It took Lily a short while to rummage through the pile of small stones that had been pushed outside of the laundromat at the close of the previous day. Apparently the clerk hadn’t known what to make of the large pile of small pebbles and simply deposited them outside. He had seen Tam the night before when he and Arie had been doing laundry, but was clueless as to how Tam operated, and had admitted as much.
When Lily finally pulled out the talisman that housed Tam’s soul, she breathed a sigh of relief. She put him in her pocket, leaving the pile of pebbles and small stones where it lay. If she was so inclined, Arie could come back to it later and use it to reconstitute Tam. All Lily wanted to do was make sure he wasn’t lost.
It was silly of Arie to leave him like that, no matter what the news he had to share, but Arie was in no state to take care of those issues. She had cried herself silently to sleep the night before in Lily’s arms, the tears drying on her face, causing Lily’s shirtsleeves to stick to Arie’s face.
At least she had Tam back. He was safe. After finding Tam, she made a quick stop at the Coffee Shack to see how things were doing. The evacuation of the southern end of town had resulted in a brief boom in business, coupled with the out-of-towners that were both eager and curious to sample Dunsmith’s many different kinds of food. The Coffee Shack, the Chinese food restaurant and the pizza place on Robert’s Street were stocked full of customers during all hours of the day. Unfortunately, the coffee supply was starting to run low.
Even with the threat of imminent invasion by Vector, business was in top form. Dunsmith’s integration into the local economy, so far, was seamless.
This was especially evident by the strange procession Lily witnessed after rounding the corner of the Coffee Shack. She’d heard from Arie about the Caedans she and Tam had witnessed at the Gas ‘n Dash, but she hadn’t expected to see them lolling about in front of the shop. They were easy to recognize, of course. In contrast to the familiar style of dress favored among the Freemen, the Caedans appeared more nomadic, favoring thick, heavy lengths of cloth draped around their bodies and heads. The complete lack of color stood out the most. It was as though the cloth had been woven without any thought to color.
“Sola be with you,” a young Caedan woman said, bowing her head at Lily.
Lily smiled and nodded in return. She’d heard a little about Caedans, but much of it was still fragmented information. They were a very traditional people, steeped in religion and custom, and strict followers of such ideals to boot. She knew it was against their religion to ride upon the waves, and thus they would never be caught dead on a boat. The punishments for ignoring their dogma were every bit as severe as stories she’d heard of the Inquisition.
Lily’s eyes passed over the other Caedans. She stopped just before entering the shop, then turned and regarded a rickety wooden wagon that the Caedans had obviously been pulling around with them. For a brief moment she wondered if the use of beasts of burden were against their religion. From the look of one particularly meaty gentlemen who was resting on the ground beside the wagon, they had no need of animals for manual labor when a man could do the job just as well, or better.
Inside the wagon she could see a number of loose trinkets, hand-made jewelry no doubt from the shores of Caede, ceramic jars and wooden pipes sat side-by-side, and she caught a hint of cinnamon in the air.
“You are interested in our wares?” an older man asked. He wore a warm smile on his face, and beckoned her to the wagon. “The finest goods from all of Caede. Spices from Cradle, pottery from Shelter, and hand-crafted jewels from the Earthmaw at Orifice.”
Lily, intrigued, walked over to the cart, looking over the wares inside. She found herself disappointed by the lack of color. All the ceramics were in the basic earthbound colors, the pipes either carved from wood or soapstone, even the jewels were bound together with lengths of leather or rope. It was as if the people of Caede had never heard of dyes.
One piece in particular stood out among all the others. She reached out and picked up a single shining green jewel, attracted by her reflection upon its finely cut surfaces.
“Ahh, a beautiful choice,” the man said. “A pure emerald so fine, one could not find it in the deepest parts of the Earthmaw.” He plucked the jewel from her grasp and turned it over in his hands for a moment.
“Burai,” the younger woman said. “Are you–”
The older man, Burai quickly turned to face the woman who had spoken. She was silenced immediately.
“It’s beautiful,” Lily said, ignoring what had gone on between the two. She was mesmerized by the strange jewel.
“A jewel among jewels, my Lady,” he said.
“How much?” Lily asked.
“A fine piece such as this would fetch a large price at most markets. In Arronay I could have sold it for a King’s ransom. But here, now, and for you, I will part with it for only two gold pieces.”
Lily ran the numbers in her head. Two gold pieces had worked out to just over forty dollars. She rummaged around in her purse and pulled out her wallet. Since Dunsmith had arrived, gold and silver pieces had been making the rounds in the local economy. In fact, she had two pieces of gold just sitting in her purse. Without a second thought, she handed the pieces over to the Caedan.
He closed his hands around the gold, then flashed a warm smile at Lily. “I thank you, Lady,” he said. He then dropped the jewel into Lily’s waiting hands. “No matter what you choose to do with it, it will be beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” Lily said. She looked at him sideways for a moment. “Burai, is it?”
“It is,” he replied. He smiled again. “I am the keeper of this caravan, come from the distant shores of Cradle.” He swept his arm out towards the bay. “Across the Aegel Sea.”
“You arrived last night, didn’t you?” Lily asked.
Burai nodded. “Yes, we arrived with the setting sun.”
“You don’t seem very shocked,” Lily commented. “Most other locals didn’t quite know what to make of us.”
Burai shrugged. “Had you been hostile towards us, we would have returned to the depths. But there is little to be shocked about within your halo. There have been no evils from what I have seen, no torture of men and women, no needless death being spread among the Disputed Lands at your hands.”
“Yes, but we’re… different,” Lily said. “We’re not like anyone else in the Pactlands.”
“True,” Burai said. “But if you haven’t already noticed, neither are we.” He smiled, regarding Lily for a moment longer. “You must forgive me, Lady. There is much still to do, and Sola’s blessing will only last until nightfall. I give you my thanks for your patronage and your kindness.” He bowed deeply.
Lily smiled, nodded and held up her emerald. “Thank you for the jewel,” she said.
“The time may yet come, Lady, when I shall be thanking you,” Burai replied.
Before Lily could ask what he meant by that, Burai had clapped his hands, causing those in his caravan to come to attention, taking up their stations in the act of pulling the cart from one place to another. They started heading up the street, towards First Avenue, which in recent days had increasingly been used for kiosks, carts and outdoor shops run by both people from Dunsmith and those from surrounding villages. It had quickly become the town’s marketplace, especially with the lack of vehicles coming and going now that most people were out of gas.
Lily watched Burai and the Caedans as they marched downtown in a strange, slow procession. Once they were out of sight, she placed the jewel in her purse and then continued on with her day.
Godri’s Gate was hardly a gate. In fact, from the distance they had been at when Cale had first seen it, it appeared simply as two ruined towers jutting up diagonally from the Halish countryside south of Cilasia.
When he got closer, however, he could see that it truly was a gate. Or, at least, had been at one point. Ruined, broken to little bits and grown over through years of disuse, Godri’s Gate had once stood during the reign of Eventide, towering over the lands and keeping out unwanted armies along the old roads of the Pactlands. It was a testament to an age long past; even now, the lands around Godri’s Gate were ripe with life.
“Godri’s Gate has long since been a staging ground for the Halish Forces,” Corpus explained from atop his horse. He pointed out towards the horizon. As far as the eye could see, there were tents erected and campfires burning. The sound of horses and the clash of metal-on-metal rang through the air. Cale had never seen so many soldiers in one place in his lifetime. “Just south of here lies the Disputed Lands. In fact, you can see the beginning of the Aegel mountains in the distance yonder.” He pointed to the southeast to a string of mountains running southward.
“Good,” Ryan said, trying to rein in his horse. “That means it won’t be long.”
“That remains to be seen,” Nalya said. “It could be another week before we’re back.”
“Another week?” Terra asked. “But it only took us three days to get to Halen before.”
“We were on quads then,” Cale said. “And there were only the five of us. With ten thousand, the rules are a little different. We’ll have to taken a different route. Could take longer.”
“We’ll leave it to General Liass to plot out our route,” Corpus said. “It depends which way we go, but we might be able to mainline our transit by going through the El’Dar lands.” He turned back and regarded the small troop of honor guards the King had sent with them. Apparently they were still cautious concerning Astara’s influence and wanted to take no chances with the exiled Cloudstalker. They only looked back at Corpus, a questioning look on their faces.
Corpus gave them a nod, and they turned, heading back in the direction of Cilasia. Those that were left behind, consisting of Bayne, Nalya, Corpus, Terra (who rode with Maryn and Quick), Ryan, Cale and Arynn Shima turned towards the camp and started to ride.
Ryan swore as he tried to convince his horse unsuccessfully to follow a straight line. Instead, it chose to stop every few feet and munch on some grass, causing Ryan no end of frustration. He swore and yelled at the horse, but it did him no good. The thing simply wouldn’t listen. Bayne had ended up having to tie a rope to his saddle, making sure to pull Ryan and his horse along.
By the time they had reached the bottom of the hill, they had come into the outskirts of the Halish camp. Three soldiers rode up, stopping them before they entered the camp.
“Corpus Indetae?” one asked, looking over those assembled.
Corpus nodded. “Yes,” he replied.
The man saluted him, holding his knuckles to his chest. “I’m to invite you and the Lady-Captain Ruus to meet with General Liass,” he said.
Corpus saluted back, nodding. “Just show us the way.”
The soldier nodded, turning his horse around and walking alongside Corpus and Nalya, while the others came up in the rear.
“We received word late last night of the King’s orders,” the soldier said. “Even the General isn’t quite sure what to make of them, and he’s in a foul mood because of it. What’s this about lending our support to Freemen?”
“They’re not Freemen,” Nalya corrected. “They are Canadians, a different breed of people not from the Pactlands, and they lay directly in Vector’s path.”
“Well, I apologize for being presumptuous, Lady,” the soldier said. “But isn’t that their own fault? Perhaps they should not have put themselves at Vector’s mercy. The General is very outspoken about such things.”
“The situation is… complicated, Captain,” Nalya said. “Suffice it to say, the people of Dunsmith had little choice in how and where they arrived.”
“There’s a few rumors going among the men,” the soldier mentioned. “That this… town we go to assist, Dunsmith, is born of another world. A preposterous notion, to be sure, but–” he paused as he studied the look on Corpus and Nalya’s faces. “By Eiden’s Arm, it can’t be true, can it?”
Nalya nodded, then motioned to those trailing behind her. “They’re born of Earth,” she said. “A world separate from our own devoid of magick but filled with many great wonders.” She smiled. “You will see when we arrive there. It’s nothing to be trifled with.”
“I never would have thought,” he said, then laughed. “Another world. What other surprises will this universe have in store for us?”
Before long, he had led them in to a large tent near the center of the camp. From inside, they could hear an angered voice yelling out. Cale and Ryan shared a look as a young soldier burst out from the tent, eager to be to his business, and no doubt eager to be away from the general. The soldier climbed from his horse and poked his head into the tent. A moment later, he beckoned the rest of them in.
One-by-one, the group filed into the large tent. Terra chose to remain outside, and played a game with Maryn, who had been quite upset at having to leave her aunt behind in Cilasia, but had taken to the task without so much as an argument. Arynn climbed from his horse, then mulled about in his bags.
When Cale finally entered the tent, he could see a number of maps laid out on a thick oak table in the center. Crates and boxes lined the walls. Closer inspection revealed that they were maps of the Disputed Lands. A man no older than Cale stood at the table, regarding each of them with a sour look on his face, a black eyepatch over one eye.
“The Lady Nalya?” he asked.
Liass threw a piece of parchment on the table, then pointed at it. “My orders,” he said. “I’m to escort you lot to a location within the Disputed Lands known as Dunsmith, which I cannot locate upon a single map. I’m told it lies in the Aegel Coast region, but yet, it’s not there.” He sighed. “Which can mean one of two things. Either our King has lost his mind, or the rumors I’ve heard hanging on the winds around here are true.”
Nalya nodded. “They’re true, General.”
“Good,” Liass said. “I’m no fool, Lady. I’ll follow my King’s orders to the Soundless Path and back again, but I’d feel better about it if I knew he weren’t stricken with madness.” He eyed the map on the table. “We’ve been ready to move since early this morning, and I’ve sent an advanced scout up ahead to help us ease our way into the Disputed Lands.” He jabbed a finger at a map he’d been working on. A thin black line was drawn along it, outlining a path that would take the army deep into the Aegel Coast.
“This is the path you’ve outlined?” Corpus asked.
Liass nodded, looking over the map. “Yes,” he said. “I wasn’t sure of the exact location of this town, but I’ve estimated its location.”
“You’re not far off,” Nalya said. “Only a little farther south.”
“How long do we figure it’ll take?” Cale asked.
Liass looked up at Cale, obviously startled. After a moment, Liass’ eyes eased up, and he said, “You’d be one of the new noblemen, wouldn’t you?”
Cale nodded. “Cale Shephard,” he said, then reached out to shake his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Liass said.
“Captain?” Cale said. “No, no. I’m not a Captain, I–”
“What rubbish are you going off on? You’re a Lord of Halen, are you not?” he asked
Cale shrugged. “Well, technically. But–”
“Then for as long as you, or any Lord or Lady of Halen travel with us, you are a Captain in our forces.”
“Wait,” Ryan said. “So, like… we can give out orders?”
Liass nodded. “Yes. You’ll have your own private guards,” he said. “Private tents. Don’t worry, you’ll be traveling in relative comfort.”
“Sweet,” Ryan said. “I like the sound of that.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Cale barked.
Ryan shrugged, dismissing Cale.
“Wait a moment,” Bayne said, then pointed at the map below. “This would take us right through El’Dar lands.”
Liass nodded. “It’s summer. The El’Dar will likely be high in the mountains this time of year.”
“How can ye be sure?” Bayne asked.
“I cannot,” Liass admitted. “But in order for us to make haste, we must pass through the El’Dar Plains. The Eastern Pass near Asha’Nigh is too wild for an army this size to pass through there. It would add days to our journey. We’ve not had a force this size outside of Halen since the Freeman Wars.”
“It’s a bloody foolish risk,” Bayne commented.
“I don’t get it,” Cale said. “El’Dar? I think you’ve mentioned them before, but–”
“The El’Dar are a strange people,” Nalya said. “They are fiercely protective of their secrets, and their lands. It’s hard to say what they would do when faced against ten thousand soldiers, but they are capable warriors and magii to say the least.”
“Aye,” Bayne said. “Ten feet high they are, with long trumpeting noses and sharp tusks. Even one of them could easily face off against ten of our soldiers. Perhaps more.”
“Sounds like an elephant,” Ryan commented.
Cale looked back at Ryan for a moment. “Sounds like trouble,” he replied. “I’d say risk it, but we can’t expect every hostile race to turn out like the Featherclaw.”
“Featherclaw?” Liass asked. “You’ve met with the Featherclaw?”
Ryan nodded. “On our way north, into Halen,” he said. “They captured us at first, then went through some weird ritual.”
“They gave you their names of honor?” Liass asked.
Liass gave a knowing grunt. “That may make this that much easier,” he pointed towards another spot on the map, just south of the El’Dar lands. “This is Highcrest territory. They’re not as hostile as the Quicktooth or the Steelclaw, but they can be difficult if they don’t think you should be lolling about in their lands. If you’ve got names of honor, it’ll make it that much easier going.”
“So then our only real risk is the El’Dar?” Nalya asked.
“Then I think that would be our best path,” she said. She looked to Corpus. “Don’t you?”
Corpus nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “It’s a risk, to be sure.”
“What kind of risk?” Cale asked.
“It’s difficult to say,” Liass said. “El’Dar tend to be unpredictable. To be honest, it largely depends on which tribe we happen to come across. Earning the right of passage is no easy task when you’re prepared for El’Dar. Many a traveler has thought to negotiate passage with them only to end up impaled on their tusks.”
Ryan shrugged. “Well, I guess we’re going to have to risk it,” he said. “How long do you figure until we hit Dunsmith?”
“Depends on how quickly we make time,” Liass said. “Could be four days, could be nine. I’d say no more than ten at the most.”
“That’ll be almost three weeks,” Ryan said. “Three weeks we’ll have been gone.”
“Then we can only hope Dunsmith still stands when we arrive,” Nalya said.
Boomer had never been worked so hard in his life. He’d been appointed to tasks that should have been afforded to a beast of burden, like a horse, mule, or one of the strange ostrich-like birds with bright, multicolored feathers he’d seen pulling carts and unearthing stumps back at the Vectoran Camp. Myrnah, they were called. Now the horses had been rationed to soldiers of importance. Giger seemed to take a special joy in riding alongside Boomer, taunting him the entire way.
“What’s the matter, Bond?” he’d say. “Not used to such labor? No wonder your people banished you– such a useless worker!”
To which, of course, Boomer would only smile back at the man until he got bored of taunting him, which was usually pretty quick. Andy, on the other hand, was in a rougher condition than Boomer, and even he was pulling a cart loaded with supplies for the trip. Foodstuffs and weapons, kept at a distance from the prisoners who were bound to the front of the wagon, capable only of pulling the things. Giger had no end of enjoyment taunting Andy, and Boomer could see it was getting to the old man. The one time Andy had spoken back, telling Giger to shut his pie-hole until he had something of at least moderate intelligence to say, he had been kicked in the face, sending him sprawling onto his back. It took him a moment to gather himself together and continue on pulling, his eye swelling up from the impact and a look of distaste on his face. Giger kept up with his taunts, trying to goad Andy into saying something further.
Boomer frowned. The mentally unstable pyromagi was just pushing matters, like an elementary school bully, he was looking for any excuse he could get in order to make Andy and Boomer’s lives more miserable. Even Boomer had felt his anger starting to boil over before he reminded himself that Giger was really no more than a child. To that, he felt better, but he still really wanted to tell Giger off.
That time would come. Sooner than later. It was June twenty-third by the internal Earth calendar in his head. The sixteenth day of Septra. Monday. By Friday, the rules were once again going to change, and he had a lot of work to do in that time. Thankfully, he’d been sent to Anastae a lot sooner than he had originally anticipated, leaving Justin, Grear, Teslan and the others to their jobs, while he went off to perform him own.
They’d left not long after dawn. Boomer spent much of the morning loading the Vectoran wagon, and less than an hour later, they were ready to go. Five Vectoran soldiers guarded them as they walked, while Giger watched over the procession, goading them into some unforgivable act. Needless to say, it was tiring.
“You’re slowing down,” Giger griped. “Pick up your feet and move before I light a fire until your heels.” He let a small burst of flame roar forward from his hand for effect.
Boomer didn’t argue. He didn’t want to argue. He wanted to play nice. He merely kept his head down, said, “Yes, sir,” and picked up the pace. At the rate they were moving, Boomer estimated they’d already gone a full ten kilometers from the Vectoran camp. From what he understood, it would still be another two days before they arrived at Anastae. That would give him two days to complete his mission.
“Hold!” the soldier at the front of the procession bellowed, causing the lot of them to slow to a stop. “Who goes?”
Giger ignored Boomer for the time being, choosing instead to focus on what lay ahead. A single man dressed in thick purple robes walked towards them, his head held high and regarding them with a look of interest.
“Stop,” Giger said, riding up to the man. He produced a small flame in his hands. “Who are you?”
The man merely looked up at Giger and smiled. “My name is Phearon Tome,” he said. “I hail from Shavi, and I’ve been given full permission by your Lord Ryde to seek my charge in these lands.”
“You have proof of your claims?” Giger asked.
Phearon nodded and produced a small piece of parchment, which Giger looked over for a moment. After reading through it, he nodded at the man.
“Seems to be in order,” he said. “What charge do you seek?”
“A young woman,” he replied. “A Geomagi. I think it may be possible that she has sought out refuge in this strange new city north of here. Perhaps you’ve seen her, she travels with an Elemental.”
“An Elemental?” Giger asked. “No, I’ve seen no such thing outside of Anastae.”
Boomer’s eyes shot open only momentarily, but he caught a harsh glare from Andy, who shook his head quickly. Boomer got the hint and laid his eyes back down on the ground, listening to what the men were saying. He hadn’t a doubt in his mind that Phearon was talking about Arie. In fact, he could see a crisp, clear image of her in his head, picked up by the residual thoughts from Tome. He was hunting her– and finding her was a matter of life and death. His.
“You’ll find our camp to the north of here,” Giger said. “But you’ll have little luck crossing the border into their city. They’ve got that protected for quite a ways. We’re still trying to poke our heads in, but they’re able to push us back before we can even take note of where we are.”
Phearon nodded. “I understand,” he said. “I will travel a ways north. As I understand it, there’s a small village northwest of here.”
“Stone’s Mouth,” Giger said, nodding. “Our scouts say they’ve begun fortifying the village. It could very well be dangerous for a single man.”
Phearon smiled. “I think you’ll find me more formidable than a single man,” he said. He pointed his arm towards the ground, and Boomer watched as thick clumps of soil broke apart and climbed the air towards his waiting hand.
A Geomagi. They’d sent a Geomagi after Arie. Boomer wished he could send a message, any message, but he was at a loss. His only connection back to the town was Justin, and he was back at the Vectoran camp. He wouldn’t be seeing him anytime soon.
“I see,” Giger said. “And what will you do with this girl?”
“Is that any business of yours?” Phearon asked.
“Perhaps,” he replied. He wore a sly smile. “Perhaps I could make it my business.”
“No need,” Phearon said. “I go in service of the Council. The girl is to be untouched, which is something your General Ryde understands with all that he is.” He looked at Giger sideways. “Would you go against Ryde’s wishes?”
Giger frowned. “I’m no fool,” he said. “Bah! Fine!” He moved his horse out of the way. “Pass, then. Report to Captain Ynnia when you arrive at the camp, then seek out your charge, Geomagi.”
“As I’d intended,” Phearon replied. He smiled, bowed, and then walked past Giger. He paused as he reached Andy, examining him closely, but then stopped altogether when he reached Boomer.
“You,” he said.
“Me?” Boomer replied.
“You’re from this place, are you not? This… Dunsmith?” Phearon asked.
Boomer nodded. “I am. I… was.”
“His people have no love for him,” Giger said. “He is an exile among his own. Or so he claims.”
Phearon frowned up at Giger, then looked back to Boomer. “I seek a young woman,” he said. “She may have gone in search of shelter, and may be using a false name. She travels with an Elemental.”
Boomer looked back at Phearon dumbly. “A what?”
“Pay him no heed,” Giger said. “They are ignorant oafs, with no concept of how this world works.”
“I may be ignorant,” Boomer said, finally having enough of Giger’s bullshit. “But I’m not an oaf. Do you know what the Internet is? Cable television? Ex-lax?” He looked Giger said in the eye, and could almost see the steam building up inside his head. “No? Well, you’d better go Google it, then. Asshole. Until you can do that, you can’t say shit about me not knowing anything about this place.”
Phearon smirked slyly, then looked back at Giger. “A lively one you’ve got here,” he said. “I like him.”
“He’ll learn some manners before the day is through,” Giger said. “Then he’ll know better than to mock his betters.”
“Betters?” Boomer said. “Hell, I’ve scraped better-looking stuff than you off of my shoe.”
Phearon laughed out loud. “A wonderful jest,” he said. “But you still have not answered by question. The girl with the Elemental. A creature of stone. She goes by the name of Arie Boas. The elemental will be claiming to be her brother. You’ve seen no such person?”
Boomer wore his best poker face. “No, I haven’t heard of them. Besides a few folks from up there at Stone’s Mouth and those Halish guys, you people are the first I’ve met here. I’ve never even seen one of these elemental things.” He shrugged. “I don’t think this Arie chick you’re looking for is there.”
Phearon examined Boomer for a moment longer. “You’ll forgive me, then,” he said. “But I am one of those who is only satisfied by what he sees with his own two eyes.”
“Suit yourself,” Boomer said. “But I don’t think you’ll have much luck.”
“Still,” Phearon replied. “I shall attempt it nonetheless. The worst that can happen is that she is not there, which means I have one less place to search.”
Or, Boomer thought. Worst-case scenario, you do find her. He let the thought leave his head as soon as it had entered, only choosing to nod at the man.
Phearon turned to Giger. “Good luck on your journey,” he said. “And should you come across her, it’s very important that she be held until I can retrieve her.”
Giger rolled his eyes, but nodded his assent. “I shall watch for her,” he said.
“That’s all I ask of you,” Phearon said, bowing. He then turned and started to walk away, northbound.
As Boomer watched him go, he had a disturbing thought. What if he found her? She wouldn’t be expecting him. Suddenly, Boomer felt his resolve begin to waver. Phearon Tome represented a definite threat to Arie, and Boomer wouldn’t be around to protect her.