Elle was frightened. It was a sensation she was unused to. Even back in Stone’s Mouth, she had a reputation of being the most fearless among the young ladies; then the men of Vector came, without mercy or warning, and tore her home to shreds. Elle watched helplessly as her friends, her cousins and uncles were slaughtered or beaten. She feared that she, too, would be killed, but instead she was taken and bound to a horse-drawn wagon along with other young men and women from the village and ordered to walk. Her own brother was tied up somewhere behind her. For some reason, Vector didn’t want them dead. At least, not outright. Any time someone would raise a commotion, they were put down with a quick brutality.
Three days they traveled without much time for rest. It was midday when she first saw the unfurled red banners displaying the four elements of Vector. They fluttered on the sides of the path, held in place by wooden frames made from thick branches. In the distance, Elle could see plumes of smoke rising, but it wasn’t until she and the others rounded the bend into an area devoid of trees that she saw the true scope of what the Vectorans were planning.
For miles ahead, she could see tree stumps jutting out of the ground, surrounding workers at the edge of the forest. Far in the distance, she could see the first whispers of the Vectoran settlement. Rows and columns of tents lined an area at least twenty times the size of Stone’s Mouth. Her father, the Elder, had often told her of the cities, and how many people there were in them. This was something she’d never imagined. There must have been thousands. It wasn’t until a short time later that she discovered many of the people there, like her, were displaced Freemen.
When she spied a large structure under construction near the center of the settlement, she knew. This was no camp. Vector aimed to build a city in the Disputed Lands. She paused in mid-step to stare at the place in awe. She had never seen the like. She moved again only when she received a harsh word from the soldier pushing them along. She’d felt the crack of his whip before, and she knew from the look in his eyes as he leered at her what her fate was to be among the Vectorans, but so far nothing save the crack of a whip or the back of a hand had befallen any of the girls.
The men, however, were being turned into workhorses. Jarrad, her brother, had been forced to perform humiliating tasks, meant to break his spirit. But Jarrad was strong, and smart. They could never break him. He would die first. With no small amount of shame, Elle found she would almost prefer her brother’s death. It would be better than his enslavement.
Finally, the slave train reached the edge of the camp, and soldiers began to line up and jeer at the girls. Yelling obscenities, making lewd advances and laughing about it. They taunted the men, and she could hear Gidgen Pash cry. He was always such a strong boy, but sensitive. She felt a stab of pain in her heart as she realized what his fate was to be.
Her worries about her own fate ran even deeper.
Finally, the slave train had rolled to a stop about halfway into the city. The man leading the train walked up to a man in purple robes lounging outside of a building that was just beginning to be framed for construction.
“These are…?” the man in robes asked.
“Stone’s Mouth,” the soldier replied. “Ready for inspection.”
The man in robes stood up and looked among the people tied up. His gaze lingered for a moment on Elle, and then he looked back to the soldier. “I had expected there be more. Shalo Cahl won’t be pleased.”
“The villagers were more resistant than most. I lost three men in the raid. We had to coerce more of them than originally intended.”
The man huffed, and then walked along the side of the slave train. He looked at each person in turn, checking the muscles of the men, feeling the breasts and hips of the women. Elle winced as he squeezed her breast. He made no effort to hide what his intentions were.
Finally, he reached the end of the line and turned back to the soldier. “Put the men to work on the stumps,” he said. “Bring the women with me.”
Elle looked back at Jarrad wide-eyed. He only stared back at her, the same desperate look on his face. Soldiers removed the loop from around his neck and pushed him into a crowd with other men.
“Try to escape and you shall be killed!” the soldier announced. “Succeed in escaping, and all the men who stand with you now will be killed!” He started to herd the men back towards the edge of the camp.
Elle felt a stab of pain shoot through her heart. Was this to be the last time she’d see Jarrad? His fate was to be a slave. But what was hers? A whore? As Jarrad faded from sight, she felt the rope around her neck loosen. A moment later, she was freed from her bonds. The soldier grabbed her rear and pinched it with an iron grip, causing Elle to whimper in pain. Then he slapped it, and pushed Elle along with the other girls towards a nearly-complete stone building. It was a fortress. At least, the beginnings of one. Ragged men, worked to the bone toiled all around it. Moving stones, shaping them, receiving the crack of the slavemaster’s whip.
They were herded inside an archway on the side of the fortress, and Elle’s eyes needed a moment to adjust to the darkness. It was lit only by torchlight inside. She could feel the heat of the torches as she passed under them.
When they went out into a long hallway, Elle’s eyes were capable of perceiving the area around her. The floor had been lined with a thick red carpet with gold trimming. Fine, polished tables held exquisite vases, talismans and porcelain statues. Fine paintings were hung upon the walls. However horrible it had looked outside, on the inside it was a different matter. Like a palace.
Finally, they turned the corner and came out into a wide foyer, where many men were still working. The girls were instructed to stop, and one of the soldiers escorting them walked over to where two men were standing in the center of the foyer. It was hard to overhear them over the din of hammers pounding, but she managed to make out the two men’s names. There was a man dressed in lavish purple and gold robes, and a large square-shaped hat. Cahl, the soldier said. Shalo Cahl. She had heard tell of this man from the soldier’s uncensored chatter around them. She heard tell that he was a Summoner. One who could call upon the daemon and receive their blessings. He looked over at the girls, suddenly very interested. Elle felt the pit of her stomach fall deeper.
The other man, wearing the polished gold and purple armor with the long goatee and hair tied back into a ponytail, was General Ryde. General Ajjiro Ryde, who Elle had heard of even before the Vectorans had raided Stone’s Mouth. Tammil Cuerian’s right hand.
Shalo Cahl excused himself from the General, and Ajjiro walked off towards a hallway on the other side of the foyer. Just as well, Ryde was a dangerous man, and she wouldn’t want to be anywhere near him.
When Shalo Cahl closed in on the girls, Elle prepared herself for more prodding and grabbing, but to her surprise. There was none. The diminutive, chubby man only looked into their eyes. He was searching for something.
He looked at each girl in turn, shaking his head after every girl. When he was done with them, each girl was pulled aside, to stand in a group.
Finally, Shalo Cahl got to Elle, and she felt the sweat on his palms as he clasped the side of her face. He pulled her to meet his gaze, and Elle found herself unable to blink. It was like Cahl was… doing something to her. Finally, his gaze broke away and he turned to the guard.
“This one!” he said. “This one will be the vessel.”
Elle was yanked violently by a soldier, and separated from the rest of the girls. As they were herded into a circle, she could see the men were now being more openly lewd towards them, grabbing them by the breasts and crotches. Soon, they were being led away as well. Elle was taken down another long corridor, and within moments, she was flung into a small windowless room with a heavy wooden door.
When the door clamped shut behind her, the last vestiges of light and hope disappeared with it.
Ajjiro Ryde walked out into the sunlight outside the fortress upon what would soon be the great city of Anastae. Nestled in a valley next to a wide, flowing river, the city was the first expansion by Vector into the Disputed Lands, named after Anastae Cuerian, the Emperor’s first wife.
The construction was coming along well, something Ajjiro took personal credit for. After all, it was he who led his men into the Disputed Lands, departing from the Capitol at Nostra months earlier. It was he who the Emperor bestowed his blessings upon with this important mission. Just the first in a series of operations meant to secure Vector’s dominance within the Pactlands for generations to come.
First the Disputed Lands, then Halen. Those dogs of Halen had been trying to muck up the Emperor’s plans since he rose to power some sixteen years earlier. Ajjiro had been in high standing in Tammil’s favor at the time, the result of several favors performed to Tammil’s benefit. When Tammil was finally crowned, he received his reward. A place at the Emperor’s right hand, and the hand of his sister, the Princess Sylphera, in marriage.
Although it was true they had not yet consummated their arranged marriage, Ajjiro knew it would only be a matter of time before Sylphera warmed up to him. After all, it wasn’t as if she had a choice. The next time he returned to the Capitol, he would hold her to her wifely duties, and she would subsequently bear him a son.
But until that time, Ajjiro had a mission. He was to establish Anastae, build the city from the ground up, and claim the Disputed Lands in the name of Vector.
The Halish dogs, however, had other plans. Spies in Halen had reported a small regiment of a thousand soldiers, led by a daughter of Rasza’s House of Roses that sought to oppose Vector’s claim. He had to smile at the tenacity. A thousand soldiers, against the ten thousand already in Anastae and around the Disputed Lands. Not to mention the growing ranks from the number of laborers and conscripts they’d recruited from the lawless villages around the lands.
Still, no matter. The Halish would make themselves known in time, and Ajjiro would take his time crushing them, until he had the Ruus bitch to himself, and then he’d make his point truly known. Ajjiro was known as a vicious man when he lost his temper, and since he was very short-fused, his men often got a first-hand look at what crossing Ajjiro Ryde brought them.
He had been speaking with Shalo Cahl back in the fortress about trivial matters. The progress of construction of the halls and apartments that were to house the citizens of Anastae. If Ajjiro Ryde was the Emperor’s right hand, then Shalo Cahl was Ajjiro’s right hand. The old priest was dedicated to what he did, and that was to serve the royal family with everything he had. His calling as a Summoner had made it his mandate, especially when his summoning services were required.
Ajjiro enjoyed watching the summoning ceremonies. He was fascinated with the way in which Shalo would call upon the daemon Crier, by branding a sigil into a vessel. Unfortunately, most vessels did not last more than a few weeks. They were ultimately fragile, and some had even succumbed to death during the first summoning.
What made it more difficult were the requirements for vessels. Vessels were predominantly female, and had to be virginal in order to receive the Crier. He wasn’t sure of the methods Cahl used to identify them, but then he understood that Summoners just knew what to look for. Perhaps it was related to their inborn abilities, but perhaps it was just something learned along the road.
Ajjiro had heard that Shalo had found a new one in the batch of young women brought south from Stone’s Mouth. Whether she would be able to handle more than one summoning was yet to be seen.
“My Liege!” a soldier greeted, standing nearby. It was one of his runners, a message carrier whose sole function it was to go around to the various Captains and Lieutenants and make reports back to him. He saluted Ajjiro with respect and confidence.
“Speak,” Ajjiro said, with a wave of his hand.
“Lieutenant Ynnia has returned from his scouting expedition along the Aegel Coast,” the runner said. “He comes with only one man, who is wounded. He says he had an urgent report, and will speak with none but you.”
Ajjiro frowned. Ynnia wasn’t due back for another week at the least. What could have caused him to return this early? Surely not incompetence, Ynnia knew the consequences of that.
What, then, could this be about?
Burz waited silently in the courtyard of the Fortress. Mis stood next to him, looking sickly and pale. His wound had become infected, and it was beginning to look at if he were on his last legs. He had to admire the man. Not once did he complain, not once did he refuse to go on, and he did a good job of keeping up with Burz during their rapid journey on the backs of a pair of myrnah to make the strange report to General Ryde.
The General soon came strolling into the courtyard, flanked by the runner who had gone off to fetch him. He had a severe look on his face, one he wore often that told the men he would suffer no insolence, that he would punish incompetence.
The General walked up to Burz, letting his eyes fall on Mis briefly, and then said, “Lieutenant, you had better have a good reason for disobeying my orders. You were to remain at the coast and return in a week from now. Why are you here?”
“We encountered trouble, Sire,” Burz said. “I had instructed my men to do as you had asked, and scout the coast when they came across a strange settlement.” He motioned to Mis. “While there, my men encountered a pair of men wielding weapons of magick– weapons that sounded of thunder, and propelled small metal bits at intense speeds. They killed or captured one of my men, and wounded this one. The four who were left chose to retreat.”
Ryde looked upon Mis, who tried his best to stand up straight and show the General the proper respect. Ryde leered over him for a moment, and frowned. “Is this true, soldier?”
Mis nodded and offered the General the small piece of metal that Burz had pulled out of his shoulder only days earlier. “It’s all true, Sire. Here is the bit of metal they got me with.” He dropped it into Ryde’s waiting hand.
Ryde glanced at the little stone, then looked back to Mis. His face began to turn red.
“This?” Ryde roared. “You retreat from a couple of Freemen armed with pebbles?” He threw the offending piece of metal at Mis.
“But, General, they were not–”
He never even saw it coming. Ryde backhanded him in mid-sentence, shattering his jaw instantly. Mis fell to the ground, roaring in pain, and Ryde kicked him onto his front, and started to stamp his boot on his unprotected head.
Burz winced when he heard the sickening crunch as Mis’ skull caved in. Ryde pulled his boot out, then looked around at the shocked faces of his men.
“Let that be a lesson!” He bellowed. “Cowards have no place in the ranks of Vector!” He then looked to the ground, and picked up the little metal bit. He walked over to Burz.
“You bring me a coward? You disobey my orders, and bring me a coward?”
“My Liege, I did not mean–”
“Give me one reason I should not visit the same fate upon you?” He pointed at Mis’ twitching body for effect.
“Sire, there is writing upon the stone. Etched words that make no sense. I think they may be a spell.”
Ryde looked at the pebble in his hand, examining it more closely. Indeed, it did have a peculiar shape, obviously fashioned by a Geomagi. But interestingly, it did indeed have letters and numbers in the base; a finery no magi he’d ever seen could match.
It read: “9mm LUGER”
The General then leveled his gaze on Burz. Burz looked back with a mixture of shock and confusion.
“You,” he said. “Come with me. We summon the Crier.”
When Ryde finally managed to track down Shalo Cahl, the old priest was busy in his study, a grand room dedicated to the Summoner’s use in the Fortress. At the center of the room was a stone table with iron shackles attached to it. This was for the vessel. Very often, they would lash out before and after bringing the Crier into them, a result of the white-hot brand that Shalo would press into their flesh. They needed to be strapped down, otherwise the brand wouldn’t be clear enough. It wouldn’t work.
Shalo had already heard of the General’s need to summon the Crier, and by the time he had shown up, the vessel he had chosen that afternoon was already strapped to the table, her mouth gagged shut.
“She’s a noisy one,” Cahl said, referring to the young girl. “Feisty. I have a good feeling about this one.”
“She is strong enough to hold the Crier?” Ajjiro asked.
“She appears to be strong– of will and heart, but I’ve been fooled before. Only time will tell if she successfully takes the Crier into her,” he said. He looked to Burz. “He is the one?”
“No,” Ajjiro asked. “He is already dead.”
“Very well, have you decided what three questions you will ask?” Shalo asked.
“I know the first. The other two depend on the answer of the first.”
Shalo nodded in understanding. He walked over and closed the door to his study, and then picked up the iron brand that had been resting in the fire and walked towards the vessel. The girl looked up at him in shock, a pleading look in her eyes.
“There, there, child,” Shalo said. “It will only hurt for a moment. You should be honored to receive the Crier within you. It is a gift bestowed on not just anyone, you know.” Shalo smiled crookedly.
And then he pressed the brand into the girl’s flesh. She yelped out in pain, threw her body into wicked spasms, arched her back, and then fell limp. Shalo removed the gag from her mouth as she lay unconscious.
A moment later, her eyes shot open. Her pupils and iris were milky, and the hollow eyes looked to the people in the room in rapid succession.
“You have called upon the Crier?” the vessel, now holding the spirit of the Crier said. The voice was low, and the words came out in a near hiss. “Ssspeak, Sssouthlander!”
“I must know, Crier,” Ajjiro began. “I must know the story of this magick stone.” He presented the piece of metal pulled from Mis to the creature. “Who are the people responsible for this?”
The Crier looked at the little bit of metal in Ryde’s hand. Once again, the Crier spasmed, arched her back and yelled.
“They are the unwritten! The lossst onesss! Children of the halo come to dessstroy you and your waysss from ancient trickeriesss! Already they move againssst you! They plot and conssspire! They move and shake, from the unlight! The unlight which blackensss and ssscarsss!”
“These men, are they a threat to us? To our plans for these lands?”
“They are a threat to the way of thingsss! They count among them powerful magii and craftsssmen! They are whissspered of in hidden prophecy! Crusssh them! Dessstroy them, Sssouthlander, lessst they destroy all you have built!”
Ajjiro looked upon the Crier with a severe look on his face. He frowned and looked to Cahl.
“You have one more question,” Shalo said. “Make it count.”
“Crier,” Ajjiro asked. “How do I destroy them?”
“The bloodhead! Find the bloodhead! Only ssshe hasss the power to disssrupt our plansss!” The Crier took a deep breath. “Only ssshe can join the ssstringsss of fate! Fell her and the ressst will sssurely fall!”
The Crier leveled its gaze on Ryde, its face severe. “Find the bloodhead, Sssouthlander! Dessstroy her lessst she dessstroy you!”
And with that, the vessel that held the Crier within collapsed, exhausted from her ordeal. The room was buried in silence and Ryde reflected on what he had been told. However cryptic, it gave him a place to start. The bloodhead. He must find the bloodhead. He turned to Burz.
“You heard the Crier?” he asked.
Burz nodded. “Yes, Sire. Every word.”
“Take five hundred men,” he said. “Bring them to this place. I want full reconnaissance, and you are to send a rider back with a report every day. Am I understood, Captain?”
“Captain?” Burz’ eyes lit up. “Yes, Sire. I understand.”
“Good. Then go, now. And seek out this Bloodhead. Find her, and when you do, kill her.”
Andy stood in the old tavern of the Journeyman Hotel and watched as the newly formed Dunsmith Magick Society worked their… well… magick. He found himself amazed by the speed with which the members were beginning to master their craft, and found himself shocked at the number of people who had the gift. At last count, he had heard eleven. Counting the people in the bar, there were no less than seventeen. Their numbers were growing, and as he understood it, would continue to grow for some time yet as more people woke up to their abilities.
Andy waited silently, watching the group as they went through their exercises. That local girl, Arie, had taken to teaching the group with an enigmatic innocence.
And then there was Tam. A bloody golem, right out of the pages of Dungeons and Dragons. Andy had heard about him more than once, first from Boone, and then from several people throughout the day, who had caught sight of the Elemental. Apparently he was, at times, abrasive and hard to get along with, but it was obvious he loved his sister, even as he sat at the bar, watching over the class.
Andy’s back ached from the day’s work. He had spent most of the day going over plans and ideas with Boone, Luc and Ansel. After that, he had recruited the help of old Amos Bradley, Harriet Singer and Sam Whittaker in setting up a number of surveillance cameras about twenty meters deep in the woods, all four of them weary and watchful for dinosaurs and whatnot. By the time he had everything in order in his trailer, the monitors all hooked up and ready to go, the group had managed to install almost fifteen cameras at various locations. Tomorrow, they would install twelve more throughout the southern border, strategically placed in those places likely traveled by the Vectoran Forces. They’d even come across a couple of wireless cameras for added stealth.
And now, he stood in a condemned hotel, watching a bunch of people performing a varying degree of magickal stunts. Some were better than others. The twins, for instance, had obviously practiced quite a bit, and made a show of using water to form a shield around the two of them, while that skater kid, Raine, shot little fireballs at it.
Before long, the meeting started to wind down to a close, and Lily approached him.
“Enjoy the show?” she asked.
Andy gave her a quick nod. They’d met before. He knew Lily through Terra, who was one of his usual customers from a business that Andy no longer had the time for. “Absolutely wild,” he commented. “But I wanted to know if I could borrow Boomer for a little while.” He looked over at the tall man, who looked back at the mention of his name. Boomer jumped off the stool he sat on where he had been talking with Tam, and walked over.
“Am I being summoned?” he asked. “Andy, right?”
Andy nodded. “I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few minutes.”
Boomer nodded. “I don’t see why not.”
“Good,” Andy said, then gestured towards the door. “Let’s go for a walk,” he announced.
By the time the two met had got outside, the sun was already down over the horizon, and night had fallen over the city. Only the third night in, the bright blue sphere of the Azure Dream hung over the land, lighting the night and illuminating the ocean in Dunsmith Harbor. The decided to walk along First Avenue, taking their time. When Andy figured they were far enough from prying eyes (and ears), he spoke.
“I understand you’re a bit of a psychic,” Andy said.
Boomer nodded. “A Psimagi, apparently. For some reason, I can see what’s on a person’s mind. So far I’m the only one.”
Andy nodded. “What else can you do?”
“So far? Nothing. Arie said that most of what Psimagii can do are kept secret from most people, but she said they can read thoughts, send messages over mass distances, and some can even move objects with their mind.”
“Can you do any of that?”
Boomer smiled. “Not yet,” he said. “I’ve been working on moving a quarter across the table every night before bed; so far no luck.”
“But you can read people’s minds?”
“Kind of,” Boomer said. “I can see what’s on the surface. I can’t exactly go digging around.”
Andy nodded in understanding. “You know what’s at stake here,” he stated. “About Vector and all that, right?”
Boomer nodded. “Yeah.”
“Would you consider volunteering your services?” Andy inquired.
“Well,” Boomer began. “I don’t know. I… can’t really control it sometimes. The first time it happened, it just… well, happened. I’ve been able to block the ability, stop reading people, but a few times when I’ve tried to read people, it just didn’t work. It’s intermittent. I was thinking maybe it had something to do with brain waves, thought patterns and whatnot, but I can’t be sure.”
Andy nodded in understand. “Look, I’m going to be frank with you, Boomer,” he said. “We need intelligence,” he said. “As much as we can get, and in order to do that, we need to take a few risks.”
Boomer blinked at Andy. “So what are you trying to say?”
“We captured one of them, did you hear about that?” Andy asked.
Boomer nodded. “It’s been going around town since yesterday. They said you and Boone caught him down at the trailer park.”
Andy nodded. “Well, we’ve been questioning him with the help of Lieutenant Syrel,” he said. “We’ve got the location of their main camp; they’re trying to build a city. They call it Anastae, and it’s a few days south of us here. We also know there’s a small regiment of about twenty-five men camped about three or four kilometers south of us.”
“So why are you telling me this?” Boomer asked.
Andy smiled, then looked Boomer in the eye.
“I want you to take a group of men to this camp they’ve got,” he said. “See if you can infiltrate, find out what you can, then make for Anastae and do the same.”
Boomer paused in mid-step. He wasn’t sure he heard Andy right.
“Wait, you want me to be a spy?”
“The first agent of DSIA,” Andy said. He smirked. “You’ve got just the right stuff we’re looking for. You’re fit, strong, smart as a whip and you can read minds. The perfect spy.”
Boomer just kept blinking at Andy. He glanced briefly at the Azure Dream as it hung in the sky.
“So what do you say?” Andy asked.
Boomer remained silent for a few more moments as he thought it over. Finally, he looked Andy straight in the eye. “Give me a day to think it over,” he said. “This isn’t exactly a light decision.”
Andy nodded. “That’s fair,” he said. “I can give you a day– but I’ll need your answer by the morning after next.”