By the time Boomer had arrived at the horseshoe pitch near the beach, he could see that Boone, Andy and Keltz had already arrived. A number of soldiers lingered around, watching Boone and Andy as they explained how to play horseshoes. It was a simple enough affair, just get the horseshoe on the peg. He could hear the chatter and laughter as he drew nearer, and to his surprise, he noticed that he knew one of the soldiers. Quite well, in fact, seeing as they’d worked together at the Gas ‘n Dash for three years. Justin Alverra gave him a wave, and then went on to throw his horseshoe, missing the peg entirely, receiving jeers from the Halish soldiers.
“You’re late,” Andy commented.
Boomer checked his watch. He was indeed late, but only by five minutes.
“Sorry,” Boomer apologized. “The traffic was horrible.”
Andy gave a slight chuckle, then shook his head. “No matter, we’re all here now. Might as well get started.”
The group lingered around the old horseshoe pitch. It used to be a major feature of the park, back in the days before the Internet and cable television, but had fallen into disuse, and the area was marked for rezoning years before the Blacklight occurred. In recent days, however, it had seen more use as people once again started to venture out from their homes, bored from the lack of the Six O’clock News, and access to Google cut off. Boomer had heard rumors that a few people had started setting up a town-wide computer network to act as a sort of rudimentary Internet, but it would be a far cry from the real thing.
The park was fairly empty that afternoon, and for a moment, Boomer thought that they were the only ones there, but he could see a few couples walking their dogs a little further down the park.
“I trust you know Justin here,” Andy said, pointing at the young man. Boomer nodded, then looked to the other four soldiers lingering around. “This is Dramon, Teslan, Grear and Jori,” he continued. “These five are going to be our bandits.”
“Good to know you,” Teslan said, putting his hand out. Boomer shook it, and introduced himself.
Dramon looked to Andy with a questioning look. “I thought his name was Cecil.”
Boomer rolled his eyes. “That’s my birth name,” he said. “I prefer to go by Boomer.” He then shot Andy a disapproving look.
“Hey,” Andy said. “The name on your file says Cecil, that’s what I went by.”
“I have a file?” Boomer asked. He looked at Boone. “Why do I have a file?”
“Why do you think, Secret Agent Man?” Boone asked. “I pulled your file from when we picked you up that time you beat the living hell out of Joe Mackey.”
“That crackhead deserved everything I did to him,” Boomer said. “Fucker tried to make off with my laptop.”
“Hey, hey. I’m not judging,” Boone said. “But Joe Mackey’s not a small guy. Most people are afraid of him, but you stepped right up and gave him what he deserved.”
“He’s a crackhead,” Boomer said.
“Technically not anymore,” Andy said. “Harriet’s been clean since the Blacklight, but she tried to relapse last night– only thing is, there’s no steady supply of cocaine, and thus, no crack.”
Boone chuckled. “Hell, Goddamn blacklight doing my job for me. Better than I ever did.”
Boomer shrugged. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Well, we have a number of options right now– we’ve located where their scout camp is– Sam Whittaker’s a crazy bitch, you know that? She snuck right up on them last night and installed one of the wireless cameras in the trees right under their damned noses. We’ve been watching them since early this morning,” Andy said. “There’s about a dozen of them, not many. We’re going to wait until they receive some reinforcements before we green light this operation, but you all need to be briefed, make sure all your stories match up.”
Keltz nodded. “Undoubtedly,” he said. “Most of these men were chosen due to their experience in the Disputed Lands. They’ve encountered bandits on the fringes, know their mannerisms.” He looked to Justin. “And you should know these mannerisms as well.”
“Not to mention learn how to use a sword properly,” Dramon said. “I’ve seen better swordplay by a woman with a broom swatting at a Tyl.”
Justin frowned. “Hey, sorry for not being raised in Middle Earth,” he said. “Asshole.”
Dramon laughed and slapped Justin on the back. “No worries, boy,” he said. “For a beginner, you’re doing just fine.”
“As long as we don’t let him do any fighting, we might stand a chance at survival,” Jori quipped, receiving a round of laughter from the others.
“No matter,” Keltz said. “You four should spend as much time with Justin as you can; get to know each other, anticipate each other’s movements. You’ll need to be convincing for this to work.”
“What about me?” Boomer asked.
“Oh, we’ve got other plans for you,” Andy said. “All you really need to relate is how and why you got captured; all these guys know is that they found you wandering around somewhere to the west of here, outside the boundary of Stone’s Mouth, you can use your own backstory. All you really need to do is bargain for your freedom and offer information to Ryde.”
“What kind of information?”
“The usual stuff. Military capabilities, that kind of thing. When it comes to that, all you really need to do is downplay it. Make it seem like we’re less capable of defending ourselves than we really are. We may be able to goad him into a smaller-scale attack that would only serve to weaken his forces in the end.”
“And Halen’s involvement?”
“Not a word,” Boone said. “They’re our trump card. The second they find out we don’t have any swords, they’ll be thinking this place easy pickings, I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they march into town and start getting picked off by sharpshooters.”
Boomer raised an eyebrow. “Sharpshooters?”
“The Sportsman’s Club went up to the High School last night– all forty of them, drunk as skunks and carrying around those rifles. Offered their guns to the cause, as long as they’re the ones pulling the trigger. Syrel almost turned the old bastards away, but once he saw one of them take out a tin can at a hundred paces, he reconsidered.”
“Naturally,” Boomer said.
“Anyway, no matter,” Andy said. “We’ve got more important things to discuss, I’d like you to come down to the trailer park tonight, after the society meeting. And bring Lily and that Arie girl. Tam too, since as I understand it he can’t be too far away from his sister without turning into a pile of dirt,” he said to Boomer.
Boomer raised an eyebrow. “Why them?” he asked.
“Do I need to spell it out for you? Magick, kid!” Andy exclaimed. “The point is, those two are the strongest magii we have right now, and we’re going to need them. Especially with what’s coming.” He leveled his gaze at Boomer. “Get me?”
When the ferry arrived on the other side of the Cantus, the quads were pushed silently off onto the dock. Nalya didn’t feel comfortable roaring up the engines right away; it was liable to spook more than a few townspeople.
It wasn’t as if they weren’t already spooked. They saw Nalya wearing the Halish colors, the mark displayed proudly on her shoulders, and dismissed her, as well as Bayne. But the sight of the three strangers bringing with them a Tyl raised more than a few eyebrows. Especially when one took into consideration the quads that they were pushing towards the town center, strange mechanisms with large rubber wheels. Something nobody in Ansem, or anywhere else in the Pactlands had ever seen before.
Children played in the streets and adults went about their daily business in the small assortment of indoor and outdoors shops that lined the avenues of Ansem. Most of which were purposely ignoring the travelers. After all, what business was it of theirs?
Still, Terra was getting looks from many people, some of whom she actually noticed. They all looked away when she stared back. She imagined it was because of her hair. So far she hadn’t seen anyone else in the Pactlands with anything other than a natural color of hair. She caught people leaning in close to each other, pointing, from her peripheral vision. She didn’t care. It wasn’t as if the same thing didn’t happen back on Earth. The only difference here was that the people had probably never seen anything of the sort.
“We’ll grab a meal here,” Nalya said. “Take some time to rest. If we leave within the hour, we should reach Arronay by nightfall.”
“No more tents?” Terra asked. She liked camping as much as the next person, but a real bed was far more preferable to her than a sleeping bag.
“No more tents,” Nalya answered. “We’ll sleep at Inns between here and Cilasia, and once in Cilasia, you will be provided with rooms at the House of Roses. It belongs to my family, you’ll be well cared for there.”
“Sounds great,” Ryan said. “So what do people around here eat?”
“Fish, mostly. Some wild game, some livestock. There are some croplands just to the north of us here, it supplies food for the people of Ansem,” Nalya said. She motioned over towards a small tavern nearby. “That’s the Lanternlighter’s Tavern. A good a place as any.” She reached into her pack and pulled out three gold coins, and gave one each to Cale, Terra and Ryan. “That should be more than enough. Go on inside, order your food. Bayne and I will be in shortly.”
Ryan was the first one to reach the inside of the Lanternlighter’s Tavern. It was a dark place, lit mainly by a series of lanterns hanging from various spots in the ceiling. It was hardly electric light like they were used to, but as least you could see, and the place was kept fairly clean, at least by Dunsmith standards. The wooden planks on the floor were clear of dust, but the tables and chairs seemed a little rickety and worn down.
He wondered for a brief moment how exactly he was to go about ordering his meal, or if there were even menus in this place– he doubted it, but he saw a young woman dressed in what could only be described as a barmaid’s getup, with a low-cut neckline that proudly displayed her cleavage. It was obvious that she was their waitress. She motioned for them to sit while she scurried around, bringing the various patrons their orders.
Nalya had warned them that most people in Halen thought of Tyl as pests, and were about as likely to try and kill Quick as soon as he was spotted, so Terra had him hide out in her backpack. She would pass food in to him while he sat in comfort, wrapped in Terra’s clothes. She, Cale and Ryan took a seat at the nearest table that had five chairs. Before long, the barmaid whisked over to them.
“Hello there,” she squeaked without really looking up at them. “Welcome to the Lanternlighter’s! What can we serve you today?”
Ryan and Cale looked at each other. The same thought seemed to on both of their minds, but Ryan was the first to speak. “Well… What do you have?”
“Oh, we have plenty, we do,” she said, then trailed off as she noticed the color of Terra’s hair. Her jaw dropped open. “Your hair,” she said.
“It’s dyed,” Terra explained. “It’s not a natural color. Don’t worry.”
But that didn’t change her opinion of the newcomers in the least. Instead, she then moved on to notice the clothes they wore, even right down to the sunglasses hanging on tightly to Cale’s forehead.
“Would you mind..?” she began. “Where are you folks from?”
“Dunsmith,” Ryan replied. “We’re… new here, in the Pactlands. Our town lies to the south of here, in the Disputed Lands.”
“Disputed Lands?” she asked. “You couldn’t be Freemen, could you?”
Cale shook his head. “We’re Canadians,” he said. “We’re not originally from the Pactlands. We’re not quite sure how we got here, but there’s about eight thousand of us down the coast. We’re here to speak with the King.”
“The King?” the barmaid almost laughed. “Good luck with that,” she said. “Nobody sees the King during Summer’s Veil, he’s much too busy. You’d need a good–” she trailed off again as she saw Nalya and Bayne walk through the door. “Bless me,” she said. “Lady Nalya!” She bounded over to Nalya and Bayne.
“Rynn, it’s good to see you,” Nalya said, and embraced the girl in a hug. Rynn jumped up and down excitedly.
“I hadn’t expected you back so soon, Lady!” Rynn exclaimed. “What happened? Where is Keltz? The rest of your men? Was it Vector?”
Nalya shook her head. “No, they’re fine. They’re camping to the south of us, in a place called Dunsmith,” she explained. Rynn looked over her shoulder at the three newcomers.
“Those three?” she asked quietly. “They speak absurdly, Lady. They say they’re not from the Pactlands.”
“I know,” Nalya said, and smiled at Rynn. “That’s because they’re not.”
Rynn seemed taken aback. “Then… where? Beyond the Soundless Path?”
Nalya shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, Rynn. They’re from a place called Earth, and they’re good, kind people who need our help.”
Rynn looked Nalya in the eye for a moment longer, and then looked back. “Well then,” she said. “Any friend of the Lady’s is welcome here.” With that, her attitude changed entirely, and she went back to taking their orders.
After it had been explained properly, Ryan ordered a plate of steak and a mashed sort of vegetable– it tasted very much like potatoes, except it was green-skinned and almost orange on the inside. Terra opted for the basic ham and eggs, while Cale ordered a chicken leg the size of which he’d never imagined, with a side of bread.
As the group tore into their meal, Rynn took it upon herself to bring an extra chair and sit with the group. “I apologize for my behavior,” she announced to the group. “It’s not every day we get strangers such as yourselves here. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever had strangers such as yourselves here.”
“No worries,” Ryan said after swallowing a heaping spoonful of mashed green-and-orange thing. “If you couldn’t tell, this place is pretty strange to us, too. There’s no magick where we come from, not to mention that fact that people in our world haven’t lived this way in hundreds of years.”
Rynn cocked her head to one side. “What do you mean?”
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “We have all sorts of things. Modern technology and whatnot. There’s nothing like it here.” He reached into his bag and pulled out his camera.
“What’s that?” Rynn asked.
“It’s a camera,” he said, turning it on. “It… well, it takes pictures. It copies whatever it sees and– here, I’ll show you.” He pointed the camera at Rynn, and then snapped a shot, causing several of the patrons to look over in alarm as the flash lit up the tavern. Even Rynn herself seemed shocked at the sudden light. When Ryan showed her the result of the picture, and Rynn saw herself on the display, her eyes shot open in shock.
“It’s me!” she said, then took the camera from Ryan’s hands. “It’s an image of me! This is better than any painting I’ve ever seen! How does it work?”
“Well,” Ryan began. “It’s a little complicated. I’m not sure I even know how the whole thing works, only that it does. I’ve taken a bunch of pictures since we left. Here, look,” he took the camera from her and scrolled through the pictures to the last few he took before he left town, and showed her. “This is Dunsmith,” he said.
Rynn marveled at the device, and laughed as the pictures scrolled across the display. She sat and spoke with them throughout their meal, constantly ready with a new question once one had been answered satisfactorily. She had even asked where she might find a device such as Ryan’s camera, and how much it would cost. She seemed disappointed to find out that the chances of cameras like the one he had being available to anyone for purchase, at any time until they could get back to Earth was fairly unreasonable. And even then, they needed batteries, which brought up a whole slew of new questions. But eventually the meal drew to a close, and the group paid for their meals.
“You must make sure you come back to see me again,” Rynn told them. “I’ve had the most wonderful time hearing of this place. I think I should like to see it sometime.”
“Just go south along the coast,” Ryan said. “You can’t miss it, but I’d be careful. The Disputed Lands isn’t exactly the friendliest of places.”
Rynn gave an honest nod, and then accepted their coin to pay for their meals. She even walked them to the door, where the quads were parked outside.
“It won’t take long now,” Nalya said once they were out of earshot. She tended to her quad, sitting on it and starting the engine.
“What won’t take long?” Terra asked.
“For word to spread,” she said. “I half expect word to reach Cilasia before we do. Rynn is the queen of gossip here in Ansem. Before long, she’ll have you at eight feet tall, able to capture and confine actual people to your camera.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said. “You could have warned me first.”
Nalya looked back at him. “I could have, but then you wouldn’t have said anything, and that just won’t do.”
“Wait. What?” Terra asked.
“You mean you want that to happen?” Ryan asked.
Nalya nodded. “The more people in Halen that are aware of Dunsmith, the better your chances of survival. Especially with the wonders you have– you’ll attract people from all across the Pactlands, I imagine.” She revved up her engine, causing a brief stir as people from all around jumped as a result of the load roar. “It’s simple, the more support you have, the better chances you have for survival in these lands.”
With that, Nalya backed up and started to accelerate down the street. People were trying their best to avoid the strange sight of the train of quads as they roared out of sight beyond Ansem, on their way to Arronay.
Arie stepped off of the bright yellow school bus and quickly put her head between her knees as she leaned back against the side. She had turned a sickly shade of green about halfway down the highway, and the yelling and singing of the Halish soldiers didn’t do much to help her state. Lily was the next to exit, and she put a hand on her shoulder.
“You okay?” she inquired.
Arie nodded. “I’m just not used to that,” she said. Sure enough, several of the soldiers were in much the same state, unused to riding in the long vehicles. Ever since the Dunsmith Department of Defense had set up the defense plan for the southern border of town, they’d been moving soldiers back and forth up the highway. Most were setting up a small camp in a clearing just to the north of Kamper’s Korner, and even the locals were starting to get used to seeing the strange armored men patrolling back and forth along the borderlines. They were instructed, quite simply, to capture or kill any Vectoran they may come across, and prevent them from reporting anything back to their superiors. So far, none of the Vectorans had ventured any farther than their camp, which, unbeknownst to them, was now under twenty-four hour surveillance.
Andy walked out of his trailer and approached the girls. Boomer had come out last, trailing the soldiers as they exited the bus.
“Sorry about the ride,” Andy said. “It’s a little shaky, but you get used to it.”
Arie shook her head. “I don’t see how. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this ill.”
“Wait until next week,” Andy said, then grinned.
Arie didn’t know what he meant, but she didn’t like the sound of it.
“Okay,” Tam said. “Well, we’re here. Now what?”
“Not just yet,” Andy said. “First of all, I’ve got a few questions.” He waited until Arie was well enough to walk again, and then led the group over to his trailer. The grow op had been moved out, replaced by surveillance monitors scavenged from around the town, each monitor displaying a different section of forest. Boomer could see on the monitor that the Vectoran soldiers were camped out under on one, in another he saw the T-Rex stalking around. He wasn’t sure, but it looked like the same one he’d seen on their first day. He pointed it out quickly.
“Don’t you worry about him,” Andy said. “He’s just a big pussy. Sam was out there installing cameras when he came out, almost on top of her. She yelled, and the thing ran off faster than you’d think it’d be able to move.” He pulled out a couple of chairs and took a seat at a table, then invited the others to sit.
“What I’m about to talk to you about has to be kept between us,” he said. “Military secrecy and all that.” He waved his hands in dismissal. “But we have a plan, but we’ll need your help.” He looked to the girls.
“Our help? With what?”
“First of all,” he looked to Arie. “What’s the normal range on magick? How far away from you does it work?”
“It depends on the magi, I suppose,” Arie said. “I should say no more than a hundred paces or so.”
“What about aerial?”
“Pardon?” Arie asked.
“I mean straight up. If you were to shoot your little magick stones into the air, how far up would it go?”
Arie seemed confused by the question. Why would anyone want to discharge their gift straight up into the air? Still, the answer was easy. “Gravity would hold it back,” she said. “I’d say no more than fifty– maybe seventy-five paces.”
“Shit, you’re not going to do what I think you’re going to do, are you?” Boomer asked.
Andy looked back at him and smiled slyly. “You just don’t worry about it,” he said. “You’ve got your own issues to worry about.” He looked over to Lily and Arie. “Now, girls. You two are the most powerful magii we have just yet. That Walsh boy’s pretty good too, but he’s a bit of a wildcard. We’re running an operation next week, when the main Vectoran force hits here, and I need to know if you’re in or not.”
“An operation? What kind of operation?” Lily asked.
Andy smiled again, then leaned in close. “A rescue operation,” he said, then looked over to Boomer. “For him.”
“Hold on,” Boomer objected. “You never said anything about–”
Andy held his hands up in front of his face. “Hold on there, kiddo. How did you think we were going to get you back?”
Boomer was about to object again, but Arie beat him to the chase. “I’ll do it,” she said.
“What?” Tam exclaimed. “Arie, we don’t even know what–” but he stopped as he saw the severe look she gave him.
“Wait, I don’t get it. How are we going to rescue him?” Lily asked. “Two magii against an entire force of Vectorans? We’d be harshly outnumbered.”
“True,” Andy said. “That’s precisely why it should be only the two of you. I don’t have all the details in yet, but we’ve got a plan that should get you all out of there in one piece, and in order for that plan to work, I need our two strongest magii.” He stood up, then walked over to a small chest at the corner of the room. “I’ve got to show you something.” He reached inside the chest and pulled out a small box, and took out one of the items hidden within.
“Holy shit,” Boomer said. “A grenade? Where’d you get that?”
“Around,” Andy said. “We’ve got some other goodies, too. The idea is to clear an area wide enough for a chopper to–”
“A chopper? You’re going to fly us in?” Lily asked.
Arie’s eyes went wide. “Fly? What do you mean fly?”
“By helicopter. They’re… like vehicles that fly in the air. Really high up.”
“You have such things?” Arie asked. She seemed awed.
Andy nodded. “We’ve got a few of them, actually. Mostly logging choppers, one of the Island News choppers. But not to worry, we’re planning this out very carefully. Death from the sky, and all that.”
“But there’s no earth in the sky,” Arie said. “I can’t just manifest it, I need to have a source in order for my magick to work.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll take care of that. Look, there’s no guarantee of a sure victory, but it sure helps us out on our end,” he said. “We’re keeping the choppers and airplanes grounded for now– no sense in playing our hand too early, right? I mean, you’ve been living in town for a few days now, and even you had no idea we could fly.”
“Does Keltz know?” Lily asked.
“You know,” Boomer said, shaking his head back and forth. “In another time and place, I’d be calling us all buffoons. But I think this idea might just be crazy enough to work.”
Andy smiled. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
The music was sweet, gentle. It flowed like water and consumed all of Ajjiro’s attention. He closed his eyes and let it become a part of him. Each movement, each note carefully crafted by some of Nostra’s finest composers. It moved him, inspired him. If, in that moment, Ajjiro had been asked what the music was to him, he would have replied that it was a part of him.
Suddenly, there was a disturbing break in the music. The pitch had been off on the last note, and Ajjiro’s eyes shot open. The lute player must have noticed it too, because he stopped playing.
“Fool,” Ajjiro said. “I thought you said you could play it!”
“I did, Sire. I did say that, but it’s a difficult piece, and my fingers cramp–”
“I’ll have no excuses,” Ajjiro said calmly. “You’ve ruined my mood tonight. Be gone from here.”
The player nodded and briskly left Ajjiro’s room. Ajjiro sighed. It was so hard to find a good musician. Most were pretentious buffoons, others still inept wishers. He would have to find another musician. This one had no skill. But still, Ajjiro thought himself a fair man, and would give the boy one more chance. If he failed again, he would put him out with the slaves.
A knock came to his door. “Enter,” he called.
“Sire?” came the reply.
Ajjiro looked up from his book. “What is it?”
“One of our western patrols has returned. They have a man with them that claims to be here on a mission from a representative of the High Magus Council. He’s a Geomagi, sire, and he requests an audience with you.”
“The Council?” Ajjiro asked. He sighed. “Very well, send him in.”
He nodded, and then backed out of the room. Moments later, a tall, thin man wearing thick purple robes. On his chest, he bore the mark of the Geomagi, and wore a yellow collar with the mark of Shavi on it. His dark hair was tied back in much the same fashion as Ryde’s, but he lacked facial hair.
“Lord General Ryde,” the man said, then bowed. “My name is Phearon Tome, I bring you greetings from the High Magus Council.”
“I accept them,” Ajjiro replied. “May I ask what business the Council has in the Disputed Lands, Phearon Tome?”
“Nothing that would interfere with your task, my Lord,” he said. “I come with a task of my own. But I would ask a favor on behalf of the council.”
“A favor?” Ajjiro asked. Of course. Nothing ever came cheap when it came to the High Magus Council. “Out with it, then,” he said, then turned back to his book.
“I have been charged with the task of recovery,” he said.
“Recovery? Of whom?”
“A girl,” he said. “A Geomagi from Shavi. She is a criminal, I’m afraid. She travels with an Elemental.”
“She has an Elemental?” Ajjiro asked. “And she’s but a girl? I was under the impression that magi couldn’t create elementals until they’ve been masters of their art for decades.”
“This girl is a special case,” Phearon explained. “The Elemental she travels with is her brother. I trained her myself, I’m afraid.”
Ajjiro raised his eyebrow.
“You understand how delicate of a situation this is, do you not?” Phearon inquired.
Ajjiro nodded. “I understand. Don’t worry,” he said. “Should any of my men come across this girl and her elemental, I’ll ensure they destroy the thing.”
“The High Magus Council would be thankful for that. But there are conditions.”
“What conditions?” Ajjiro asked.
“The girl. She must not be harmed. Not a hair on her head.”
“Not be harmed?” Ajjiro laughed. “I could say she won’t be killed; but my men, they are a lustful lot.” He leaned in close. “And who am I to deny them pleasures of the flesh from time to time?”
Phearon leaned in close as well. “Under normal circumstances that would be acceptable, but unfortunately the Council will not allow it. You see, there is something to the girl’s blood–”
“Blood? What are you talking about?”
“It is a complicated matter, truly, Lord General. But the girl is not just any mere girl.”
“Out with it, then,” Ajjiro said.
Phearon sighed. “I trust this shall remain between us?”
“Fine, fine,” Ajjiro said. “Just tell me.”
“Very well.” He leaned in closely and spoke into Ryde’s ear. Ryde’s eyes widened as he heard the words. He reeled back.
“You’re certain?” Ryde asked.
Phearon nodded slowly. “Yes, Sire.”
Ajjiro nodded. “You can tell the council they have my word, then. If we find the girl, she will not be harmed.”