When Nalya had first come to Dunsmith, everything had been such a wonder to her. Not that it still wasn’t, of course. It simply wasn’t much of a wonder anymore. She’d grown used to the idea of guns, of televisions and microwave ovens, of electric light and automobiles and wireless communication. She’d also grown used to the idea of video games, computers, electronic music (which she had to admit had a certain appeal to it), and all manner of modern technology, as the Canadians liked to call it.
But not Ryan. Ryan was always the first to admit that it was the wrong term. The dichotomy between their two respective peoples was strong, the differences severe. But the Pactlands were no less modern than Dunsmith. But with Ryan, she could always find a common ground. Unlike any man she’d known before, he was… conscious of her, but not overwhelming. Truthfully, even at the end of the day when she’d had enough of Dunsmith, she still felt comfortable in Ryan’s presence.
He was courting her, of course. They’d gone on several dates already, but it was always on Ryan’s terms. He had exhausted every dating cliche common on Earth in doing so. They’d gone to a movie. A live music show at one of the coffee shops that had crossed over into the town (which, ironically, could no longer serve coffee due to the lack of coffee.) They’d gone for a walk along the beach. A walk along the trail, which consisted mostly of chatting with Silvereye.
Nalya felt strongly for the Featherclaw, she truly did. She’d been told stories of them as a child by her father about their fierceness, and their cunning. But the stories also always included their sense of honor, and their loyalty to their friends.
A few days prior, she had heard to a group of townspeople calling them raptors. The term wasn’t used in a positive way. Some of the people in the town were growing suspicious. Even angry about their being there. Lily had told her the term referred to birds of prey. It was derogatory. What was the word Lily had used? Racist?
Thankfully, for all the growing discontent within the town, there was an air of welcome, on behalf of both the town and the Freemen. With such opposing views, Nalya was concerned about what it meant for the state of politics within Dunsmith. The town was becoming thick with emerging movements. Some for immigration. Some viscerally opposed to it. Every day saw an influx of new people coming from across the Disputed Lands and beyond, including several visitors of note. Names renowned not just throughout the Disputed Lands, but beyond.
Mags Morrow was one such name.
She’d heard the name on the lips of a group of Freemen dining on the patio at a restaurant next to City Hall, and had immediately gone up to them.
Mags Morrow. One of the greatest men to have ever been born an illuminator. The way he manipulated light was an art. His use of color, motion and intention was masterful. The detail he put into the art rivaled even that of what she’d seen on Ryan’s television.
She’d seen him three times in her life. Had even met him once, but she doubted he would have remembered. And now, the rumor was that he was going to be performing the story of the Unification that very night at Transfer Beach, of all places.
Ryan had led their previous dates because Nalya had been so overwhelmed by Dunsmith that she simply didn’t know what to experience. But this was something new for Ryan. She loved the look of wonder that filled his eyes when he saw something new from her world.
Perhaps that was selfish of her, but she knew he would enjoy the experience. Nalya was certain she would, and it was one of the few things from the Pactlands that could outmatch something that Dunsmith could offer.
The amphitheatre was already fairly dense with people by the time they’d arrived. Every Saturday night, the town’s Welcome Wagon hosted a small celebration all over the beach. They had barbecues, volleyball, kayak tours, workshops, fools in strange make-up and more. However, as of late, the influence of the Pactlands were beginning to seep in. A game popular in the Pactlands, Survivor, had become increasingly popular within the town. Even among the Canadians. The interesting thing was that with a few extra pieces, the game could be played on a chessboard. Even using select chess pieces.
And now, Nalya could truly show him what an illuminator could do. He’d seen one before, of course, while in Arronay. But that was nothing when compared to Mags Morrow.
After grabbing a soft drink for the two of them to share (Nalya really liked how fizzy they were), they took a seat near the front. Nalya was happy they’d found seats. The crowd was growing thicker. As more Freemen came, so too did more Canadians. There were a great number of people leaving the beach, as the sun had started to dip over the mountains, but that was perfect for Mags Morrow. His shows were always best at dusk.
At the center of the amphitheatre was a wooden wagon, painted red, gold and brown. There were no words on it, just a single shape. A wide brown moustache. The signature of Mags Morrow.
Suddenly, the flood lights above the amphitheatre turned on, causing several people to jump.
It was that moment when Mags Morrow revealed himself. He appeared to have passed directly through the wooden paneling on the side of his wagon. His telltale moustache was now grey, and the hair on his head had receded even further, but Nalya recognized him instantly. She smiled, and joined the Freemen in clapping.
He stood there with his hands on his hips, tapping his feet impatiently as he scanned the crowd. He started to walk to the front row of the crowd, looking at everyone. He made the briefest eye contact with Nalya as he walked past, his signature red robes trailing behind him.
He suddenly stopped, and looked up at the flood lights.
“Well now!” he announced. “That’s much too bright. Wouldn’t you say?” He looked to the crowd.
“Yes!” came the conjoined response of the crowd.
“Well, I’m sure I can do something about that,” he said with a smirk. He raised an arm, and the lights suddenly started to ripple. It started to shift and condense, then flatten out, casting a dull red light among the crowd. Slowly, the small red light started to descend, like a setting sun on the horizon.
“In these lands once stood giants,” he said. Suddenly, the dark shadows of giants started to appear from behind the light. They started to move forward, at least a dozen of them. “Great giants from beyond the Soundless Path. They came walking upon the water.”
Suddenly, water rushed all over the ground at the center of the amphitheatre. As the light descended, the giants grew smaller, more human sized. The light then fell deep into the ground, causing the water below to spread across the entire stage, causing those at the very front to jerk their legs up for fear that they might get wet, but there was no water truly there.
Ryan gave a soft whistle of appreciation, causing Nalya to smile even further. The crowd gathered around the amphitheatre now included people standing at the outskirts.
“They came to a land divided, to unify it and strengthen it! They came to the last days of Eventide, of the five warring tribes!”
Suddenly, the human-sized giants stopped. Before them, the ground rushed up, and three of them stepped onto it, and into the light.
A man with red hair and freckles stood at the center of the three. He wore a shining chestplate, with red fabric along the edges. Behind him stood a man with brown hair and piercing green eyes, wearing a green robe. Next to him stood a blonde woman of great beauty, wearing a yellow dress.
“Rasshauer Flenn, pure of heart and intention,” he said as the redheaded man stepped forward. “Wendael Maer, strong of sight and wisdom,” he continued as the man in robes followed. “And Becca Marthryn, of stunning beauty and cunning. They came to a land divided by the sheer atrocities of war, the culmination of untold ages of warring.”
The story continued at a steady pace, complete with the amazing visual styles of Mags Morrow. He told the story of how Flenn, with the help of the Featherclaw tribe, had beaten back the Dark Things that infested the lands in those days. Of how Becca had brought peace between Hillbreaker and Windchaser. Of how Maer had foreseen and helped to unite the tribes of Caede, Rasza and Vector. Of how the five tribes came together to see through the signing of the pact.
Several times during the show, Ryan leaned over to ask a question. So Hillbreaker was descended from this tribe? The other one I saw explained a bit about my sword. Why doesn’t this one talk about the sword? There weren’t actually for real monsters back then, were there? Nalya answered them the best she could, but always drew his attention back to the show.
Finally, the show came to a close after a great visual finale showing the three heroes and the five tribes performing an exciting battle against the Dark Things, and sealing them deep within the earth.
The light then ascended back into the air, and reformed into its original form. Mags Morrow took a bow as the crowd erupted in applause. Even the Canadians were impressed. Ryan stood up and hooted at Mags.
“I thank you, I thank you,” Mags Morrow exclaimed as the din of the crowd died down a little. “If you don’t already know, I am Mags Morrow! Arguably the greatest, and most modest, illuminator of all time!” He scanned the crowd a little. “I jest, I jest. I am but a humble traveler. I trade my services for your gratuities. So please, if you enjoyed the show, my lovely assistant, Shana will gladly accept your gratuities!” He bowed again, signalling the end of the show.
“Well that was pretty cool,” Ryan said. “His impressions were great, but the sound effects could have used some work. Would have made it much more believable.”
Nalya rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t have access to surround sound, Ryan.”
Ryan gave a smirk. “Yeah,” he said. “I get that.”
“Come,” Nalya said. “I’d like to say hello to him.” She got up, leading Ryan with her and making her way to the old illusionist.
She found Mags Morrow smiling at her as she drew near.
“Why young Nalya Ruus, isn’t it?” he said, smiling. “This is the last place I’d have expected a young Lady of Rasza.”
Nalya smiled. He remembered her!
“It is good to have seen you again, Mr. Morrow,” she said. “Your show was a treat, as always.”
“Even moreso with these electric lights,” he said. “I usually have to rely on firelight, but this light gives me all sorts of opportunity in the presentation of the show. I should say it was a smart decision to come and investigate these rumors. When I come through the Disputed Lands, I can usually hope at best to get a meal and a bed for the night. But now this! Dunsmith! A place of wonders, I assure you.” He looked over to his assistant. “Ah! Shana! Come and meet the Lady Ruus,” he said.
Shana, upon having seemingly exhausted the flow of gratuities, came over smiling. “My Lady Ruus,” she said with a curtsy and a telltale southern Raszan accent. “It’s good tae meet a Lady of Rasza.”
“Hey, you sound like Bayne,” Ryan said. He looked to Nalya. “She sounds like Bayne.”
“I’m a Lady of Halen now, as fate would have it,” Nalya corrected. “It has been a… peculiar time, the past year.”
“I would understand. With a place like this, it is to be expected,” Mags said. He looked past Nalya. “And who is this one, then?”
“Oh! My manners. Mr. Morrow, this is Ryan Stills. Ryan, this is Mags Morrow.”
“My pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ryan Stills,” Mags said, extending his hand. “Do I see the gentle eyes of courtship within the two of you?”
Ryan laughed. “Well… yeah. We’re seeing each other.”
Mags then laughed. “Boy, a little advice from an old man. You could see her just fine when you met her. There comes a time when a man must take the heart that longs for him.” He looked back to Nalya. “And I can see in her that you’ve indeed got a heart that longs for you.”
Nalya blushed. She heard a nervous laugh from Ryan, and he stammered a bit.
Mags Morrow let out a genuine laugh. “Ah, to be young again. Please. Ignore my ramblings. I may be growing senile in my age.”
“Ah, get off of it,” Shana replied. “Yer not near as old as ye think ye are.”
“Nonetheless,” Mags said. “It appears as though the gratuities we’ve received can almost guarantee our presence here in Dunsmith will continue for at least a little while. I’d be very interested in making friends here. Would the two of you care to join Shana and I for dinner tonight, that we may discuss our continued friendship?”
“We’d be happy to,” Nalya said with a wide smile. “We shall be leaving the town in a few days on important matters, I’m sure you understand. But until then we shall be available.”
“Excellent!” Mags exclaimed. “Then where shall we eat?”
“Well,” Nalya said. “The Canadians have this charmingly delicious food that you eat with your hands called pizza…”
Boomer sat with his legs dangling off the rooftop across from the Velvet Tongue. He’d been there since Maya had left for the day after a day of rigorous training. Boomer didn’t understand why, but for all of Maya’s less-than-preferable traits, he was actually growing to respect her in certain ways. That might have been part of why he felt he had to help her out. The truth was that even beyond the training, he was still anxious, wanting to leave. He had to distract himself. And this business about the missing girls was just the thing he needed.
He knew there was an inherent danger in what he was doing. He had courage, but could never have considered facing a human trafficking organization on his own. But then, back on Earth, he’d never been able to read peoples thoughts or move things with his mind.
And in just three days with Maya, Boomer’s skill with his abilities increased to such a degree that he felt ready to take on a new challenge. Especially after she had taught him the basics of the paralysis move that she’d subjected him to on their first meeting. It was a simple idea method, but complicated in terms of focusing on multiple points at once. It consisted of getting a grasp on the bones and joints of your target, and locking them. While Boomer wouldn’t be able to immobilize an entire body, he could definitely lock up the elbow of an assailant, preventing a potentially fatal attack.
And the fact remained that against the vast majority of people within the Pactlands, the threat was negligible.
The sun had gone down, leaving Boomer in darkness. The only light cast came from the streetlights below. It was the perfect vantage point to keep an eye on things. Specifically, he was watching out for Henna, the raven-haired girl that had approached him the previous night.
Boomer sensed from Henna that she was dangerous. She was a woman with blood on her hands. A brief look into her surface thoughts allowed him a vague sense of her ethics. Killing was not against this woman’s nature. But neither was sex. The entire time she talked to him, she was picturing him naked. She was imagining the things they would do to each other. The marks she would leave upon him, and the marks he would leave upon her. Boomer had kept things as serious as he could, but even he had to admit he was getting distracted by her thoughts. Some of them had even been somewhat tempting. But he’d quit taking bad girls home after he’d moved away from his parents.
So the fact remained that he couldn’t trust Henna, except for money. He sensed a strong adherence to the rules of money. If something was paid for, a service was provided. And so he could trust her in that regard. But the truth was he didn’t even know if he was on the right track.
Virgins. The missing girls were virgins. But Maya had been skeptical about Boomer’s suggestion that they were being sold into sex slavery. It simply didn’t make sense to her. She was convinced that the missing girls were Vessels. Young women that served as the counterpoint to the Summoners. Boomer understood the idea a little. He’d seen it first-hand in Anastae, which what had been done to Elle Holm at the hands of Shalo Cahl. She’d had a daemon summoned into her. Just one, called the Crier, who essentially seemed to be the tattletale of the daemon realm.
Boomer shuddered to imagine why someone would need so many vessels.
He spotted the familiar shape of Henna coming around the corner beneath him. She was alone. Boomer kept his perch and watched her until she walked inside the tavern. He kept an eye, an ear, and a mind on the few people that lingered outside the tavern, making sure that Henna had come alone.
Once he was satisfied, he hoisted his pack over his shoulder and climbed down the ladder on the other side of the building, descending to street level. After a few moments to ensure he had everything he needed, he crossed the street and entered the Velvet Tongue.
It was just as active as it had been the night before. Whores, gamblers, and mercenaries laughed and danced. A group in the corner was smoking a hookah, filling the tavern with the familiar scent of marijuana. Henna stood near the bar with her back away from him. Boomer walked up.
She turned just as he’d approached her and greeted him with a smile. “James,” she said. “You are punctual. A rare quality in a man. I much prefer them to be able to finish something when it is time to finish.”
Boomer caught an explicit image from her mind and repressed a blush. “Let’s keep this strictly business, Henna. I’m not interested.”
“And I still say it’s a shame,” she said. “I’m certain it would be a… memorable experience.”
“I don’t doubt that, but I’m not interested,” he said. “You know what I’m here for.”
Henna smirked at him. “You’re lucky your money is good, James,” she said. “Otherwise I might be tempted to just take you.” She ran a finger down his chest, then pouted. “Fine then. Come. I’ll take you to Samus.” She walked past him, leading him out of the Velvet Tongue.
She led him on a short route, with a few twists and turns that led them down an alley. She walked up to a set of stairs leading down, where a wooden door painted green sat below ground level. She knocked, the looked to Boomer. She knocked again.
A sliding door opened on the door and a set of eyes looked through. They looked to Henna first, then to Boomer.
“We’re here to see Samus,” Henna said.
“And who’s ‘e?” the man behind the door said, exposing a southern Raszan accent.
“He is a customer,” she replied.
The eyes narrowed for a moment, but the sliding door slid shut. The lock unlatched and the door swung open, revealing a stone floor lit by lantern. The man stood to one side.
“‘e’s in a mood,” the man said. “I’d suggest ye not badger about wit’ ‘im.”
“Well, that’s not up to me,” Henna said. She looked back to Boomer and smiled. She then led him down a hallway and around a corner. The sound of music started to fill his senses. Someone was playing an instrument.
Finally, the hall led to a doorway and Henna swung it open. It revealed a larger room with four people in it. One man sat off to the side, playing a kind of lute, strumming away at it while a pipe hung from his mouth. On the floor, a woman sat, staring off into space while a guard stood at the front of the room.
The man lounging in an ornate chair in the center of the room wearing nothing but some loose cloth over his ground looked over to them with disdain.
“Ugh!” the man exclaimed. “Astara, I’m so melancholy right now. What do you want?”
Astara. So her name was Astara. Boomer was reasonably certain he’d heard the name before, but he couldn’t peg where. That wasn’t important now. What was important was Samus. Who was most certainly high on something. His pupils were massive, and the lanky way in which he spoke and moved his limbs spoke volumes of his state.
“James here wishes to make a purchase,” Astara said. “I thought that might improve your mood.”
“A purchase of what? Poppy oil? White spice? Pearl, perhaps?”
“I’m looking for a person,” Boomer said. “A slave. But a certain kind of slave.”
Samus suddenly perked up. “Oh?” he said. He stood up and walked over to Boomer, taking by the hand. “Do tell, James. You seek a woman? A man? A certain… kind of man, perhaps?”
“A girl,” he said. “A virgin.”
Samus laughed sharply. “Hah! A virgin in Telemenn? Might as well try to count the grains of sand in the desert.” He was joined in his laughter by the girl on the floor, who laughed slowly, with a detached look on her face. Even her laugh was detached.
“I was told that many had been moved into the city recently. From all across Rasza.”
Samus looked back to Boomer for a second. “Oh,” he said. “Those.” He released Boomer’s hand and walked back to his chair, slumping down in it. He regarded Astara for a moment, then looked to Boomer. He sensed a feeling of urgency from Astara for a brief moment. “A shame. Kill them, Runt,” Samus said to his guard.
Well. That was unexpected.
Boomer barely had a moment to react as soon as he heard the guard’s dagger leaves its sheath. He spun around, ready to defend himself. The guard came at him with a yell. Boomer dropped his pack to the ground and deftly avoided the guard, spinning around and kicking the back of his knees, causing his legs to buckle beneath him, dropping the guard to the ground. His dagger fell out of his grasp and Boomer grabbed for it, then climbed on top of the guard, holding the dagger to his throat.
Samus only looked back in astonishment.
“What is this, Samus?!” Astara screamed. “You would order my death?”
The door behind them swung open, revealing the other guard. Boomer had to make a quick choice. He bashed the guard’s head into the ground, knocking him out and got up, ready to face the second.
But Astara had already beat him to the punch. A blade that Boomer hadn’t even realized Astara had slid through the flesh on the second guard’s throat before Boomer had fully managed to stand. He stood there for a moment, looking at Astara in shock.
The lute player stopped playing, and could only stare in silence as the young woman on the floor broke out into a nervous, bland laugh.
Astara then turned her attention to Samus, rushing up to him, ready to kill him.
“Wait!” Boomer exclaimed. “Don’t kill him.”
Astara looked back to him. “He ordered us killed!”
“He still has information I need!” Boomer argued.
“To the Daemon with your information!” she exclaimed. She pushed her blade up against Samus’ throat, causing him to cough. The woman on the floor laughed even louder.
Boomer rushed in and grabbed Astara’s arm, knocking her blade out of it. She looked at him, rage in her eyes. “Don’t,” he said. “He’s a scumbag, I’ll give you that. And he deserves no better. But right now he’s got information I need, Astara.”
Astara growled, and jerked her arm away. She elbowed Boomer in the chest, taking him by surprise and rolled to the ground, grabbing her knife. She crouched on the ground, her eyes now trained on Boomer.
“You best move, James, or I’ll have your throat as well.”
Boomer was surprised at how quickly Astara moved. He hadn’t expected that. She was faster than him. He concentrated on her, dipping into her thoughts. The rage was overpowering, and a scan of her thoughts betrayed her wish to kill every last person in the room. Including Boomer.
“I’ll pay you,” he said. “I’ll hire you.”
“You couldn’t afford me, James.”
“How does fifty pieces of gold sound? Is that worth this man’s life?”
Astara looked him in the eye. “How should I trust you?”
“How should I trust you?” Boomer shot back. “Because I have to. And I’m a man who keeps true to his word, Astara.”
“And yet you lie to me. Tell me a false name? Who are you really, James?”
Boomer looked back to Samus for a second, who was cradling his neck, immobilized with fear. He looked to Boomer.
And Boomer looked back to Astara. “Boomer,” he said. “My name is Boomer. I’m from Dunsmith.”
Astara’s eyes widened for a second. And then a knowing look appeared on her face. “I should have guessed.”
Suddenly, Boomer understood. The image of Terra’s face appeared in Astara’s mind. The feeling that Astara had as she slid a blade between Ryan’s ribs erupted in Boomer’s mind. He grit his teeth. Astara was the assassin that Terra and Ryan had told him about. The one that had pretended to be a friend, only so that she could later attempted to kill Ryan and kidnap Terra.
Everything in him told him to attack her. To put her down. With his powers as a Psimagi, she’d be taken by surprise.
But he also sensed something else in her. A loyalty to money. And a strange code.
“Fifty pieces, Astara. Fifty pieces for your help,” Boomer said. “I need to find those girls.”
Astara regarded him for another moment. Finally, she slid the knife back into her belt. “Fine,” she said. She turned her attention to Samus again, then lowered herself on her haunches. “That was a mistake, Samus. A grand mistake. You know what I do. If not for this man, you’d be breathing your own blood through a hole in your neck. You should thank him.”
Samus nodded. “Th–thank you,” he stammered, looking at Boomer.
“What do you know about the virgin girls?” Boomer asked.
“I… I can’t,” he said. “He’ll kill me.”
“I’ll kill you right now if you don’t,” Astara said, pulling her knife back out and brandishing it.
Boomer nodded. “You can either tell us now, or scream it later,” he said. “Have you ever known what it feels like to have your fingernails ripped off with a rusty knife?”
The look on Samus’ face told him that the point had hit home fairly easily. “All right! All right! I was hired to take a couple of girls from the Sisterhood, not a dream ago.”
“Who hired you?”
“He calls himself Grey,” he replied. “A brute of a man. Ruthless. Not at all civilized. That’s all I know, I swear!”
“What is he doing with the girls?”
Samus shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Astara pressed her blade against his leg and took a slice out of it.
Samus screamed. “I mean it! I don’t know! I don’t!”
Boomer leaned down to Samus. “What did Grey ask you to do, exactly?”
“He gave me names. Two names of girls at the Sisterhood Convent across from Arkham’s tree. I was to grab them, and take them to him. There were more girls there. All ages. Maybe fifty, just from what I saw. I don’t know what they’re doing to them.”
“Where did you take them?”
“Logan Hill,” he replied. “The Manor at Logan Hill. They were being kept there.”
Boomer stood back up. He’d heard of Logan Hill. It was at the southern end of Telemenn. A large hill that overlooked the desert south of the city. Perfect. He had a lead now. He looked back to the floor, to the young girl, still laughing softly on the floor.
“How old is this girl?” Boomer asked.
“What?” Samus asked.
Boomer smacked him with the back of his hand. “How old is that girl?” he exclaimed.
“Sixteen. She’s sixteen summers! She’s yours! Take her!”
“She’s a slave?” Boomer asked.
Samus nodded. “Her father sold me to her nine years ago,” he admitted. “She’s well, trained, I assure you. She can please you well. Please, take her!”
Boomer looked to the girl, then back to Astara. He remained silent for a moment, then turned his back on Samus.
“Make it quick,” he told her.