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Chapter Twenty-Three: Blood from the Stone

Andy didn’t remember the trip from his truck to the Vectoran camp at all. He remembered being struck on the side of his head with the flat of the Vectoran commander’s sword. There was no way he would have walked along with them willingly, sword to his throat or not. From the bruises and scrapes he had over his body he figured that he’d been half-dragged, half-carried back to the camp.

When he finally came to, he had little idea of how long he’d been out. They had tied him to a stake in the ground with his hands behind his back. From what he could tell, they had emptied his pockets, and his feet were bare. The soldiers had pulled off his sneakers and socks. His back pocket was no longer padded, and he couldn’t feel his pocket knife jabbing into his thigh. They had grabbed his gun, and were no doubt probably at that very moment trying to figure out how it worked. He had been reloading it when that bloody Pyromagi came up from behind him. That was good, at least. There wasn’t any ammunition in the thing. They wouldn’t be able to use it against anyone.

He started to look around, trying to get a bearing on where he was. There were a number of soldiers nearby, munching loudly on large bits of meat by a large bonfire. The smell of cooked meat filled the air, and when Andy located the source, he could see what was left of the T-Rex that had been lurking around the area laying on the ground, strips of flesh being ripped from it by a man with a large scythe-like knife. It reminded Andy of the brief time he’d spent on a whaling ship. It was a shame, though. He was starting to enjoy the dinosaur’s presence. He had even started to call him Rex.

He caught a glimpse of the man who had blindsided him with the ball of flame. His back still hurt from the impact. He could feel the pain of the burn that stretched from his shoulder to his spine. It hurt like a bitch, but he was a long way from a burn treatment center.

The Pyromagi was standing outside of a dull brown tent. It looked as though it were a linen canvass draped over a wooden frame. Smoke poured out of it, but he couldn’t tell if it was from a fire, or something else.

Suddenly, he recognized something. That tent. He’d seen it before… just from the other side. He followed an invisible line from the back of the tent up to a tree, and whistled. Sam had climbed that thing under the Vectoran’s noses? Unfortunately, it wasn’t pointing towards him. He was staked down in a section of camp just outside the radius of the camera. They wouldn’t be able to see him back on the town network, even if the batteries were still running.

He looked back to the strange tent. It was large, obviously an officer’s tent, and the Pyromagi was talking to someone inside. He would go in, then go back out and throw his arms up in the air in exasperation. Andy kept watching the exchange for a moment, not hearing a word of it, until the man he had been watching looked directly over at Andy. They made eye contact, and the man pointed and said something.

A head poked out of the tent and looked over. He wasn’t wearing his helmet anymore, but he could tell it was the man who had knocked him out with the flat of his sword. The commander.

The commander yelled at some soldiers and pointed toward Andy.

Here we go, Andy thought. Go time.

As two soldiers approached, Andy looked up at them and smiled.

“Evenin’, boys!” he exclaimed. “Nice night we’re having, innit?”

The soldiers gave each other a silent look, said nothing, and then hoisted Andy to his feet. One soldier pulled a thick knife from his belt and cut Andy’s bindings. Andy rubbed the soreness out of his wrists. They had tied them tightly.

“That’s better,” Andy said. “Now, where’s the bar?” He grinned up at one of the soldiers. The soldiers replied by shoving him hard on the back, mashing the palm of his hand into the burn. Andy yelped out and lurched forward. The soldiers marched him right up to the command tent. The Pyromagi gave him a winning smirk as he passed by. Inside, he saw the commander sitting at a poorly-designed table. Sitting on the table was his rifle, his wallet, his pocket knife, the small notebook he used to keep phone numbers and notes in, a pen and the two surveillance cameras. In his hand, he was looking through some papers. Andy suddenly realized they were his insurance papers. They had been sitting on his dashboard, and if they’d gotten the papers, they may very well have gotten the radio. Perhaps even ammunition.

“Your name,” the man demanded.

Andy looked back at him and considered him for a moment. “Howdy Doody,” he spat.

The commander looked to the soldier standing behind him and gave him a nod. He jammed his fist into Andy’s burn, and Andy yelled out in pain.

“I could ask him to do it again,” the commander said. “Or I could ask Master Giger here to make the rest of your body match your back.” He gestured to the Pyromagi, who was also in the tent.

Andy shot him the eye, and then shook the pain out and straightened his back. He looked back at the commander.

“Now, would you be so polite as to give us your name?” he asked.

“Andy,” Andy said. “Andy Johnson.”

“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” the commander asked. He threw the insurance papers onto the desk. “But then, I think I already knew that. I also know your birthdate, your address and your… home phone number, it appears. Not that this makes any sense whatsoever to me, but it matters not. You may call me Captain Ynnia. Burz, if you prefer.”

Andy recognized the name immediately. Hatsch had mentioned it. His commanding officer, but the way Hatsch told it, he was only a Lieutenant.

“Captain, eh?” Andy said. “Moving up in the world aren’t we, Burz?”

“So you’ve heard of me?” Burz asked, smiling. “Hatsch lives, then. Interesting. No matter. He’ll be dealt with soon enough, and now we have you to deal with. So now, Andy Johnson… Tell me. Who are you?”

Andy laughed. “What, you haven’t figured that out yet? You think we’ve just been hiding away in the Disputed Lands for all these years? You saw the border– the place is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.” He motioned to the things on the table. “You don’t even know what most of these things are, or how they work.” He shook his head. “Buddy, we dropped out of the sky, okay?”

“The sky?” Burz asked. He looked up, then raised an eyebrow. “You’re not lying.”

“No, I’m not. You want to know how we came to be here? We arrived. That’s it. One minute we were at home, in our own world watching Dick Van Dyke reruns, and the next we’re in yours. We didn’t ask for it, we didn’t want it. It just happened. And now we’ve got to deal with you assholes.”

Burz looked Andy in the eye. He stood up. “Another world?” he asked. “You’re sure?”

“Buddy, I was born at the ass end of World War Two,” Andy said. “I’m sixty-four years old, I grow my own dope, and I live in a trailer in the quaint little town of Dunsmith. I’ve never seen or heard of the Disputed Lands, Vector, Halen, Rasza, Shavi or the Pactlands, and buddy, if you think you stand a chance against modern Canadian ingenuity, you got another thing coming..”

Burz slumped back down into his seat. Andy could see he was running over the facts in his mind. His eyes darted to the objects on the table. Finally, he stood up, looked to the soldier standing behind Andy. “Send for a runner,” he said. “Make sure he’s swift. I want him in Anastae by tomorrow evening.”

The soldier nodded and took off running.

“Now, Andy,” Burz continued. “You’re going to tell me all about your quaint little town. Dunsmith, is it?”

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“Fuck,” Boone swore. “Fuck!” He was banging his fist on the table.

“Calm down,” Sam said. “Andy knew what he was getting into. Beating the table to a pulp isn’t going to bring him back.”

Boone only shook his head. He had heard about it all second-hand from the Halish soldiers that had found his truck. Just the truck, no Andy, and three dead Vectorans. At least he nailed three before they got him.

They were sitting in Andy’s trailer, poring over the surveillance footage since he had been captured when Harriet yelled out and pointed to the live footage they had of the camp. The image was starting to flicker, a result of the battery struggling to stay alive, but they could see them walking Andy up to a tent clearly.

“At least he’s still alive,” Harriet offered.

“Yeah, but for how long?” Boone asked. “And what if they torture him?”

“What if they torture that boy you’re sending out there?” Sam asked. “It’s a risk they were all aware of.”

“Andy told you about that?” Boone asked.

Sam shrugged. “He may have mentioned something.”

Boone scoffed. “So much for National Security.”

“National Security?” Sam rolled her eyes. “You’re playing big government in a small town, Gerald Boone.” She jabbed a finger into his chest. “Which is exactly what we don’t need. Hell, we’re here for a week and you’re already playing J. Edgar Hoover without the nylons.”

“We’re not exactly at home anymore, Sam!” Boone exclaimed. “If you hadn’t noticed, the rules have changed!”

Sam nodded. “That’s why I’m willing to concede on a few things,” she said. “Play your cloak and dagger games, but don’t be surprised when something doesn’t go your way. All I’m saying is that we have to stay true to our values, even if we can’t always live up to them.” She looked over to the failing camera. “Now, we may need to reconsider that battery idea.”

Boone blinked. “You’re not serious? It’s a camp full of soldiers.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury to consider it anymore,” she said, ignoring him. “We need an eye in there, and that camera needs new batteries. It’s that simple.”

“And just how the hell are we going to sneak in there and do that? There’s not a half-dozen anymore. There’s a hell of a lot more.”

“What are you, an idiot? You’re sending five men there the morning after next. Get them to do it.”

Boone acted as if he’d been struck, and then thought about it for a moment. They couldn’t sneak into the camp to replace those batteries, inconspicuously climb the tree and replace them with so many soldiers, but there was a chance one of the boys could.

He glanced over at the phone, and was about to reach for it when Sam shot her hand in front of it. “No,” she barked.

“What?” Boone asked.

“Listen, they’ve got one day left, those boys. One day left of a reasonably normal life. After that, it all changes. Let them enjoy that last day,” Sam’s eyes flickered in the light. She was serious. “Andy’s smart. He’ll survive.”

Boone’s hand relaxed. “Fine,” he said. He stood up. “I’ve got to go see Goose anyway. This is something that he needs to be told in person.” He looked back. “Look, you guys should stick around here, see what you can find on the cameras. Vector won’t attack tonight.”

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When morning finally rolled around, Ryan felt fully energized. It was odd, since the last day had definitely been the hardest on him. He was the first out of bed, and the first dressed. Even ahead of Bayne, who was always the first one awake. The sun shone in through the eastern window of the large room that took up the Inn’s entire upper floor. It reminded Ryan somewhat of an orphanage. All the travelers slept in the same room. Ryan didn’t think he’d ever slept in a room with strangers.

He was surprised to see he wasn’t the first one awake. When he walked out the front door to catch a breath of fresh air, he saw that a young dark-haired woman had beat him to it. She stood in the courtyard of the inn, running through a series of exercises. Her movements reminded him of Tai Chi. He often saw Boomer going through similar exercises. The girl looked over at him as she noticed she was being watched. Ryan smiled at her. “Morning,” he greeted.

The girl looked back at him and cocked her head in confusion. “Yes,” she said. “It is.” She seemed confused.

“No, no,” Ryan said. “I mean good morning.”

“Ahh, yes,” Henna said. “Good morning to you, too. You must be Ryan.”

Ryan nodded, then paused for a moment. “Not that I mind, but how do you know my name?” he asked.

“I met with Terra last night. We partook of her sweetflower weed together and listened to sublime music,” she explained. “My name is Henna.”

“Crazy,” Ryan said. “Well, nice to meet you. You a dancer or a fighter?”

Henna suddenly loosened her form. She turned to face Ryan with a look of confusion on her face. “Why would you assume that?” she asked.

“I meant no disrespect. I have a friend who’s really good at fighting. He trains by going through movements like that,” he said. “I just assumed that you were either a dancer or a fighter because of that.”

Henna smiled. “I see,” she said. “The truth is that I’m both. I’m a dancer by trade, but I can hold my own at the very least.” She gave him a sly wink. “You’re an early riser, I see.”

“Not usually,” Ryan admitted. “I guess I just couldn’t sleep anymore. Something about the idea of bedbugs gets to me.”

“Today is Harbinger’s Solstice,” Henna said. “Terra had told me that you don’t celebrate it at Dunsmith.”

Ryan shrugged. “Well, we do and we don’t. We have a Summer Solstice on June twenty-first,” he said. “Which is interesting, because I think that’s today. Our date system’s a little different than your. We have twelve months, you have thirteen.”

“Well, it is the fourteenth day of Septra,” Henna said. “It is the center of the year.”

Fourteenth of Septra, Ryan thought. That meant that Dunsmith had arrived on the morning of the eighth of Septra. He laughed to himself.

“What’s funny?” Henna asked.

“It’s Saturday,” he said, smiling.

Henna blinked. “It’s what?”

Ryan explained the concept of naming the days to Henna. She eagerly accepted the information and had more questions besides. The names of the months, the nations of his world. Ryan found he liked Henna. He had never met anyone from the Pactlands so curious about Earth, and the two talked until Bayne wandered out of the inn, and muttered a grumpy greeting as he walked over to relieve himself in a flower bed. Everyone else woke up after that.

They took their time to get ready, and Henna took the time to properly introduce herself to the others. She fluttered around from person to person, asking questions and listening intently to their answers. Her attitude and general naivety was endearing, even to Bayne, who was gruff towards anything with two legs and a heartbeat. As the group began walking toward Cilasia, Henna seemed to be making friends with all of them.

They had been on the road for an hour when they crested the top of a large hill, one of many they had been climbing since Arronay as the path led them higher up into a mountainous region. Ryan was the first to the top, and blew an appreciative whistle. In the distance, he could see the first signs of the city. The size of it was immense, even from where they were, still miles away, the great city stood high and tall. It was built right into the side of a mountain, as though it had been carved out.

“The King’s Palace lies in the cliff-face,” Bayne said, pointing. “The city is sprawled out below.”

“It’s in the mountain?” Ryan asked. “It’s a part of the mountain?”

“Aye,” Bayne replied. “Carved by the Geomagii at the Signing of the Pact. A gift to Halen.”

“That’s unbelievable,” Terra mentioned. Even Cale had stopped to gawk at the city.

“Come, then,” Nalya said, moving past the group. “Your eyes won’t draw the city any nearer.” She walked off at an increased pace. The others followed close behind.

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By the next morning, the whole town had heard of Vector’s incursion onto McKenzie Avenue. The Dunsmith Chronicle had run a special edition that morning, the second since the town had arrived in the Pactlands. They’d called in many of the shift workers at the press, and by morning there was a paper on the racks at every convenience store, on the table at every restaurant, and on the doorstep of the paper’s regular subscribers. However, at Goose and Boone’s insistence, the paper gave no information on what had happened to Andy Johnson.

Boomer read the article carefully. He had tried to give Andy a call that morning after first seeing the article, curious as to why he hadn’t been informed from the start, but he chalked it up to just being too busy to deal with. After all, they had their hands full in trying to reinforce their borders.

Thankfully, he read that nobody had been hurt. At least nobody from Dunsmith or the Halish army. Three Vectorans had been killed, one run over and two others shot to death. Boomer smirked. That ought to teach them to mess around on Dunsmith’s land.

Boomer put the paper down and walked to his back door. Andy had spoken to him the night before about when he was due to ship out, and Boomer had spent the last few hours before going to bed training in his back yard. He’d been neglecting exercise for the past few weeks, even before coming across to the Pactlands. Now, however, he didn’t have much of a choice. He needed to be quick, nimble and able to deal with anything the Vectorans might dish out.

He walked out into the morning sunlight and took his time stretching on his back patio. He ran through a brief series of exercises and then started his morning routine. It was a series of jumps and kicks, not meant for offense, but more for show, techniques to make him limber and more flexible. Moon kicks and five-forties, back flips and front flips. He used the back wall of his house as a springboard and jumped to the top of the wooden fence lining his backyard, then held his balance there as he walked along the top rim as quick as he could.

He jumped back down, flipping in the air and landing barefoot in the grass when he checked the time. Just after ten in the morning. He stretched for a little bit longer, and then went back inside. He poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat back down at the table.

The quarter he’d been working on for the week since discovering he was a Psimagi sat in the same spot it had since he’d started trying to budge the thing with his mind, to no avail. He’d been practicing daily and had gotten to the point where he could easily control the reading of people’s minds. He no longer randomly picked up on people’s stray thoughts, and he could now reach out and sense people at a distance, even look through their eyes, provided he had a general idea of where they were. Once in a while an image or surface thought would flow through to his mind, but it was so rare that most of the time, he imagined the thought was his own to begin with. Ignoring the quarter for the morning, he decided to run upstairs and get ready for the day.

By the time he had showered, shaved and dressed, it was past eleven. Arie and Lily were supposed to have contacted the Magick Society that morning for their Capture the Flag session in the woods behind the town, and then they were to meet at the trail entrance at noon. Boone had been very strict about where in the trails they were allowed to go, reminding him that with the army of Vector being present, there was no guarantee that anywhere within the trails would be safe, but he allowed it. By the time Boomer had gotten dressed for the day, he had just enough time to make it there.

He came to find most of the Society had already arrived. Lily and Arie were already busy separating the teams. He could see the talisman that held Tam around Arie’s neck. She had obviously put him away for the duration of the game, which was just as well. After all, with Tam around monopolizing her magick, she had no ability.

After the teams had been decided upon, Boomer cleared his throat and spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.

“All right, Red Team. Blue Team,” he said, making sure to sign as he spoke for Marie’s benefit. “The rules are simple. You are to capture the other team’s flag and return it to your own base. You will be engaging in mock battles using your magick, so take it easy on each other. I don’t want to see anything brutal going on. Each team is allotted two healers, one mobile, and one stationary which will be remaining at your base.” He took a moment to catch his breath. “You may take prisoners. You may question prisoners utilizing any means short of outright abuse. We’ll be playing for four hours, after which time the team with the most flags will be declared winner.”

“What do we get when we win?” Raine Walsh asked.

“Respect,” Boomer replied, looking back at Raine. “Keep in mind that I’ll be refereeing this game, so don’t be trying to attack me thinking me part of the other team, you’ll be disqualified, and you’ll probably get a good lump on your head for your trouble. No hand-to-hand, magick only. Each team leader will be given a radio, and it’ll be up to your team to choose a leader. You have two minutes to do so. After which time, any command your team leader gives must be followed. They are responsible for strategy and the safety of your teammates. Remember, there’s some rough country back there in the trails, so I want you all to be as careful as you can. If someone’s injured, whether on your team or not, you get them to a healer.” He scanned the faces in the crowd, to see if anyone had any questions. They all looked back at him stoically.

With that, he gave each team two minutes to decide on a team leader. The red team winner was Arie by a landslide, and the blue team had chosen Lily, but not without a few words of objection from Raine, who believed himself to be the better choice.

After team leaders had been chosen, he sent the red team off to choose their base, sending them south along the trail, and the blue team he sent west. Lily pushed Marie along the flat trail. No doubt they’d find a suitable base and get Marie in all nice and snug to do her job.

Boomer stayed at the entrance and waited. After a  few minutes, he received runners from the teams, and the games officially began.

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The outskirts of Cilasia were dotted with many farms and orchards. Terra could see many men and women out toiling in the fields, picking fruit and generally getting ready for the day’s celebrations. Now that they drew nearer to the city, it towered over them, the King’s Palace carved delicately into the rock face. She was still awed by the sight. Nothing she had ever seen would have prepared her for it. An entire city carved out of a mountain. Not even National Geographic could have pictured it. Terra was busy wearing out the memory card in her camera, snapping pictures of everything she saw that was picture-worthy. On the face of the cliff, above the windows and rooms of the King’s Palace, a phrase was written in the rock.

“May no harm befall the people of Halen while the blood of Hillbreaker flows from this stone,” it read. Terra snapped a picture of it while Nalya explained its meaning, that when Cilasia was built under the supervision of the first Nadus Hillbreaker, nearly a thousand years earlier after the Signing of the Pact, it was an agreement that Halen shall be safe for as long as his blood continues to flow within its King.

Even Quick, who had learned quickly how to use the camera, kept pointing at different things to take pictures of, and it wasn’t just the architecture. He jumped up and down excitedly and pointed to a large tree with yellow bark that was enclosed in a fenced-off area just before the city walls.

“That’s Arkham’s Twin,” Bayne explained. “A gift to Halen from Rasza. There’s only two trees like that in existence. One here, and one grows in Telemenn.”

“Only two?” Terra asked. It seemed incredible that only two trees of the same species could exist. She snapped a few pictures of the tree, and then a few of the group as they stood in front of the tree. Henna had expressed interest in the device, and wondered at the ability of the camera to capture sights inside of it. She had been full of questions about the other kinds of goodies that could be found in Dunsmith, but many of the explanations confused her. Terra, Ryan and Cale either didn’t know how to explain it, or there was simply no frame of reference in the Pactlands. When Ryan had tried to explain computer or telephone technology, Henna’s eyes clouded over and she could only nod dumbly.

They passed by a couple of Halish guardsmen standing at the city gates. They dressed much the same as the Halish soldiers they had seen in Stone’s Mouth, but the way they carried themselves was much different. They stood with a confident posture, but their faces wore looks of boredom and apathy. When they had gone through the city gates and stood at the crossroads that took people either towards the King’s Palace or the Marketplace that lined the shores of Lake Cillen, they stood and stared. The streets within the city were packed with people running about doing their daily shopping, or delivering goods. They spotted a couple of beggars sitting together in the shade offered by a makeshift linen awning jutting out the side of a building.

Nalya was the first to speak. “My family’s house is just up this way, towards the King’s Palace,” she said. “That should be our main destination. I’ve no doubt you’d all like to get cleaned up and relax for a little while.”

Terra nodded vigorously. She’d had all of one bath since leaving Dunsmith, and having spent the last two days walking, she was starting to smell fairly ripe. Hardly the state she’d prefer to be in while going to a Royal Celebration. When Nalya had mentioned it to her that morning, she had jumped at the opportunity. Even Cale expressed interest in going.

“I guess this is where we part ways,” Henna said. “I have to go and see a friend, but I should like to see you all again soon before you leave for Dunsmith.”

Terra nodded and gave Henna a hug. “Come and see us before we leave,” she said. “We’ll be staying at Nalya’s until then.”

“I plan to,” Henna said. She hugged Terra back, said her goodbyes to the others, and was on her way. Moments later, the rest of them had turned up towards the King’s Palace. After marching through the busy city streets, catching glances from passersby, Nalya stopped them in front of a large building moulded from granite and marble. It had a grand archway that led into a courtyard, and then wide stone steps that led to two large swing-out doors. The House of Roses wasn’t as big as some of the other manors on the street, but it was impressive nonetheless. A mansion by Earth standards, and probably just as impressive by Pactlandian standards.

Nalya stood at the door and knocked on it three times. Within moments, the large doors swung open, and a short round man with a bald head and baby face stood there with a dumbfounded look.

“Lady Nalya!” he exclaimed. “We weren’t expecting you back until the next cycle of the Dream!”

“Things have changed, Ottom,” Nalya replied. She turned back. “This is Ryan Stills, Terra Murphy, and Constable Cale Shephard. They are my guests.”

“Yes, of course, Lady!” Ottom exclaimed, and then hopped into action, swinging the doors wide open and beckoning them inside. “You’ll have to forgive me, Lady. The house has been empty save for your cousin, and I’ve let many of the servants go home for the Solstice celebrations.”

“My cousin?” Nalya asked. Her face twisted into suspicion. “Which?”

“Lady Delora,” Ottom said. “She arrived early last week from Telemenn.”

Nalya furrowed her brow as they walked inside. Once the door had closed behind them, Terra finally got a good look at the place.

Oh, this’ll do,” she said. Both Ryan and Cale nodded in agreement. The room was something right out a Disney movie, swathed in golden hues and polished to perfection. You could see yourself in the marble floors. A large golden chandelier hung, shining with jewels. A polished stone banister lined two sets of stairs laid with soft carpet that led up to the second level. Cale whistled in approval.

“I’ll have your rooms prepared at once,” Ottom announced. “It’s been so long since the House of Roses has received so many visitors.” He ran up to the stairwell and pulled on a large bell that rang loudly, reverberating off of the granite walls. Moments later, a young girl appeared at the top of the stairs.

“You called, Master?” she asked. She was a waif of a girl, as skinny as Terra, if not more. She had tidy brown hair done up in a bun.

“Erma, would you be so kind as to prepare the Lady’s room for her?” Ottom asked. “Sir Bayne and the Lady’s guests will also be requiring rooms.”

Erma nodded and curtsied politely at the top of the stairs. “At once, Master,” she said, and then scuttled off.

“May I prepare any refreshments for you or your guests?” he asked.

“No tea, but some food would be nice, Ottom,” Nalya said.

“At once, Lady Nalya!” Ottom said. He turned and bounded down the hallway, nearly waddling.

“This is awesome,” Ryan said. “No, seriously. I mean it. You live here?”

“At times,” Nalya replied. “It’s a family home.”

“So your cousin is here?” Terra asked.

“Apparently,” was all Nalya could say. She looked back at Bayne and let a look pass between the two of them, then looked back to Terra. “You may leave your things here,” she said. “Ottom will make sure they get to the right place. There is something I must do right now. I will meet you in the dining room in a little while. Bayne will show you the way.” She started to walk up the stairwell, then turned back for a moment. “Take care if you should happen to meet Delora. She’s got a forked tongue on her.” With that, she turned and then bounded up the stairs again.

“Forked tongue?” Terra asked. She looked to Bayne. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“The Lady and her cousin have a complicated history,” Bayne said. “I’ll say naught on the subject, ’tis a personal affair.” He turned to walk down the hallway Ottom had taken off down. “Come on, then. The Dining Hall is this way.”

Leaving their things behind, the three Dunsmithians followed Bayne down the long hallway. It eventually led off to another hallway, and then into a large room.

The room was massive, the size of a school cafeteria, but with higher ceiling and much better decor. Sconces lined the wall, and a large stained glass window with the Ruus family crest let the light in from the outside, casting colored light to drape itself across the center of the room.

“Holy crap,” Ryan exclaimed. “What, you feeding armies in here?”

“Aye, The House of Ruus was once a strong force in Halen, a hundred years ago most of them migrated to Rasza. For generations the place had remained empty, but only about fifteen years ago, when Nalya’s father reopened the House has a Ruus ever set foot in it. Ottom’s been the servant master since then,” Bayne explained.

“Yes, and I’ll likely hold the job until the day of my death,” Ottom said, bursting from the kitchen with a plate of fruit and dried meat. “I owe Lady Nalya’s father a great debt. A debt I am happy to pay with my continued service, even considering.”

“Considering what?” Terra asked, then Bayne cleared his throat and shook his head at Ottom.

“Not my place to say, I’m afraid,” Ottom said.

Terra pulled out a chair and sat down at the end of a long table. The others sat down nearby and within moments, they were tearing into the food that had been offered. Ottom sat at the end of the table and eyed them curiously.

“May I ask, Sir Bayne, where you met your guests?” Ottom asked.

Bayne looked back at him and smiled. “Ottom, ye wouldn’t believe me if I told ye,” he replied. “They come from the Disputed Lands, but their true home is much farther than that.”

“We’re from Dunsmith,” Terra asked. “We’re from another world.”

Ottom blinked in surprise. “Another… world?”

“As queer as it sounds,” Bayne began. “They speak no lies. They’re truly from another world. Seen it with me own eyes, I did.”

Moments later, Nalya came storming into the room, a severe look on her face. She walked straight up to Ottom.

“Has she stated why she’s here?” she asked him.

Ottom briskly shook his head. “No, Lady,” he replied. “She gave no reason. She arrived with her own servant, said not one word to me or any of the other servants, far as I can tell.”

“Blast,” Nalya said. She looked to Bayne.

“What’s the problem?” Ryan asked. “Your cousin?”

Nalya looked back and nodded. “Delora isn’t to be trusted,” she said. “The fact that she’s here has me concerned to no end.”

“Why?” Terra asked. “What did she do?”

Nalya only let her gaze linger on Terra for a moment. She took a deep breath, and then explained, “I’ve explained to you how I came to be in Halen,” she said. “And Delora is a catalyst.” She sighed. “She is partly responsible for my exile from Rasza.”

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Published inChildren of the Halo
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