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Chapter Twenty-One: Hillside Downs

Hatsch thumbed through the pages of the National Geographic magazine that he had been supplied with by his captors. He had to admit that he was being treated well as a captive of the people of Dunsmith. At first, he had refused to eat any of the food they were supplying to him, for fear of poison, but his judgment led him to believe that if they had planned on killing him, they’d have done so already. The strange foods they had been feeding him– pizza pops and hamburgers– had been rather tasty as well. A far cry from the slop and mush Vector fed her prisoners.

He had been a prisoner of Dunsmith for six days. About once a day, the one they called Boone would stop in, ask a few questions, and leave again. Sometimes he’d come alone, other times that Andy Johnson fellow would come with him, or another officer. Once, even, a silent man Boone had called Boomer who only stared at Hatsch while Boone questioned him. Hatsch had learned on the first day of his captivity that it was better to just do as they said– they hadn’t hurt him past the first day, and they had even dispatched a healer to deal with the bullet wound he received, a strange laughing deaf-mute woman with no legs who rolled around on a chair equipped with large wheels. Hatsch gave his thanks to the woman. He hoped to survive the encounter. He hoped for a release from the prison sometime soon, and in order to do that, he took it upon himself to be a model prisoner.

He flipped through a few pages in the magazine, marveling at the pictures and reading what words he could in the long articles within. The truth was that he could only just read, and there were a great many words in the magazine he had never heard before. Words whose meanings were left unexplained, as though they expected the reader to know where a place called Antarctica was, or what the strange bird-like animals called penguins were.

He understood Dunsmith’s story well enough. For a short while there had been another man in the cell next to his– stupid on the drink, of course, but still very talkative. He had kept referring to their prison as the tank, and went on to explain where Dunsmith had really come from. Another world entirely, which Hatsch had suspected on his own, especially after seeing the wheeled contrivances which whisked people to and fro on the streets of the strange, alien town. He knew their world was called Earth, and that the gift of magick was very new to them.

He also understood that they intended to challenge Vector’s claim to the Disputed Lands. It could never happen, even with all their wonderful tools and weapons. The Emperor would stop at nothing to secure the lands for Vector, and General Ryde would personally slaughter every man, woman and child in the town.

He may even slaughter Hatsch, just for the audacity of allowing himself to be captured. He knew that if the time came that he were ever released, he could never go back to Vector. His home was lost to him.

He looked up in surprise as the outer door to the room which held the cells opened with a loud clank. He quickly put the magazine down to one side. It couldn’t have been time to eat, they had just served him a meal an hour earlier, strange tube-shaped pieces of meat held between two pieces of bread and lathered with a thick red topping they called ketchup. Hot dogs, his keeper had called them.

As the door finally swung open, he saw Boone standing there, regarding him. A moment later, a second person came in. Hatsch had never seen him before, but his style of dress was unmistakable. The mark of Halen that he wore on his collar, next to his Lieutenant’s Bar, a metal clip that signified a person of rank. The man was Halish. A Halish Lieutenant. Hatsch wore a grim look on his face.

“How you doing today, Hatty?” Boone asked. In another time and place, Hatsch would have slit the throat of any man who would dare mock his name in such a way, but for some reason, he felt Boone didn’t mean anything untoward by it– and Hatsch had to admit he was growing a grudging respect for the man. Hatsch looked to Boone, then to the newcomer.

“I am well,” Hatsch said. “As a prisoner, I have no complaints.”

“Good. We wouldn’t listen anyway,” Boone said. He turned to the other man. “This is Lieutenant Wicket, from Halen. We’ve got a few more questions for you.”

“I will answer if it will get me closer to my freedom,” Hatsch said.

“Well, it’s a step in the right direction. Trust me, once we get a working court system, everything you help us with will be taken into consideration,” he looked to Keltz.

“Your people have returned with a larger force,” Keltz announced. “They are massing to the south of us as we speak, at your old camp.”

Hatsch blinked. “I had not expected that so quickly,” he said.

“Neither did we,” Boone replied. “But we need to know what their plans are– their intentions.”

Hatsch shrugged. “I could not say with any certainty. How big a force?”

“Well, a hell of a lot more than before. A few hundred at the least,” Boone replied. “It doesn’t look like the main force, so–”

“They will not attack directly,” Hatsch said. “They will test your borders, I imagine. Capture and interrogate those among your people that they can, learn what there is to learn. General Ryde is shrewd, but he’s not stupid. He will gauge your defenses.”

“So we don’t have to expect a direct attack?” Boone asked.

“As I had already said,” Keltz said. “Ryde will not send his men in to face an unknown enemy. This force is for reconnaissance.” He looked to Hatsch. “You participated in the raid on Stone’s Mouth, correct?”

Hatsch nodded. “I did. We scouted the area for a day before the attack. They’ll probably do much the same.”

Keltz nodded. “I concur with that. They will rest for tonight, but starting in the morning, they will start to follow our borders, test them, look for viable crossing points for an invasion.”

“It’s a good thing we’ve already scouted the whole border,” Boone said. “We already know all the good spots to cross over, and we’ve already got the places wired for surveillance.”

Keltz nodded, and then looked to Hatsch for a moment, and then approached the cell. “Let me ask you a question. Your Emperor has a plan for the Disputed Lands. He believes that it is Vector’s right to claim them. He also asserts that he is the direct descendant of Rasshauer Flenn. Where do you stand on this?”

“Personally? To tell you the truth, I believe he’s so full of himself he can’t see otherwise,” Hatsch said, then chuckled. “If I were to say that among my own kind, I would most certainly be strung up and hanging from a tree by morning. Cuerian’s not known for being merciful. I was still just a boy when Eruk Vector died, but my father used to tell me stories of how much better things were under his rule.”

Keltz nodded, then looked to Boone. “I think soon, the morning after next would be the most ideal time.”

Hatsch raised an eyebrow. “The ideal time for what?” Hatsch asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Boone told Hatsch. “Let’s just say we’ve got a few tricks hidden up our sleeves and leave it at that. You may be playing nice, but that’s no guarantee we can trust you. If you want to be released, you’re going to have to earn that trust.”

Hatsch looked back at Boone. “And how do I earn that trust?”

“I don’t know,” Boone said. “But when I find out, you’ll be the first to know.”

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Ryan reclined on the big, thick bed and stretched. “Christ, that was a long walk,” he said, then winced as one of his vertebrae cracked.

“I admit we’ve been spoiled by the quads,” Nalya said. “I nearly forgot what it was like to walk such long distances.”

The group had arrived at the Hillside Downs Inn, a half-days walk from Cilasia a little past sunset. They had decided to leave the quads in Arronay, instead relying on a couple of packhorse rentals from an eccentric old man on the outskirts of Arronay to carry the things they needed. Terra and Nalya had taken turns riding on the second packhorse all day.

Bayne, Cale and Ryan, however, were dog tired when they arrived at the Inn. They discovered once they arrived that it was a simple two-room inn, a tavern downstairs, and one large room with several beds in it upstairs. They would be sleeping in the company of other travelers that night. Many of whom were coming from all around the Pactlands.

When they finally got settled in, Ryan spied one of the staff of the inn lifting up a straw-filled mattress and spreading dry soil all around beneath.

“It’s for the bed-pests,” Nalya announced. “They can’t walk across the soil. It kills them.”

In another place and time, Ryan would have outright refused to sleep there. He’d had bedbugs once as a kid, and he had little fond memories of the experience. But since he was still trying not to scratch the numerous bug bites he’d received traveling through the Disputed Lands, he decided that rest was more important than a few more itches.

Ryan took his shoes off and leaned back in the bed. The others had already put all their things away, Bayne and Cale were busy downstairs negotiating the price of the horse’s stabling, and Terra had gone off somewhere, carrying the thick book that Orynn had given Nalya. Nalya insisted that Terra read the book so that she may understand more about her gift. She hadn’t had a chance to flip through it yet, but now that she had a moment’s rest, she made a clear intention to read it.

She made her intention twice as clear as she made a show in front of Cale of gathering her rolling supplies together and wondering aloud where her grinder was. She knew where it had been the entire time, she just liked to antagonize Cale. Ryan would have laughed if Cale hadn’t been within earshot at the time.

Nalya seemed just as tired as Ryan, and even she found the soft bed a welcome place to rest after a long day’s travel.

“We’ll arrive in Cilasia in the early afternoon tomorrow,” she said. “The city will be busy, it is Harbinger’s Solstice.”

“So I imagine the King will be busy?” Ryan asked.

Nalya nodded and brushed a thatch of blond hair from her face. “We may not get the opportunity to speak with him over important matters tomorrow, but the next day certainly.”

“As long as we get the chance,” Ryan said. He looked over at Nalya and caught a brief look of sadness flickering in her eyes. “Look, don’t let what Cale said get to you. He’s a cop, and cops are usually assholes about a bunch of things. They have to be.”

“I’m not concerned. He’s right to question my motives,” she said. “I only wish we could have spoken with the Seer for longer. There’s so much left unsaid.”

Ryan nodded in understanding. Terra had been going off about it all day, how he had been pretending to be a senile old man. How his keepers were also his watchers. Ryan didn’t quite understand why, but he could tell it was a serious matter, one that Nalya made clear she wasn’t willing to speak about.

“Look,” he said. “You’ve already helped us out more than I can thank you for, personally. You’re doing a good thing in helping us, and even if it doesn’t pan out, take some comfort in knowing that your help is appreciated. At least by some of us.”

Nalya smiled. “Thank you,” she said. Suddenly, she looked up, a thought occurring to her. “Would you care to go to the Solstice celebrations in the Palace tomorrow night? The King hosts a great gala every year at Harbinger’s Solstice.”

Ryan blinked. Did she just ask him out? “A great gala?”

“It’s nothing formal. Merely a celebration. A party with the wealthy and noble classes. I have an open invitation, and I think it would be a good opportunity to garner support for our cause.”

“Well, I’m not exactly a party kind of guy. Not anymore, I quit getting mangled a few years back. Besides, I’m not rich or royal, so I doubt–”

“You are a delegate from a foreign nation,” Nalya said. “Even if your nation is not yet recognized, you will be respected for what you are. You will come as my guest.”

Ryan thought about it for a moment. He’d had a blast the night before, playing for the crowd at the Duke’s Chalice in Arronay, all things considered. But this was a heftier affair. Kings and Queens and visiting royalty from all across the Pactlands. He felt a small twinge of uncertainty about the idea, but he could see no reason why he wouldn’t want to go. After all, when else was he going to get the offer? He smiled, then nodded. “I can’t speak for the others, but if you want me there, I’ll be there.”

Nalya smiled in return. “That’s good to know. I will ask the others come morning.”

Ryan blinked. He felt a small sense of pride at having been the first one asked, but then a thought struck him. “Why ask me?” he asked.

Nalya looked up at him, confused by his question. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“No offense or anything, I’m just curious. Why ask me when we’re alone? Why not just tell all of us at once?” Ryan asked.

Nalya turned away from him for a moment. He could see the blood rushing into her cheeks. She had been asking him out! Ryan didn’t quite know how to accept it.

“I couldn’t say,” she said. “Perhaps it’s just the place and time. The abundance of quiet in this place.” She looked back to Ryan. “It’s nothing sinister, I assure you.”

“I wasn’t suggesting it was,” Ryan said. “It’s just–” he stopped himself. “Never mind. It’s not important.”

Now it was Nalya’s turn to call Ryan out. “No, what were you going to say?” she asked. “It’s just what?”

“Sorry, I’m probably just imagining things. I thought you might have been asking me out.”

“Asking you… out?” Nalya seemed confused.

“Like, you know. On a date or something.”

“You wish to know if I was attempting to court you?” Nalya asked.

“Yeah,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “It was stupid. Sorry.”

Nalya merely remained quiet for a moment, then turned her head towards Ryan and smirked. “It’s not stupid. I’m sure that may even have been a part of my intention.”

“Oh,” Ryan said, then realized what she’d said. “Wait. What?”

Nalya, however, had already laid down and curled up in the thick blankets. “Good night, Ryan,” she said.

Ryan merely remained silent, running what Nalya had said over in his mind. After a few minutes, however, sleep too claimed him, and he started snoozing peacefully.

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Terra took a long, satisfying haul off of her doobie as she sat in the lantern light outside of the Hillside Downs Inn. Off in the distance, she could see the last remnants of the setting sun, casting light out from between two mountains and reflecting off of the distant waters of a lake. Nalya had explained that Cilasia was built on the shores of that very lake when they first caught sight of it in the distance after climbing the hills to the Inn. It wasn’t far now.

Terra was worn out from the long day of traveling, not to mention her meeting with the Seer, but the call of the joint won her over, so she used it as an excuse to finally flip through the pages of the book that Nalya had suggested she read. The Last Words of Wendael Maer, the last Green Seer. She’d used the book as a tray to roll her joint on.

Now that she was smoking the joint, however, she started to examine the book more closely. It was a leather-bound volume, of the style Terra saw in movies featuring wizards and magick. A fantasy cliché, if there ever was one, except this cliché was sitting right in her hands. It had no title, no markings save for a shiny golden symbol on the front. A trident with bladed edges.

She opened the book and started reading the first page. The book had been handwritten, undoubtedly in Maer’s own hand. Terra was surprised to find that whoever Wendael Maer was, he had a good grasp of cursive. It reminded Terra of her great-great grandmother’s journal, which she’d read as a kid. The particular style of nineteenth century handwriting had much in common with what she was reading. She remembered reading of her ancestor’s ordeal after having come to Canada and waiting for her husband, Terra’s great-great grandfather as they sailed across from Norway. She recalled crying after reading that his ship had been lost at sea, and as far as she knew, never recovered.

Terra had a hard time making sense of what she was reading. Most of it seemed profoundly absurd. Most of what was written within was poetic– at least, it tried to be. She spied several notes scribbled in the margins, but ignored them for the most part.

She finally settled on a note in the margin that seemed to jump out at her.

When Tiamat cries, all the world shall drown, forsaking Noah and his brethren.

            Terra stared at it for a moment. Noah? Terra had never read the Bible, but she’d heard of the stories of the flood. And who was Tiamat? She read the verse on the page next to it.

The serpent of the ocean climbs the ladder of the abyss, and it shall cry loud enough for all the worlds to hear. Lo, she said, tremble and quake, I am Tiamat, and I shall bring an end unto all worlds.

            Terra let the book rest in her lap for a moment as she took another puff. She didn’t know what kind of sense the book was supposed to make. She flipped a few more pages along and then paused, reading the first line on the page.

A leader of men rises from the East, devoid of Pact. He shall go and play the hand of the daemon, tainting the lands henceforth. All of the Pactlands shall fall to his folly, and thus will begin the death of the Pact.

Dunsmith was on the Eastern tip of the Disputed Lands. Was he talking about Dunsmith? She scanned the page. Most of it was talking about war, but she couldn’t find any frame of reference. It had to mean something.

Suddenly, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and slammed the book shut in surprise. The Seer seemed to believe it was important to keep it a secret. She looked over and saw a young woman around her own age walking towards her. She had long black hair tied back into a pony tail and was wearing an assortment of travelers clothes, and a large pack. She smiled at Terra warmly.

“I’m sorry,” she announced. “I smelled the sweetflower, it reminded me of home.”

Terra looked at the joint in her hand, and made sure to put the book into her pack before the girl could get close enough. She offered it to the stranger as she approached. “You smoke?” she asked.

“Thank you,” the girl said, then took the joint from Terra and took a puff. She coughed violently, then handed it back to her. “My, but that’s strong!” she exclaimed. “Are you from Alahann by any chance?”

Terra shook her head. “No, I’m from Dunsmith. South, in the Disputed Lands. Sweetflower grows there, too.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.

“I hadn’t heard that Sweetflower grows in the Disputed Lands,” she said. “Not in the wild, anyway.” She curtsied before Terra. “My name is Henna,” she said. “I’m traveling to Cilasia to meet with my family for Harbinger’s Solstice.”

“Terra,” Terra announced, putting her hand out. Henna seemed confused by the gesture at first, but then got the idea, and shook her hand. “Have a seat,” she offered.

Henna sat down next to Terra and looked out to the west. “I hope you don’t think me rude for asking. But your hair–”

“Bloodcrawler’s ink,” Terra said. “I dye it in bloodcrawler’s ink.” It was an easier explanation than the truth.

“I see,” Henna said. “I hadn’t known there were bloodcrawlers within the Disputed Lands, either. Have you ever been to Cilasia?” she asked.

Terra shook her head. “No, all this is pretty new to me,” she said. “The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Vancouver. I went to go catch the Rob Zombie show last year.”

“Vancouver?” Henna asked. “Rob… Zombie? I’m afraid I’ve never heard these things.”

Terra waved her hand. “It’s a long story,” she said. “Let’s just say that I’m new to the Pactlands in general.”

Henna remained silent for a moment, then cocked her head in thought. “I have heard in Arronay,” she began. “About a town full of people from another world that appeared in a black light in the Disputed Lands. Is this your home?”

Terra nodded. “You’ve heard of us! Awesome!” she said. “That’s right, it’s called Dunsmith. I’ve lived there my whole life. How did you hear about it?”

“Lips are loose in Arronay,” she said. “Especially among those at the Duke’s Chalice. They spoke of a man playing a strange instrument that produced beautiful music.”

“That’d be Ryan,” Terra said. “He’s inside, probably already passed out.”

“I see,” she said. “Then it is an honor to meet you, Terra.”

“Likewise,” Terra said. She offered the joint to Henna again. “Another toke?”

Henna took it, and with great care took a small puff, held it in for a few moments, and the released it. She didn’t cough.

“Look at that,” Terra said. “Like a pro. You’d think you were a lifelong pothead.”

“A… what?” Henna’s face twisted up into a look of incomprehension.

Terra shook her head. “Never mind,” she said. “It’s just nice to meet someone in this place that has something in common with me.”

“The traveler’s curse,” Henna said. “It strikes us all. Strangers in strange places don’t make the best of friends. But sometimes you’ll meet a kindred soul.”

“Like now,” she said.

“So, who are you traveling with?” Henna asked.

“There’s six of us,” she said. “Me, Ryan and Cale are all from Dunsmith. Nalya and Bayne are from Halen… or Rasza, or something. I still haven’t figured that part out. Then there’s Quick.”

“Quick?” Henna asked.

“Yeah, he’s a Tyl. My little buddy. We picked him up in the Disputed Lands on our way up. He’s off catching bugs or something.”

“A Tyl?” Henna seemed somewhat taken aback. Not disgusted, just… shocked. “Interesting.”

“So why do you ask?”

“I was curious,” she said. “I hadn’t thought you to be traveling alone, it’s not always safe out here for women by themselves.”

“What about you? Are you alone?”

Henna nodded. “I am, but I’m perfectly capable of defending myself,” she said. “Still, it would be nice to travel with people I can call friends.”

“Well, I’d have to check with Nalya. She’s kind of the ringleader of this little journey, but I don’t have a problem if you want to hitch a ride with us to Cilasia tomorrow. We could use the company.”

Henna nodded. “Yes, I think I’d like that,” she said.

“Great,” she said, then put out her doobie and threw it into a little plastic baggie where she kept her roaches.

“What is that?” Henna asked, pointing at the baggie. “I’ve never seen such material. Clear like glass, and yet it’s soft! Pliable!”

“It’s plastic,” she said. “Trust me, that’s not even the cool part.” She put the baggie back in her bag. “I can show you all sorts of cool stuff.” She pulled out her mp3 player, stuck a bud in her ear, and then offered it to Henna.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s music,” she said. “You put it in your ear and you can hear it. It’s okay, it’s Sublime.”

“It is?” Henna asked.

“No, I mean they call themselves– forget it,” Terra said. “Just listen.”

Henna took the ear bud from Terra and did as she asked, placing it in her ear. When Terra pushed play, her eyes popped open, and she nearly scrambled away across the ground, the ear bud falling out.

“What kind of magick is that?” she demanded. “You’ve captured the sound of music and the voices of men?”

“No, no,” Terra said. “It’s not magick. It’s science. It won’t hurt you, it just plays music.”

Henna blinked for a moment, then relaxed. She moved back over, and then put the ear bud back in her ear. This time, she listened.

“This music is very strange,” she said. “This is from your town? Dunsmith?”

“Kind of,” she said. “The band’s called Sublime, but they’re not from Dunsmith. In fact, I’m not sure where they’re from, but they’re good. And that’s all that matters.”

Henna remained silent for a little longer, and listened to the music. It took her a moment to get into the groove, but soon she started to sway, feeling the music.

“Good stuff, huh?” Terra asked.

Henna smiled back at her. “It… takes some getting used to, but yes. It does sound good. Powerful. Spiritual.”

“That could be the weed talking,” she said.

“Weed?”

“Sweetflower,” Terra explained.

“Oh,” Henna said. “You have a queer way of speaking, Terra, but your music is good and your weed quick.” She smiled.

Terra laughed. Besides Nalya and Bayne, she hadn’t really met anyone else from the Pactlands she had liked. At least, none that were human. Henna, however, she liked. It was good to have finally made a new friend. A part of her hoped the friendship would continue, but a nagging thought at the back of her mind was tugging at her. She just couldn’t put a finger on it.

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Published inChildren of the Halo
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