The day’s travel had been hard on Phearon. He was growing weary from the distance he’d been forced to go in search of the Boas girl. Still, he knew better than to decline a personal request from the Council. He’d seen the examples made of people who refused to bend to their will.
It had been a day since he had run into that pompous young Pyromagi on the path northward, into the small camp occupied by the Vectoran forces. He’d come bearing an emergency message for Captain Ynnia from General Ryde, a favor to the General for his willingness to assist Phearon in his task. Phearon didn’t honestly expect him to live up to the bargain, but it was still important to keep up appearances.
When he arrived at the camp, he’d put the message directly into Ynnia’s hands. He spent the night at the camp, talking to the soldiers about finding ways into the strange city. He’d been told of a small caravan of merchants halted who had actually been to the place. They were put to the question immediately, but they had nothing of any real value. Only that the path they took to enter the town was through a small village called Stone’s Mouth.
After waking up the following morning, he set out for the village alone. He’d expected to run into some difficulty as he came across the soldiers from Halen he’d heard about, but not much. As a representative of the Council, no man in the Pactlands would dare harm him. No army would dare to block his path.
However, there was still much about Dunsmith that Phearon hadn’t anticipated. He’d heard of the strange wonders. The strange weapons, guns, which spat out bits of metal at unheard of speeds. The automobiles which could carry a person at speeds that could outrun even the fastest horse. Few Vectorans had ever seen one, but rumor spread like wildfire.
Phearon could see the smoke rising in the distance as he made his way through the forest towards the village of Stone’s Mouth. Suddenly, he heard a great roaring noise coming through the trees, originating from the village.
Phearon, curious, made his way through the brush and stopped at the edge, just before a clearing. Around the village he could see men wearing strange green uniforms. He doubted they were soldiers, after all, they were lacking armor of any kind. Simple green cloth, no matter how complicated the dying process, would not stop an arrow or a sword. But in their hands he could see the weapons the Vectorans were talking about. The guns.
He looked towards the source of the loud roaring noise, and let his jaw drop to the ground. He never would have thought it possible. It was a large beast of metal and glass with large wheels almost half as tall as Phearon himself. He watched as it moved backwards, closing in on a large pile of coal situated just outside the village near the entrance to the mine. It sang a repetitive note, over and over. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Phearon had been so distracted by the sight, he had never noticed a green-clad man step towards him. He heard a metallic click, and looked over to regard a man pointing a gun right at him.
“Step out of the bush,” he said.
Phearon only looked blankly back at him. After he had regained his composure, he stepped out into the open.
“My apologies, Stranger,” he said. “I am here on business from the High Magus Council.”
“I don’t care,” the man spat back at him. “What are you doing lurking around in there?”
“Please, I beg your forgiveness. I thought to enter the village openly, but I was startled by the beast.” He pointed out the vehicle just as he saw workers begin to load coal into the back of it.
“It’s a dump truck,” he said. “Nothing special. Where did you come from?”
“Dey,” he said. “I’ve said I’m here on business from the Council.”
“You just sit tight there,” he said. He kept his gun trained on Phearon as he reached to the side of his belt and pulled out a small black box. He held it up to his face and spoke into it.
“Brad, I’ve got a Charlie Mike here. Says he’s from Dey here on business from some Council or something,” he said. Phearon looked at him sideways. Who was he talking to? He must be mad.
When the black box exploded in sound, Phearon almost jumped out of his skin. The voice came back quickly, saying, “Dey? Where’s that?”
“Where’s Dey?” the man asked Phearon.
Phearon was dumbfounded. He’d heard from the rumors that these new men in the Disputed Lands were from another world, but he hadn’t believed it for a second. They hadn’t heard of Dey? They were ignorant of the Council? It was unheard of.
“Dey is the capitol city of Shavi,” Phearon explained. “Home of the High Magus Council, the House of Windchaser.”
The man in green nodded, then spoke back into the box. “He says Shavi.”
“Well, Christ, what does he want?” the black box replied.
The soldier looked up at him, an expectant look on his face. “Well?” he asked.
Phearon stammered his words for a moment. He had been taken completely off guard. Who were these strange people? Still, he had a job to do. There was little sense in worrying about it. “I come on behalf of the Council, seeking out a criminal. I believe she may have taken refuge in Dunsmith.”
“A criminal?” the soldier asked. “A woman?”
Phearon nodded. “Yes, a young girl. She travels with an Elemental.”
The soldier looked at Phearon blankly for a moment. The look on his face told Phearon what he needed to know. He was on the right track.
“And what did this criminal do?”
“That’s the business of the Council,” Phearon replied. “And not for us to know.”
The soldier placed a single finger in the air, silencing Phearon for the moment. He took a step back and then spoke into the box. “He says he’s here to find a criminal. A young girl with an Elemental.”
There was a moment of silence before the box rang back, “Christ,” came the reply. There was another moment of silence. “All right,” he said. “Bring him to me.”
The man beckoned Phearon to follow him, leading him deeper into the village. Phearon was startled by what he saw. The beginnings of a building of strange construction, a deep hole being dug on the outskirts. The ‘dump truck’, as the soldier in green had called it was now growing full of coal, and was beginning to move again. He led him through and stopped outside a small cottage. A moment later, a man slightly older than Phearon emerged, holding a black box similar to the one the soldier held. He was dressed rather comically, wearing brown trousers and a bright blue shirt, so brightly colored that Phearon could not fathom what dye could have been used to make it.
“You the guy?” he asked. “From Shavi?”
Phearon nodded. “I am. I come on business from the Council.”
“This criminal. You say she’s a young girl, right? Traveling with a walking, talking pile of rock?”
Phearon nodded. “Yes,” he said. “By your reaction, I surmise that you know of her.”
“Not well,” he said. “But I think you’ve got your wires crossed. She’s no criminal.”
“If you know where she is, I demand you turn her over to me at once. The Council’s will must be catered to. It would be foolish to do otherwise,” Phearon said.
“Look, buddy,” the funny-looking man said. “You give me guff like that and this conversation is over. She’s some big criminal, fine. But unless you start sharing what it is she’s wanted for, I ain’t going to be able to help you.”
“She’s wanted by the Council. Isn’t that reason enough?”
“Simply put? Hell, no. I don’t care if she’s wanted by the Queen of England. She’s a citizen of this town now, and unfortunately for you, she has rights. We’re not just going to turn her over to you based on the word that some Council from half a world away wants her.” He shook his head. “That’s not a good enough reason. If she’s a scam artist or something, we can talk. But other than that, no dice.”
Phearon frowned. “The Council will be… displeased to hear that,” he said.
“Well, la-dee-da,” the man replied. “Here’s the deal. You follow that path over there.” He pointed to a path leading eastward into the mountains. “That’ll take you to town. Come in, take a look around, see the sights, do some shopping, catch a movie. But if you go anywhere within thirty feet of that girl, you’ll be locked up so fast it’ll make your head spin. You catch me?”
Phearon was taken aback. Not since before he attended the academy had he ever been spoken to in such a way. The gall of the man, the sheer ignorance. To threaten a Geomagi on a mission from the High Magus Council with imprisonment? Men had been killed for less.
But Phearon was a patient man. He could wait. They were allowing him to enter the town. They wouldn’t always be watching. They couldn’t protect the girl forever.
And when Phearon had his chance, he would take it.
The street was empty, save for a small assortment of soldiers. Burz could see several Halish men, and a small number of the green-clad Dunsmith men in their strange cloth uniforms. When he’d received Ryde’s orders, delivered by Phearon Tome, he had expected he would have to eventually begin a dialog with those in the town. He’d just expected it to be in the form of an attack.
But the last thing he expected was to walk into the town unarmed, which is what he was preparing to do right at that moment. He’d left his men behind, back a ways. If there were a number of them, the chances of the Dunsmith or Halish men attacking were much higher.
Burz stepped out of the bushes, immediately catching the attention of the soldiers in the street. They drew their swords and guns on him, several soldiers nocked their arrows and pointed them toward him, shouting and running up to him.
“I come bearing a message!” he exclaimed. “Do not harm me, I am unarmed!”
The soldiers closed in around him, ordering him to his knees. Surely they would not kill an unarmed messenger. At least, that’s what Burz believed. He got down on his knees and did as they said, placing his hands behind his head. One of the soldiers clad in green began to run his hands along Burz’ arms and legs, patting him down. He gave a nod to another soldier, who walked off a ways, speaking in a little black box.
After a few moments, an automobile like the one Andy Johnson had operated pulled up. A man dressed in another strange uniform got out, and regarded him for a moment.
“My name’s Boone,” he said. “I’m the commander of the Dunsmith forces. You’ve got a message?”
“I am Burz Ynnia,” he said. “Captain of the forces massed to the south. You should know that if I am harmed in any way, my men have orders to immediately push into your town and overrun it.”
Boone laughed. “That so?” he asked. “Cause I heard there’s only a thousand of you down there.”
How had he known? Were there spies among his men? Could they still see from their strange magick eyes? Were there more of them, yet to be found? “Our numbers matter not,” Burz said. “I demand to speak to King Elvis at once.”
Boone looked back at him blankly. “Did you say King Elvis?”
Burz nodded. “I did. I demand an audience.”
“Well, I’d start digging if I were you,” Boone said. “’Cause Elvis is thirty years dead and a whole world away.”
Burz blinked in surprise. Of course. The old man had lied.
“Who do you call your King, then?” Burz asked.
“We don’t have a King,” Boone replied. “Had a Queen a while ago, but now she’s gone too. Looks like we’ve reverted to regular old democracy.”
“Is there no man among you who calls himself leader?” Burz asked.
“Not until we start running some elections. You wanted to talk to someone, well I’m your man. So talk,” Boone said.
“Very well,” Burz said. “His Majesty, Emperor Tammil Cuerian demands that you immediately vacate his lands. You are trespassers on his rightful territory. If you fail to heed his demands, your lives will be held forfeit.”
“Scram or we’ll kill you?” Boone asked. “Come on, you can do better than that. You honestly expect us to run away with our tails between our legs here?” He swept his hand along the street. “This is our home. We ain’t going nowhere.”
“It’s unwise to tempt the Emperor in such a way. General Ryde will–”
“You listen to me,” Boone said. “You fuckers have trespassed on our land. That’s right, ours. You’ve already killed one of our guys, captured another one. You expect us to do as you say? Hell, no. I’ll tell you what, though. You can go back to Ryde or Cuerian or whoever you report to and send him a message from us, okay?”
Burz looked up at Boone. He raised an eyebrow. “And what would that be?”
“Eat shit and die,” Boone replied.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Burz replied. “In that case, my business here is done. Will you allow me to return to my camp?”
Boone regarded him for another moment before turning to one of the soldiers near him. “Let him up,” he said. “Send him packing. If you see him again, shoot first, ask questions later. Got me?”
The soldier nodded, then pulled Burz up to his feet.
“Think about what I have said, General Boone,” Burz said. “We will meet again in a few days. If you’re still as stubborn after that, you may not have a town left to protect.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Boone said. “Now fuck off and die.”
Burz turned his back to Boone and the soldiers. Within a moment, he climbed back into the bush outside of the strange border. The meeting had gone like he’d assumed. The people of Dunsmith would not give up without a fight. But Ryde had known that. The next step was simple– he needed to prepare his men for invasion. Within days, Ryde would arrive from Anastae. When that happened, they would begin to lay siege.
More importantly, however, was not what Boone had said, but how he said it. The man hid something. A secret weapon of some sort, perhaps. But his attitude betrayed a confidence backed up by more than sheer presumptuousness. There was something that the people of Dunsmith had to their advantage, and it was more than simply guns.
Whatever it was, Burz had to find out. Quickly.
“Have you practiced with it at all?” Corpus asked.
Ryan looked back at him dumbly. The question caught him off-guard. “Huh?” he asked.
Corpus gestured towards the sword laying next to Ryan as he sat in front of the fire, roasting bits of meat on the end of a stick. They’d crossed over into the Disputed Lands late the night before. By the afternoon, they had crossed over into El’Dar territory. Evening had now rolled around, the sun having long since fallen under the horizon when Liass had announced that they would set up camp in a large clearing. Everyone had done their own thing for the most part. Nalya was off somewhere dealing with God knew what, while Cale had turned in for the night. Ryan, Terra and Bayne were sitting around the fire when Corpus approached.
“No,” Ryan said, lifting the sheathed sword slightly off the ground. “Not yet.”
“It’s a fine blade,” Corpus said. “You should learn to use it.”
“I’m almost afraid to,” Ryan said. “It’s obsidian, it’ll chip.”
Corpus laughed. “It’s a thousand years old,” he said. “And its last wielder didn’t exactly use it sparingly. If it were going to chip, it would have done so by now.”
Ryan blinked at Corpus. “You know what it is?” he asked.
Corpus nodded, then picked up the sword, looking at it closely. “I’ve known for a while,” he said.
“Well,” Ryan said. “Still, I can’t really use it. I mean, sword-fighting isn’t exactly a useful skill back home.”
“But here it is,” Corpus said. “Men have sought out this sword for a very long time, each hoping to wield it. But here you are in possession of it, and you do nothing but wear it like a piece of jewelry.”
“I don’t know how to swordfight,” Ryan said.
“Well, you should learn,” Corpus said. “The sword chose you for a reason.”
“Whoa,” Terra said, interjecting. “What do you mean it chose him?”
“Just that,” Corpus said. “The sword chose you.”
“But it was given to him by the Featherclaw,” Terra said.
“And who gave it to the Featherclaw?” Corpus asked. “Who told the Featherclaw to give it to Ryan?”
“It was just a misunderstanding,” Ryan said. “Pure luck is all. It was a fluke.”
“Was it?” Corpus asked. “Like Terra’s gift? Something that hasn’t been seen since the days of Wendael Maer?”
“I’ll give ye some lessons, lad,” Bayne said. “I’ve no doubt got me work cut out for me, but I’ll teach ye what I can.”
“Be discrete,” Corpus said. “Even unsheathed, most wouldn’t recognize it, but some would know immediately. They’ll covet the blade.”
“I don’t get it,” Ryan said. “Why’s an old sword so important?”
“It’s not so much the sword itself,” Corpus said. “As what the sword represents.”
Corpus sighed. “It’s difficult to explain,” he said. He looked over to Terra. “You saw the sword in a vision, did you not?”
Terra nodded. “Yeah. That and two other items. A jewel of some kind and a staff.”
Corpus nodded. “The jewel, it was green? As bright as an emerald?”
Terra nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “And the staff was all gnarled with carvings all through it.”
“It sounds like the Eye of Lychon,” Corpus said. “I remember stories about it told by my father when I was a boy. It’s said that the secrets of the universe are locked within.”
“So, why do you think I’m supposed to gather them?” Terra asked.
“I couldn’t say. It’s said that the Eye was lost a very long time ago during the fall of Eventide. Nobody really knows what happened to it. Even the sword was sought out for years by the Enclaves and fortune hunters.”
“What about the staff?” Terra asked. “You know anything about that?”
Corpus shrugged. “It’s hard to say. There are any number of stories of old staffs like that. The Staff of Archon, the Pillar of Cephalais. I’d need to hear more about it.”
“Well, we’ve got one,” Ryan said, patting the sword. “We just need the other two.”
“Not to worry,” Corpus said. “If Terra’s truly had visions about it, I’ve no doubt the other two will come to her in time.”
Bayne sat up from his comfortable laying-down position near the campfire. He looked around for a moment, a look of confusion on his face. He stood up and walked towards the edge of the camp.
“What’s up?” Ryan asked him as he tore a chunk of meat from the end of his roasting stick.
Bayne turned around, smiled and sauntered over to the campfire. He knelt down on his haunches and said, “We’re being watched.”
Ryan stopped eating. “What?” he said.
“Along the bushes behind me, there’s two in there, there are. I think there’s at least five more lurking about, but I can’t be sure. Could be more,” he said, clearing his throat and spitting out the result into the fire.
Corpus suddenly became very stiff. He nonchalantly scanned the edge of the forest. Even Ryan and Terra were doing the same, although not as subtly.
“I don’t see anything,” Terra blurted out.
“Look higher,” Corpus said. “El’Dar.”
“What?” Ryan looked up into the foliage. He couldn’t see anything. Only trees and branches and trunks–
Wait. That tree trunk just moved. Ryan followed it in the poor light. Before long, a shape began to reveal itself. It was tall, perhaps ten to twelve feet high with a large head crowned by two big floppy ears. It was still hard to make out, silhouetted against the trees, but there was definitely something there.
And it was big.
“Keep staring, boy,” Bayne said. “That’s bound to make them think we’ve not noticed them.”
Ryan looked back at Bayne, his eyes wide. “What do we do?”
“Nothing,” Corpus said. “We go about our business as usual.”
“What, and just pretend they aren’t there?” Terra asked
“If we’re lucky, they’ll assume we aren’t a threat,” Corpus said.
“And if we’re not?” Terra asked.
“Well, lass,” Bayne replied. “I’d say we’re about to find out.” He stood up straight and faced the trees.
A moment later, a loud crunch caught the attention of most of the soldiers camped in the immediate vicinity. There was a brief moment of surprise as several of the large beasts stepped out of the bush. Ryan was so shocked, he stood up and dropped his roasting stick.
The El’Dar closest to him stepped into the firelight, exposing itself completely. Their skin was gray and mottled, just like an elephant, sparsely covered in thick, coarse hairs. To Ryan’s surprise, it was entirely bipedal, the normal flat elephant feet replaced by a very human shaped foot and large hands with opposable thumbs. Its long tusks had been carved out and decorated with a number of varying designs and adorned with ornamentation of gold and silver. A single golden chain ran from the end of one tusk to its lip. Its trunk was a little shorter than an elephant’s, but it was essentially the same appendage.
“Oh my God,” Terra exclaimed.
The soldiers in the camp were being very cautious. After their initial cry of alarm, most of them just sat there and regarded the El’Dar, just as they had been doing.
Finally, the El’Dar closest to Ryan spoke. “Go from these lands, men,” it said, its voice slow and deep. “Leave now and don’t return.”
“We mean no harm to the El’Dar,” Corpus said. “We merely wish to pass through, it’s a matter of grave importance.”
“No,” the El’Dar spoke. “We hear the lies of men, and we reject them.”
Terra looked to Ryan, her eyebrows raised. Ryan only returned with a shrug.
“He’s telling the truth,” Ryan said, speaking up.
“Lies!” the El’Dar bellowed. He raised his trunk into the air and trumpeted loudly. A chorus of trumpets erupted from all along the edges of the camp, and went even farther back into the bushes. It sounded like there were hundreds of them. “You men come to our lands. You men rape and burn and pillage and covet. You hunt El’Dar! You take of our ivory. You steal our lives to revel in our remains.”
Terra’s mouth dropped open. She looked up to the El’Dar, a look of utter disgust on her face. “We hunt you?” she asked.
“Do not play the fool,” the El’Dar said. “You have been given your warning. Leave now and never return.”
“We can’t do that,” Ryan exclaimed. “There are people who need our help.”
“You would challenge the El’Dar?” it said, looking down on Ryan.
“Ryan, back down. Now,” Corpus said. The tone of his voice left no room for questioning.
If Ryan had heard Corpus, he didn’t acknowledge him. Ryan stood up straight and stepped forward. “Look, I get that you guys are paranoid. If I was being hunted by a bunch of men for my tusks, I’d be pissed off too. But we mean you no harm at all. We only want to pass through, and we’ve got a limited time to do it.”
The El’Dar waited silently for a moment. It seemed to consider Ryan, but then suddenly unleashed with a loud trumpet which echoed off the trees.
“We accept your challenge!” the El’Dar exclaimed.
“What?” Ryan asked, dumbfounded. “Wait, what challenge? No, no challenge. I was only–”
Corpus shook his head. “It’s no use,” he said. “Once they believe a challenge has been initiated, it’s going to happen no matter what.”
Ryan looked back at Corpus. “But,” he stammered. “But.. I don’t…”
The El’Dar took another step forward, leaned down and let his trunk pass over Ryan, smelling him. Ryan just stared at it dumbly.
“It is decided,” the El’Dar said. “You will meet Joku in the Dance.”
“The Dance?” Ryan asked. He looked to Corpus. “Something tells me this isn’t exactly going to be a sock hop.”
“It’s mortal combat,” Corpus explained. “You’ll have to fight one of them. To the death.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “Cause, you know. That’ll be a piece of cake.”