“We should have charged them more,” Jack raised an eyebrow to his father, “a lot more.”
“They can’t afford more,” his father whispered back with the same eyebrow raised.
Father and son crouched behind an ancient tree trunk. Patiently they waited to ambush their prey, a band of shadow sprits ravaging the surrounding territory in the Outland. The spirits had desolated the region, tormenting the locals wherever they went. What’s worse, these spirits didn’t discriminate, they slaughtered whatever they pleased; men, women, even children.
Jack and his father, Marcus, were asked to come to the area to track and dispatch the spirits. To do whatever they could to stop the bloodshed. The poor farming community banded together and offered Jack’s father all they had to be rid of the animals. Jack wouldn’t have given the offer a second thought. His father, on the other hand, refused all compensation, only accepting food and shelter as payment.
That was the thing Jack most respected, and at times was most frustrated with. His father possessed the ability to always make the right decision. Where his father saw only black and white, Jack saw varying shades of grey.
Now, after days of hunting the shadow spirits free of charge, the father/son tracking team discovered their lair. It was nestled into the side of a hill ten miles from the nearest farm. The spirits were smart and chose a place that would be easy enough to leave and go on raiding missions but not too close as to lead the farmers to their doorstep.
Even if the farmers were skilled enough to hunt the spirits, killing them was another matter. Most farmers were capable of defending themselves from roaming wolves or coyotes, things that bled and died, obeying the laws of nature. Shadow spirits did neither of these things.
Jack held his breath as he looked over the fallen tree and counted. There were twenty of the wraith like creatures. Most were human size, floating in ghostly indifference this way and that. The shadow spirits had two options when deciding their appearance, they were able to either take on the form they had just before their death or transform into horrifying images of the dead. It seemed with this group was split down the middle. Half looked almost human the only hint as to their true nature the ethereal white light emanating from their bodies and their translucent state.
The other half were a ragtag group of grotesque skeletons in varying degrees of decay. One stood out from the rest. She was a tall, gaunt spirit with her lower jaw hanging from her mouth, the flesh around her neck raw and blistered. The other spirits gave her a wide berth.
“What do you think?” Jack’s father asked in a whisper.
“I think that this is crazy. Risking our souls for a group of farmers that are going to pay us in corn and beans.”
“But…” Jack continued, “since it’s the right thing to do, I say we surprise them. Kill their leader first, and take out as many as we can before they know what’s happening. With any luck, they’ll break and run. If not, we can finish them one at a time. Worst case scenario, they rush us and we kill them all, anyway.”
Marcus’ dark brown eyes twinkled. “I agree. Jack, I remember when you were no bigger than my two hands. Now look at you. Eighteen years old, strong as an ox, and the second best sorcerer in the Outland.”
“Well, you know. Your old man can still hold his own.”
“I count twenty spirits. Best sorcerer title goes to whoever dispatches the most?”
Jack’s father smiled, and in one quick motion, stood up, breaking his cover. His hands danced with the flames of green magical energy.
Jack’s eyes went as wide as the spirits’, and for a split second, time stopped. Spirits processed this new threat. Jack processed the fact that his father had just cheated, a thought that surprised him and made him laugh at once.
Then time caught up to the moment and seemed to speed forward. Jack stood, drawing from the vast inner recourse of his own magical power. His father began sending blasts of emerald green magic at their targets. The slack jawed female spirit, as well as the spirit closest to their hiding spot, fell to the forest floor screaming in surprise and hate. One moment they were howling their frustration to the sky, the next they evaporated in a wisp of green smoke.
Jack fired and hit his mark between yellow eyes, but he knew he was already behind. Father and son quickly and efficiently made the best of the confused state the spirits were in. Shadow spirits scattered into the woods in every direction, screaming in surprise and hatred.
In a matter of seconds, both sorcerers found themselves alone in the woods.
“I don’t think they’re going to run.”
“I agree. Be ready for close quarters combat. They’re surrounding us as we speak.”
Jack looked around and could tell what his father said was true. The spirits recovered quickly despite the loss of their leader. Rustling could be heard in every direction as Marcus and Jack stood back to back.
“I think I’m winning, by the way. Two to one? Not to mention I got the leader. She should count twice.”
Jack bit back a comment as he caught sight of a white light headed in his direction. His right arm snapped out in his attacker’s direction. Jack discharged a bolt of green magic as soon as his arm straightened enough to track his target. The spirit fell. But Jack knew the time for long range attacks would soon be over.
He heard two more sharp cracks of magic leave his father’s hands but now their assailants were all coming together. As one the remaining shadow spirits converged on their location.
Jack reached for the weapons that set both himself and his father apart from all other sorcerers in the Outland. Firm wood met his fingertips as he crossed his arms to reach over each shoulder and drew the two halves of his staff. They slid like swords from sheaths. With practiced motion he connected the two halves into a staff six feet long. All the time for thinking was gone, it was time to react.
Jack ran toward the gnashing teeth of his attackers. He called forth the white hot energy of magic inside. His eyes blazed green with magical fire. His staff exploded with the same force. Every blow from Jack’s staff hit its mark. With each strike that landed a sharp crack echoed into the surrounding woods. Green sparks flew through the air like light sprinkling rain as Jack and his father went to work. Spirit after snarling spirit fell, but there was no denying the grasping hands were getting closer and closer to the pair of sorcerers before they could end their second chance at life.
The last two shadow spirits on Jack’s side lunged at him simultaneously. The impact of the first spirit made Jack’s teeth rattle and took him to the ground. Jack’s left forearm pinned to the ground by the manic creature. The spirit grinned rotted teeth at him. Jack felt a chill originate where the spirit held him and quickly spread through his body. If it weren’t for his extensive training and the magical barriers set in place, Jack would be losing his soul in the most excruciating way.
The pressure in his arm and now in his right foot as he felt the attack of the second spirit made him wince. Realizing his soul was not so easy to drain the spirits shrieked and sunk their fingers and teeth deeper into the folds of Jack’s cloak. Violently they began trying to rip Jack’s limbs from his body.
Steady, Jack, you got this. What would Dad do? Remember quickly and efficiently, no time to panic. Just breathe.
Staff thrown to the side, Jack made his right hand into a fist. He channeled the magic to a point and brought the crackling green blade up with his right hand and across the throat of the shadow spirit on his arm. There was another loud snap and scream as the spirit fell. Jack did a hard sit up, bringing his magical knife in a wide downward arc and into the skull of his last assailant.
“Jack, are you hurt?” Marcus was at his side before he even had a chance to get to his feet.
Jack stood and examined his arm and foot. The spirits had failed to penetrate either his jacket or boot, but he knew he would have bruises to remember the battle. “I’m fine, are you okay?”
“Yes, looks like we got them all,” Marcus examined the woods around them were tiny spirals of smoke still wafted upward.
“I know you wish there was another way to release them,” Jack reached down to pick up his staff, “but we did the right thing. The farmers’ families are safe now. Oh, and I got nine.”
“Eleven,” Marcus gave Jack a rueful grim, “twelve if we count the lead shadow spirit twice.”
“No, w’re not counting her twice,” Jack chuckled at his father’s comment. “That was never in the deal, and besides, you cheated by starting early. I wasn’t rea―”
There was movement in the bushes around them. Jack crouched with his staff already blazing green. Marcus lifted his right hand toward the sound, ready to channel and discharge a magical beam.
“Not spirits, men,” Jack said without taking his eyes off the surrounding forest.
“And a lot of them,” Marcus agreed. “They have us surrounded.”
In seconds, men materialized from the woods, soldiers bearing the emblem of the city of New Hope, two steel grey swords crossed behind a ebony black bat. There were too many to count. Each soldier wore a black uniform outlined by grey thread and buttons. Steel helmets accompanied dark metal gauntlets, forearm guards, shin guards, and black goggles. Every soldier carried a backpack and a long rifle, all of which were pointed in Jack and Marcus’ direction.
Jack had only seen soldiers from New Hope a handful of times. They never looked twice in his direction. Now all the soldiers seemed eager, even happy to have the two men in their line of sight.
There was a tense moment where nothing happened. Then the soldiers parted ranks to allow someone through.
From the badges on his chest and arms, Jack knew him to be some kind of officer. “Please excuse us. We don’t mean you harm. And if you’re willing, we can all lower our weapons.”
Jack looked at his father, who nodded, and they lowered both staff and hand. The officer looked pleased. He turned and motioned to his own men to lower their rifles.
“I’m sorry for the abrupt meeting. My name is Lieutenant Doyle Baker. My men and I have been searching these woods for days looking for you. You are Marcus Walker, the famous tracker sorcerer, and this is your son, Jack Walker?”
“Yes, we are,” Jack’s father ran a hand through his thick brown hair. “And what, may I ask, is the occasion? Soldiers from New Hope this deep into the Outland isn’t a very common sight.”
“I’ve been asked by the Queen herself to seek you out and invite you to New Hope for an audience. I don’t know much, but I know whatever the reason, it must be important.”
Jack licked his lips as excitement caught in his chest. New Hope was the largest and by far, the most prosperous city in the entire known world. Every latest invention or breakthrough in magic came from the city. He heard stories of impossible machines, buildings that touched the sky, and even rumors of creations that sounded beyond reason. Jack had always wanted to visit the famed city, but work had never brought them even remotely close to the city’s walls.
Marcus looked at his son with a half smile, practically reading his thoughts. Before his father even opened his mouth, Jack knew what he was going to say. His father was a man loyal to his country and a true patriot. If the Queen needed to speak with him, then his father would go no matter what.
“We’ll accompany you to New Hope, but we’ve just finished a job for the local farmers. We need to let them know that they can rest easy, the threat is gone.”
Lieutenant Baker smiled as he surveyed the battleground and the burning smell that came with the wafting smoke. “I’ve seen battlefields with less char. The stories of you and your son must be true. Please allow me to send one of my own messengers to the farmers. Queen Eckert was insistent that we get you back as soon as possible and without delay.”
Marcus nodded to Lieutenant Baker and looked at his son. “Well, partner, looks like your prayers have been answered. We’re going to New Hope.”
“Bartend, I’ll take another. Make this one a double.”
The man behind the bar looked his customer up and down, practically forcing himself to speak. “No—no disrespect, sir, but are you going to be able to pay for your tab? I—I mean it’s not even noon. At this rate you’ll drink my entire bar dry by dinner.”
Aareth pulled a lock of long dark hair away from his face. He reached inside his black trench coat. The bartender took a nervous step back.
Aareth ignored making eye contact with the man as he brought out a large purse of coins and dropped it on the counter. “Forget the double shot. I’ll just take the bottle.”
“Why, yes sir, right away, sir.” The bartender’s eyes were as large as full moons as he wrung his hands. “Excuse me for asking about the money, it’s just that, well, times aren’t what they used to be. Please stay as long as you like.”
Still ignoring eye contact, Aareth stared into his empty glass, “The bottle.”
“Oh yes.” The bar owner moved quickly for a man of his girth. He had a jug of whisky by Aareth’s side in seconds.
He poured himself another shot from the dirty decanter and threw it back like a true professional. All he wanted was to be left alone but the bartender wasn’t the only one who had seen him throw down his purse of coins.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
Aareth ignored the woman to his right and instead poured himself another drink.
“Mmmm… The strong silent type. What’s wrong, handsome? You’re much too young to have had anything that tragic happen to you.”
He turned his head ever so slightly in the woman’s direction. She was attractive, a slim physique, showing far too much skin, a pile of curly black locks that fell down the side of her face like a waterfall. Most men would jump at the opportunity to make conversation with such an attractive woman, Aareth wasn’t most men.
“You don’t know anything about me. Whatever it is that you’re selling, I don’t want any.”
She reached out a slender hand and gently touched his strong jaw, turning his unshaven face towards hers. “Oh, darling, you have no idea what I’m selling.”
Aareth squinted through blue eyes and removed her hand with his own. “Darling, go bother someone else. I’m not interested.”
The woman drew back and opened her mouth. Clearly she was used to getting what she wanted. Before she could gather herself and mouth a comeback, there was a loud commotion at the entrance to the bar. Booted feet slapped against the wood floor in unison.
Aareth turned back to his whisky. This time he ignored the glass and instead took the bottle straight to his mouth. The noise grew louder as the sound of marching entered the bar and stopped behind him.
“Aareth Emerson, we are here on Queen Eckert’s behalf to ask you to the palace for an audience with Her Majesty,” a gruff voice addressed the alcoholic’s back.
He didn’t flinch. Aareth raised the whisky bottle to his lips again, enjoying the way the fiery liquid caressed his throat and dulled his inhibitions. The whisky was only half finished and he intended to see the bottom of the bottle before he left.
At the mention of Aareth’s name, the bartender took another step back. The woman who had regained her composure and was about to give him a tongue lashing was stopped again with another surprise. “You’re—you’re Aareth Emerson? THE Aareth Emerson?”
He nodded, still looking at his bottle. “Yep, pleasure to meet you.”
The woman looked at Aareth and then at the group of soldiers behind him and slowly got out of her seat and backed away. That seemed to be the general feeling throughout the bar as patrons made for the exits or stood from their seats and retreated to what they deemed a safe distance.
“Did you hear me? Our orders are to bring you in,” the voice behind him demanded.
Aareth continued to ignore the soldier. Instead of reacting, he took another swig from his bottle.
This act of disrespect was too much for the soldier to bear. A rough hand grabbed Aareth’s left shoulder and swung him around. The action made Aareth stand up from his stool and face the soldier.
The entire room gasped as Aareth and the soldier stood face to face. Aareth pursed his lips as he reached behind him and set the whisky bottle down on the bar. Aareth looked the soldier up and down. His eyes rested on the badge identifying the soldier in front of him as a sergeant in the Queen’s army. “You’re not going to leave me alone no matter how politely I ask, are you, Sergeant?”
The Sergeant was a large man with a barrel chest and a thick mustache. “Oh, did that just become clear to you, boy? Listen, what the Queen wants with you is her business, but I’ve heard the rumors about you. I know what you are. I know how you turned your back on duty, on Queen and crown. Believe me, there’s nothing in this world I would like more than to end you here and now, but it seems you’re worth more to her alive than dead. So what’s it going to be? The easy way, or the fun way?”
“That’s kind of insulting.” Aareth looked past the grinning Sergeant and the four men behind him. “And completely unfair.”
“That you thought you could bring me in with only yourself and four men.”
Before the Sergeant could react, Aareth’s right fist shot up from his side and cracked the underside of his jaw. The blow snapped the soldier’s head back at an awkward angle. The force of the punch sent him crashing to the ground into unconsciousness.
The four soldiers that remained charged forward, using their long rifles as clubs. In such a tight space, the rifles were more of a hindrance than help. When the soldiers hesitated with wide swings, trying to avoid hitting one another, Aareth met them with nose shattering blows and jaw breaking punches.
The first soldier swung high. Aareth easily ducked under the blow and landed a kidney punch, brining his attacker to his knees. The next soldier brought his rifle over his head in a downward motion that Aareth easily caught in his right hand. The crown of Aareth’s head met the soldier’s nose at sickening speed, there was an audible crunch as the soldier’s nose broke and blood gushed.
Aareths’ last two opponents practically took out one another. One of the soldiers swung hard across his body, missed Aareth, and the butt of his own gun landed square across the jaw of his comrade. The soldier, wide eyed, was too slow to avoid the fist aimed at his temple and he hit the floor like a sack of flour.
Just like that it was all over. Soldiers lay unconscious and moaning on the ground. Aareth turned back to his whisky. Bottle halfway to his lips, he was stopped in the act by a familiar male voice behind him. “I tried to warn them they should let me talk to you first, but you know soldiers—stubborn.”
“And you think you could do any better?” Aareth turned and smiled at the man he hadn’t seen in years.
The elderly man walked over the soldiers strewn across the ground. He stood next to Aareth with a winning smile. “I know I can.”
“Really? And how’s that?”
“Because I know no matter how much you hide behind your pain and your alcohol,” the old man’s wrinkled face broadened into an even bigger smile, “there’s still that same man I once knew underneath.”
“And what if that man no longer exists?”
“That man will always exist, Aareth. Whether you choose to be that person or not is entirely your choice. But I’m not here to conduct a lecture. I’m here to ask you come back with me to the palace and just hear what Queen Eckert has to say. As a personal favor to me, just hear her out. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Aareth took in a deep breath and grinned at the man he would still call a friend, and at one time, even a mentor. “Are you still tinkering around in the armory?”
“I’ll have you know that I now oversee the entire armory and the production of the latest and newest weapons. We even started a separate division devoted to developing only the most cutting edge advances in magical ingenuity. We call it ‘The Department of Paranormal Study And Magic’, or D.P.S.M. for short.”
“D.P.S.M. huh? Wait a minute. Are you bragging?”
“I’d never brag, I’m just informing you that I’m kind of a big deal now.”
“Ahhh, what’s the worst that could happen?” Aareth chuckled and put down the bottle. “Okay, one meeting with the Queen. But only as a personal favor to you, Edison.”
He was mouthing off again. He didn’t think she could hear him but her hearing was better than most. He would have to be dealt with today in a very open and public way. That was the problem with being a female officer in the Queen’s royal army. This problem was only magnified by the fact that she was the captain of the Queen’s personal guard. There were so many male soldiers with egos bigger than the palace itself. What’s more, almost all of them were gunning for her position.
Sloan was in command of a dozen of the most skilled and deadly warriors New Hope had to offer. She earned each and every one of their respect by defeating them all. She would trust any one of them with her life and she knew they wouldn’t hesitate to do the same. The problem wasn’t with her own men. The problem lay with the rest of the palace guards, especially those new to the grounds.
All the officers and soldiers trained in the same outside facility. Whenever there were new faces at the palace, the same thing was bound to happen. It almost seemed like clockwork and it had become something of a tradition. It was inevitable that a soldier would step out of line. Sloan was always more than capable of putting them right back where they belonged, even adding a broken bone or two, or three or four for good measure.
Today Sloan was leading her men in combat and conditioning drills. The outside training ground was ideal with a track around the perimeter and every piece of exercise equipment anyone could want. It was while on a run around the track, while the sun was at its peak, that things finally came to a head.
Sloan was in the lead, sweat pouring from her forehead and down her toned, athletic back. It was the eighth lap around the track, she was proud her men were keeping pace. Her group was passing another large regiment of palace guards on the same track when it happened.
Sloan was focused, looking only ahead when she heard yet another comment from the same soldier. He had used varying degrees of inappropriate and vulgar sayings before, but it was this one that stopped Sloan in her tracks.
“I’d run behind that tight specimen of female biology any day.”
Sloan stopped and looked at the soldier. He was running in formation with the group parallel to her and her men.
“What did you say?”
“Oh, you heard me?” The large man and his friends chuckled as they came to a stop. “I was just admiring the view as you passed.”
More than one of her warriors took a step forward, but Sloan raised a hand, stopping them in their tracks. She looked the man up and down. He was tall and large. Clearly this individual was victim to growth hormones and too many hours lifting weights. It was obvious this gave him a false sense of security, that he was somehow better than everyone else and could say whatever he wanted without repercussions. Sloan knew his type too well.
“Why don’t you say it a little louder?”
The soldier looked confused with a raised eyebrow and stupid grin.
“Come on. You didn’t seem shy just a second ago.” Sloan raised her hands and yelled across the training grounds. “I’m sorry to disturb your routines, but I need everyone here now.”
Within seconds, every soldier recognized who was talking. They immediately ran to obey.
Sloan turned to the large confused man. “You and your little friends must be new here. I’ll break this down for you and try to use small words so you can keep up. I don’t want to ever hear you talking to me or any other soldier like that again. If I get wind of you harassing anyone else, I’ll make sure you spend the next few months drinking out of a straw. Do you understand?”
The man’s face transitioned to a picture of anger and humiliation. It was clear he wasn’t used to being spoken to so harshly, especially by a woman.
“Soldier, I asked you a question. If you have something to say, say it now—not later to your friends or as I run by.”
There were stifled laughs by other soldiers, that only infuriated the giant of a man more. “You’re obviously an officer here. I’d be a fool to say anything else but that I understand.”
Sloan nodded. “Well, you’re not as much of an idiot as I thought you were. But with that said, I think we can use this opportunity to instruct the men in a little hand-to-hand combat. Would you mind volunteering for a sparring session?”
The crowd cheered as the bulky man accepted and stepped forward. Sloan caught sight of his PT fatigues, his ranking and name. “Thank you, Sergeant Harrison. You must be new to the palace. Straight from the city guard, correct?”
Sergeant Harrison walked toward her with his wide chest puffed out. He looked down at her and grinned. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Well, I’m sure that everyone is eager to see what combat techniques are currently being used in the city guard. Shall we?” Sloan asked all of this with a grin. To all those unfamiliar with her, her smile seemed nothing but genuine.
Sergeant Harrison chuckled and rolled up the sleeves on his black PT shirt, revealing even more of his enormous arms. There was a cheer from his friends and shouts egging him on from the gathered crowd.
“One minute. I give him one minute.”
“No, look at the size of him.”
“You remember what she did to the last one?”
Sloan ignored the clamor. She readjusted the ponytail holding the honey blonde hair out of her face.
“Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, I’d hate to bruise such a pretty face,” Sergeant Harrison rolled his neck from side to side.
“Enough talking,” Sloan stepped in, arms up. “Let’s see how all those genetically engineered muscles do in an actual fight.”
The two combatants stepped forward. The Sergeant, both in height and size, dwarfed Sloan. He stood half a foot taller and easily out weighed her by a hundred pounds, but none of this seemed to phase the captain of the Queen’s guard.
The crowd cheered as the gladiators circled one another. Sergeant Harrison still smiled. “Listen, I think it’s cute you want to assert authority, and I get it, but—”
She was so fast no one saw it coming, least of all her opponent. Sloan launched herself in the air, right arm cocked back. With all of her weight channeled into her fist, she punched forward as she collided with the Sergeant’s nose. Blood flew through the air splattering Sloan. Crimson droplets sprinkled the ground around her.
Sergeant Harrison staggered back, eyes stinging. The crowd roared. Sloan was on Harrison before he could recover with shots to his jaw and temple. Harrison did his best to shield the blows, his vision limited through the blood squirting from his nose. Then as soon as the fight started, it was ended.
Harrison managed to gather himself enough to launch an offensive attack. Huge arm swung wildly toward her. Sloan sidestepped the clumsy barrage and turned her hips, sending her left foot into the side of Harrison’s right knee. There was an audible crunch. The big man went down as his kneecap shattered in a half dozen different pieces.
The roar from the men gathered was deafening. Harrison was on the ground moaning, clutching his knee.
“Get him to the infirmary,” Sloan motioned to Harrison’s friends, who stood, opened mouthed. “Unless any of you have some cute comment to make about how I run.”
Fear touched their eyes. “Oh, no, Ma’am, you run fine. Like any one of us—I mean, like a normal soldier.”
Sloan ignored them as she walked back to her men, standing ready to congratulate their leader.
A young palace messenger pushed through the crowd and saluted, trying to fight back curiosity and ask what happened.
“Yes, what is it?” Sloan asked.
“The Queen requests your attendance, Ma’am.”
“I’m not sure, but she asked you come as soon as you can.”
Sloan nodded as she walked through the gathered crowd, not one of the soldiers in New Hope’s military daring to lower their eyes past her shoulders.
Jack and his father traveled with the regiment of soldiers by horseback. An aggressive pace was set, and within a few days, familiar mountains and forests gave way to open deserts and small towns. Whenever they rode through a town, dark scowls and nervous glances were directed their way. It was clear the inhabitants of the land outside New Hope had no great love for the Queen or her men.
It was something Jack had always known, but now he was lumped in as “one of them” and it was a chilling feeling to be looked on with such disgust.
“Different, isn’t it?”
Jack almost fell out of his saddle as he turned to look at Lieutenant Baker, riding beside him. “What is?”
“Being regarded with such disdain without even so much as a chance to prove otherwise. They look at you and think just because you wear a uniform, they know you.”
“Why do they distrust you so much?”
“Because we’re from the last great city of men. They think we hide behind our walls and horde riches for ourselves, when the truth is so much closer to them than they realize.”
“Until recently, we were no better off inside the city than they are.” The Lieutenant looked at Jack and smiled, flashing his clean white teeth. “We were barely scraping by. Our political structure was deteriorating, crime was rising and there was so much corruption within the city’s police force, it made it impossible for any real good to be done. We were rotting from the inside out, truth be told, people were probably better off in the Outland than in New Hope.”
“What changed?” Jack found himself beginning to like the Lieutenant and his honest, easy manner of speaking.
“She did. When the Queen came to power ten years ago, she was the savior New Hope needed. She pulled us back from the brink. She saved us from ourselves. It was slow going at first and people resisted the change, but one street at a time, one crooked police officer or soldier fired, one positive and moral political representative elected at a time, the city started to change. We’ve clawed our way back from oblivion, now New Hope is a place its people can be proud to call home.”
Jack bit his lip as he thought on the Lieutenant’s words. The picture that was painted of New Hope’s history was one new to him. He always heard the city talked about with an air of disdain. It was as though the population of the Outland hated the city and its inhabitants for all the wrong reasons.
“So while the Outland was barely surviving and blaming New Hope for not helping, New Hope was actually fighting its own battle of survival?”
“That’s exactly right, Jack. But now New Hope is stronger. We’re making advancements in every area, especially in the fields of magic and paranormal study. We may soon be in a position to offer the cities in the Outland a helping hand.”
That night, Jack and his father made camp beside the regiment of soldiers underneath the many stars of the Outland. Jack’s curiosity was running in a dozen different directions. He finally decided to voice his thoughts. “Dad?”
“Yes, son?” Marcus looked up from the whetstone he was using to sharpen his knives.
“Why do you think the Queen called for us?”
“I can’t be sure of the exact reason,” Marcus took a deep breath and pursed his lips.” But I’m guessing it has something to do with the skill set we possess.”
“You mean the Queen wants us to use our ability over magic for her?”
“Maybe. More than likely, the Queen wants something tracked in the Outland. She wouldn’t call us all the way to New Hope if it was a city matter.”
Jack finished setting out the bedrolls and squinted into the darkness. He looked past the soldiers’ campfires, past all the sand in the seemingly never-ending desert and imagined a city in the distance.
“We’ll be there soon enough, son. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to New Hope, but with the pace we’ve followed, we should see the city tomorrow afternoon.”
“Do you ever wish you had stayed? I mean, do you ever regret leaving the city?”
“No. It wasn’t a place to raise a family, and when I left, things were only getting worse.”
Something in his father’s tone made Jack hesitate. “Are you worried about what might be waiting for us when we get to the city?”