Carla turned on the lights and breathed in the stale air as she stepped into the building. “Count yourselves lucky, girls,” she said to Arie and Lily as they walked in behind her. “I had to pull a lot of strings for this.”
Indeed she had. The old Journeyman Inn was one of the first structures to be erected in Dunsmith, after the town’s migration from the old Extension Mines, now outside of the radius of the Blacklight, the building had been literally hoisted up and moved via railroad. It was a heritage landmark in the town, situated right on First Avenue, right across the road from Bart’s Kitchen.
And it was falling apart.
“You’re kidding,” Lily said. “This building was on its last legs twenty years ago. Hell, it’s been condemned for the last two.”
“That’s only because it was tied up in escrow,” Carla explained. “But then the Blacklight Event happened, and… well, you know the rest.”
Lily did indeed know the rest. The Journeyman had been condemned two years earlier. Even the alley next to the building had to be blocked off, due to the incidents of the bricks falling off of the outer wall. The building was in serious need of repair, and the only reason nobody could repair it was because the original owner died. He left the building to the town, but his will had been contested by several people– none of whom lived in town.
Now that there was only the town, there was no need for the escrow.
“It’s not much now,” Carla said. “But it’s got electricity, and it’s a meeting space.” She looked to Arie. “And for now at least, it belongs to the Dunsmith Magick Society.”
Lily looked around the room. Their inaugural meeting was to be this afternoon, at two. The bar area, in which they were now situated, had tables and chairs lined up against the far wall. It was the last of the furniture available. But the floor was coated with a thick layer of dust, pieces of ceiling that had dropped down, and worse.
Lily checked the time. It was eight o’clock. They had six hours to whip this place into shape enough to support a meeting space.
Back when the Journeyman had been in use, the bar had been one of the seedier in town, the regular dive of the small assortment of crackheads and welfare alcoholics. Except on karaoke night, where, of course, an interesting cross-section of townspeople would appear, sing, drink and be merry, and then return home at last call.
“I think it’s great,” Arie said. “But it will have to be cleaned.”
“And we’re not going to be able to do that ourselves before two o’clock,” Lily commented.
Carla put her hands in the air. “I did what I could to get you access to the building,” she said. “Ed Carroll’s work crew is out fixing the terminal building at the airport– the blacklight sliced right through one corner of it. That’ll take them a few days, but the Journeyman’s on their to-do list. Couldn’t tell you how long until they’ll actually get to the place– but I don’t see it collapsing on you in the meantime. Just be careful if you’re going to be going upstairs. At least for now.”
Lily nodded. “That’s okay. But we’re still going to need some help with this.”
“I could let Tam out,” Arie said. “He would help, but we would have to do it somewhere away from the building. I wouldn’t want him to get upset and lash out at a wall or something.”
“Wait, isn’t he like twelve feet tall? And made of boulders?” Lily asked.
Arie waved her hand in dismissal. “His size and weight are directly linked to what I allow it to be,” she said. “I’m the one that gives him animation. The boulder-form is primarily for defense. I wouldn’t have been able to get through the Disputed Lands without him. But sometimes he needs to be stealthy, so I construct him from soil.”
“Soil? Wouldn’t he fall apart?” Lily asked, then thought of the small statue of her that Arie had made yesterday from potting soil.
Arie shook her head. “No, it’d be his body. He’ll keep it together.”
“I could just call Boomer,” Lily said. “I’m sure he could gather more than enough people to help.” She wasn’t so sure about the idea of bringing Tam out of his bottle just yet.
Carla smiled. “Great,” she said. “You girls do that, put it together. I leave it to you.” She looked to Lily. “And don’t worry about work,” she said. “There’s not going to be any commerce until the banks figure out what’s going on with our accounts and decide on how the new economy is going to work.” She scoffed. “And you know bankers. They operate in fiscal time.”
Terra was the first person to spot the smoke and follow it down between the trees to the stone chimney that produced it. It was all she could see of the building, and she had to pull her quad to a stop and turn around.
Bayne and Nalya had pretty much gotten used to the quads after they had gotten on to an actual beaten path. It was flat, smooth, and just wide enough for two quads, side-by-side.
They had found Nalya’s men fairly easily. A scout had heard them approaching, and was admittedly about to launch arrows toward the group, before they realized that Nalya had been among them, and that they were human, and not some kind of strange beast. Nalya took a moment to brief her men about what lay in the valley below. Their eyes widened at many of the things she mentioned, but none disbelieved her. Especially with Bayne and Keltz and the strange Thunderhorses they had rode in on.
She instructed her men to move to the rendezvous spot and wait for Keltz to return, and they saluted and went on their way. Terra spent nearly the entire time under the trance of her iPod, with only the journey ahead of her on her mind.
“Hey,” Terra exclaimed from the front of the line. “Is that it?” She pointed towards the stone chimney and pillar of white smoke that came from it that lay between the trees.
Bayne was the first to pull up close. “Aye,” he said. “That’s it.” He looked back to Nalya, who pulled up behind the two. She leaned over her handlebars. “We’re making excellent time,” she said. “At this rate, we could be to Arronay within the week.”
“Arronay?” Ryan asked. “That’s where that Seer guy lives, right?”
“Yes,” Nalya said. “He takes residence at the Prophet’s Hall there. We will see him before making our way to Cilasia,” she explained. She turned back to the village. “Come, we’ve only got a few hours until noon. We’ll be back on our way then.”
Ryan checked his watch. It was a quarter after eight. He thanked God the Pactlands operated on a twenty-four hour clock.
The group was off again, and within minutes they rode the quads right into town center, which caused a sort of panic as villagers scrambled to find cover. Once, however, they had seen Nalya, an old man emerged from behind a bundle of hay.
“Lady Nalya?” he inquired.
Nalya smiled and nodded. “Yes,” she said. She looked back at Cale’s quad, where Brad Renfrew was climbing off and brushing himself off. He looked around the village in bewilderment.
“It’s like the Goddamn middle ages,” he said to nobody in particular.
“Akris Holm,” Nalya said, looking at the old man who stood in front of her. “I have seen wonders in this past day.” She motioned to Brad, who was still whistling appreciatively at the village. “This man is from a large town, just over the ridge. The source of the light we saw the night before last. His name is Brad Renfrew, and he’s here to speak with you.”
Akris looked over at the newcomer. “Speak to me of what?” he asked.
Finally, Brad’s attention was on the man Nalya was talking to. He approached slowly. “Hi there,” he said. “Brad Renfrew, Dunsmith Emergency Committee. Are you in charge here?”
“Yes, this is Akris Holm, he’s the village Elder,” Nalya said, introducing him.
Akris looked back and forth from Brad to Nalya. He seemed confused. “I don’t understand. A town over the ridge? There’s nothing there. We’ve fished along the Aegel Coast for years, but never– a town?” he looked at the strange vehicles the group were riding.
“Look, it’s hard to explain,” Brad said. “We haven’t even been able to do a very good job of it ourselves, but sufficed to say, we’re in a bit of a bind. As we understand it, so are you. But we might be able to help each other. We know nothing of this place, and we’ll need your help in order to keep our shit together.”
“I’m… not sure I understand,” Akris said.
“The Vectoran Army rode through here a few days ago, correct?” Brad asked.
Akris nodded slowly.
“Well,” he said, pulling a rifle out from his pack. “We might be able to help you stop them.” He took aim for a tree branch in the distance, and pulled the trigger. Akris clamped his hands over his ears in surprise, almost as if he were under attack. But his eyes went wide as he saw the branch in the distance fall to the ground as if plucked by an invisible hand.
“What magicks…?” Akris began to say.
“It’s not magick,” Brad said. “Anyone can use this, provided they know how. And it’s something the Vectoran’s don’t have. Now, Mr. Holm, there’s a warm meal and a comfortable bed waiting for any of your people who are willing to make the trip back to the town with me– as I’ve mentioned. We’ll need your help, and we’re willing to pay for it.”
Terra found a nice tree to sit under while the preparations were being made in Stone’s Mouth. Terra imagined it to be a quaint little village in better times. She could see the burnt out husks of homes made from stone and wood. They reminded her of the pictures she saw of the medieval English countryside. There were a bunch of kids running around, playing in the fields while the older folks tended to the repair of the town. There was a plump older woman with a cloth tied over her head, holding her hair back tending to the kids. They were darting in and around the quads, but the woman would yell sharply if one tried to touch the things.
Terra turned her attention to her pack, and pulled out a small tray, and set to rolling herself a joint. She also took out her Gummi Bear Spray and set it down beside her while she set to the task.
Within minutes, she had it rolled, smoked, and was allowing the THC to do its magick while basking in the shade of the tree. She sprayed herself with Gummi Bear Spray, and put away her things.
She looked out in the distance as she noticed Nalya speaking to a bunch of her soldiers. Bayne and Cale stood nearby. If the cop had noticed her smoking a joint, he didn’t say anything, but Terra wasn’t concerned. The moment they left Dunsmith, there was nothing he could do.
Ryan was leaning back on his quad. He had pulled his guitar out and was setting it up to play. The moment he started playing, Terra could see the kids pointing and running over. The silver haired matron stood with a frown on her face.
Except one girl, who stood on the corner of the field across the road from Terra, who was staring at her. She was young, maybe seven or eight, with dirt smeared all over her face and messy hair. She watched Terra with wide-eyed curiosity.
Terra smiled at her. “Hello,” she said.
The girl didn’t reply, but she smiled. After a few moments to decide that it was safe to approach, the little girl did so. She walked up and sat down next to Terra, facing her.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked.
“I’m Terra,” she replied.
“Why is your hair like that?”
“I make it like this,” she said. “I use hair dye.”
The girl twisted up her face in confusion, but then moved her attention to the red and silver wrapper of the chocolate bar. “What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s chocolate,” Terra said. She picked up the wrapper and opened it up. “You want a piece?” She broke off a piece and popped it into her mouth.
The girl reached out and took the piece of chocolate. She licked it first, and then nibbled off a piece. Finally, she put the whole piece in her mouth, and wore a big smile.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” Terra asked.
The girl merely nodded and smiled while chewing. Terra broke off another piece to give to the girl when she was interrupted.
“Lanni! What are you doing?” Terra looked up to see the silver-haired matron approach. She had a severe look on her face. “Get away from there, child! Come!”
Lanni shot to her feet and ran away from Terra, across the road to join the other kids, who were listening to Ryan play.
“How dare you?” the old woman asked.
Terra was taken aback. “How dare I what?”
“I know your kind,” she said. “Foreigners. Pactbound! You come through and think you own the place. Look at you, you’re unnatural. A bloodhead witch!” She spat. “No different than Vector. You’ll only use us too!”
Terra was so offended she was speechless. She worked her jaw, then furrowed her brow. “Excuse me?” she demanded. “I don’t think you get it. We’re stuck here just like you are– we never asked to be here. It just happened! You think I want to be here? You listen to me, you old cunt. Don’t go around throwing blame unless you understand what the fuck is going on. Now read a fucking book, take a fucking bath and learn some goddamned respect!” She was almost out of breath.
The woman made a few squeaks of protest, and then grunted at Terra, hiked up her skirt and stormed off. Terra’s tirade had caught the attention of a few other townsfolk. Many were snickering. Terra only smirked in their direction and went back to her lunch.
That was when Cale approached.
“What was that about?” he asked.
Terra shrugged. “Nothing. I gave that little girl a piece of chocolate, the old lady came over and called me a witch, so I lost it.”
“Well, that had better not be your attitude when we meet the King,” Cale warned.
Terra shrugged. “I’m smarter than that, but she was being a cunt!”
“And what if the Queen’s a cunt?” Cale asked. “What if the King’s a prick?”
Terra rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m sorry, but–”
“What’s that smell?” Cale asked.
Terra gave him a blank stare. “What smell?”
“You’re stoned,” he said. “Hand it over.”
Terra stood up in a flash. “I don’t have to.” She held her backpack protectively.
“The hell you don’t,” Cale said. “It’s illegal, now give me–”
“It was illegal in town. It was illegal in Canada. Nothing’s illegal in the Disputed Lands. You can’t do shit,” Terra said. She held her bag protectively.
Cale stared back at her. “This is a mission of diplomacy,” he said. “Therefore the emissary would be subject to the laws of their home nation, wherever they are.” He leaned over her. “Give it to me.”
Terra started to freeze up. “No,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Ryan asked, coming up behind Cale.
“She’s got pot,” Cale said.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I know.”
Cale looked over at him. “You knew about this?”
Ryan shrugged. “Sure. It’s not a big deal. It’s legal in Halen, grows naturally there, apparently.”
“Look, the fact is that we’re on a diplomatic mission here, and she’s packing an illegal narcotic,” Cale exclaimed. “And I’m responsible for you two, the last thing we need is to get back to Dunsmith with the whole mission ruined because she was too stoned to function.”
Terra looked offended. “I’m never too stoned to function.”
Ryan nodded. “I can vouch for that.”
“You’re not taking my weed,” Terra said.
Cale looked to Terra and Ryan. The truth was, he was stuck with them whether he liked it or not, and they with him. That being said, he couldn’t arrest them, confiscate anything, or do any other coply duties.
At least not until they got back to town. But by then, she’d have run out.
“Fine,” he said. He looked Terra in the eye. “But from now on, only after we’re done traveling for the day. Get me? No more of this middle-of-the-road shit. We can’t afford your fuck-ups.” With that, he turned around and walked away.
“Asshole,” Terra muttered under her breath.
“Captain Ruus! Lieutenant!” Syrel greeted, saluting.
“Lieutenant Syrel,” Nalya greeted. “How are the men?”
“We’re camped in the fields behind the village. They are bored, but in high spirits. We’ve set up a volunteer force to help the villagers,” he said. “May I be permitted to ask how your scouting mission went?” he was looked past them, at the quads. He hadn’t seen them in action, he was out of sight at the time, but he’d heard them.
“Indeed,” Nalya said. “It went well, we made contact with a town of around eight thousand people across the ridge.”
Syrel’s eyes shot open. “A town? On the Aegel Coast? My intelligence never–”
“It wasn’t there before, Syrel,” Nalya explained. “It crossed over the night before last, from another world.”
Syrel stared at Nalya blankly. “How–?”
“Strange magicks,” Nalya explained. “Nobody is really sure.”
Syrel nodded. “Interesting.”
“I’ve made a pact with these people,” Nalya said. “You and Lieutenant Wicket are to take the men down into the town, and assist them with fortification and defense against Vector. I am going to take their emissaries to see the King.”
Syrel shook his head in surprise. “But… Captain, can we do that? For eight thousand Freemen?”
“They’re not Freemen, Lieutenant. And these people are.. a special case. You’ll understand when you get there. You are to give your full cooperation to a man that goes by the name of Gerald Boone. He is the man in charge of their military.”
Syrel appeared to have had something else to say, but he chose silence. He gave Nalya a sharp nod.
“We’ll be here for a few more hours, I have things I must get from camp, but as of noon, we’ll be off. I want you to establish a temporary outpost here, in Stone’s Mouth, and move the rest of the men to the town,” Nalya said.
Syrel nodded. “At once, Captain!” he then turned and set about performing what had been asked of him.
Nalya turned to Keltz. “Make your way back to Dunsmith before the sun falls– it will take quite a bit longer with the men. Keep them in line, and do what you can.”
Keltz gave a nod, and then set off to do his own thing.
Nalya looked around. Bayne and Cale were talking nearby, and Terra had gone up on a hill. Akris and Brad were still talking in the shade of Akris’ home, and Ryan–
Ryan was playing his instrument. What she was hearing was like no song she had ever heard before. It was fast-paced and rhythmic, using notes in a succession she had never even fathomed.
Even for its speed, the music was beautiful.
The local children had gathered around him to listen, and Nalya wished for nothing more than to join them, but there would be time for that.
For now, she thought as she turned away to walk towards the camp, she had to gather a few things for the trip.
“He awake yet?” Andy asked Boone as he sat in the chair outside the room where they put the Vectoran prisoner. He had passed out long before the ambulance got there, and received enough sedatives to last him at least until they removed the bullet and patched him up.
“Just a little while ago,” Boone said. “You’re here at a quiet point. He was screaming bloody murder before, but we strapped him down. He ain’t hurting anybody.”
“You get anything from him?”
“You mean besides ‘Die, Freeman!’ or ‘You dare tempt the Emperor’s will?‘” Boone asked. “No.”
Andy rubbed his hands together. “A tough nut to crack. Mind if I have a go?”
Boone threw him the keys to the cuffs. “Have at her,” he said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“Got a taser?” he asked.
Boone looked at him speculatively. He then pulled the taser from his belt and handed it to Andy. Andy adjusted it to its lowest setting, nodded at Boone, then walked into the room.
“You!” the prisoner exclaimed. “Freeman pig! Release me at once or suffer the wrath of ag-ackagh!”
Ag-ackagh wasn’t what he had originally intended on saying, but things like that tend to happen when you have a taser pushed into the side of your neck. Even at the lowest setting, it was painful. The prisoner blinked at the two, wide-eyed and confused as to what just happened.
“Just so you know, that was the weakest setting. It gets worse. Much worse. And it will continue to get worse unless you cooperate. Get me?” Andy asked.
The prisoner only narrowed his eyes and spat. He started yelling until Andy adjusted the setting. That stopped that.
“What do you want, Freeman?” he asked.
“First of all, drop the Freeman shit. You want to call me something, you call me sir. I’m not a Freeman, and neither is he. In fact, nobody in this bloody town is a freeman. Got me?”
“Town?” the kid laughed. “What town? These are the Disputed Lands– no town–”
He stopped when he saw Andy adjust the setting on the taser again.
“Why do you hold me prisoner?” he asked.
“You attacked us,” Andy said. “In fact, you killed Billy Jessup. That’s murder, which is a crime here in Dunsmith. That makes you accomplice to murder. But I’ll leave that to the judge to decide.”
“Judge?” the man laughed. “What gives you the right to judge a man of Vector?”
“The fact that you’ve committed a crime on our soil,” Boone explained.
The man gave him a suspicious look. “You inhabit the Disputed Lands,” he said. “You are lawless Freemen.”
“No, we inhabit Dunsmith,” Andy said. “We’re sovereign from the Disputed Lands. In fact, pretty damn sovereign to any nation there is in this damned place.”
“You speak with your rear, Freeman!”
“Look, kid,” Andy said. He pulled the keys for the cuffs out of his pocket. “I’ve got to show you something. Try anything and you’ll regret the day your momma met your papa.” He leaned down, uncuffed him from the bed and clasped the cuff on his other wrist, behind his back. He pulled him to his feet, held him by the scruff of his neck and pushed him, limping out the door.
While the kid, after capture, had been passed out, he never actually saw anything outside of the hospital room, which was largely devoid of much anything but the lights. That alone apparently wasn’t alarming enough to the Vectoran soldier.
“If you hadn’t noticed, you’re not exactly in the Disputed Lands anymore. This place was never a part of it, and we live a little differently than you.” He escorted him down the hallway towards the exit. The kid looked around at the bustle of activity, the brightness of the lamps. He gawked at a computer screen and watched as someone used a vending machine. Phones were ringing and people answering them.
“What is this place?” the kid asked.
“As I said. Not the Disputed Lands.” He took him to the exit, and pushed him out into the parking lot.
The kid’s eyes bulged open as an ambulance drove past, looking to park.
“See?” Andy inquired. “We’re nothing like your Freemen.”
“Who… are you people?”
“We’re Canadians. And we’re pissed off. Now that that’s out of the way.” He pushed the kid into the corner and pressed into his chest with a finger. “Who the fuck are you?”