The society’s first outdoor meeting had gone off without a hitch, attracting a number of onlookers as the members, now numbering twenty-six, practiced their art in the shadow of the Kinsmen hut, a small covered area on the beach that people used for barbecues and celebrations.
Afterwards, a few members of the society had taken it upon themselves to host a barbecue in the hut, passing out plates of hamburger and steak to any takers. Boomer was rather impressed with the way the townspeople were adapting to life in the Disputed Lands– in four days, not much had changed. They still worked, played, had barbecues and drank the night away at the Sporty Bar & Grill. Boomer wasn’t sure where they were getting their alcohol from, but he didn’t doubt that more than a few people in town had their own stills.
As the sun fell down over the horizon and the Azure Dream started its slow climb, the people at the barbecue had begun to disperse. Lily had run off to the movies with Keltz, in fact, she seemed rather excited about it. Arie had also expressed interest in going, but when Boomer asked her to go for a walk, she had all but forgotten about the movie. Besides, if Boomer was right, there was a little more going on between Lily and Keltz than a couple of friends seeing a movie together.
Then there came the subject of Arie. When Boomer had first seen her, days earlier, she was dressed in dirty robes and covered head-to-toe in inch-thick dirt. Hardly the most attractive of people Boomer had seen in his life. But after Terra had taken the time to help clean Arie up and put some of her own clothes on her, Arie’s true self shone through.
Boomer wasn’t exactly a shallow person, but there were remnants left from his upbringing, from the way he used to live that leaked through from time to time. Whenever he wanted a woman, he got her, there was no question to it. Whenever he saw something he wanted, it was his. He felt bad about it from time to time, but he never let it go too far. If, in getting what he wanted, someone had to be hurt as a result, he would politely refuse it.
So, Arie and Tam walked along with Boomer along the beach. The tide had been low that night, so they had walked north along Transfer Beach, under the amphitheater and past the support beams that had once held the old coal transfer wharf aloft. The three of them approached Slag Point, named for the mountains of coal slag that had been dumped in the area once upon a time. There was a large clearing at Slag Point. For years the town had been desperate to develop the area, but couldn’t find any takers. Boomer almost preferred it the way it was. The area was blocked off with a large iron gate– no vehicles could get in or out, but anyone with two feet and a heartbeat could come and go as they pleased.
And so, Slag Point became known as the go-to partying destination for teens and young adults in the hours after the town’s shops and hangouts closed for the night. That night was no exception. Many of the town’s teenagers had already gathered around a campfire set up on the beach in a spot chosen for the simple purpose that when the tide came back in, it would snuff the fire out. Boomer could see Raine Walsh in the group, showing off his newfound abilities to some of the local girls. Arie rolled her eyes disapprovingly at the cavalier way he wielded the gift, but ultimately decided she had no control over how he chose to use it.
The three of them had ventured farther down the beach, letting the voices of the partying teenagers be swept away by the crashing of the waves. Boomer looked down at Arie. He had an idea that Arie felt something for him, but he had to admit he didn’t understand women very much. Sure, he could wine them, dine them, and have them waiting for him in bed on his worse day, but they were only flings. Mostly one-time girls, many of which he had never met more than the once.
Arie was different, somehow. Boomer found that he liked the way she was– not like other girls, and especially not like the normal airheads he tended to find around Dunsmith. She was smart, funny, and her eyes were full of wonder at everything she was shown, or told about. She was eager to learn, and Boomer respected that.
He could easily consider her a friend, like Lily or Terra. Girls that he would remain close friends with, but never cross the line into romantic involvement– after all, that messed everything up.
That should have been the way he viewed Arie, but he couldn’t. A large part of him wanted to lump her into a friend category, but he was just so damned attracted to her. He knew the feeling was mutual, and that made the whole thing twice as hard, because the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her. Especially since he had made his decision, and would be telling Andy in the morning that he was in.
He watched as she waved her hand around in the water, the tiny microorganisms flaring up in ultraviolet light, making the water glow. It reminded Boomer of the Blacklight. Tam watched with interest, and he too started to play in the water, actually going so far as to wade knee-deep along the shoreline.
While he was busy exploring the area, Boomer and Arie took a seat on a long piece of driftwood. They sat in silence for a few moment before Arie looked at him, and quietly asked, “You’re going, aren’t you?”
Boomer looked back at her, shocked. How had she known?
Of course. Lily had told her. Boomer made a mental note to have a chat with her later on about trust and secrecy, but it made no difference. Boomer had planned on telling Arie anyway, Lily had only beaten him to the punch.
Boomer looked down to the ground. “I think so. I haven’t told them yet, though.”
“When will you be leaving?” she asked.
Boomer shrugged. “Hard to say. Could be any day. Could be at a moment’s notice. It depends when they’re ready, but they want my answer by morning.”
“You feel you have to do this?” Arie asked.
Boomer remained silent. He thought on Arie’s question, the same way he’d thought on it since Andy approached him, but the answer was still the same.
“Yes,” he replied.
“I see,” Arie said, then looked to the ground. She watched Tam as he splashed around, creating arcs of luminescence in the air. After a moment, she began to speak again. “Why?”
Boomer sighed. He alone knew why he had wanted to do this, and it was something that he hadn’t shared with anyone. At least not in the years since he’d been living in Dunsmith. Most people wouldn’t believe him, but Arie… she had no reason not to.
“When I was a boy, I looked up to my father,” he explained. “He was a rich man, a banker, but he was always busy. I never really got a chance to know him. He got my brothers and I everything we’d ever wanted, and taught us how to do the same for ourselves– how to persuade and influence others to get the desired result. I always thought of it as a game.” He looked to Arie. “But one day, when I was about fourteen, I came home from school and he was there. Angry, absolutely livid at the father of a close friend of mine because he had made an error in judgment, and lost millions of dollars of the bank’s money. A week later, he was found dead. A single bullet to the back of the head.” He mimed a firing a bullet into his head.
“That’s horrible. How did it happen?”
“None of us knew at first. My father told me to stop hanging around with my friend, but he needed a friend at that time more than any other. A short while later, I happened to overhear a conversation my father had with a man I had seen a few times– I didn’t know it before, but the man was a hired assassin. He was the one who had killed my friend’s father. I was nineteen when I decided to make a clean break from the family. I took my trust fund, which was generous to say the least, bought a house here in Dunsmith, started taking classes at the college up in Nanaimo and started working at the Gas ‘n Dash.”
“So your father had him killed? Your friend’s father?” Arie asked.
Boomer nodded. “It just wouldn’t sit right with me. I started doing some digging around. As it turned out, my father worked for some more powerful people. Old European money and the like. That’s when I started learning about conspiracy theories, figured out how our world actually worked. Morally, I couldn’t be a part of that family. I disowned them, set off on my own, and here I am.”
Arie looked back at him. “And this is why you feel you must do this? Because of your family?”
“My father was a spy for those European fucks. He was their enforcer, but the people he spied against were good people, who had done nothing wrong. At least if I’m going to be doing the same thing, it’ll be for a cause that would benefit us, and help save a lot of people I care about,” he said. “That’s why I feel I must do this. Call it… karmic reparations.”
Arie smiled back at Boomer. “That’s very noble of you,” she said.
Boomer almost blushed. “I’m not doing it to be noble,” he said. “Or even so I can play a spy– I know it’s going to be a tough job, and dangerous.”
“Andy made the right choice,” Arie said. “In choosing you. Your abilities–”
“Will only help a little,” Boomer said. “I can only pick up what’s on the surface of people’s minds. I can’t dig any deeper.”
Arie put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It only takes time.”
Boomer nodded, then stared across the bay towards Shell Beach. Tam was bored, and had chosen to lay down on the ground nearby and look up at the stars. He had purposely been giving Arie and Boomer their space. Boomer had a thought that he was just as aware of what was brewing between the two of them as Lily had been, and he wouldn’t have been wrong.
“I’m cold,” Arie said, leaning into Boomer for warmth.
“Do you want to go?” Boomer asked.
She shook her head. “No, this is nice,” she said. The way she had said it left no doubt in Boomer’s mind what she was talking about. He experimentally put his arm around her. He found it hard to do, even though it shouldn’t have been. Any other random girl and he’d have had her halfway to the bedroom by now.
But Arie was different. She sent a flutter through to his heart during moments like this. Moments that Boomer wished could last forever. Arie received his arm warmly, and snuggled up even closer.
“Arie?” Boomer asked.
“Mm?” Arie replied, looking up at him.
“If I go… when I come back, will you be…” he couldn’t find the right words to say. He chewed on it for a moment.
“Yes? Will I be what?” Arie asked, looking up at him.
“Available. When I come back, do you think you’ll still be available?” he asked.
Arie seemed confused by the question at first, but after a few moments, she got it.
Arie smiled. “Of course,” she said.
Boomer smiled in return. “That’s what I wanted to hear,” he said, and left it at that. The two stayed by the beach in each other’s embrace until late that night, and then Boomer walked her and Tam back to Lily’s apartment, said good night, and then started to make his own way home, feeling light-hearted and strangely euphoric. No girl had ever made him feel that way, especially without even having kissed her yet.
As he walked into his empty house, he collapsed on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He would talk to Andy in the morning, and at some point after that would be sent to infiltrate the Vectoran’s camp.
But he would have someone waiting for him when he returned, and that was all that Boomer had on his mind.
He fell asleep quickly, his mind going over the events of the week, and the week yet to come.
Keltz was confused. “I didn’t quite understand it. Those little men–”
“Hobbits,” Lily corrected.
“Right, hobbits. They were chosen to perform the task of returning the ring to the fires of Mount Doom. Why them? Surely a bigger, stronger man would have been twice as capable. And these elf-men. I don’t understand how they came to have pointed ears, and how they were so different than man. The magick they used seemed to be a jumble of different gifts. It was all quite good, I should say. The sights in the films were absolutely beautiful, but I could not grasp the story properly.”
Lily laughed. That seemed to be the consensus among many of the soldiers that had seen the film that night– for many, it was their first movie. Some hadn’t known what to expect, and cried out in fear at the screen during particularly actionable sequences.
Nonetheless, even without understanding the story, it amused them, and many made a pact to see at least one film per day during their daily spare time. It was a bargain at one silver piece, after all.
Lily and Keltz had taken to walking along First Avenue, towards Lily’s apartment. It was growing late, and Lily had invited Keltz up to see another film. After all, with Arie and Boomer off doing their thing, they’d have the place to themselves, but Keltz politely refused, citing that he could not stay out too late with his duties.
Keltz still lingered around with Lily for a few minutes outside of the apartment building. Keltz had brought up several subjects of conversation, mostly to do with the integration of the Magick Society with Dunsmith’s military force, but Lily politely informed him she didn’t want to talk shop. Instead, the two talked about themselves. Lily shared her (brief) life’s story, from how she had moved out on her own at sixteen after her father had died and her mother moved off to Ontario, while Keltz related stories of how he had come to be a Lieutenant in Halen’s army.
But when it finally came time for Keltz to go, Lily hugged him and then kissed him on the cheek. He blushed furiously, and made an oath that they would do this again, soon.
With that, they each went their own way, Keltz walking alone up the road towards the High School, and Lily getting ready for bed.
Boomer stood near the skateboard park on the fringes of the high school soccer pitch, watching out over the field. The sun had barely been up an hour before the men had started their training and patrolling exercises. He recognized a few people out in the field. Local boys that had volunteered for the Armed Forces. Justin Alverra was busy learning how to properly swing a sword. Boomer waved at him, but he was too busy trying not to be yelled at by the his Halish instructor, a rank, dirty man chosen more for his prowess with a sword than his polite way of dealing with amateurs.
Boomer spotted Andy and Boone standing on the opposite end of the field, walking towards the main operations tent, where Keltz and Syrel stood outside, poring over maps spread across the table. Andy noticed Boomer and waved him over.
By the time Boomer approached the tent, Boone and Keltz had already started to go over the maps. Boomer saw them to be maps of the town, laid over a large map of the Disputed Lands. A large red X appeared to the south, next to the word ‘Anastae’.
“Morning, kid,” Andy greeted. “Got an answer for me?”
Boomer nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m in.”
Andy patted Boomer on the back. “Great. You won’t regret it, and don’t worry, you won’t be going out there alone. Keltz has agreed to send a few of his guys with you.”
“Halish?” Boomer asked.
Andy nodded. “Mostly. We’re going to put one of our boys in there, but we’ve got a great cover. Apparently this Ryde character has made it clear to any bandits roaming the Disputed Lands that they’ll be granted amnesty if they swear allegiance to Vector.”
“So you’re going to send us in as bandits?” Boomer asked.
“Not exactly,” Keltz said. “It’s hard, you can’t just approach Anastae, swear that you’re a bandit and expect to be posted where we’ll need you, which is as close to Ryde as you can get. No, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”
“You’re not going to be a bandit– the people you’re traveling with will be, on the other hand,” Boone explained.
Boomer was confused. “I don’t understand. What am I supposed to do?”
“A prisoner,” Andy declared.
“A prisoner?” Boomer asked, he looked up. “How the hell is that supposed to work?”
“Ryde may be ruthless,” Keltz said. “But he’s no fool. Even a prisoner with the right kind of information can bargain his way out of the chains. Even possibly win his trust and respect.”
“Right kind of information?” Boomer asked. “I don’t get it, you want me to give him information?”
Boone nodded. “Precisely. Only thing is,” he began. “The information you’re going to give him isn’t quite going to be the information he wants.” He waved his hands. “We still have time for all this– the scouts are saying it’ll still be another day or two before we see hide nor hair of those bastards, and until then, all we can do is sit and wait.”
Andy nodded. “We’re going to choose a team for you tonight– the bandits who are going to capture you. That’ll give you some time to start playing the part right. When the scouts come back with word that our friends have come back to play, that’s when you guys will go into action.”
“But how do you know Ryde will listen to me? What if he orders my execution?” Boomer asked.
“Then you’ll just have to convince him otherwise,” Andy said. “Come on, you’re a smart kid, we all know that. Your brain versus some medieval meathead? No contest.” He leaned in close. “Besides, you’ll be set up with one of these.” He pulled out a small black device no bigger than his fingertip, which Boomer recognized instantly.
“An RFID tag? Where’d you get that?” he asked.
“Private collection,” Andy explained. “I used to put them in my things in case they ever got stolen.” Andy shrugged. “Crackheads,” he said. “You understand. Just show up at the Horseshoe Pitch down by the beach this afternoon. Four o’clock, it should give us plenty of time before the DMS meets tonight,” he said. “We’ll discuss all of this then.”
They’d been traveling hard since they woke up, taking breaks only for water and to refuel. The land was beginning to level off, the hills turning into low plains, and the forests turning into grassy fields, and they could see the twisting waters of the Cantus River in the distance, which acted as the border between the Disputed Lands and Halen.
At midday, from the crest of the last hill, Terra stopped and pointed to the west.
“What’s that? It looks like a city,” she said, pointing at the mass of stone buildings in the distance, sitting around the edge of a lake.
“Aye, that’s Asha’Nigh,” Bayne had explained. Terra remembered the name. It was the place he had warned them of– where many a man had met his unknown end. Terra nodded in understanding and the group kept going.
As they traveled farther north, they could see the smoke rising above the town of Ansem, one of many Halish settlements that lay along the border. A half-hour later, the group had reached the end of the path, and stopped at the edge of an old dock, long since turned white with mold and fungus. Cale wasn’t sure it would support the weight of the quads, so he suggested they park alongside the dock.
Ryan whistled in approval at the town across the river. It was bigger than Stone’s Mouth, but much smaller than Dunsmith. That didn’t take away from its beauty, however. He could see the twisting stone spires that lined the high walls of the city. Whatever they were originally built for, the walls would do a good job of repelling invaders. Perhaps it was something that Dunsmith should look into. The Great Wall of Dunsmith. He laughed at the thought.
Looking to Nalya, he asked. “What now? How are we supposed to get across?”
Nalya didn’t reply, only pulled a banner from her pack and attached it to the long pole at the edge of the dock and hoisted it up. It hung there, flapping in the wind.
“It’s a marker,” she said. “A message to the ferryman. When he sees it, he’ll waste no time in getting across.”
“Aye,” Bayne agreed. “If he wants to see some of the king’s money, he’ll do no other thing.”
“What about the quads?” Cale asked.
“The ferry is large. We used it to cross over into the Disputed Lands. There should be room for all of us, after all, we had several dozen wagons with us when we crossed originally,” Nalya explained.
“Is this where you crossed over?”
Nalya nodded. “Arronay is a day’s walk to the northeast. The roads are wide and well-traveled.”
“We only have enough fuel for another day or so,” Cale explained, looking over their gas rations. “We may have to leave the quads behind. Take only what we need for the rest of the trip.”
“They’ll be okay without us?” Terra asked. “They won’t get stolen?”
“Without fuel, these things are about as useful as a horse with no legs,” Cale said. “Besides looking cool, there’s no purpose they could serve.”
Nalya nodded. “Thievery is punished severely in Arronay,” she said. “They’ll be safe wherever we choose to store them. At least until we can come back for them.”
“I don’t mind,” Terra said. “Sitting on these things all day make my ass sore.”
“How far until we reach Cilasia?” Ryan asked. “We don’t have to do anymore camping, do we?”
Nalya shook her head. “There’s a roadside Inn half way between Arronay and Cilasia. We’ll stay the night there, and we’ll be in Cilasia within two days of leaving Arronay.”
“Almost there,” Ryan said. He looked across the river to Ansem, and could quite clearly see the ferryman rigging up the ferry to go across the river. It was more than large enough to support the five quads and their things. Provided the ancient dock held up, that was.
“We’ll stop in Ansem long enough to eat,” Nalya said. “In less urgent circumstances, I would be happy to take you around and show you Halish hospitality. Tonight is the first night of Summer’s Veil, a week long celebration of Harbinger’s Solstice. Perhaps when we arrive in Arronay you’ll have your chance. We’ll be staying the night there, and probably won’t be leaving until tomorrow afternoon, after Terra and I have had a chance to speak with Mika Sephalon.”
Terra nodded. She actually looked forward to the meeting with the Blue Seer. Perhaps she would get some answers. For instance, why her? And why Dunsmith?
“So we’ll just have to kill time while you two are off doing that?” Cale asked.
“With Summer’s Veil there’ll be no challenge. Whether ye want to kill time or not, with all the festivities going about, we’ll not have a choice,” Bayne said. He seemed almost excited about it. “There’ll be dancing in City Square, a menagerie in the park, and drink flowing as if from from a sacred spring.” He licked his lips in anticipation.
“As long as you watch how much you drink,” Nalya admonished. “I do not wish to see a repeat of last year.”
“Bah,” Bayne said. “Th’ bugger deserved every blow!”
Ryan was about to ask what they had been talking about, but thought better of it. He looked out across the river. The ferry had now left the other side of the river and was quickly approaching them. He looked over to Terra and Quick, who were keeping themselves busy by playing with Terra’s camera. She was snapping pictures of Quick, and showing him how to use the camera. As complicated as it was, Quick seemed to understand how to snap a picture, and even which buttons to press to change the picture mode. Ryan had to give Quick the credit due. For such an unlikely being, he was smart, and quick to pick up new ideas and methods.
Probably why his name was Quick, he thought.
“We’ll arrive in two days time,” Nalya announced. “On Harbinger’s Solstice. We’ll not be able to hold audience with the King in an official capacity on that day, but I will make it so we will be allowed to speak with him the next morning. If all goes well, we should be well on our way back to the Disputed Lands by the morning after.”
“If all goes well?” Cale asked.
Nalya nodded. “We still need to convince him of your sincerity, and worth. He’s a kind man, but practical. He has to be.”
“All right,” Cale said. “That’s fair. But it’s not as though we’ve got much of a choice in the matter. If he won’t help, this was a wasted trip.”
“And as a result, Dunsmith will probably be wasted,” Ryan added. He hadn’t intended it to be funny, but Terra still giggled at the pun.
“Not if I have anything to say on the matter,” Nalya said. “Don’t fret. I will do whatever is within my power to convince him of your worthiness.” She looked now to the ferry, which was almost across the river. “And if by some chance the King refuses assistance, there are other options I can call upon.”
“Other options?” Cale asked. He looked at Nalya suspiciously. “What other options?”
Nalya shook her head. “I’d rather not say right now,” she said. “Only know that I have every faith in our King to do what is right.” She motioned to the ferry as it approached the dock. The ferryman was slowing down now, to verify that Nalya was who she claimed to be. “Come,” she said. “We cross into Halen today.”
Within a few minutes, Nalya had struck a bargain with the ferryman, who had docked and allowed the people and their strange devices aboard his ship. He frowned at the noisy vehicles, not quite knowing what to think of them, but kept his mouth shut. A gold piece was a gold piece, and customers treated well were customers that would return. Finally, when they were all aboard and pushed off from the shore of the Disputed Lands, Terra and Quick looked back.
“That’s it, Quick,” she said. “Out of the Disputed Lands.” She looked down at the Tyl. “Have you ever been so far from home?”
Quick shook his head vigorously.
“Me neither,” Terra said. She sighed and looked back to the retreating riverbank. “Me neither…”