Chapter Three

 

Strange New Land

 

Captain Gronen Mattock had been on the gods’ green Urd for quite some time.  At 357 years of age, he’d seen a lot of strange things, and had managed to wrap his mind around most of them without any trouble.  But what he and the rest of his crew was seeing at that moment could not be counted among the phenomena he’d witnessed in his long years.

 

As the company of sailors and Wayfarers was finishing its preparations to head into the jungle-like pathways leading from the beach to the distant city, a powerful gust of wind ripped through the remains of their encampment, dashing their brickabrack and sundries about in a flurry.  While the sound of the wind persisted, Gronen, Kyle and Henden all looked about and locked onto the strange white and blue funnel of air and power that seemed to be jutting out of empty air near their beached ship.

 

Twisting counterclockwise in mid-air, it put Gronen in mind of the whirlpools he’d seen in his times riding along Tamalaria’s rivers in smaller vessels than the Steel Fist.  Those were the days when his crew only numbered six or seven at most, including the cook who would become his wife and the great warrior of the north-central mountains who would become his first mate, Mr. Arlen Sperio.

 

He heard a ‘click-clack’ as Derrick Henden, his heart racing, his eyes narrowed to slits and locked on the cone’s end, raised his mechanical arm and opened his palm toward it.  Kyle Vreki began chanting low under his breath, his hands weaving complex symbols in the air around him out of white mana light. The rest of the sailors hefted their weapons and circled themselves around the Wayfarers to protect them against whatever unknown force might come through that magical tunnel.

 

The moment a man-like form appeared, walking out of the cone, Henden loosed one of his piercing projectiles with a pneumatic ‘foomp’, the load flying at incalculable speed.  As fast and deadly as the weapon was, however, the coming man-shape held up one arm and Henden’s projectile fell harmlessly a foot away to the ground.  What came in retaliation from the man-shape was a melon-sized ball of blue flaming rock, hurtling toward Gronen, the priest and the Patriarch with lethal intent.

 

It was, in the end, Kyle’s warding spells that kept everyone alive despite the power of the fireball spell launched at them.  Hands pressed forward, the fireball struck Vreki’s unseen shielding spell, but the impact force leveled all three men, Jaft, Gnome and Elf alike.  Lying on his back, groaning at the pain of landing on a rock, Kyle heard the familiar voice of Timothy Vandross exclaim, “Oh shit, it’s Kyle and his group!”

 

The Jaft sailors, taking no chances, began to storm towards Tim Vandross and Hina Hinas, unaware that these two were the exact aid that the Elven Bishop had sent for with his messenger bird.  Kyle scrambled to his feet, but felt a heavy hand grasp his ankle.  He looked down and saw captain Mattock shaking his head up at him.  “I want to see if this friend of yours is going to be of any real help to us.  My men will test him and his woman,” he said, pulling Vreki to the ground next to him.

 

Hina and Timothy exercised great restraint as they unleashed their magical force on the onrushing Jafts, blowing them aside and pinning them to the ground where possible.  Tim, barely dodging the stabbing lunge of a throwing spear, brought his right foot around in a sweeping roundhouse kick to Mr. Sperio’s head, knocking him unconscious to the side with a broken jaw.

 

Hina, for her part, used her Q magic to put the first couple of her assailants to sleep instantly, pushing the others away and levitating them helplessly in the air just out of weapons’ reach.  Gronen, having seen enough, came easily toward them with his hands outstretched in a sign of peace.  “Men, cease and desist,” he said.  When the order came, his crewmen groaned aloud, but Tim and Hina released them from their holding spells and other repressions.  The captain stepped up to Timothy, looming over him by at least five inches.  Yet despite his size and militant bearing, he offered a hand to Tim, who accepted gratefully.  “I am impressed, Timothy Vandross.  Bishop Vreki did not lie when he said you and your companion Hina were more than capable adventurers.”

 

“Thanks,” Tim said with a shrug.  Hina came to his side and looked the Jaft captain up and down.  “Oh, right, this is Hina, my wife,” he said.

 

“Common law,” she added bluntly.  She hooked a thumb at Tim’s chest and gave Mattock a lopsided grin.  “This one still hasn’t made legal or ceremonial arrangements.”

 

“Dear, I thought we were going to let that go for now,” Timothy said in a harsh whisper.  Gronen looked at the two of them, feeling awkward.  This was none of his business.

 

“Well, we’ve got a captain here, he’s got a ship, and in accordance with Kingdom laws and regulations, that means he can make it official.  Right, captain,” she asked, curling herself around Timothy’s arm.  Tim rolled his eyes at her theatrics, and the captain put his hands up defensively, backing away.

 

“I’m just, uh, going to check with my own wife about that sort of thing, see if I’m allowed and all that, folks, um, Vreki’s right over there,” he stammered, turning around and making hastily away from the pair.  When he was out of earshot, the pair giggled like children and gave each other a high five.

 

“Wow, well played,” Tim said.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grown Jaft look so uncomfortable.  For a minute there I almost bought into myself,” he said.  Hina just raised one eyebrow up at him, the corner of her mouth tilted up at a quirked angle.

 

“I wasn’t being completely facetious, dear,” she said.  Timothy scratched his head awkwardly, giving Kyle Vreki a warm embrace as soon as his long-time friend came over to them.

 

“You have no idea how glad I am the two of you made it to us,” said the Elven Bishop, holding Tim at arm’s length.  “Already we have lost several of our number who went toward the city as a reconnaissance detachment, and Henry, one of my people, has heard nothing from a wind he sent toward that distant city to bring back what sounds it could from there.”

 

“So, who’s in charge here,” asked Hina, preparing a handful of locked spells on her person.  Kyle offered her a water skin, which she declined politely, re-securing the straps on her boots.

 

“The responsibility of leadership is sort of being shared right now between captain Mattock and Patriarch Derrick Henden,” Kyle said.

 

“The little guy who tried to shoot me in the face,” Tim asked.

 

“Um, yes, the same fellow.  He’s the only Gnome in the company, actually, hard to miss him,” said Kyle, looking over his shoulder at his leader. “Of course, with that arm of his, I suppose he’d be pretty easy to pick out of just about any crowd, hmm?”  Hina and Timothy both nodded, following Kyle over to the rest of the company as it gathered at the mouth of the path leading down a mild gradient into the jungle-like woodland between them and the city. As the Jaft crewmen drew weapons to be at the ready, Gronen and Henden moved to the front of the clustered group, holding themselves stiffly until everybody was silent, waiting for them to speak.

 

“Okay, folks,” said the captain, clearing his throat.  “The Wayfarer clan Todaro shall walk in a loose formation in the center of the path, surrounded in an outer ring by my men.  Father Vreki shall be in the center of the Wayfarer troupe, as he is our only healer.  I shall lead the company, with Patriarch Henden bringing up the rear with our newcomer friends, Timothy and Hina.  To my men, Patriarch Henden’s orders are to be followed just as you would my own.  The same goes for the padre.  Understood?”

 

“Yes captain,” his crew said in unison.  Henden stepped toward the company, twenty-two souls including himself.

 

“To my troupe, keep your eyes and ears peeled.  If you see or hear anything that seems like it could be any sort of threat, you tell one of the crew immediately.  We’re losing daylight, so we’ve likely only got a couple of hours to go before we’ll be taking our first rest.  By then, though, we’ll hopefully be in the city and find somebody who can offer us some help.  If we should get involved in a fracas, let’s try not to destroy too much of the natural environment, eh?”  His people had a good chuckle at that, and he raised his hands for their return to silence.  “Okay.  As the captain said, he and I are sort of sharing command here, and you’re to give the proper respect to our Faenwol as well.  Now let’s get cracking,” he said.

 

With that, the company began moving down the path, into the thicket.

 

The sleeper reviewed once again the small imagery boxes before its mind’s eye, switching from one to another as rapidly as it could without bringing on the dull, cold pain that seemed to be everywhere within its unknown body.  By degrees it felt itself come slowly more and more awake. The foreign life forms had all been destroyed, but not without a cost.  The System reported after the conflict that all but four SF0012 units had been destroyed in the battle.  Whoever these people were, their Jafts were mighty warriors, and their magic users were no slouches either.

 

-Recommendation?- asked the System.

 

Categorize foreign life forces as minimum Threat Level 3, readjust patrols accordingly.  Fewer groupings, more units to each detachment.  Display mana analysis.

 

-Processing.  Warning: Second group of foreign life forms is now moving en masse along vector route traversed by previous group.  Estimated numbers hold at twenty-two.-  The System remained quiet for a moment as the sleeper heard, faintly, several electrical synapses firing through it.  –Mana analysis of first encounter is complete.  Long range sensors in U-8 indicate that there are two unknown mana energy types approaching with second group.-

 

Explain, said the sleeper.

 

-This System cannot explain.  Unknown mana types are utterly absent from central database.  One of the energies is causing distortions through outlying systems on a minor scale.  The other energy defies analysis. Recommend Threat Level on second group be raised to 5 minimum.-

 

Unnecessary, said the sleeper to the System, confident in its defenses. Proceed with Level 3 ratings and routines.  Where possible, herd Brutes toward new group and maintain surveillance at highest available quality.  Keep a heavy roller on stand-by to deploy to this second group’s location.

 

-Acknowledged.  Preparing heavy roller.  Second group has entered zone V-12.  They will arrive at U-8 contact point in approximately forty-three minutes at their current rate of travel.  SF0012 units from first engagement are still at the ready.  Shall they remove the bodies?-

 

No, thought the sleeper.  Let them see their folly in coming here.  Let them know that death awaits them.

 

Timothy and Hina stayed crouched behind a heavy tree of unknown origin as captain Mattock and Derrick Henden crept through the brush on the other side of the path, moving carefully toward the metal men pacing back and forth in the little clearing that had been the scouting team’s final location.  It had been Thelma Mattock who’d first warned her husband of the approaching danger, and with only a couple of hand signals, Mattock ordered his men to take the Wayfarers and split them into two groups, one on each side of the clear path in the thicket.

 

Timothy used his Farsight spell to keep an eye on the captain and Patriarch, both men moving with surprising stealth through the thick underbrush toward the mechanical man-things.  Mattock kept his enormous stone warhammer on his back as he moved in a half-crouch next to Henden, who walked along with only a slight stoop himself, his right arm held stiffly down at his side.  As Tim watched, he felt Hina tap him on the shoulder.  “Um, Tim,” she whispered, tapping him rapidly.

 

“What is it dear,” he asked, returning his vision to normal as he looked over at the Elven Q Mage.  A curious, bright purple snake, as thick as a sausage, its tongue flicking out of its head repeatedly, was slithering over her shoulder and down her arm as she remained pressed with her back against the tree.  Tim used a quick finger flick on the serpent’s head, at which the creature lifted its eyes toward him.

 

“Cula mewo hunta, supva nisos,” Timothy whispered to the snake, which immediately reversed its course and began ascending the tree trunk, coming off of Hina.  She let out a sigh of relief, shaking her head.  “Did it bite you?”

 

“No,” she said, giving a little shiver.  “I swear, they’re the only animals that give me the real willies.  Well, the only normal animals, anyway.”

 

“I’d hardly say that snake was normal,” Tim said, returning his Farsight spell toward Mattock and Henden, who’d made their way almost to the edge of their possible cover.  The machine men were plodding around the small intersection of pathways in a hexagonal pattern, passing only a few feet from the captain and Patriarch’s position every ten seconds or so as the four sentries made their passes.  “It was bright purple, Hina.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t try to ask it to come back.  When I touched it, I could detect the potency of its venom.  It wouldn’t kill you, but it would probably paralyze you for a couple of days at least.”  He tensed as he saw Gronen Mattock slowly, silently draw his warhammer from its back mount over his head, holding it across his lap now.  “Do you suppose we should have told those two you could make them invisible for a few minutes?”

 

“I tried to suggest that to Henden, but he said something about these ancient robots having some kind of system that lets them see heat coming off of a person.  I couldn’t conceal that, so it’s sort of a moot point,” she said.  Hina wiped her brow, the heat on the island beating down on the company without mercy, despite the cover of the trees’ upper boughs.  “I’m surprised they haven’t been spotted yet.  How close are they now?”

 

“Only a few feet away on each patrol pass,” said Tim.  “Don’t machine systems break down over time?”

 

“Yeah, and?”

 

“Well, there’s also Kyle being close by.  Bishops of his caliber always seem to have a way of disrupting technological systems, it’s something to do with the nature of their mana and a few of their spells, the ones that specifically target anything mechanical.”

 

“So?”

 

“So if that heat sense system were still working, wouldn’t the machines have already attacked them,” Tim asked.  Hina slapped her forehead, the echo of which seemed to act as a cue for Mattock and Henden.  Tim watched as the Jaft captain sprang out of the brush with his warhammer swinging violently to the left in a clean horizontal arc, smashing with brutal efficiency into the chest of one of the machine men, the ‘robots’ as they used to be known.  Strange buzzing sounds issued from two of the other three machines, as the one directly opposite Mattock along the patrol border fell in a shower of sparks from its blocky head unit.  Henden’s projectile needle had found its mark, felling it quickly.

 

Tim watched as Mattock barely sidestepped a hyphen of red energy burst from the barrel of one of the surviving machine’s weapons, using his momentum to roll toward it in one leaping maneuver, uppercutting the machine man with the head of his warhammer.  The head unit flew free from its mounting brackets and wires, and the fourth and final machine was perforated by three more darts launched from Henden’s arm attachment. When the four machines were all down, the Wayfarer troupe and the rest of the Jaft crew reassembled on the pathway and marched down to their leaders.

 

Timothy and Hina stopped beside the first felled machine, taking a long, hard look over the thing.  Blocky and rusted, it appeared to be in a state of deep disrepair.  Tim tried to move its left arm up and down, but found it had rusted into place over untold years of neglect.  He did succeed however in pulling the attached hands and rifle weapon right off, falling on his ass with a grunt.

 

“These things are just barely operational,” they heard Henden say.  Kyle knelt with him next to another unit, the Bishop using his magic to render the inner gears and components useless.  Hina thought she heard a low, droning buzz coming from the east, turning her attention that way.  As the rest of the company looked over and memorized the appearance of these machine men, she got slowly to her full height, her eyes locked on the distant tree tops. Something was coming toward the company, she thought, something with the ability of flight.

 

Using the Q Mage spell of Sweep, she singled out the creatures coming toward them.  While unknown to her, she could see them in her mind’s eye as clearly as if they were on top of the company.  The creatures were some sort of altered mosquitos the size of house cats, their long, probing stingers jagged along each side.  She counted six of them, shaking Tim’s shoulder to get his attention.  “Tim, tell Kyle we’ve got more company coming,” she said, sensing the hostile intent of the oncoming creatures.

 

Timothy dashed over toward Kyle and Henden, whispering in the Elven Bishop’s ear.  Vreki rose to his feet, looking off in the same direction as Hina.  “I can barely see them, but you’re right,” he said.  He relayed this information to Henden and Mattock, both of whom began barking orders at their respective groups to prepare for another assault.  As the creatures neared, their buzzing, beating wings became audible to everybody in the company.

 

Timothy took the first offensive move, sending a sheet of ice slivers flying up toward the clustered beasts.  Agility proved to be their primary obvious advantage, as all six giant mosquito-like creatures deftly wound evasive patterns around the sheets of slivers Timothy followed the first volley with. Henry, the Kobold Aeromancer of the Wayfarer troupe, sent a cone of crushing air pressure toward the beasts, but once again they avoided coming to harm, swooping down towards their prey.

 

The first beast to arrive in their midst altered its course violently, ducking below the spear jab of Mr. Sperio, driving its sharpened  probe stinger into the chest of one of the defenseless Wayfarers and carrying the poor woman to the ground, shrieking all the while, batting uselessly at its slick torso.  The company broke apart, dodging and weaving out of the lethal path of the beasts’ stingers.

 

One of the Jaft crewmen approached the felled Wayfarer woman as the creature that had slain her pulled its deadly stinger out, spraying blood up into the sailor’s face.  With a primal roar the sailor, Foamrider, brought his black iron spiked mace down on the creature’s hideous, insectile face, crushing it flat to the ground.  Its own fluids leaked onto the ground, and with one last buzz, it died on the spot.

 

Kyle Vreki sat in the middle of the fray, legs crossed, concentrating on directing defensive barrier spells and the occasional burst of offensive power toward the remaining insect-beasts, to no avail.  His barriers kept his people safe, however, and that would have to satisfy for the time being.  The beasts collided with shimmering white walls of flickering magical force, bouncing harmlessly away, shaking their heads as though dazed.

 

Hina, spotting one such dazed subject, took advantage of its momentary confusion to draw her gladius from its sheath, hacking the creature cleanly in half.  Behind her, another of the beasts went down with a shrill screech as Mr. Sperio hurled one of his hand spears through its face, burying the weapon in its limp corpse.  The fourth creature fell victim finally to Thelma Mattock’s battle axe, and the last two were pressed into the ground by a spell launched from overhead by Henry, the Kobold Aeromancer.  Pinned and thrashing ineffectively, Timothy called upon the ground around the beasts to form two fists of soil and stone, each one smashing the bug-like creatures apart swiftly.

 

The group took stock of its injuries and losses.  Only one Wayfarer and one Jaft crew member had fallen dead to the beasts, but no less than half a dozen others had scrapes, gashes and bruises, for despite Kyle’s defensive barriers, the impact of the creatures’ attacks still left an impression upon the survivors of their assaults.  “I’ve seen these things before,” said one of the Wayfarers, an elderly Lizardman by the name of Jordain.  He sat next to the fallen woman, stroking her hair tenderly as he arranged her in a peaceful pose.

 

Hina, Gronen and Henden approached the Lizardman, while Timothy set about the task of using his Void magic to manipulate the very soil into providing graves for the fallen scouting party and the company’s two new casualties.  It was tedious work, but he set about the task with a gravity that ensured the other travelers left him to it in peace.  Hina crouched next to Jordain and pulled out a small leather bound notebook with a pen.  “You say you’ve seen them before,” she asked softly.

 

“Yes,” said the elderly Lizardman.  A single tear ran a track over the smooth scales of his cheek, glistening in the dying light of the evening.  “They are called raek.  But they have not been seen in Tamalaria since the late days of the Third Age, Elf child,” he said, sniffing.  “Their wings were prized by Alchemists, who were able to grind them into a paste that could be used as a sort of mortar to hold metals together.”  At this pronouncement, Hina noticed one of Mattock’s crew members going from one of the raek corpses to the other, using a short bladed hunting knife to cut the filmy wings off and roll them up into his bag.

 

“You said they haven’t been in Tamalaria since the Third Age,” Hina asked, taking notes.

 

“Oh, yes.  They were believed to be extinct, like so many other sorts of monsters from those dark days,” said Jordain.  He gently laid the woman’s head on the ground, passing his hands over her and chanting something quietly in his native tongue over her body.  “I don’t think many of us are going to survive this strange land,” he said quietly.

 

“Don’t talk hogwash,” said Henden, putting his left hand on Jordain’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze.  “We’re just not accustomed to the dangers this place presents.  What’s more, we only lost two people, so I should think we’ve come away pretty fair all in all.  This just means we have to be better prepared for anything that’s to come.  Are there any sorts of critters you can think of that used to be seen in conjunction with these raek?”

 

“Yes, now that you mention it,” said Jordain.  He wiped his cheeks and stood tall, brushing off his faded denim jacket.  “They were called brutes, but their kind have been spotted from time to time in the ancient ruins often located deep underground, in the lost cities of long ago.  They appear as lumbering, four-armed beetle-man creatures with their eyes and mouth in their torso cavity.  I once heard of a Gnome Engineer, much like yourself, named Norman Adwar, who saw such creatures in a ruins in the Dwarven Territories.”

 

“I remember that,” said Hina.  “He wrote an article about it for the Desanadronian Truth, little newspaper out of Desanadron.  He seemed to think they were quite deadly because of their size and speed, but he also mentioned that they seemed to have a weakness to blunt weaponry.”

 

“Duly noted,” said Mattock, putting his warhammer back in its mount over his shoulders.  “Say, what’s that,” he asked, pointing off down the eastern branching pathway.  A small dust devil made its way toward the company, and Henry rushed over to it, letting it surround his tiny Kobold frame, his eyes closed as he listened to his wind.  When the dust devil faded away to nothing but stray white gusts, he shook his head and came over to Henden.  With Jordain’s help, Timothy Vandross picked the dead woman up and carried her over to her final resting place.

 

“Patriarch, there’s some bad news,” said Henry, wringing his hands together nervously.

 

“Well, let’s have it,” said the Gnome Engineer, loading another clip into his arm.  “No sense in trying to avoid such things.”

 

“It’s the city,” said the Kobold, now rubbing one arm.  “Um, there’s no sounds, sir.  Nothing but the wind and some creaking metal.  I don’t think there’s anybody living there, sir.”

 

“So you mean to say its abandoned,” Hina asked.  Henry nodded, and the company took on a grim, sullen silence at this news.  But as Timothy came back to the central core of the group, he raised a solid point, having kept an ear on their conversation while performing his ritual of burial.

 

“Um, that might not be so.  You said you heard creaking metal, right?” Henry nodded.  “So, isn’t it possible that there’s more of these machine men around, and that we’ve just encountered their guard patrols?  I remember you told me once, Hina, that there used to be robots who had personalities, right? So isn’t it possible,” he began, but it was Henden who finished the question for him with an excited snapping of his fingers.

 

“That it’s a city of machines!  Of course,” he exclaimed, smiling broadly at everybody around him.  Kyle, for his part, looked mollified by the very notion.  Bishops never cared much for technology, and a city full of machine men would test even his patience and understanding.  “I mean, you only hear about that sort of thing in legends, mind, but it’s possible!”

 

“What about these raek and brutes Jordain mentioned,” asked Gronen, folding his arms over his chest, eyeballing the company’s route choices.  They could either head west along a path, east, or head south back to the beach.  At sea he would unerringly choose the least troublesome route as if by unknown instinct, but on land, he lost some of his touch.

 

“The machines wouldn’t perceive the raek as any real threat, so they wouldn’t bother with them.  That’s likely why they attacked us, viewing us as fleshy bits they could feed off of,” said Henden, working himself back to a neutral state of mind.  “If I had ever learned anything about their programming, I could probably use one of my interface tools to figure out what sort of protocols these things are set up with, but as it is, they’re just too ancient,” he said, shaking his head sadly.  “Oldest things I’ve ever worked on were autocarts from the early Fourth Age, never mind robots.  The H-4 Enforcers were the oldest machine men I ever touched, and they were third generation machines from that time period.”

 

“Well, let’s hope that if there are machine men in the city, they aren’t all as hostile as their patrols,” said Hina.

 

“Something tells me they will be,” said Timothy.  The company gathered together as a whole once more, and taking their cue from Derrick Henden, they followed the eastern path further down into the wooded area surrounding the city.  Kyle felt eyes upon him and his companions the moment they set upon their new course, and he spotted, amid the tangle and wild plant life growing to the sides of the clear dirt pathway, several small metal boxes, each with some glass lens in the front of their housing.

 

These he targeted silently, sending disruptive spells into them and grinning with silent satisfaction as, one by one, they smoldered and fell quietly apart to the ground.

 

-Priority target has changed, Guardian,- the System displayed to the sleeper.  –The green clad Elf is the source of the consistent disruptions. Analysis of battle with raek is conclusive; Threat Level 5 is once again recommended.  Failure to increase Threat Level to at least Level 4 will cause enactment of Program Sub-Routine 161.42 to activate.  Awaiting instructions.-

 

Very well, the sleeper thought at the System with an internal growl.  Set Threat Level to 4.  Activate feed control to known brute locations.  Reroute patrols in G-1 through G-7 to G-16 and set engagement procedure to seek and destroy.  All organic life forms except brutes are to be targeted and eliminated on sight.

 

-Understood.  Recommendations are now being initiated.  Heavy roller stand-by unit is fully charged and ready for deployment upon notice.-

 

Estimated time until I am at a functional capacity to come to active status.

 

-Forty-six hours, seventeen minutes, and eleven seconds.  System recommends that an additional ten percent energy input to Guardian facility will decrease this time to thirty-four hours, twenty-three minutes and four seconds.-

 

Accept recommendation and proceed.

 

The company’s second encounter with the metallic sentries leading toward the city, while more intense, resulted in no casualties to the mortals’ side of the battle.  Prepared by their first encounter, the Wayfarers recognized the sound of the approaching units and made their way into hiding in the thicket surrounding them with the exceptions of Derrick Henden, Kyle Vreki and Henry, the Kobold Aeromancer.

 

The mechanical men opened fire before they were even in plain view, scoring a few glancing blows on the foremost armored Jafts.  Their half-plate armor kept them from taking serious damage from the energy hyphens that struck them, but they were flung to the ground, dazed and bruised.  Captain Mattock led the rest of his men along with Hina, Timothy, Henden and Vreki doing their part into the fray, everybody reserving as much of their energy as possible as they dodged the incoming blasts.

 

Kyle focused the same technology-damaging magic on their number as he had on the cameras along the way, and the machines sparked and fell apart almost without further effort.  The hammers, axes and picks of the Jaft sailors broke them apart with relative ease, and Timothy’s protective spells, focused on the foremost members of his company, kept any and all injuries to a bare minimum.  When the battle was over, the only injury that seemed to have any real affect was a gash Henry sustained on his leg from a passing energy hyphen.  It wouldn’t stop bleeding until Kyle focused a concentrated healing spell on the wound.

 

“We’ve come away lucky on this one,” said Gronen as he set his warhammer on his back.  “We know what to expect from these mechanical men, but there are other dangers waiting for us, to be sure.”  He squared himself to the path once again as those Wayfarers who had taken refuge in the dense brush off of the path returned to the group.  “The delays of these encounters and the late time of our departure from the beach have put us in a bad position.”

 

“What do you mean,” asked Tim.

 

“We’ll be losing the last bit of daylight in about twenty minutes or so. Options,” he asked, looking around.

 

“We should make camp off of the path,” said Henden immediately.  He began to lead his people into the brush, looking back at the Jaft captain momentarily.  “This is something we’re all pretty good at, captain Mattock. We’ve had to make due in the wilds of Tamalaria for some years.” Without further discussion the captain and his wife followed the Wayfarers, followed by their crew, Timothy, Hina and Kyle Vreki bringing up the rear.

 

Roughly two hundred yards into the wild forest, Henden’s people began clearing away the taller stalks of foreign plant life, Mattock’s men removing fallen logs and heavy stones from the area to form a tidy little clearing.  Just as the last sunlight died away, leaving the first rays of lunar twilight to illuminate their works, they finished clearing the area, the Wayfarers lighting lamps and torches to see what they were doing.

 

Three fires were spaced out and lit within the clearing, but only three tents went up.  One was for Thelma Mattock, who was busy preparing a meal for herself, her husband and their crew.  The Wayfarers split into two groups, dividing the duties among themselves silently and comfortably.  This was something they did all the time, as Henden had suggested, so their ability to lay out the necessary wares and bedrolls came as little surprise to either them or the Jaft sailors.  As for Timothy and Hina, it appeared to be a seamless, practiced maneuvering the likes of which they rarely saw outside of military parades in the Elven Kingdom.

 

Hina pulled out a lumpy green roll of material, grabbing a hand cord attached at one end.  She held the roll out away from herself and pulled the cord, and with a ‘whoomph’ the material sprang open, revealing a small, two-person traveling tent, perfectly arranged on the bit of clearing they had to themselves.  She felt a tap on her hip as she started putting her and Tim’s duffels inside.  Hina looked down and found Henry smiling broadly up at her. “What is it,” she asked.

 

“Where did you get that marvelous little contraption,” the Kobold Aeromancer inquired, making a quick walk around the tent and back to her side.  His eyes, large and globe-like, bulged each time he poked the tent’s domed side and it didn’t collapse back up again.  “I think Patriarch Henden should make a few acquisitions of this sort if possible.”

 

“Oh, Tim and I purchased this from a Tinker in Trapperstown, in the Allenian Hills,” she said, crouching down and crawling inside.  She poked her head out through the flap for a moment.  “The merchant selling them has a store, ‘The Travel Horse’.  This one was only fifteen coin,” she said, pulling her head back inside.

 

“Fifteen?  That’s it,” asked Henry, clearly elated.

 

“That’s right.  But don’t your people usually sleep in the wagons you travel in?”  When she got no reply, Hina poked her head out once again, and found Henry already across the camp, speaking animatedly with Henden and pointing toward her and Tim’s tent.  She put down her blankets, curled herself up, and hoped that nobody would bother her to take a guard shift throughout the night.  She just wanted some sleep, and nothing more.

 

Her husband, Tim Vandross, was at that moment finishing his simple stew beside Kyle, both men staying relatively quiet while Henden and Mattock discussed their options across the fire from one another.  “It just makes sense, when you think of it,” the Gnome Engineer said, adjusting his artificial arm without watching his own work once again.  “We’re intruders to these things, so they’re responding as their programming would mandate.  Regardless of how old they probably are, they’re still functional.  I think that tells us there’s a high probability that the inhabitants of the city itself, if they are machine men like the patrols, will be of a more complex design and programming nature.”

 

“Which is all gibberish to me and mine,” replied captain Mattock, wiping his mouth on his over shirt sleeve.

 

“If I may explain my Patriarch’s statement, captain,” said Kyle.

 

“As you would, padre.”

 

“It’s like this,” said the Elven Bishop, setting his own emptied bowl aside.  “Do you know of the Troke, captain?”

 

“Vicious creatures, yes,” said the captain, grimacing.  “What of them?”

 

“Well, you know that they typically come in three varieties.  There’s the wild Troke, who are murderous beasts of the deep forests and mountains, shapeshifting in order to get closer to their prey.  Then, there’s the civilized Troke, who are sentient, thinking creatures among our societies.  Most of them are professional soldiers and mercenaries.  In between those two extremes is the lesser known tribal Troke, who live in small packs whose civil structure is much akin to the Lizardman tribes of the Desperation desert.”

 

“I understand that much,” said Gronen.  He took a swig from his ale skin, letting out a small belch behind his fist.  He rolled his hand forward.  “Go on.”

 

“Well,” said Kyle, drawing three shapes in the dirt with a stick.  The first, on the left, was a square.  Next, in the middle, he drew a hexagon.  Lastly, on the right, he drew a twelve-sided shape.  “Now, these patrol machines would be like the middle shape, slightly more complex than the first symbol, but similar in design and function.”

 

“And the square,” asked Thelma Mattock, taking a seat between her husband and Mr. Sperio.  “What does it represent?”

 

“Manually used machines,” said Kyle, tapping one finger beneath it. “Such as ice boxes, chainsaws, can openers that use batteries,” he said.  “They require external input to function, and have no programming, which Patriarch Henden tells me is how machines think,” he said.  The subtle note of distaste he held for the idea did not go unnoticed by Mattock and his men.  “The patrols are in the middle.  The last symbol would be like the civilized Troke, or whatever sort of citizen machines might live in the city we’re heading for.  They would be, according to this theory, as intelligent and reasonable as you or I, dependent upon their level of programming.”

 

“I think I understand now,” said Gronen, scratching his smooth blue head.  “Because these machine patrolmen seem set on one level of thought, you assume that there must be something more complex actually living in the city.”

 

“Precisely,” said Henden.  “Right now we have no way of knowing for certain, though.  There is another possibility, but I don’t care much for it,” he said, looking into the fire.  Henden remained silent for another minute, but when he opened his mouth to speak, it was Timothy who provided the alternative explanation.

 

“Which is that whoever lived here and built the machines is long dead or long gone from here, including the city,” said the Half-Elf Void Mage, which left an uncomfortable silence among those gathered around the fire.  “I’m sorry,” he finally said to break the tension, “but somebody had to put the idea out there.  If we get to that city and find out that there is no help to be found, what are we going to do?”

 

“We’ll have to prepare ourselves to be here long enough to repair the ship and get back to Tamalaria,” said Mattock succinctly.  “With the availability of lumber near the beach and the fact that we’ve only lost a couple of our people, we could probably have the Steel Fist patched up and ready to set sail within a month.”

 

“That’s assuming we can keep the locals we’ve already come across from giving us anymore trouble,” said Henden.

 

“A problem we are more than capable of handling,” said Sperio.  He got to his feet, and tapped a few of his fellow shipmates on the shoulder.  “Come on, lads, we’ve got to set up our watch.  Three hours, then we’ll switch up. Patriarch Henden, will any of your people be capable of providing watch duty?”

 

“Myself, Henry, and Kristen,” he said, indicating one of the Wayfarer women, the only one equipped as a warrior among the groups’ women.  “Will that be enough?”

 

“Should be enough to hold off any beasties until you can sound an alarm,” said Sperio.  He and his chosen men set off to separate points surrounding the clearing, their weapons at the ready, eyes and ears set to detect anything coming from outside of the encampment.  Gronen started toward his and Thelma’s tent, halfway there when Tim stopped him with a hand on his arm.

 

“Captain, I’ll join Henden on the last watch so that you and your wife may rest together,” he offered, blushing a little.  Mattock gave him a wry grin.

 

“And what of your own woman, Hina Hinas?  She’s already waiting for you, isn’t she?”  Tim rubbed the back of his head awkwardly.

 

“Well, we don’t usually, um, you know, on the road and everything,” he stammered.  Mattock let out a gruff laugh, clapping Tim on the back amiably but with the full force of his people.  Too much, Tim thought, that’s just too much pressure on my spine.

 

“Say no more, young Vandross,” said the captain.  “I thank you for the boon you offer, as shall my wife, I hope, but in an indirect way, you understand,” he said with a wink.  Tim understood only too well, feeling a small thread of jealousy run through his heart.  He and Hina tried as much as possible to refrain from being intimate while traveling, in order that they might not be caught off guard or unawares.  But it made him long to be home again, instead of being trapped on this island with Kyle and his people.

 

As Tim headed to his and Hina’s spring-trap tent, he opened the front flap and saw her arms twitching lightly.  This, he knew, was the first sign of his beloved having one of her eerily prophetic dreams.  Tim hunched down and crawled inside of the tent, keeping himself stashed over to one side as much as possible.  Though he didn’t know it for certain, he sensed that whatever Hina was dreaming, it might just help set the company straight on their course.

 

Hina once again found herself standing in the sterile metallic corridor of some unknown complex, but this time, instead of being utterly alone, her consciousness brought her around several yards away from a Human in what appeared to be military field fatigues, the sort used by the Desanadron militia. Looking herself over, she was once again featured in her own dream in a laboratory worker’s garb.  She walked up to the guard, noting another key difference, this one internal; she could actually feel the unusual shortness of her ears.

 

“Hello there,” she said to the guard, a Human male of no unique feature.  She made a move at tucking a loose strand of hair behind her left ear, and felt the shape of it with her fingertips.  Whatever this dream was about, she was clearly taking the role of another Human, like this unknown man.

 

“Hello, Doctor Weber,” said the man, giving her a brief salute. “Professor Lorring is waiting for you in the Gate Reception Center,” he said, pointing down the hallway in the same direction Hina took in the previous dream of this complex.  While somewhat confused, she nodded all the same to the uniformed soldier and started off toward the center, whatever it was.  She turned the corner, and once again was faced with the valve door and the keypad with its slot for a swipe card.  As before, she pulled the card out from her cleavage, swiping it through the reader and watching patiently as the valve door automatically cranked open, granting her access.

 

She stepped inside, and almost walked right into the back of one of several men, all Humans, all dressed similarly to her.  The computers were all lit up, and each work station had a man seated at it, eyes locked on her and the man who was turning around to see who’d interrupted him.  Hina’s throat locked up when she saw that the man bore an unsettling resemblance to the man who provided one half of Tim’s genetic makeup.

 

The scientist before her looked like Richard Vandross, by all comparisons she had seen of the paintings done over the years of the one-eyed tyrant. Almost to complete the strange tableau, the man before her also wore an eye patch, but she took a moment to sigh with relief when his face, immediately stern and potent, softened at the sight of her.  It’s the wrong eye, too, she thought to herself.

 

“Anna, you should have used the comms link to warn me you were coming,” said the Vandross look-alike.  A slim metal tag over his upper left lab coat pocket declared him Lorring, as in the professor the guard had mentioned. He relaxed his stance, planting his hands on his hips, a clipboard still held in the right hand.  “We haven’t gotten everything calibrated yet for you to perform the measurement, love.  I guess I should have contacted you,” he said apologetically.

 

“No, that’s okay,” she said, trying to be casual.  She could feel a nervous sweat working itself up on her neck.  She hadn’t meant to say anything, but when the words started to come, she found herself just trying to sort of guide them.  There were a number of questions running through her mind, but she heard herself open her own mouth and say, “Anyway Rick, how far along is the Connection Bridge now?”

 

“Oh, about seventy-eight percent now, Anna,” he said, turning away and leading her toward a terminal near the mysterious flat door panel she’d seen in her previous dream.  This time, as Hina looked at the plate set next to the door panel on the wall, she saw that it said something similar, but not quite the same, as it had in the prior dream.  ‘Gateway Experiment Station 14.  Est 2123 N.A.U.’

 

“What’s this,” she asked, looking down at the screen as Rick Lorring seated himself in front of the monitor.  Again, she seemed to have no control over her own words, only her physical actions.  But as the moments passed, she felt that control also slipping, which would leave her as a typical dreamer, little more than a powerless observer of her own internal workings.

 

“It’s the relay transmission program we set up last year.  You remember how we sent out a general greeting signal back then,” he asked, looking up at her with the sort of bright shimmer in his eye that she’d seen in children who spotted a new toy they wanted at market.  “Well, we finally got a response two days ago, and we’ve started running it through our translation programs! We’ve managed to work out several of the symbols, which is just excellent, because it can give us a common ground to reconstruct the symbols and respond back to them with,” he said.

 

“No visual data,” Hina asked.  Her voice sounded deeper, huskier to her own ears than it ever had before.  Yes, she thought, I’m losing control of this dream, but it’s still important.  I need to hang on somehow.

 

“No, but you remember that Rift in Brazil back in 2044,” the professor asked.

 

“Yes, I was debriefed on it, just like everybody else involved in this program.  Didn’t it try to communicate with us too?”

 

“Yes, it did,” said the professor, turning in his swivel chair, hands folded together on his knees.  “And from what our database has been able to discover, it’s almost the exact same set of symbols that creature used back in 2044, Anna.”

 

“But the Rift closed itself up only two days after it appeared,” she heard herself say, but Hina noticed that the woman, whoever she was traveling around this dreamscape inside of, was starting to sound excited herself.  “Does that mean,” she began.

 

“Yes, we believe so.  We may have established contact through the Gate with the other side of that first Rift,” said the professor.  Hina crouched down with a shout and embraced the professor, but as she stood away from him, an alarm klaxon began sounding throughout the room, accompanied by strobe-like flashes of red and green lights in the ceiling.  The professor turned back toward his console, tapping frantically at several keys.  He shot a look down the way at one of the other scientists, screaming “What the hell is going on, Harker?”

 

“We’ve got an influx of energy feeding in across the Gateway,” the man named Harker shouted back over the alarms.  Hina backed away toward the valve door, but saw at the last moment a pair of soldiers pushing it shut, turning the valve on their side to close the door.  She heard a whirring sound as security bolts in the door locked into place with the wall, sealing her and the scientists into the Gate Reception Center.

 

“Cut it off, shut down the feed from our end,” Lorring replied, moving over to a free work station.  Several of the machines blew out sparks from their input devices, and Hina let out a shriek as the glass front of one of the monitors exploded outward, impaling one of the researchers in the face and throat with shards of glass, one of the tiny fragments catching her in the cheek.  She pulled it free quickly, dropping it to the metal floor.

 

“I can’t shut it down, there’s too much spillover,” shouted Harker.  The building all around them let out a trembling shudder, and the entire crew of researchers were now gibbering, shouting and panicking.  “The power being fed from the other side of the Gate can’t be identified, the system has no idea what to make of it or compare it to!  Sir, we need to get out of here!”  But Lorring remained right at his console, even when Harker leaped up and shoved Hina aside, trying to open the valve door from the inside.  “They’ve sealed us in,” he screamed, kicking at the door.

 

At that moment in the dream, the door plate set next to Lorring’s first workstation slid open with a ‘wheesh’, tendrils of smoke fanning out into the research chamber.  As Hina coughed and gagged, sagging to the floor, she lost sight of the dream, and lapsed into the peaceful bliss of true sleep.

 

Gronen Mattock took a few slow, quiet steps forward, deeper into the brush than the others presently on lookout duty.  He had allowed himself the intimate embrace and affections of his wife when first young Timothy Vandross left his side, and lay sleeping with Thelma for a few hours, but when the third and final watch of the night came, he found himself awakened by his own restlessness.

 

On watch now were Mattock, Patriarch Henden, Foamrider, and despite the Jaft captain’s attempts to convince him to go back to sleep, Kyle Vreki.  The Elven Bishop seemed jittery to Gronen, and nervousness in men of the cloth never bode well in his opinion.  As such, he and Foamrider both patrolled the perimeter of their camp with weapons in hand.  Mattock would take no chances with the unknown inhabitants of the island.

 

A minute ago, he’d heard some sort of shuffling movement in the underbrush leading even farther into the jungle-like woodland around the company.  Stooped down in a half-crouch, he remained low and steady in his movements, mindful of the small noises he made as he moved.  After nearly a minute of moving away from the camp, he spotted the source of the noise he’d heard, and he froze in a blend of confusion and wonder.

 

What captain Gronen Mattock saw standing some fifteen yards away looked like a gigantic, bipedal hulk beetle, its horned pincers clacking closed and open on top of its head, or what he assumed should have been its head region.  A pair of shimmering eyes and a gaping mouth filled with angular, dagger-like teeth stood out on its torso, and though he’d never seen such a creature before, it appeared somewhat less bulky than he believed it should. He heard a snuffling sound coming from the creature, and just before he slipped behind a thick tree, he saw what appeared to be fresh blood matting its beast-like claws and stomach.

 

Crouching down behind the tree, Mattock found a small branch, which he tossed high into the air, aiming it so it would come down only a few yards away from him in the camp’s direction.  He counted the seconds in his head, hearing the eager approach of the beast as it wended ever closer to his position.  Step, step, step, he thought, every muscle in his arms and back tensing and relaxing, flexing themselves into readiness should the creature not be felled by the initial blows.

 

Moments later, the hulking bug-like beast stepped right past him, and Mattock made his move.  Stepping forward and dropping to one knee, he swung his warhammer in a hard horizontal arc, connecting solidly with the creature’s legs.  With a startled buzz-cry the creature toppled over, trying to break its fall with its arms.  Mattock followed his own momentum, coming up to his feet and continuing his weapon’s cycle up into the air.  With a  grunt he brought the squared head of his concrete warhammer down on the creature’s upper torso, right into its insect-like, hateful face, spraying brackish blood and fluid all over himself and his weapon.

 

The creature’s body thrashed for less than a minute before laying lifelessly on the ground.  Turning around after he felt certain the beast was dead, Mattock surveyed the surrounding thicket for anymore sign of movement, unwilling to drop his guard and thus risk the safety of his men or his Wayfarer wards.  Finally, he returned to the area just around the campsite, almost walking right into the padre, Kyle Vreki, as the Elven Bishop made his pass around the area.

 

“Oh, forgive me, my child,” said Vreki, coming up short in his tracks. “Gronen, by the Great God Lenos, are you hurt,” he rasped, seeing the dark fluid speckled on Mattock’s armor and face.

 

“No, padre, I’m fine.  I believe I may have just encountered one of those creatures your elderly Lizardman was speaking of, the brutes.  Are they pack creatures?”

 

“Oh, oh goodness no,” said Vreki with a sigh of relief, remembering what his fellow Wayfarer had told him once of the creatures.  “They are solitary by nature, moving and hunting in pairs only when they are on the brink of starvation.”

 

“Not good, then,” said Mattock, casting about with his eyes once more. “The brute didn’t appear to be nearly as large as your man said they should.”

 

“It could have been one of their young,” Kyle suggested nervously, bringing his mana to bear.

 

“No, it was the right height for an adult, I believe,” said Mattock.  “Find your Patriarch and warn him there may be another nearby, I’ll tell Foamrider,” said Mattock, moving through the brush.  Kyle turned away and made his way cautiously, heart hammering in his chest, back along the patrol route.  He finally spotted Henden as the first light of day began showing itself through the dense canopy of treetops overhead, and his Patriarch, he saw to his dismay, was limping toward him, bleeding copiously from a ragged wound on his left side.

 

“Derrick,” Kyle exclaimed, running over to him and lowering the Gnome Engineer gingerly to the ground.  “Just hold still.  What happened, Patriarch,” he asked, pressing both hands directly to the wound.  Feeling along the inside of the damage with his mana, Kyle was stunned by the extent of the injury, but knew that with a healthy dose of his healing magic, he could repair the wound. Doing so would leave him a little groggy and drained himself, but by then everybody else in the company would be awake and moving, affording him the time and protection he would need to recover his mana reserves.

 

“One of them brute things we was warned about,” said the Gnome, wincing as the first of Kyle’s magic flooded into his body, repairing the damage done to him.  “I saw it too late, almost right on top of me.  It lowered itself and tore into me wif one of those pincer things on its shoulders.  Hurts a right nasty, I’ll tell you, AAARGGH,” he cried out as his stomach was knitted back together with magical force.

 

“I am sorry, but the injury was rather severe, Derrick,” said Kyle, arming sweat onto the sleeve of his green robe, pressing his hand back to the Patriarch’s side.

 

“S’all right, lad, you’re saving me.  A few complaints is the worst you’ll get from me.  When I fell down from the blow, I couldn’t even think to scream, I just saw it looming over me with that mouth it had.  I saw an opportunity when it showed me its teeth, fired all five of me bolts right into its gullet.  Damned thing fell dead on top of me,” the Gnome said, wincing one last time as Kyle finished his work.  As the last of his healing light faded from Kyle’s hands, the Elven Bishop heard something approaching their position, and he rose swiftly to his feet, taking up his mace.  He stepped between Henden and the source of the oncoming noise, raising his weapon up.

 

Thankfully for both Kyle and Henden, it was Foamrider and Mattock who emerged from the underbrush, their own weapons held high.  “Thank goodness it is you, priest,” said Foamrider, sheathing his battle axe on his hip.  “We found another of the beasts not far from here, face down in the dirt.  Did you kill it?”

 

“No, t’was my Patriarch.”

 

“Oy,” said Henden, getting wobblingly to his feet.  “Kyle here just finished patching me up.  We can’t all be blessed with regenerative powers by nature, eh?”

“It is good that you are healed,” said Mattock.  “The sun has risen, however, and it is time to rouse the others for a quick breakfast before we take to the road again toward the city.”  And so the last watch reentered the camp and got everyone ready for the day’s trek, none of them aware of the continued danger they faced.

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