Byron woke in a misty haze of thoughts. Sorting them all out became quite a task for him. Some seemed so real and others like dreams. He heard talking around him, but made out no individual words. His brain worked furiously to connect all the dots, but still came up short. He felt movement. Then he felt a bump, and a bigger one. Then Byron’s head cracked against the floor and he realized he was no longer in the barn. He opened his eyes and bright sun light flooded in. The blur moved away and he saw bars. He lay flat in a cage mounted upon a carriage, pulled by a horse. Julia and Avery sat beside him. They did not notice him. Avery asked Julia a question. Byron didn’t hear it, but as Julia began to speak, her voice slowly came into focus.
“We are looking for someone.” Julia finished.
“Aren’t we all dear?” Avery looked out of the cage.
“It’s a little more specific than that.” A pause. “We are looking for our step father.”
“I see. Is he lost in here? A rescue attempt?”
“Hardly,” Julia looked at Byron who still seemed asleep. “He married our Mother a few years after Dad died. I was eight. Within a year our half sister, Alexandria was born. Mom died two years later.”
“I’m sorry.” Avery failed in his attempt to fake sympathy.
“Don’t be, that’s not the sad part. After Mom passed, I had to care for our sister because her father was too drunk. He started beating us for punishment. Sometimes I think he did it just for fun. He usually gave it to me more so than to Byron. When I got older he started to try stuff other than beating me.” Julia looked through the bars of the cage. “I was fifteen when I decided to leave with Byron and Alexandria. The very day we were to run away, he just disappeared. He took our sister with him. Byron and I were sent to a foster home but as soon as I turned eighteen I took Byron and we went looking for our sister. I can’t imagine her living with that monster.” Julia looked at Avery. “That was eight years ago.”
“I guess you didn’t find her?”
“We came so close. He’d hidden her with another family. We were two blocks away when he returned. He took her and this time left no trail. I was furious. I went crazy with anger. It was a few weeks later when Byron was going through some of his old things that we found a journal. It had a few names and some crazy talk of relays. We didn’t fully understand it, but a lead is a lead.”
“Do you understand it now?” Avery spit some tobacco through the bars.
“More than I did, but my head is still spinning.”
“I’d be happy to explain it all to you one day.” Avery winked at her. “Probably be best if we waited until after we escape though.” Julia smiled.
“So what’s your story?” Julia winked back. “Or are you just a man of mystery?”
“Hardly.” Avery removed the tobacco. “I, like you, came to the relay misinformed and stupid. My world was ending. So we became refugees of the relay, the entirety of my people. I had one singular goal. I wanted to find the man responsible for my world’s death and bring death to him.”
“How does one man kill a world?”
“The relays do a lot more than transport people. With the right training, technology and talent, there are a great many things you can do with them. The least of which is keep your cloths! I was trained by some of the best but I’m nowhere as good as the elite.” Avery looked at Byron. “It seems we’re being spied on.” Avery gave Byron a light kick. Byron sat up and waited for the blood to follow before speaking.
“What happened?” Byron rubbed his eyes.
“The young lass rubbed that salve on your first in command and you passed out from some pain.” Avery started a new rub of tobacco. “All healed up now I imagine.”
“I remember that. But what are we doing now?”
“They are carting us to Rowenhair to be sacrificed.” Julia leaned over and wiped some dirt from Byron’s face.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” Byron sat up fully and inspected his injury. All healed.
“Nah mate,” Avery smiled. “We have a plan.” He winked at Julia again and offered Byron some tobacco. He turned it down. The cart crested a tall hill and the three travelers caught their first glimpse of Rowenhair off in the distance. The city sat in green hills and looked pristine from so far away. Smoke from a thousand chimneys floated up a few hundred feet before being carried off by wind. It looked medieval to Byron. He wondered how a world could be so similar in nature to his home, yet so different in culture. The road bumped again, smashing his head against the top of the cage and suddenly all he could think about were paved roads.
Three hours later the cart passed over a short bridge and into Rowenhair proper. The cart traveled down a narrow street and Byron instantly recognized the smell of human waste. Further into town the smell subsided as they merged onto a wider street, obviously heading toward the center of town. The streets seemed empty considering the size of the city. When the cart rounded the corner, Byron and Julia found out why. The cart pulled into a large square. At the center of this square sat a relay ring. It was surrounded by thousands of people. Byron stretched his head just enough to see the chopping block just in front of the relay. The crowd cheered as a masked man revealed a large axe and began to sharpen it. Byron looked forward and saw they had joined a long line of caged carts. Each had one or two people inside.
“Now would probably be a good time, Avery!” Byron sounded nervous. Avery sat back and smiled.
“Nope; it’s better if they start the ceremony. Then everyone is distracted.” The cart came to a full stop. The crowd cheered even louder as the first cart in line was unloaded. Byron watched as those poor souls were marched to the cutting block.
“Now?” Byron pleaded. Avery just shook his head. The first victim walked up to the block. The masked man bagged his head and forced him on all fours. They made the man rest his head on the block. The horde went insane when the axe fell. The executioner walked over and picked up the severed head. He held it up for the mass and quickly tossed it through the relay ring. A flash of light and the head disappeared. “Where’d it go?” Byron asked.
“Through the relay.” Julia said flatly.
“Yes but where? Are we going to land on a huge pile of heads next time we go through?” Byron hit panic.
“No sir, dead stuff doesn’t travel like the living,” Avery’s eyes caught someone coming through the crowd towards them. “It’s not easily explained, given our current circumstances.” The young woman who’d accompanied the doctor and mended Byron’s wound approached the cart carrying a large sack. She walked around to the rear of the cart and spoke to Avery.
“Ayh. Good. Lilana here has clothing and a place for us to hide until night.” Lilana brushed some blonde hair out of her face and spoke to Avery again. He seemed confused. “She also wants to come with us?” Avery spoke to her again, in a very unsure tone. “Actually she says if she can’t come with us then she won’t let us out.”
“We don’t have much of a choice do we?” Julia moved closer to the back of the cart. Avery continued to speak to the girl. She shook her head and began to cry. Then she walked away. Avery had no choice but to yell for her return. The cheering of the mob muted the sound. Lilana looked at Avery. He nodded his head yes and she returned to the cart and opened the door. She threw in the bag of cloths and walked back to the front of the cart.
“Alright, get changed! We have very little time.” Avery opened the bag and started passing out cloths. They were tattered and stained. Avery tossed Byron a pair of boots and Julia some small moccasin like shoes. Avery removed his torn shirt, showing his muscled, scared chest. Julia got a good look at one particularly interesting tattoo on his back; it was in the shape of a relay ring.
“My boots are too big!” Byron complained.
“Oh, well, let me call a cobbler to have a look at that before we attempt to escape our certain deaths!” Avery pulled on a new shirt and tightened his boot laces. “Just shut up and follow Lilana.” The woman stood at the back of the cage again. She opened the door just as the crowd roared over another beheading. The three prisoners followed Lilana down a narrow ally and into a small hovel. Inside Lilana gave everyone some food and for a while they all sat in silence; eating. Avery finished first and began a rub of tobacco. “Ayh, listen. We will be moving out at sundown. Lilana tells me they post two guards by the relay at night. I should be able to handle them.” Avery spat and made eye contact with everyone. “If we plan on going together it imperative we are all touching. I’ll activate the relay.”
“Where are you taking us?” Julia finished her bread.
“I’m not sure, but I’m still close on the trail of the man I was following so we are going there.”
“You can follow people?” Julia became very interested.
“Yes, it’s not an exact science and we don’t have time to go into it now. But yes.” Avery spoke to Lilana, Julia and Byron assumed he was telling her the same instructions. She shook her head in understanding.
“Question, Avery,” Byron said. “Before we entered the first relay we drank some purple stuff so we didn’t get sick,” Avery scowled at Byron. “Okay, so no on the purple stuff. Got it.” In the next four hours Julia and Bryon tried to rest. Avery kept watch at the window. Lilana was nowhere to be seen. Night began to fall and the large crowd dispersed. The three travelers kept the hovel in complete darkness, so not to attract attention. An hour after night fall Lilana returned and handed Avery two short swords. He took one and gave the other to Byron. “What do you want me to do with this?”
“Do you see that pointy end?” Avery smiled. “You’ll figure it out.” Lilana opened the door and they were off. Just as expected two guards patrolled around the relay. Avery went in fast and dispatched one of them. He was quickly upon the other when Lilana screamed from behind them. A third guard had her in his arms and a forth was heading towards Julia. Byron, acting completely out of character, charged the guard heading toward Julia. The guard parried one attack but could not block a low swipe and fell. Avery killed a second guard and yelled for Julia and Byron to follow him to the relay. Julia did; Byron went after Lilana. The guard held a knife to her throat. Byron saw it as he charged, but did not have enough time to stop. He lunged forward. The guard threw Lilana to the ground, slitting her throat in the process, but could not ready himself before Byron ran him through. For a moment Byron stood still feeling the sweat pouring over his face. He experienced a strange exhilaration. Then he heard Lilana choking on the floor. He picked her up and ran towards the relay. Avery yelled for him to hurry as more guards appeared at the edge of the square. Byron carrying Lilana took Julia’s hand just as archers began to fire arrows at them. Avery reached through the relay and they flashed away. The arrows stuck cold cobblestone, snapping them in half.