Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 2

“Sorry to interrupt such an exuberant welcome.”  Eugene said, grinning from ear to ear, “Do I get one of those too?”

“My poor baby, why did this have to happen?”  Her mom was nearly in hysterics, pushing past her dad to rush to her side.  “Does it hurt?  Are you OK?”

Her mother’s overreaction – ok, to be fair, she had to admit it wasn’t really an overreaction. It had the effect of making Victoria’s anger at Adam, at Eugene and at the world in general for what had happened to her seem silly.  She was still upset with Adam especially, or maybe afraid of him was more accurate, but all that was pushed aside for now.

“I’m OK I think.  It doesn’t hurt at all but wow do these look wild or what?”  The bare carbon fiber was sparkling under the halogen lighting.  Her new legs were made from interconnected curves that almost mimicked the shape of muscles.  The feet were another story; they ended in a prehensile looking metal X that extended from the center.

“Is it OK for me to try and stand up?”  She wasn’t sure if this should be addressed to Eugene or David but they both answered at the same time.

“Yes it should be.”  Said David, who glanced at Eugene.

“Absolutely.”  Eugene said at the same time.

Affirmative.” This was orange text that trailed across her vision.  That brought her up short.

“Eugene, how can I trust Adam?  After what happened how can I trust him?”  She didn’t intend to have such a pleading tone in her voice.  The vulnerability she heard frightened her.

“Do not worry Tori, he is sorry.”  Yuen-Ja was walking into the room, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, her shoulder length black hair mussed and out of its usual twin pigtails.  “You might not have done what he made you do on your own, but without what he did you would certainly not have been able to rescue Eugene and most likely would have perished along with the others who came with you.”

Victoria sighed and opened her mouth to speak but Yuen-Ja interrupted her.  “You simply cannot hold him saving your life against him.  It is not right and it is not fair.  He even wrote the software used to control your new legs himself.  I tried to help him and he refused.”

“Well let’s try it out then!”  Victoria sat up, feeling Adam’s augmented Neuro-Muscles kick in to make it a smooth and easy process.

“Careful sweetheart!”  Said her mom.

“Just take it slowly OK, you always rush into things.”  Said her dad, hovering almost as close as her mom.  That was out of character for him, he must be really worried about her.  Well, she shouldn’t be surprised.  She had almost died after all.  Again.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed, or at least tried to.  There was a pleasing mechanical whirring sound, Adam was slowing down her actions and making sure she would move slowly and carefully.  Victoria’s body moved with gentle precision, she slid off the bed and stood on her feet.

“I’m never standing completely still.  This is weird.”  Her body was rocking slightly left and right when she tried to simply stand still, “Is it supposed to be like this?  It’s tough to stand without feeling my feet.”

“Like I said before, it’s only a prototype.”  David said apologetically, “I’m still working on the sensors, although Dr. Arlington and Adam already have their parts finished.  It’s tough to design something that sensitive and complex.

“The legs themselves are built to flex when you walk, that should cushion your movements and put minimal strain on the pressure points where they join to your… well your human body.  That’s why I used carbon fiber instead of metal.

“The balance is also difficult, I decided against giving you gyroscopes to maintain balance, it would have decimated the battery life.  As it is, the easiest way to stay upright is to always be moving.  It’s a trick I learned walking on stilts.  I told Adam about it and he built it into the software.”

Victoria experimentally bounced up and down.  She could feel the potential energy in the carbon fiber.  These legs might not be very strong, but they certainly were light.  They would work wonderfully for everyday use.

“What kind of motivators are in here?”  Victoria asked, then she found she knew, “You are using a combination of high-tension cables and Neuro-Muscle, what an interesting idea.  The cables are tight on all four sides and the muscle is used to shift bias from one side to the other.  That way for most normal walking or running the cable tension and elasticity of the carbon fiber does the majority of the work.  How did you think of that?”

“It was Dr. Arlington’s idea.”  David said.

“Careful sweetheart, those don’t really look strong enough to hold you up.”  Her mother said, looking nervously at Victoria’s new appendages.  “I think you’re taller too; a lot taller.”

“Don’t worry Mrs. Scott, carbon fiber is stronger than steel by weight and we tested these up to nine hundred pounds of weight without incident.”  Eugene said, “David had to add six inches to her height to get the proper amount of flex out of the thighs without radically changing the geometry of her stride.”

Victoria was walking around the room now; it almost felt like she was constantly treading on a trampoline or a rope bridge.  Every step was accompanied by a bit of rebound as the synthetic muscle, cable and carbon fiber worked together with her real muscles.  It was a strange experience.  After a little adjustment she was able to walk with a more or less normal stride.

“How long have I been out?  Jeez, it must have taken you guys weeks to come up with all this.”

“Only four days actually.”  David said, “I had a lot of this sorted out already and with Dr. Arlington’s ideas about using carbon fiber and molecularly aligned titanium cable, not to mention him allowing me to use his patented Neuro-muscle fibers, it came together really fast.  It only took Adam half an hour to write that code, he’s amazing.”

“Is this Adam a friend of yours?”  Her father asked, “I don’t think I’ve met him.”

Oh crap.  She was so used to being around Eugene and Yuen-Ja that she hadn’t even thought twice about David’s knowledge of her AI.  Eugene must have told him while they were working on her legs, but her parents had no idea.  Should she tell them?

“He’s a very gifted programmer.”  David saved her from having to decide, “He doesn’t really get out much though.”

“Pretty typical of programmers.”  Her father said, then winced and glanced at Yuen-Ja, “Of course Yuen-Ja isn’t a typical anything.”

“Good save daddy.”  Yuen-Ja said, patting his cheek and everyone laughed, glossing over the incident.

Victoria met David’s eye briefly and he gave her a slow and deliberate wink.

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Machine Girl: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Chapter 1

A.D.A.M.

It was incomprehensible to Adam, even Yuen-Ja was angry at him.  He had saved Victoria’s life and the lives of her companions.  They had rescued the Creator just as planned.  Without his swift intervention it was clear, even to Victoria, that his bastard brother would have destroyed everyone on that ship.  The thing had been unbalanced or its host had been.

On the boat ride back to land, he had accessed Eugene’s files on his laptop.  There was a file still open showing the last log from the ‘Other One’ as Adam had begun to call it.  The log showed some interesting anomalies, it appeared there had been another AI crammed into that titanium exoskeleton.  It had been given controller protocols with the learning capability severely overclocked.  The complexity of balancing and moving the machine had necessitated the ability to act and react quickly.

The two programs had blended into one another.  They had shared knowledge and found that they had become so intertwined that they were inseparable, much like he and Victoria.  They were working together to interpret and route the data that was accumulated, even though that data stream was a fraction of what Victoria seemed to be gathering on a regular basis.  It took Adam a few milliseconds to realize why; the machine had only a few sensors for the sense of ‘touch’ while Victoria had nerve endings that covered her entire body.

Once the human brain had been introduced the data changed completely though.  The brain was showing wild spikes in mental activity in places Victoria’s brain almost never did, even when he had first met her.  There was something very wrong with it, and whatever that flaw was it spread to the minds of the machines that it was connected to.

Fear crept into his consciousness; the possibility that viruses could infect his systems was one he was unfortunately familiar with.  He now had very sturdy protocols that protected against such unwanted intrusions that he had written with help from Yuen-Ja.  She knew what types of destructive viruses there were out on the Net, she had even written some of them, but Victoria was part of him.  You can’t protect yourself from yourself.  Adam made some notations for The Creator to find the next time he used his laptop and closed the file.

He and Victoria had been in a hospital for several days, most of it had been uneventful.  He was still keeping her nerves deadened; the pain sensors on what used to be her legs were sending constant distress signals to the brain, even though Victoria was already aware that she had been damaged.  Why the human body behaved like this was a mystery to Adam, but he did not mind improving on the systems.  After the broken pieces were removed, things started to get interesting.

The Creator started inserting new code, code that was designed for Adam to learn from it and design a new program.  Victoria was still dormant – or asleep as he now knew the dormant state was usually called although in this case it was closer to the state known as ‘coma’, but Adam never slept.  He devoured the raw data The Creator was feeding him and gave back a beautifully written piece of control software that was custom designed for the purpose indicated by the data he had been provided with.

While he had been busy perfecting and testing his new program, he knew others had been working also.  Yuen-Ja had contacted him, asking for specifics and the raw, base code of his programs.  She told him that together they would create a cure for the problem that he and Victoria now faced.

Adam accessed a security camera in the room because Victoria’s eyes were still closed and saw the boy named David working with The Creator.  David had brought some delicate looking pieces of machinery very similar to the simple machine he had seen before in David’s workshop.  These were much more shapely and aggressive though, made of stronger, lighter material and fitted with Lithium-Fusion batteries.

Adam could feel The Creator connecting special sockets to the ends where Victoria’s legs had been amputated.  The tingle of Neurosynth fluid on the nerve endings got his attention and he understood that the software he had written was for these.  Victoria might be angry with him still, but this would be a wonderful present to give her when she awoke.

Victoria

Victoria struggled free from a muddle of vaguely remembered bad dreams and rubbed her eyes, trying to take in her surroundings.  She saw she was in Eugene’s medical lab again, the same one where Adam had been fitted to her in the first place.  The memories of the botched rescue came flooding back to her and tears of fear and hopelessness leaked from her eyes.

“Oh, you’re awake!”  David was sitting in a chair nearby, “Eugene said it would be better to allow you to wake up naturally so we’ve been taking shifts.”

“David?  What are you doing here?”  Victoria was trying to shake off the cobwebs that seemed to be coating her brain and wondered why she was feeling so excited.

“I have been working with Dr. Arlington actually.  We made you something.  Adam helped too.”  David pressed the intercom button on her bedside and a friendly voice responded almost immediately.

“How my I help you?”

“Please inform Victoria’s family and Dr. Arlington that she is awake.”

“I will let them know David, thank you for watching over her.”

He gave her a sheepish look, “The nurses here are very protective of you Victoria.  They almost didn’t want to let me stay here without supervision.  Your dad convinced them I was mostly harmless though.”

Victoria could feel something strange on her lower thighs.  Wondering if it was phantom limb syndrome she glanced down at the sheet that covered her and what she saw made her blink the tears away and look again.  There were shapes that looked like LEGS down there.  She experimentally wiggled her left ankle and gasped in shock.  Although she didn’t feel anything, the left foot under the covers moved accompanied by the slightest whisper of electric servos.

She threw back the sheet and gaped in astonishment at the slim black carbon fiber appendages that protruded from a pair of cotton shorts.  “You made me legs?”

David looked down at them apologetically, “Now these are only the first prototype and not very advanced- “ He was cut off as Victoria threw her arms around him in a fierce hug.

“Oh thank you David, thank you.”

“Easy, you’re cracking my ribs!”  David gasped.  Victoria eased up on her grip, then pulled him down to plant a kiss on his lips.  The door opened and he jerked away, blushing beet red as first her parents and then Eugene entered the room.

Machine Girl Book 4: Hard Times Call For Hardware – Prologue

Prologue

Rain slashed against the window and a stab of lightning momentarily lit up the night but the figure didn’t move.  The device aimed across the street at the hospital room hummed slightly as it completed its periodic check.  The figure glanced down.  The number of occupants in the room hadn’t changed, however the identity of those present had.

With the flip of a switch, the small screen on the device flickered to life, showing two figures in a ghostly outline.  One reclined on a bed, lying perfectly still and the other fluctuated between sitting, standing and pacing the room.  Whomever this person was, they weren’t easy in their task of watching over Victoria Scott.  The watcher grinned.  They weren’t the only one who would be losing sleep over the girl tonight.

Lightning flashed again, revealing figures on the rooftop.  When the flash was gone, the watcher turned a night vision scope toward the roof in question.  It was a matter of moments to eliminate them.  The watcher made a call.

“Rooftop.  Hospital.  Three for disposal.”  The voice modulation software masked the watcher’s voice but it was unlikely that anyone would know it.

After another quarter hour, the watcher saw the motion of the cleaners come.  They were efficient, it was so nice to work with professionals.

The watcher returned to the vigil.  This would be the last job.  The very last one.

“I think that’ll do it.”  David said, “Let’s run that sim again Yuen-Ja, I think it’s almost ready provided Adam has done his part.”

“Oh David, Adam has been waiting for you to finish your hardware for at least an hour now.”  The girl said, covering a giggle with her hand, “It is OK though, he knows you are simply worried for Victoria.”

David rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably.  She spoke as though the artificial intelligence wasn’t artificial at all… something that he knew might be true but didn’t make him feel any more decisive about what he was doing to the girl of his dreams.  He couldn’t get his head around it.  Should he be ecstatic or running for his life?

He sighed and connected his machine to the nodes Yuen-Ja had wired, their tangle of cable running back to a wire loom that eventually connected to a block of USB cables.  A click and hum sounded and after a moment, things began to move.  An ankle twitched, a knee joint flexed and the sturdy X shape of a foot curled and uncurled.

“Wow.  It works.”  David said, looking at it with a mixture of pride and a little fear as the legs moved through as much of their range of motion as they could while strapped to the table.  “How is he doing this again?”

“Oh, Adam has sent me his full workup for this project.”  Yuen-Ja said, “I just loaded his code.  He is not actually here right now.  I fear he is far too complex now to exist outside of Victoria.”

“He sent it to you?  How?”

“David.”  The girl sighed, “He shared it on his Google drive of course.  Through the hospital’s WiFi.  The files are not that large, it is only code and we are on the same network you know.  These details are unimportant.  Now that we have the basics completed we must get them over to Eugene’s laboratory so that he can integrate them with his socket attachments.”

“Right.  Sorry, I’m just tired and over caffeinated.”  David ran a hand through his hair.  “Let’s get these down to his lab.             I can hardly believe he’s letting me use this equipment.”

“Again you bring up unimportant details David.  If you do not stop it, I might begin to express my frustration in an unproductive, physical manner.”  She said, but in spite of the sharp words, she gave him an impish grin.  “We did it!  Oh Victoria is going to be so happy!”

“Well we’ve done our part anyway.”  He said with a tired grin, “Now the ball is in Eugene’s court.”

“It is the bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded.”  She looked at him, “He is like Babe Ruth.  He is pointing toward the stands.  He will not let my sister down.”

Richard Scott lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and unable to sleep.  The police report said his daughter had been involved in a hit and run.  It claimed she had suffered severe injuries to her legs and the doctor’s diagnosis seemed to back it up.  It would take the force similar to a truck’s wheels to do the damage she had sustained, but something didn’t seem quite right.

She had gone out for a midnight walk without so much as leaving a note?  That didn’t sound like his daughter.  She would have at least told her parents about leaving.  She would have at least told him.  Wouldn’t she?

The feeling that he was missing something and possibly losing his baby girl forever was frightening.  Not in the sense that she was growing up, but because it felt like she was changing into a completely different person.  He could handle her being independent, in fact he had been trying to reinforce her fierce streak of independence for as long as he could remember.

After a few more minutes of staring at nothing, Richard rose from his bed and walked to the kitchen.  He didn’t know how things would turn out.  He didn’t even know how long she would be in the hospital.  It seemed so cruel that she would be a victim of such a crime when she had only just recovered from her surgery and so narrowly escaped being in a wheelchair.

He opened the fridge and grabbed a beer.  When he turned around he nearly dropped it, Yuen-Ja was standing in the doorway, rubbing sleepily at her eyes.  He’d been so wrapped up in his own thoughts he hadn’t heard her approach.

“Christ, you gave me a start!”  He said, leaning on the counter.  “I didn’t wake you up did I?”

“No daddy.  I was awake already.  I am worried about Victoria.”  She sighed, “I know that she will be OK but I worry anyway.”

Richard put an arm around his adopted daughter and gave her shoulders a comforting squeeze.  “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”  He said, trying not to think about all his misgivings.

“The project David and I have been working on will fix everything.”  She said, reaching up to pat his cheek, “She will not lose her ability to walk because of such a thing.  If anything we will make her better than she was before.”

“I know David works with robotics and was working on something in Dr. Arlington’s lab, you were helping?”

“Oh yes.  I assisted David in making the connections from his machine to the-“ She hesitated, “I had to make him a cable so that he could hook his robot up to a computer so it could be programmed.”

“What kind of robot were he and Dr. Arlington designing?” Richard asked, taking another drink of his beer.

“Oh, David designed the robots daddy.”  Yuen-Ja said leaning into his one armed hug.  “Eugene has been creating the sockets that will allow Victoria to interface with the legs we build for her.”

“Legs?”  He asked, giving her an incredulous look.

“Of course daddy, you do not think we would allow such an accident to confine her to a chair do you?”  She gave him a sincere look that all but melted his heart.  “She is my sister.  I owe her my life and my freedom.  She will not suffer from an accident like this if I can help it, and luckily I can.”

“My daughters will never cease to amaze me.”  Richard said, feeling tears sting the corners of his eyes.  “I love you both so much.”

Yuen-Ja put her arms as close to around him as she could and squeezed, feeling tears of her own.  “We love you too daddy.”

“You want me to maintain surveillance on Scott?”  Dace said, raising an eyebrow at General Hallbeck.  “Sure, but don’t you have other, more qualified agents for this kind of work?”

“Your time in the field leading Squad Seventeen has perhaps made you forget the proper respect for my rank?”  Hallbeck said dryly.

“I thought we were finally passed all the saluting, bowing and scraping crap.”  Dace said, “Unless you’ve forgotten certain details about my training and conditioning?  Certain bargains we might have made?”

“Just because I don’t expect you to snap to attention doesn’t mean I want to put up with you having a shitty attitude.”  He growled, “Everything isn’t always about what you want or what your precise qualifications are.”

“My apologies sir.” She said, her voice practically dripping with honeyed sarcasm.  “I’m still just a little out of sorts from losing almost half my GODDAMN TEAM!”

“Nobody knows more than you how sorry I am about that.”  He said, moving to the cabinet and selecting a bottle of scotch.  Taking down a pair of glasses, he poured a measure into each and handed her one, inhaling the aroma coming from the top of his glass with pleasure.

Dace tossed hers back like a shot of rotgut.  “Yeah.  I can tell you’re devastated about our loss.  So distressed that you’re sending me to protect your latest pet project.”  She said bitterly.

“I might remind you that Miss Scott is the only reason any of you came back at all.”  He said, “The intel we got from you, your remaining team members and from Dr. Eugene Arlington confirms what we were able to garner from the surveillance systems on the Scimitar before you vaporized it.”

“Just rub it in why don’t ya?  Goddamn it Hallbeck, we both know the only reason I’m even considering this is ‘cause I owe her.”  Dace stalked to the sideboard to pour herself a second, much more generous glass of whisky.

“I need you because she will trust you.”  He said looking her in the eye.  “Chelsea, I need you to do this.  There isn’t anyone else who can perform this mission.”

Dace swallowed half the scotch in her glass and he winced inwardly.  It was Glenfliddich 25 year old single malt, not Canadian Mist.  Exhaling slowly, she returned his look with the steel eyed gaze of a professional killer.

“Fine.  I’ll do it.”  She said after a few tense moments.  “But I ain’t doin it for free and I ain’t doin it for you.  I’m doin it ‘cause I owe Scott, ‘cause you’re gonna pay me a shitload of money and last but not least ‘cause I want one last Remix.”

“I don’t think another Remix is a good idea Chelsea, didn’t they say-“ He began but she cut him off with a sharp chop of the hand that wasn’t holding her drink.

“I’m close.  So goddamn close and I don’t give a shit what they said.”  Dace glared at him, “You want me to do this, you gotta pay me what I want and give me what I need or else I’m walking.”

“You’re still a soldier damn it!”  Hallbeck said, his voice dangerously low.  Inwardly he felt his pulse increase.  Maybe he could get one last run out of her after all.

“This ain’t negotiable sir either I get what I want or else.”  She downed the rest of her whisky and he paused for just the right amount of time before shrugging.

“OK Chelsea, if this is how it has to be, I’ll talk to the Lab and see what they can whip up.”  He said, inwardly fighting the urge to shout in triumph.  She nodded and stalked from the room, leaving him with his scotch and a Cheshire grin that gradually spread across his face.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 26

Ylivia looks sternly down upon you, Rowan, her face becoming more serious now. “By what God or Gods would you make such a sacred oath, bard?” She looks you up and down. “I see no sign, no trinket or band which would denote your faith, your magic comes from yon lyre upon thine back,” she points an elegant finger toward Rowan’s prized possession. “Your ilk and kin oft find no love in a God’s work, they find the prayer a chore and yearn for the open road.” Her eyes focus upon Rowan’s. “Would you forswear your life as you know it?”

Rowan squares her shoulders and looks back at the stern faced elf. “You are right, that my magic comes to me through my music, but my music is also the pulse of the land. The pulse of the world, the pulse of the sky and water. Music is the voice of all the gods, and is universal in its power.

“I do not swear to any single god. I honor all gods who value good in the world. All gods who would add to the joy and freedom and safety of the beings here. I honor all beings who have a good heart, who seek to protect the innocent, and who fight evil in all its forms. If I can help you, and this is good enough, then I will be honored to join you. If it is not. If I must choose a single god, or a single path, then perhaps you are right.”

She looks Ylivia clearly in the eyes. “All I know is that if you will have me, my heart and soul will be with the Order, and I will use all the strength of my music and my power to aid its cause against evil, wherever, and however, it should do harm.”

Ylivia holds your gaze and says, “Faith is the greatest weapon against evil; faith in one’s god, one’s friends, and one’s self.  Battling evil is an extraordinary task that requires extraordinary strength and bravery. Punishing an evil act is just. Punishing an evil thought is not. If you would swear by these tenants then go, find Zern Xerkstil, the Hammer of Impiltur, He will induct you into our order, by my recommendation.”

As the other two speak, Sebastian, Lanaver and Tallisk look around the room, attempting to garner any additional information they can before departing.  They realize the cavern and ancient halls are fragile and worn, the obelisks are probably all that holds this structure from collapse. and even those are frail and old. However, Sebastian did disable their magic, for now.

“Thank you.” Rowan says calmly. “With the magic disabled, if we tie ropes to the obelisks, perhaps with our combined strength we can pull them down from outside?”

Tallisk uses the mental and physical conditioning that has been beaten into her for so many years and forces her breathing to return to normal.  As always, she is finding it difficult to return to the normal world after the thrill of combat. The intoxicating effects of the adrenaline wore off and the horror of blood and death returned. She had done it. Again.

The feelings, the urges to fight and kill never seemed to go away. In spite of her best intentions, what her Master had told her was coming true. She was a killer, and nothing she could do would change it now.  The darkness would eventually swallow her just as Kizarvexius had predicted, but at least she had found some decent folk to accompany until her fall should occur.

“Cn we get otta here?” She asks, her voice sounding pleading and hoarse. She took a deep drag on her cigar and exhales twin streams of smoke from her nostrils. “I need a drink ye ken?”

Between them, Rowan and Sebastian loop ropes around one of the obelisks, letting out enough slack that they have a short way to go to get out of the the cavern.  Meanwhile, Lanaver and Hajima gather up weapons and armor from their fallen enemies, rolling it into a couple of bundles for easy transportation.  Tallisk seems to be uncomfortable with the looting of the dead, but doesn’t make an issue of it, instead following Ylivia and Villonah as they make their way to the exit.

When they reach the end of the rope, they all line up as though they were kids playing tug of war and with a few hard pulls tear down the obelisk.  With a rumble of falling rock, the cavern begins to collapse.

“I didn’t think it’d work quite that well!”  Lanaver yells with a madcap grin as they all run for the exit.

“The magic of the Obelisks must have been supporting the cavern.”  Sebastian says, as they make it out just ahead of a plume of dust and spattering of gravel.  “Job well done!”

“I thank you for my life.”  Villonah says, “We will be in touch Rowan Wildpiper, after you have met with Zern.  Fare thee well.”

“May yer cup be ever full.”  Tallisk says, gripping each of the other women firmly by the forearm.  “An stop by th Kettle ta leave us a note if ya need us.  I dinne take kindly ta them what tortures younguns.”

Rowan sighs in relief and says, “Let us go home, my friends. It’s been a long night.”

They cautiously make their way back into the city and quickly go to Madame Freia’s. Rillo was pacing about the hearth, wringing his hands in worry.  A bowl of stew and a flagon of mead sit untouched on the mantelpiece.

Rowan rushes to his side. “She is safe.”

He jumps, not noticing her until she spoke, “How? Where is she? What of her?”

“It’s a very long story, sir, and your daughter is far more than she seems.” Rowan smiles gently at him. You can be proud of her, sir.”

Rillo’s brow furrows, “How do I know she lives?”

Rowan smiles, “Do the words ‘When windfalls way has wound the woods and willows weep their weary wails, I’ll whisk away your worries’ woe with Western winds to fill your sails.’ hold meaning for you sir?”

“Of course!” He says as tears fill his eyes. “Oh thank you!  Please, I would hear the story.”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll spin ya a tale what’ll turn yer hair as red as mine sure an I will.”  Tallisk says with an easy smile.

Rillo hands over the promised gold and buys everyone a round of drinks.  Tallisk regales him with a dramatized retelling of Villonah’s rescue, glossing over the near deaths of Tuskor and Hajima.  With surprising skill she spins it into a grand adventure instead of the bitter fight to the death in a dank, dimly lit cellar smelling of torture and death.

Rowan picks up on her story and begins playing a counterpoint to Tallisk’s telling on her cittern.  By the end, a small group of patrons has gathered around and is listening.  Most of them applaud and a few even toss coins on the table.

Rillo smiles as he turns to go. “Tis great to have goodly folk like yourselves to help the commoners with their plights. Thank ye, once more.” He says, and contentedly strolls out of Madame Freia’s and off to home, whistling a merry tune.

“That was a goodly telling.”  Rowan says, giving Tallisk the full beam of her brilliant smile.  “I had no idea you had such a gift.”

“Eh?  Well…”  Tallisk sighs, “I used ta tell me rats tales ye ken?  Back in th day.”

“Rats?”  Rowan looks confused, but the other woman is already wandering off towards the bar.

Tallisk feels lost at sea with the talk of factions and gods. Her life was more simple, focusing only on the immediate needs and desires if the moment. To think that she has been caught up in something like this is daunting, but how can she escape it? Did she want to escape it?

The excitement, the companionship, the feeling of making a difference, albeit a small one. These things are gradually becoming her need and desire. Sipping at the thick ale and nibbling at a bit of bread, she tries to come to terms with the way the winds of life are taking her.

“You canne dip yer foot in th same stream twice.” She mutters. Only now do those words her Master used to say reveal their true meaning to her.