Ryan rode on Tsukona’s shoulders as they passed through the trees into the clearing where the Halish forces had set up camp. He could see that they had already been packed up, ready to go, but they obviously weren’t sure which direction they were to be heading in and were awaiting their return from the El’Dar village of Gau.
At Tsukona’s insistence, the four of them had slept in one of their large, over-sized structures. Although it was almost comical how grossly over-sized the furniture inside was, it was one of the most comfortable beds Ryan had slept in in a long time. They had only slept for a few hours, however, waking just before dawn to make the short trip back to the Halish camp. Ukyou had stayed behind at Gau, but not before speaking with Ryan privately about keeping what she had shared with him between them. He understood completely and agreed to keep her secret.
The Halish men had been well aware of the El’Dar’s approach. The El’Dar made no secret of their return, and just seeing Ryan riding upon Tsukona’s shoulders, victorious, made them cheer out. The whole camp was roaring with cheers when he came back in one piece. Tsukona walked right up into the middle of the camp and helped Ryan down off of his shoulders.
As he reached the ground, he could see a familiar blond head bobbing and pushing its way through the soldiers. Nalya popped out from between two of them, paused upon seeing Ryan, then launched herself at him, holding him tightly.
It took Ryan off guard at first, but eventually he, too, started to hug her back. However, when Nalya pushed him away from her, wearing a scowl on her face, he found himself confused.
“How could you do something so stupid?” Nalya exclaimed.
“What? Nalya, I didn’t–”
“You could have been killed!” She exclaimed. “I’ve already almost lost you the once. It’s not fair for you to put this much stress upon me!” She barked. She took a moment to catch her breath, then regarded Ryan again. He was relatively unscathed, the only scars born from the battle with Joku were a number of scratches on his forehead.
“It’s good to see you too,” Ryan said.
“Idiot,” Nalya remarked, smacking him lightly on the chest. The look on her face started to turn less sour. “How did you manage to win?”
Ryan placed a hand on the hilt of Flenn’s sword as it hung at his side. “It’s a long story,” he said, the look on his face plainly saying that he would talk about it later.
“He did well,” Corpus said.
“He fought honorably,” Tsukona said, his voice deep and loud. “He has won the challenge. You are granted the right of passage.” He bowed deeply.
“Thank you,” Nalya said, bowing back at him.
“It is my pleasure,” Tsukona said. “You have proved yourselves with this one. Proved that you come not to harm or to hunt. We are thankful to meet men such as him.”
“Yeah, well,” Ryan began. “There’s a whole town full of like-minded individuals waiting for us, Tsukona.”
“Of course,” Tsukona said, bowing. “Then I grant you all leave. We, too, must be returning to Gau. The summer grows hot and soon it will be time for us to move up into the mountains.”
Ryan nodded. “Just keep in mind,” Ryan said. “Not all men are the same. Just because some of us are poachers doesn’t make all of us poachers.”
Tsukona smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I bid you well, Ryan Stills. I hope that you will grace our tribe with your presence in the future.”
“Deal,” Ryan said. “But only if I don’t have to fight anyone.”
Tsukona laughed, his belly shaking with each reverberation. “Surely not,” he said. “I would not wish to lose any more warriors.”
“That reminds me,” Terra said. “What about Joku?”
“What about Joku?” Ryan asked, his face pinched in annoyance.
“Joku will be fine,” Tsukona said. “He will think on the errors of his ways, and his honor will be restored to him eventually. He will have to earn it back, however.” Tsukona looked over to Ryan again. “It would have been different had he actually killed you in such a dishonorable way. He would have been exiled, his tusks torn out and sent to walk the lands until such time as he should die.”
“You’d have torn his tusks out?” Ryan asked.
“Ouch,” he said.
“Indeed,” Tsukona replied. “But we must be off now. I have sent word to the other tribes that you and your men have won the right of passage. You will not be bothered while on our lands.”
Ryan bowed his head. “Thanks,” he said.
Tsukona bowed back once again, and then turned to leave. The other El’Dar each followed in turn, and in a few moments, they had disappeared behind the trees.
General Liass yelled and clapped his hands, ordering his men back to their tasks. As soon as they were out of earshot, Nalya grabbed Ryan by the arm.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It’s Flenn’s sword,” Ryan said. “It kind of… took over.”
“Took over?” she asked. She looked down at the sword. “How?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t think I’ve ever even held a sword before, and yet I was fighting a twelve-foot high elephant-man like a forty-year veteran. Corpus was the one who pieced it together. I think he knew all along, really.”
“Actually,” Corpus corrected, walking up to them. “I had merely suspected.” He looked to Nalya. “I was going to wait until we were all back together before I did this.”
“Did what?” Ryan asked.
“Ryan, I’m going to share a secret with you,” he said. “Nalya’s already aware, as is Bayne. I’ve purposely held off on telling you until I could be certain.”
“Certain of what?” Ryan asked. He looked to Nalya. “What is he talking about?”
“Just listen,” Nalya said.
“Ryan, have you heard of the Enclaves?” he asked.
Ryan looked back at Corpus for a moment. “The Enclaves?” he asked. “Don’t they, like… help out the King or something?”
“Not exclusively,” Corpus said. “There were originally six. Three have been lost to us for a very long time, and the fourth turned against the rest of us nearly fifteen years ago.”
“Us?” Ryan asked. “Wait, you’re part of this Enclave?”
Corpus nodded. “Cloudstalker,” he said. “My whole family is a part of the Enclave, with the exception of one person. My sister was exiled several years ago. She was the one you called Henna.”
“Astara?” Terra asked. “She’s your sister?”
Corpus nodded. “She turned against us long ago. She is not important now. What is important is that sword.”
Ryan’s hand flashed to the hilt again. “It’s Flenn’s sword. Flenn was the one really fighting last night, right?”
Corpus nodded. “The old stories passed down through the Enclaves told that Rasshauer Flenn, who himself was once a part of the Antara Enclave foresaw a horrible future for mankind. When he was near death, he asked that an Artisan alter his sword so that it may never break, and to infuse it with a power long since lost to us. The ability to act as a puppetmaster. A summoner then placed his soul into the sword, and took the sword and appointed guardians to watch over it,” he said. “For years the Enclaves have sought out the sword. We searched for the guardians, but with no leads to follow, we could never be certain where it could have been. We never imagined the Featherclaw would be in possession of it.”
“Wait, so. This summoner guy, he’s the one who gave it to the Featherclaw?” Ryan asked.
Corpus gave a shrug. “That’s what the stories say. So far they’ve held true.”
Ryan sighed. “You know, it might have been a lot better if you had told me sooner,” he said.
“I couldn’t be sure,” Corpus said. “I couldn’t be sure the stories were true. I couldn’t be sure that Flenn had intended the sword for you or not. I wasn’t truly sure until last night, when you fought Joku.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Cale said, walking up to the group. “But Liass says it’s time to go.” He winked at Ryan. “Good job, Slacker.”
They looked around to see a number of soldiers already starting to move. A wooden wagon packed with their things rode by, Maryn and Arynn sitting atop it.
Nalya nodded. “Yes, we still have a ways to go,” she said. “We have much time to discuss these things.”
“Okay,” Ryan said. “Let’s get ‘er done, then.”
Lily opened the curtains leading out to the balcony, letting the sun that shone in from the eastern horizon flood the room. It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue and birds were singing. One of the stranger things she’d noticed since arriving in the Pactlands were the birdsongs, in fact. They were all new, different. As if the birds from Dunsmith had spread out to colonize the rest of the Pactlands while the native birds all came in to take their place. Over the past week especially, Lily had seen several species of bird that she’d never seen before. Different sizes, shapes and colors marked them apart from the crows, seagulls, robins and bluejays that normally inhabited Dunsmith’s trees and rooftops. She recalled watching a family of crows dive-bombing a brightly colored blue and yellow bird twice their size as it skimmed along the rooftops near the beach. She imagined that a lot of the native species from Earth were starting to force their way into the Disputed Lands. There were definitely going to be some invasive species coming from both sides. Lily hoped the bullfrogs wouldn’t spread. Lily hated bullfrogs.
For such a beautiful day, however, Lily was in a dark mood. The phone call she’d received the night before from Shelly Littleton had changed all that. She had been quite clear in what she said. There was a man in town searching for Arie. His name was Phearon Tome, and he was working for the High Magus Council. Lily had wasted little time in passing the message on to Arie, along with the description of the man in question that Littleton had shared, but it was unneeded. The second Tome’s name escaped from Lily’s mouth, Arie turned ghost white.
“I know him,” she had admitted. “He’s Hult’s man. A Geomagi. He was my mentor.”
The two hadn’t talked much about it. Arie was still upset over the events that had occurred with Tam a few nights before. So upset, in fact, that Tam still sat on the coffee table, confined to his rock. Arie had just stopped talking, and Lily decided to leave it alone and go to bed.
But she found she had trouble sleeping. A number of questions kept running over and over in her mind. Why would they have even let Tome into town? What if he ignores the warnings and tries to come for her? Would Lily have to protect her if she was unwilling to protect herself?
Even when she woke up in the morning, her first thought was of this Phearon Tome character. She tried to distract herself by going about her daily tasks. She showered, watered the plants and did the dishes from the night before, but still he was her foremost thought.
Finally, she plopped down onto the couch, staring out the window into the harbor. The strange emerald she had purchased from Burai, the enigmatic Caedan, sat on the coffee table, unmoved since she had come home with it.
She picked it up, rolled it around between her fingers and looked into it. There was something about the emerald that drew her into it. She imagined it was what had made her purchase it. As if by merely looking at it, she had known that it was hers. That it had always belonged to her, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. It was just another thing that had been bothering her.
The Magick Society was doing well– their second capture the flag training session had gone off without any major injuries, and she was proud of how quickly she had been mastering her abilities. Lately, she had been practicing controlling the amount of current she let out. It had started with small amounts. She would hold a light bulb between her fingers and slowly let the current trickle out from her and light up the bulb. Later, she had tried a number of other things, such as trying to power up the old TV she had pulled out of storage to replace the one she had inadvertently destroyed. After a few tries, she had successfully mastered that.
She was already starting to notice a difference in attitude of the townsfolk towards the new magii. Magick was strange and alien to most, and for the first few days, people had avoided the Society and gifted folks like the plague, but once they truly understood how useful the magii were, they grew to accept them. Over the past few days, the Society had been flooded by requests from local business owners looking for employees with special skills.
She ignored most of them for the time being. She found it funny that even in a state of emergency, under siege as they were, people were still mainly focused on the economy. It was a necessity, she understood. Without an economy, people would starve, unable to buy food. Still, several magii had been snapped up to work for various purposes, from spot welder Pyromagii to Geomagii helping to dig holes for construction teams. With the skill of the magii behind them, work was completed twice as fast as they would have if they relied merely on machines. She found it strange that many of their machines were now becoming obsolete, replaced by flesh and bone.
The world had changed around her, and Lily dealt with it like she did anything else. She just grit her teeth and rolled with the punches.
But then there was Tome. He was a punch that she wasn’t sure how to roll with.
She heard Terra’s bedroom door open, and then shut. When Lily looked over, she saw Arie walking out into the living room, rubbing her eyes. She yawned widely, and started to make herself some coffee. Arie had developed a taste for the drink, especially while living with Lily, who, like Terra, was a coffee nut.
“Morning,” Lily said. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, I suppose,” she said, opening the fridge and poking around inside. “Do we have any more of that Hazelnut creamer?”
Lily shook her head. “No,” she said. “We went through the last of it last night. The stores don’t have any more.” It wasn’t the biggest disaster in the world, but it ranked a close second to when they would run out of coffee. As far as Lily knew, there was no equivalent for it in the Pactlands.
Arie sighed and began to fill her coffee with whitener. “I suppose this will do,” she said. “It still doesn’t taste the same.” She finished preparing her coffee and sat down on the couch next to Lily. She stared down at the coffee table, her eyes fixed on Tam.
“You know it’s not his fault, right?” Lily said. “He was only trying to protect you.”
Arie nodded. “I know,” she said. “But it’s difficult to face him. Especially knowing…” She never finished the sentence; she didn’t have to.
“I don’t think it matters to him. For months he’s been aware you’re not really his sister, right? He still loves you as though you were,” Lily said. “Besides, I think it’d be better if you wake him up. I don’t like the idea of this Tome guy poking around and–”
“Tam will kill Tome,” Arie said, then looked over to Lily. “And as pleasing that might sound at the moment, it’s not the right thing to do.”
“Well, we have to do something about him,” Lily said. “Arie, he’s here for you. I don’t think he intends to leave here without you.”
“Well, he’ll be disappointed, then,” Arie said. “Because I’m not leaving. I made a promise to stay and wait, and I intend to do it.”
Lily remained silent. She knew Arie and Boomer had been getting close. The last few days before he left, Arie had been full of energy. Since he had left, however, she had been a lump, performing only the duties that were expected of her from the Magick Society, and nothing more.
“I’m pretty sure he’s got other ideas,” Lily said.
“I don’t doubt that,” Arie said. “But I know what he looks like. I know who he is. He’s never given me reason to mistrust him, but he’s unfailingly loyal to Scaszi and the Council. Only, he’s not stupid. He’ll see that people from around here have no love for the Council. Anywhere else besides Caede, they would be throwing themselves at me in an effort to appease them.”
“So what do you expect him to do?” Lily asked.
“It’s difficult to say,” Arie replied. “He could do any number of things.”
“Well, then I’d say we should beat him to the punch,” Lily suggested.
Arie looked over to her. “How do you mean?”
“We know he’s here. We know he’s here for you,” she said. “But unless he tries anything, we can’t exactly kick him out of the town.” She glanced over at Arie. “But we also have at our disposal something he doesn’t have.”
“What’s that?” Arie asked.
Lily smirked. “The Magick Society,” she said.
“The Society?” Arie asked. She looked taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Well, a psychological operation,” she said. “More or less.”
“I’m not following you.”
“Look, there are over fifty of us here,” she said. “Magii.”
“What, are you proposing we attack him outright?”
Lily shook her head. “Not exactly,” she said. A slow smile spread across her face. “But we can make him wish he’d never set foot in Dunsmith.”
When Phearon arrived at the motel he’d been directed to the previous night, he found that the strange woman constable had held true to her word. He had simply given his name to the surly old man behind the counter, and he’d been given a strange-looking key with a number on it. When he finally put the pieces together that the number of the key matched the number of one of the doors along the outside of the building, Phearon found his way inside.
There were a great many things in the room that had confused him. A black box with a glass front sat on a table. It reminded him of the strange displays he’d seen earlier that night in the RCMP Station’s office. There was a large white box with a swinging door that he’d quickly learned was used to keep things cool. Most likely a food box of some sort. Another box, smaller than the others, sat next to the cooling-box, and had number displayed all over the front. They beeped when he touched the numbers, changing the display. Still, Phearon didn’t know what to make of it.
He spent some time inspecting the room, opening drawers and coming across strange books. Two in particular caught his interest. There was a black, leather-bound book with golden edges and the words “Holy Bible, New International Version” written on the front. Phearon was surprised when he opened it and found that the book had been put through a press. Another book, larger than the first was called “Yellow Pages”, and when he opened it up, he found a list of names, with strange numbers and words listed next to each. He thought that perhaps it was a list of the people of Dunsmith, but the amount of names in it astounded even him. There must have been tens of thousands of names and numbers, but he made little sense of it.
Before going to bed, he spent some time trying to figure out the strange black device on the table next to the bed. It was small and also had numbers on it. He picked up the little horn-shaped object connected to it, then grew confused as the sound of a unique buzzing escaped from it. As he pressed down on the number, he found that it too would beep as he pressed them.
Still, he could make little sense of it, so he eventually placed the noise-making part of it back where he had found it and went to sleep.
When morning had eventually arrived, however, he was up with the sun. There was a job for him to do, and in order for him to do it, he had to have a better understanding of what he was up against. He left his room, locking the door behind him and set to walk up the block, where he had seen signs of shops and eateries closed for the night. They would no doubt be open in the morning.
As he walked up the street, looking through various windows, he found himself astounded by what he was seeing. Stopping outside one building in particular, a large red-colored building with the words Dunsmith Hardware written above the door, he looked through and examined many tools and various knick-knacks. Hammers and saws and a large variety of devices he’d never seen before danced before him.
Further up, he caught the enticing aroma of fresh bread wafting out of a place with tables and chairs set up outside. A baker’s shop, no doubt. Many of the shops that had interested him most were not open. A shop called Ink and Artifacts, which proclaimed to be a tattoo parlor sat closed. One shop in particular, known only as Insane Dave’s Video drew his curiosity more than any other. Large posters were displayed in the windows, featuring attractive people in various poses, holding various items, always with a large phrase or word on top. Inside he could see racks lined with smaller versions of the posters on flat little boxes.
Next, he stopped outside of another building. It was of brick construction, the words Royal Bank on the outside. Strange. He’d heard stories of King Elvis in the Vectoran camp to the south, but hadn’t heard a word of him since he’d arrived. Still, that meant little.
As he wandered around the area known as Downtown, he noticed that the bustle of daily life was just beginning. Shops were beginning to open. On the streets, merchants from some of the local villages were setting up kiosks and displays. He could see a group of Caedans on one street corner, unveiling the goods they held in their wagon.
He continued down the street, past a place called a Pharmacy, then regarded a small eating establishment. It would be nice to have food prepared for him for once. He hadn’t had a good meal since he had left Rasza, tracking the Boas girl and her Elemental into the Disputed Lands. The establishment was simply called Barb’s Kitchen. A glowing sign proclaimed the place was open, and he pushed his way through the door.
Inside, a number of people were seated at tables and booths that lined the walls. Phearon looked around for a moment, pausing to acknowledge a large board where prices and items had been listed. Beside the prices, he saw a strange symbol that made little sense to him, an S with a line cut down the middle. The last item on the list read: Exchange Rate: 1g:$20.
At least that explained that. The symbol was obviously their unit of currency. A gold piece was worth twenty of them. That helped make sense of the prices, but not much sense of the items on the menu. There were things he recognized. Bacon and ham. Eggs and beef. But then there were a number of other things he could make no sense of. French fries? Clam chowder? Soup de jour? What in the Pactlands was a hamburger? It was madness.
“You can just have a seat, honey,” a young girl, obviously a servant stated. “I’ll be with you in a second.”
Phearon nodded dumbly, then found a seat nearby. On the table was a thick bundle of papers, the words Dunsmith Chronicle written across the top. He eyed it curiously, then unfolded the paper to take a closer look. He was surprised to see an image of a man wearing a Halish uniform on the cover, the words “An Interview with Lieutenant Syrel,” written underneath. He marveled at their ability to reproduce such an image, and then went on to read the article.
What a wealth of information! From reading the first article alone, he had gleaned just how many Halish soldiers were in town, the location of their main base– it even listed some of the tactics they were planning on using. Phearon flipped through the paper, eager to learn more. He read through an article on the recent incidents in the harbor with strange ocean-dwelling life forms, most notably a sighting of Sierrin. There was a page explaining how the Pactlandian calendar worked against the Gregorian calendar. There was an article about a man named Ashe Devin, who was apparently working on a method to reproduce gasoline, whatever that was, using alchemy. Another article that listed the types of Gift-born magick found in the Pactlands and made a reference to a Magick Society.
Phearon’s eyes popped open as he read it and discovered a name he recognized within the article. Arie Boas. Interesting. The conversation he’d had with Burz Ynnia at the camp had led him to believe that the place was devoid of magii, but the article listed at least forty as of Saturday morning, whatever that meant.
The serving girl approached him. “Start you off with some coffee, sir?” she asked.
“Some what?” Phearon asked, then realized it didn’t matter. “Yes, yes. Fine. Fetch me whatever passes for a meal in this place.” He then thrust the paper into the girl’s face. “Do you know anything about this Magick Society?”
“The DMS?” she asked. “Sure, that’s where they meet.” She pointed out the large plate glass window to a large brick building across the street. “Those guys are in here all the time, before and after meetings.”
“Interesting,” he said. “And Arie Boas? Do you know her function in this Society?”
The girl shrugged. “Can’t say I know the name,” she said. “Wait. Is she the one with the golem?”
“The golem. You know, that guy who’s made out of rock or something? I’m pretty sure that’s what they called them in Dungeons and Dragons or something.”
Phearon looked at the girl sideways. His eyes shot to a small white tag pinned to her chest. “Yes, I think that would be her, Kayla,” Phearon replied, reading out her name tag. What a silly concept! Wearing one’s name pinned to one’s chest, indeed!
But Kayla nodded. “Yeah, she’s from out of town,” she said. “Made a deal with the emergency committee, I guess. They got her and Lily Rasmussen running the DMS.”
Phearon nodded. “How many members do they have?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “A bunch.”
Phearon was growing impatient with Kayla’s half-answers. He waved her away and instructed her to fetch his food while he went back to reading the Dunsmith Chronicle. As he flipped through the pages, he came across a large section that took up a whole page. It talked about how the Magick Society was formed and invited readers who displayed the gift to come to one of their daily meetings. Three o’clock at the Journeyman Inn. Phearon looked to the building across the street.
He would have to pay a visit to this Magick Society, he thought. The very existence of such a thing went against everything the Council stood for, and the magii within would have to be forewarned of what the Council would do to them.
Phearon smirked to himself. Yes. If he couldn’t take Arie off the street himself, he would have to come up with another plan. That plan was formulating, and by the time that Kayla had come back with a plateful of some strange food he couldn’t identify (Western Omelet, the waitress had said), he had already planned out exactly how he was going to get Arie Boas safely into his custody. He would barely have to lift a finger to do it.