The concrete slab was uncomfortable against Greatfeather’s feet. The way it prevented his claws from gaining any purchase caused him to shift his balance. He didn’t like it. He doubted the others in the procession liked it any better, but it was only one small complaint on a list of many.
The first compliant was the unexpected and sudden way word had gotten to him about the fulfillment of the Featherclaw’s Pact without Highcrest oversight. It had come late in the night from Longcry, one of the Quicktooth famed for his swiftness of travel and the volume of his cries. The Pact set to them by a human prophet from an age long before his own was something Greatfeather had never expected to have to honor, but now it was put before him. By the Quicktooth. At the insistence of Silvereye. Without his knowledge or permission.
What a rash action! The pact was little more than a legend passed down from elder to elder. Its original meaning, if it was anything other than a wild tale, has been lost. Greatfeather only ever told the tale to cement that men were not to be trusted. When you ignore them, they begin to hunt you for your teeth. And when they help you, it’s only because they want something. They were barbarians. Clever ones, but uncivilized compared to the Featherclaw.
The second complaint would be the way he’d discovered, from another Quicktooth messenger, that Sharpscent, perhaps the only competent voice among the Quicktooth had been killed. Killed while with Silvereye, fighting a battle without having first consulted the Highcrest.
Greatfeather had been furious. How was Silvereye to know these men were really the Children of the Halo that prophecy had told them of? He’d half expected to find Silvereye in the company of men who wished for nothing else put to bring about the old ways. The ways that never must be again. The ways that his ancestors had warned him must always be prevented from happening.
But to Silvereye’s credit, the moment Greatfeather and the others had laid eyes upon the humans building structures over a cut in the earth itself, smelling and seeing the machines they used, the clothing they wore and the weapons they carried… there was no doubt. These men were capable of the impossible, and it could only mean one thing.
That the prophecy had come into being, and that the Featherclaw had an old debt to repay. A debt that would then see them to their true freedom.
It was Direscent that first noticed the scent of Silvereye mixed in against the stale, wretched air near the men with the machines. The noise was nearly deafening, and the sights of the trees being felled with such speed and efficiency made Greatfeather sick to his stomach. Still, it meant that Silvereye was near. He imagined the rest of the Quicktooth would be nearby. Two of the three tribes together at the same time was unheard of outside of the Nesting Grounds. He spared a thought, thinking of their utter annihilation of the trees and what it would mean if such machines were to find their way to the Nesting Grounds.
It wasn’t long before some of the men noticed the group of them. At first, they seemed startled, and jerked at the strange black weapons they held. Greatfeather could smell the weapons from where he stood. They smelled of stale fire and oil. And worse yet, they concerned Greatfeather in a way he couldn’t quite identify.
But eventually one of the men dressed in green spoke into a little box.
“Tango-Nine, Charlie-One,” he said. Was it gibberish? No, they spoke in riddles. Codes. “We’ve got a group of Featherclaw coming out of the forest. Can we get Sierra-One out here?”
Greatfeather cocked his head. Not codes. Names.
“Tango-Nine, ten four. Silvereye and I are on our way,” the box replied.
Greatfeather cocked his head even farther. The boxes were clearly machines as well. Machines that could send a voice through the air? Unheard of. Unnatural. These men were not like others. Not at all.
“Silvereye comes?” Greatfeather asked the men, speaking slowly and clearly. He’d been taught the language of men from a young age. It was part of being named Greatfeather, the Watcher of not just the Highcrest, but of all the Featherclaw. It was his job to oversee the safety of the tribes, to gather wisdom and knowledge, to know the histories, and to see the fulfillment of the Prophet’s Pact.
The human looked back at him in shock. He spoke into the radio again. “And he speaks english, sir.”
The scent of Silvereye suddenly filled Greatfeather’s nostrils, and moments later, he could see Silvereye coming out of one of the freshly-built structures at a rushed pace. Good. Greatfeather had traveled far. He was not in the patient mood.
Beyond Silvereye, he spied a man following. Clearly the leader of these men. Greatfeather would have to learn all he could about him.
[Greatfeather,] Silvereye squawked at him. [You have come!]
[We will speak later. Now we speak with the men!] He barked back impatiently.
Silvereye slowed and narrowed his eye at Greatfeather. A gross insult, but one that Greatfeather would have to ignore for now. Foolish beast. He looked to the man approaching behind him.
“I take it you must be Greatfeather, then?” the man greeted.
“Yes. I am Greatfeather. Watcher-on-the-ledge. Voice of the Featherclaw.” He bowed. His scent was strange, but there was something familiar about it. A reek of strange meat and other unnatural things. A scent that cooled Greatfeather’s nostrils in the way that the cold dropleaves of the mountains did. Yes. He had been told of this man. “You are Fuzzhead?”
“I hate that name,” Fuzzhead replied, running his fingers over his hairless head. “If you’re going to be speaking english, please call me Boone. Or Gerry, if you must.”
Hmph. To refuse a Featherclaw name of honor? Child of the Halo or not, it was a rude gesture. Nonetheless, a rude gesture would not stop Greatfeather from doing his part.
“Gerry-Boone I say,” Silvereye added.
“Gerry-Boone, then,” Greatfeather said. “We have come to fulfill our Pact with your Prophet. I trust with the death of Sharpscent, we have already engaged your enemies in battle?”
Gerry-Boone looked down to the ground. “Yes, he was very brave. He saved the life of one of our men.”
One? One man? Sharpscent was worth fifty men. Greatfeather raged inwardly, but he knew he couldn’t let it show. “Sharpscent is forever in our memories.”
“Is among human memories too,” Silvereye said, his head low. “Sharpscent name inscribed on memorial.”
“In our language and in yours,” Gerry-Boone added. “He won’t soon be forgotten.”
A small comfort, given his loss. “I trust Silvereye has treated you and your people with respect, but he does not speak for the Featherclaw. It is and has always been the Greatfeather who takes that responsibility.” He looked to Gerry-Boone. “I wish to discuss the terms of our Pact, and I wish to see it through to clear fulfillment. When can we discuss this?”
“Actually, I’m only allowed to make decisions on the military end of things. A lot of the other aspects you’ll have to discuss with Goose.”
“Goose?” Greatfeather asked. He’d nearly forgotten to increase the pitch at the end of the word to make it into a question. Human speech was strange.
“Goose is leader,” Silvereye explained. “Not King though.”
“He’s our acting Prime Minister. For now. At least until we get the new constitution penned. But he’s going to be the one who has to be present for this. And… to be honest, Greatfeather, we kind of have our hands full at the moment.”
“Hands full?” Greatfeather asked. Was it an expression, perhaps? Gerry-Boone didn’t have anything in his hands.
“We’ve got issues up to our ears. The Halish army just left this morning,” he explained. “We’ve got a late patrol that was due back four hours ago that hasn’t checked in. We’ve got bandits and Vectoran soldiers all through the woods around us here, and the lack of coffee, cigarettes and cinnamon buns around camp is not helping with morale.” He shook his head. “But that doesn’t matter. We welcome the help of the Featherclaw.” He turned back to one of the other men and snapped his fingers. “We’ve got a temporary camp set up for you further down the mountain, near the town. We know you’re not going to like our roads very much, so it’s at the entrance to the park. Lots of trees around. You’ll like it.”
Greatfeather took a breath and shook his feathers. So then. These men were like the others. They liked bureaucracy and politics. No doubt they were just as interested in maintaining their station as their forebears. Greatfeather grew worried.
“Is good place,” Silvereye said in his idiotic pidgin-speak. Greatfeather could feel his rage building. But not here. Not in front of the humans. Not in front of the other Highcrest. His talk with Silvereye would have to remain private.
“Very well,” Greatfeather said. “We will go to this place. We will meet with your Goose. We will see the Pact through. You will take us?”
“And there you go,” Shelly said, stamping a piece of paper. “You’re officially a free man.” She handed it up to Hatsch and he looked at it, smiling.
“I… thank you,” Hatsch replied. He looked over to Justin, who smiled at him. “Both of you.”
Justin clapped him on the back. “Hey man, if you’re the type to stay true to his word, then you deserve it.” He looked to Shelly and smiled. “Thanks, Shelly.”
“No problem. I’ll miss our conversations, Farrin,” she said.
“If everything goes well, there will be more,” Hatsch replied. “When we return.”
“I’m holding you to that,” she replied.
It was hard to believe that just a month ago, Hatsch had been part of the Vectoran Army. Harder still to believe that he was the first Vectoran taken prisoner, and the first Vectoran to take a Canadian life. There were, of course, circumstances which led to Hatsch’s choices that were unavoidable. In another world, he’d have been put in prison for life. Or a mental institution. But the fact of the matter was that he was conscripted. That he’d been trained to do as the Army says, to follow the rule of his Emperor, and that Freemen were no better than rats.
In just a month of watching the Seinfeld DVD set, March of the Penguins, and half of Boomer’s South Park DVD set, he was practically foaming at the mouth to prove himself to Boone. Justin as well. Boone felt that he was being genuine, and Justin marveled at the range of emotion he showed. Sociopaths didn’t do that. At least, he didn’t think.
Still, he was going to have to be careful. Even Boone had said there was a slight chance Hatsch would go running back to his superiors, and if that ever happened, Justin was to shoot him. In the back if he had to.
Justin didn’t relish the idea, but he’d do it if it came down to it.
In the meantime, however, with just a day before the two were set to journey down through Anastae and into Vector, Boone and Justin had agreed that Hatsch should have at least a night of experiencing Dunsmith as a citizen.
Thankfully news of Hatsch’s arrest and subsequent release hadn’t exactly spread far and wide. His face or name never hit the newspaper, so he could retain anonymity. Justin shuddered to think what the Muggles would do if they caught wind of the situation. But Boone was clear that the situation be kept on the downlow. He took measures to ensure it remained that way.
Mostly because when Boone spoke of Vectoran prisoners, only one name was on everyone’s lips. Ajjiro Ryde. The whole town was pushing for his trial to begin. He himself had overheard people saying that they hoped someone would just shoot him and string him up, but he wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Dunsmith was smack-dab in the middle of a political situation. And with Ryan and Nalya heading down south, killing Ryde would probably mean that neither of them would come back. Justin definitely didn’t want that.
The trial was only taking time because of the lack of a courthouse, let alone a judge. A few lawyers made the transition between Earth and the Pactlands, but not one judge. Therefore, a judge had to be appointed.
But by who? There was no judicial branch in Dunsmith. There was barely an executive branch of government. There was also no small amount of argument as to how the law applied, exactly to the situation. Technically the crimes he committed were war crimes. Mass murder of both Freemen and Canadians. But could they charge him for the deaths of the Freemen under Canadian law? Not doing so could jeopardize Dunsmith’s relationship with Stone’s Mouth, and many of the other Freemen settlements across the Disputed Lands.
There was no precedent in the old Canada for what he’d done in any sort of recent memory. They’d just hang outlaws, sometimes extrajudicially in the nineteenth century. So, that menat they had to set a new precedent. A precedent that would set the tone for anyone else who tried to do things like that in the future. His punishment had to send a clear message that one just didn’t mess with the people of Dunsmith.
Or the New Canadian Territories, for that matter.
Hatsch turned around to face Justin and hoisted his pack over his shoulder. The pack contained his Vectoran armor and a few knick knacks he’d been given while in his cell. Magazines, mostly. A small plastic penguin figurine from the film Madagascar that Justin had given him.
The two of them left the NCMP station and started their way toward downtown, with Justin in the lead. They had to make a brief stop at Boomer’s to drop off his South Park DVDs, and Justin had promised to check in on the place every now and then. A task that he was now going to leave to his mother after the two of them left town the following morning.
Justin had a great night planned for Hatsch. He really wanted him to get the full experience of Dunsmith. That included pizza, a screening of The War of the Worlds at the theater, and capped off by beer and dancing at the Sporty, which was quickly becoming a much classier place than it had been in the past. No doubt their business would be hurt by the departure of the Halish forces, but they still had plenty of beer left. And with all the homebrewers in Dunsmith, it was unlikely they’d run out soon.
Hatsch stared at all the houses as they walked down the street. He seemed enrapt by them. Justin wondered what the homes and buildings in Vector looked like, to get that kind of reaction from him. He was sure he’d find out. Still, Hatsch asked no questions. He only stared. Justin laughed as he reached up to touch the white lettering on a red stop sign.
“It’s reflective at night,” Justin said. “When we get the cars running again, they’ll be useful again. Right now traffic signs aren’t really useful.”
“I saw them in one of the movies. The speed at which they go seems unbelievable. I should like to see one.”
“There’s still a few zipping around here and there. Mostly city trucks and police cars. You might luck out.” He walked over to the front gate of a house on the street. Boomer’s. “Come on,” he said, opening the gate.
Hatsch followed behind him as he made his way up the walkway and to the front door. Justin fumbled with the keys a little and opened the door. He’d only been here once to check in on the place, the same day he’d brought the South Park DVDs for Hatsch.
As he stepped inside, he heard the telltale noise of something that had been leaning against the wall falling over. He looked over and saw a strange wooden staff. It was carved with all sorts of symbols. Had that been there before? He hadn’t noticed it.
Also, it clearly wasn’t of earth origin. Unless Boomer was a little more into shamanism than he had let on, the staff was from the Pactlands. Justin leaned over and picked it up.
“This is your friend’s home. Is he a summoner?” Hatsch asked.
Justin looked back to him. “No,” he replied. “Why do you ask?”
“Shalo Cahl,” Hatsch replied. “The summoner in Anastae. He had a staff just like this. With the same symbols. These are the etchings of a summoner.”
Ah. That was it, then. Justin had heard about Boomer’s time in Anastae. His time in their prison, and the story of how Andy had died. It was more than likely that the staff belonged to Shalo Cahl. Why Boomer had taken it, Justin wasn’t sure.
He was about to put the staff back up against the wall, when he paused.
Terra. He’d heard from Ryan about Terra’s vision when he explained the sword he’d been given by the Featherclaw. He’d heard about the green jewel, which Lily figured was the Eye of Lychon, which now housed Tam’s soul and projected him into reality. He’d also heard about the oaken staff.
He held an oaken staff.
Could it be the same thing? Justin thought about it for a moment.
“Hey, Farrin,” Justin said. “We’re going to make a little detour on our way downtown. I think a friend of mine might be interested in this.”
Terra stared at it.
“So what does it mean?” Lily asked.
“I don’t know. But it’s the staff I saw. I know it is.” Terra poked at it, half-expecting it to come to life or something. She’d known what it was the moment she’d opened the door for Justin. She remembered the way her eyes slid from Justin’s down to the oaken staff he held. He’d found the staff at Boomer’s, and if it hadn’t been for his friend’s insistence that it was a summoner’s staff, he might never have made the connection.
But he had, and now Terra was looking straight at the third object she’d had during her first major vision on her way to Halen. Ryan’s sword was the first, Lily was given the Eye of Lychon, and now Boomer had apparently acquired the staff weeks ago, and it had just been sitting at his place.
“But I mean, like… is something supposed to happen?” Lily asked again.
“I don’t know. I saw them. I woke up. For all I know I’m not supposed to collect them, I’m supposed to get them far, far away from me,” she shrugged.
“I doubt you would have received the vision if you were meant to avoid the objects,” Zara said. She picked up the staff and laid her hands across it. “It’s definitely a Summoner’s staff,” she said as she traced the symbols.
“Can you tell us anything about it?” Lily asked.
Terra was honestly thankful for the distraction. Lily had been awkward all day since she’d returned from the school. She’d barely reacted at all to the news that Zara was going to be staying with them for a while. She knew Keltz had been pulled back to Halen that morning and she was going to be sore about it for a while, but something else seemed to be distracting her.
But since the inclusion of the staff, Lily was focused. Terra liked to see that. She’d been growing increasingly distant of late.
“These symbols here,” Zara pointed out. “Mean nothing. It’s likely the personal signature of the Summoner who created the staff.” She moved her finger further down. “The Summoner who made it is an old-style traditionalist. I would assume one that adheres to the Eissel School.” She looked back to Lily. “The Eissel School isn’t known for its adherence to law in the pursuit of their agendas.”
“Shalo Cahl,” Lily said, explaining. “A Vectoran. He kept a girl from Stone’s Mouth captive. Kept torturing and summoning Daemons into her.”
Zara furrowed her brow. “Disconcerting,” she said. “They are known to sell their services to thieves and criminals, but to think that the Vectorans would allow such behavior is alarming. Even moreso that they would be petitioning Daemon. I wonder what they wanted.” She looked up at then. “Or what the Daemon wanted.” She shook her head. “No matter. This. This is the important symbol,” she said, pointing to a strange stylistic trident symbol carved into the wood.
Lily recognized it immediately. “A soul sigil,” Lily said. “Tam has one of those on his soulstone.”
Zara raised an eyebrow and looked over to Tam, who sat silently watching the interaction. “A soulstone? He’s human.”
“Long story. So you’re saying there might be a soul in this staff?” Terra asked.
Zara looked back to her. “It’s possible,” she said. “I have no way to tell. But it’s common for Summoners of the Eissel School are known to attempt to prolong their lives by using these staves. When they are near death, they attach their souls to temporary vessels. This staff was never meant to be permanent, hence why it is not made of stone, and is prominently carried by Summoners. Sometimes it’s used as a trophy. Some men choose to carry their mentors around with them, seeking the right type of form to infuse the soul back into.”
“Wait,” Terra said. “You’re talking about body-swapping? That can happen?”
Zara nodded. “Among Summoners, much is possible. That is why the practice is widely outlawed. Followers of the Eissel School, for instance, would be executed in Halen. Obviously Vector employs them.”
“So, there might be a soul in the staff. It might be Shalo Cahl, and it might be some other Summoner,” Lily commented. She looked to Zara. “What are the risks of finding out? If there is a soul in there, and we try to talk to it, what’s our best bet?”
“Hard to say,” she said. “Any magi should be able to communicate with the soul inside, at the very least. I would suggest taking precautions first. Ensure it is someone who is well experienced with Elemental binding. It is likely that if there is a soul inside, it will be angry.”
“If I’m remembering things correctly,” Lily said. “Boomer killed Cahl. There would have been no chance to put himself in the staff.” She shook her head. “But I’m not sure. Most of Anastae was a complete blur. For all we know, it could be some kind of ancient scholar who can tell us how we got here.”
“Doubtful,” Zara said. “The staff is freshly made. I’d say a few months to a few years old.”
“Well, it means something. Especially if Terra’s been seeing it.” She wrapped her fingers around the staff. “I’ll talk to Ashe. If anyone can help us, it’d probably be him.”
“Ashe?” Zara asked.
“Ashe Devin. A Freeman. Also our new Minister of Magick,” Lily explained. “He’s an alchemist, but he’s pretty well-versed on the different lores.”
“It never ceases to amaze me how resourceful Freemen are,” Zara said.
“What do you mean?”
“You say this Ashe Devin is knowledgeable about magick, and I believe you. I daresay your leaders would not be so stupid as to hire a pig farmer who’s managed to mix a few potions to kill gutworms and then call himself an expert. But that’s just it. Freemen do not live in higher culture, like us. They have no access to the Academies for magick. Freemen magi are untrained, save for those few who make their way to the Academies. I imagine this Ashe Devin was one such student, but that his expertise lies in alchemy and the other lores? It’s a rarity.”
Terra supposed she never thought of it. Sure, during her travels through the Disputed Lands, she passed through Stone’s Mouth, and it hardly seemed much more advanced than a medieval mining village. And yet, they just so happened to have an expert alchemist.
“I think he’s originally Shavian,” Lily said. “But he’s been extraordinarily helpful to the town. He’s more than earned his title.”
Zara laughed again. “Oh, you Canadians,” she said. “You say you have no lords and ladies, and then you award a Freeman with a title. A Minister is a title like any other. Even moreso, because it denotes a responsibility. Unlike in Halen, where Nadus–” She paused, and caught herself before continuing. “Before our beloved King died, that is– he awarded minor titles upon those who have earned it.” She looked to Terra. “Like yours. You did not receive holdings, you were not made the Lady of the Land, and yet you are still called Lady. It is a title that will grant you access to the higher society. But your place within it is not yet rigid. The reward is meant to allow the person who earned it to rise above his or her station on their own. To engage the society as an equal, to gain holdings, to prove your worth even further so that one day you might achieve a station of responsibility.” She shrugged. “And yet the first gift you give a man is one of the highest titles one can give… especially for a land that claims to give no titles.”
“I see your point,” Lily said. “But still, if you hadn’t noticed, we’re skirting the rim a bit here. With your army being pulled back to Halen, which is understandable, we’re left with limited defense again, and resources. A surprise attack from Vector now could–”
“Cuerian would never engage in such a fallacy. Not so soon after being utterly defeated,” Zara said. She looked to Lily. “You still hold Ryde in your prison, correct? If I’ve heard the rumors correctly, it’s him and three others. Four prisoners. From the entirety of the Vectoran invasion force. The rest were routed and turned away. They retreated. Many of those soldiers will not return home. Cuerian is an unkind ruler, but not a stupid one. He will know when he is beaten, and he will fall back on gathering information about your people. I daresay there may already be spies within the town.”
“Whoa,” Lily said. “Vectoran spies? Here?”
Zara laughed. “Oh, moreso than that. I should say Rasza would be sending some spies. The surviving Enclaves would no doubt want to have eyes here. And of course, the Council. I would not be surprised to see a Psimagi or two start making their way, and of course if you think the Caedens don’t have an agenda here, you’re mistaken.” She looked Lily dead in the eye. “This is why it’s so important that Terra be protected. She is valuable, not just to you, but to the entirety of the Pactlands. Once word gets out that there is a new Green Seer, she will become renowned across the Pactlands. It is why Ianto is so at odds with your general. You have competent soldiers on the battlefield, but are largely incompetent within your own town. The buildings are susceptible to fires. They are not easily defendable. There aren’t enough guards and your people walk around without weapons.” She looked to Terra. “You’ve been to Halen. Do you remember?”
Terra nodded. Almost everyone in Halen had a sword, or a dagger, or something strapped to their back.
“You seem to treat weapons and walls as taboo within the town. But what will happen when the first man with a sword decides to slaughter twelve people before one of your police can put him down? Was your world so privileged that that never happened? The way you live might have been fine in your world, but in the Pactlands, there is constantly war. Not war on a grand scale, but thousands of tiny wars that might go unnoticed if not for the trail of bodies it often leaves in its wake.” She pointed to the staff. “If this is the staff from your vision, it is important to you as the Green Seer. You must protect this staff, Terra. This staff, and both of the other two objects. I am not well-versed in how a Green Seer’s abilities work, but I would say that if you had seen it, it is an object of greater importance.” She looked to Terra. “You protect it, and I’ll protect you.”