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Chapter Twenty: The Cloudstalker Exile

The sight of people celebrating was common during Summer’s Veil, but Astara had not taken part in any celebrations. Not this year. Not in Arronay. She seemed to recall taking part in Summer’s Veil celebrations with her mother during her childhood back in Alahann, in Western Halen. But since the age of fourteen, she found no point to them. Why waste time celebrating a time of year that would only come around again when money could be made?

Astara’s first love had been money. Her first and only. Who cared what time of year it was? The sun could be blistering, and with money you could be cool. The winter harsh and biting, but with money, you were warm. Lonely? Money could solve that. Bored? Well, it didn’t need to be Summer’s Veil in order to celebrate.

Which is why Astara now found herself trailing the three men. She had tried to track the Ruus woman and the blood-haired girl, but they had gone into the Prophet’s Hall, and Astara wasn’t willing to take a risk of being found there. They’d likely behead her and drop her body into the sea, for the fish to strip her bones of flesh.

So, instead, she backtracked and found the men. They spent some time looking at the animals in the menagerie, and disappeared  into an Illuminator’s tent for a brief period. There had only been one entrance, so Astara took a place on a high bridge overlooking the menagerie and waited. She was dressed casually in local fashions– she had to. Her favored fashions included a series of tight-fitting articles, usually black in color that allowed for unencumbered movement, ringed by a belt full of throwing knives and jagged metal stars. In broad daylight, however, that sort of dress tended to attract the wrong sort of attention.

But at night, when she could slip unseen into alleyways and leap from rooftop to rooftop unseen, her favored fashions were indispensable. Still, even dressed like a local trollop, she was never separated from her weapons. They were hitched under her long skirt, accessible simply by kneeling down to fix a garter.

She thought back to her meeting the night before with Dueck and frowned. She didn’t like the man in the least. He was brash, rude, a wanton lech and smelled unwashed most of the time, but his money was good. And if there was anything Astara appreciated, it was money. Ever since she had been banished by the Enclave, it was the only thing that was ever there for her.

Astara was born an Indetae. Her family had served the Cloudstalker Enclave faithfully for generations. Her mother, her father, and even their parents before them were heroes of the Enclave. They served faithfully from the womb to the tomb.

But not Astara. She was too different. Too difficult. Too violent, too emotional. She had no self-control. She couldn’t be trusted. From an early age, she showed gift and promise, besting all the other Enclave Warriors her own age. She had never been cowed, never been pinned. She wouldn’t allow it. She used everything in her power to win.

And that’s why the Enclave had banished her. They had banished her to punish her for the perfect execution of the gifts she had inherited. She had been put up against a girl her own age– Henna, her cousin. A gifted and skilled fighter from the Zoar Enclave in Rasza. The battle had been bloody, but neither girl would give in.

So Astara made the choice for the other girl. She shoved a blade under her ribs.

It was the girl’s own damned fault. Astara never felt guilty about it. Not for one moment. She would have lived if she’d had the better sense to acknowledge Astara as her better when she’d been given the chance.

The Enclave was furious. The Elders met, and passed their pathetic judgment. Astara was not one of the Enclave. Astara Indetae was without honor. Astara Indetae’s name would be stricken from the Enclave, banished from every hall, estate or organization tied to the Enclave. She would be removed, and if seen transgressing, killed by way of poison dart.

Not for one moment did Astara doubt their seriousness. From that day forward, every time she had caught sight of the silver cloud that represented the Cloudstalkers, she would turn the other way.

There was a limit to Astara’s need for money, and no amount was worth her ability to take air, drink, and know the touch of another person.

Finally, the three men with the Tyl left the Illuminator’s tent. Astara started strolling along, looking to all the world like a girl just enjoying her time in the warm Summer’s sun.

She watched them as they conferred outside the tent, and then started to leave the park. Astara followed them with her eyes. The direction they were headed told her one thing– they were going back to the King’s Consul.

Early that morning, Astara had made her way into the stables attached to the King’s Consul. The word that had passed through Arronay that night about the strange newcomers and their noisy horseless wagons brought up quite a stir around the city. Some said they heard the daemons inside the contraptions roaring for release– others claimed a form of pyromagick made the machines work. Others still wanted nothing to do with them.

While Astara examined their equipment that morning, careful not to awaken the slumbering stableboy, she could not find the machine’s source of power. She spent almost forty minutes poring over the machines, trying desperately to come up with an answer as to how they worked. The closest she came was when she learned that a little piece of metal would twist off near the saddle of the machine, revealing a dark tank full of foul-smelling muck. She replaced the cap quickly, tightening it so as not to allude that someone had been poking around. A bit later, she found a strange gourd made of some hard material sitting on a trailer with the same rubber wheels the contraptions had. It wasn’t hard like metal, but solid, and lightweight. Even though it had been full of the same foul-smelling muck that was inside the machine, she hefted it up easily.

It didn’t take long to figure out the purpose of the muck. The machines obviously drank it, and it provided it with just the right magick in order to propel it forwards, roaring loudly for all the world to hear. Astara couldn’t place it, but she knew that somehow this liquid was valuable. She opened the top of the strange red gourd made of the unnameable material, pulled a small glass phial from her pocket, and filled it, spilling the strange liquid over her hands and on the ground. The smell was suddenly everywhere, and no amount of hand-washing since then had gotten the smell out of Astara’s skin. She had left soon afterwards, making no sound and rousing no sleepers.

But still, she had a phial of whatever the strange liquid was– and she would find out what it was, once they arrived in Cilasia. She knew of a young alchemist there, one who’d shared many a cold night warming Astara. True, it had been years since they’d last met and he was unlikely to be happy to see her, considering the circumstances of her departure. Astara smiled crookedly when she thought of Arynn Shima. The nights they’d shared, the firmness of his touch, and the way he’d always tense up when Astara was around.

Astara had had many lovers since she was banished from the Enclave, some experienced, some not so much. But she had always thought of Arynn fondly. One of the few people she’d never kill, no matter how much she was offered.

But she’d never tell Arynn that. The truth was, she liked it when he would get all wound up whenever she was around. Confused, distracted. Astara found it cute and endearing, but when she would dance for him, all signs of reluctance would evaporate, and he would devote himself entirely to her for their brief interlude.

Astara corrected her train of thought. There was little sense in reminiscing about such things when she had a job to do. The three men had turned the corner to the King’s Consul, and waiting there already were the Ruus woman and the blood-haired girl. Obviously their business at the Prophet’s Hall was finished, whatever it had been. Astara wasn’t sure what it was; but she’d find out.

As it stood, all she knew of these strange newcomers was what she had heard from passersby and gossipers. Outlanders, they were. From a new city, down in the Disputed Lands. One man she had spoken to had asserted that they were from another world altogether. Astara was certain that wasn’t the case, but if their strange style of dress was any indication, she was sure they didn’t hail from anywhere within the Pactlands. She was willing to entertain the notion that they were from beyond the Soundless Path, no matter how absurd the notion was. Especially taking into consideration their roaring thunder-carriages, foul-smelling brews and solid lightweight containers.

No, something was different about these newcomers. In the way they stood. In the way they spoke, the few times she had been close enough to overhear snippets of conversation. In the way they pointed their strange small gray box at things, and then put it away after it lit up a darkened area, a satisfied smile on their faces.

Astara didn’t know who they really were, what they were really up to. She didn’t know what their plans were, or where they truly hailed from.

But Astara was good at her job, and she would find out.

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“All right, are you ready?” Boomer asked.

Lily nodded her head, the sweat beading on her forehead rolling down her cheeks. “I’m ready,” she said.

“Arie?” Boomer asked.

Arie nodded. She was in as much the same shape as Lily was.

“Okay,” Boomer said, then stepped out from between the two. “Go!”

lily_by_dexmaq           Lily opened with a short volley of small bolts of electricity, and sent it streaming towards Arie, who leaped out of the way and conjured a large shield of rock to spring forth from the ground, effectively blocking her spell. She forced the ground around Lily to roll and shake, throwing her off balance, causing her next volley to go wild, dissipating in the air somewhere over Arie’s head. Lily barely had time to deflect the large stone that was careening towards her head, shocking it with a strong volt of electricity and shattering it into pieces.

Arie got to her feet again, and summoned forth a number of small stones from the earth, each hovering around her as she readied herself for Lily’s next attack. Lily shot three of them out of the air and moved in.

“No, no. What are you doing?” Boomer asked, but it was too late. Lily placed her hands on Arie’s stomach, and let her power loose, a controlled release that merely caused Arie to yell out in shock, but her retaliation was swift. The first stone came out of nowhere, striking Lily hard in the back, causing her to twist around in shock. The second stone struck her in the chin, throwing her to the ground and knocking the sense out of her. Arie hit the ground soon after.

“You can’t just run in like that,” Boomer said, admonishing Lily as she lay on the ground. “Your powers are only useful at a range, when you’re up close like that, you leave yourself open to all sorts of attacks.”

“It would have worked fine if we weren’t just sparring,” Lily said, rubbing her chin, now bloody from the impact.

Arie nodded. “That hit me pretty hard,” she said. “A little more power and she could have knocked me right out.”

“But instead you gave her a bloody chin,” Boomer said. “It’s too risky. What if there were more than one magi you were up against?” He sighed. Ever since Andy and Boone had suggested the two girls focus more on Warmagick, he had taken it upon himself to assist in their training. He just didn’t know they’d have such a hard time listening, especially Lily. He waved his hands in the air. “Okay,” he said. “I think you’ve sparred enough for today.”

“I can keep going,” Lily objected.

“I’m sure you could,” he said. “But right now, you need to see Marie and get that chin healed up.” He looked over to Arie. “What about you? Are you okay?”

“Nothing that would require a Healer,” she said. “I’m a little tender where she got me in the stomach, but I’ll be fine.”

“Well, you two did good for today,” he said. He looked over to Lily. “You’ve got to learn not to be so overzealous. Take your time, use some strategy, and for God’s sake, don’t let your emotions get the better of you.”

“What about me?” Arie asked.

“You’ve been using your powers a lot longer– but you need to still need to direct where you send your attacks. They’re too wild. At least Lily was aiming, but you were all over the place. That’s how mishaps happen,” Boomer explained.

Arie nodded and looked to the ground. Lily perked up at hearing the praise. They’d been sparring for a little under a half-hour, and each of them had the marks to prove it. Even Boomer had joined in for one of the battles, to show them the spots they should be aiming for if nothing else, but he soon found himself outmatched by flying rocks and volts of electricity. He quickly identified the two girl’s strengths. While Lily was quick and accurate with her attacks, Arie was strong and clever. Apart, the two were an even match, even taking Arie’s experience into consideration.

Together, they’d be a force to be reckoned with. But before they could learn to fight together, they had to learn to fight separately. Boomer checked his watch. It was quickly approaching noon. He walked up to Lily and looked at her chin.

“It’s not deep,” he said. “But I’d still go see Marie.” He motioned further down the beach at the wheelchair-bound deaf woman, who was laughing quite joyously at a group of locals who were attempting to teach some of the Halish soldiers how to play volleyball. Lily nodded and stalked off, and then Boomer turned back to the girls’ battlefield.

“Arie, you want to fix this up?” he asked. “We don’t want any complaints coming from Parks and Recreation.” He nodded toward the chaos and earth that had been strewn about willy-nilly.

Arie nodded and closed her eyes. Within a few moments, all the holes had been filled in, rocks shoved back under the ground, and the layer of thin grass put back in place. It looked good as new. There wasn’t a single sign that anything untoward had happened there. Picture perfect.

“She’s taken to the magick quickly,” Arie said, gesturing towards Lily, who was talking to Marie in what little sign language she had managed to pick up, which, of course were simply the letters of her name, please, and thank you. Boomer honestly hadn’t even expected her to learn that much, but she had warmed up to the perpetually happy deaf woman quickly, and had even bought a book on sign language from the bookstore. It had been the only one available. That was good. Boomer would most likely be leaving within the next few days, and being the only one capable of accurately communicating with the woman would definitely pose an issue or two.

After a moment, Lily had her chin healed and thanked Marie, then turned back towards Boomer and Arie. Boomer watched her approach. The corners of his lips started to curl upwards as she got closer. When she arrived, she gave Boomer a strange look.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

Boomer gave a wide smiled. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Do I even want to know?” Lily asked.

“Well, you’re battling against each other here, right?” he asked.

Arie and Lily both nodded slowly.

“But when the time comes, you’re going to be working together. Hell, when the time comes, we’re all going to have to work together,” he said.

“What are you getting at?”

“You two agreed to battle because we have a Healer,” he said, motioning towards Marie. “Well, the truth is we’ve got four of them. So far. And a number of other magii who are almost battle ready, so–”

“No,” Lily said. “Some of them are only kids!”

“Kids that control some of the most powerful forces known to man,” Boomer replied. “And when the time comes, they’re going to have to use that power to protect this town.”

“But that’s not–”

“You’d rather have them unprepared?” He folded his arms across his chest. “We need to make them battle-ready too.”

“It’s not like that, it’s just… what if they get hurt?”

“We’ve got healers,” Boomer said.

“No, what if they get hurt badly?” she said. “In a way that a healer can’t help with.”

Boomer looked at Arie. “How quickly did you learn to control the power you put into an attack?” he asked. “Back in Shavi?”

“Quickly,” she said. “Even before I was recruited into the academy, I knew the difference between a killing blow and one that merely wounds.”

Boomer looked back at Lily. “You can already tell the difference,” he said. “What makes you think the others aren’t just as capable?”

Lily only looked at Boomer in the eyes. “I’m not sure about this.”

“They need to be battle-ready,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, it’s the only thing that may keep them alive when push comes to shove.”

“He’s right, Lily,” Arie said. “They need to be prepared. The Vectoran Warmagii won’t take it easy on them.”

Lily thought about it for a moment, searching for some other argument, but in the end, she relented. Boomer was right, no matter how much she tried to deny it. “Fine,” was all she said. “What’s your idea?”

“Simple. Ever play Capture the Flag?” Boomer asked.

“What’s that?” Arie inquired.

“A wargame. Two teams duke it out and try and capture the other team’s flag. It’ll help build teamwork, skill, strategy and start preparing them for the battlefield.” He looked up to the sky for a moment. “Tomorrow should be a good day for it, weather permitting.” He didn’t expect anything but the steady sunshine they’d had for the past week since arriving in the Pactlands, but you could never really expect when the clouds would open up and pour rain down on them. After all, there was no Weather Network in the Pactlands. “We should bring it up at tonight’s meeting. See if anyone bites.”

“Like an extracurricular event?” Lily asked.

“Exactly,” Boomer replied. “Like an after-school club.”

Lily thought about it for a moment, then finally relented. She gave a nod. “All right,” she said. “Tomorrow afternoon. Where?”

“I’d say behind the town, up the creek trails,” he replied. “The woods offer a great battleground, plenty of places to hide, even launch surprise attacks. It’d be perfect. We’ll have two healers on each team, one stationary, one mobile.”

Lily thought about it some more. “All right,” she said. “I’ll bring it up.”

Boomer nodded. “Good,” he said. “Now that that’s out of the way, who wants some lunch?”

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“I tell you, whoever thought of this was a damn genius,” Andy said, clicking through the various camera feeds on Boone’s office computer.

“Believe it or not, it was Brad’s kid. Alex,” Boone replied. “Kid’s a genius with computers. Says he’ll have a fully-fledged world-wide web interface going by this time next week.”

“You mean town-wide web, don’t you?” Andy asked. When the cable truck had arrived at Kamper’s Korner that morning, announcing that he was installing a broadband connection to Andy’s trailer, he didn’t know what to make of it at first, considering he didn’t even have a computer. But a few hours later, the camera server had been set up, all the feeds routed through the computer and then sent through the makeshift computer network to Boone’s computer. Anyone connected to the network could scroll through the feeds, provided they had the right software.

“That damned T-Rex is still lurking around down there,” Andy said, watching the lumbering beast walk down a worn game trail. “At least he’s staying clear of the town.” He flipped the feed a few more times and settled on a full-screen feed of the Vectoran camp, then leaned back in his chair.

“Do you think they have any idea we’re watching them?” Andy asked.

Boone shrugged. “Doubt it,” he said. “Otherwise they probably would have done something about the camera by now, even if they didn’t know what it was. I’m surprised none of them have noticed it yet.”

Andy turned back to Boone and smirked. “Their ignorance is our victory,” he said.

“True enough,” Boone replied, then started going over a few pages he had received from his fax machine. He paused on one page, then placed it down in front of Andy. “What do you make of this?” he asked.

Andy looked over the page. It was a hand-scrawled paper faxed out that morning from the Maritime Society’s office, which Ansel Stephens had been using at a center of operations for the Dunsmith Navy. A handwritten report of several occurrences met at the hands of some of the sailors who had volunteered their time and their boats for the use of the Navy.

“I can’t read this chicken scratch,” Andy announced, passing the paper back to him. He never could read Ansel’s handwriting, but Ansel refused to use computers, or even a typewriter, citing that he could handwrite his reports a hell of a lot faster than he could type them.

“He says a couple of his boys almost capsized about seven clicks out by something big surfacing under the boat. Almost knocked them right over, but they never saw what did it.”

“A whale?” Andy offered.

“Normally I’d say sure, but in this place, who knows? Could be the damn Loch Ness Monster, or worse.”

“Well, it didn’t eat any of them,” he said. “So I wouldn’t sweat it right now. Why not ask that local guy? Devin?”

“He’s already got too many things on his plate. The committee’s working him to the bone. They’ve got him writing up a bestiary for the Disputed Lands, a list of medicines and herbs found locally, drawing maps of villages and areas of note within the Disputed Lands, and on top of all that, he’s trying to unlock the secret of gasoline in his spare time.”

“Is he having any luck with that?” Andy inquired.

Boone shrugged. “You ask me, it’s just not going to work. There’s too much machinery involved in refining oil back home, why would it be any different here? I suppose it’s still worth a shot, and they gave him all the access he wants to the chemistry lab at the high school. I hear he’s been spending all of his free time there. They even gave him a little laptop so that he could type his notes in. He loves that thing, he does. Treats it like a baby.”

Andy laughed. “He’s actually figured out how to use the thing?”

“Apparently he figured out how to load up the word processor. That’s about the extent of his abilities, but he’s an amazing artist. He drew up a picture of that T-Rex, spiketooth, whatever you want to call it. It was like looking at the real thing. Hell, even that Pickert guy’s been working closely with the Farmer’s Association, trading seed and livestock back and forth. We’ve got a lot of crops they just don’t have, like corn and potatoes, and our cattle are a good deal bigger than theirs. They’re already talking about breeding them together.”

“Would that even work?” Andy asked.

Boone shrugged. “How am I supposed to know? I just work here.” He laughed. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.”

“I hope so,” he said.

Boone looked back at Andy. “So how are the kids doing?”

“Kids? You mean Boomer and Alverra?”

“Yeah, those two.”

“Well, I’ve got Alverra spending pretty much every waking moment with the Halish dudes,” he said. “Haven’t seen much of them today, but I hear they’ve taken it upon themselves to make sure he can hold a sword properly before it’s go time. Boomer’s taken it upon himself to deal with the advanced training of our two warmagii.”

“Well, if anyone can teach those girls how to fight, it’s him. The kid’s a damned monkey. You should have seen the day we called the fire department down because we thought he got stuck on the roof of the pet store,” Boone said, laughing. “As soon as he noticed the engine coming towards him, he shimmied down the side of the building, walked right up to me and asked what was going on. I almost shit myself.”

“He’s got some talent, that’s for sure. We’re pretty lucky to have him.”

“You’re telling me,” he picked up Boomer’s file, which had nearly doubled in size since he’d been recruited into the DSIA. “Mixed martial-arts, free-running. Parkour, whatever the hell that is,” he threw his arms in the air. “An IQ of 155, and he’s psychic to boot.” He shook his head. “We’re lucky he’s on our side.” He looked at Andy for a moment, then looked past him, towards the monitor. “Christ,” he said. “Andy, look.”

Andy turned towards the monitor and watched it for a moment. It took him a second to see it, but when he did, his jaw dropped.

“Shit,” Andy said. “That’s all we need.” He turned to Boone. “We’ve got to get Keltz in here.”

Boone nodded, and then headed for the phone while Andy kept watching the feed. On the screen, the simple half-dozen soldiers who were lounging around had gone to full attention. The six turned to twelve. The twelve turned to twenty, and more still were pouring out of the woods.

The Vectorans had returned, and they brought an army with them.

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Published inChildren of the Halo
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