“I swear to God,” Ryan complained. “It’s three in the morning. I only went to sleep six hours ago!” He muttered.
“Well, you are leaving for God knows how long,” Lily said. “I don’t know how you two managed to get hooked into this, but I’m glad I’m not going.” She looked to Terra. “Are you all packed?”
“Yep,” Terra replied. She took another toke from her joint.
“How much weed are you bringing?”
“Enough,” Terra replied. She patted her backpack, which was stuffed to the brim with various knick-knacks, and of course, the mellow green herb in question.
“You realize we’re going with Shephard, right? And that he’s a cop?”
“So? What’s he going to do? Arrest me?”
“Technically, once we’re out of town, we’re no longer in Canada,” Ryan said. “And therefore no longer subject to Canadian law. We’re subject to the law of the Disputed Lands, of which as I understand it, there are none.”
“See?” Terra said. “Nothing he can do.”
“Well, did you pack a nice dress?” Lily asked
“I’m way ahead of you. I brought the one with the orange ribbons.”
“They’re going to look at you funny,” Ryan said.
“So? They’re going to look at both of us funny. What are you going to wear to meet the king?”
“I packed a bunch of t-shirts, a few pairs of jeans, some hoodies. I’m bringing my leather jacket, it’s tough and durable and might just last this trip.”
“You’re going to talk to the King looking like James Dean?”
“Why not? For all he knows it’s formal dress from around here. If it makes you feel better, I’ll go grab my denim jacket–”
“No!” the girls chorused.
“Whatever,” Ryan said. He looked at Terra. “What else did you pack?”
“A few changes of clothes– they better have a laundromat in Cilasia, or I’m going to scream. My iPod, my camera, a bunch of those industrial strength batteries my stepdad got from the mill, my journal, some pens and pencils, hygiene stuff. Some pepper spray. I’m trying to keep it pretty basic.” She looked at Ryan. “What’d you pack?”
“Pretty much the same. Clothes, camera. I’ll have to use that sparingly. My PSP, bunch of batteries Boomer got me from the store, a few candy bars–”
“Candy bars! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“I was thinking I could use them to barter, you know? Give ’em a taste, and trade ’em something for the whole thing,” he explained.
“Hah!” Lily said. “What if they already know how to make chocolate?”
“Then at least I have chocolate.”
“That reminds me!” Terra said, leaping up. “One more thing I want to bring.”
She ran into her bedroom and came out holding a nearly-full bottle of Gummi Bear Spray.
“Oh God,” Ryan said. “Hello to our new neighbors! We come bearing chemical warfare and the obesity epidemic!”
The girls gave him a blank stare.
“He does make a good point,” Lily said. “Shouldn’t you bring a gift for the king or something? Isn’t that customary?”
“Here in the Pactlands?” Ryan asked. “Who knows? Still, it wouldn’t hurt. I doubt he’d have us drawn and quartered for offering him a gift.”
“Oh, I got a gift for him all right,” Terra said. She patted the back compartment of her backpack.
Lily let out a surprised giggle. It was louder than she had intended. “You’re going to get the king of a foreign nation stoned?”
Terra shrugged. “Why not? They have pot there, maybe he’s all rasta-style.”
“I guess I could give him my old wristwatch. I mean, the days seem to pretty much match up with home around here,” Ryan said.
The conversations continued on at Terra and Lily’s apartment. But eventually, Lily nodded off. Ryan woke her up briefly to say goodbye, and he too retired to catch another hour or two of sleep before the departure.
“Keltz?” Nalya asked. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” came the soft reply. Nalya could tell she had woken him up.
“I have a question,” she said. “I… was wondering if I could ask something of you.”
“Please,” Keltz said. “Ask me.”
“I feel I owe you an explanation,” she said. “The reason for these strange orders. We leave in the morning, and we’ll part ways at Stone’s Mouth. I must know– do you feel trust in these people?”
Keltz sat up. The couch creaked as he did so. He smirked. “Noisy, but one of the most comfortable beds I’ve had since Cilasia.” He looked Nalya in the eye. “Lady, do you have reason not to trust them?”
Nalya hesitated. Just for a moment. “I can’t say for certain.” She looked at him. “You must keep this private. Between us. Nobody can know. Least of all these people.” She sighed. “I was told that a great and terrible people will emerge from a halo of black light in the lands of Eventide. That these people will be masters of an unknown art.”
“That sounds very much like these people. Is that the reason for all the urgency, then?”
Nalya nodded. “I can’t say. The Prophet led me to believe they would cause a great upheaval, but never got into specifics.” She sighed. “He explained it in such a way to make it seem as though he were merely telling a story. Only now do I realize he was talking to me, but there are so many things I don’t understand about it.”
“Well, prophecy is hardly a specific art,” Keltz replied. “What do you expect will happen?”
“I don’t know. I will bring them to Arronay before we reach Cilasia. We must speak to Mika Sephalon.”
“Are you sure? It would add days to the trip.”
“I know, but I think it may be necessary. The Prophet made me promise to see him again before I return to Cilasia.” She looked at Keltz, then shook her head. “Keep Arie and Tam close, as well. We don’t know anything about them, and I don’t want these people to think us responsible should one or both of them turn on them. Work with them, treat them as friends. But watch them.”
Keltz nodded. “I can do that.”
“Good,” Nalya said. “Now rest up. We leave at dawn.”
Dawn came sooner than later for Ryan, who had been tossing and turning in his bed since he had left Terra and Lily’s place. He had been concerned about not working during the time, but then realized that his workplace hadn’t even been in the radius of the Blacklight, so it hardly mattered. Thankfully, the building owners had lived out of town, and so the superintendent was willing to forgo rent, especially since the banks were inaccessible and everyone’s accounts were cut off.
About a half-hour before dawn, he made sure he had everything he wanted to bring. His guitar was strapped in nice and snugly in its waterproof case. His camera was wrapped in a plastic bag, which was fit snugly into its case, which rested in the side compartment of his backpack. He had a few changes of clothes, raincoat, a sleeping bag, and a few private rations. Goose had told him he would take care of the rations in the long run.
Still, he was ready just before dawn, and knocked loudly on Terra’s door. Lily was passed out in her bedroom, Terra looked at Ryan and yawned.
“Coffee?” she asked. “It’ll probably be the last time we’ll hear the word before we get back.”
Ryan wasn’t really a coffee drinker. But he understood the sentiment. He nodded, went inside and sat down.
“You really ready for this?” he asked.
Terra shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s all kinda sudden, really. But I get the urgency.”
“It’s funny how adamant Nalya was about us going along. Like she really buys this prophecy stuff.”
Terra sat down at the table. “Look, Ryan,” she began. “I.. had a dream the other night– when we crossed over.”
She shook her head. “No, that’s not right,” she said. “Something was speaking to me. It was more like someone made a mental phone call and I picked it up.”
“Well, what was it saying?”
Terra pulled her dream diary from the side compartment of her bag and opened it up to the most recently completed page. “Here,” she said, sliding it across the table to him. She got up and prepared the coffee.
Ryan read it. “This is pretty detailed,” he said. “And eerily accurate. What’s this, he of many eyes? Bearer of Twilight’s blade? Is this supposed to be me? Twilight’s blade?”
“I don’t know. I only wrote down what I could remember,” she said.
Ryan cocked his head to one side. He continued to scan the page. “This is some crazy shit, Ter.”
“I didn’t even think of it until yesterday, after we met the others. It was like whatever the voice was trying to say, it was trying to get as much to me as fast as possible. Like it was trying to hurry. It seemed like it got hurt at one point.”
Ryan shot his eyes up at Terra. “That shape I saw last night. It looked like it got hurt.”
“The one over the bay?” Terra asked.
Terra just stared at Ryan for a moment longer. “I think I understand why Nalya wanted us to go along,” she said.
“What?” Ryan asked. “Why?”
“Because we’re supposed to,” she said, mixing her coffee. “Two creams in yours?”
Ryan nodded. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t explain it. If Nalya hadn’t mentioned anything about prophecy, I probably would have forgotten about it, but it’s too close. Three shall stay and three shall go. Keltz, Arie and Tam are staying here. You, me and Shephard are going along with them.” She shrugged. “It’s a little too close for comfort.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “So what’s it mean?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think that’s where this Seer guy comes in. I’m going to bring it up to him.”
“Ah,” he looked at the page some more. “I’d show this to Nalya, too. Maybe she can make something of it.”
Terra brought Ryan his coffee and sat down. “I don’t know,” she said. “I get the feeling she doesn’t quite trust us.”
“I don’t know. Just a vibe, I guess.”
“Could be jitters from finding out we’re in a different world. I mean, technically, she’s an alien,” Ryan said.
“Technically,” Terra said. “We’re the aliens.”
Ryan gave her a blank stare. “Whoa,” he said. “Heavy.”
“It’s almost dawn,” Terra said. “We should get our things together.” She finished off her coffee. “They’ll be waiting.”
“Where the hell are those kids?” Boone grumbled.
“Damned if I know,” Brad exclaimed. “But if they don’t hurry up, I’m leaving without them.”
“We can’t leave without them,” Nalya said. “They’re needed for this journey.”
“Give ’em ten more minutes,” Goose suggested. “Then we’ll have to go and wake ’em up. In the meantime, you should learn how to use these.” He gestured to the Honda All Terrain Vehicles, brand spanking new, courtesy of the motorcycle shop out on the highway. They had donated small trailers, quads, even offered to pay up for the gas, but Ron Exeter at the Gas ‘n Dash had beat them to the punch.
“I’m not so sure about this,” Nalya said, but she climbed on experimentally nonetheless.
“Okay, this is your clutch, these are the brakes,” Brad explained to her. “The accelerator is down by your foot.” He slowly taught her the basics of how to operate the quad.
By the time Ryan and Terra finally arrived, bleary-eyed and yawning, Nalya was already riding around in circle, and having a great time of it, laughing wildly. She slowed the quad to a stop.
“Holy shit, are these for us?” Ryan asked.
“One for each of you,” Goose said. “At least, those of you going all the way. It’ll get you most, if not all of the way there. We’ve also supplied you with enough gas to refuel for at least four days.” He gestured to the trailer. “Just you be careful. That’ll flip if you’re not mindful. Eventually you may have to abandon them, but I see no reason it won’t shave off a huge chunk of your trip.”
Terra ran up and claimed her quad, it was a purple Honda. She threw her bag in the compartment under the seat and put her jacket on. “Cool!” She sang out.
“Camping supplies,” Goose said. “We got tents, sleeping bags, a gun, but that’s Shephard’s gig. A camping stove, matches, rope, a few hunting knives. Anything you might need in the foreseeable future.” He patted another trailer. “This is food, rations. Protect it with your life, otherwise you’ll have a pretty hungry trip.”
Ryan spent some time going through the things. “Beef Jerky?” he said. “Score.”
“Remember, we have to ration it,” Cale reminded him.
Ryan saluted him. “Yes boss.”
Goose snapped his fingers. “That’s right– Shephard is in charge here, you guys. When he says to do something, you do it. No questions asked. Get me?”
Terra rolled her eyes but remained silent. Ryan only nodded. He was now becoming distracted the the spectacle of Bayne nearly crashing into a tree.
“Now Brad here is going with you to that village up over yonder,” Goose said. “From that point, he’ll be staying with Keltz, and returning to the town with the army. He’s going to be our representative to Stone’s Mouth, so those two will be piggybacking with one of you– preferably those of you who have experience with a quad.”
Ryan and Cale both raised their hands. Terra was an experienced rider, too, but she didn’t really like the idea of Brad Renfrew clasping her waist for however long it would take to get there.
“It’s past dawn now,” Nalya said, riding up to the others. “We best make our time– I have some men camped just outside of town, where you found us yesterday. We need to return to them. From there, we go to Stone’s Mouth, where I’ll pass on the new orders to my men. We’ll depart from Stone’s Mouth this afternoon and begin our journey north.”
“How long till Stone’s Mouth?” Terra asked.
Nalya shook her head. “Not long. It took us three hours by foot. On one of these, we could make it in less than an hour.”
“Aye, but I can’t wait to see the looks on the men when we arrive riding these thunderhorses!”
“Thunderhorses?” Cale asked.
Keltz chuckled. “He’s taken to giving his own names to many of your machines. The device which wakes you up in the morning? The alarm clock? He insists it be called a daemon squawker.”
“Aye, and it’s a valid name! Have ye’ heard its wailing?” Bayne protested. “It calls louder than a myrnah!”
“A myrnah?” Goose asked. He looked to Keltz. “Mr. Wicket, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to come see me when you get back– there were a number of things discussed last night at the meeting that we’re going to need some help on. Local wildlife is one of those issues. We need to know what kind of animals– or worse are out there that are dangerous.”
Keltz glanced to Nalya briefly. She gave a nod. “Of course. You will meet us back here?”
Goose nodded. At some point the day before, some kids scouting out around the logging roads managed to find a place where the strange ridge that surrounded the town seemed to equal out with the land on the other side. Well, at least enough that a person or vehicle could cross over with nothing but a little bump. It was just south of where Nalya and the others had been discovered.
He looked over to Brad. “You sure about this, Brad?”
Renfrew nodded. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” he said. “I may not be happy about it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my part.”
Goose nodded. “See what you can find out, it’s a small village and their knowledge of the local area is extremely valuable. See if you can’t convince some of them to come back with you. If we’re going to get through this, we need to know what we’re up against.” He looked over at Boone, who was shaking his head.
“They’re catching on, but they’ll hardly be experienced riders. I’d say don’t put them in front until they get a little more used to it,” he said, gesturing to Bayne and Nalya as they sat on the back of their quads. “And make sure they wear their helmets.”
Bayne blinked. “Helmets?” He pointed to the round, bulbous things sitting on the ground. They reflected the sunlight. “Those things?”
Ryan walked over and picked one up, and tossed it to Bayne. He caught it and immediately started to examine it. He knocked on it and looked back. “What’s it made of?”
“Polycarbonate plastic,” Cale said. “Fiberglass, sometimes kevlar. And then you have polypropylene foam on the inside.”
Bayne blinked. “I didnae understand a word of that!” he exclaimed. “Will it stop a blade?”
“I would imagine. You’d have to hit that thing pretty damn hard to even cause a dent,” Boone offered.
Bayne shrugged, and then put the thing over his head.
“Ifs sphifflin!” he exclaimed. Then pulled it off. “Aye, but that’s a tight fit,” he said.
“That one’s actually for Nalya,” Goose said. “We’ve got some bigger ones here.”
Goose clapped his hands together. “Okay,” he said, and looked to Nalya. “So are we all ready to go?”
Nalya nodded. “We are.”
“Yeah, we’re good,” Ryan said. Terra already had one earbud in her ear and had already been rocking out to her personal selection of tunes, but she gave a curt nod. Cale just climbed on to his own quad and revved it up.
“Keltz, you ride with me,” Ryan said, and beckoned him over. Keltz climbed on behind him.
Brad Renfrew climbed on behind Cale, and Goose stepped back. Ryan brought his quad up to Nalya’s and asked, “Okay, so what’s our first stop?”
“Just a little north of here, not far. Perhaps a quarter-hour. I will instruct my men to come here and wait for the others before they head down into the city,” she explained. “After that, we go to Stone’s Mouth. No more than two hours by foot.”
“So you guys are good to go?” Goose asked.
He received a nod from all around.
“All right, then good luck. And bring me back a gift, eh? Something fancy,” he joked.
And with one final goodbye, the quads went up and over the ridge. For a brief moment, Ryan looked back and realized that he was now fully in another world. These weren’t the wilds of Vancouver Island, these were the wilds of the Disputed Lands.
And, as he’d been told before, anything goes in the Disputed Lands.
Andy took a long toke on his joint as he sat on his front porch.
“Mornin’ Andy,” Billy said, walking up to the front of his trailer. “How’s the crop?”
Andy had to chuckle. It was Billy’s usual greeting. He’d been asking the same question for twenty-five years. It was just Billy. Even after Margo, Andy’s wife, had died, and he was on the brink of despair, Billy would walk up and ask him how his crop was. If anything, Andy owed Billy his sanity.
“Same as always,” Andy replied. “Not quite big enough.”
Billy smiled. “I’m heading up into town in a bit,” he said. “Was wondering if I could borrow that bike hitch you got.”
Andy nodded, and motioned over to the pile of junk that had accumulated over the years next to his trailer. “Might need a spot weld or two,” he said. “But it should last the trip. The Dodge out of gas, then?”
“Yeah,” Billy replied. “Used the last of it getting Harriet into town. Might have enough to get halfway, but then I’d be screwed.”
“Sounds shitty,” he replied.
Suddenly, Andy heard a noise. He’d been jumpy ever since the T-Rex incident the previous morning, and every sound had caught his attention. Most of the time, it was just a raccoon or a rabbit poking around near the garbage.
This time, however, it was different. There was some kid poking around it. He was dressed in mismatched armor and had a short sword in his hand, the kind the ancient romans were fond of using. He was poking around the stuff outside of Amos’ trailer.
“Shit, Billy,” Andy said quietly, and gestured towards the kid.
Billy turned around and paused for a moment. The kid hadn’t seen them yet, which was all good in Andy’s books. If he was one of the Vectorans, then he wasn’t likely to be alone.
“Hey! You!” Billy yelled.
The kid suddenly crouched down, held his sword up in the air, and zeroed in on them. It was definitely an aggressive posture.
“Billy, dammit!” Andy sprung out of his chair just as the kid screamed. He held the sword over his head and ran straight towards them. “Billy, run! Get a gun!” Andy screamed, as he sprinted for his front door.
“Hey, kid! Wait!” Billy said. He just stood there, like a deer caught in headlights as the kid charged toward him.
Andy reached around the corner of the door jamb for the rifle he had put there since he heard there were hostile forces in the area. He looked up just in time to see the kid drive his sword right through Billy Jessup.
“Billy!” he screamed. He fumbled with the rifle for a moment, the shock of witnessing the event preventing him from getting a decent grip.
The kid turned towards him, put a foot on Billy’s chest, then used it as leverage to pull the sword out. Billy hit the ground with a lifeless thud.
“Die, Freeman filth!” the kid exclaimed. Andy still fumbled with his gun. He couldn’t focus! The kid was getting closer.
Suddenly, a shot went off. The kid stopped in mid-step. He looked at Andy with a look of both confusion and shock.
“Drop your weapon!” Andy heard from behind the kid, around the corner of his trailer. He recognized that voice instantly. Sergeant Boone.
Strangely enough, the introduction of a cop served only to tighten his resolve. He raised the rifle and pointed it directly at the kid’s head.
“Drop it, you piece of shit!” he exclaimed.
The kid just looked back at him. His face tightened up, and exploded into a fit of rage. He took another step.
Andy didn’t even have to pull the trigger. Boone did it for him. The second shot took his leg out from under him. He yelped in shock and went down, his sword out of reach. Andy trained his rifle on the kid.
“Party’s not over yet,” Boone exclaimed, now visible from behind the trailer. He pointed his pistol towards Amos’ trailer. Andy could see Amos’ looking out his window, his eyes wide with shock. It was almost comical, and Andy would have laughed if he had not noticed the other three soldiers that were now watching them. They seemed to be considering whether or not they should risk attacking them.
Boone took a shot, and hit one of the men dead in the shoulder. The one he hit fell to the ground, and then quickly scrambled to his feet, cradling his shoulder. “Retreat!” he yelled.
The others didn’t need to be told. They did what they thought was prudent, and turned tail.
A moment later, they were all out of sight.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been glad to see you, Boone,” Andy said.
Boone walked along the side of the trailer. Andy still had his gun trained on the kid, who was groaning in pain and clamping his leg. “Looks like we’ve got a prisoner,” he said.
“You really want to take prisoners?” Andy asked. He brought his rifle up and pointed it at the kid’s head.
Boone reached out and pushed down the barrel of Andy’s gun. “We don’t do that,” he said.
Andy looked at him. “That kid just ran a sword through Billy Jessup. You know how long I’ve known Billy?”
“Freeman dogs!” the kid cried. “Finish what you started, cowards!”
Boone and Andy looked at each other.
“Ahh, shit. I’m going to have to drive back to the lockup with this kid screaming in my ear, aren’t I?” Boone exclaimed. “Maybe I should let you kill him.” He sighed, then picked up his radio.
“Dispatch, it’s Boone,” Boone said. Even he had dropped the use of the official code. There was little point to it anymore. “I’m going to need a meat wagon down at Kamper’s Korner, Billy Jessup’s dead,” he said. “And get a hold of Goose, it looks like those Vectoran guys know we’re here– but we got one of ’em. Alive,” he said. “He’s going to need some medical attention.”
“Ten-four,” dispatch replied. “On it, boss.” Andy recognized Shelly Littleton’s voice.
Andy looked down at Billy. He sighed.
“Look, Andy–” Boone said as he rolled the kid onto his stomach and put the cuffs on. “I came down here for a reason.”
Andy looked back. “What?”
“Well, I’d like your help, actually,” he stood up. “With the Defense League.”
“The Defense League?”
Boone nodded. “Look, I know you got experience in the Air Force.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“You were a decorated officer in the USAF,” he said.
“And I fought a damned war that was a lie,” he said. “I don’t do that anymore. Why do you think I came here?”
Boone shrugged. “That war was a lie,” he said. “But this isn’t a war– this is survival. And I could use your help.”
Andy looked at him. “In what?”
“Well, quite frankly,” Boone said. “I’ve got too many recruits and too few officers. You have experience and useful skills.” He motioned to the surveillance system around his trailer. “And you’re smart– you’ve managed to keep the crops hidden from us for years before we pieced it together.”
Andy looked at Boone suspiciously. “What?”
“What, you think we didn’t know? Hell, all we were doing was biding our time. We knew you’ve been growing, but for the life of us, we couldn’t figure out who your buyer was.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter anymore anyway. Johnson over at the hospital says that we’ll likely need the weed in lieu of other painkillers we’re going to be lacking over the next little while, so you’re off the hook.”
Andy mulled it over for a moment, then looked down at Billy Jessup’s corpse.
“Under one condition,” Andy said.
“You’re not calling it the Dunsmith Defense League.”