The Dunsmith Department of Defense had gathered that evening just as the sun had started to fall. They had been looking over the map of the town they had set up on the wall of what they had come to call the War Room, which was really the social studies room at the high school. Blaine Tanner, the principal, was none too happy about it, and had raised a stink. However, when he’d brought it to Goose, Goose was very adamant about reminding the man that school was out for the foreseeable future, and because the local school board was based out of Nanaimo, the schools reverted to the town’s property. Besides, they were on the verge of invasion. They needed the space. Then Goose went on to threaten to turn his office into a latrine for the Halish soldiers if he continued to spout off about it.
They had decorated the room with numerous maps, many of the town and the different areas. Topographical maps, and several maps supplied by Keltz and Syrel, who were also poring over the maps. Andy pointed at a spot on a map of the Disputed Lands, which had a map of Dunsmith laid overtop. “They’re camped right here,” he said. “About a hundred meters south of Kamper’s Korner. We’re still getting a feed for now, but I don’t know how long the batteries in that camera are going to last. They’re meant to be changed every week or so.”
“We’d never get close enough to change those batteries,” Boone said. “Too risky. We know where they’re camped, and that’s good enough.”
Andy nodded. “As far as I can figure, there’s between five hundred to a thousand of them. Last I checked, they seemed to be settling down for the night.”
“That’s a lot of men for simple recon,” Luc offered. “You sure that’s all they’re here for?”
“Make no mistake,” Syrel said. “Whether they’re here for reconnaissance or not, they’ll plunder anything and anyone they see.”
“We need to get men down there,” Andy said, looking at Boone. “Like, now. People are still living around there! Should we evacuate?”
Boone sighed. There were at least three hundred people that lived within a quarter of a kilometer of the southern border, spread out from Kamper’s Korner to the ocean, which was about a kilometer by itself. It was a sparsely populated area, but they were still people and families. There were even a couple of small farms. If the Vectorans decided to just spread out and march through, they would systematically destroy hundreds of lives. The families that lived on the southern border had been given the alert that they may have to evacuate the day of their first encounter with Vector. Today, it looked as if they were going to have to.
“I’ll call Goose,” he said. “We’ll have them out of that area by tonight. We’re up to roughly twelve hundred volunteers. I’ll set them up in six-hour shifts. I’ll have three hundred out there starting tonight.”
“Many of those men are hardly trained,” Keltz said. “You should allow us to supplement you.”
Boone nodded. “Deal,” he said. “We can use all the help we can get.” He pointed to the map. “We’ll use Kamper’s Korner as our new staging grounds. Have your men dig in. That’s the midpoint, and we should set up sentries all along our border, here.” He ran his finger along the border westward. “If they get into this wilderness area, we won’t notice them until they’re right on top of us. It’s mostly bush up till you hit Old Davies Road, right next to Crown Square Mall.”
“Then it would be in our best interests not to let them get in there,” Keltz said.
Boone nodded. He looked over to Andy. “Now, as for your boys,” he said. “Keltz and I think the morning after next is a good time to launch.”
Andy nodded. “That could work. We’re still nailing down the cover story. We’re going to make it appear as though we kicked him out of the town. They don’t know much about us, they may not even question it.”
“Tell your boys,” Boone said, and turned to Keltz. “You too.”
They both nodded. Boone looked over to Luc. “How are we doing at the airport?”
“Well, I’ve had pretty much every kid in town who knows anything about flying approach me, and I’ve got some good talent to put up there when the time comes. We’ve managed to siphon every bit of fuel out of the useless craft, and we pulled what was left out of the underground tanks. There’s just enough fuel to put what we’ve got in the sky for no more than two hours,” he replied. “No more, until we can replenish our fuel supply.”
“How many aircraft do you have?” Keltz inquired.
“Two choppers, fifteen light craft, two heavyweight out of what is ours. I’ve got a float plane in the harbor, my own, and three more lightweight from private owners that are willing to volunteer,” Luc said.
“So you’re ready to go?”
“Just say the word. We’ll do what needs to be done.”
“Hold off on it for now,” Boone said. “No sense in playing our cards so early.” He looked over to Ansel, who was sitting silently at a desk, obviously having trouble staying awake. “Ansel?”
“Hmmph?” Ansel replied, then jerked up and opened his eyes. “Yeah? What?”
“Jesus man, haven’t you been getting any sleep?” Boone asked.
“Not really,” he said. “There’s something else in the water lately, and it’s not a bloody whale. It sounds like knocking, and I’m scared shitless to go and see what it is.”
“Sierrin, more likely than not,” Keltz said. “They live under the water. Mischievous little creatures. They will not harm your boat, they only hope to lure you out.”
“Lure me out? For what?” Ansel asked.
“Sierrin need to mate with humans in order to reproduce,” Keltz explained. “They live all along the Aegel Coast. They are probably exploring the new landscape. Make sure you warn your men not to do it. The Sierrin are very beautiful and alluring, but they will drag you to the bottom.”
Ansel’s eyes popped open. “Christ, what the hell are they? Mermaids?”
“Mer… what?” Keltz asked.
“Half woman, half fish. We had legends about them on our world, but nobody’s ever seen one. At least, nobody alive.”
“That sounds very similar. You said spiketeeth have gone extinct on your world, it could be the same with the Sierrin. They appear to be beautiful women, but they have gills and sometimes fins. They often lure sailors and fishermen to the waters in order to mate with them,” Keltz explained.
“Is there a way to survive the encounter? Like maybe a scuba, or a snorkel or something?” Ansel asked. It earned him a chuckle from Andy and Luc. Even Boone cracked a smile. “No, I mean… you know what I mean.” He waved his hand in dismissal.
“No banging the sea wenches, Ansel,” Boone said. “We still need you here.”
Ansel nodded. “Fine, fine.” He perked his head up for a moment. “That reminds me, I had some of my boys come back with a strange report this morning.”
“There’s a whirlpool moving towards us.”
“Yesterday, one of my boys came back and told me about a whirlpool he saw about seven clicks out,” he explained. “This morning, he said it was closer. About five clicks.”
“It sounds like a Cleaver,” Syrel said.
“A what? A Cleaver?” Boone asked.
“A Caedan trade caravan,” Keltz explained. “They prevent the water around them from closing around them by use of aquamagi. The whirlpool is caused by a funnel of air going through to supply those inside it, formed by an aeromagi. There are always at the very least a half-dozen men and women within it.”
“A Caedan caravan?” Boone asked. “What the hell are they doing here?”
“Looking to trade, I’d imagine,” Syrel said. “Caede often sends out caravans across the ocean floor.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Boone said. “Why wouldn’t they just float across?”
“Caedans are devoutly religious. They have many strange customs that they must, by their laws, follow,” Syrel explained. “I can’t be sure why they travel that way in particular, but then again, I’ve never asked one.”
“Great,” Boone said. “They’re not going to dance around with tambourines, are they?”
“I’m… not sure what you mean,” Syrel said.
Boone only shook his head. “Don’t matter,” he said, then looked over towards Ansel. “I want you guys tracking that whirlpool. I’ll bring it up to Goose later.”
The sun was just starting to disappear over the mountains when Justin declared himself done for the day. The sweat had been pouring nonstop since the afternoon, and the armor that his Halish buddies had supplied him with chafed in the strangest spots. He stripped it off the moment he was done, then took a seat on the sidelines of the high school soccer pitch, soaking in the cool air. Dramon and Grear had slapped him hard on the back and declared that he was doing much better.
He had better be. When he had started training with the four men, he was getting thumped and struck on a regular basis. The men were rough, and they didn’t take it easy, but at least they weren’t doing it just for the fun of causing harm. Every thump and bruise on Justin’s body was meant to teach a lesson. Don’t turn your back on an enemy. Don’t swing your sword like that. Don’t leave yourself open like that.
But the thumps were coming less and less. His sword style was still weak, but improving quickly. He had even pulled a few tricks from his sleeve, emulating a move he had picked up in a Highlander movie, which took Jori, the best swordsman of the entire group, by surprise.
“Where did you learn that?” he demanded to know. Justin told him, and all of a sudden each of the four men became very interested in seeing the film. That day, he introduced the four men to the concept of the video store. They stared in wonder at the selection of films, and before they had left, had picked up a handful of films.
Justin explained that they wouldn’t have time to watch them all, and then opted for the Highlander film, which they had originally gone to rent, and the first of the Star Wars films. They watched both of them that night.
They loved the films, laughing and pointing at the screen at times, and staring in awe and wonder at others. They retired in Justin’s living room that night, each of them snoozing loudly on the couch, floor, or reclining chair. When his mom woke up, she had a bit of a shock to find that her house had been overtaken by Halish soldiers.
Justin looked out over the field. He saw Boone walking out towards him, and Keltz and Syrel breaking off to speak to the four Halish men. When Boone caught his eye, he stopped, then beckoned him over. Justin got up and jogged over to him.
“What’s up, boss?” Justin asked.
“They’re back,” Boone said. “I’ve already called Boomer, but the plan is that you guys ship out the morning after next.”
Justin only looked back at Boone. He took in a sharp breath, then exhaled.
“You okay?” Boone asked. “You going to be up for this?”
Justin nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He checked his watch. Nine-thirty.
“We’re sending down a bunch of men tonight,” Boone said. “We’re going to fortify the entire area, evacuate some folks. I want you boys to stay up here for the time being– I don’t want to risk you being seen by any Vectorans. They might recognize you later on.”
Justin nodded. “So I’ve got a day?”
Boone nodded. “You’ve got a day. Andy and I will come speak with you all tomorrow. We’ll meet at the usual place.”
Andy opened the door to his trailer, nodding to the two Halish soldiers standing guard at the entrance. He wasn’t sure they were needed just yet, but Boone had insisted they be posted there at the meeting earlier. The park had changed a lot over the past week. The remains of Barry and Harriet’s trailer had been gutted and cleared out, and the steep ridge that had once climbed a ninety degree angle almost twenty-five feet straight up had been leveled out into a steep incline that allowed the Halish (And Dunsmithian) soldiers easy access into the Disputed Lands.
Once inside, he gave a heartfelt nod to Sam and Harriet, who had taken it upon themselves to keep a careful watch on the monitors. Sam had insisted on going back out to try and replace the batteries on the wireless camera she had set up in the tree overlooking the Vectoran camp, but Andy wouldn’t hear of it. She was too old, and too valuable. He shuddered to think what the Vectorans would do to her if they had gotten hold of her.
Harriet, on the other hand, was looking much better than the day before. She was still upset about the loss of her boyfriend, Barry, and the first few days after the Blacklight had been rough, considering her addiction to crack cocaine, but she was shaking less and less each day, and the color was starting to return to her cheeks. He had even noticed she had been putting on a little bit of weight. She was still having the occasional withdrawal symptom, but for the most part, she was over the drug. It only took a dead boyfriend and a magickal blacklight to do it.
“They’ve got some magii with them,” Sam announced as soon as she saw Andy enter. “A couple of pyromagii, at least. Saw one of them light up a bonfire like it was as simple as flicking a lighter. Just sprouted from the ground, fully formed.”
“Yeah, Keltz figured they would have a few at least,” he said. “After the last welcoming party we gave ’em, they don’t want to take any chances.” He looked at the two women and sighed. “They’re going to be using the trailer park as a staging grounds for the Defense Corps. They want everyone on the south end of town evacuated by midnight.”
“Figures,” Sam said, huffing. “The second things get a little rough, they want to stick their tails between their legs and run off.”
“That means you too, you know,” Andy reminded her.
“Yes, yes,” Sam said with a wave of her hand. “After all, who wants an old biddy down here showing these soldiers a thing or two?”
Andy laughed, then took a seat next to the monitors. “We catch anything on the other cameras?”
“Nothing yet,” Sam replied. “But we did lose camera twelve. Can’t figure out why, it just stopped working. I was going to go out and figure out what was up with it, but I wouldn’t know what to do to fix it– electronics are still beyond me.”
Andy nodded. “Don’t worry about it. Could be anything. Maybe that T-Rex knocked the cord loose or something.”
“What’s that?” Harriet asked, pointing at one of the monitors.
Andy looked at the camera closely. At first, he couldn’t see what she was pointing at, but a moment later, it was all too obvious. It was the corner of someone’s head.
“Shit,” he said. “Which camera is that?”
“Nine,” she said. “I installed that one in a tree about fifty meters in, just southeast of us.”
Andy watched as the camera started to shake and move. It panned down and gave him a full view of the soldiers face, and then abruptly cut out.
“That’s bloody close,” Andy said. “Those boys better hurry up and get down here. They’ve seen the cameras. I doubt they know what they are, but it’s obviously made them curious enough to take them down.” He had a sudden thought, and looked to Sam. “Are those plugged into the junction box on McKenzie?”
“Nine and twelve? Yeah, McKenzie Avenue,” she said.
“That’s three blocks from here,” he said. “They’ll follow those wires right back to the box.”
“Good. I hope they electrocute themselves,” Harriet muttered.
“We could only be so lucky,” Andy said. “But I’m not worried about the junction box, I’m more worried about the people over there– if they took out cameras nine and twelve, it means they’re a hell of a lot closer than I had hoped.” He pulled his keys out of his pocket. “I’m going to drive over there, get the folks out of the area.” He started walking towards the door, and grabbed his shotgun on his way out.
“You want me to call Boone?” Sam asked, reaching for the phone.
“He’s out taking care of things. Shelly should be at the station right now, though. Give her a call, update her on the situation. Get her to contact the people on that street, tell them to get the hell out of there,” he said, then gave Sam and Harriet a quick nod before he left his trailer.
Andy bolted from his door and headed straight for his truck. He shouted to a couple of the Halish men, and sent them running to fetch their superior, and update him on the situation. It would take them a little longer to get there, but Andy could hold them off in the meantime, provided there were no magii. He had only seen the one soldier, but there could be more. Many more, in fact.
He climbed into his truck and started the engine, threw it into reverse and started the short drive to McKenzie Avenue. He only hoped the people there would be warned in time.
Burz examined the strange object in his hand. It was made of some unnameable material. Not wood, or metal. It didn’t appear to be stone, and it had a rather odd shape. From one end a number of strange black cords with bits of what had appeared to be copper inside of them jutted out, and on the other a strange glass eye seemed to protrude. Inside the eye, he could just make out a few words. He couldn’t make sense of them, but they reminded him of the strange metal bit that had lodged itself so deep in Mis’ shoulder.
General Ryde had been so good as to supply Burz with a troop of a thousand men, and a handful of his warmagii. The moment they had arrived at the camp, Burz had insisted that he and a few soldiers begin the initial reconnaissance. They stayed well away from the borders of the place, which were well defined by either a large ridge, or a contrast in scenery. A few places appeared to have well-groomed grass, even gardens and fences, but they seemed to be haphazardly placed. The ran off into the border, and then… nothing!
And strange objects, too. So far in the short amount of time he had been tracking the border, he’d seen houses with lights as bright as day glowing from within. They never approached. Not yet. Not until they knew what they were dealing with. He looked back down at the item in his hand, then tossed it to one of the Warmagii. “It’s like the other one,” he said. “What is it?”
“I’ve seen nothing like it before,” the Warmagi, a pompous man named Giger said. “It could be a warding talisman. Freemen are often superstitious enough to believe they’ll work.”
“This end looks like an eye,” he said, pointing.
Giger laughed. “Don’t be absurd,” he said. “An eye for whom? For witches to look upon vast distances in their magick pond?” He shook his head. “Preposterous.”
“Captain!” a Private said, standing at attention in front of Burz. “We’ve tracked the vines, sir! The ones sprouting from the back of the queer box!”
“Where do they lead?” Burz inquired.
“A strange metal box, Sir!” he exclaimed. “It sits in the ground on the other side, and there are symbols all across it, but we can make nothing of it.”
“Take me to it,” Giger said. “I must see it.”
The Private nodded, and then ran off.
“Let’s remember who’s in charge here, Giger,” Burz warned.
“Why Captain,” Giger said. “Please forgive me. I was only attempting to foresee your wishes. I had assumed you would have liked to examine the symbols your man spoke of. If I was mistaken, then–”
“Quit your spouting, Giger,” Burz said. “Get on with it.”
“Sir,” Giger said, then bowed.
Pompous ass, Burz thought. With his newfound rank, Burz could order men hanged, beheaded, or worse for little more than a harsh word. The one place his reach didn’t extend was to the Warmagii. The Emperor had decreed it so just after he ascended to Vector’s throne. Any magi in service of Vector shall be exempt from the noose and the axe. The truth was that magii, especially trained Warmagii from Shavi were a useful lot. Knowledgeable in all sorts of Arcane matters and Lore.
He would have liked to put Arman Giger to the noose. Nothing better. The man was nothing but a sneering fool. Unfortunately for Burz, he was an accomplished Pyromagi, trained for war, and thus invaluable to the Empire.
They finally reached the border, a spot where the Disputed Lands seemed to cross into another world, provided you could climb down successfully. It led down to an area covered in well-groomed grass, and a large road made of flat stone. Well-groomed trees and bushes were in the area, as were large manors, two storeys tall, with extravagantly designed roofs, windows and large fences. He could see no people, which was just as well. He had given orders to kill or capture any people he could find.
Giger, too, had looked around in awe for a few moments, but then spotted the strange metal box which two soldiers had been standing beside. He knelt next to it, and examined.
“This is odd,” Giger said. “Very odd. There seems to be paint on this metal. And symbols… I don’t recognize them.” He ran his fingers over some writing on the side of the box. “It’s a string of numbers and letters. They don’t make sense. Wait. Here’s something. BC Hydro.” He turned back to Burz and raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean anything to you?”
Before Burz could answer, he heard a sudden noise off to his right, from down the road. It was like a slight squeal. He squinted his eyes and looked off into the distance. The street was lit with great lamps, held high above the area on metal poles. He kept scanning the area until he spotted a large shape sitting in the middle of the road.
“What is that?” Giger asked. He had seen it too. So had his men.
Before Burz could answer, the thing’s eyes lit up, and the men of Vector could see the Beast. The eyes glowed brighter than any fire Burz had ever seen, and began to growl loudly. A strange growl that seemed to make the very ground shake. It grew louder and louder, until it roared loudly, and then squealed.
The Beast was angry, and it was coming for them.
Burz stood his ground for a moment and pulled his sword. He could see from the corner of his eyes that two of his men had started to bolt. He would have them strung up by morning. All of his men were screaming, yelling. Even Giger seemed to be backing up, unsure of what to make of things.
The Beast crossed the ground between them in what seemed like seconds. It was charging straight for Burz.
Armed or not, Burz was not going to stop the Beast. It was going much too fast. He leaped out of the way seconds before the strange monstrosity ran through where he had been standing. It left two straight tracks in its wake. Burz quickly regained his bearings and looked up. He could see that Giger had leaped to a side as well, scrambling to hide behind the metal box.
The Beast stopped sideways on the grass a short distance away. It backed up, started to turn back, but couldn’t move. The Beast was stuck, its legs, which Burz could now see were wheels, spun uselessly.
His mouth dropped open. The Beast-Guardian wasn’t a Beast at all.
It was a machine.
“Dammit!” someone exclaimed from inside the beast. Burz noticed a man scrambling around inside the machine, and he opened the door and stepped out carrying a strange device. He pointed it at one of his men that had snapped out of shock sooner and had started to bear down on the man. After a loud bang, the man went down. Burz could see how it had happened. The contents of his head exploded out the back of it.
“You fuckers get out of our land!” the man with the magick pole said. “Vector’s not welcome here, you hear me?”
Another blast. Burz got the bright idea to dive in next to Giger, hiding behind the metal box.
“You have to do something,” Giger pleaded. “He’s mad– I’ve never seen that kind of magick!” He was punctuated by another loud blast. Another of his men were no doubt dead.
“You do something, half-wit!” Burz said. “You’re the Warmagi!” He took a moment to peek out from behind the box. The man was distracted, having killed two of his men and run down one other with the Beast-Machine, he had decided to try and return to the machine and get it working again. “Now,” Burz said. “While he’s distracted.”
Giger ventured a quick peek, then gave Burz a nod. He rolled out from behind the box and started to sneak up behind the man, who was leaning in the door of the beast, doing something with his strange magick weapon.
Giger knew he didn’t have long before he was noticed. He summoned a small fireball, let it flow through his hands. He let it loose, and it struck the man hard in the back, knocking him against the side of the beast. He dropped his weapon.
“Now!” Giger screamed. “Capture him!”
Burz had never moved so fast. The man was on the ground, scrambling for his weapon when Burz came up and blindsided him, throwing him against the side of the great beast. He grabbed for the weapon and threw it out of the way. Drawing his sword, he forced the man onto his back and held it to his throat. He put his hands up in a pleading fashion.
Burz narrowed his eyes and looked around. Two of his men were dead. Another lay reaching out on the ground nearby. His legs were obviously broken, and the gargling sound when he tried to speak or scream told Burz his lungs were punctured.
“Three men,” he said, looking down at the man. “Three soldiers of Vector, by one old man.” He spat at the man.
“Fuck you, man,” the man replied.
“We should take him alive,” Giger said. “He can provide the answers we need. And we must go soon, I hear others approaching.”
“You might as well kill me now,” he said. “Because I ain’t going to be your bitch, and I ain’t saying shit.”
Burz only stared back down at him, his eyes intense. Two soldiers ran up from behind him.
He put the sword back in his sheath and took his foot off of the old man’s chest. “Take him back to the camp,” he said. “And take his weapon.” He pulled the man up by his chest and held his face close. “You’ll tell me everything you know, old man.”