?” He’d been warned by the Lord General personally of the possibility of Halish interference.
“I couldn’t say for sure,” he replied. “It’s possible, but these boxes are like no building I’ve ever seen– and they have these strangely shaped wagons with black wheels. We could see them sitting next to many of the buildings.”
“Right,” Burz said. “We’ll watch for now.” He looked over to Hatsch. “Gather four men, go scout the area. Do nothing unless you are seen, and kill any who see you.”
“That’s awesome,” Boomer said. Lily rolled her eyes.
“No, I mean it. It’s awesome! Think about it! You can use magick!”
“Barely! I blew up my TV!”
“That’s still awesome! Besides, you’ve got another one.”
“Do you know how hard it’s going to be for me to use anything electronic? What about my microwave? My computer?”
“Nope, still awesome. Besides, I thought that dirty chick taught you how to control it.”
“Barely,” Lily said. “It’s not something I’m going to master all in one day, Boomer.”
“Well, no, but think about when you do master it!” Boomer exclaimed. He winked at her.
“So I heard you faced off against a T-Rex,” Ryan mentioned, breaking into the conversation and changing the subject.
Boomer nodded. “Yeah, man. It was crazy. The thing just came to the edge of the ridge down there, looked like it was gonna come down and eat what was left of some guy’s arm, then got scared off by Samantha Whittaker banging some pots together. Craziest thing I ever saw.” He sighed, then looked around the room. Everyone had retired back to Boomer’s place after the meeting, even the newcomers. Boomer had the biggest place of the lot of them, much more accommodating for the group, especially since he had insisted on throwing an impromptu going away party– not to mention that everyone wanted to meet the newcomers. The four of them were inundated with questions from many of the locals, and some of the locals had taken it upon themselves to bring food and gadgets with which to impress them.
The girls were especially interested in Keltz, more so when they found out he was going to be staying behind with Nalya’s army. Eden Drew had cornered him pretty quickly, and he looked somewhat uncomfortable talking to her. Obviously he’d had no experience with twentieth century feminist literature. Bayne had been pulled to one side by Justin Alverra and grilled on the finer points of sword-wielding.
Nalya was sitting at Boomer’s piano, poring over an issue of the Dunsmith Chronicle and devouring it whole. She was fascinated by the quality of the printing, the color of the photographs and the detail with which the writers wrote.
Terra had disappeared upstairs with Arie nearly the moment they had arrived. As far as Boomer could tell, Terra was introducing her to the shower.
There were still knocks coming to the door. Much of the town was still back at the Committee meeting, which was starting to cross over into evening. The day was passing by with increasing haste.
“Look at you, man,” Ryan said to Boomer. “You’re loving this. It’s like a party to you.”
Boomer smiled. “Man, you know how long I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen? It’s like Christmas!”
“What about your family?” Lily asked. “They were in Vancouver, weren’t they?”
“Hey, you ever hear me talk about my family? If you hadn’t noticed, I’m not exactly close with them. Besides, look at it this way: now I can live in Middle Earth.”
“I think it’s called the Pactlands,” Ryan corrected.
“Whatever, the point is, here we are in the Pactlands, or whatever they call this place, and it’s real! Dinosaurs and armies and magick and all sorts of shit. I love it!”
“Then maybe you should go on this trip,” Ryan muttered.
Boomer smirked. “Give me half the chance.”
Finally, Keltz managed to separate himself from Eden, and walked over to Ryan, Lily and Boomer while Eden took off to annoy Nalya. Boomer smiled at him as he approached.
“Finally managed to escape her, eh?” he asked.
Keltz smiled in return. “She certainly is… excitable. I’m afraid I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, she was talking so fast.”
“Yeah, she’s like that,” Lily said. “You probably didn’t understand much of it.”
Keltz shook his head. “I must confess I didn’t. She started to speak of book writers from ages past. Women whose names do not strike me as familiar.”
“So, Keltz, tell me,” Boomer said. “I’m interested, where were you born?”
Keltz smiled. “I was born in Kura, on the northern coast of Halen. And where were you born, sir?”
“Sir? Whoa, man. Don’t call me sir. You can call me Boomer, everyone else does.”
Keltz nodded. “Right. Sorry. Boomer.”
“That’s better. I was born in Vancouver. It’s this big city, has about one point three million souls. I hated it there, that’s why I moved here.”
Keltz seemed astounded by the number. “How can that many people all live in the same place?” he asked. “There wouldn’t be enough land to grow food for that many!”
“Oh, we managed,” Boomer said. “Barely. So how did you get into the Lieutenant business?”
“It’s a difficult story, I’m afraid,” he said. “I retained a scholarship from a Lord in Kura. When I was fourteen, I went to the academies at Shavi to learn the art of command. That’s were I met Lady Nalya.”
“Lady Nalya?” Lily asked. “Is she royalty?”
Keltz asked. “Her family is of the bloodlines, yes.”
“So is she, like… in line to be queen?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Keltz replied. “Her blood is spread all throughout the Pactlands, her family goes back a fair ways.”
“Awesome,” Boomer commented. He cocked his head to one side for a moment. “So, what’s the deal with that crazy planet?”
“The Azure Dream?” Keltz asked.
“Yeah, is anyone living on it?”
Keltz seemed taken aback. “Living on it?”
“Yeah, like here in the Pactlands. I mean, I could distinctly see oceans up there, but the one landmass I could see was green. That suggests plant life.”
Keltz shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Many people have many different beliefs when it comes to the Azure Dream. Most people in Halen call it Azura, but some of the more secluded villages still call it by its old name, Eiden Perch.”
“It means Eiden’s Soul, many believe that the Dream was, at one point, the body of the Goddess Eiden, who created the Pactlands, which in the time of Eventide was called Eiden Myr. It literally means Eiden’s Daughter.” He explained.
“Oh, awesome. A creation myth, I have to hear this. How was Eiden Myr created?”
“It depends. It oftentimes varies from village to village, from family to family. But most believe that the Goddess Eiden created Eiden Myr in the palm of her hand, and held it there for a great many years. But then the Dark god Lu’Ran become vengeful and jealous of Eiden, and severed her great arm. Since that time, Eiden Myr had been left unable to reach out to her mother,” he motioned out the window towards the planet now rising in the distance. “But her mother is always watching from within the Azure Dream. Eiden left one last gift to her daughter. That gift of magick, so that all of her sons and daughters could know their worth, and she left a promise to one day return.”
“How long ago was that?”
Keltz chuckled. “I honestly couldn’t tell you. The priests probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. Five thousand years? Ten thousand? A hundred? There are ruins of ancient cultures within the Pactlands that we know nothing of. They date back to before the signing of the Pact, a thousand years ago.” He leaned forward. “What of your world? Your creation?”
“It’s… uhh… a little different in our world, but one thing is the same. It varies from family to family. Everyone has their own school of thought that tends to be passed down in families. I broke that habit on my own– my beliefs are very different from my parents,” Boomer explained.
“Most people here don’t believe in the existence of gods and goddesses. But a lot, if not most of them believe in one of the various forms of the One True God.”
“One True God?” Keltz asked, intrigued.
“Yeah. But even He differs from family to family. Or church to church, rather. I personally believe in the scientific belief– which is just theory, mind you– that the universe was created in a Big Bang, which kind of… spit out a lot of matter and injected it into the universe, eventually forming into stars and planets. Life kinda showed up some time later.”
“Well,” Keltz began, analyzing what Boomer was saying. “Who created the Big Bang?”
Boomer just shook his head. “I dunno. It… just kinda happened, I guess.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” a voice called from the top of the stairs in the foyer. Boomer looked up to see Terra standing at the top with her arms raised. “I now present to you, the fresh new citizen of Dunsmith, Arie Boas!”
Arie walked past Terra, her face red, but immaculately clean. Terra had even done her make-up and lent her some clothes. Sufficed to say, Arie looked like a completely different person. She still wore her bracelets and necklace, but now she was wearing a pair of jeans and a tank top. You wouldn’t have been able to tell her apart from anyone else in town. Boomer found himself instantly drawn to her, and thusly, speechless.
“Amazing!” Lily exclaimed. “You can’t even tell she’s not from town!”
“Technically, she is from town… now.”
“Details, details,” Lily said, waving her hand.
“Do you like it?” Arie asked everyone.
There was a unanimous flutter of agreement from those amassed below. She had even attracted the attention of Nalya and Eden. Bayne, however, was too busy explaining the finer points of choosing a “fine blade” to Justin to have looked.
“Boomer,” Lily said. “Shut your mouth. You’re attracting flies.”
Boomer shot her a furtive glance, and then did as she asked. He wet his lips before continuing. “What? She’s hot. I can’t help it,” he said.
Ryan could only laugh.
“I’m hot?” Arie said. She looked at Boomer in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand,” she said.
“He means he thinks you’re pretty,” Terra explained. Boomer’s face turned red, but Arie smiled.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You look very good, Arie,” Nalya said warmly. “You fit in well here, I must say.”
Arie smiled again. “I’m glad,” she said. “It’s hard to find a place where people will accept you in the Pactlands.”
When she finally got to the bottom of the stairs, Boomer took her to one side to talk to her, leaving Lily, Ryan and Terra lingering around the bottom.
“Oh look,” Lily deadpanned. “He’s working his magic.”
“Oh?” Keltz asked. “He’s showing evidence of a gift?”
“No, he’s hitting on her,” Lily replied.
Keltz stared at her blankly.
“He’s–” Lily began, but Terra beat him to the punch.
“He wants to hump her,” she said, and began to gyrate her hips and pump her arms for effect. Keltz laughed sharply, and it came out almost like a honk, which caught stares from around the room and caused Lily and Terra to start giggling.
Keltz turned red, but kept smiling. “I’m sorry. I’m just not used to your terms. You have many. Many I still do not understand. Like, ‘do you get my drift?’”
“Oh, that basically means ‘do you understand what I’m talking about’,” Lily explained.
“And working magick is something you say to refer to the act of courting?”
“Courting?” Terra asked. She started laughing. “Yeah, I guess you could call it that. Probably more on a casual level, though.”
“A casual level?” Keltz asked. He nodded. “Yes, I think I understand. He doesn’t seek her out as a lifelong mate, only a temporary one, correct?”
“Yes, we commit to this practice sometimes as well. Outside of marriage, of course.”
“That’s really cool, actually,” Lily commented. “It’s nice to see you’re not just a bunch of medieval religious freaks.”
Keltz blinked. “Thank you… I think.”
“No, that came out wrong,” Lily said, wincing. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right. It’s been a trying day.”
“That reminds me,” Lily said. She looked at Terra. “Did you talk to your mom?”
“Yeah,” Terra said. “She’s coming to pick us up later. She says that if I have to do this, then she’s going to cook me and Ryan a huge dinner tonight before we leave. You’re my roommate, so you’re automatically invited.” She turned to Keltz. “And she wants to know if you guys can come. She really wants to meet you.” She leaned in close. “But I warn you, my stepdad likes to drink.” She made a drinking gesture with her thumb and pinky pointing outwards.
Keltz smiled. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t. We’ve been subsisting on rations. A real meal would be just what we need.”
He looked over towards Nalya, who was back with Nicholas and Eden. “I’ll go talk to Lady Nalya, and forward your mother’s invitation.”
“So, where are you from?” Boomer asked as he and Arie walked away from the stairs and towards the den.
“I was born in Shavi, actually. A small village just north of Dey in Shavi. It’s called Kev, it’s a beautiful place with high cliffs, green hills. On a clear day you can see the city of Telemenn, in Rasza shining in the distant sun,” Arie said. Boomer could almost see it.
He pictured a small village based not far from a cliff that fell hundreds of feet down to a crashing shoreline, surrounded by nothing but rolling green hills. The landscape was dotted with ancient, dilapidated statues, worn away from years of weathering. In Boomer’s eyes, it seemed very beautiful.
“Yeah, it sounds like a beautiful place,” he said. They walked further into the den. The room was packed wall-to-wall with bookshelves. They were overfilled with books, and Arie’s eyes went wide.
“Are all these books yours?” she asked. She looked at him wide-eyed.
Boomer nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I like to read.”
Arie could only shake her head. “I’ve seen libraries at the Academies in Dey,” she said, recalling. “They had fewer books than this. You have… so many books.”
Boomer imagined the libraries. Small rooms with two or three chest-high bookshelves lined up in a corner. He could see the little old man who guarded the books ferociously, because you couldn’t take books out in that library. What was his name? Banoc?
Boomer stopped in mid-thought. How was he able to recall his name?
He looked over at Arie. She noticed him pause and was looking at him curiously. “The librarian,” he began. “He was a little old man. Grouchy, meticulous. His name was Banoc?”
Arie now seemed shocked. “You… how can you…?”
“That’s a good damn question. How the hell did I know that? And your village, Kev. Rolling green hills, lots of old statues, right?”
Arie’s eyes went even wider, and then a look of recognition flashed across her face. “I can’t believe it,” she said.
“Can’t believe what?” Boomer asked. “What’s going on?”
“I never in my life thought I’d meet someone with your gift. It’s so… rare. Only the elite, the rich and royal are ever allowed to speak with a psimagi,” she said.
“A what?” Boomer sounded worried. “A what-magi?”
“A psimagi,” she said. “You can see pictures in your head of my memories. Even put a name to them, right? Here, do it again!” She closed her eyes and sat back.
“Do what again? I don’t even know how I did it.”
“Just close your eyes. Focus on me,” she said.
Boomer didn’t feel right about it, but he did so. He shut his eyes tightly, and colors swam in his vision. He was about to give up when something flashed in his vision. It became as clear as day.
“I see a woman,” he said. “She’s your mother, she has red hair… had red hair. She died recently, last year. There’s someone else.” Boomer was picking it out faster and faster. “He’s your brother. He’s–” Boomer’s eyes shot open. Arie opened hers.
Boomer reached out and held the necklace around Arie’s neck. He rubbed his thumb on the smooth granite stone attached to the cord.
“He’s in here,” Boomer said.
Arie nodded. She looked sad.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “What is this? How does it work?” He paused. “What else can I do?”
Arie shrugged. “I’m not sure, the psimagii are very secretive. I’m sure if they even knew of your existence, they would either force you to join them or… have you killed.”
Boomer’s eyes shot open. Memories of hushed conversations between Arie and her brother flashed in his mind.
“I just did it again,” he said. “Is it automatic?”
Arie shook her head. “No, you can choose not to do it. That much I know. It just takes some willpower. It’s the same as any other gift, except that it’s all to do with the mind. I’ve heard that psimagii can send messages to other people at a distance, some rumors have even come out of being able pick up objects and even levitate themselves using only their mind.”
“Are you serious?” Boomer said. “I’m like a male Jean Grey?”
Boomer shook his head. “Never mind,” he said. “I’d… just like to turn this off for now. It’s kind of creeping me out.”
“So, have you ever played a piano before?” Eden asked, looking over Nalya’s shoulder. Nalya turned back to face her.
“I’m sorry?” she asked.
Eden pointed at the piano. “This,” she said. “It’s an instrument. Have you ever played?”
Nalya shook her head. “No,” she said.
“Do you mind?” Eden asked, gesturing towards it.
“Not at all,” Nalya replied, then shoved over to allow Eden the room to sit. Eden lifted up the cover and started to push down the keys in succession. Nalya’s eyes went wide as the tune began to flow out.
“It’s beautiful,” Nalya said. “What is it?”
“This is an old ditty,” Eden said. “It’s called The Entertainer. It’s about all I know how to play. Ryan’s usually the one to talk to about playing. That guy can play any instrument put in front of him.”
“Indeed?” Nalya asked. “I’ve been learning to play all sorts of instruments since I was young. The harp, the lute, the horn and flute.”
“Ever heard of a guitar?” Eden asked.
Nalya shook her head. “No. What is it?”
“It’s like a lute, see. Except it’s got six strings, and a couple of dozen frets. It’s been used in most of the popular music over the past sixty years or so. Ryan’s got one. He’s been playing for years.” Eden laughed. “And if I know Ryan, he’ll be bringing his guitar with him up to that place you guys are all going to.” She regarded her for a moment. “So, what’s it like?”
“What is what like?”
“Being a woman in command of a military force,” Eden replied. “It’s not really a common sight in our world.”
Nalya smiled. “I admit it’s not common in ours, either,” she said. “But those born into the nobility, whether male or female, retain the right to act as a military leader.”
“So that Bayne guy. He’s your bodyguard or something, right?”
Nalya nodded. “He is. He’s been at my side since the passing of my father.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. So, it’s an honor thing then?”
Nalya nodded. “You could call it that,” she said.
“That’s pretty cool. Honor went the way of the dodo in our world. Most people are just content getting by without having to worry about such a thing,” Eden explained. “It’s weird though. I mean, just talking to you. You represent an entire society that’s never used a microwave oven, seen an episode of Gilmore Girls, or listened to Britney Spears? You’ve never been to Disneyworld, and never heard of the Vancouver Canucks. Hell, you’ve never heard of Vancouver.”
Nalya was about to ask several obvious question when she was suddenly interrupted by a loud voice calling from the top of the stairs. Terra was standing there with Arie, and she looked as good as new.
A few hours passed until dinnertime came around, and Terra’s mom came to pick up Terra. She also managed to fit Lily and Arie in the car, while Ryan drove Keltz, Bayne and Nalya out to the Whitepoint farm.
Terra’s mother was a happy woman with an outlandish sense of humor. She was also just as permanently stoned as Terra was. Like Terra, she loved her weed.
But she also loved to cook, which is just what she did. Turkey was on the menu, and it was like Thanksgiving on overdrive. Even Terra was amazed. Bayne quickly got to know Terra’s stepdad, and the two bonded over some beer. Her stepdad bragged about his homebrew, and Bayne expressed his love of the tasty stuff.
The two continued to drink, chat and laugh with each other all throughout dinner. But while it was served, complete with mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, stuffing and cranberry sauce, a few awkward moments were had. While Bayne and Arie had little trouble reaching for food the moment it was within reach, Keltz and Nalya seemed stiff, as though waiting for something.
“You can eat, you know,” Terra’s Stepfather said. “It ain’t gonna bite ya.”
Bayne punched him lightly in the shoulder and laughed with him. He thought the joke quite hilarious.
Nalya and Keltz suddenly loosened. “We were taught in the academies never to eat a meal unless given permission. We didn’t want to seem rude,” Keltz explained.
“Rude nothing,” Terra’s mother said. “Eat away! That’s what it’s there for.”
Nalya and Keltz did eat. They ate well, and they filled their bellies. The food had absolutely blown them away. The flavors, the spices. All four of the newcomers thanked Terra’s parents profusely, calling their matron’s meal ‘rapturous’ and showering her with praise.
But still, the evening wore on, and the sun went down again that night, right around the time it would have back on Earth, and each decided they would retire– there was still work to do at home. They still had to pack. As the four newcomers retired to their hotel room, Ryan and Terra went home to pack and get some rest.
They would leave in the morning. And after that, nothing would ever be the same again.