Chapter Two

 

The Arrival and Call For Help

 

Using the rope ladders hastily attached to the bow of the ship, Kyle quickly descended to the beach and was helped over to one of the groups of his troupe who all appeared to be in a state of deep shock.  The sailor who escorted him left him with his people, and Kyle instantly went to one knee before them.  “Look, I know this is frightening, but the Great God Lenos will watch over us.”

 

“Yeah, because he did such a great job thus far of that,” retorted Henry on Kyle’s right.  His travel duffel, looking packed to capacity, sat on the sand next to his sagging frame as he dragged a finger along the beach.  Kyle held his immediate reply, because getting into an argument, while a Wayfarer pastime on the open roads known to their people, was not such a great idea in a strange land.

 

“Henry, I respect you, and forgive you your harshness of words,” he said. “But we really must consider what Mr. Sperio said.  Can you work your winds again?”  The Kobold sent a small dust devil flying off into the sparse brush at the top of the beach line where the land turned into overgrown, wild tangles of grass.  “Excellent.  Can you use it to bring back sounds from afar,” Kyle asked.

 

Henry looked surprised at the notion, as though he’d not thought of doing that himself.  “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually tried to use my magic that way.  How did you think of that,” he asked.  Kyle demurred with a smile, however.

 

“My old friend Timothy, he’s a Void Mage in the Elven Kingdom,” said Kyle.  “He has taken to the practice of trying to use the spells he learns in ways that the original wielders might not have thought of.  He’s rather good at it.  Do you think you could give a try, see if you can pick up maybe some conversation from the denizens of that city?”

 

“Hell,” said Henry, hopping to his feet and cracking his fingers. “Anything’s worth a try at least once, you know?”  The other two Wayfarers began rummaging in their bags, apparently trying to figure out a way to be helpful to their current circumstances.  Kyle, filled with a sense of accomplishment, turned aside and sought out the captain.  He found the broad Jaft standing near the water with Henden, both men speaking in conspiratorial, hushed tones.

 

As he neared, both leaders turned to him and nodded.  Kyle gave a slight bow to acknowledge and thank them for his inclusion, as was Elven custom. “Patriarch, captain, Henry has agreed to send a wind toward the city in the hopes he can return it with sounds from the peoples there.  If the tongue they use is known to any of us, we will have a tool to work with.”

 

“Excellent thinking,” said Gronen.  “Your Patriarch and I have already discussed making camp here for the day and sending out a reconnaissance party to ensure that the path toward the city is safe.”

 

“I could lead them,” offered Kyle.

 

“No,” said Henden immediately.  “You will stay with us for the time being.  You have a letter to write your friend Timothy, only you’ll have to make it a brief letter.  The captain’s men found the birds, but there are only three, so let’s hope your friend is resourceful.”

 

“In ways you couldn’t imagine,” said Kyle, seeking out one of the traveling trunks to put his parchment on to write a letter for Timothy’s help.  He wasn’t sure how the Half-Elf Void Mage was supposed to be able to help him, but perhaps trying alone would be enough to keep his hopes up.  A little hope and prayer was all he really had to offer right now to their current circumstances.

 

Darkness.  For years without known number, there had been darkness and silence, and nothing more for the slumbering creature deep below its territory.  And after all these years of darkness and silence, there was information again.  There was light, and a color.  No, two colors, it thought, its mind slowly coming awake after ages of doing nothing.  The first color was green, and behind it, a color similar to the darkness, black.  But there was a light behind this black, to give it meaning, significance.  It had been too long.

 

In green lettering, the words flowed before what it could only assume was its mind’s eye.

 

-Impact detected on perimeter zone V-17.  Drone auto-launch failure detected.  Analysis shows massive disrepair and ruin of launch hatch doors.-

 

How much time has passed, thought the sleeper slowly.  As though reading these thoughts, the green letters responded.

 

-Time passage since last initialization unknown.  Closest accurate statement is 5000 plus years.-

 

That’s impossible, thought the sleeper calmly.

 

-Negative, only improbable.  When all other possibilities are exhausted, the least possible explanation, however improbable, must be accepted as truth and resolution to question/problem.  The Program does not lie.-

 

The sleeper mulled this over in its slow, deliberate, waking fashion.  It still could not feel anything, hear anything, taste anything.  Aside from the green letters and black background, it could not see anything either.  Nor was there any smell to be detected.  What impacted in V-17, the sleeper wondered.

 

-Unknown at present.  Sensor arrays are coming back online presently. Video and audio surveillance is at this time inoperable due to entropy of outlying systems.  Threat level can only be assumed to be insignificant at level 1.  SF0012 units are coming back online.  Energy levels are currently insufficient to power full host.  Recommendation?-

 

Bring them to one quarter power and employ patrol subroutine Gamma, the sleeper thought, unaware of how it could make such a suggestion when, in truth, it didn’t even understand its own thoughts.

 

-Affirmative.  One-quarter power output to SF0012 units, engaging Gamma patrol routine once activated.  Brutes and raek are detected throughout central territories.  Recommendations?-

 

Leave them be.  They are no threat, and it is their land more than ours now, the sleeper thought.

 

-Affirmative.  All targeting parameters have been realigned to exclude brutes and raek.  Camdrones have been brought online.  Sensors in sector V-6, 7 and 8 have come back online.  Activation of long-range equipment initiated. Report will be issued upon results, SF0117.-

 

When the letters disappeared, the light faded, and once again, the sleeper edged into the darkness.  But this time, it did not sleep, or even feign the attempt.  Sleep had been its domain, its existence, for too long.  It knew the process would take some time, but it would bring itself awake once more. Lengthy though the process might be, surely it could be as bad as spending so many thousands of years in that soft, warm darkness.

 

Far away to the west, innumerable miles from the marooned sailors and Wayfarers, a young Half-Elven man stood on top of a small stepstool, a nail in his left hand, hammer in his right.  He wore a loose fitting pair of beige cargo pants under a knot-buttoned deerskin shirt, and as the sounds of a nearby grammar school coming to its close for the day tolled into the crisp forest air, he trained the nail into a thin wire loop held in place by a simple spell, and started to swing the hammer home.

 

The Elven Q Mage woman standing next to the stool couldn’t help herself, so she kicked the stepstool out from under him.

 

With a yelp and a crash Timothy Vandross came down on the front porch of his new home, his arms and legs bouncing tremendously off the softened wood he’d laid down weeks before to finish the low-priced cottage.  He lay dazed in the kicked up sawdust, his blurred vision clearing just as Hina Hinas, his common law wife and general light-hearted wandering companion, came into his view upside down.  Her right hand was still stretched up toward the little sign over the front doorway, a Holding spell keeping it in place.

 

“You had to know that was coming,” she said with a wry smile.  For once she was wearing a beautifully sewn sundress in yellow with white flower patterns woven into the fabric.  Timothy groaned as he got to his feet, admiring the boldness his mate displayed by wearing high-topped combat boots with the rather feminine dress.

 

“Eventually, yes, I suppose I did,” he said, dusting himself off.  He righted the stepstool, remounted, and looked down at his wife with a hard glare. “You’re not going to do it again, right?”

 

“Do I look like a comic strip character,” she retorted, the corner of her lip pulling downward.  She held the sign as Timothy drove the nail all the way in, and stood next to him when he stepped down, her arm around his waist. “Well, it looks good,” she said.  The sign said, in curled wood burned letters, ‘Hinas and Vandross Residence’.  “And it’s in keeping with the rest of Veinwood,” she added, giving him a peck on the cheek.

 

The front door of their house opened, and their guest, who had been helping them get moved into their new home, came out in a cloud of dust.  He coughed harshly for a moment before stepping out of the haze, his massive, burly red-furred arms waving the cloud away that dragged behind him.  The Red Tribe Werewolf tossed the broom in the crook of his arm aside and waved his hands at the house as if to dismiss it.

 

“Tim, when you said the place was untenanted for a  while, you could have tried to be a bit more specific,” the towering Werewolf said.  “There were dust bunnies in that upstairs bedroom that could choke a horse!”

 

“Sorry about that, Stockholm,” said Tim.  “It’s just that, well, ‘old’ is a kind of vague concept when I think about you.”  Hina smacked him on the arm. “What, it’s true and you know it!”

 

“Yes, we do, but let’s not announce it to the whole kingdom, dear,” she rasped.  She gave Ignatious Stockholm a broad smile.  “How’s Steven?”

 

“I wouldn’t know,” said Stockholm, anger tainting his grumbling voice.  “I haven’t seen him in about two weeks.”

 

“I thought you two had a date last Friday,” said Tim, leading the way back into the house.  He led the trio into the kitchen, where he plugged in the coffee maker and set to brewing them a pot to share out among them.

 

“Oh, we did,” said Stockholm, slumping down into one of the chairs around their mahogany table.  “But I happened to spot him out at Chez Butose around lunchtime with another rather handsome gentleman.”

 

“It could have just been a friend,” Tim suggested.  Stockholm gave him a withering look.

 

“Friends don’t lick each other’s ears in public,” said the Red Tribe Werewolf with a sigh.  “I would have confronted him but I just didn’t show up at the theater instead.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry Stocky,” said Hina, bringing him his share first in an obsidian mug.  “Did you tell your boss, Mr. Deus?”

 

“Yeah, but he didn’t seem all that surprised.  He’d warned me to be careful about trying to spend time with a Scrounger,” said the Red Tribesman. Tim looked to Hina for clarification.

 

“It’s one of the tribes of Cuyotai, they’re kind of a dirty blond with that white streak at the shoulders,” she said.  Timothy nodded, thanked her for his mug.  “So, we’re just about all set up here if you’re ready to head back to Desanadron tomorrow, Stocky.  You using another teleportation scroll to go back?”

 

“Yes, unfortunately,” said the husky Red Tribe.  “I’ve got a meeting to attend between my Hoods and the Midnight Suns to discuss a troublesome new street gang that’s coming from Shoshun in the northeast of the city-state.  One of Fly’s contacts informed him that these folks have some ties to a broken mercenary band nobody wants getting back together.  A couple of them even have bounties on their heads, so I suspect a couple of agents from the Bounty Association will probably try to sneak into the meeting.”

 

“Well, we’re just grateful you were able to come help us move in like you did,” said Timothy.  “I don’t know if we could have slogged through all that paperwork the way you did for us.”

 

“Paperwork is something I’m very comfortable with,” said the Red Tribe with an uncharacteristic smile.  “It helps too that I was around when they formed some of the regulation laws, too.”  The trio enjoyed light conversation for a while then, until around noon when Ignatious Stockholm excused himself and bade them farewell.  He pulled a scroll from his vest and ripped it in half, disappearing in a flash of light, smoke, and the unmistakable ‘POOF’ sound that always accompanied such a spell.

 

Timothy and Hina headed to the town’s outskirts, set to take one of the long, meandering and aimless strolls that Hina loved so much to engage herself in.  Of late, however, her motivation was more than the usual listlessness that she felt in her day-to-day routine.  Her job with the local postmaster was secured since moving into the township, a post she would begin within a few short days, and Timothy had arranged with the local constabulary to sign on as a part-time patrolman.  Their combined salary would be enough to pay their taxes and live comfortably so long as they weren’t wasteful, and that was good enough for their purposes.

 

Neither, however, was the wending path they took through the nearby woods surrounding the town just a way to distract herself from thinking about her upcoming employment in the mail sorting office.  In the past few weeks, she’d been troubled by strange dreams, much as Timothy had once been when first they met.  But where Tim’s bête noirs stemmed from unresolved issues regarding his father and his family heritage, Hina’s struck her as somehow prophetic.

 

In her most recent disturbance of slumber, two nights before, she’d found herself standing in a rubble-strewn street.  All around her rose leaning, dust-covered buildings the color of ancient tanned animal skins, their glass windows layered so densely as to barely be recognizable.  Nothing in the street intersection she stood in moved or made a sound.  She sensed that the place was positively uninhabited, and had been thus for some time.

 

But the moment she started to walk down the street in her dream, she caught sight of what appeared to be a thin man made of blocky metal parts, a robot perhaps from the Fourth Age, the Age of Mecha.  When she approached the automaton, she noticed its thin, rusted arms gripped a squat black machine, clearly a weapon of some sort.  As she got ever closer, two small bulbs of light in its cylindrical head flashed brilliant, electric yellow, and it swiveled on its drum-like hips to aim its weapon at her.  At that point, she’d awoken shivering, but Timothy was deep asleep next to her, drooling on his pillow as usual.

 

Hina shivered, passing between two gnarled elms.  Timothy put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze, playing his hand through her long purple hair.  “Hey, are you cold,” he asked plaintively.  “We can head back if you need to grab a sweater or something, or I can heat you up,” he said.  He made a twitching gesture with his right hand, bringing a soft amber light into his palm.  Hina offered him a wan smile and shook her head.

 

“No, no, it’s nothing Tim, just a dream I was thinking about,” she said, stepping over a tree root.  “I was just reading too much into something from a couple of nights ago.”

 

“Seems to go with the territory of being an Elf,” Tim said, letting the mana in his hand flow back into his arm.  “I catch myself doing that sometimes too, even though I’m only a half-blood.  And by the way, I love you,” he said, kissing her on the temple.

 

“I love you too.  It’s just something that stood out, the way something strange will, you know,” she said.  The pair stopped at an unfamiliar intersection of dirt pathways, still getting acquainted with the region around their new home.  As they peered about, seeking out the likeliest looking path, Timothy felt a slight twinge run up and down his arms, a reflex reaction he knew signaled to him the presence of a rashum.  “Tim, your ring,” Hina said quietly, eyes locked on Timothy’s feet.

 

As with all Void Mage’s, a pulsing ring of blue light, laced with small white symbols, rotated around Tim’s feet whenever he an oncoming threat or the opportunity to absorb a new spell or skill.  For Hina its appearance always signaled trouble, so she took a few steps to one side of her common law husband and brought her Q magic mana to bear in her arms and chest. Timothy Vandross plucked his Void rod from its slender case on his belt, whip-cracking his wrist forward to transform the rod into a silver double-headed battle axe.  The pair inched forward into the intersection of pathways, eyes and ears tuned to spot anything out of the ordinary.

 

The daylight shone clean through the upper boughs of the surrounding trees, making it difficult for Tim to scout his vision up through the upper branches, where many of the Elven Kingdom’s natural animals and monsters made their homes and their passage through the forest.  Instead of just relying on his eyes, he cast a silent spell in a ring one hundred yards around their position, a smoke-formed spider web flashing out from his outstretched hands. He felt the lines of the web catch on only a single creature which did not belong normally in this part of the woodland.

 

“Hina,” he said, pointing in the direction the web line indicated, and the pair followed the string of misty white mana off the paths and into the underbrush.  When Tim sensed they were only a few dozen yards away from their query, he pushed quietly through a pair of berry bushes, into a small leaf-strewn clearing.  Sitting up on a low branch of an oak tree they spied a rashum in the form of a heavy ape-like creature, its lower torso consisting of some kind of multifarious vine-like protrusions instead of legs.  Its head was a sunken thing, boxy and squared off, and in its hands it held the tattered corpse of a raccoon upon which it feasted, bloody chunks of innards disappearing greedily but quietly into its maw.

 

Hina stepped up next to Tim and stood up straight.  “Oh, that’s just gross,” she said aloud.  The creature’s head snapped up, its eyes spiraling in its head as it spotted them, and it tossed the ragged animal aside, loosing a series of screeches and ape-like grunts, pounding its chest with sledge-sized fists.  It leaped from its perch on the tree limb, its many tendrils bringing it swiftly toward them in a rustling clatter of leaves.

 

“You had to say something, didn’t you dear,” asked Timothy.  “Ars flanus,” he called out, punching his left fist straight out toward the beast.  From his knuckles erupted a fiery duplicate of his fist, growing in size as it streaked toward the rashum.  The impact caused a tremendous ‘whoosh’ of flames, knocking the smoldering creature back into the tree from whence it had leaped from its discarded meal.  It lay in a tangle of its own limbs, smoking. “Seriously,” Timothy said, planting his hands on his hips, looking at Hina. “You’ve got to be a little less casual about sneaking up on these things.”

 

“Tim,” she said.  She pointed to the rashum, which was slowly regaining its upright posture, grunting and ‘ook’ing.  “It’s persistent, I’ll give it that,” she said.  “Folwa petra,” she intoned in a dull drone, snapping the fingers of her right hand and pressing her fingertips to her own left arm.  The rashum’s left arm began to change to a gray coloration from the shoulder, the line of change working its way down toward its hand.  The beast’s eyes swirled again in their sockets, and it scrambled back and forth, trying to move the changing left arm. “I don’t think that spell’s going to work on its legs, Tim, so hurry this up.  It took a lot out of me just to petrify its arm.”

 

“Right dear,” Tim said, dashing forward with the battle axe held high.  As he gained on it, the creature looked from its targeted arm, now made of stone, to Tim like a pinball, its head whipping back and forth between its concerns. Before it could come to a decision, Timothy Vandross brought his weapon down into the side of its thick neck, spraying himself with brackish blood as the creature let out one last shout of agony and rage before Timothy wrenched his weapon free and struck it clean atop the head.  The rashum fell to one side, bleeding out, its left arm crumbling into dust.

 

Tim’s ring of light faded from around his feet, and he cracked the weapon forward to return it to the slim, short Void rod, tucking it away.  He knelt by the creature’s upper body, watching it carefully to ensure himself that it was, indeed, dead.  The dozens of stalk-like protrusions that served as its form of locomotion were still wriggling around in slow, lazy arcs as Hina came up and knelt next to him.  She pulled out a short hunting knife with a simple leather handle and cut five of the leg stalks free, but still these wriggled in her hands as she tried to stuff them into a plastic container she always carried in her rucksack.

 

“What are you doing,” Timothy asked, pulling his own bag from his back to retrieve a pair of pliers.

 

“I’d like to take these to that traveling scholar at Brandon’s place in town,” said Hina.  “He might be able to use them or tell us what they’re worth. He seems to know a lot about this kind of thing,” she said, hitching her bag back onto her shoulders.  She looked over at Timothy, who was carefully removing the creature’s teeth with a pair of pliers and dropping them into a small plastic bag.  When he finished, he put the bag in his pocket and turned toward her. “How many of those baggies do we have at home now?”

 

“Oh, six or seven of them,” Tim said.  He wrinkled his forehead, put one hand to his chin as he tapped his lips in thought.  “And I’ve got eight teeth in each of those, so this brings the total count to about fifty-five or so rashum teeth of medium size.”  Hina crossed her arms at him, tapping her foot on the strewn leaves beneath and around them.  Tim flushed a little at her stare. “Well, the university said they’d give anybody a thousand coin for every one hundred medium sized rashum teeth, and it isn’t like they’re going to be missed.  You know,” he said, taking an over-the-top, triumphant stance.  “I’m helping to advance the scholastic pursuits of those less able in the field!”  He squared his jaw and looked skyward like an icon.

 

Hina giggled at his pose and loosened her stance, taking him by the arm and leading him away from the dead rashum.  “Gods, you know how much of a doofus you are, right?”

 

“I know,” he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek.  “Still, it would be good to have an extra thousand coin laying about, you know.”

 

“Yeah, it would.”

 

“And I’ll note that you didn’t call me a doofus when I mentioned money,” he said, at which she gave him a light backhanded slap on the chest.  Arm in arm they returned to their village and their home, settling in for a quiet evening together.

 

After one last spirited game of Pokchi, a strategy game popular in Tamalaria, Timothy and Hina headed into their bedroom for their first night’s sleep on a properly put together bed since the move.  They’d been making due with a travel mattress and a couple of blankets, along with their pillows, until Stockholm carried the bed frame in and put it together for them.  As Timothy slipped in under the covers, he let out a long, satisfied sigh.

 

“It’s so nice to have a read bed, finally,” he said to Hina.  She stood on her side of the bed, untying the string cinch on her travel pants, letting them drop to the hardwood floor in a clump and sliding in with Tim.  She reached over to her bedside bureau and turned her lamp off, curling up next to him tightly like a cat.

 

“I know what you mean,” she said, closing her eyes.  “And after that long walk I’m more than ready for a good night’s sleep above floor level.  Good night, dear,” she said, giving him one last kiss before slipping off into dreams. For several hours her dreams were the light, fluffy stuff of any typical dream, details loose and interchangeable, with nothing spectacularly memorable going on.  But this, unfortunately, did not last through the night.

 

At one point, Hina realized that her thoughts were collected, unlike the usual jumble of disorderly chaos that comes with standard sleep.  Uh-oh, she thought, taking in her surroundings.  She appeared to be in some sort of dimly lit metal corridor, as she had seen in illustrated guides to old world Dwarven military complexes beneath the surface.  Unlike her typical dreams, too, was the fact that she had access to all of her senses, for she could hear a low, distant thrumming, smell the stale, clinical air of the strange place she found herself standing in, and could even taste the acrid, uninhabited air.  This, she thought, does not bode well.

 

“Hello,” she called out, her own voice echoing back at her from the turns in the hallway before and behind her.  The rigidly segmented panels of the floor, wall, and ceiling all had the same clean angles and lack of rust, implying that the complex was not entirely abandoned.  Yet she sensed it was, that something in the air had merely preserved this location from the ravages of time.

 

As she knew she would have to anyway, Hina decided that she should move forward in the direction she’d been facing when she found herself in this strange dream-place.  Secretly she worried that perhaps these dreams were the work of a Dreamstalker, a breed of demon which roamed the dreamscape, leeching the life and magic force from their victims in impossible fantasies only made real because of their nature.

 

But as a nonchalant, aimless wanderer, Hina found that this possibility only worried her a little.  Because of the casual way she approached all things in life, she was largely unfazed by the strange and macabre, and if a demon happened along, well, she’d deal with that notion when it did.  She would not be bullied or cowed by figments of her own imagination, if that was indeed what all of this was.

 

Hina approached the turn in the corridor and wound her way around it, almost colliding with the steel pressure valve door waiting right around the turn for her.  She took a startled step back, looking around for some sign of a guard missing from his post.  The only sign of any other presence here was some sort of keypad to the right of the valve door.  She reached out for the circular valve, seeing finally the long white sleeves of the uniform she was wearing.  Looking down at herself, Hina saw she was wearing a knee-length white laboratory coat, a subdued red skirt, and a plain black shirt.  Almost without thinking about it, she leaned against the wall to her right and took off the three-inch spike-heeled shoes she’d had on her feet, tossing them back down the hallway.

 

She reached for the valve, but found it wouldn’t turn under her best efforts in either direction.  She looked at the keypad, and saw a thin slot on its right side.  Flustered by the valve, she patted the two lower pockets of her lab coat, but found in them only a penlight and a stick of chewing gum.  She patted the skirt, but found it had no pockets.  As she turned in a circle, looking at the floor, she realized that the shirt she had on, cut low to reveal her minimal cleavage, had something tucked into it.

 

Hina reached up to the back of her neck and found she was wearing a lanyard.  On the end of this, as she pulled it off, was a thin red and blue striped plastic card, which she pressed into the slot next to the keypad.  “Ancient technology,” she said aloud.  “They recovered a lot of this stuff in various ruins during the Fourth Age.  Which means this stuff is beyond old,” she muttered to herself.  A green light went on in a slender slot above the keypad after she tried sliding the card through its slot various ways.

 

The combination came to her as if by memory, and she punched in the numbers without knowing why they seemed so significant.  Six-seven-four-two, she thought, trying to memorize it.  There came a loud, metallic ‘clank-shuck-whirrrrr’, after which the valve handle made a single quarter turn of its own. Hina grabbed it and turned it another three quarters around, pulling the door open and stepping through the ovular portal.

 

The room she stepped into was lined on both sides with machines the likes of which she’d heard of many times, but only seen a working model of twice in her life.  The first had been in Palen, when she was only forty-three years old, a young child yet in her long life as an Elf.  The second time she’d seen one was thirteen years ago, when she had been flirting with the idea of scholarly pursuits on a tour around North Houten University in the Fiefdom of Lemago.

 

Computers.  In rows and banks on both sides of the chamber were computer terminals and what the touring professor at the university, a cherub-faced Gnome, had informed her was called a ‘hard drive’.  Half a dozen of these were stood upright in protective cases beneath the counters the terminals and viewscreens had been attached to.  Green letters flashed by on all of them, and there were even a few slide-out type boards hovering out of their slots on the underside of the counters.

 

“What is this place,” she marveled aloud.  On the right side of the room, as she strode along in a slowed state of awe and intrigue, Hina found a gleaming blue panel amid the slate gray of the walls.  On it, in the common script, was stamped the following in yellow: ‘Gateway Experiment Station 14, Est. 221 (4A)’.  Next to this was another sealed steel door, this one with various myriad clamps and securing braces.  There didn’t appear to be another keypad or card swipe slot present, so Hina cast her eyes around at the computers, all of which had gone dark.

 

In the gloom of the steel chamber, she felt something nudge her, and nearly screamed as she woke up flailing at Timothy.  “Calm down,” he was trying to say, fending off her flailing slaps and nail-swipes.  “Hina, calm down,” he snapped, finally catching her wrists and clamping onto them fast.  She discovered she was panting, her throat dry and cracked, as though she might have been screaming.  Had she been?, she wondered.

 

“I, I’m sorry,” she whispered.  Her body, rigid and sitting bolt upright in the bed, was caked in sweat, the sheets clinging to her legs heavily.  Long tufts of her died purple hair hung in her face, and Tim let go of her hands to brush it out of her eyes.  “I must have been having another of those dreams,” she said, sounding pathetic to herself.

 

“Well, it’s over now.  It was just a dream, like you said.  Now come on, it’s nearly eight o’ clock.  We should try making our first real breakfast,” Tim offered with a lopsided grin, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.  “And let’s make it something more than just coffee and sweet grains.  That sort of thing is okay when we’re a little more settled in, but an actual meal might be good for a change,” he said.  Timothy pulled on his trousers and sauntered out of the room, leaving Hina to remain sitting in the bed, wondering what had just happened to her.

 

She hoped the passing of time might take with it the sense of impending dread that unknown dream-place had given her.

 

In the fathomless darkness, the light reappeared behind the dark background and the green letters appeared again.  The sleeper reviewed the statement as it rolled out before its mind’s eye.

 

-Long range sensors have acquired foreign life signatures.  Numbers are approximated at 29 of various race and gender.  Magical energy detection apparatus indicates that a long-range spell has been sent toward central zones. Type is wind magic.  Other magic-users detected amid group, specific brands unspecified at this time.  One of the present magical energies is unknown to database.  Detachment group of foreign entities has passed into sector V-16. Course indicates group will pass into zone U-8 in approximately twenty-seven minutes without course correction.-

 

How many SF0012 units are deployable in U-8, the sleeper asked of the green letters.

 

-12 units in area.  Audio/visual analysis equipment in U-8 operating at 45% capacity.  Do you wish to record results for further analysis and situational report recommendations?-

 

Yes, by all means.  Reprogram U-8 patrol units to set weaponry discharge protocol to disable as primary mode of engagement.  Termination is to be final stage resort.

 

-Acknowledged.  Units in U-8 have received new orders.  Gate contact system failed to achieve contact with Station 17 on Primary Access Plane. Guardian unit not responding at Station 17.-

 

The drones?

 

-All flight drones have been confirmed to be inactive and in permanent state of disrepair.  Seven heavy rolling drones are capable of 50% capacity and performance, four light rolling drones are at 44% capacity, and two aquatic drones are standing by in submerged launch bay along coast at 67% capacity. Recommend aquatic drones be deployed to Station 17 to check station’s status.-

 

Proceed with recommendation.  Board one heavy roller to each unit via internal support link.  Bring up camera and microphone feeds on all primary operation centers in zones A-2 through B-12 and ready them on detection status.  Power supply report.

 

-Processing center is back online.  Energy production is presently available at 73% output.  Proceed?-

 

Affirmative, though the sleeper to the letters, which it now remembered was called The Admin System.  The Admin System had access to The Program, and The Program was the sleeper’s supreme law and guidebook.  System, the sleeper thought, projecting its will toward the letters and black background in its mind’s eye, estimated time until I am back to full operational capacity.

 

-Eight days, four hours and twenty-six minutes, SF0117.  SF0116 is already back online, but the System cannot access it at this time.  It is currently in zone E-4.  Its intentions are unknown.  Maintenance is advised.-

 

Leave it, thought the sleeper.  It is no problem for me to consider now. Estimate time until aquatic drones are expected to arrive in Station 17 and relay report.

 

-Twelve days, eight hours and seventeen minutes under optimum conditions.  This is an estimate based on rate reduction due to transport of heavy rolling drones.  If light rolling drones were to be substituted in place of heavy rollers, estimated time would reduce to nine days, thirteen hours and forty-six minutes.-

 

Apply replacement and then launch the aquatic drones.  Time is of the essence.  How many foreign entities are in the detachment?

 

-Nine.  3 are Jafts, 2 are Human, 1 is Lizardman, 2 are Hobgoblin and 1 is an Elf.  Life sign signature on the Lizardman is already weakening, presumably due to late age.  Their pace has maintained.  They will encounter patrol units in U-8 in approximately thirteen minutes.-

 

Excellent.  Make certain recording quality is set to maximum feed.  Divert power from other sectors as necessary.  I wish to see these intruders as soon and clearly as possible.  The sleeper settled in to wait for his display.  His long darkness was already discarded, a forgotten thing.  He marveled that after so much time spent alone in that drifting nothing state, thirteen minutes felt like an eternity to wait to see proof of existence other than his own and that of The System and Program.

 

Timothy stood at the sink, rubbing the plates and their cutlery dry after rinsing off the soap and setting everything in their dish strainer to his right.  His mind clear and at peace, his stomach full, the Half-Elf Void Mage, son of Richard Vandross the tyrant and madman, wondered why a growing sense of tension seemed to be working itself inexorably through his blood.  Perhaps it was the dreams, he thought.  I should tell her.

 

Since Hina had first started having her bouts of strange dreams, Timothy had written down the more memorable bits she relayed to him over the past six months, and then kept an eye and ear out for any connections to the real world.  To his mounting concern, many of the key elements and events of Hina’s dreams came to pass within only weeks of her first experiencing them, including a dream she’d relayed to him of a flood from the skies that would destroy ‘a house of sweets’.

 

One week to the day when she had this dream which she dismissed as silliness and nothing more, a candy store in Whitewood, ‘The Grand Treat’, was doused and destroyed by a Tidal Crush spell that a city guardsman misfired in pursuit of a bandit through the streets.  The city covered the owner’s losses, of course, but Constance Grand took his moneys owed and moved out of the Kingdom’s capital city.

 

Twelve days after a dream in which Hina told Timothy she’d been folded like a piece of parchment and slipped into an envelope, she secured a job with the postmaster in their new town.  Hina waved Tim off when he tried to show her the notes he’d been taking after she told him about her more potent dreams, saying it was just a coincidence and nothing more.

 

Timothy Vandross did not believe in coincidence.  He dried the last of the plates and set it in the strainer, putting the towel through the handle hook on the icebox door, and headed through the living room, down the hall toward the back of the cottage, and stepped out into their shady, tidy back yard.  Already fenced in from the previous owners, it was really not much to look at in terms of sheer yardage, but it afforded them enough space and privacy to enjoy it to themselves.

 

Laying on a lawn chair, tilted back so her face was skyward, Timothy found Hina with a pair of sunglasses on, her hands folded contentedly on her stomach.  Beneath her bathrobe she wore only a pair of white cloth shorts and a blue polo shirt, her legs and arms covered only by the robe loosely.  Her angular ears twitched slightly as Timothy knelt down next to her, and she turned her face toward him as he sat down completely on the grassy lawn.

 

“Something’s bothering you,” she said, not a question but a flat statement.

 

“Yes, but what I haven’t the foggiest,” he said.  He draped his arms over his raised knees, looking off into the tree boughs that stretched over their tiny share of property.  “It’s like I just know something’s coming, and it’s going to be a major change for us, but for better or worse I have no clue.  Does that worry you?”

 

“No, dear,” she said, rubbing his arm gently.  “But you’re a worrier.  It comes naturally to you.  I think it’s adorable sometimes,” she said.  Tim gave a small grunt, returning his attention skyward, and that was when he spotted a small white bird approaching the pair at high speed over the town’s streets.  It left a clean white vapor trail in its wake, and it started angling down toward Tim at what he imagined had to be the last minute.  He stretched out his left arm, just in time for the tiny bird, really little more than a pigeon, to open its clawed feet and perch on his wrist.

 

Timothy recognized the scent coming off of the bird, a sort of hint of cinnamon mixed with old parchment.  It was the trademark of a seal his old friend Kyle Vreki used when closing his letters.  He hadn’t heard from Kyle in about four or five months; one of his letters was due, it would seem.  He probed the bird’s belly, and sure enough, it stuck one of its legs out, revealing a message tube capped with a hinge.

 

“A letter from Kyle,” Hina asked, pulling down her shades.

 

“I think so,” said Tim, pulling a tightly rolled parchment from the tube.

 

“Read it out loud like you did the last one,” Hina suggested, pushing the shades back up her narrow nose and leaning back on the lawn chair again. Timothy unrolled the parchment, instantly concerned by the loose, hasty script clearly written in his long-time friend’s hand.  Kyle was always very careful with his writing, taking great pains to keep his curling, flowing style tightly compacted for greatest length when his letters were carried via bird.

 

“’Timothy, it’s Kyle,’” Tim read aloud, eyes twittering back and forth.  “’I write to you in some haste and urgency, for our plight is great.  My clan has been marooned, along with a crew of Jaft sailors captained by one Gronen Mattock, on a strange island of some sort.  Our original destination was Lenan, but a fog of some unknown, mystical sort brought and crashed our vessel on an unknown beachhead.

 

“’Should this letter reach you, know this; I am writing this on what I believe is the thirteenth day of the month of Julies, the seventh month.’”

 

“That’s only two days ago,” said Hina, sitting up again.  She performed a quick magical scan of the bird now sitting at Timothy’s feet.  Highly enchanted, the bird had made its flight in spectacular time, but there were other unknown layers of mana wrapped about it, bits of energy she could not identify.

 

“I know.  ‘Retrieve the bird and take it post-haste to the most skilled Alchemist you may find, that he may use the bird to send you to us.  I believe we are in danger, and could use the sort of assistance I know you and Hina can afford.  I assume, of course, that you are still together and doing well by this, and apologize if that is not the case.

 

“’For reasons I cannot at this time put to words, I ask that you only come with Hina and perhaps one other person.  The risk to you will probably be grave, for I do not believe this is a safe place by any measure,” Timothy read, turning the parchment over to its reverse side.  “’But I also sense there is a great secret here to be discovered, and would not want you or your beloved to miss this sort of opportunity to learn said secret.  Please, we need your help. Make your way to us as soon as you can.  The Alchemist you choose should be able to use the bird to bring you to us.  Signed, Kyle Vreki, Bishop of the eighth power.’  And that’s it,” Timothy said, turning the paper over again.

 

“I suppose I should pack my fairyspace duffel,” Hina asked.  As with any fairyspace container, the interior could hold hundreds of pounds of gear effortlessly, of any shape or nature, and the bag would feel as though only filled with about twenty pounds worth of gear.  Timothy regarded fairyspace containers as the most logical application of fairy magic in the civilized world, but sometimes he didn’t trust such objects.  Where, he wondered, did one acquire the components necessary in the construction of such things?  Neither he nor Hina knew, and not knowing the nature of such things gave him a chill.

 

“May as well pack mine, too,” said Tim.  He stared uncomprehendingly at the bird, which darted its head back and forth between his legs.  “I don’t get the bit about the bird and an Alchemist.  What did he mean by that?”

 

“Oh, that,” said Hina, getting off of the lawn chair.  “The bird’s been enchanted.  I’ve read in some of those scientific journals that a skilled Alchemist can take an enchanted animal and use the ancient art of Focus to back trail it to where it was sent from.  If we can find an Alchemist who can do that, he can use another Focus to send us directly to Kyle, wherever he is.  There’s just one unpleasant thing about it all,” she said, heading toward the open back door of their cottage.  Tim turned his upper body toward her.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“The bird,” she said, giving Tim a sympathetic look.  “It has to be dead.” She slipped inside quietly, leaving Timothy Vandross holding the small bird in his hands, stroking the feathers on its head for a few minutes.  He closed his eyes finally, and with a single twist, snapped its neck, killing it instantly.

 

“I’m so sorry, little one,” he whispered to the frail little creature.  He carried it respectfully inside the cottage, wrapping it in protective plastic film and placing it in a container.  Hina busied herself in their bedroom with a sort of energetic enthusiasm which Timothy hadn’t seen since the trip they took around the Kingdom in search of a new home.  She seemed at her best when she was moving, even if she didn’t know the destination she moved toward. That, actually, seemed to work even better for her.

 

Looking at her through the bedroom doorway, Timothy leaned against the doorframe and folded his arms, shaking his head ever so slightly in wonder. “My wife,” he said to himself, “the aimless wanderer.”

 

“How long will it take the bird to get to your friend,” captain Gronen Mattock asked of Kyle Vreki as they watched it take wing.

 

“I can’t give you an accurate guess,” said the Elven Bishop, tracing the sigil of his lord Lenos in the air before him for comfort.  “The bird itself is enchanted, and we know nothing of the nature of the fogs that ultimately brought us here, captain.”  He turned in the sand back toward the lumbering Jaft, whose wife stood behind and to one side of him, her eyes showing through her clear and climbing discomfort with the group’s circumstances.  “Time may move differently here from Tamalaria.”

 

“What the hell is that supposed to mean,” rumbled the captain, stepping over to his wife and putting an arm around her shoulders.  “How can time move differently in two places?  I was raised to understand that time is one of our only constant truths in all of the universe, that all people can agree on its passage.”

 

“Um, not so,” said Kyle.  He wrung his hands, his fingers twitching nervously.  “I, um, can’t quite explain it, but um,” he said, searching the area they’d set up as their base camp just off of the camp for his Patriarch, Derrick Henden.  “Patriarch Henden can better explain it to you,” Kyle offered at last, pointing back toward the camp.  Gronen, sour-faced and grim, snorted through his nostrils and led his wife back towards his crewmen and the Wayfarer troupe.  Kyle remained on the beach, looking out to the seas not obscured by the fogs which remained a couple of miles in the distance.  In silence he offered his prayers to Lenos.

 

“I know you are worried about the scouting party, Gronen, but perhaps you were too gruff with the padre,” Thelma offered as she walked with her husband toward Derrick Henden.  The Gnome Engineer was busy rummaging through his gear bag for his light chain shirt, finally pulling it from the bottom of the bag.  He looked at it, turning it this way and that, wondering when last he’d felt the need to wear protective armoring of any sort.  It had been a considerable while, but his best warrior had gone with the scouting party.  If something showed up at their camp looking for trouble, he wanted a bit more protection than the sailors and his own troupe could provide.

 

But Gronen made no reply to his wife’s statement, waiting until he was towering over Henden to open his mouth again to speak.  “Patriarch, a question,” he said, clipping his words carefully.

 

“Um, sure,” Henden replied, undoing the buttons on his overcoat so he could fit the chain shirt on under it.

 

“Can time pass differently here than back in Tamalaria,” the captain asked, folding his arms over his chest.  Henden stopped in the midst of pulling on the chain shirt, held up one finger to indicate he’d be with them, and then he struggled the rest of the way into the garment.  He started buttoning the coat again.

 

“Well, yes, theoretically anyway,” he said at last.  “Because there’s so much magic, both known and unknown, at work in our situation, a few hours could pass here, while days or even weeks go by back in Tamalaria.  As such, it would behoove us to find out what we can about this island and then get the hell off.  How long until the ship can be fixed?”

 

“Well, we didn’t bring enough supplies to repair the damage right away,” said Gronen with a sigh.  He looked back toward his ship, wincing at the sight of the enormous gouge standing out on the torn prow’s underside.  “We have the tools to fashion the native trees into what we need, but the work could take a week at best, three at the worst,” he said.  He then added, in the same deadpan tone, “That’s all providing our survivability remains high.”

 

“You’re worried about them too, aren’t you,” Henden asked, locking a clip of his piercing bolts into his artificial forearm.  “It’s been almost two hours. They should have come back by now.”

 

“You are sharp to notice my concern, Patriarch,” said the Jaft captain. “Thelma, make yourself battle ready, and tell Mr. Sperio to bring me my battle gear from the ship.  We should be prepared for the worst sort of hostility.”

 

“Of course, husband,” she said, heading back toward the ship.  Gronen looked out to the waters, spotting the Bishop, Vreki, still standing on his little rise of sand, hands clasped together before him.  I hope your god is listening, priest, he thought.  I really do.  When Sperio came to Gronen’s side some fifteen minutes later, hauling Mattock’s battle armor and greaves over his shoulders along with his own weaponry, the captain thanked him and made for the cover of the nearest bushes to use the facilities before donning his protective gear.  When he was finished, he stood tall and bulky in a suit and greaves of tempered steel half-plate armor, the disk-like plates overlapping one another in the traditional style of Dwarven smith-work.

 

His crewmen still at the beachside camp made the same change over in the next hour, going one by one back to the ship to ready themselves for whatever dangers lie inland.  As the last of them came back to the main camp, Kyle Vreki pacing alongside him, one of the Wayfarers from the scouting party came screaming back into view down the long, weaving pathway into the jungle-like land between the camp and the city in the distance.

 

“By the gods, it’s Randon,” Henden said, racing to the edge of their camp to wait for his clansman to arrive.  Even from a distance, the Gnome Engineer could see his man was tattered and streaked with blood, mud and what looked like black ash streaks along his tanned vellum-like robes.  His hair flew back from his head in sweaty strands, and when the man, Randon, came within fifty paces of the gathering camp, Henden saw that part of Randon’s forehead and scalp on the left side of his head was flapping back over his skull, torn from the skull by some trauma.  “Kyle,” Henden cried out, but no need.  The Bishop was already stepping forward from the small crowd, bringing his healing spells to bear in his hands and throat.

 

Randon collided with captain Mattock, who stepped forth to receive him and lower him, gibbering senselessly, to the grass.  Kyle pressed his palms to Randon’s chest and head, holding the cleaved flesh back against the man’s head where it belonged.  Soft emerald light flowed from his hands and mouth over the wounds and into Randon’s body, working to restore the life force that had been lost from his injuries.  Randon’s rambling slowed, but remained unintelligible, until at last he fell unconscious with his head on Kyle’s lap.  The Bishop’s heart lifted, for he felt the pulse of life beating strong through Randon’s aura once again, but the trauma of whatever had happened to the scouting party demanded his rest.  He turned eyes stinging with tears up to his Patriarch.

 

“He will live, but he will be a bit of a mess when he comes around, I fear,” Kyle said plainly.  “My lord Lenos has blessed me enough to heal the wounds of his body, but, well, you heard him, Derrick.  He’s terrified.”

 

“Wake him,” said Gronen, still looming over those gathered immediately around Randon.  The Human had seen better days, and Kyle couldn’t help taking offense that the Jaft captain didn’t seem to appreciate the frailty of the Human mind.  “We must know what sort of threat we face, and if any of the others have survived.”

 

“I must object, captain,” Kyle said weakly, looking up into the stoic blue face of Gronen Mattock.  “Randon is only Human, and he’s just one of our craftsmen.  He only went with the scouting party because he’s got the keenest eyes of all of us, he sees things others don’t.  That’s possibly the only reason he’s come back to us, because he saw danger coming and took flight back to safety.”

 

“He was wounded, padre, which means he was engaged by an unknown enemy,” said Gronen, his voice taking on a slightly gravely tone, his teeth clenching together as his eyes narrowed upon the priest.  “I would know the number and nature of the foe before engaging blindly.  Now, wake him,” said Gronen.  Kyle looked down to Henden, whose face also appeared stern, but Kyle could see the fear in his eyes.  Though he disapproved of Gronen Mattock’s manner and lack of sympathy, the Gnome Engineer agreed with his assessment.  They had to know.

 

Thus Kyle applied a small burst of his mana power into Randon’s neck, letting it work its way through his skull to his eyes, bringing him awake by swift degrees.  It wasn’t the same as the Q Mage spell Awaken, but this trick had much the same affect while soothing the target.  Randon’s eyes shot open, but his body remained limp on the ground, his head lolling one way then the other for a moment on Kyle’s robed lap.

 

“The men, the metal men, they came from nowhere,” Randon said aloud, his eyes hazy with the memory.

 

“Rendermen,” Gronen asked, eyebrow raised.  “My crew can handle them just fine.  There should be no worries about their ilk if they are on this island.”

 

“No, not rendermen,” said Randon, coming more awake by the moment.  The panic was gone from before, his sense of safety returned.  He tried to sit up, but Kyle gently pressed one hand to his chest and pinned him. “These were men of metal plates and machinery.  When they neared we could hear gears, pistons, rattling around in their bodies.  They carried mecha weapons,” he said, trembling slightly in Kyle’s lap.  “Weapons that cast bolts of blue light at first, until some of the sailors started fighting back.  Then the weapons cast out bolts of red light, killing most of us.”

 

“How many of you managed to escape,” Henden asked.

 

“Myself and Jeremiah only,” said Randon.  He looked away, ashamed of himself.  “And only because we fled.  Halfway back here we were ambushed by some horned beast.  It was like a rhino beetle crossed with a man, Patriarch.  I think it and the machine men may have worked together to ensnare us. Jeremiah sacrificed himself to the beast so that I could make it back to you. This place is not safe,” he said, his legs curling up, turning protectively on his side like a child.  “None of us are safe.”

 

Gronen Mattock turned and stalked away from the scout, waving his remaining crew members over toward himself as he gained a distance of about thirty yards from the remaining Wayfarers.  When they had gathered around him in a protective ring, he knelt in the middle of them and looked into the eyes of each of his men.  Well, he thought, eye for you, Sperio.  “Men, you’ve heard what the scout said.  The threats to us here are significant, but it does not sound to me as though we made the scouting party prepared enough for the dangers that lie ahead.  We have lost not only our own men, but likely we have lost as well the seven other Wayfarers we promised to ferry safely to Lenan. Their deaths are on our hands.”

 

“We couldn’t have known, captain,” said Foamrider, which earned him a hard slap from Gronen.

 

“That is no excuse, and you know it,” Gronen snarled in a half-whisper. “We must protect our remaining charges as best we may, especially the priest. He’s the only healer the others have, and in case any of you has forgotten, we need the time and opportunity to regenerate our wounds,” he said, making certain to look all of his men and his wife in the eyes to drive home his point. “They won’t like me for this, but they don’t have to like me.  They have to trust me.  And I have to in turn trust that you will all do what is necessary to return them safely to Tamalaria.  Are we clear?”

 

“Yes captain,” they all said as one.

 

“Good.  Go now and check with each of our charges to see if they might not have some better protection for themselves.  I will speak with their Patriarch and priest alone.”  The Jaft crew split up then, moving among the Wayfarers to converse with them all and ensure they would be ready to make the trip towards the place where the scouting party had likely met its fate.

 

Meanwhile, on the beach, the captain, Henden and Kyle discussed their plan of action.

 

“I know he’s probably terribly busy,” said Timothy Vandross to the Elven woman across the counter.  “But we are very much in a hurry.  We’ve already brought our travel bags,” he added, hefting his duffel from the carpeted floor of the Alchemy shop’s front room.  Taking the first available pair of horses they could rent from a stables in their home town, Timothy and Hina had ridden at a break-neck pace to arrive all the way north in Desanadron in only five days. The trip from the village, tucked almost fifty miles into the Elven Kingdom’s forest northern boundary plains, they’d stopped only infrequently to rest the horses and themselves.

 

Hina hadn’t complained the entire trip, though, of that Tim took heart. And she had no more of the strange dreams in which she thrashed and murmured to herself, another plus.  But in their haste to make their way to Kyle’s aid, they hadn’t packed up on travel foods too well, and on their third night on the road Timothy had to hunt down an elk across broad grasslands while Hina collected what edible plants she could, storing up for the rest of the journey to the lands’ largest metropolitan center.

 

Hina had known full well to come to Staples’ Alchemy upon arriving in Desanadron.  At thirty years of age, Jonah Staples was still referred to as the ‘youngest, greatest master of the lost arts of Focus as has ever been seen’.  At least, Hina told Timothy along the road, that’s what all of the scientific journals and members of high academia thought of him.

 

Nareena Staples, Jonah’s wife, stood on the other side of the low counter, the racks of vials behind her standing silent testament to her own hard work ethics.  Standing firmly in a slinky blue dress that fit her quite snugly, she gave the pair a haughty smirk.  “My husband can’t be expected to come up from his lab every time a customer wants to work specially with him,” she said. “And while I may not be thought of as highly, I’m quite capable in our field of science.  Whatever it is you need, I can do it.”

 

“I assure you, we meant no offense,” said Timothy.  He reached into a small clip pouch on his left hip, withdrawing the dead bird from it and setting it gently upon the countertop.  “This bird brought us a very important message today, and we need a way to travel via the art of Focus to the place from whence it was sent.  Can you trace its enchantment back to its departure point,” he asked with a hopeful smile.

 

Nareena Staples picked the bird up, squeezing it gently, peering intently at the dead animal.  She let out a sigh of disappointment.  “I’ll, I’ll go get him,” she said, defeated.  Hina took the opportunity to look around the main shop at the various bags and bottles on the general merchandise shelves around the store, plucking a slender sash from its place along one wooden rack.  There was a parchment tag tied to it with a bit of string, describing the item in question.

 

‘Treated with a potent blend of renderman blood and vraxil root extract, this stylish blue sash can withstand the assault of any standard bladed or piercing weapon!  Only 250 coin.’  Hina brought the sash to the counter, laying it next to the bird.  A minute later, Jonah Staples came through the doorway behind the counter, his hair askew, his brow sooty and his lab coat covered with ash and chemical stains.  A handsome Human fellow with sandy hair, he extended one grit-covered hand to Tim and shook.

 

“Jonah Staples at your service,” said the Human Alchemist brightly.  “My wife tells me you require my Focus talents.”

 

“Yes,” said Timothy, explaining what the pair needed while Hina paid Nareena Staples over at their register for the sash.  She stuffed it into her rucksack quietly, watching as Jonah Staples brought out a clean white cloth and several strange tools and apparatus from under his counter.

 

“Nareena, be a dear and lock the doors,” Jonah said.  The Elven Alchemist hustled out from behind the counter, locking the shop’s front door and pulling down the curtain over the door’s single window pane.  Jonah saw the question on both Tim and Hina’s faces, chuckling lightly.  “I usually do dissection work down in the lab.  It tends to make the regular clientele a little squeamish, you understand.”  Using a scalpel, he cut the messenger bird open, spilling its blood in tiny streamlets onto the white cloth.

 

Timothy had to look away from the delicate work, unable to keep himself from feeling queasy.  Hina, on the other hand, switched places with her beau and watched the scientist at work, utterly fascinated by the internal arrangement of the bird’s systems.  Jonah took a pinch of some strange blue and white powder, sprinkling it inside the bird’s exposed guts, and he jotted several notes and symbols down on a yellow steno pad he kept beside his tools.  He carried on this process for some half an hour, finally folding the cloth around the bird and placing it in a small brown box under his counter.

 

He washed his hands in a sink on the left side of the shop’s open chamber and came over to the pair rubbing them dry on a soft blue hand towel.  “Well, I can put you where the bird was sent from, but I’m not sure about placing you there in the proper when it came from,” said Jonah.  He went behind his counter once again, ducking down to dig through several containers. Timothy gave Hina a questing glance, and she shrugged her shoulders, just as confused as he.

 

“All right, I’ll ask,” Tim said aloud.  Nareena came over to he and Hina, taking them each by a wrist and guiding them to the right side of the chamber to wait while she rolled up the large throw rug dominating the center of the floor space.  Beneath the rug, Tim and Hina saw that the floorboards had been modified to host a goodly sized chalkboard of some sort, supported by struts in the basement presumably.  “What do you mean the right ‘when’, Mr. Staples?”

 

“Oh, well, that’s simple, really,” said Jonah, coming back around with a large, thin piece of white chalk in his hand.  He knelt on the chalkboard in the floor, embossing it with several sigils as he worked on the Focus Sites needed to send Tim Vandross and Hina Hinas the impossible distance to Kyle Vreki’s side. “The bird apparently passed through some sort of field that distorts and alters the passage of time.  In the ancient science texts recovered from the First Age, such barriers are referenced to a number of times, and they’re called Distortion Walls.”

 

“How does such a thing occur,” Hina asked casually, taking a seat on the floor.

 

“Well, the original theories state that they occur when two oppositional mana formations collide, like fire-heavy mana and water-heavy mana.  That, of course, comes from the phenomena in magical studies known as ‘The Domination Crux’, wherein the two such forces will wrestle back and forth until the one mana formation can absorb the other.”

 

“From what I’ve read of it, that rarely happens,” said Hina.  Staples looked up from his handiwork, offering her a fascinated smile.

 

“So you’re familiar with the old magical studies?”

 

“Yeah,” Hina replied, somewhat less than enthusiastically.  “It was just one of those things I used to dabble in kinda heavy for a while.  I’m an Elf, so it’s sort of in my nature to want to know these things.  But haven’t they disproven those ancient theories over the ages?”

 

“Ah, yes and no,” said Staples, returning to his intricate designs.  “You see, the theories held true back then, but over time, as more and more forms of magic were manipulated and developed, the energies themselves changed in nature, and variables became more important to the overall equation,” he said, pulling one last circle to a close.  “The same can be said of the Distortion Walls. As our time has flowed along as normal, time between the Distortion Walls has continued on its own altered course.  However,” he said, stepping off of the now glowing symbols at his feet.  “Acceleration mass and the ‘Sentient Awareness Clause’ have always been universally accepted as necessary calculating factors,” Staples said.

 

Which was, for the most part, a whole lot of gobbledygook to the Void Mage and Q Mage.  “Um, is there a way you could maybe, I don’t know, explain that so we’d catch what you’re saying,” Timothy asked timidly.

 

“Oh, sorry,” said Jonah, tucking the chalk into one of his lab coat pockets.  “Well, the clause states plainly that if there isn’t anyone or anything with civilized sentience inside of such a distortion, the way time flows inside of it will vary widely from one day to the next.  As such, there’s no real way to estimate what sort of realm you’ll be stepping into when you use the Focus Site to whisk yourselves away.  Now, the service is going to be eighty coin,” he said, closing the business end of their transaction.

 

Tim, while still mildly baffled by all of this, produced a fifty coin piece and three ten coiners, handing them over to the Human Alchemist.  He hitched up his travel duffel, took Hina’s hand, and approached the glowing glyphs and symbols on the chalkboard.  “Um, are we going to experience any adverse side effects from the Focus itself,” he asked.

 

“Oh, some mild disorientation and maybe a ringing in one of your ears, but nothing more than that,” said Jonah.  “Though, of course, if you experience anything really out of the ordinary, I’d like to know about it when you get back. You know,” he said, pulling out his little steno pad and flapping it back and forth.  “For proper notation and analysis.”

 

“Of course,” said Hina dryly, stepping onto the chalkboard with Tim next to her.  There was a blinding flash, the scent of freshly brewed tea, and then there was nothing there in the floor space but a cloud of smoke and the Focus symbols drawn on the chalkboard.  Nareena started unrolling the throw rug again, while Jonah unlocked the front door for business again.  He wondered what sort of strange new discoveries those two might make wherever it was that they were heading.

 

He only hoped they’d bring him back a souvenir.

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