15. Keeto Town

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Regina awoke with a start, cold and shivering, despite the fact that she found herself cradled against Dwain's body. He too was asleep. Regina was glad to see this, and that he seemed to snooze soundly, without effort nor trouble.

"Whoooa, old boy. Slow it to a trot. Now, now ... there we are..." Her ears twitched as the sound of Astral's voice, muffled and distant thanks to the blanket that covered the children and what remained of the vegetables.

"Oi, then – what's yer business?" – A new voice perked Regina's attention immediately. She wriggled out of Dwain's arms and dared a peek out from under the safety of their blanket, damp from the elements. She searched over the frame of the cart and found what looked from her narrow vantage like a steel-clad mammal heading towards Astral.

"I'm here to trade market wares for prime-grown crops," Astral replied.

"Vendor's licence, please."

"Ah, yes. Of course." Astral reached into his robes and handed off something to the steel mammal. Regina couldn't quite make out what he looked like though, on account of the angle at which Astral blocked her spying sight.

The mammal swayed into Regina's view at that moment, though, handing the item back to Astral after a brief inspection. "Right. Thank you, Mister Ages. Do you have anything else to declare?"

"Ahh – yes. My niece and nephew are with me," said Astral, pocketing whatever it was he'd shown the armoured mammal. "They're asleep under the blanket, with the crops we've brought to trade."

The mammal looked Regina's way. All she saw was a steel face. Two narrow slats, dark as night, where eyes should have been. Fear of what she saw filled her to the brim. She gasped and ducked back beneath the safety of the blanket.

A moment later, something started to creak and slosh towards the cart's flank on heavy-thudding footfalls. One side of the cart suddenly sagged with additional weight off the outside of the frame. Regina braced herself. The top corner of the blanket vanished. A horned, metal face, with dark slats for eyes stared down at her.

Regina screamed bloody murder. It was the most horrifying thing she'd ever seen.

Dwain bolted awake. "Wot – wot, then!? Wot's happened? Reggie, are you all right?"

"It's all right, Regina, just a mere routine check is all." Astral's voice echoed on the wind a bit as he spoke. The metallic face peered directly at her, then glanced about the inside of the cart, nodded, and then the edge of the blanket fell back over Regina and Dwain. The weight off the side lifted with a jolt. The sound of a heavy plop of boots dropped to the muddy road.

"Right then. On you go. Enjoy your visit to KeetoTown. Stay dry."

Dwain bolted upright. "KeetoTown? We're here?!"

He struggled onto his knees, pushing the blanket completely off his and Regina's bodies, despite her protest to remain dry – when really she was terrified of coming face to face with that horrifying metal face, again.

"Whoaaa..." Dwain was now at a full stand beside her, gazing around their surroundings like nothing he'd ever seen before. Above him, the blurry tree tops shimmered with rain drops through a mesh of leaves and branches blocking the cloudy sky. "Reggie, look at that!"

He pointed her attention past Astral and Phalanx. She started to protest when her cloudy vision gave way to a stone wall as high as the treetops, vanishing into the overcast sky. Hanging across the tops of a great archway were sweeping flags of red and yellow checker colors, flapping in the breeze. "Oh – oh my goodness!"

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