Terra had been awake long before dawn, just as the rest of the camp had. The choice had been made to move before dawn due to their proximity to Stone’s Mouth. Terra almost hadn’t recognized the landscape until she spotted a familiar-looking mountain in the distance. It was Mount Crown, the mountain that overlooked Dunsmith. It was her first time seeing any sign of home, and she was quite obviously excited. Liass had given the order to have the camp up and moving before dawn, facilitating their arrival. Terra had chosen to sit in the back of a rickety horse-drawn wagon with Maer’s journal.
Beyond time spent traveling, Terra had spent a good deal of time poring through Maer’s book, trying to find any connection she could. She was still convinced that Maer’s true name was Murphy, but there was little else in the book that alluded to it. Still, there were a number of other prophecies that she found interesting. She’d even found a reference to Quick and the attempt to kidnap her.
Suddenly, the wagon came to a stop, and Terra closed the book. She stood up, stretched her legs and hopped off the wagon.
“What’s up?” she asked Ryan.
Ryan pointed off in the distance. “Stone’s Mouth,” he said, then smiled widely.
Terra narrowed her eyes and looked down the valley. Sure enough, she could make out the telltale shape of Stone’s Mouth in the distance. She’d only spent an hour or so in the village on the way through the first time, but already she could see the changes that had been made. A dirt road snaked out from the village, all the way up to the mountains where the Disputed Lands ended, and Dunsmith began.
“Well,” Terra said. “Looks like they’ve been busy.”
A few minutes later, Nalya showed up with two horses.
“Saddle up,” she said. “We’ve got to go down and send word.”
Ryan nodded, and then clumsily climbed aboard his horse. Terra had it done in short order, but then, she’d grown up around horses. Ryan, on the other hand, had ridden one once before arriving in the Pactlands, when he was twelve years old.
Terra and Ryan eventually met up with Cale, Bayne and Liass at the front of the war train, and together, the six of them galloped down the mountainside, arriving just on the edge of Stone’s Mouth.
The village was quiet, and there was little activity besides the occasional guard that patrolled the southern border. They didn’t go unnoticed, however. They had scarcely been in the village limits for a moment before Brad Renfrew came running out of a house, dressed in sandals and boxer shorts with smiley faces on them.
“Christ am I ever glad to see you guys,” Brad exclaimed. He gave Liass a nod, which Liass reciprocated. “Did you do it?”
“If you mean did we manage to do what we set out to do… then yes,” Cale said. He gestured back over his shoulder. “There’s just about ten thousand men just over that rise.”
Brad’s face paled. “Ten… thousand?” he scratched his head. “Holy shit,” he said. “What’d you do, bring the whole damn country down?”
“Something like that,” Cale replied. “How are things on this end?”
“Brutal,” Brad said. He held up a radio. “I’ve been monitoring things since I woke up. Since dawn, Vector’s broken through the southern border. They’re about to overrun the whole South Davies area of town.” He shook his head.
Cale’s eyes popped open. “Jesus!” he exclaimed. “Already?”
“Boy, you have no idea how good your timing is,” he said. “Alverra just gave us some bad news. Apparently there’s a surprise attack force coming up the logging roads.”
“Alverra? As in Justin?” Ryan asked. He absently grabbed the hilt of Flenn’s sword. “We’d better hurry.”
Brad nodded. “You’ve got leave to pass,” he said. “Make your way to Crown Square, that’s where we’ll be holding our ground. The logging roads should take you right there, as long as–”
“I know the way,” Ryan said. “I know those roads pretty well.”
Brad nodded. “Good,” he said. “That saves me the trouble.” He picked up the radio. “You guys hurry the hell up. I’ll get on the horn with Boone. He’s going to be glad to hear from you.”
The second outpost had posed more trouble than the first. Ryde watched as wave after wave of his men went in, and did little more than dent their defenses. The main force had moved over to the wide paved road marked on the map as the Highway and advanced northward as the soldiers along the border fell back. For a moment, Ryde had thought that the taking of the strange town would be easier that he had imagined. If that was the best defense the could put up, then it would all be over in short order.
However, even Ryde had to admit that the surprises that burst forth from the second outpost were considerable. He’d heard Ynnia’s report of the beast-machine that they had captured the old man they called Andy in. He’s seen with his own eyes the white machine in which the man Boone had controlled.
However, this was unheard of. Great, giant beast-machines that burst from behind their barricades, mowing down his men as if they weren’t even there, then falling over on their sides, scraping along the ground and crushing any man that lay in their path. When his men rushed in to kill the operator of the felled machines, they announced that there was nothing inside save for a large rock and a rope.
After the second had come bursting out, Ryde ordered his men to fall back. He gave a nod to Giger, who raised his arm and pointed northward. Within moments, the magii that had stayed back had moved forward. Their Elementals stood at the front, and again, they started to march.
Geomagii quickly worked at ripping up the road. If the beasts had wheels upon which to travel, then they would need a flat road. He stationed Elementals along the sides of the road, readying them to strike at a moment’s notice. He knew there were men in the trees along the sides of the highway. Shooting their guns at them from the safety of height and distance. Pyromagii began to torch the trees in the area, while Voltimagii readied themselves for another volley.
Suddenly, another beast came flying from behind the Dunsmithian barricade, and his men leaped into action. Elementals came at it from the side, bashing it with all their might. The beast-machine lurched up onto two side wheels, and the Voltimagii wasted no time in attacking its underbelly with bolts of electricity.
Ryde almost fell off of his horse when the explosion came. It seemed to shake the very air around him, erupting into a bright, deafening flash that shredded pieces of the beast and sent them flying in every direction. He saw some of his magii go down, and one of the Elementals that had struck it lay motionless on the ground, the magi that controlled it having been struck by pieces of burning metal.
When the air finally cleared, Ryde observed the aftermath with interest.
“Amazing,” he said, then the corners of his mouth turned up into a sly smile. He looked to Giger. “The beasts explode,” he said.
“How?” Giger asked suddenly. “Was it the Elemental, or–”
“The Voltimagii,” Ryde replied. “When they struck the underbelly, they ignited the explosion.” He looked back at him. “Send the word to all the men. We’ll break through this barricade yet.” He smiled. “If ever they decide to use these beasts against us again, we now know their weakness.”
Boone was busy tearing his hair own. “They did what?”
“They blew it up,” came the tinny reply over the radio. “We sent the semi down, all kamikaze-style, jammed the accelerator down. The first two worked great, we knocked ’em down like bowling pins, but they pulled out some magii and Elementals. They blew the damn truck up!”
“Shit,” Boone said. “How they hell did they know how to do that?”
“It could be a fluke,” Keltz offered. “I doubt they could really have known where to strike the vehicle in order to set it aflame.”
“Well, it’s a damn convenient fluke,” Boone exclaimed. The past several minutes had been the most stressful of his life. First, Alverra reports in, manages to get off no more than a few words about a surprise attack on the logging roads, and then all of a sudden he’s incommunicado. Boone didn’t know what to make of it, but he had a bad feeling.
But then he’d gotten the call from Brad. The best news of all. The news that meant that they may just survive the day. Perhaps not entirely intact, but with Halen’s main force heading towards town, they fared a great deal better than a few minutes prior. Boone made himself promise to plant a big wet kiss right on Shephard’s lips when he showed up.
Then he’d give him a promotion.
But they were still hours away. It wasn’t feasible to move an army that size by vehicle, especially with their limited means. But still, if they hurried, they might be able to head off the surprise attack with a surprise attack of their own.
If they hurried.
The radio rang out yet again. “They’re owning us down here,” the voice on the other end exclaimed. “The Elementals are ripping through the barricade like paper.”
“Shit!” Boone said. “All right,” he said, speaking into the radio. “Fall back to the third wall.” He grumbled to himself. He’d expected the wall to hold up at least a little bit longer. It didn’t matter, though. He knew that Ryde would start pulling the magii and chimera out, and he’d expected it would be by the breach of the second wall. The third wall, however, was designed entirely with the chimera in mind. It would take them a little more ingenuity to break through that one.
He flipped the channel on his radio.
“Ansel?” he asked. “Heads up, buddy. We’ve got incoming.”
Ansel stood on the deck of the Harbor Queen, looking out towards the shoreside. The ship, along with seven others that were claimed by the Dunsmith Navy, was nothing more than a simple fishing trawler, but for almost two weeks now, the ship had been retrofitted to support a bunch of add-ons. On the deck was a rapid-fire Gatling gun that had been given to the Navy on a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. If that weren’t enough, the decks were fitted to support a number of mortars.
Ansel scanned the little spot on the shoreside where the trees thinned out and offered a clear view of the highway. He’d seen a number of vehicles drive by only moments before, and he expected the Vectorans to show up any moment.
Suddenly, the telltale sight of an elemental strolled into view. There didn’t appear to be any more Dunsmith men in range, so he waved his hand wildly, giving the order to fire.
There were several audible pops as the mortars were fired. He could hear them screaming through the air as they sailed towards their destination. The first one struck down in the trees just beyond the highway. A little too high, but it had managed to distract the Elemental, who looked towards the trees in confusion.
But the second and third shells struck their mark, almost dead on. One hit the ground just at the Elemental’s feet, sending it sprawling onto its back while dirt and rubble sprayed in every direction. Another shell struck the fallen Elemental, and it fell apart, motionless.
“So much for our scorched-earth policy,” Ansel muttered to himself. He pulled his hand again, giving the order to send out another volley.
He kept this up for some time, playing games with the Vectorans. Sometimes, one or two Elementals and a handful of ground troops would manage to slip past the mortar’s range, but for the most part, they were kept busy.
At least until the men started screaming frantically. Ansel pulled himself away from his binoculars and looked back. Men were pointing frantically into the sky nearby. Ansel looked over just in time to see a large boulder the size of a Volkswagen strike the water, not twenty feet off the starboard bow.
“What the shit?” he asked nobody in particular. The boat ebbed and yawed in the wake of the boulder’s splashdown, and Ansel found himself holding onto the railing to keep himself standing.
The Elementals were throwing things at them.
No sooner had the water settled, than another object came sailing over the trees.
This time, it was a tree.
The thick-trunked tree arced through the air, landing directly on the deck of the Coastal Gambler, ripping through the hull and exposing it to open water. Ansel dropped his binoculars as men started to jump from the ship.
“Shit,” he said. “Shit, full reverse! Full reverse!” He bellowed, then clambered back to the controls.
He looked up once again, just as the burned-out husk of a station wagon flew right towards him. It struck the Queen on the hull, leaving a gaping hole which rocked the ship, knocking over those aboard and sending the mortars off over the side.
“Dammit!” he exclaimed. “Abandon ship!” And he’d never even got to use the Gatling gun.
“I can’t even fathom it,” Liass said, turning the radio over in his hands. “Tell me again how it works. How it sends speech and sound into the aethyr?”
“I could tell you,” Cale said. “But then I’ll have told you three times.”
“But this device!” Liass exclaimed. “It would revolutionize warfare! No longer will we have need for runners or messengers, when you can pass the message directly to your source!”
“Keep in mind that there’s a limited range,” Cale replied. “Until we start building some radio towers, they’ll be pretty much useless outside of Dunsmith.”
“General,” Nalya said. “I’m quite certain there will be many more things in the town below you can wonder at.” She plucked the radio from his hands and handed it back to Cale.
Liass scowled at her for a moment, but then turned back to the road. It had been hours since they’d passed through Stone’s Mouth. A man that went by the name of Brad Renfrew had sent a message forward using the radio, and even then Liass wondered at it. It was the most amazing device. Since acquiring it, all of their forces were kept up to date on exactly how the battle fared, at that exact moment, though they were still (by Cale’s estimate), at least two hours away. It was well past noon now, and they had passed over into Dunsmith land an hour earlier.
The road into Dunsmith looked fresh. It was purely dirt, but large yellow machines which Cale had called bulldozers and excavators sat motionless at the sides of the road. It was the machines which had done the work, with men at the helm, reining them like horses. His men stopped to inspect the machines, poking at it with their weapons until Liass yelled at them to stop. Likely they were just making sure it wouldn’t spring to life and eat them like a great beast.
But once they entered into Dunsmith territory, Liass got his first real look at what they called a truck, in full operation. Two men sat inside, while a third sat in the back, carrying a large weapon that he had been told was a rifle. One of his scouts was the first to see it, and when he returned, he looked as white as a ghost. But when Liass and Cale had approached, they’d offered an escort. Apparently a small force had been diverted from the fourth wall, which was sorely needed back. Even Liass had listened in while their attack by ship failed. Two ships were lost and several men injured or killed.
“Fine then,” Liass said as he marched by horseback.
Suddenly, the radio in Cale’s hands flared again, and a strange voice flowed out from it.
“This Silvereye,” a high-pitched voice came. “Featherclaw see them now. They come towards us. You want attack?”
“Silvereye?” Terra asked, suddenly.
“Uhh, that’s a negative, Silvereye,” a voice came back. “You guys just keep on them. Stay in the trees, out of sight until they’ve passed, then take them out from the rear.”
Liass looked back and gave her a questioning look. “Silvereye?”
“A Featherclaw,” Nalya said. “I’m surprised to hear that they’re here.”
“They must have come down on their own after we told them about the town,” Ryan commented.
“Featherclaw?” Liass asked. His eye narrowed. “He speaks as men do, and his name is Silvereye?”
Cale was the first to catch Liass’ tone. He turned back. “You know Silvereye?”
“I knew a Featherclaw, once,” he said, nodding. “But it had no name.” He looked back at Cale. “Its eye was carved out by a Lord’s blade.”
“What?” Terra asked, looking back. “That’s horrible!”
Liass nodded. “When I was still a young man, I worked for a time as a guard for Lord Bhuton, one of the lesser Lords in the Midsem. He was a man fond of exotic pets, and one day I was required to deliver to him a package. Within the package, I found, was an egg.” He looked to Cale. “A Featherclaw egg.”
“Jesus,” Cale said. “How did they get one?”
Liass shrugged. “Don’t know,” he said. “But when the egg hatched, the chick was so bright, and so quick. He used to get into much trouble.” He chuckled. “He used to play with us guards, even the local children. He was a gentle beast, he was.” He looked to Cale. “But it couldn’t be him. He died long ago, I’m certain of it.”
“What happened to him?”
“It’s a long story,” Liass said. “Better left for another time.”
Liass could tell Cale thought to say something, but thought it better left unsaid.
“Hey,” Ryan said, motioning up ahead. “Where are they going?”
Liass looked up ahead to see a fork in the road. From the south, more trucks were driving up, heading back into town.
Suddenly, the radio flared again. All Liass could really hear were men screaming.
“Shit!” came the shocked yell. “Shit! We’re under heavy fire here! There’s gotta be thousands! Fall back! Fall back!”
Suddenly, loud popping noises erupted from over the trees. Cale looked up, then looked back to Liass.
“Gunshots,” he said.
“So Vector’s right over there?” Ryan asked.
Cale nodded. “Their surprise attack force,” he said.
“What the hell are you grinning at?” Cale asked.
Ryan chuckled. “Their surprise attack force is gonna be surprised.”
Arie sat silently on the porch, watching the events unfold before her in the harbor below. She’d woken up a few hours before in the back of the ambulance. She wasn’t even sure what had happened to her, but the pain in her shoulder reminded her immediately. She’d been shot with an arrow. She honestly didn’t expect to live, but when she pieced together the events of the night, she was glad she had.
Over the past several hours, she had managed to get things into perspective. She wanted nothing more than to rush out and help her friends, but her shoulder, though healed, ached with every movement, and the paramedics had been very strict. Arie needed her rest.
She had watched from the balcony as the small fleet of ships sailed out along the coast. She had watched when they unleashed volley after volley of attacks from the safety of the sea, and she had watched in shock as she could see large objects being tossed at the ships in the distance. One of the ships had run aground near the shore, a gaping hole in its hull, while another sunk until they had called off the attack and pulled away.
The Vectorans were advancing quickly now. Only an hour or two, and they’d have fought their way all the way up to Crown Square. They were just shredding through the defenses, and Arie was truly beginning to fear for the town.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. It wasn’t unexpected. Lily often had visitors show up from time to time, and that area of town was particularly full of people as of late, many watching the events that were occurring in the harbor. Arie walked inside and towards the door. She opened it.
She paled when she saw who was on the other side.
“Hello, Dumpling,” said Phearon Tome.
Arie took a step backwards instinctively. She was weak, but she had to do something. She thought quickly, knocking over a potted plant and fashioning a weapon from the soil. She whipped around and faced Tome.
He simply made a calming gesture. “Arie, please,” he said. “You know as well as I do that I won’t hurt you.”
“What do you want?” Arie shot at him.
“I just want to talk, child. Please,” he said.
Arie shot him an accusing glare. “I can’t believe you,” she said. “How could I ever believe you after what you did? After what you helped them to do Tam!”
Phearon Tome sighed. “That was regrettable,” he said. “But unavoidable. Tam heard… things he wasn’t supposed to. Things that could jeopardize all that the Council has worked towards.”
Arie looked back at Phearon. Her face twisted up. “So you know?” she asked.
“Your heritage?” Phearon asked. He nodded. “I always knew, child.”
Arie suddenly dropped the soil. It fell apart as it hit the floor, blending into the shag carpet. She looked back at Phearon in shock.
“All those years,” she said. “You were my teacher for so long. I trusted you. I–”
“Child, please,” Tome said. “There’s much more to the story than you alone know, but time is short.” He said. “Vector approaches, and I’ve a feeling they’ll lay waste to this place. You must come back with me. I will explain everything, but know that there is a good reason for everything, and that you must trust me.” He pleaded with her.
Arie shook her head. “Trust you? I loved you!” she beat Tome on his chest. “I loved you like a father and you betrayed me!”
Phearon let her beat her fists against him. Eventually, she wore down into tears. She rested against him, and he embraced her.
“Arie, you must come back,” he said. “It may be the only way to truly help your friends. Even should they survive this encounter with Vector, the Council would only tear the place apart to get to you.”
Arie said nothing. She only remained silent.
They stood there for a moment, the echoes of gunfire wafting in through the open patio door. Vector was drawing nearer by the moment.
“Give me a moment to collect my things?” Arie asked.
Phearon smiled, then nodded. “Very well,” he said. “I will wait for you downstairs. Pray do not be long.”