Kalden followed the others down the beach, still marveling at their sudden change in scenery. Arkala’s climate had been far cooler than this, more like Espiria or northern Shoken.
This place seemed downright tropical by comparison. He even spotted a few palm trees growing beyond the mana wall. But how? Palm trees never grew back home. Kalden was no geography expert, but they'd been traveling northwest for most of the trip, and Arkala was already north of the equator.
If anything, shouldn’t it be cooler here?
Not to mention those mana storms with their unnatural colors and cloud funnels. How come he’d never seen a storm like that back home? They’d always attributed their safety to the mana wall, but a few Constructs couldn’t change the entire climate.
And why had Akari reached Silver mere minutes after escaping the island? They’d asked Elend about that, and he claimed that no Construct could stop a person from advancing. The closest thing was mana-repelling materials like impedium, and those could only slow you down.
So many questions.
Fortunately, Elend had promised to help them unlock their missing memories. That should explain how they’d ended up in the Archipelago, and where they’d been before.
Kalden glanced back through the wall’s rippling blue surface. The city wasn’t large by any means—probably less than thirty buildings if you didn’t count the surrounding homes. A few locals had stopped to stare at them from the street while others peeked out from their curtains.
They walked for a quarter mile until they finally reached an opening in the mana wall. It reminded Kalden of the gate in White Vale that separated the city from the Contested Area beyond. The opening itself was about as big as a single stall garage, with sliding steel bars.
Elend or Relia could easily break through that if they had to. They’d faced worse in the Martials’ prison.
“Let me do the talking here,” Elend said as he stepped toward the gate.
Kalden hung farther back with Akari and Relia.
The men on guard each wore desert-colored combat fatigues and sunglasses. Like most Cadrians, they had dark brown skin, and hair that was even blacker than Kalden’s. Not to mention thicker. Kalden had to style his hair every day to get that kind of volume, and falling in the ocean was a surefire way to mess it up.
He activated his Silver Sight and saw that both the guards were Gold. A part of him had actually expected them to be Apprentices. After all, Relia had once called her rank average. But at the same time, it was strange to see Golds as ordinary soldiers. All the ordinary soldiers back home were Silver.
“Good evening,” Elend said to the guards in Cadrian.
The guards kept their expressions blank as he approached. Despite that, they still seemed more curious than anything else.
Several more sentences passed between them, and Akari shifted back and forth in the sand. “Any idea what they’re saying?”
“Don’t look at me,” Relia said with a helpless shrug. “I can barely ask for the bathroom in Cadrian.”
"Ond esto lo banho?” Kalden said.
“Oh!” Relia snapped her fingers. “That’s sounds right!”
Akari blinked up at him. “Our school didn’t teach that.”
“Strict Shokenese parents,” Kalden explained. “They made me learn everything.” The private tutors certainly helped too, but he wasn’t about to mention those.
“So…” Relia nodded expectantly toward her master and the guards.
Kalden strained his ears to listen. He’d learned Cadrian as a kid, but there weren’t many chances to practice it back home. Most Cadrians there spoke Espirian like everyone else. To make matters worse, each nation spoke a different variation. His tutor was originally from Vaslana. According to her, they all spoke “standard” Cadrian there, while the southern nations used different dialects.
Of course, if you asked the southern nations, they’d say they spoke a completely different language. That meant Cadria had anywhere from one to a dozen languages, depending on who you asked.
“Elend’s telling them about the shipwreck,” Kalden said. While the guards spoke in their local dialect, Elend’s speech was closer to the version Kalden had learned.
He listened again. “Now they're asking which side we’re on. I think.”
“Los Libertas," Elend replied with surprising confidence.
That must have been the right answer because the guards didn’t shoo him away. Instead, they gestured to someone else in a nearby bunker. A third soldier stepped up to the gate. While the first two had smooth baby faces, this man had a graying beard, and the scars of a war veteran.
Kalden shifted back to his Silver Sight, and this man’s soul looked at least as bright as Relia's. An Apprentice.
"You marked, spiro?" The older solider asked in accented Espirian.
Elend gestured to his forehead, then held out both his hands, palms up.
"Marked?" Akari whispered to Kalden.
"No idea," he said.
The officer gave a curt nod, then he pointed to Kalden and the others. "We'll have to check them too."
"Of course." Elend turned around and gestured the group forward. "Come on, kids. Don't be shy. Show them your hands and foreheads."
They all complied, holding out their palms in the same way Elend had before.
The officer lowered his sunglasses, studying them the way a bartender might study a teenager’s ID. What was he even looking for? Elend and Relia had never mentioned these “marks” before, but the locals clearly didn’t like them.
Several seconds passed before the officer nodded again. "What brings you to Creta?”
Elend let out a long sigh. “A shipwreck, unfortunately. We were sailing out of Vaslana when a mana storm broke our boat. Sent us straight south, about six miles down the shore.”
The officer grunted his sympathy. “Got your passports?”
“We lost those too,” Elend said.
The man shrugged his shoulders as if that didn’t matter, then he slid open the gate halfway. “Let’s see inside the backpacks.”
Kalden and Akari each handed over their bags, and the other soldiers did a quick search. They’d only find spare clothes in there, which was nothing compared to the gun that Akari carried openly on her belt. Elend didn’t carry a bag at all, and Relia just had a small leather satchel, no bigger than a purse.
“Good enough for me.” The officer said as the younger soldiers passed them back their bags. He opened the gate wider and gestured them inside. “Welcome to Costa Liberta."
"We appreciate your hospitality," Elend said as he led the others through the opening. "Speaking of which, do you know where four poor castaways could get some water?"
The last word sent a sudden dryness through Kalden’s throat. He thought Elend would never ask.
“The Cantina.“ The guard gestured straight down the street. "Big neon sign, overlooks the town square. Tell him Juan sent you.”
Elend nodded his thanks, then he set off down the street with his usual long strides.
"That was it?" Kalden asked once they were out of earshot from the guards. "We entered a foreign country, just like that?"
"We got lucky," Elend said. “They’re all rebels in this city. Enemies of the Dragonlord. They don't care if we're sneaking in.”
“So that stuff about marks—”
“Long story,” he said. “In short, the dragons and their supporters all mark their heads and palms. Their enemies don’t, and they fight over it.”
“Why their palms?” Akari asked.
“Mana suppression,” Elend said with a wave. “I’ll explain later when my throat’s not a bloody desert.”
They made their weary way down the sidewalk, passing rows of old buildings around the sand-covered roads. The city itself was barely bigger than White Vale, but the architecture was far more interesting. Most of the buildings back home had been relatively new, but these looked well over a hundred years old. Most had stone or plaster walls, covered patios, and ornamented pillars and windows.
A few cars drove past, but they looked even older than the cars on Arkala. Seriously? This was the high-tech paradise Relia had talked about? Kalden had to remind himself that Creta was a poorer nation while Relia had come from one of the wealthier states in Espiria. She couldn’t have known they’d be shipwrecked here.
In a way, Frostblade had been right about the outside world. They’d always talked about how dangerous the storms were, and now Kalden had witnessed that first hand. And word would have gotten out if they let people leave left and right. The Archipelago was a weak nation in the grand scheme of things. A weak nation with no powerful friends. That meant someone like this Dragonlord could have swooped in and made everyone’s life harder.
Still, Kalden had no regrets. His own life might have been safer back home, but the same wasn’t true for Akari and her fellow Bronze. One person’s safety should never come at the expense of another’s freedom.
They walked another block before they reached a wide, circular courtyard with a broken fountain at its center. The road here was a mix of sand and cobblestones, and it looked as old as the surrounding structures.
A massive church dominated the scene to their left. Three stories high, it had a bell tower on either side of the stone facade. Between them stood a ten-foot tall statue of the Archangel Talek, carved in relief over the wooden doors.
An even taller brick building loomed on a hill opposite the church. Half a dozen balconies protruded from the upper levels, and the sign said, “Cantina & Hotel” in bright red text.
Elend led them up two flights of stone stairs, then he pulled open a heavy wooden door at the top of the hill.
The inside was cooler, but not by much. A few fans hung from the ceiling, blowing around a haze of smoke. The floor was a mosaic of colorful tiles, all faded with age and covered by a thin layer of sand.
“Evening,” Elend said in Cadrian as he sat down on one of the padded stools.
The bartender stared at them as if they were a band of homeless people. Then again, that wasn’t far from the truth right now.
“Juan sent us,” Elend continued with a cheerful grin. “He said we could get some water here.”
The bartender’s frown deepened when he realized they weren’t spending any money, and he took his time filling the pitcher from a nearby sink. The old man was so slow that Kalden wanted to hop over the bar and do it himself.
Instead, he focused on the song that blasted from the radio. The lyrics were all in Cadrian—too fast to understand—but the drums and guitar had a catchy beat.
A thousand years later, the bartender passed them the pitcher, along with a stack of plastic cups.
Kalden, Akari, and Relia all threw back their cups like shots of hard liquor. Then they went back for seconds. Then thirds. The water was so refreshing that Kalden would have finished that entire pitcher if he could.
Meanwhile, Elend sipped his own water like a cup of hot tea. Come to think of it, he’d hardly drunk any water these past few days. Grandmasters could probably make water from their mana or something
“Do you speak Espirian?” Elend asked the bartender.
The man nodded once.
“Excellent. Then I don't suppose we could bargain for some food?”
"Bargain?” The bartender raised a dark eyebrow. “It's not a market, spiro.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Prices are right there.”
Kalden followed the man’s finger to the blackboard behind the bar. He wasn’t familiar with the words, but the scents of sausage and peppers wafted out from the kitchen, and those needed no translation.
Damnit. He should have kept those cuffs that Frostblade had used to restrain him. Those would have sold for a few silvernotes at least. Kalden didn't know the equivalent currency here, but that should have bought them all dinner at the very least. Maybe even a place to sleep.
Instead, he’d left the cuffs on the forest floor, counting on the Grandmaster to get them to safety. Elend might be wealthy back home in Espiria, but they wouldn’t see that money until they got there.
Akari’s gun and blade were probably worth something, but Kalden kept quiet for now.
"My daughter's a Healing Artist," Elend put a hand on Relia's shoulder. "If anyone’s sick or injured, then—“
"No injuries.” The bartender held out his hand, gesturing to the locals around the room. “No sickness.”
"Come now," Elend said. "Surely someone in this town could use our help.“
The bartender shrugged his massive shoulders. "Then find someone, spiro."
Charming, Kalden thought.
"Come on Marco,” a boy called out from farther down the bar. He looked a few years older than Kalden. "We all know you've got stale tortillas in the back.”
“Stale tortillas sound good,” Akari said.
“Times are tough.” The bartender glared at the boy down the bar, then at Akari. “And I’m not a soup kitchen, shokita.”
“Fine. Be that way.” Elend sagged his shoulders. “Do you at least have a phone I could borrow? I’ve been away from home for a long time. I’d love to call my wife.”
Just then, the roar of a dozen engines echoed from the courtyard outside. Motorcycles? To Kalden’s surprise, several of the locals sprang up from their seats and gathered around the window.
Kalden joined Akari and Relia and followed the others toward the window. From here, they had a full view of the town square where half a dozen motorcyclists rode in from the west.
“Grevandi,” someone muttered from behind him.
”Gre-what?” Kalden turned and saw the same boy who’d told the bartender to share the tortillas.
“Greenskins,” the boy translated. “Half-human, half-dragon.”
Chaos erupted in the square outside. The Grevandi forged Constructs of fire mana between the buildings, blocking the locals from escaping.
“We have to help them,” Relia said.
“We can’t,” Tortilla Boy replied. “See that guy in the middle? He’s an Artisan. Stronger than anyone else here.”
Kalden shifted his gaze to the middle of the group where a muscular man stood with crossed arms. His body looked human enough, but his skin was dark green, and scaly like a raptor or crocodile. Kalden didn’t dare ask how a dragon had bred with a human. Probably some shapeshifting shenanigans.
“We’ll see about that.” Relia turned back to her master, jaw set in determination.
“I guess we will.” Elend shrugged, then he unveiled a piece of his soul. Even without his Silver Sight, Kalden felt the crushing weight of the mana against his own skin. The others must have felt it too, because they all turned to look at him.
“It’s your lucky day,” Elend announced to the room in general. “I happen to be an Artisan too.”
Then, before anyone else could react, he spun on his heel to face the bartender. “About that bargain…”
The man stared at him like he’d just kicked a puppy off a cliff.
"Hey now,” Elend said. “Don’t look at me like that. I'm not a soup kitchen.”
“Fine,” the bartender said. “Kill the Artisan, and dinner’s on the house.”
Elend raised a finger. “And lodging for the night. Two rooms—connected ones with a door between them."
Fire mana flew back and forth across the courtyard as they talked. One Missile even struck the cantina’s outer wall, shaking the front of the building.
“Two rooms,” the bartender agreed quickly, eyes flicking between Elend and the battle outside.
“Plus breakfast tomorrow," Akari spoke up.
“This one thinks two moves ahead,” Elend said with a grin. “A natural Crowns player.”
“Fine, fine.” The bartender looked ready to shove them out the door. “Now get the hell out there.”
Elend nodded once, then he and Relia stepped outside to join the fight.