Arie was confused. Since she had arrived in Dunsmith, she’d had to learn all sorts of new ways to do things. Television remotes, DVD players, microwave ovens, telephones and light switches she had picked up quickly, but then, Lily was always around to show her how to use them.
The laundromat was another matter entirely. Arie had decided that she would help out by doing the laundry. She had filled the bathtub, poured the liquid that produced the fun little bubbles and foam Arie enjoyed while she bathed, and started work at scrubbing the clothes she found in the hamper. It was a collection of the clothes she had borrowed from Terra, Lily’s own clothes, and a few articles left over from before Terra left.
It was Tam who suggested that they use the laundromat down at the Gas ‘n Dash. They’d seen people using it a number of times, and the sheer ease of washing a basketful of clothes in one fell swoop appealed to the both of them. Arie was frustrated at first, having already filled the bathtub for the purpose of washing her clothes, but Tam took the load of laundry on his shoulders and the two made the short walk to the highway gas station.
The Gas ‘n Dash itself hadn’t changed much from the days before the blacklight. They no longer sold gasoline to the public. The Emergency Committee had put a stop to that. They needed to preserve every last liquid ounce of gasoline for the days to come, but the convenience store was still open. Their stock was beginning to run low, however, and Ron Exeter, the owner, had resorted to local traders to restock his shelves. A few bottles of assorted soft drinks, a small collection of candy bars, magazines and potato chips lined the shelves still remained, but many of the items had given over to loaves of fresh-baked bread, cookies baked by locals, frozen meat and produce. Arie would never have noticed the disparity herself if not for Boomer.
“I think you’re supposed to pay it,” Tam suggested, inspecting the washer. “It says here, insert coins.” He pointed at the silver coin push-slot on top of the machine.
“Don’t be silly,” Arie said. “It’s a machine. What use does it have for money?”
It took them a few more minutes of arguing before Arie finally decided Tam was right. She ran inside the store and spoke to the clerk, handed over a crumpled twenty dollar bill she received as part of her payment allowance for her work with the Magick Society, and came out holding a fresh bottle of cola in one hand, and exact change in the other.
It took her and Tam another moment to figure out how to operate the dials on the machine, another to figure out how to push the money inside the machine, and before long they were well on their way. When the washer roared to life, Arie gave a small victory yell.
“This is far too complicated,” Tam said. “Maybe we should have done it your way.” He watched through the glass window on the washer as the clothes spun around, water sloshing this way and that.
“Well, we’ve got it now,” Arie replied. She hopped up and took a seat on the large table and stared out the window. People were periodically coming and going from the store, often looking in at Tam with surprised expressions. News of his presence had spread through town fairly quickly, and for the first few days he received no respite from the stares, but it was beginning to calm down. Most knew of him, even if they hadn’t yet seen him, but everyone knew who he was. People greeted Tam more often than they greeted Arie, but Arie was completely human, and she dressed more or less like a native of Dunsmith, so people tended not to pay her much attention.
The sun was beginning to fall behind the mountains behind the town, and Arie watched the shadow of the mountains pass over the highway, stretching out into the harbor and beyond. Suddenly, she caught something out of the corner of her eyes. Several people were traveling up the highway, trailed by a couple of wagons. They were dressed in colorful robes and wrapped headgear.
“Tam,” Arie said. She pointed. “They’re Caedans!”
Tam looked over to where she had been pointing and watched. “What are they doing here?” he asked. “They usually only trade at big port cities like Arronay or Kyett.”
“Technically, Dunsmith is a port city, you know.”
“Yes, but it’s new,” Tam said. He stood up. “Do you think we should talk to them?”
“What for?” Arie asked.
Tam only looked back at her. The look on his face told her all she needed to know.
“No, Tam,” Arie said. “I made a promise to these people, and I plan on keeping it.”
“Arie, for all we know Vector’s going to be overrunning this place in a matter of days. We should at least have a way out if we need it. Vector won’t bother with us if we’re traveling underwater with a Caedan caravan,” he said. “And besides, you know what will happen if we stay in one place for too long.”
“Tam, I traveled all the way across Rasza with you. Across the Disputed Lands. Sure, we could go with them to Caede, but then what? They’d find us there, too.” She sighed, then shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere, Tam. I’m staying right here.”
“Arie, be reasonable,” Tam said.
Arie poked Tam in the sigil. “I am being reasonable. You give me one good reason why we shouldn’t stay here. We don’t even know if they’re still looking for you.”
Tam looked between Arie and the Caedans. He sighed. “Arie, they’re not looking for me.”
“What?” Arie asked. “What are you talking about?”
“They want you,” he said. “They’ve wanted you from the beginning.”
“Tam, you’d better explain. I mean now.”
“It’s hard,” Tam said. “I can’t really explain without–”
“Without what?” Arie scowled. “Tam, you explain everything. Right now, or I’ll put you back in your stone and leave you there.”
He let one more look pass between Arie and the Caedans as they walked past the gas station. “Fine,” he said, deflated.
Arie crossed her arms and legs, waiting for his reply.
“I’m not really your brother, Arie,” he said.
“You okay?” Boomer asked as he knelt down in front of Andy.
Andy looked up. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’ll be okay. You shouldn’t stick around here long, they might–”
“They don’t care,” Boomer said. “They told me that I’m supposed to take care of you.”
“And they’re just letting you walk around free?” Andy asked.
“Yeah,” Boomer said. “Looks like I told him something you didn’t.”
Andy scoffed. “Figures,” he said. “So what’s the deal?”
Boomer looked around nonchalantly. He wanted to make sure everyone was out of earshot. Specifically that Giger guy, but none of the soldiers were so much as looking in their direction. “We’re leaving for Anastae in the morning,” he said. “Apparently we’re supposed to be questioned by some guy named Cahl. He’s a Summoner, and not very well known for being merciful.”
“They tell you that?” Andy asked.
Boomer pointed at his head. “In a way,” he replied.
Andy laughed. “Must be useful,” he said.
“At times. How’s the burn?”
“Hurts every time I move,” he said. “But not as bad now. I’ve had worse.”
“Yeah, but none were magickally induced. I have to ask, what the hell were you thinking?” Boomer asked, looking around to make sure nobody was listening. “Going in head first like that. That was such a novice thing to do.”
“Call it overconfidence,” Andy replied. “There were still people on that street. They would have been caught completely unprepared. I had to do something. Besides, I took out three of the bastards.” He beamed with pride.
Boomer just shook his head. “Well, looks like we’re in this together now.”
“Okay,” Andy said. “You be the good cop. I’ll be the bad one.”
Boomer laughed. “Technically, we’re not cops,” he said. “You told them your name.”
Andy nodded. “They can be pretty convincing,” he said. “Told them a few other things, too. Not to worry though. Just try to keep a straight face when they bring up King Elvis.”
Boomer laughed. “Awesome,” he said. “Disinformation at its best.”
Andy looked up to Boomer. “You didn’t give them your real name, did you?”
Boomer shook his head, then smirked. “Shaken, not stirred.”
Andy raised an eyebrow, and smirked back. “Great,” he said. “I’m stuck with double-o dickhead.”
“Justin’s here with the others, too. We’ve got some additional outside support back home, too. Get this– raptors.”
“Raptors, you know. Dinosaurs?”
“Like the spiketeeth?” Andy asked.
“Nope,” Boomer replied. “These guys have feathers.”
“Dinosaurs have feathers?”
“Sure they do,” he said. “They found some raptors in China a few years back, perfectly fossilized. The feathers were clearly visible. They’re about four feet tall, full of teeth and claws, and quick as I’ve ever seen anything.”
“What’s to stop them from eating us?” Andy asked.
Boomer shook his head. “They don’t eat humans. I think they have their rules, they won’t eat anything that can speak.”
“Wait, can they speak?”
“Weird,” Andy commented. He motioned up towards the large tree nearby. “You see it?” he asked.
Boomer looked back. If it hadn’t been for his abilities, he might have missed it, but he saw the image clearly in Andy’s mind before he even turned to see what he was pointing at. It was the surveillance camera.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s dead. Justin’s got replacement batteries, but he’s got to get up there first.”
“Him and the others are over there,” Andy said, motioning to his right. “I saw them go into that tent right after you got here. They haven’t come out yet.” He looked to the sky. “They took my watch, but I figure it’s been about an hour.”
Boomer nodded. “Yeah, it’s just about sundown,” he said. He stood up. “You hungry? Thirsty?”
Andy nodded. “Thirsty as hell, man. I could probably do with some food too.”
“Okay,” Boomer said. “I’ll get you some.”
“Get me a lot,” Andy suggested.
The fat man smelled like piss. It was the first thing that Justin noticed. In fact, the whole damn camp smelled like a mixture of human excrement, body odor and the unmistakable scent of alcohol and vomit.
The fat man, a lieutenant, had introduced himself simply as Vatori. He rolled his eyes when they approached, and had let them know through various ways exactly how he felt about them. He was an abrasive man, gruff, and sat them down in the large tent while he went about gathering what he needed to enlist them.
Finally, he sat down, and Justin held his breath as a wave of urine-soaked stench wafted towards him. The man had a piece of parchment. Justin could see names written down, followed by birthdates and a number. He was surprised to see that for all the Vectorans primitive ways of doing things, they kept very concise, clear records.
Vatori looked up towards Jori. “You,” he said. “Your name.”
“Jori Pelz,” Jori replied. “Born Dextra fifteenth, year one-thousand two.”
Shit, Justin thought. He had a minor comprehension of the Pactlands’ date system. He knew the current date, and even the name of a few of the months. His birthday had only been twenty days prior, and it was Septra the fifteenth. What came before Septra? He knew he’d heard the name of the month before, but he couldn’t–
Vatori looked to him next. “Well?” he asked.
“Alverra,” he said. “Alverra Justin.” Great, how original. He needed to think. What was it? “Born the twenty-third day of Sextra, year one-thousand two.” Was that it? Sextra?
Vatori looked back at him, raising an eyebrow. “Sextra?” he asked.
“He means Sectra,” Jori broke in. “Forgive Alverra, he’s short-minded.”
Vatori only watched Justin for a moment longer, then dismissed it and went on to Teslan, taking his name and birthdate. Before long, all five men had registered. They were now a part of the Vectoran Army. Vatori farted loudly, then took the parchment where he’d written their names. “You lot stay here,” he said. “I’ll be back shortly.”
After he had left, Jori turned to Justin. “Sextra?” he asked.
“I forgot the name of the month,” he said. “I pretty much pulled that out of my ass.”
Teslan laughed and slapped Justin on the back. “Out of your ass,” he said. “Ha! I like that.”
“I’m so glad you approve,” Justin said. “Now that the entire Vectoran Army thinks I’ve been hit by the stupid stick–”
“It’s better that way,” Jori replied. “Now if they ask you a question anyone from the Pactlands would supposedly know, they’ll believe you to be stupid. They’ll put you to menial tasks, which is perfect. Soldiers will loosen their tongues around you and you may listen in without fear of reprisal.”
“And if they don’t buy it?” Justin asked.
“Then you have your gun,” Grear reminded him by tapping the spot on Justin’s leg where the gun had been strapped down. It wouldn’t be easy to get to in a pinch, but he felt much safer just having it.
Teslan was standing near the tent entrance, watching for Vatori’s return, or the unexpected arrival of any other Vectoran soldier. “Your friend is walking about free,” he said. “He must have impressed their Captain.”
“That’s Boomer for you,” Justin said. “The guy could sell ice to an Eskimo.”
“A what?” Teslan asked, looking back.
“Never mind,” Justin said, shaking his head. “What’s he doing?”
“Talking to Andy Johnson,” he replied. “He’d best be careful. They’re not supposed to know each other well.”
“Well, we’re supposed to radio back an update tonight after we’ve settled in properly,” Justin said. “We’ll need to find a way to speak with him before that.”
“I can handle that,” Teslan said. He kept looking out the tent flap, then backed away. “Vatori’s returning.” He walked over to where he had been sitting and tried his best to look nonchalant.
Vatori burst into the tent preceded by a ripe gust of urine-stench. He grumbled to himself for a moment, then regarded the seated men.
“You’re in luck,” Vatori said. “Captain Ynnia’s requested that you lot be stationed under his regiment.”
“We’re honored,” Jori said, nodding.
“Save your honor for the battlefield,” Vatori shot back. “You’ll be part of the invasion force when we receive the orders to push through.”
“When will that be?” Justin asked.
“What, are you deaf as well as dumb? I just told you. When we receive the orders,” Vatori said, shaking his head. “They’ve done their training for the day. For now, you’re to report to Captain Ynnia, receive your orders, and then you can turn in for the night.” He made a little mark on the parchment. “Welcome to the Glory of Vector.”
Lily sprawled out on the couch, weary from her day. She’d spent every waking moment since that morning either training, overseeing the operation of the magick Society, or helping to clear out the rooms in the Journeyman. The society was gaining new members every day, and they were almost up to fifty. Today, however, marked a difference. A young man from a village northwest of Stone’s Mouth, Senta, expressed interest in joining the society. He’d been a capable Aquamagi for several years, training himself for the most part. Even as a Freeman, he could have gone to the academies at Shavi, but he’d refrained. He wanted no part of Shavian society, so when he had heard tell of a Magick Society rising out of a strange city along the Aegel Coast, he’d left immediately.
Dunsmith now had its second out-of-town member. Arie was simply the first. Much of the rest of the day had been spent trying to help the man find a place to stay. It hadn’t taken him long to find employment. He’d searched long and hard for a job in which he could utilize his abilities, but outside of Dunsmith, the pickings were slim. But since everyone had started displaying magickal abilities, a number of different businesses were seeking to hire right out of the society. The Dunsmith Fire Department agreed to hire him almost on the spot upon seeing what he was capable of doing with water, and Lily managed to find him a spare room with a family who lived near the Fire Hall. She’d even fronted his first month of room and board.
Keltz had been increasingly busy with his tasks lately, between running patrols along the southern border, and making numerous trips into downtown and back, she’d seen him for only minutes. She wanted to spend time with him, but his duties kept him busy, just as hers did. Lily doubted she’d be seeing much of him until the business with Vector was done with.
If it was done with.
She found herself thinking of Terra, wondering how far she was from home, and how she and Ryan were doing. She wondered if they’d completed their task or not. For a brief moment she even entertained the worry that she would never see them again, but she quieted that one quickly. The Pactlands were very different from Earth. At least, very different from her corner of it.
She looked over to Terra’s rolling tray. She had left it behind when she left for Halen. Lily used to smoke pot as often as Terra, but by the time she hit eighteen, she got bit by the responsibility bug and quit.
It wasn’t so much that she quit, however. She more or less just neglected to smoke anymore. It was a matter of contention between her and Terra, who was confused by her choice. Still, Lily never minded the fact that Terra smoked. She rather liked the smell.
“What the hell,” she said, then pulled the tray onto her lap, extracted a small bud from Terra’s supply that she had left for her return, and proceeded to grind it up and roll it.
She was halfway through rolling the joint when she heard the front door burst open. It was so loud and sudden that she almost dropped the joint. She quickly finished rolling, tucked the joint behind her ear, then got up to see what was wrong.
She walked down the hallway and stopped by Terra’s room. Arie was inside, out of breath and collapsed on Terra’s bed. It was evident she had been crying.
“Arie?” Lily asked. “What’s the matter?”
“Tam’s a liar,” she said, choking through the tears.
“What?” Lily looked around. Tam wasn’t present. Neither was Arie’s necklace and the talisman that housed Tam’s soul. “Where is he?”
“I left him at the laundromat,” she said.
Lily walked into the room and sat down. “Arie, what are you saying? Why is he a liar? What’s going on?”
Arie looked back at Lily. The tears flowed freely down her face. “I.. I didn’t know where else to go,” she said. “He told me I wasn’t really his sister. That my mother… was never really my mother. She only cared for me.”
“What?” Lily asked. “Calm down, explain from the start.”
Arie took a deep breath. She let her nerves calm a bit before speaking. “He said he didn’t know himself until a few months ago,” she said. “Before he was sentenced. He said it was the reason he’d been sentenced.”
Lily nodded, listening intently.
“He said that he came to fetch me one night from Hult Scaszi’s home, but I had already left.”
“Hult Scaszi. He’s the man who had been helping me advance in my studies. He’d hired a very accomplished Geomagi to tutor me. Hult is a very rich and powerful man. He was so friendly to me always.” She shuddered. “Tam says he came, and saw Hult talking with another man.”
“What were they saying?”
“He said Hult had intentions to marry me,” she said. She sighed. “I always knew he had an attraction towards me, but to marry?” She shook her head. “And then he overheard them talking about the Queen’s death.”
Arie nodded. “Of Shavi. Queen Mystra. But she’s still alive. At least, she was when I left Shavi. He said he overheard details of a plot to kill the Queen. He couldn’t hear well, so he moved in closer. Then they said it would soon be the time of revealing, whatever that means.”
“What about the part where you’re not really his sister?”
“He said that when I was young, I was stolen away from my true parents, who were made to believe I was dead,” she said. “I was then given to my mother, who would care for me until the time came.”
“Did he say who your true parents were?”
Arie nodded. “He did.”
“Who were they?”
Arie looked up and met Lily’s gaze. “My father’s name was Marthain,” she said. “He died several years ago, but his wife, as far as I know, still lives.”
“Why don’t you seek her out?” Lily asked.
“Because I know exactly where she is,” she said. “Her name is Mystra Windchaser. She’s the Queen of Shavi.”
Lily could only stare back at Arie. Arie’s eyes met hers, reflecting the lights in the room and shuddering. They were searching for answers, and Lily was speechless. What could she say to that? She pulled the joint from behind her ear, stuck it in her mouth, then lit it with a zap from her fingertips. After inhaling, she passed it to Arie.
“Here,” she said, holding the smoke in her lungs. “You need this more than I do.”