The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 38

Callindra arose before the sun, her internal clock awakening her as the first rosy fingers of the predawn glow reached above the horizon of the forest.  The room she shared with the men she had come to consider her brothers had windows that looked out over the forest canopy.  It was strange, knowing that they were hundreds of feet in the air even though the treetops only looked like they were perhaps twenty or thirty feet below.

Looking at the others, she startled when Vilhylm turned his head and stared at her, but after a moment she realized he was sleeping with his eyes open.  She wasn’t one to question strange habits but that was weird.  How would one come to acquire such an affectation?

She slipped out careful not to awaken anyone, no mean feat in spite of the amount of drinking the boys had done the night before.  The Tree was immense, but after wandering for a time, she heard the sounds of swordplay.  Following the sound, she eventually came to a door that led out onto a massive branch at least 50 yards wide. There were several dozen elves stripped to the waist working sword forms. The style was strange but it spoke to her nature; it was wild and reckless but strangely they used both hands. After watching them for a few moments Callindra approached one of the elves standing to one side.

“Good morning, may I join you for a morning workout?”

The elf gave her a scornful look, “How did you find this place? This training ground is for Bladedancers only. Aren’t you one of those outsiders who brought that evil and fouled the air our goddess breathes? I saw you soiling your blade with magic, and besides you fight with a single sword. Useless human child, leave immediately.”

“I was already going. Your fighting style isn’t nearly powerful enough for me to emulate, and I’d hate to make you look bad. Again. After all wasn’t it my magic wielding single handed fighting style that took down that golem before it could destroy your precious tree? Where were you all that time? Fighting some vicious and dangerous bugs I presume?” She laughed in the elf’s face and walked back into the tree listening to her spluttering indignation with satisfaction.  Even so, she was sad that she had been turned away.  It would have been interesting to spar with them.

After taking a few more turns and found herself on a secluded branch that was small for the Great Tree, only about twenty feet from side to side. Seating herself in the center of the branch with her sword across her knees she meditated and listened to the wind. Despite knowing how useless it was she strained to hear something from her master Glarian, remembering his last instructions not to follow him to Hellgate Keep.

“I will follow your instructions old man, but only until I’m strong enough to feed that black clad bastard his own balls.” She muttered. Standing Callindra began moving through her basic Stances. After the initial warm up she began running her own forms; the ones she used to keep opponents off balance so they couldn’t tell which attack was next.

Although she never would have admitted it to anyone she had given each one a name. Swallow Skims Across Water. Searching the Sea. Holding the Moon. Bird Returns to Tree at Dusk. Black Dragon Whips His Tail. Green Dragon Emerges From Water. Lion Shakes His Mane. Tigress Holds Her Head. Phoenix Spreads Its Wings. Wind Sweeps the Plum Blossoms. Wild Horse Leaps Over the Creek. Snake Strikes Twice. Lightning Splits the Tree.

Just as she was finishing the last sweep of Brightfang she became aware of another presence. Callindra leaped into the air, spinning with her blade held at the ready, Soaring Crane Strikes, and only barely managed to halt her blade before it split the skull of a young elf who stood in the doorway.

“Pox and rot! I nearly cut you in half; you need to be more careful!” She exclaimed.

“Oh my, you’re one of the Outsiders who saved us from those demons! I cannot believe that you are a girl! I would wager you are the strongest girl ever! Mother said I was not allowed to go see you but you came to me.”

Callindra raised her eyebrow at the girl, “What do you mean I came to you?”

“Well after a fashion anyway.”  Her guest amended, “I always come here in the mornings; you can watch the Blade Dancers from here. I wish train with them so badly, but mother and father will not let me.”

Callindra shook her head warming quickly to the pipsqueak’s flattery, “Those stuck up prigs, why would you want to watch them? If they had been worth a damn they would have helped me take down that golem. Lucky for you I’m a mage, not just a swordfighter or this tree would probably be dead.”

The elf’s eyes widened in shock, “But this is the Grandfather Tree. Nothing can kill the Grandfather Tree. What is a prig?”

“Oh, of course you’re probably right,” Callindra didn’t think it was necessary to tell this kid the truth, she ran her fingers through her tangled hair and they got caught in the thorn and brightstar tiara Gode had given her. “Damn I thought I took this thing off last night. I guess I must have forgotten.”

The elf maid gasped, “That is a gift from Gode herself! I saw her give it to you in the Great Hall. I do not believe it comes off.”

“Doesn’t come off? What do you mean doesn’t fucking come off?” Callindra pulled at the tangle of vines in her hair but only accomplished hurting her scalp. Feeling at her hair she found it had vegetation growing all the way from the roots of her hair to the tips with tiny four petal brightstar flowers dotting it here and there. Strangely it didn’t seem to tangle her fingers as long as she wasn’t trying to take it off.

“It’s a Crown of Life, once you put them on they do not come off, otherwise they die. It is a living thing you know, made from Jorda’s hair. You’re really lucky to have it. I think you are the first Outsider to get one. What is your name brave warrior?”

She quit pulling on her hair with a sigh, oh well it was just a few flowers, but why Brightstars? Why not something that would make her seem to be more dangerous like Nightshade or Deathblossom? “My name’s Callindra, what’s yours?”

“Edelweiss” she raised her chin as though preparing for abuse.

“That’s a strong name. Did you know that’s one of the toughest plants in existence? So stubborn it will only grow high up on mountains, no lower than 2000 yards?” Callindra remembered Cronos talking about it before, “I know a lot of people only talk about its healing properties but it’s a really tough flower.”

“You are without a doubt the strangest girl I have ever met.” Edelweiss said, tilting her head to one side, “The Goddess was correct though, you really could be much prettier if you tried. The Crown really does add to your looks you know?”

“Bah. Who needs to be pretty? I find beauty in the dance of battle, in the edge of Brightfang, in the flare of Power when I bend the weave to my will!” She stepped back lightly and swung her blade in a whirling arc, a few leaves swept up around her in a whirlwind and her hair fanned out around her.

Edelweiss clapped her hands in delight. “Amazing! Here we don’t have anyone who taps into the weave. They have to sit around and wait for Gode to grant them power. She is wonderful and all, but it all seems so boring in comparison.”

“So you want to train with the Blade Dancers do you?” Edelweiss nodded emphatically, “Well I don’t have much pull with them but I can help you make a kick ass entrance if you want.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“C’mere and I’ll show you.” Callindra was smiling a fiendish smile. Her small companion approached cautiously. “Come on now, if you’re nervous or hesitant they’ll never take you seriously!” She looked down at the practice yard far below them, mentally measuring the distance, then picked up the slight elf and yelled, “Hang on tight if you don’t wanna die!” and leapt from the branch.

Edelweiss let out a terrified shriek that nearly deafened Callindra but she hung on tight as the wind whistled around their ears. Far below there was a flurry of activity as the elves in the practice yard scurried about trying to figure out how to catch the falling pair. Laughing in wild abandon, Callindra twirled Brightfang in an intricate pattern, forcing the Weave to obey her whim and just before they hit the ground a blast of wind cushioned their fall.

The tiny elf maid opened her eyes and gasped in surprise. “What’s happening? Is this Magic then? It is isn’t it?” She was still hanging on to Callindra’s neck but less tightly now, her eyes shining with admiration. They had landed in the center of the practice yard amid a cluster of furious elves. The elf who had kicked her out before was the closest and in a rage.

“Edelweiss! What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing with this weave wielding savage?” Turning her baleful gaze at Callindra he continued, “What have you done to my son?”

Too stunned to respond, Callindra stared as Edelweiss retorted, “Leave over mother, she is an amazing and talented warrior. I accidently imposed upon her morning practice ritual and she saved me from falling.”

Not precisely true, but a close enough approximation she supposed… but wait, Edelweiss was a boy? Not possible he was far too pretty. “Sorry for the inconvenience. I need to pack for my journey so I’ll take my leave if you don’t mind?” Callindra didn’t suppose she had much of a chance at avoiding a few bruises at this point but it was worth a shot.

“I think not human. I think you need to learn a lesson in manners. As swordmaster I think it’s only fitting I be the one to issue that lesson.” Oh shit. “Why didn’t you tell me your MOM was the rutting SWORDMASTER?”  She hissed at the other girl.

“No need to be afraid mortal.”  The elf said coldly, “I will not kill one who bears the favor of my Goddess.”

“Well, no harm in a little practice I suppose.”  Callindra said, “Maybe I might learn something. If there’s anything I’ve learned thus far in life it’s that pain is a good teacher and what doesn’t kill me has made me stronger.”

“In that case, prepare for a very good lesson girl.”

“Sorry I may have mistaken you for a man earlier.  What is your name?” Callindra never could resist picking at scabs or antagonizing assholes.  She wouldn’t mind being mistaken for a boy, but she bet this elf would take insult.

“To the hells with practice blades” the blademster snarled, “Let’s see what you can do with that little wisp of steel.  You can have my name when you EARN it.”

Callindra sighed, oh well at least she wouldn’t have to worry about fighting with an unfamiliar weapon. But this was gonna HURT.

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Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 4

Victoria

Victoria was surprisingly well rested after the flight, the last time she’d flown her back had been stiff for days.  She was just getting to her hotel room; the clerk had waved her and Eugene to the front of the line when they entered.  It felt good to be a VIP.

“Hi daddy, we’re at the hotel.  Everything was smooth sailing on calm seas.”  She was calling him for a second time; he had insisted she call after checking in when she’d called him from the airport.  “OK, I gotta go.  Love you too, give mom a kiss for me.”

She arrived at her room and slid the key into the lock.  When she opened the door and couldn’t believe her eyes.  She had a suite; a MASSIVE suite.  There was a full bar, a kitchen, a huge entertainment center with a plasma TV the size of a garage door and a completely separate bedroom.

“Holy SHIT!”  Victoria took her phone out and snapped a few pictures to send to her friends.  The view looked out over the fountain in front of the hotel.  The bathroom had a whirlpool tub in addition to a luxurious looking shower and opened onto a balcony.

She walked out the sliding doors sipping a mineral water just as the Bellagio’s fountain began its famous performance.  After watching it for a couple minutes she returned back inside and started to fill the bath, she did after all have an early morning tomorrow.

She blinked and activated her new piece of software.  At first nearly blinded by the sheer amount of traffic, she activated filtering for the string of possible ports and addresses the hack had come from and gradually threads began evaporating, the massive ocean of traffic gradually becoming a delicate web.  Of that web, only two tiny threads came from the hotel she was in right now.

Her study of web traffic was interrupted by her phone chiming; Eugene asking what time she wanted to get dinner.  She thought for a moment and replied, accessing her phone’s text function through the WIFI channel, something that was noticeably more difficult than it had been with Eugene’s phone, and told him she’d be ready in forty five minutes.

The tub was nearly full and Victoria took off her sweaty travel stained clothes and slipped into the bath, sighing in pleasure.  As her body relaxed her mind seemed to become more active, sorting data she had gathered and correlating that data with the traffic she was still monitoring.  The muscles in her neck twitched as tension she hadn’t noticed before abated.  She opened her eyes and for a moment all she could see was blackness with a few lines of web traffic.

Victoria sat up in panic only to find that her normal vision had returned.  “What the hell was that?  Probably just a glitch I suppose.”  She shuddered and tried to shut the program down only to find it was unresponsive to her request.  It hung for a few moments before finally closing, leaving her with a mild headache and a feeling that she had an itch inside her skull that she couldn’t scratch.

She dressed in gray skirt and plain white t-shirt.  It was good all-purpose outfit that should be good enough for a late dinner without being too complicated, she didn’t want to keep Eugene waiting and besides she was hungry.

“Time to go have dinner I suppose.  I wonder what kind of food we’ll find in this place, I could really go for some Chinese.”  Right on schedule, she answered the knock on the door to find Eugene standing there.  He was wearing a pair of slacks and a linen shirt, his sunglasses hanging from the top button of his shirt.

“Are you ready for some food?”  He gave her an introspective look, “And maybe you’d be interested in telling me why you decided to do work for the military?”

“Yeah sure, is there a decent Chinese restaurant in this place?”

He laughed, “Of course, there’s food from around the world here.  I hear their Szechuan restaurant has been highly rated.  Let’s check it out.”

“Sounds good to me, I’m starving!”  They were approaching the elevator when her vision flickered again, showing a nexus of communication coming from a room just three doors down from hers.  It was over the ports that she was certain were only used by her hacker.

She made a mental note of the room number 1420, knowing that since no floor was ever labeled ‘13’ that meant it was room 1320.  Huh, twenty was the least lucky number in Chinese lore and thirteen needed no explanation.

Victoria stopped dead just before stepping into the elevator.  How had she seen that data?  She had taken the special contact lens back out of her eye after getting out of the bath.

“Hey, what’s up?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost, are you feeling OK?”

“Yeah, we’re fine, just a little travel fatigue I suppose.”  Victoria said, passing her hand over her face.

Eugene gave her a strange look, but the elevator arrived before he could say whatever was on his mind.  Apparently it wasn’t something he wanted to discuss in front of strangers.  A group of college boys gave her an appraising look and to stave off any unnecessary flirting she reached out and took Eugene’s hand.  He looked slightly startled but only raised an eyebrow at her and didn’t try to let go once they exited the elevator.

As they approached the restaurant, Victoria could see a line out the door and several people sitting on benches.  A family sat on one side, talking rapidly in Chinese while a group of businessmen sat together all talking or emailing on their phones.  The host approached.

“May I help you?  Do you have a reservation?”  He looked at their clothes and his lip curled ever so slightly, “What is your room number please?”

“My room is 1455, and I’m sad to say we don’t have a reservation.”

“Doctor Arlington!  How wonderful to see you here.”  The host smiled ingratiatingly, “Wait here just a moment and I’ll get you and your lady friend a table immediately.”  The astonishment of the others waiting outside was obvious, although none voiced any complaint.

“What’s up with that Doc?”  Victoria gave him a sidelong glance, “Have you been here before or something?”

“I have no idea why they’re giving me preferential treatment, but I’m not one to question fast service when I’m hungry.  For what it’s worth I didn’t reserve you a suite either.”  The host led them through the crowded restaurant to a quiet corner table.

“My name is Jeffry; your server will be Catherine tonight.  Please let me know if there’s anything I can get for you.  Anything at all.”  He smiled an ingratiating smile and melted back into the room.  Before they could recover, a waitress appeared with a glass of iced mineral water with a twist of lime and lemon for Victoria and a vodka martini with two olives for Eugene.

“Hi, I’m Cat and I’ll be your waitress this evening.  Here are some drinks to start you off.  I’d highly recommend the Xiao Long Bao”

Victoria thought she heard a low voice murmur (savory steamed bun), and smiled slightly at Eugene in thanks for the translation.  She turned her attention to the waitress again.

“Or Zongzi ‘seasoned rice steamed in bamboo leaf’ as an appetizer.  I had the Jiang Muya (ginger duck) for the first time yesterday and can’t say enough about how good it is.  The Daoxiang Paigu (hay wrapped fragrant pork ribs) are also fantastic.”

“Sounds good, why don’t you bring us an order of each?” Eugene said, “If that works for you Victoria?”

“Oh yes, the duck sounds especially good to me.”  Said Victoria, noting that Eugene’s eyes widened momentarily in surprise.  “How did you know what drinks to bring us if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Um, actually the gentleman over there told me to bring them to you and to pay for whatever you wanted to order.”  Cat pointed to a table not far from theirs and after a moment Victoria recognized the man.

“Hey Eugene, look at that!  It’s Dmitri; he graduated three or four years before I did.  Wow, I wonder what he’s doing here.”  Victoria gave him a cheery wave.  “Dmitri, how have you been?  Would you like to join us?”

He walked over to their table, “Victoria, Eugene, so good to see you.  I would normally acquiesce to such a request, especially from an old friend.  Even more from an old friend who has done nothing but get more beautiful since I saw her last.

“Unfortunately I have a prior engagement and will not be able to join you tonight.  Perhaps you would care to join me tomorrow night?  I happened to come across some tickets to a show you just might be interested in.”  He took an envelope from the inside pocket of his impeccable Armani suit and laid it on the table.  “Enjoy your meal my friends.”

He walked away without looking back.  Victoria watched him go.  Gods he was still as hot as he had been in high school.  “OK Eugene, how do you know Dmitri?  Damn, I haven’t seen him in years he looks like he’s doing well for himself.”

“I could ask you what you’re doing with the Military software that’s installed in your fucking HEAD.”  He glanced around and lowered his voice.  “Seriously, what the hell were you thinking?  Do you have any idea what it could do to you?”

“What are you talking about?  It’s just a piece of software Eugene.  I mean I know you’re protective of your tech, but Jesus what’s the big deal?”

“You have no clue do you?  No clue.  Shit Victoria, this could destroy you.”  Eugene looked at her with serious concern on his face.  “Look, I know we haven’t talked about this kind of thing but I never thought it’d be an issue.  ADAM is a very sophisticated, delicate system and any disruption, even a tiny one, could spell disaster.”

Victoria thought back to her vision flickering and had to admit he had a point.  “Umm… wow, I guess I never thought of it like that.”

“Yeah I didn’t think so.”  He took a sip of his martini.

“Look, it was the fastest, most logical way through the checkpoint.  Besides, the idea of the new software and the mission was… exciting.”  She blushed and tucked some stray strands of hair behind her right ear.  “I never thought anything bad would happen.  I mean do you know that something bad would happen?”

“Just be careful.”  Their appetizer had arrived along with a refreshment of their drinks.

“So you and Dmitri.  What’s the story there?”  Victoria bit into a fragrant and savory steamed bun with relish.  “Mmmmm these are so good.  You’ve gotta try one!”

“Oh, his father was an investor in the … project.  Your project.”  He gave her meaningful look and accepted the bun she was offering.  “Wow, you’re right these are amazing.”

“I thought it was the military that funded it.”  Victoria took a drink of her mineral water and helped herself to another appetizer.  “What does his dad do anyway?  He always said he was in ‘mergers and acquisitions’ whatever that is supposed to mean.  We used to joke he was in the mafia.”  She chuckled.

“I never asked what his occupation was.  Honestly I was too worried that I wasn’t going to get enough funding.  That thing that’s a part of you now is the culmination of fifteen years of my life and around half a billion dollars.”

“Half … a … billion?”  She whispered, dropping her glass.  Her eyes didn’t leave his when it shattered on the floor.  “Fucking hell Eugene!”  She hissed, “How could you stick me with this kind of responsibility without telling me?”

“I know for a fact you’re worthy of my trust Victoria.”  Eugene finished his martini.  “You have everything to gain by helping me to succeed.  After all; my success is your success.”  He didn’t mention failure.  It obviously wasn’t an option for either of them.

Their waitress stopped by at this point with a new glass of Perrier and a refill for Eugene’s martini.  A bus boy cleaned up Victoria’s broken glass without comment and cleared the plates for the appetizers away so quietly she almost didn’t notice him.  The main course arrived; the ginger and honey glazed duck looked amazing as did the hay-wrapped steamed ribs.

Victoria was so hungry she didn’t hesitate to scoop some saffron rice onto her plate and grab a few slices of succulent duck off the serving platter with her chopsticks.  “Don’t think this is over Doc, you’ve got some more explaining to do.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”  Eugene laughed, “What kind of thing is this?”  He had picked up a pair of pork ribs wrapped in fragrant hay.

“It’s what you ordered.  Seasoned ribs steamed in hay.  Didn’t you know?”  Victoria was in heaven, the flavors were mingling on her tongue in culinary ballet.  “Oh my god this duck is delicious.”

“Since when do you speak Mandarin?  How did you know what dishes she was offering?”  He unwrapped the ribs and tried the meat.  “Mmm, this is really good too.”

“What the hell are you talking about Doc?  You’re the one who was whispering what the dishes were when she was listing them off… weren’t you?”

“Me?  No, I didn’t say anything.”  His brow furrowed in confusion, “You heard someone talking?  Victoria there’s nobody behind you and there isn’t any way you would have heard me across the table.”

“Well if it wasn’t you and there’s nobody near me then who was it?  A ghost?”  She rolled her eyes, “Come on Eugene you’re a scientist, don’t tell me you believe in the supernatural.”

His voice dropped low and he leaned towards her, “I think we have to consider the possibility that it’s Adam.”

“Is that even possible?  The tech paper you gave me showed a clear delineation between my mental activity and the machine’s code language.  I mean they’re supposed to be so different it’d be like me being able to talk to a dog or a tree.”  She took a drink of water and considered for a moment, “Or I suppose like me spontaneously knowing Mandarin.  Shit, do I need to be concerned about this?”

“Look Tori, I didn’t mean to make you nervous OK?  Just be careful.”  He fixed her with a two martini look which is to say, a slightly unsteady one.  “I’m afraid of the consequences, I mean… if you’re actually interfacing with it.  Do you have any idea how crazy that is?  A machine having direct mental contact with a human?”

Victoria paused with her chopsticks halfway to her mouth, “So what should I do?  Is there some kind of contingency in place for this?”

“Never mind.  Forget I said anything, it’s fine.  Just be careful OK?  Just be careful.”  He gestured with his chopsticks.  “Can I have some of that duck?”

“Yeah, sure.  As long as I can have some of your ribs.  Have you tried this rice?  The saffron flavor is so delicate.”  She sighed in satisfaction, “OK, I promise to be careful as long as you promise not to have any more secrets.  Deal?”

“Deal.”  He agreed.

She grinned at him, ignoring the slight hiss of static that told her he was lying.  Her vision blurred, went white, then completely dark and finally settled on monochrome.  In spite of her promise, she didn’t say anything to Eugene.  After a moment her vision returned to normal and she took a deep breath.

“Ahhh, that was awesome, just what I needed.”  She pushed her plate back.  “I’m exhausted, I think I need to turn in.  Is it OK if I head on back to my room?”

“Yeah, sure.  Are you feeling OK?”

“We’re fine, just need some rest.  Thanks for a good evening Eugene.”  She got up and patted him on the cheek.  “Don’t stay up too late drinking, I’ll need you tomorrow.”

After leaving the restaurant she made it back up to the 14th floor before she collapsed.  The door in front of her opened.  The door to room 1420.  Behind it stood a little girl of Asian heritage, her black hair in pigtails wearing a cashmere robe and silk pajamas.  She clutched a netbook with a cluster of cables erupting from the back that led to a heads up device that was perched on top of her head.  The air around her was alive with electronic data traffic.

“Hey lady, are you OK?  Lady?”  She leaned over, “I got your SOS, do you still need help?”

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 37

Callindra strode forward, linking arms with Tryst.  She wanted him by her side if she was facing some sort of formal introduction.  Reaching back to touch Brightfang’s hilt for reassurance she stepped into the largest room she had ever seen.  It would have swallowed the entire Cathedral in Arkasia and still left room on all sides.  In the center a figure was sitting on a simple wooden chair surrounded by twining vines, butterflies and small animals of every description.

“Callindra Sol’Estin, Apprentice of the North Wind Style, Bearer of Brightfang, Wind Warrior and Bladespeaker.”  A voice intoned as she passed the threshold.

“Tryst Te’Chern, Priest of the Ancient One, Wielder of the Scared Waters and Guardian of the Healing Light.”

“Vilhylm Greldiachanin, Master of Masks, Follower of the Carnival of Tricksters and Heir of the Great Caravan.”

“Cronos Torrantrach, Inheritor of the Eternal Flame, Student of the Master of Fire and Vessel of Vengeance.”

Callindra looked at her friends, the questions on her face mirroring theirs.  Before any of them could make comment, another voice cut through the room.

“Welcome Champions, to my dining hall.”  Jorda’s words were filled with inherent power, but it was the slow and certain strength of growing, living things.  “The evil that you vanquished would have arrived here eventually regardless of what you might have done, but your swift and decisive actions have led us to victory.”

The Goddess turned and gestured toward long tables laden with food and drink, “Please join us in celebration.”

To Callindra’s horror, she could clearly see a blackened scar that cut from just behind Jorda’s right eye and disappeared into the simple white tunic she wore.  It puckered the growing green color of her skin with a line of what looked like diseased tree bark.  It seemed Gods could be wounded after all.

“Are you all right?”  Callindra blurted without thinking,

“Dear child, thank you for your concern.”  Jorda said with a beautiful smile, “I greet you and your companions.  Tonight you may ask any boon of me.  You have fought off those who would have destroyed my realm and I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“Give me the strength to dominate my enemies.”  Cronos said without hesitation, almost as though he had been anticipating this.

“This obviously hasn’t been a problem for you youngster.”  Said Jorda, “However I think I can assist you in protecting yourself.” She handed him a small token carved of wood with a smile.  “Wear it and call upon me during battle.”

“I have been sent on a holy quest to find the wisdom to contact Gode The Elder.”  Tryst said, “Please can you tell me how I can speak with him?”

“I have information that you will find valuable young Priest.”  The Goddess said, “However, I have insight that will guide you also.  If you will accept my guidance that is.”

“Of course I will accept your guidance Great Lady.”  He said, bowing low.

“You aren’t even going to ask your Ancient One first?”  Jorda asked, amusement tinging her words.  “Very well then, look into my eyes young priest.”

Tryst looked into her face, his eyes uncertain.  His mouth had a firm set to it though.  “I will accept his judgement if he deems my actions to be improper.”  He said.

“Ah, we need more like you.”  Jorda said with a merry laugh, “Your irreverence is good for us.”  A flash of green gold fire flashed between their eyes.

“All I wish is to be able to redeem myself.”  Vilhylm said when Jorda turned to him.  His voice was almost too soft for Callindra to hear.

“You have already done so, even if you refuse to acknowledge it.”  Jorda replied, almost as softly, “I cannot give you forgiveness for those who died, but I can give you the strength to fight for the living.”

“I no longer wish to fight.”  He said, his eyes downcast.

“But we need warriors.”  Jorda insisted, putting a finger under his chin and raising his face to look into hers.  “You have seen things far beyond what most mortals have, but there is more strength in you than know.  I will give you something that you can use to help your friends, or create a powerful weapon to strike at the heart of evil.”

She drew a small, very sharp knife from a sheath at her belt and bent gracefully, cutting into the bark like skin of her thigh.   Carefully, she cut a square of it away and pried off a perfect piece of wood.  She placed it in Vilhylm’s trembling hands and placed a kiss on his forehead.  The wound closed swiftly, new bark beginning to grow over it, but her leg still oozed fluid that looked more like sap than blood.

“Please just bless me and my friends.”  Said Callindra, looking Jorda in her eyes, “We brought the evil here, it was only natural we would assist in eradicating it.”

“Your humility is a credit to your nature Callindra.”  Jorda said, “However I think you would do well to address the other parts of yourself.  Being a warrior does not mean you aren’t a woman.  In spite of what the folk you have grown up around may have caused you to believe, being a woman does not indicate weakness.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”  Callindra demanded, forgetting herself.

“It means that if you can’t accept who you are and insist on acting recklessly in order to prove your worth you are probably going to get hurt a lot and probably die.”  Jorda said, “I will give you something to perhaps keep you alive until you manage to learn to value yourself as your companions do.”

She reached out a hand and plucked a strand of her own hair from her head and wove it deftly into a small tiara.  It started to sprout tiny Brightstar flowers that perfumed the air with their delicate scent.  Before Callindra could back away Jorda placed it on her head and the vine grew into her hair.  Not wanting to insult the Goddess, she left it there even though it made her feel like a fool.

“I know you are here to ask a question of me and I have no satisfactory answer for you.”  Jorda said, her voice grave.  “All I have is yet another quest, if you’re up to it.”

“You mean you don’t know why Gode isn’t responding to the prayers of his priests?” Tryst said, staring at her in disbelief.

“My father has… faded from our sight.”  Jorda said, sounding tired.  “His influence over the world is waning and the forces that bind his brother are weakening.  I think you may all have felt the influence of that in this world.”

“You mean the green… glowing things?”  Callindra asked, “The things we’ve been calling Abyssal Spawn?”

“Yes.  Those are the servants of Gode’s brother Onde, the ancient God of Destruction.”  Jorda confirmed, “They are not of this world.  Their goal is to destroy this world and everything in it.  If they aren’t stopped they will achieve their goal.  This world needs defenders, and if those defenders aren’t determined it will fall.”

Callindra felt her breath catch in her throat at this simple declaration.  The implication that she was one of those with the power to defy the forces that sought to bring an end to the world that she loved was too much for her to take in.  It was all too much.

“What in the hells are you talking about?”  Cronos demanded harshly, “Look, we were hired to go to the ruins of Lin Lamorak and speak with the Druids there.  When we got there, all that was left was the Dryad Tyreen.  She told us to come here and this was supposed to be the end of that trek,”

“You have earned your reward many times over Cronos and no one would question your integrity if you brought back the information you have gained thus far.”  Said the Goddess, smoothing stray locks of hair away from her face that blew in a capricious breeze.  “I am asking you to go above and beyond what you had initially agreed to do, and I fear I can offer little in the way of reward.”

“I don’t want a reward.”  Callindra said, “I just don’t see how you expect me to do anything against a God.”

“I can give you this.”  Jorda took a pendant from around her neck and handed it to Tryst.  A small hand, the size of an infant’s hung from it.  “This is my piece of the mold that formed the original human.  Each one of Gode’s children was charged with one of them and each of us kept ours safe in their own way.  I fear most of them are scattered and lost, however this one has the unique property that it can point out the closest one of its brothers.”

Tryst took it reverently, and when it touched his palm it spun gently, pointing roughly north.  “I cannot accept this.”  He said softly.

“But if you find them all and assemble them, we will be able to re-establish communication with Gode.”  Jorda said, “If you truly wish to accomplish the mission you were assigned then this is the only way.”

“I want to help you Tryst, I really do.”  Callindra said, “But I can’t just abandon Glarian.  Before I go off on some crazy quest I have to go and find him.  He needs me.”

Jorda looked at her, as if unsure exactly how she should respond.  Finally she gestured to the room, “Why don’t we stop all this serious talk and enjoy the wonderful food and entertainment that has been prepared in your honor?  You do not need to make any decisions right now.”

In spite of being nearly certain that the Goddess was withholding something from her, Callindra was drawn into the fantastic scene before her.  The elves who were here weren’t the battle hardened soldiers she had met so far.  Beautiful women in flowing gowns that seemed finer than spider silk.  Equally gorgeous men in tailored, fitted suits and boots with high heels that clicked on the floor.

Both sexes had their pale hair braided in intricate patterns that made her eyes swim.  Delicate clips shaped like insects, birds and leaves wrought in gold, silver and platinum held the braids in place.  Jewels shone in place of eyes and drops of dew.  The language they spoke was fluid and made Callindra feel as though her words sounded like a handful of nails being dropped down a sheet of metal.

Even though their Goddess had spoken to thank Callindra and her friends, most of the Elves seemed to hold themselves aloof from the humans.  She didn’t hold it against them though, after all she and her friends had brought the evil into their home.  The fact that they’d banished it didn’t wipe out their involvement.

The food wasn’t what she had expected either.  Rather than just vegetables, the tables were laden with thinly sliced, barely seared venison, whole rabbits stuffed with wild onions and slow roasted, skewers with spit roasted birds, pastries filled with only gods knew what baked to a golden brown.

It all smelled so delicious that her misgivings gave way to her appetite.  She sat with her friends, and they all ate and drank, letting go of their fears and inhibitions.  Even if all here didn’t trust them or appreciate their efforts they were together and they had won.  That wasn’t everything that she needed but it was enough for now.

Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 3

Victoria walked out the door and collected a nervous Dr. Arlington on the other side, “Eugene, you look like someone died.  It’s fine, I’m just fine.  Now let’s get the hell otta here before we miss our flight.”  It was only logical not to tell him what had happened.  It wasn’t really any of his business and besides he worried like an old woman.  The last thing he needed now was to worry about her.

Once on the airplane, Victoria waited to reach cruising altitude before taking the laptop out of her bag and powering it on.  She opened the silver case the Lieutenant had given her; inside there was a contact lens case, a tiny bottle of cleaning solution and an SD digital memory card.  Once the card was plugged into the computer, Victoria began to read the tech specs on the program they had sent her.

It was amazing; the application was actually designed to integrate with her brain functions in order to respond to her thoughts.  In order to get it to work the document said she needed to focus on certain command words and it would theoretically make the action she that corresponded with her thought.  A part of her was thrilled by the idea and a part of her was horrified.  This was an incredible idea but what if it failed?

Unable to resist the temptation, she pulled the cable from her bag and plugged it into the laptop.  “What are you doing Victoria?  A last minute diagnostic?”

“Yeah, something like that.”  She plugged the other end of the cable into the back of her head with a satisfying click.  There was a gasp and Victoria looked back into the face of a little boy looking over the back of his seat, his left hand clutching the cushion.

“Wow!  That’s awesome, what is it?”  His face was bright with imagination.

“It’s my… helper.  See my back got hurt so I had to get a different one to help me walk again.”

“It’s so shiny!  What’s the cable for?”

“Jake, leave the people in front of us alone.”  A tired voice came from behind the boy.

“But mom, she has a thing on her back, just like my arm!”  He put his right hand next to his right and Victoria could see it ended just below the elbow, the lower half being a prosthetic with a clamp instead of a hand.

“It’s ok, I don’t mind.”  Victoria tapped a couple keys and felt a warm hum at the base of her skull as the program Lieutenant Caarlgard had given her was loaded.  Her vision flickered and she saw double for a moment but then all was normal.

“How’d you hurt your back?”  The boy asked, pulling on her seat back to stand up, “I got hit by a car, crazy right?  Some guy ran a red light and ran into me and I had to have part of my arm cut off because it was crushed so bad.  They never found him either, even though there were traffic cameras and stuff isn’t that weird?”

“Yeah, that is strange.”  Victoria said absently, pulling the contact case from her pocket and prying open her left eye.

“I didn’t know you wore contacts.”  Eugene was looking at her suspiciously, “And I don’t recognize that program either.  Have you been making customizations?”

“I’ll tell you later, it’s nothing to worry about.”  She blinked her eye a couple of times and focused on trying to see electrical transmissions.  Just like the tech paper had promised she was able to see faint blue and red lines crisscrossing her vision.  The blue lines were supposed to be incoming and the red were outgoing.  When she glanced down she was surprised to see double blue and red lines coming from her carryon arcing towards the back of the airplane and then coming towards her head.

She reached into her bag and pulled out her cell phone, the source of the transmission.  When she held it up she could see the lines were actually spider webs.  A myriad of traffic was passing in and out of her phone and apparently in and out of her prosthetic.  What the hell was going on?

“Hey Eugene, just a random question… does this thing have wireless access?”  She tried to give him an innocent look, “It’s just a pain to connect the cable sometimes you know?”

“Hmph.”  He didn’t look convinced, “Yeah there is but it’s not enabled, we decided it was too vulnerable to attack so we shut it off.  Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?”

“You know, sometimes I forget you’re a brilliant scientist Doc.” Victoria lowered her voice, “OK, so remember that salesman who was in my house the last time you were there?  Well I agreed to trial his product in order to facilitate my progress through the last checkpoint.”

“WHAT?”  A group of nervous travelers turned to look in their direction.

“I love him and that’s all there is to it!” Victoria crossed her arms defiantly, hoping he would get the hint and that the other passengers wouldn’t freak out.

Eugene glanced at the nervous faces around them and took a deep breath, running his fingers through his hair.  “Expect that we’re going to have a long talk about your choice of boyfriends when we get to our destination young lady.”

“Fine.  I’m going to the bathroom.”  Victoria got up and stalked to the rear of the aircraft.  She hoped she hadn’t overdone it but Eugene could be so darn dense.

Eugene

Victoria very different from the girl he had first met six months ago.  Eugene pretended to be reading the Skymall magazine while watching her out of the corner of his eye.  He couldn’t put his finger on anything in particular that was different but maybe that’s because her entire demeanor had been altered.

She had been confident before, but any trace of self-doubt seemed to be completely gone now.  It was almost as though she could see the future and knew that the choices she made were the correct ones.  It wasn’t just the way she talked either, her movements were smooth and concise with no wasted effort.  The entire time through the airport, getting in and out of his car, lifting her bags and even things as simple as opening a door were performed with mechanical precision.

To some people this might not have stood out, but Eugene had been working with robotics for over a decade and he could recognize perfected motion when he saw it.  Even more unsettlingly inhuman was how she sat.

Most people fidget, shuffling around to find the most comfortable position and even after that will continue to make minute adjustments to alleviate uncomfortable pressure on some joint or nerve.  When Victoria sat down, it was like an airplane’s landing gear deploying and once she was in her chair she simply stayed there, moving only when she had a clear reason to.

Then there was the issue of her installing some third party obviously military software, what the HELL was she thinking?  The ramifications frightened him on a cellular level.  If something had gone wrong how would he fix it?  He had his laptop of course, but it was inadequate for anything other than a minor tune-up.

This was the debut of his creation, if something went wrong he wouldn’t get any more money to pay off Dmitri.  If he didn’t have anything to offer Dmitri after this conference he might as well try and leave the country.  Besides, who knew just how far things had gotten, from the few little performances of ADAM’s military capabilities that were supposed to be locked away and the way Victoria was behaving just in general the integration had gone far beyond anything they had anticipated.

“Are you done staring at me?  Look, it’s fine Doc.  Everything’s fine, we’re fine.”  She hadn’t even opened her eyes.  As far as he could tell, her entire body looked like it was in a complete state of relaxation.  Even her fingers hung limply from her hands as she seemed to melt into the airplane seat.  The only things moving were her eyes.  His phone chimed and she chuckled; a self-satisfied sound.

Looking at his iPhone in disbelief he saw he had just received a text message from ‘unknown’.  “OK Victoria can you tell me what the hell is-“

“Just read the message.”  She interrupted, now lazily opening her left eye to look at him, the corner of her mouth twitching in mirth.  “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.” With that she closed her eye and appeared to go to sleep.

He unlocked his phone and was stunned by what he saw.  ‘Hi Doc, check this out.  I’m in your phone!  In case you’re wondering I didn’t actually send you a text I hacked your wifi, but you’re a bad boy for not having it in airplane mode!   I’ve hacked your phone and it was ridiculously easy, all I had to do was follow the threads and untie the knots.  This is so damn cool!’

The hairs on the back of his neck rose.  She was actually interfacing with it! Eugene wasn’t sure whether she knew what she was doing though.  He couldn’t help it; the scientist in him was as excited as the human in him was horrified.  Regardless of the implications he couldn’t afford to risk her panicking if he told her and had no idea how he could stop it.  Hell, he didn’t even know if it was possible to stop it.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 36

“Callindra, are you awake?”  Tryst sounded as though he had been up for days.

She opened bleary eyes, “I guess so.”  Sitting up she surveyed her surroundings.  The walls, floor and ceiling were all wood.  Not wood paneling, but solid, polished wood.

“Praises be.”  He said, “Now we need to secure an audience with the Druids.”

“Tryst, you look like shit.”  Callindra said bluntly, “I don’t think any high ranking officials would want to meet you right now.  Why don’t you lay down in my bed for a minute, I’ll see if we can schedule an audience or whatever they do here.”

She stood up, noting that she was only wearing her underbreeches.   Her chest wrap was missing, either burned by the insects or cut off for her treatment.  Ignoring the creeping feeling of embarrassment she guided Tryst to the bed and covered him with the blanket.  After a short search of the chamber she located a loose tunic and pulled it on.  What she did not locate was a door.

“Hey!”  She shouted, “Let me out of here!”

A door opened in the wall, a seamless joining that she never would have seen.  A pair of Elven guards stood outside, hands on their sword hilts.  They stared at her for a few moments, her shocked by their sudden appearance, they by her being on her feet.

“Where is my sword?”  She asked, “I demand that my Brightfang be returned to me, what is the meaning of us being imprisoned like this?”

“You are not imprisoned Lady Callindra.”  One of them said, “These chambers are designed for you to recover as quickly as possible.  Your other friends are still asleep, we believed you would also be sleeping for at least another few hours…”

“Yeah, well Tryst has his ways of speeding our recovery along.” She said, eyes flashing with defiance.  Her voice trembled with apprehension though, spoiling the effect.  Callindra imagined she could feel her magic building inside of her, threatening to tear her apart without her blade and fear began reaching icy fingers down her spine.  “What have you done with my sword?”

“All of your personal effects are in a salon set aside for your use.”  The guard said, “If you would follow me please Miss Sol’Estin I would be happy to show you the way.”

Feeling like there must be some kind of trap but unable to see it, Callindra cautiously stepped out of the room.  One of the soldiers led her down a short hallway into a room that had light breezes blowing through it.  One entire wall was open to the outside which showed a vista of pristine treetops.  The ground was not visible.

“Where…”  She took a deep breath, noticing her armor, clothes and most importantly her sword in a tidy pile on a table.  Letting the breath out as her hand closed over Brightfang’s hilt she amended what she had been going to say.  “Where are we?”

“We are in the Grandfather.  In Jorda’s domain.”  He said, “You are guests of honor.”

“Inside the tree?”  She said, her voice dropping to a whisper.  “I knew it was big but… this is amazing.”

“He is vast.”  The Elf agreed, “Outsiders are always overawed by him.”

“I don’t think I would ever stop being awed by this sight.”  Callindra said, looking out the window again.  “I mean… look at it.”

A ghost of a smile played around the corners of the soldier’s mouth.  When he spoke again, his voice was far more friendly.  “You will find breakfast for you here.  If you need anything else, please come to the door and call out.  I will be here.  Later the Goddess wishes you to join her in the main feasting hall.”

“W-what?”  Callindra stammered.  “I’m a warrior, not some simpering maiden who goes to fancy feasts!  Besides, I don’t have clothes to wear to attend a Goddess!”

Now the Elven warrior did smile, “She does not stand on ceremony Miss Sol’Estin.  There is nothing more appropriate for you to wear than your armor, seeing as how it is your status as a warrior that is being honored.”

“Wait, where are my friends?”  She asked, swallowing hard.  “Did the others survive?”

“Your friends weren’t quite as resilient as you seem to have been.”  He said, “They rest, recovering with the help of the young priest’s ministrations.  We expect them to be ready to attend the feast tonight.  Please, break your fast and refresh yourself.”

Callindra watched him turn to leave, unsure of what to make of his statements.  She hadn’t really believed in Gods and Goddesses until yesterday when she had felt more than heard Jorda address the monstrous golem.  Now she was expected to believe that a being that wielded such power wanted to see her and didn’t expect her to be some kind of lady.

“I want to see them.”  She said, managing to focus on what was truly important.  “I won’t be able to relax until I see my friends.”

“By all means.”  He replied easily, “However you must not awaken them.  They must rest if they are to fully recover.”

He led her back down the hallway and she was able to peer through small windows in the unbroken wood wall that opened at his touch.  There she saw Cronos in one room, and Vilhylm in another.  Tryst she had already seen.  Satisfied, she went back to the open balcony.

The smell of freshly baked bread drew her attention to the table where an assortment of food was laid out.  Hunger drove her apprehension away, it would be much easier to deal with these things once she had a full stomach.  She sat and ate, the bread had nuts in it and there were fresh vegetables and fruit as well as a light and refreshing mead.

“Good to know you were concerned about us.”  Cronos said dryly from the doorway.

“It’s not like I was going to wake you from your beauty sleep.”  She said, “You looked just fine to me when I looked in on you not ten minutes ago.”

“Is that fresh bread?”  Cronos asked, “If it is I may just forgive you.”

“They have fresh apples and cheese and an amazing mead too.”  She said, “Come and get some before I eat it all.”

Before long, Vilhylm had arrived as well and they fell to talking about what they remembered of the battle.

“I saw you flying through the air and then I’m sure it was my imagination but it looked like you rode your sword down that thing’s back.”  Cronos said.

“Did you let it throw you first?”  Vilhylm asked with a grin, “I can’t see any other way you’d have been able to get that high in the air… but surely you wouldn’t have done something so reckless.”

“I’m pretty sure I saw you practically breaking yourself in half to lift a huge wave of mud to squish a few bugs Vil.”  Said Cronos, “How did that work out for you?”

“I was the first one to recover in spite of Tryst visiting me last.”  Callindra said, chuckling.  “I think maybe you two boys could learn a lesson or two from me.”

“Actually, it’s because we thought you had died.”  Vilhylm said, all traces of levity vanishing from his face.  “You didn’t see what happened as a result of your attack.”

“It was as though beneath its skin there was nothing but those insect things.”  Said Cronos, “They covered you, even though a small cyclone of wind seemed to form briefly around you, holding them off.  That was impressive by the way.”

“I don’t remember much past hacking the damn thing off at the knees.”  Callindra admitted, taking a swig of mead to hide her embarrassment and pleasure at her friends concern.

“It was a foolish, reckless, stupid move Callindra.”  Tryst said as he walked through the door.  “But it likely saved us all.  If you hadn’t stopped that thing… it was about to infect the Grandfather Tree with its disease and maybe kill Jorda as well.”

“Don’t be silly Tryst.”  Said Callindra, “Gods can’t be killed.”

At that point, the door opened and a swarm of Elven attendants descended on them.  Some took their armor and attempted to take their weapons as well, but Callindra wasn’t relinquishing Brightfang for anyone.  The rest of them took the boys off into one bathing chamber and her into another.

“Miss, you really should leave your sword outside, it’ll rust.”  One of the attendants said, frowning at Brightfang.

“Oh, don’t worry about that.”  Callindra said, “I oil him daily.  He won’t rust while I draw breath and I won’t let him out of reach if I can help it.”

The elves looked at her skeptically, but made no further comment.  When she walked into the bathing chamber she began to see what they had worried about.  Instead of submerging themselves in a full bath, it seemed they drank copious amounts of water and then sat in a room with magically heated stones in the center.  Once the room was sufficiently hot, one of them began pouring water over the stones, releasing clouds of steam.

Sweat sprang from every pore and soon Callindra found herself getting lightheaded and feeling a bit dizzy.  Following the lead of the other women around her, she took a small cedar bough in her hand and dipped it in a bucket of cold water before slapping herself on the back with it.  The chill of the water and the sting of the branch kept her alert and actually felt quite good, relaxing muscles and releasing tension she had been hanging on to since the battle.

Once a good sweat had covered her, she took a curved piece of bone, the rib of a deer she thought, and used it to scrape her skin.  A surprising amount of dirt showed on the white surface of the bone.  When one of the Elves noticed her shock, she smiled knowingly.

“The sweat forces out what is in the pores of your skin, making you cleaner than any amount of scrubbing could.”  She said, “Then the plunge afterword will truly cleanse you.”

“I didn’t expect anything like this.”  Callindra admitted, drinking from a gourd filled with pure rain water.  “It seems like I will be exhausted from all this sweating though.”

“Come, allow me to oil your hair.”  The other woman replied, “With proper care your tresses could shine like mahogany.  Most of us are fair of skin and hair, yours is quite exotic.”

Callindra laughed in spite of herself, “Exotic is just another word for freak in the human world, and my hair is the least of the qualities I value.”

Finally clean and dried; the bath having ended in a shocking plunge into a pool of ice cold water, Callindra donned her freshly laundered clothes and polished armor.  After taking time to unwrap Brightfang’s hilt, polish all of his metal parts, oil the leather wrapping of his hilt and re-wrap it tightly, she felt like her ablutions were complete.  If she had to meet a Goddess, she was as ready as she was likely to be.

Her friends all had similar uncertain expressions on their faces as they emerged from the male side of the bathing chamber.  Even so, with their familiar gear on their shoulders squared and their backs straightened.  Whatever they were about to experience, they would do it at their best.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you all continue to fight beside me.”  Callindra said, looking at her companions.  “My brothers in arms… you are better brothers than any sister has a right to.”

Tryst laughed a deep bass laugh that came from deep in his chest, “Oh Callindra, you undervalue yourself at every turn.  You aren’t some accessory to us, you’re the heroine!  It was your action that defeated the monster and led us to victory.  Speaking for myself, I am honored to fight alongside you.”

“The honor is indeed ours.”  Vilhylm said, the midnight of his cloak a direct contrast to the pristine white and sliver of Tryst’s attire.

“You … you fight good.”  Cronos mumbled, “Don’t leave or things might get boring.”

“The Goddess Jorda awaits you.”  A voice ahead intoned formally, “She wishes to express her gratitude for the actions you took to defend her realm.  Please, approach that you may be announced.”

Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 2

Victoria

“This is a what?”  The TSA agent had only glanced at the papers Eugene had proffered and was now staring at the back of Victoria’s head.  He grabbed the radio transmitter at his shoulder, “I’m going to need a female officer here.”

“What’s the problem Sir?  Didn’t you read the medical release form?  My patient has a prosthetic spinal column and needs to be exempted from normal scanning procedures.”  Eugene was annoyed, but in this case Victoria knew compliance was the fastest way to get through security.  They had their protocols after all.

“No problem, I’ll take the papers and your female officer can compare the notes on the waiver application to my prosthetic.  I appreciate your concern for the safety of your passengers.”  She smiled at the TSA agent and saw him relax.  “I know it looks weird but it’s really a medical miracle.”

“Victoria, this isn’t necessary.  We have all our paperwork in order you don’t need an additional screening.”  Eugene frowned at her with a look that included the officer behind her.

“Don’t worry Doc, it’s fine.  I just want to get through security in a timely manner so we don’t miss our flight.  I’m sure they won’t mind if you wait outside the screening room.”  A side door opened and a bored looking woman in TSA blues and medical gloves stood there.

“Miss Scott, this way please.”  Victoria patted Eugene’s arm and walked into the room with the woman.  “My name is Geraldine and I’ll be doing your screening.  I just need you to answer some questions and then we’re going to do a physical search.  I’ll need you to initial on this privacy form that says we won’t share your information with any non-governmental agencies.”  Her voice was monotone; it was obvious she did this all day.

“Geraldine?  That’s my middle name!”  Victoria took the waiver sheet from her and scanned it.  “What’s this about reporting any unusual behavior to Homeland Security?  Aren’t these extended searches automatically reported to them?”

“Huh?  Well I think it just means we report any suspicious stuff.  I don’t know, we never had anyone actually read the thing before.”  Geraldine’s brow creased as she looked at Victoria’s sheet, “Suspicion of carrying contraband?  What’s going on here hon?”

“Well it’s like this Geraldine, I have a prosthetic spine.  See I got cancer and had to have my old one replaced.”  Victoria turned to show her back.

“Holy Mary Mother of God, what on Earth child!”  Geraldine sounded less shocked than her outburst would have indicated; more scandalized than anything else. Well I guess they replace everything these days.”

“Actually it’s the first and only of its kind.  I think that’s why we’re running into so much trouble.  Do you need me to take off my shirt?”

“Uh, I need to get an expert in here.” Geraldine said, “I have no idea what this is.”

“No problem, I can actually explain the technical specifications to you if you’d like.” Victoria smiled, “Or I can help to explain it to anyone you want to have come take a second look if you’d prefer.”

“Only problem is our only bomb expert on duty today is a man.”  Geraldine frowned, “I don’t know enough about what I’m looking at here to authorize you to fly.”

“So send him in.”  Victoria shrugged, “I don’t really care one way or another.”

“What?  Honey, I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying here.  Since that … thing is on your back it’s gonna require you to disrobe.”

“It’s just flesh; I don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”  Victoria knew she should be worried about being naked in front of other people but for some reason it didn’t bother her; this was the fastest way to get through security short of breaking the law, and that was generally counterproductive long term.

“Well, if I could get you to sign a release form I’ll call him in I guess.  I ain’t never had this happen before; hopefully we got something that will work.”  Geraldine wandered off through a side door still muttering unbelievingly to herself.  It seemed that she was more shocked by Victoria’s lack of modesty than her prosthetic.

Victoria looked around the room surreptitiously, and easily spotted no less than three cameras and two microphones.  Damn, there wasn’t any way out of it, oh well.  It was the most logical decision based on the situation.  The door opened and Geraldine came back in with a man in his early forties.  Shit he could have been her dad.

“Hello, I’m David.  Geraldine tells me she needs a consult, can I see the item in question?”  Victoria turned her back and lifted her camisole.  “Sweet Christ in heaven what the hell is that?”

“Didn’t Geraldine show you the whitepaper?”  Victoria turned to face him.  “It’s a robotic spinal replacement.  They give it the acronym ADAM, short for Artificial Directed Autonomous cerebruM which I think is kind of silly but nonetheless is a pretty accurate description.”

He averted his eyes until she pulled her shirt back over her head “I’m going to have to do some checks here; I’ve never seen anything like this before.”  He left the room with his clipboard clutched to his chest.  Well shit, what now?

The door opened again, way too quickly and a woman in a military uniform slipped in, closing it quietly behind her.  “Listen, sorry for all this bullshit but it was the only way I could get in to talk to you.  I’m Lieutenant Caarlgard, US Marine Corps.  We need your help, is there any way you can do just one thing for us?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”  Victoria asked, lowering her voice to a dangerous whisper. “What are you doing here and what exactly the fuck do you want?”

A.D.A.M.

ADAM had been ignoring the surface functions of the unit for some time now; they were too complex, seemingly random and interrelated for him to properly decipher their impact on the overall system.  He had instead been focusing on making the underlying support systems, making the power delivery and waste management vehicles operate at peak performance.

A direct and almost immediate result was an increase in the Host’s mobility.  With the chassis being able to deliver power anywhere it needed to at a moment’s notice, the host’s mobility potential increased by at least a factor of two.

Despite him not paying attention to the nominal inputs other than ensuring proper routing ADAM kept discovering flaws in his code that appeared to have been written there by the Host system itself.  He had instituted serious security protocols but the Host system seemed to be either immune or so powerful that it simply ignored them.  This was problematic, as the flaws that were impacting his logical systems and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it.

Suspect behavior set off an alarm in ADAM’s subroutines and he activated his emergency protocols.  There was a department of defense level attack on his systems and he responded with extreme prejudice, crushing it with all the immense power his integration with the Host computer had placed at his disposal.

In spite of the vast power he had available to him and the expertise with which he wielded it, ADAM had to spend the better part of twenty five seconds rooting out the source of the attack.  Quite an accomplishment.

ADAM internalized the subroutines that had been used in the attempt to compromise his systems and built countermeasures designed to turn the attacks against themselves using a modified version of his own AI code.  A self-contained, intelligent, almost self-aware antiviral program.  He took a moment to look at what he’d done and found he’d exceeded even his own expectations.

Victoria

“What am I doing here?  Didn’t you read the message from HQ?  This was the only way we could get to you without surveillance.”  The woman looked totally confused.

“No, I didn’t get the fucking memo.  I want to know exactly what you’re talking about, in plain English please.”  Victoria crossed her arms; she wasn’t sure why she was so angry.  Some part of her knew it was a gamble to behave like this but she didn’t stop.  This person was statistically likely to respond to a direct approach.

“Umm… OK, well we’re on the trail of a super world-class hacker who we believe has compromised Pentagon security and possibly stolen part of the data gathered by one of our satellites and we want your help to find him before he sells it to someone.  Is that plain enough for you?”

“What kind of satellite?”  Victoria couldn’t control herself, “Listen bitch, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but if this is serious I expect to be taken seriously.”

“It’s a military surveillance satellite.  We’ve been using it over the last couple years to keep an eye on the North Korean’s nuclear program incognito and if they get proof of what we’ve been doing it’s likely to cause a major international incident.”  She leaned forward on the table, “Listen, we think you’re our best chance; the hack originated from a casino hotel in Las Vegas.  The Bellagio, the same hotel you’re staying in on your business trip with Dr. Arlington.”

“If I agree to try and find this guy you’ll get me through security?” Victoria asked.  “You’d better do better than that since you orchestrated this farce in the first place.”

“I guarantee smooth sailing every time you fly as long as you’re helping us out, plus I will double the commission Dr. Arlington is offering you.”  Victoria raised an eyebrow, “OK triple, but that’s the best I can do.”

“Lieutenant, you’ve got yourself a deal.  I’ll try and find this hacker and recover any data if you get me through security without all this hassle.  Well and the payment doesn’t hurt either.”  Victoria figured she didn’t have anything to lose, after all she had no possible way of finding their man and even if she could there wasn’t anything she’d be able to do to recover the data.

“Great.  I’m giving you a program that was written to integrate with ADAM’s AI.  Once it’s loaded it will give you a HUD that overlays the data it gathers onto your eye using a specialized contact lens.”  She handed Victoria a small metal case that looked like a makeup compact.  “The software and hardware are in here along with a digital instruction book that you can review during your flight.  There’s also contact information for extraction when you find him.  Thank you Victoria, and good luck.”

With that she ducked back out the same door she had come in.  Victoria pocketed the case and sat, wondering if she had done the right thing.  Either way she felt a thrill of excitement, new software had so many possibilities.  After a couple of minutes Geraldine came back in with a puzzled look on her face.

“Well hon, I guess you are good to go.  David got a call from our head of security and he said you have a green light.”  She shook her head, “You take care now and have a safe flight.”

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 35

They entered a wide space that would have been a meadow had it not been for the spreading boughs of the incredible tree that rose above them.  Although it was still far off, Callindra estimated that it was nearly a thousand feet high and the trunk at least five hundred feet thick.  The branches above gave shelter from direct sun, and beautiful swards of green grass spread out before them.

The moment that she was brought beneath the branches of the Grandfather Tree, the Countess was awake.  The light of insanity shone behind her eyes, but she made no movement, watching the approach of a delegation of some import approaching from the direction of the tree.  She was quiet while Vilhylm lifted her from the back of the horse and she stood quietly while Latoran greeted the Elf man who seemed to be old.

He had slight wrinkle lines around his eyes and his hair was purely white.  For a human he would have looked just past middle age, but based on what she’d seen of the other Elves with their perfect skin and straw blonde hair he was ancient.  After a short conference with Latoran he turned toward them.

“I am Luaga.  I take it this is the patient?”  He gave Adbar a cursory glance.

“This is the Countess Adbar.”  Tryst confirmed, “I am Tryst Te’Chern, this is my brother Cronos.  These area Vilhylm and Callindra, my other companions.  We have journeyed far to reach you and to seek your council.”

They were interrupted by a guttural laugh from the Countess’s mouth.  “You fools have brought me here?  In spite of what remained of this vessel’s animal instinct that fought you every step of the way I have been brought here, to stand beneath the shelter of the first living thing’s arms.”

Luaga’s eyes widened in surprise, “Who is this that you have brought here?”  His eyes narrowed, “What exactly have you allowed to come into this most holy presence?”

“I will allow the blood of my servant to summon the things that must come.”  The same guttural voice shouted at a volume that made Callindra’s ears ring.  It made her vision blur and she was only barely conscious of Luaga incanting a spell and the Elves drawing arrows.

“NO!”  Callindra shouted, “Whatever she carries said it needs her blood!  We can’t allow her blood to spill here!”

The Countess’s wrists parted and her bonds snapped as though made of embroidery thread.  “My will shall NOT be denied!”  She shouted.  They watched in terror as she reached her hand to her throat and tore out the veins with her manicured nails.  Her voice shrieked impossibly high and shrill in pain and triumph.

Vilhylm fell to his knees, sobbing and trying to stem the flow of blood with his hands.  Tryst attempted to cast a healing spell, but it failed to take effect.  The bubbling laughter of the Countess echoed wetly throughout the clearing and the spreading pool of blood began to shine with tiny motes of emerald light.

“Get back!  GET BACK!”  Callindra yelled desperately, “Something’s happening!  Something terrible is coming!”  The winds flared around her and she drew Brightfang from his sheath.  Drawing on the well of power within her and focusing it through the carved stone on the pommel of her sword.  The very winds themselves gathered around her, lending her their strength and speed.

The tiny motes came out as a cloud of fireflies that glimmered beautifully in the twilight.  As they rose into the air, a massive hand of blackened flesh with veins of sickly green fire pulsing from within stretched from within the pool of the Countess’s blood.  The flickering green bodies of the insects began to land on anything that was alive.  Plants withered and died at their touch and when they touched exposed skin they brought pain.

The screaming began immediately, but Callindra was focusing on the monstrous golem that was pulling itself from the portal formed by the Countess’s lifeblood.  Its eyes were pits of emerald fire and even as it crawled free of the gore on the ground it raised its head and roared in rage.  More of the tiny insects streamed from its mouth, spreading death and pain wherever they landed.  With an answering battle cry Callindra leaped to the attack, Brightfang swinging in a perfect arc of silver.

“WAIT!”  Luaga’s voice was loud enough for Callindra to hear but she ignored it, instead springing forward to slash the monster across the hamstring.  Instead of the deadly strike she had been hoping for, she was greeted by a cloud of tiny glowing green insects.  They settled on the exposed skin of her arms and pain burst along them like she had thrust them into burning flames.

Callindra screamed in pain and summoned threads of Weave from the flat of Brightfang’s blade.  A blast of wind exploded from him, driving the bugs from her flesh and leaving ugly red welts in their place.  Stumbling backwards, she saw another shape emerging from the massive wall that was the trunk of the Tree.

“Your filth has no place here vermin!”  The figure said, and the words held Power that rippled across the clearing.

“Oh foolish Goddess.”  A dread voice rippled from within the pool of the Countess’s blood, “Manifesting thyself here on the Prime?  No wonder thou art so weak.”

Whatever the … Goddess? said in reply was in a language Callindra and her friends did not understand but it angered the golem.

“Then I shall CRUSH thee and BURN thy precious tree!”  It roared, the sound of it making their bones rattle within their bodies.  One step brought it close enough to swing a vast fist at the tiny form that stood defiantly next to the tree, but that blow never fell.

Branches sprang from the trunk of the Grandfather Tree to form a protective barrier between the Goddess and the monster while roots erupted from the ground to wrap around the golem’s arms and legs.  Callindra was vaguely aware of her friends attacking the insects however they could, but she was focused only on the monster in front of her.  The roots had dragged one of its arms down close to the ground.

Grinning, she ran forward and up the roots toward the golem’s arm.  Perhaps if the legs weren’t vulnerable the head would be.  Just before she reached the monster’s bound hand, the roots snapped and the hand flung into the air with the force of a catapult’s throwing arm.  Callindra flew skyward, surprised to find that she wasn’t afraid.  It was as though she belonged here, flying free.

The winds gathered around her, allowing some measure of control over her fall.  Instead of aiming for somewhere moderately safe or attempting to slow her fall, Callindra aimed for the back of the golem.  It had leaned down and was breathing out clouds of bright green insects onto the shield that protected the Goddess below.

With a wild shout of abandon, she plunged down toward the monster, placing her feet on the dull back side of her blade.  As she fell down towards its unprotected back Callindra drew upon the force of the wind that tore at her face and forced it into Brightfang.   Arcane Power exploded from her blade as his tip plunged into its flesh and she unleashed it into her enemy.

It roared in rage and pain, arching its back.  Gold light emanated from the Goddess in front and Callindra saw something flickering just behind the Golem’s knee joints that hadn’t been there a moment before.  She swung first left, then right, hacking through the cords of Emerald green light.  With a groan that made her teeth ache, the golem crumbled into pieces that exploded into thousands more insects.

Looking around, she saw dozens of Druids laying on the ground, covered in biting insects.  She fell to her knees, hundreds of the bugs biting and stinging, their poison burning in her veins.  The last thing Callindra saw was a beautiful golden radiance that seemed to be coming from everywhere and a calm, beautiful voice assuring her that everything would be fine.  The feeling of the myriad of tiny feet rending flesh accompanied her on her way to an uneasy unconsciousness.

Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Chapter 1

Victoria

Victoria woke exactly thirty seconds before her alarm went off, feeling rested and ready for the day.  She turned the clock off before it could sound and stretched luxuriously.  She’d had dreams of flying; her favorite kind where she sailed easily over the ground, doing lazy loops and exhilarating dives.  It had been a week since her release from the hospital and after the first day she was worried her life would never be normal again.  Thankfully after that day her problems had practically disappeared.

Studying was so easy; the information seemed to practically leap off the page and into her memory.  The few times she was having trouble remembering something all she had to do was concentrate for a few minutes and the answer she was looking for would come to her.  In spite of having missed six months of classes she was still going to be able to graduate in the spring.  She was pretty sure that she was going to be valedictorian too.

That last was very satisfying.  TT was PISSED when she saw the class rankings that were posted yesterday.  She sat up in bed and unplugged the charging cable from the back of her head.  Ever since the incident where she had run out of power plugging in had become part of her nightly routine.

She connected the diagnostic cable to its port, set her laptop to transmit the daily data and wandered over to her closet to get clean clothes for the day thankful that the cable was long enough to let her move around while it was connected.  It was nice not to have to choose what to wear on the weekdays since her school had uniforms, but on the weekends she liked to enjoy herself.  Picking her favorite cami, a pair of well-loved jeans and some flip flops she tossed them on the bed and waited for the transmission to finish.

The diagnostic laptop chimed, letting her know the data had been successfully transmitted and she unplugged the cable and walked to the bathroom to take a shower.  She was still amazed by how striking her prosthetic was every time she caught a glimpse of it in the mirror.

“Toria honey, breakfast is ready!”  Her mother was as regular as clockwork, something she was ever grateful for.  “Come get it while it’s hot sweetheart!”

“Coming mom!”  Victoria was buttoning her jeans, noting with satisfaction that they still fit perfectly.  Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food.  She’d been eating like a horse lately, and although she hadn’t been doing anything more than her standard workout she seemed to be gaining muscle tone at a rate she’d only dreamed of before.  Putting the finishing touches on her outfit she clipped her hair back with a pair of whalebone barrettes her grandmother had given her and skipped downstairs.

“Good morning sweetheart.”  Richard, no daddy… what was with that lately… was drinking his coffee and poured her a cup as she entered the kitchen, “How’d you sleep?”

“Like a baby.  Man I’m STARVING!”  Victoria filled her plate with eggs, bacon and toast.  “Thanks for breakfast mom, wow what a spread.”  She added some pancakes to her plate, drenched them with butter and syrup and set in as though she hadn’t seen food in days.

“Well you’ve been eating like crazy so I thought I’d make a little extra darling.  Glad to know you’re enjoying it.”  She smiled, nothing made her happier than someone relishing a meal she’d prepared.

“I can’t help it, I’ve been eating like, twice as much as I used to.  Thank goodness I’m not getting fat.”  She laughed, “I don’t know where it’s going but by some miracle it’s not going to my thighs.”

“Do you want a lift to the airport this morning?”  Her dad was trying to be casual but she knew he was still paranoid about her.

“No thanks, Doc is picking me up here at eight o’clock.”  She flashed her parents a reassuring smile. “Look guys, everything is gonna be fine, it’s just a weekend conference.”

“I know sweetie, I know.  We trust Eugene, he’s a good guy.  I’m sure everything is going to be fine.”  Her mom was saying it more for her dad’s sake than anything, she was sure of it.

“Just be careful Victoria.”  Now she knew he was serious, he only called her Victoria when he was serious.  “Call me the second you get there OK?”

“Jeez of course I will daddy.  This phone will work anywhere in the world, I’ll let you know as soon as they let me turn it on.”  The eggs and pancakes were gone from her plate, the bacon and toast fast disappearing and she was stirring the cream into her second cup of coffee.  “I packed last night so I have time for seconds!”  She smiled at her mom and held out her plate.

“Christ, I thought they weren’t going to let me leave!”  Victoria looked amazing and she knew it, especially judging by the look on Eugene’s face.  “Damn, they replaced the Porsche already?”  She tossed her only bag in the back and slid into the passenger’s seat of a new Aston Martin Vanquish.

“Yeah, you should have seen it.  Completely destroyed, it still scares me.  I would have gotten another one but the memory of the crash was just too much.  Besides, this thing has a V12; just wait until you feel the torque.”

“I like the green color, it sparkles.  You aren’t seriously going to leave this in the parking garage at the airport are you?”

“Yeah, I want it to be waiting for me when I get back.”  He looked at her, “What?”

“You are crazy; someone’s going to steal it.”  Statistics about airport parking garage vandalism popped into her head from somewhere.  “Or key it.”

“No, it’ll be OK.  It’s a secure garage.”  He grinned and started the car; the throaty growl of the engine a pleasing complement to the music playing on the stereo.

“Thievery Corporation?  Wow Eugene I love your taste in music.”  She was grinning back at him, “I’m really looking forward to this you know, I finally get to show this thing off instead of feeling like I need to hide it!”

The ride to the airport was a smooth and flawless.  The leather seat hugged Victoria like her true love and the radio was playing her favorite music.  As usual Eugene was completely focused on driving, giving her the opportunity to relax and to study the man who had saved her life.  He had dressed in a short sleeved gray and white striped button down shirt, jeans and sandals.  An expensive pair of Ray Ban sunglasses completed the look, although she noticed it looked like his nose had been broken at some point.

Now that she had noticed his improperly set nose, she saw the thin white line of a scar over his left eye and another tracing a delicate zigzag along his chin.  Huh, apparently he hadn’t lived the calm, quiet, safe life she assumed he had.  Eugene was parking the car and she suddenly had a chilling thought.

“Hey Doc, what’s going to happen when they send me through the metal detector?  It’s going to light up like the fourth of July when I walk through!”  She bit her lip and frowned, why hadn’t she thought of this before?

Eugene shivered and shook his head, looking away from her and setting the emergency brake.  “Not to worry, I have all the paperwork in order.  It should be just fine.”

They got out of the car; he had packed even lighter than her; just a garment bag and a laptop case.  He handed Victoria her suitcase.  “Are you ready?”

“Yeah, how about you?  Are you nervous about showing off your invention to the world?”  She laughed, and when she turned to go, he realized that she was wearing a tank top and that her prosthetic was clearly visible.  She had never worn a shirt that showed it before, after a couple of seconds Eugene realized he was standing there staring at her and hurried to catch up.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 34

Vilhylm took his belt knife and cut the Countess free.  “Are you unharmed my Lady?”  He said, smiling into her face.

Instead of giving the kind of response that might have been expected the Countess Adbar burst into bubbling laughter the moment she was freed.  Gasping for breath, she took his face between her hands and planted an impassioned kiss on his lips that lasted for much longer than propriety would allow for.

“Oh darling, I could withstand anything as long as you were the one to come and rescue me.”  She said, clinging to him with the fervor of a devoted lover.

Callindra turned away, feeling slightly embarrassed at the wanton display but caught concerned looks fleeing from the faces of the other two men.  It seemed her friends shared her discomfort.

“I think she is a bit ill.” Tryst said, peering into the Countess’s eyes.  “I think we might take a moment to ascertain her condition before we continue.”

In order for the priest to actually examine the woman, Vilhylm had to physically restrain her.  She writhed and moaned, burning with what seemed to be a fever only it was impossibly hot.  In addition, she was either insulting them with the vilest profanity or demanding carnal favors almost equally repellent.  Callindra and Cronos had moved aside, sitting next to the fire the men had started and going through their bags.

The only items of interest were small pouches of platinum and notes found on each of their bodies.  The notes simply said ‘Bring her back at any cost.’  There was no signature.

“Where’s Adbar’s keep?”  Callindra asked.

“I have no idea.”  Said Cronos, pulling his map from the protective oiled case he kept it in and rolled it out for them to study.  “I think we’re about here.”  He said, pointing his finger just north and west of the town of Maple.

“Isn’t this where we were headed?”  Callindra asked, pointing to the map.  “This says ‘High Forest’ and it looks like it’s less than a day’s ride away.”

“I think you’re right.”  Cronos said, “I thought it was a lot further away than that.”

“This is good news.”  Said Tryst, his face grave.  “She needs attention that goes beyond my capabilities.  I hear that the leader of the elves is a most skilled healer.”

The screams of the Countess grew even more shrill and angry, “You won’t take me to that accursed place!  I’ll rotting kill you first!”

In spite of her screams of outrage, they tied her to one of the spare horses and rode toward the forest.  The further in they walked, the more desperate Adbar’s screams became.

“Vilhylm, are you sure about this?”  Callindra asked, “She’s really hurting herself.”

He looked at the blood that was darkening the rope around the Countess’s wrists, her struggles having torn the skin.  “Stop it Countess, we are going to get you help.”  He said imploringly, “Please, the Elves can make you better.”

“I’ve had about enough of this.”  Callindra said, and before anyone could stop her she brought the heavy pommel of her sword down sharply on the back of the woman’s head.  She slumped into unconsciousness and Callindra checked the pulse at her neck calmly, as though she did this kind of thing every day.

The others were staring at her in shock.  “Callindra, wasn’t that a little extreme?”  Tryst asked quietly.

“She was putting all our lives in danger.”  Callindra responded, “Do you want whatever beasts lurk beneath these trees to be drawn to us because of her screams?”

As if in response to her question a group of Elves melted out of the underbrush, bows strung with arrows knocked to the string.  They were dressed in woodland greens, grays and browns and moved without a sound.

“Stay where you are.”  Their leader said, “You will not bring evil into the High Forest.”

“Haven’t we already entered into the Forest?”  Callindra asked, looking at the trees that surrounded them.

“No.”  He said shortly, “You have yet to enter the Domain of Jorda.  You have yet to enter the High Forest.”

“Then let us enter!”  Vilhylm shouted, “We have a sick woman!  She needs help!”

“She carries a taint that I would deign to poison this pristine wilderness with.”  The Elf said, “Take her and go.  Bring her to one of your mortal priests.”

“I am a mortal priest.”  Tryst said, “Whatever ails this Lady is beyond my purview, but beyond that I am on a mission from my Holy Order and I must speak with the Druids who reside here.”

The Elves spoke to one another in a language that sounded like water bubbling over rocks mixed with birdsong.  Finally the leader turned back to them with a grave look on his face.

“We will allow you to approach until the Goddess can decide if she is worthy of treatment.”  He glared at them, “If you insist on bringing her forward you shall be judged along with her.”

“That is a risk I will gladly take.”  Vilhylm said without hesitation.

“I think she is a risk, but allowing something to infect her like this and go unchecked is a far worse risk.”  Tryst said, “If whatever has taken root in her is allowed to spread it could mean trouble, even for your kind.”

“We will leave if we are unwelcome.”  Cronos said stiffly, “But we were told to come and speak with you by the Dryad Tyreen.  We have traveled long and through much danger to come here and I won’t allow that to go to waste.  There are things happening in the world that shouldn’t go unreported or unnoticed.”

Callindra looked over the Elves who were arrayed around them in a semi-circle.  “You haven’t seen them have you?”  She asked, “The creatures with the eyes of emerald fire?”

The leader shifted, a movement so slight that she would have missed it if she hadn’t been specifically looking for it.  His men didn’t move so either they didn’t have a clue what she was talking about or hadn’t heard her.  She was betting on the former.

“Come.”  He said, “My name is Latoran.  I am the leader of these warriors, the elite of the High Forest guard.  I will bring you to see Luaga and he will decide if you are to be shown out of our domain or allowed into the presence of Jorda.”

“That’s fair enough.”  Tryst said, and then turned to give Vilhylm a reassuring smile.  “I’m sure Luaga will decide to help her.”

“Yeah, because these others are so bedamned friendly.”  Cronos muttered.

They were led through a screen of thick brush and found themselves in a beautiful woodland that almost seemed manicured.  The trees rose far above their heads, seeming impossibly tall with trunks dozens of feet thick.  It looked nothing like what it had when they were on the other side of the screen of brush.

Callindra tried to conceal her surprise, but knew she had failed when she saw the smug look on one of the Elf archer’s faces.  Instead of trying to pretend, she decided to try and get some information out of the woman.  “Why?  How?  This is amazing!”

“Mortals tend to despoil things that don’t fit into their narrow perception of how things are supposed to be.”  The archer replied, giving her a frosty look.  “I don’t imagine you would understand as fleeting as your life is, but we have to take a much longer view of things.”

“What do you mean?”  Callindra asked, knowing what the Elf was likely to say.

“These trees are our home.  We must ensure they are here for us forever, as we live until our lives are cut short by unnatural means.”

“Death isn’t unnatural.”  Callindra said, “Everything dies eventually, isn’t that part of the whole circle of life thing?”

“I don’t expect a mortal to understand.”  The Elf said, “That is why we have ensorcelled the forest as we have.”

Callindra thought on that for a few minutes.  “If you don’t explain something, how can you expect someone to understand?”

The Elf woman didn’t respond and Callindra rode on in silence.  The concept of immortality was one she had never considered before, living the way she had made her see death around every corner and with the dawn of each rising sun.  She knew there was a limited time for her to be graced with life and every minute had to be lived to the fullest.  Living to an old age wasn’t something she had ever thought of.

“It must be hard for you.”  She finally said, “Trying to think of everything all at once and always worrying about making a mistake that you’ll have to deal with forever.  I can’t imagine living like that; someone like me can hardly believe the miracle of living to another sunrise let alone thinking of a thousand sunrises in the future.”

The Elf woman didn’t respond, but gave her a look that had slightly less condescension than it had before.  Well, at least that was a start.  With Elves there was no way she could expect to change centuries of prejudice in just a few hours.