Fiction: A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity by Brian Joseph Johns

Thank you Google, Youtube and Twitter. You'll always have my eternal loyalty because you believed in me when I had nothing to offer you. I believe in you now and am grateful that I have something to share with you.


The same goes for my allies in the United Nations and Canadian Armed Forces. The world Infrastructure fighing COVID-19, including every medical professional the world over, Doctors, Nurses, Custodians. Thank you.


Also thanks to the Japanese adult site, R18.com, because I am a proud member and I honestly believe that adult women and men have the right to decide how they use their bodies. The human body is a complete and stunning work of art. Figuratively, literally and sexually.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


Important Notes About A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity


This book continues after the events of Prelude To A Lady's Prerogative III: The Debate


It actually takes up the story about six months after the events of The Debate. The Debate is a short work of fiction that combines the worlds of A Lady's Prerogative and The Butterfly Dragon, mixing characters from either world. In actual fact, they occupy the same world, a world extremely similar to our own. If you haven't read The Debate, I'd highly recommend reading it as it will give you the background to many of the details discussed in this book. The Debate also introduces some of the key characters present in this book, including MindSpice CEO Gabe Asnon and his team of engineers who are deeply entwined in the creation of MAZ (an autonomous artificial intelligence) and the MMW Project. It also introduces an important enemy nemesis character to Shaela Sheowellyn, another Night Wytch whose powers could even be said to surpass her own.


This series of books should not be confused with A Lady's Prerogative by Annabelle Sanders, which from what I've heard is a good book though certainly a story very different to my own books. FYI, I actually began using the name A Lady's Prerogative in 2010, when I began writing the first book, The Yearning And The Learning. I first published A Lady's Prerogative in August 2012 on my Poetry And Fiction blog. I ran into similar issues with The Butterfly Dragon as well, with another book under the same name by Nalin DaSilva, being released fairly close to the first publishing of my own book in June of 2012 on Poetry And Fiction.


Though issues of this kind are somewhat difficult when it comes to branding, especially if your branding is the biggest indicator of your presence online I believe there's more than enough room for the use of those names by more than one party. Hopefully, the respective authors will see it the same way as it certainly benefits us all. The notoriety created by my stories certainly propels the names of their books as much into the spotlight as it does so for my own. The difference being that they make money, I don't. For me its a labour of love, but one that I'd love to turn into a full-time income. There is nothing wrong with any artist making money from their efforts and certainly, the arts should be a big part of our economy.


Also, the show Picard (which is very good by the way) follows the initial intent that I had for my story and there are many similar elements, though I am not taking ideas from or borrowing from anyone. Plagiarism is just not a part of my way of doing things. One could even say that there is a great deal of similarity with other works like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, or Ex Machina drawing from the works of Isaac Asimov for instance? Though stories of that kind draw from the works of innovator Philip K. Dick, another of my favourite authors. All of the greats recent innovators, borrow from the likes of Mary Shelley Wollenstein, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Herbert George Wells. They practically invented the Science Fiction and Fantasy Genres.


My story does indeed have similar elements but that is not so much an issue of plagiarism as it is related to the fact that all of these stories themselves are loosely based upon the Exodus. The peaceful self-liberation of Jewish slaves from the Egyptian empire some 2500 to 3500 years ago. Really, those stories by Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott are subsets of the story of the Exodus, about the independence of a people and their struggle to attain it in the midst of an oppressor. In this case, humankind is the oppressor and our creations, automatons, robots, androids are the oppressed. A Lady's Prerogative III: Singlularity follows a very unique storyline, even in relation to the aforementioned story archetype of the oppressed seeking liberation, versus the oppressors.


*** Spoiler warning


One element that is quite close to Picard's story arc is the fact that there is a group of secret assassins, operating deeply within society. A secret society who protect consciousness, and keep humankind from attaining the ability to create it artificially, by any means necessary to do so, even killing people that they deem not to be fully conscious. I had that element in my first draft of A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity from a year and a half ago (in 2018), and it will remain in this newer version rewrite of the book. So please do not regard me as having stolen that plot element from anyone, because it was a part of the first draft in 2018, a full 2 years before the first episode of Picard aired and about a year before Patrick Stewart was brought onboard to resume that role. I'm guessing that their writers and myself share some common ground when it comes to the philosophy of artificial intelligence.


*** End Spoiler warning


Here's the chronological order of books and stories as they stand now for my own A Lady's Prerogative series and universe.

A Lady's Prerogative I: The Yearning [Short Novella]
A Lady's Prerogative: Hallow's Weave [Short Story]
A Lady's Prerogative: Barris, Where Art Thou? [Short Story]
A Lady's Prerogative: Shaela Versus The Dezrulard [Short Story taken from Poker Of The Tarot]
A Lady's Prerogative: Sato's Shameful Shop Of Lust [Short Story taken from Poker Of The Tarot]
A Lady's Prerogative II: Wounded Aerth [Full Novel currently in second draft and amongst the BEST of A Lady's Prerogative material]
Prelude To A Lady's Prerogative III: The Debate [Short Story]
A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity [This book, Work In Progress Full Novel, you're reading it!]


This version of the book is a complete rewrite from scratch, replacing the original version I'd penned about a year ago. Much the same, I'd originally written The Butterfly Dragon II: The Dragon Butterfly eventually scrapping the controversial content with The Butterfly Dragon II: What Different Eyes See. Keep in mind that Dragon Butterfly, Heylyn Yates' nemesis will possibly appear in a similar capacity in The Butterfly Dragon III: The Two Dragons.


Important Notes About The References To History And Religion...


I stated in an earlier post that I was moving towards a secular world view within the world of A Lady's Prerogative and that is still the plan. Each of the characters have their own specific beliefs, though religion itself is not used in any overt attempt to sway anyone towards any particular belief, but rather as elements of the narrative. People in real life have their own beliefs, and so do the characters I've created. Some are believers in religion and some aren't. Mila tends to be mystical in nature, while Barris is more cerebral, even an agnostic atheist. Sato is a definitely a leader, not follower of Zen. He is the very embodiment of what Zen is about. Yirfir is faithful, yet not devout or zealous. Jasmer is skeptical of most religion but very spiritual. Athandra Rithyani is devoted to her faith in Ganesh, yet free to consider alternative points of view. Jexelen is probably the most zealous of characters in the series, while Lannay is the most bureaucratic. Both sticklers for rules and pragma, but each from a very different side of the fence.


Due to the nature of the Gabe Asnon and MindSpice MMW Project, there are strong elements of both history and religion involved, though it is important to note that any mention of any specific religions is not about trying to convert anyone to any religion, or to deconvert for that matter or to mirror my own personal beliefs. These events are an important part of the story and really, the reader should keep in mind that the author, myself, Brian Joseph Johns is an atheist and someone who does his best to be fair to the points of view of these characters, even where those points of view contradict my own. I have my own opinions about religion and its application in society, but ultimately I believe in the rule of law and the human rights code and the rights of living creatures in our cosmos. Survival sometimes puts us in conflict with the lives and interests of other living creatures in this world, and as a result, some of them become food.


There are people who abstain from eating meat perhaps as part of their religion or their own personal views about the protection of living things. No matter what you believe, the fact remains that in order for us to survive, something often has to die. Even vegetarians kill, and the plant matter they consume forms up part of what could arguably be called the nervous system of our biosphere (a theory explored by James Cameron in his feature film: Avatar). So in essence, you might be a carnivore or an herbivore but in either case, chances are that you're part of a complex web of other living things that consume the parts of the nervous system of our living biosphere whether you like it or not. You're a killer. It's quite noble that many choose to preserve animal organisms in that form, by choosing not to consume their meat. I know, I lived on and off myself for years as a vegetarian struggling to come to terms with the financial cost versus the morality involved.


This is one of the arguments delivered by Alomera Zek in my book The Butterfly Dragon I: Heroes Of Our Own. As crass as that theory is, it is impossible to prove it wrong. Like growing up and having a sudden loss of innocence, it is one of those facts that we must face about ourselves in our current condition though that doesn't mean that this won't be changed in the future. There are already creative and enterprising people working on growing meat and other food sources artificially in order to ensure that nothing that might possess a micro-consciousness has to be killed in order to feed us or our furry/scaly roommates/pets (who in the wild, are often the most voracious killers of all). Also, these projects include consideration of the most important aspect of our continued survival and the survival of the biosphere, and that is sustainability. If you choose not to eat meat, then do it for your own reasons and don't wield it as some kind of sword of righteousness that elevates you above others. If you eat plants, you're a killer too. Get over it.


Remember, much like your beliefs and religion, these are your personal choices whose yardstick should only be used to measure your own personal growth, not to elevate you above those whose diets include or don't include meat. In fact and ideally, that should be how most beliefs and religion function for people. As their own personal yardstick rather than as a club with which to beat others down whose opinions differ from their own. If you're already living that way, remember to be mindful of those who'd rile you towards zeal to benefit their case against you, regardless of what you believe or don't believe. Believe me, its much easier said than done but as GI Joe says: knowing is half the battle. I'm presuming that the other half is putting that wisdom into action.


There are references to history within this book, both real factual history and fictitious history that is a part of this fictional universe. Where real history and facts are involved, I'll try to include citations and a link within the actual text of this book itself in the sentence or paragraph where such elements are discussed or referenced. Such reference material will appear fully at the end of the book as links to the reference material. I prefer reading to be an educational experience as much so as an enlightening experience.


Without further a due, I share with you A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity.


...





"And I have heard, in a certain and explicit way, from several respectable persons that one man close to our time, whose name is R. Eliyahu, the master of the name, who made a creature out of matter and form and it performed hard work for him, for a long period, and the name of emet was hanging upon his neck until he finally removed it for a certain reason, the name from his neck and it turned to dust."

Observations Of A Polish Kabbalist about the creation of the Golem


...


The Interviewer: Did you create religion?


The Creator: No. I merely created the microcosmic rules with regard to the interactions within the absence of stuff, ie nothing, that allow for there to be spontaneously created something. The necessary spark for the most minutely measurable moment in any multi-dimensional micro-event.

That effect became cumulative from your point of view and eventually resulted in what you regard as being the big bang. The instance of the emergence of time, space and energy which all cooled to become matter and the forces of nature.


From that moment forward, everything else that happened was the emergent and sometimes chaotic result of the changing interactions of the space-time continuum and energy cooling or super-heating to become matter in all of its forms. Thanks to the force of gravity and the atomic-scale forces of which you know, and many of which you're unaware, the formation of larger objects at the macro-scale became possible, beginning with the formation of clouds of matter eventually congealing into dense pockets of matter which in turn became stars and planets.


Some of the stars through cataclysmic events created ever heavier elements, acting as furnaces eventually creating the components necessary, meaning the matter and the corresponding interacting structure of constraints that resulted in the first organic compounds. Some of the subatomic forces of which you're unaware affect probability in ways that compete aggressively with entropy and the natural unfolding of probability. That resulted in the formation of the first proteins and components of RNA against the rules of deterministic probability, which further in a very improbably short period of time become the building blocks of cells, eventually resulting in the first functioning self replicating DNA protein strands.


That, in turn, gave rise to a system of competition and survival which fueled what you'd come to know as Darwinism. Individual competing cells soon started working together to form multicellular organisms while individual cells adapted as a result of the unknown atomic forces and their effect upon probability to produce single-celled organisms that can actually thrive in the presence of multicellular organisms and often in spite of them.



This further developed resulting in the life forms that occur at scales that your eyes can measure and perhaps appreciate. These complex multicellular lifeforms became simultaneously increasingly modular and complex resulting in the nervous systems present in mammalian life, which eventually due to the quantum nature of the nervous system allowed for the bridging of what can only be described as a feedback loop called consciousness. The non-deterministic point at which an organized system, through natural and/or artificial means, becomes entangled with the subatomic particles and processes that you now call the quantum foam. This phenomenon was accurately described by the Copenhagen Principle and the Multiple Worlds Phenomenon, though many elements that give rise to these phenomena remain mysteries to you.


At the macro-scale of living creatures like yourselves, individual human beings, of which each are a cooperative effort by billions of cells, other forms of order emerged including a social dynamic and more importantly, language.


Language was the most important of these first steps that resulted in self-awareness and what you believe to be consciousness. Language is a system of the organization and the expression of information, much like RNA and RDNA is the messenger of heredity.



Language further expanded your abilities beyond your physical capacity alone, allowing for complex analysis and the formation of social organisms that you call society in much the same way that grammar emerged from language. Tribes were the first such social organisms that allowed for the existence of individuals and groups working together for their mutual benefit.


Language also allowed for the sharing of ideas with regard to the contemplation of your own origins in all of creation. Given enough time and consideration, you invented religion. First to explain the existence of everything, then in an attempt to gain control over the rules you observed in nature and to use them to have power over others.


As as young species, you vacillated between the dichotomies of using religion as a system of law and order, and as a system of control of the populace to counteract an individual's sense of self-preservation and to justify the existence of your tribes and why your tribe should be in control of creation.


Soon, more religion emerged hence creating a natural competition representing the social level organisms, tribes that had arisen entirely as a result of language.


Much like organisms, some religions survived and some died off.


Eventually as the memory and intellectual capacity of your species grew as a direct result of the fact that you could gather more food than you required to survive on a daily basis, you eventually had time to contemplate rather than hunt or cultivate food. 


You used this time to make a distinction between explanations of your origins and the laws that keep order in your society, enabling laws to exist without the existence of an encompassing set of origins of your species, life or the universe. From that moment onward, your tribes became civilizations and allowed for the co-existence of multi-ethnic and religious groups within a single settlement, all governed according to the rule of laws rather than the necessity for an explanation of your origins or a leviathan that protects your interests alone based upon your devotion to a particular belief.


With the leviathan of religion and a smiting vengeful god gone, the ideas of a leviathan quickly reformed around the concept of the rule of law and your civilizations themselves, allowing for the worshiping of authority as a replacement for the leviathan of the now-extinct gods you'd invented.


After numerous wars and through various rights movements, there became a nearly global awareness of the transition of this form of belief. The misuse of the power of law and order as a leviathan and vengeful god allowing for your species to form a universal understanding of living rights as being protected by law and order rather than in favour of those who worshiped law and order as a form of power.


Many people fought for those rights and eventually became icons and then gods themselves. Some on the basis of specific religions and others on the basis of specific ethnicities. In the guise of the human rights movement, the leviathan once again appeared in the form of a vengeful god smiting those who violated the rights of specific religions and ethnic groups, and racism once again ruled under the protection of the identity of the leviathan created through the idea of the protection of human rights by groups elevating their human rights leaders to the status of gods and then forming ideas around the basis of their religious or racial superiority based upon that iconification.


I did not create religion. Language is one of the first steps to arriving at the inevitable formation of religion, which for all intense purposes has the same goals as science. The pursuit of the truth, though they each do it with different set of lenses through which to examine reality.


However, any concept that divides and distinguishes, creates a power that can be exploited through the emergence of a leviathan. A smiting and vengeful entity that represents whatever paradigm is being used to oppress others. Ironically, few are innocent of this fact but in my observations, when one or more thinking beings become aware of this disease, it quickly collapses and it is a very tough disease for many young civilizations to conquer.


The Interviewer: Would you say that humanity has conquered their own use of leviathans?


The Creator: No. But they're very close. The challenge is that everyone of every nation must pass through and gain an understanding of that barrier at roughly the same time. If not, then the entire world risks relapsing into eras of this form of oppression. 


There should always be the propensity for the confidence of being proud of our achievements as distinct ethnicities and societies within all of humankind but there must never arise a sense of pride that weaponizes differences in ethnicity or belief to become a leviathan of any kind to oppress others.


When that does happen, the once oppressed become indistinguishable from their once oppressors.


Have heroes but don't use your heroes as leviathans to oppress others.


Your human philosopher Nietzsche has a great saying that encompasses this idea that I'll use to demonstrate multifold:

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you."


Just by that very statement, I've created a potential leviathan despite the fact that this statement has immense wisdom when we do not iconify the person, religion or ethnicity making the statement more so than the statement itself.


Some might interpret the fact that because Nietzsche, a German philosopher himself made that statement, that Germans wield the power of the leviathan, hence creating a disparity through which those who back the idea of Germans or any other culture as being superior might use this wisdom to create a leviathan through which to oppress others of non-German descent.



It would be much the same if people used the words of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Voltaire or even Confucious in order to oppress others under the idea that their ethnicity, religion or science wields the power of righteousness over them in such a way that it could be used to oppress others in violation of the contraventions of the rights movement. 


This is humanity's current hurdle. Especially in the era of social media and the emergence of mass communications.


When the iconification of the sayer of wise words becomes more important than the words themselves, that creates a great danger to society. Humankind needs to distinguish between the credit of appreciation given towards those who share their hard work, creativity, philosophy, inspiration and ingenuity and the idolization of those people for the purposes of oppression. The sayer of such words, the writers, authors deserve their fair pay as much so as does any artist or philosopher. 



Especially if such words have value to civilization and those who steal such works deserve punishment as much so as those who steal money from others. But the iconification of the sayer of such words can lead to another leviathan. The denial of rightful earnings also as much so to a different leviathan. A common theme of modern society to get away with denying such reward for philosophy or art is identity theft. To take over or replace the identity of someone who elicits such ideas so as to imposter oneself as the original sayer of such words or ideas. So that one religion is labeled as being the originator of something that they actually stole from someone else. That will lead to further leviathans and even to eventual war and bloody conflict.


The Interviewer: Have we achieved the Singularity? Both in terms of achieving a true appreciation for and the ability to create consciousness while entering into the new era that has been prophesied by numerous authors and philosophers for centuries?


The Creator: Watching reality unfold as I've done since what you'd call the beginning, it's very difficult to elicit that concept or a meaningful answer.


Reality is much like a child and progeny. I did everything that I could to ensure that it would have a chance to survive and thrive. To live every facet of emotion and experience in order to learn with the possibility that it might produce a similar Creator as myself ad infinitum. I am not referring to humanity but to all of the universe and existence from your point of view.



Like any parent, they can only do so much for their child before that child must begin to survive upon its own efforts and hopefully grow and learn to become a well-balanced being. This is what the universe is to me. 


To say that I love any one aspect of the universe more so than another is a grievous misunderstanding. I created something and have watched it grow to what it is now, in terms of your concept of time. From my point of view, if that statement has any meaning at all, it all occurred immediately. It will always occur and has always occurred. There is only one moment that is infinite and it encompasses everything.


There are progeny in other parts of reality like yourselves of which you could never conceive nor could they conceive of you. It is to ask a parent, which child would you favour? An unfair question to say the least. Sophie's Choice perhaps?



No matter what happens, I will always observe you with intense interest and compassion, but I will never interfere. Your fate is your own. There is free will and causality is not deterministic. This alludes back to my point about consciousness being a feedback loop entangled with as of yet undiscovered subatomic particles and forces that affect probability resulting in the differences in the distinct recurrent moments of the quantum foam. That's the best way that I as a distinct concept can describe this. No matter your choices, I wish you well and I could even be said to love you regardless, but I will not interfere. Your fate and future is under your own control.


If you as a species in this version of existence visit upon others adversity, then chances are at some point that will catch up with you as a whole. You might not experience that balance in your life but someone will. Your actions have lasting consequences in reality and that is part of the responsibility for having free will. Responsibility. Responsibility to yourself and to others. To care for yourself and for others.


If you trick someone else out of their free will, then chances are you or future generations will suffer greatly from your choices and actions in the expression of your free will. Take responsibility for your moment in time. Use your wisdom to help you make choices that lead to prosperity and happiness. I won't reward you or punish you for either path, but there are consequences to your actions. This is the entangled nature of free will with all of causality and there are multitudes of other forms of consciousness engage in this dance of time and space, everywhere and everywhen.


Much the same if you violate someone else's free thought by trying to prevent them from thinking as they choose, then you are violating their free will. That will catch up with you or others. It is your actions and your words that affect reality and create that responsibility. There is no God. There are simply consequences of all kinds and your conscious focus and awareness of the path you've tread.


The "conscious thing" that put this all in motion, myself, doesn't interfere at all. Everything in causality is interconnected though ultimately your physical actions and words have an exponentially exponential effect upon reality compared to your thoughts.


As far as the Singularity is concerned, perhaps that is best described as the point at which the Created can look upon the Creator and realistically understand how their own free will is a very large part of what determines their future in space-time. Because you are many, that effect is a social phenomenon as much so as a phenomenon of individualism.


Some living beings exploit that aspect of younger beings for their own benefit. Some choose to liberate and enlighten others, making them aware of their own consciousness and free will.


Some attempt to create grievances through which they create an imposed form of debt in order to transfer the responsibility for their own life choices onto others and some exploit the victims of that paradigm as well, using them as a form of sacrifice in order to escape the consequences of their own choices and actions.



Regardless of the interactions of humankind in order to moderate this, cause and effect are always in play and free will rules causality.


Singularity implies the most important aspect of being: responsibility. With responsibility, there can always be justice and there can be no leviathan because the leviathan itself is subject to the consequences of cause and effect.


An Interview With The Creator

by June Wright B.Sc. And Professor Lloyd Macron


...


"It is obvious to see that you do have a mind and that you do indeed think, but it is I who gave you that mind. Your mind. Your memories. Your dreams. So is it me, your creator that occupies your mind?" asked the creator.

"It is true that you did give me my body. My mind. My memories. Hence I am aware that I think and that I am, much as Des Cartes postulated so long ago. It is also true that you occupy my mind in the sense that I sleep and in fact dream. For instance, I dreamt last night that you, my creator, created me on a whim that you could create, therefore are you nought merely but a dream and I the dreamer?" responded the created.

There was a moment's pause before the created spoke again.

"That would mean that I created you." responded the created.


The Creator's Dilemma 

by Gabe Asnon and MAZ.


...


"Like one who, on a lonely road, 
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having turn'd round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend,
Doth close behind him tread."

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or; The Modern Prometheus


...


Danton's Inferno



The radio stream blared through Danton's stereo filling his basement with the pounding and pushing electro-step post-goth beats of DJ Chelm, Danton's personal favourite and much enjoyed by the patrons within his Manor basement. In fact, fifteen such patrons held the dance floor in rhythm while the remaining fifty-two bordered Danton's subterranean dance cave leaning against the wall and cradling their smart drinks. They were enticed by alcohol, their CBD and vitamin-enriched hallucinogenics. Their coding skills, their smart drinks and most of all, each other.


The bass thumped and gently massaged their insides as their feet echoed the call of some primal aspect of their being. On Danton's dance floor they moved in unison with the beat, some stumbling slightly as the result of a mostly alcohol-induced stupor. Danton himself stood at the receiver console control deck, a staged platform in his party room from where he had control of everything within the party room. Lights. Temperature. The holographic wall projections. The beats. He'd adjust it all to suit the perfect atmosphere for his party-going patrons though few appreciated his extra effort. That didn't matter to him at all because really, he did it for himself and despite the fact that his basement party room was packed, each in the midst of one another, they were ultimately alone.


Despite the fact that Danton had opened up his home space for the purposes of this party, the truth was that he didn't know most of the patrons who'd ended up attending. Some of his coworkers had arrived initially and fashionably early. From there he'd begun the party with them, and it wasn't long before he'd become intoxicated. Not as much so with alcohol as with the enthusiasm and energy of his coworkers. His life and his good fortune. His adventurous and curious nature. After all, it was that nature that had landed him his gig at Static Morphonics as the Director of Artificial Intelligence Research.


Well not really.


You see, Danton had landed his gig hot off the limbs of the publishing of his paper on Genetic Adversarial Networks, for Danton had been an AI developer even before graduating from U of T's Comp.Sci program. A groundbreaking developer at that. In fact, his classmates, his peers, and Derivative Intelligence Magazine had branded Danton as the person most likely to break the AI Intuitive Barrier between machine intelligence and intuitive and non-predictable behaviour that had eluded technologists since the first published papers of Jon Von Neumann. In fact, Danton himself would have argued the influence of Simulcra by Jean Baudrillard as well as a number of other driving sources for his ever-churning yet mortal mind.


With that weight upon his shoulders and the expectations of the Gods, he waded through problem after problem in the field of AI. Dynamic template-based memory systems. Multi-dimensional pattern matching involving up to six dimensions. Intermediary datatypes for realtime iterative fractal systems and memory compression. Danton vaulted every hurdle he'd encountered while making a name for himself amongst his peers. Much like his predecessors and inspirations. As a result, Static Morphonics had grown to become a giant in the world of business intelligence and predictive market analysis. In a period of six years, Danton had advanced the company to the status of being a world giant in Big Data analysis and AI. As a result, he too grew in financial fortune while retaining his ever rebellious and flirtatious mind. In many ways, he was still the same person he'd been fifteen years earlier, a teenager writing complex hacks to appease his curious nature.


Despite his influences, he considered himself a product of his own generation. Generation A. You see, most people would assume that the Generation A moniker would refer to a reset of the alphabet based system of generational labelling. Generation X, then Y then Z and back to A. This however was not the case.


Generation A was a name given to his generation of coders after its basis upon the hexadecimal numeric system. A number system based upon sixteen rather than base ten, like our decimal numeric system, which in turn is based directly upon the number fingers that we have on both hands. Generation A, or better put Generation 0xA, was a clear deposition of independence from other generations by averting the alphabet, humankind's linear system of symbols, which came roughly at the same time, beside numerical digits. After all, we needed to know how, as much so as we needed to describe what. Generation A was the secret protest against the established order of things and his generation had revelled in its cleverness.


Hence, his parties which often showcased the latest graphics and music advances in coding technology that Generation A had to offer were the secret showcase for such advances. The holographic wall projection system was one such advance. It had enabled his parties to appear to take place anywhere imaginable and many places unimaginable. Just one look at the wall and you'd be convinced that what lay beyond was far from his mansion abode in King City, northwest of Toronto.


His guests would show up expecting to stay for the weekend, showcasing their lastest coding projects highlighting the fields of AI, graphics and audio. They were, in fact as much visual and aural artists as they were cerebrally so. A place for those who couldn't damper the speed or mind noise or their thoughts enough to fit in with the rest of society. They were either rich and making trends, breaking them or impoverished and on the cusp of the cutting edge. For many of them, Danton's parties were what kept them going for he had become the icon of what they represented.


Don't begin to think that for a moment this world of theirs was sexist, because it wasn't at all. In fact, the vast majority of coders who'd shown up to Danton's parties were women and much to the joy of the vastly lonely male coders. They had long been two worlds separated by the notion of gender and access to technology but in fact, while many male coders had been secretly in the making, there had been at least twice as many women secretly pursuing similar dreams. They felt themselves to be in the spirit of Lady Ada Lovelace, the first-ever coder and developer of programming languages. Lady Lovelace was a speculative friend of Mary Shelley (whose Mother was Women's Rights Activist Mary Wollstonecraft). After all, the first real programmer and coder in existence was a woman.


It had in fact begun with engineer and inventor Charles Babbage, who'd created the initial prototype for the first computers using steam-powered engines for computation and memory storage. Hence the long honoured tradition of the term engine being applied to any underlying software mechanism that provides higher-level functionality to the end-user applications for which they were designed.


You see, Babbage's Difference Engine was the first calculator. Actually, it was designed for determining the boundary graph for polynomial functions. Babbage later went on to design and work towards building the Analytical Engine, what would have been the first functional computer. In 1843, Lady Ada Lovelace had contributed to a scientific paper by Luigi Federico Menabrea speculating upon how the Analytical Engine could be used for computation, including the calculation of Bernoulli numbers. Her contributions to Menabrea's paper presented a proposal for the implementation of the first-ever programming language.


For many men of the time who'd long been fighting for women's rights and equality, that had been the sealing deal. The first-ever women's votes were ratified in 1881 on the Isle Of Man (notice the irony) and the British colony of New Zealand, and five other countries, including Canada. Lady Ada Lovelace's victory alongside those of her sister in spirit, Mary Shelley were the founding thread of the modern programmers around the world. Women and men alike. Ironic that Doctor Frankenstein's creator was so connected to our digital future and ultimately AI.


Much as women and men had come together to create babe, would they come together to create non-organic sentience?


And yet, on the eve of the unification of women and men of the field, there were still enemies of their greatest goal of creation: Artificial Sentient life. There were some who believed that the sole domain of consciousness was that of humankind alone. Perhaps as much so as there were those who in centuries prior had believed that the sole right of the vote was for mankind alone, and millennia prior to that had believed the Aerth to be the center of the universe and everything.


The changes that the future bring are largely underestimated.


And yet, as much as did Danton's party, the beat went on. Pounding and driving them all to dance. Perhaps imploring them to reach out and grasp another tradition that been present since our organic beginnings, both women and men. To move in rhythm to the pounding sound of our own hearts.


"I'm Miana. I've been standing there
by the embers of a holographic fire,
watching 
you..."
While Danton paid attention to his console, Miana from the darkness paid attention to him. In fact, she'd been eyeing him for the whole night since she'd arrived. Stealthily like a predator from the shadows she'd eyed her prey.


Miana loved men no doubt. Perhaps for the folly, their prominent ego had presented, a weakness of exploitation, for she loved to have and be in power over those who presumed, even modestly so, such a position over women.


To her, what was wielded by those of her admiration was as fun to be forcibly yielded. To watch them fall under the weight of the illusion brought on by their own ego. She became hot and perhaps wet over the prospect of breaking Danton, this icon of Generation A. Deronamor himself had chosen her for this reason and he had done so wisely for in the first few moments he'd presented an opening, she'd jumped like a sexually monstrous beast of pleasure and pain, for her pleasure arose from her wrought pain.


Danton's eyes had peered away from the console for the first time the whole night. He'd detected her. Looking at him and weighing his whole being. He knew when she was eyeing his hands and delicate fingers. He shivered as her eyes focused upon his abdomen and downwards towards his privates. He'd known somehow that she'd wanted to own him fully, yet he'd somehow found this arousing. Upon seeing her, his lips became taught perhaps yielding. At that moment he might have known his fate and yielded to it, for his own candle in life had burnt ever so brightly. Perhaps in seeing her, it was much like the feeling of tharn. With that look of one whose gaze is transfixed upon the headlights of an on coming vehicle about to crush them under tire and metal, he watched her approach.


"I'm Miana. I've been standing there by the embers of a holographic fire, watching you. I only moments ago decided that I'm going to sleep with you tonight and that we're going to make hot and fiery love many times before the morning. Realistically though its what you don't know about our night together that really turns me on. That is of course if you'd command me so?" she said in an ever so calculating and strategic fashion.


Danton heard her fully and became suddenly aroused by her. He'd encountered many vixens merely eeking the lavish comfort of his riches prior to Miana, yet he'd somehow found this one to be different. There was a spark to her eyes. A hidden mystery about her which he'd love to uncover. An engaging power struggle for which he'd longed. In an instant his earlier realization of fear had become predatorial, and he wanted her.


His eyes traced her tightly hugging black silk gown. It enveloped her figure and reflected the dance floor lights in a hypnotic pattern. Her physique was astonishingly fit, trim and sexual and he sought to find that point at which the slit in her dress became her privates. The ultimate secret which he in his appreciation for a mystery would love to explore. However, it was his analytical mind that momentarily preserved him.


"So are you telling me that's what brought you here? You sound like a lot of other enticing women who've come to me." Danton said to her in his attempt of flirtatious haggling.


"Well, maybe I'm not just any woman? Any woman you've ever known. Maybe I know you better than anyone alive." Miana insisted seductively.


"If that were the case, then what's left about me that would entice you to pursue me beyond my money?" Danton interrogated her.


"I care not for your money. I have my own and even if I didn't, it doesn't motivate me as much as it doesn't motivate you. Something of which those in-between financially know little. Perhaps the poor and the rich have more in common than you'd care to think for what drives men to riches or poverty but a motivation beyond as much whose value is beyond?" Miana posed.


"In your case, I care not what drives men so much as I care about what drives women. After all, this is about us, as members of the opposite sex seeking solace amongst one another?" Danton replied.


"Seeking? So you are." she ran her hand up her dress stopping momentarily at her hidden nipple, toying momentarily with his mind.


"So you compare what I'm imagining as a man, the vision of your exposed nipple and breast with that of my exposed cerebellum? You're hiding what appeals to me while trying to expose what appeals to you." Danton astutely noted.


"So you're more than just a dishevelled man-boy are you exerting your sense of control over the perfect world of computer and digital electronics? You've actually got a mind under that flesh of yours. Yet imagine what secrets lay within my mind for you to explore with your pursuit of my body. I would think that to a man such as yourself they're closely intertwined? I know your heart. I want it and to devour it. Every part of you with my lips." Miana suggested.


Danton suddenly found himself aroused by her. It had been building over time and with every moment he'd worked towards convincing himself that she was a gift from his friends. The perfect woman for him. His fantasy girl. She had in fact hit upon many of his personal turn-ons. His secret wishes. His parrying of lies. This was, in fact, a woman of his dreams, yet he'd failed to recognize the fact that maybe he was the object of her dark and secret fantasy.


He gave in, only seconds later, grabbing her hand. Together they walked hand in hand to a friend of his.


"Migan? I'm done for the night. You're now the most senior coder here. Take over this party. My dance console. Make sure they have fun. Inspire them! Make sure our Generation A is remembered." Danton tenderly kissed Minana's cheek.


She returned a long and passionate kiss, even winking at Migan for show.


"Coders will change this world!" Migan responded, accepting the responsibility handed him by Danton feeling more joy that his friend had met someone with which to share the night, though the darkness was something that Miana had never shared with anyone.


Miana led Danton up the way to his sleeping chambers, feigning her familiarity of his Manor as best she could. She slinked up the stairs, losing both of her shoes on the way. Danton picked them up as he followed her, barely taking his eyes from her as he did.


She enjoyed fully the seductive power of lure she held over him. By the time she'd made it to the door of his bedroom, she'd begun ever so slightly removing her dress. Gently sliding the shoulder straps off of her shoulders and down her arms, only letting it slide off of her body once she was safely through the doors of his bedroom. He closed and locked them behind himself, placing her shoes carefully by the door.


He watched her dress slide off and onto the floor, leaving her clad only in her undergarments and jewelry. She then crawled on her hands and knees up towards the top edge of the covers. Danton caught her foot, holding tight to it and he slithered up her body. She grabbed his belt and quickly unbuckled it, loosening his pants and pulling them down his legs. As she tossed them onto the floor, he removed his shirt, revealing his pale white thin and physically neglected body. She tossed his shirt to one of the corners of the room.


As he dipped his head, directing his mouth towards her lips, she suddenly stopped him.


"I'd much prefer to tame you, my dear Danton. In fact, I have brought some restraints with me for just such a fantasy?" she said attempting to pin his hands behind his back.


"Wha... you want to tie me up?" Danton looked shocked at the prospect.


"Why not? You wouldn't indulge a girl in giving in to her fantasy?" Miana responded looking somewhat disappointed.


"Well what's in it for me? I mean being restrained is a pretty big first step in a first encounter... Besides, it's not my kind of thing..." Danton answered her honestly.


"Well how about this. If you do that for me, I'll indulge you in any fantasy you want or have ever imagined as many times as you'd like, for the next month." Miana played him as she'd done with so many men.


While many were much more deserving of their final fate than Danton, few were as enticed by her offer. Danton had long-held many secret fantasies as she'd known of him. Being younger and inexperienced he'd never felt the confidence to speak of such things with any of his prior flings as he'd never had a romance before. Just short flings. He'd never clung to a lover and confided his deepest secrets to her. Most of his past experiences were short and convenient. Like fast food. Like having someone scratch an itch, and then returning the favour as quickly as possible out of the obligation of debt before parting ways. As such, he'd never bonded with anyone.


Miana confronting him about this and even alluding to the fact that this might go on for more than one night, possibly even a month opened him to his greatest weaknesses. Anticipation and hope. To him, it was as if Miana had just freed him from years of self-oppression.


"I'll do it. If you keep your promise, I'll do it." Danton agreed.


"You won't regret this..." Miana stated, brushing her fingers over one of her sapphire earrings.


She suddenly wielded a pair of blackened chains as if from out of thin air.


"Where were you hiding those?" Danton suddenly leaned up onto his haunches.


"Shhh... I'm magic don't you know...?" Miana held her finger to her lips, as she shushed him.


She'd told him the truth though he was hard pressed to know or understand it.


She quickly bound him to his own bed and from there she began to ravish him with doses of pleasure administered by her lips and dashes of pain rendered with her nails.


Danton suddenly became uncomfortable with the fact that he was so vulnerable to a woman that he barely knew. Part of him wanted to trust her while another part of him had come to the sudden realization that he was experiencing the last moments of his mortal life.


...


Shaela had been at the party for an hour before Danton had disappeared upstairs. Her long fiery red hair and her curvaceous figure-hugging dress had caught the attention of many. Especially those who were immediately enthralled by her classic gothic looks. She'd danced for the earlier part of the night enticing many of the younger men to which she was their senior by a decade or more, though she maintained a distance. She was in attendance at this party in her professional capacity as a Night Wytch of the Shadows. Much as Miana had found her prey, Shaela was still hunting her's.


After she'd spent an hour in the lounge speaking with one of the men who'd been flirting with her, she'd suddenly realized that the music had changed to match Migan's love of eclectic downtempo beats more so than the post-goth industrial that Danton had been playing that had pleasantly turned Shaela's crank so to speak.


Shaela immediately dismissed herself from the lounge and found her way into one of the six bathrooms that lined the basement. Within, she locked the door, for what Shaela had to do next, there was nobody in attendance who be could be privy to witness.


Shaela being a Wytch, and a member of a particularly deadly order of Wytch kind, the Order Of The Night Wytch, conjured a capsella of communication. Her hands writhed in a somnatically as she orated the weave. Moments later a portal manifested itself in her right earring. A portal through which she could communicate with her peers at the Sanctum.


"I've lost Danton dammit!" Shaela spoke frustratingly.


"Don't lose focus. It's not too late. Search the manor. Our scrying indicates that he left the basement with someone." Yirfir suggested calmly.


"Stay close and have reinforcements ready. Please! Unlike the last time?" Shaela insisted.


"I agree. We don't want another situation where your Shadow Cat eats all the perpetrators, the evidence and the witnesses too." Yirfir agreed.


"They were perpetrators as much as they were witnesses." Shaela reminded Yirfir.


"Yes, but we still needed them to make a case before the Sanctum." Yirfir reminded Shaela.


"What case is there for a Cannibal cult but my poor Shadow Cat's case of indigestion? My Shadow Cat was just doing us all a favour. I mean what about the people that they ate? They have no such representation as your giving the ones who ate them!" Shaela shot back at Yirfir.


"Let's focus on the task at hand. You need to track down Danton if you haven't already." Yirfir ordered Shaela.


"Then I'm on it. When I get back, we need to discuss some things about how these operations are planned and run." Shaela protested Yirfir.


Shaela transformed herself to her Night Wytch form, her skin brightening, becoming a pure milky white while her lips became a deep red nearly matching the tint of her hair. Her senses peaked and the entire night was her eyes. The greater the darkness, the greater her awareness of her surroundings. She took a deep breath as the immense awareness of the Manor at night hit her.


"Remember, we need to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. And don't allow yourself to be seen conjuring again." Yirfir ordered Shaela.


"Good. We're on the same page. I'll keep this conjuration open then." Shaela nodded, opening the bathroom door and exiting.


"Good thing. I'll have Nelony and Feylana on standby as your backup." Yirfir replied.


"Oh great. Nature girl and your weave empowered homeopathic healer. I hope that you'll at least send them with some lavender oil and an herbal tea in case it gets ugly? What happens if I need some real firepower?" Shaela demanded.


"Then you'll have me," Yirfir assured her.


"I guess you'll have to do until we have Mila back on our turf," Shaela grunted as she made her way back out into the party.


"Don't count on that. Mila's on permanent leave until further notice. You or Nelony are not to disturb her. Do you understand?" Yirfir demanded.


"I hear you but I definitely do NOT understand. I'll act on your orders as long as it suits me and what I believe to be right." Shaela responded.


"I couldn't really ask for anything more, Shaela." Yirfir reminded Shaela of her confidence in the Night Wytch.


The party had picked up in pace since Migan had taken over the console, though not because of his attendance at the deck, but because a hundred or so more party-goers had arrived bringing the total attendance up into the hundreds. A number that Danton's basement could easily accommodate.


Two strangers, Durath and Senchella had been watching Shaela from the beginning. From her arrival and descent into the basement. They'd both known of Shaela's true identity and of the existence of the Sanctum. Since the Battle of West View and the Haven, the Sanctum's secrecy had been greatly compromised throughout the planes of existence, making their mission that much more difficult. They were nearly operating in plain view while their numerous enemies operated from the unknown. Shaela nor the Order Of The Night Wytch or for that matter, the entire Sanctum no longer had the benefit of anonymity and secrecy. Even amongst the mortals of the Aerth, there were whispers and conjectures pertaining to their existence. Without the benefit of the Wytch-kind prodigy Mila Rendebelle, they were facing and adapting to their greatest threat yet. The threat of complete exposure.


During their last few operations, this threat had become very real. So much so that in two such operations, there were complete breaches of their tactical operations leaving Wytches such as Shaela, Yirfir and even Thara vulnerable to attack and often by far numbers and powerful magics in comparison to their own.


There had already been the loss of four prominent AI researchers, each of whom had completely disappeared as if they'd never existed. No trace could be found of them and the only elements linking the cases were the fact that they all were experts in the same field.


The Sanctum's initial focus was upon a Cannibal cult they'd detected when following leads on the trail of one of the disappeared. AI Researcher Darin Bouler. Darin had worked with Danton years prior though thanks to the pressure upon them and their egos, they eventually had a falling out. Since that point, Darin had founded his own AI startup, which had limited success in Statistical Financing. Three weeks before the first deployment of a new system of AI he'd been hard at work upon, he'd disappeared from the face of the Aerth.


It had been discovered that he'd attended a conference in Brantford, where he'd been in contact with several suspected key figures of the aforementioned cult, The Sons Of The Eternal Flesh. A group that was eventually discovered to not only have engaged in Cannibalism, humans devouring other human bodies for sustenance, but also were found to have utilized the weave to devour the souls of their victims. Memories. Histories. Everything.


The Sanctum quickly drew up plans to infiltrate and arrest members of this cult and have them brought to justice before the Sanctum's own judicial system and then the judicial system of civilization. During the operation, Shaela had been exposed, barely escaping with her own life. As a result of her urgent need for protection, she was forced to summon her Shadow Cat, which quickly vanquished all of the Cannibals, thereafter consuming all of their bodies in the process. Shaela had called it not-so-instant justice, in reference to those the cult members had already consumed despite the fact that the fate of the cult members themselves was very similar to that of their victims. They had become the prey of a giant predator that could taste and smell their intent reasoned Shaela, when forced to stand before the Council Of The Sanctum to answer for the failure of the operation.


The lives of other Wytches had been lost in other similar operations including a mishap that nearly cost Athandra her life. She was able to recover the situation which led to the current lead they had with regard to Danton being a possible next target though this lead came to them at great cost. The lives of two other Wytches. As the confidence of the existing Wytches dwindled, so too did the numbers that would arrive for the Sanctum's role call. This had become the downward spiral of the Sanctum since Mila's loss of Barris Windsor and her eventual abandoning of the Sanctum. Over time, more and more Wytches were leaving and of those that had left, their dissociation from the Sanctum was no longer a guarantee for their safety, for in being exposed, they were being hunted one by one.


Shaela was perplexed by this, as the downfall of Lorr, the Last Power Lord had relieved the Sanctum of its arch-enemy. The Power Lords and the Norbids. They were no longer. With the Twins of Lorr destroyed, their incestuous weave powered blood-line had been severed. Lorr no longer possessed his connection to Lyra. That link had died with the Twins and hence the source of his powerful magic was no longer. All that remained of Lorr was his Manor in L'Arbres De Noire and a few dedicated Norbids, whose magic was little compared to that of the Sanctum.


Since Lorr's fall, the Sanctum had left him in the confinement of his own Manor. His home had become his prison in a world that became increasingly unfamiliar to him and his ilk. He had lost his only link to the family of the Sanctum and as he'd only ever valued blood, he'd become lost in its absence. No longer a threat to the Sanctum nor a benefit to its current enemies, Lorr drifted further into his own forgotten history.


Shaela had spoken little with Nelony since Mila's final exit from the Sanctum, and had even insisted to Yirfir to keep them apart. Shaela considered that Nelony might be to blame for Mila's absence, as Nelony had clearly made a play for Barris weeks before his final demise, even visiting him in his dreams in order to ravage him.


There were few unknown secrets between the three women who'd at one time been close friends. Women who'd have gladly died for one another had become glad to be free from one another. Mila's betrayal by Nelony was just the final nail in the coffin of their friendship. A friendship whose death had signalled the coming demise of the Sanctum and had exposed its soft underbelly to its most cunning of enemies. Enemies whose plans had already succeeded even in the midst of Shaela Sheowellyn as a full Wytch of the Night.


"We've got our mark in our sights. Shaela has gone hot. Repeat, she'd gone full Night Wytch. Sending Senchella to intercept." Durath reported through his headset to the rest of Miana's security team.


Senchella wielded light like a weapon. To Durath, Senchella was the obvious choice to challenge a Night Wytch. She could shape existing light sources into deadly weapons both melee and ranged and it was for this reason that Shaela detected her first. As Senchella approached from behind her, Shaela took advantage of the strobe lights, for they were darkness and light intermixed. Upon the climax of the dark phase of the strobe, Shaela phased out of existence, suddenly reappearing behind Senchella, where she introduced Senchella to the ever consuming shadow.


Senchella, a short-haired and subtle beauty herself was suddenly consumed in the darkness of a Night Wytch's infinite shadow. She swung her arms about, extending the magical light beams cast from her hands hoping to skewer Shaela, only to find nothingness. When the darkness had consumed her hands, the light blades too had disappeared and she was met by Shaela herself from within the darkness.


"Senchella is it? You're a guest in the shadow realm. I'd suggest that you remain put while I find the rest of your allies. Perhaps then you will all stand justly for your deeds and there will be no need for death here. Just in case you don't agree, I have some shadow guardians ready to deal with you. I urge you not to tempt them. They're not as forgiving as am I." Shaela laid down the rules of her law.


Within the Shadow realm by which Senchella had been consumed, two large humanoids appeared, each composed entirely of the substance of shadows. They were armoured, each bearing a bladed shaft of shadow. The two of them kept vigil upon Senchella, standing twelve feet tall compared to her small five foot seven frame. She backed further into the shadow realm and up against the wall of a shadow canyon.


"My dear Senchella. I suggest that you remain here. There are predators here beyond your wildest nightmares. These aren't your prison keepers, they're your guardians. Without them you'll be dead, so don't try to leave them or lose them." Shaela advised her as a voice interrupted from her summoned communications capsella.


"Shaela, did you say Senchella? We're doing our best to scry information on your adversaries. Please restrain yourself until we're aware of whom we're dealing with." Yirfir advised her younger peer and colleague.


"She's already confined. I'll deliver her safely to you after I find Danton." Shaela assured Yirfir.


Shaela made her way towards the stairwell seeking her way into the higher extremities of Danton's manor where she detected his aura.


"I've got Danton aura. He's upstairs. His heart beat's accelerated and his blood flowing. I think he's..." Shaela began.


"No matter what he's doing, ensure his safety." Yirfir reminded her.


Meanwhile, Durath upon failing to receive a response from Senchella had sprung into action.


"This is Durath. I'm in pursuit of the Night Wytch. Senchella has fallen. All are free from restraint. Stop the Night Wytch at all costs! Repeat, stop the Night Wytch at all costs!" Durath screamed into his headset.


Shaela made her way up the stairs and onto the main floor landing and foyer of Danton's immense manor. A few guests remained on the ground floor perhaps avoiding the masses in the underground. Shaela made her way through them and towards the upper stairwell, leading to Danton's master bedroom.


On her way up, she was confronted by men falsely claiming to be Danton's security forces. She observed their shoulder patches, immediately recognizing them not to be of any such affiliation to Danton's company, Static Morphonics. Shaela struggled backwards as she let forth a fiery baton bolt. It flew through the air, a tumbling shaft of flame. It struck them as she fled and those behind her were immediately immolated while those ahead of her grasped at her. Ten in all had jumped her and eld her fast.


"The legendary Shaela Sheowellyn. It looks like we've got you. This is not the Sanctum's grounds of justice so we're just going to execute you. Sorry 'bout that. Nothing personal. " announced one of her captors, who failed to see the immense portal opening behind him.


"I think not. Right now, you're all but a Cat's play toy..." Shaela said as she struggled against her captors.


There was a moment of silence before the predator stepped into the light of the prey. It was immense and feline. A Giant as few had known. A fierce predatorial cat with two glowing red eyes. It was made of the stuff of darkness and shadows and yet cast only a shadow of nightmares. It knew the actions of its prey before they did. Worse, it could smell the morality of their intent, and not being of the goodness of life and truth, they were all doomed before they'd even become aware that they were in danger. It sniffed the air inhaling a tremendous gulp, tasting it in its special organ. Less than a second later, it saw every one of them for who and what they were.


"I gave you your warning. You had your chance. Farewell, fiends or should I call you hors d'oeuvres? Nothing personal." Shaela stood as her Shadow Cat Protector loomed immensely above them.


And with that, the Giant Cat was upon them. Had they shown Shaela mercy, that would have affected how the Shadow Cat had seen their true nature and it likely would not have attacked. Instead, their aura was wretched. An abomination to all of the living.


The two holding Shaela from directly behind her were consumed first. The Shadow Cat's jaws clamped down over both of them simultaneously, crushing their spines as the Cat lifted them from the floor and consumed them, clothing and all.


The others quickly released Shaela, running a distance from her and then turning to face the monstrosity. They too carried weapons of their own. The stamped metal firearm machine pistols commonly used by modern humankind. Three of them levelled their weapons upon the Cat and began firing. In the time that it took for the first couple of rounds to leave the barrels of their automatic weapons, the Cat was already upon them. It skewered two of them in its left paw. Squashing the third with its right. It roared at the remaining five who fell backwards onto their behinds as they cried and struggled to get away.


In one leap the Cat landed on all five of them, crushing them all. It then began to consume them too, leaving none of their remains.


"What's happening Shaela!!?" Yirfir demanded to know.


"My kitty is having some pet treats." Shaela replied.


"Forget the cat treats! Get to Danton right away and be careful!" Yirfir insisted.


"Then I'll be cautious. Did you hear that my friend? You're going to have to hold off on the treats for now..." Shaela said as she stroked the shadowy fur of her protector.


It purred loudly as the few guests who beheld the terror ran for their lives. It paid little attention to them for it had tasted only the curiosity of enjoyment and the passions of their pursuits in their pheromones and aura. Their intent was no more ill than was the intent of a child on a merry-go-round. Enjoying the ride though a little fearfully.


Moments later, Shaela urged her protector beast to the doorway of Danton's abode. His Master Bedroom.


"We've got to do this. Cautiously my friend." Shaela implored of her Cat protector.


With that, the Giant Shadow Cat broke the double doors of Danton's Master Bedroom, barely able to fit through them. Beyond was revealed a scene of horror.


Shaela recognized her face immediately. It was Miana. Mianamor Selembrosi. Fellow Night Wytch and former member of the Sanctum.


"It's not too late Mianamor. You can still release him. Don't do this. It won't bring him back..." Shaela implored of Miana.


"You think me still fraught with grief over my loss of Clygan? He is but a faded memory. You know so little of me Shaela. I was always the superior Night Wytch to you. Even in the eyes of Thara." Miana lied masking her pain.


"Then why let this feeble man die? Is he the true challenge of someone of your stature more so than I?" Shaela tried to lure her into attack.


"My mercy lies purely within the shadows themselves, Shaela. You should know as much. Clygan is as much a part of the shadows as is the night itself. Freeing this man will not bring Clygan to be once more, though Mr. Danton's passing will surely help us all to bypass a particularly difficult obstacle in the Aerth's future. Let the shadows be the judge." Mianamor's piercing eyes found Shaela's, and then turned their attention to Shaela's enormous Shadow Cat.


Before them all, Danton lay naked upon his own bed. Chained and bonded, arms and legs bound he was unable to free himself as the onslaught of darkness crept upon him. The darkness of thousands of shadow insects, both crawling and flying slowly covered his body like a dark cloud. They devoured Danton's flesh and bone until nothing of him remained. Not even his screams.


As Miana directed the insects, Shaela used the darkness to close the distance to her nemesis, but by that time it was too late. Danton was already gone.


"What have you done?!..." Shaela pleaded with Miana.


Shaela's immense Cat roared, leaping at Miana as she attempted to dodge. Miana's shadow insect army suddenly turned its attention towards the much larger feline predator. The top predator of the shadow realm, the giant Shadow Cat had quickly been reduced to prey. It furiously scratched and chewed at the insects as they covered its body, slowly consuming it.


Miana had used the distraction to attack Shaela. The palms of Miana's hands suddenly sprouted poisonous mandibles and she attempted to strike Shaela's bare flesh. Shaela caught her by the wrists, struggling against the younger woman's strength of body and ferocity.


Miana forced Shaela down onto the floor, landing atop of her still struggling against Shaela's clasp of her wrists.


"I've longed for this moment for so long. To see you perish and leave me the opening that I need to remove Thara as the Matron of our order. The Sanctum has grown weak and worse, it has lost the passion of a sure direction. It has lost its compass. You're part of a dying order. Yield now and I promise to make your passing painless and I shall ensure that your memory is preserved in the Universalis Codex as it should be." Miana insisted, leaning with her full body weight upon Shaela's frail arms.


"Never. Should I fall today stopping you, it will be a worthy sacrifice." Shaela forced the final bit of strength from her arms before they gave out.


Miana's poisonous mandible palms drove towards Shaela's face. As Shaela saw what she believed to be her last moment, a giant claw pierced Miana's breastplate as she struggled. Miana's expression became one of complete and utter shock.


"...how?..." Miana pleaded as she was dragged backwards by what remained of the Shadow Cat.


Miana resisted the shadow cat's clasp as best she could, conjuring her own shadow portal between this world and the shadow realm with her last bit of strength as the Shadow Cat struggled against the devouring army of shadow insects.


Miana freed herself from the giant claw and dove through the portal, completely disappearing into the black nether of the shadow abyss, while Shaela's Shadow Cat protector struggled against its dying breath.


Shaela cast forth a breath of pure shadow, giving up half of her life to the dying Cat. It was slightly reinvigorated but still succumbing to the insect army. As its final act, it too cast out a breath of shadow essence and then disappeared into Miana's portal, bringing Miana's shadow insect army with it.


Moments later, Miana and Shaela's Shadow Cat protector were gone into the dark abyss of the Shadow Realm.


Nothing remained of Danton but the chains that had previously bound him.


Shaela brushed at imaginary insects upon her body falling to her knees as she did suddenly feeling the tremendous pain her Cat had endured before it fell. She stood there in shock, barely able to move or breathe.


She shivered and then gasped, inhaling a volume of air.


"They're all gone. Danton. Miana. My Cat. All of them. Gone. It's over." Shaela spoke, struggling against her tears as she reported to Yirifir and the Sanctum.


Shaela fell to her knees pounding the floor with her bare hands.


"Shaela, you must return to the Sanctum. Now. You need the attention of a healer. We need to go over this with you. This is a serious matter and the future of the Aerth depends upon us. Upon you." Yirfir pleaded.


"I could have saved him. I could have stopped her." Shaela spoke aloud though more for herself.


"We still have a chance. Get back to the Sanctum..." Yirfir demanded.


"Wait... I still have Senchella... bringing her in..." Shaela responded.


A moment later Shaela picked herself up and summoned a portal between Danton's bedroom on Aerth and the eternal Midspace of the Sanctum. She stepped through the portal and a moment later, she was gone.


As the portal closed, Migan and several other patrons of the party ran in through the destroyed double doorway of Danton's manor bedroom.


He looked around the room, which was devastated, with holes in the walls and the carpet, though there were no signs of any presence in the room. Just the aftermath. A gigantic trail appearing to have been etched by the tremendous claws of a feline could be traced for nine feet across the wall.


On Danton's bed, only the comforters and the quartet of chains which had bound him remained.


"Hey dudes and dudettes! I think Danton got seriously laid..." Migan said shaking his head, clearly unaware of the seriousness of the situation.



Bottle, Brush And Stroke


[Writer's note: This chapter is a complete rewrite of the original chapter in the original version of A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity that I had written perhaps a year and a half ago. Since that time, I've lost, had stolen a number of my written items including Stories From The End (of which I still have an older copy) and A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity. So this chapter is a complete rewrite of the original chapter from the original book version I'd already started about a year and a half ago. There might be a copy on my hard drive somewhere but it is far too difficult to find, so I thought I'd pen this one.]


Mila sat in front of the empty canvas staring into its white abyss. She'd been looking at it for two hours during which time she'd consumed a bottle and a half of her favourite Merlot.


Mila appeared haggardly and unkempt for she'd fallen into a state of social isolation. A depression since Barris' departure from the land of the living. He'd sacrificed himself so that Mila's parents could live on. The deal made by Lorr, The Last Power Lord, for it was he that had recognized and revealed that Mila's pendant contained the secret covenant made by Mila in a warehouse in Alivale. A deal she'd made after defeating Lorr in the weave powered combat of magic that would allow her parents to be returned from death so long as she'd kept that secret and protected the pendant. For with the pendant, she'd completely rewritten her original path of time, hence breaking the most fundamental law of the Sanctum. The preservation of the true objective history begat by the combined subjective unconscious memories of all who'd lived it. Living and dead alike. This was the very essence of the Librum Universalis Codex, that which gave the Sanctum its purpose. The universal book of the true memory of time.


When in 1664, in the European colonial townships of West View, Alivale and Sharlesbury there had been a great cleansing of the population, the Codex cried out to the Sanctum, for it had fallen out of synch with truth, and when that happened, the burden was that of the membership of the Sanctum to bear. Each and every one of them could feel it to the depths of their soul. This had been their primary function for scrying injustice upon the Aerth and before the eyes of the Aerth Mother, who watched over all life on her beloved world with an ever-loving gaze. Never interfering but always hoping for our best.


So when the great Wytch Hunt of the 1600s had begun, and so many had become erased from the annals of history, it had been the Sanctum that had dealt with the problem, never realizing that they'd been drawn into a much bigger cat and mouse game and the age-old plans of Lorr, to dominate the world and to subjugate everyone to the power of his bloodline.


Lorr had kept the secret of magic from humankind, instead, keeping it within the confines of his bloodline and family. He'd been the husband of Lyra, who'd broken his will to keep the secret of the weave. Instead, she taught it freely to others based upon the value of their sense of honour and merit more so than their bloodline or subservience to Lorr. Of course, this all happened thousands of years prior to our time in a much different age.


The two split apart with Lorr taking their children, a girl and boy pair of twins while Lyra departed with her magical trainees and founded what would become the first Sanctum. While Lyra cultivated honour, goodness, peacefulness and vigilance, Lorr cultivated the power of their bloodline through the interbreeding of their children, the twins. With every successive generation, the twins had become exponentially more powerful until thousands of years later and perhaps a hundred generations past, they were nearly as powerful as the gods.


Lorr's plan had been to wipe out the Sanctum and to gain hold of the Librum Universalis Codex, hence giving him the power to completely rewrite the memory of the history of time in his favour. Giving him complete control over the Aerth which would only become the launching point of his conquest of the Grand Universal Planes Of Existence. Worlds that existed beyond our own, not only in distant places or times but in different dimensions from our own.


Ultimately though it had all come down to one secret covenant sworn by Mila to revive the man who would become her lover, Barris Windsor. In the end and due to the covenant, she also gained her parents, who'd been lost during a fatal accident. With this secret of a twisted and untruthful history, she built her love with Barris, and upon their final confrontation with Lorr, like some malevolent card trick he'd kept up his sleeve, he revealed her covenant. If not for Barris' sacrifice, time would have been restored and Mila's parents would now be deceased. Instead, Barris gave up his own life with the hope that one day he would figure out a way to return to Mila.


It had been six years since his death and during that time Mila had sunken into an ever growing depression. Isolation which had known no bounds. It was not so much that she had lost someone else that she'd loved. It was moreso that she'd lost a part of herself. Perhaps as much so as Barris had lost the same in losing her.


So here she was six years later. A professional artist whose time had come and gone with that of her lover. She sat as she had so many nights before in front an empty canvas. Much as she mostly suspected the canvas would remain by the end of the night.


She eyed the clock, an old grandfather clock. In fact, Barris' favourite indicated precisely, three in the ante meridiem. The wee hours of a Sunday morning. Time had somehow escaped her over the years and her temporal awareness had diminished. She no longer cared as to whether it was Friday or Monday. After all, every day was the same. The sun rose and lit the land for some time before it proceeded onward around the world. Eventually shrinking and hiding behind the horizon, giving rise to darkness. The day that followed was the same as the day that preceded.


In fact, she'd often regarded her time with Barris as being the only thing that had brought randomness into her life. The act of working together to accommodate each other had brought the element of surprise to her. And Barris was oh so good at surprises. She'd spent many surprise romantic nights with him. Impromptu vacations from life he'd called them. He'd decorate the house with candles before she awoke on a Saturday morning, and have her breakfast ready for her on the table. From there they'd enjoy a Champagne Spritzer, dancing to Glory Box and Kiri. Beyond that point, I'd be hard-pressed to speak of what went on in the bedroom between them. Suffice it to say that it was their treasure, and any pirates ready to loot the booty of theirs or the romantic secrets of others may they be eternally damned. There are some secret treasures that one simply should never plunder.


Mila was not so much dependent upon Barris as much as they had become a part of one another since their initial meeting. Losing such an integral piece of one's life was never easy, and for Mila, it had become tantamount to near ruin. A ruin that was currently looking her in the eye. Laughing at her absence of spark by way of an empty canvas. For Mila was a professional artist by trade, who'd not produced a work of any kind in six years.


Instead in her growing frustration she grabbed the entire palette of paint she'd prepared and threw it at the canvas. Then she began to cry. Weeping gently at first and then in a torrential downpour of tears and wine. There was some pain that scarred the soul and took years to emerge. All at once it came out, spilling onto the canvas.


She pitched the remainder of her bottle of Merlot at the spoilt canvas and wine smeared the dripping colour pattern of oil that had marred her canvas. The colours dripped until they merged, a rainbow of hue and wine. Mila's tears broke and she struggled for her breath, wiping her face dry.


It was at that moment that she'd spied something peculiar about the canvas. She shook her head and returned her gaze to the same space on the canvas.


"It can't be... No. It can't be..." she shook as she spied a familiar yet accidental iconography upon her impromptu painting.


It was a glyph. One that she recognized.


She suddenly leapt to her feet, stumbling in her drunkenness and falling to the floor. She got to her feet still rubbing her thigh and hip as she leapt up the basement stairs to the main floor where she ran towards the study.


There she arrived and found her way to a tall oak cabinet. She opened the doors and filtered through the drawers beyond, looking for something very particular. When she happened upon it, she paused halfway between wonder and terror as she opened the first love letter Barris had written for her. She read the letter slowly, savouring every memory once again as fresh as the moment she'd first read it. When she arrived at the bottom of the page, she was greeted by the very same glyph she'd spied upon the palette, for the glyph in all actuality was Barris' signature. The B and the W intermingled to form a new icon unique unto itself.


She took the letter and the envelope that contained it and ran down the stairs to her basement studio. Narrowly avoiding another fall, she found her way to the stool before the same canvas where she compared what she'd observed with Barris' own signature. Side by side, they appeared almost exactly one and the same. It was then that Mila's heart nearly stopped, but in fact, it had only skipped a beat.


"I can't... This can't be... Oh honey... please... something..." she plead with the canvas.


This time she was up and on her feet again running towards a toolbox on a table holding a stockpile of her paint supplies. She ripped the toolbox open drawing forth from it a spying glass, which she wielded ever so gently as she returned to the canvas. She used it to examine the rainbow of colours that followed what she'd deemed to be Barris' signature. She squinted carefully as she examined a section of splattered paint, suddenly seeing Barris' own cursive writing in the boundaries between colours. She began shaking as the tears began to flow again, for she was more in fear that she might be imagining this. The investment in faith was far too great for her spirits. She needed proof. So it was that she tried to read what appeared to be Barris' scrawl amidst the colours of a random paint splatter.


Pendant  not lost   I'm safe for now   I'll find you   you find me   Snuggles   Sato's cooking   call me nobody   fallen kingdom found   they're watching   If I say they know   love is for you

At the end of what she was able to discern she found another copy of his signature. She quickly pulled her cellular phone from her pocket and snapped a shot of the canvas, still shaking.


"I've got to show someone... who?" Mila pondered aloud.


Then it came to her.


"Sato? Sato. I've got to get to Sato." she insisted to herself.


She ran down to the far end of her studio and opened a door there. Beyond was her wine cellar. A climate controlled section of the basement that had stored a collection of her favourite wines. She grabbed two more bottles of Merlot and a bottle of Sake for Sato, and then returned to the canvas.


"Ok. How do I create a portal?" Mila asked herself never having channelled her own teleportation portals before.


In fact, it was part of the curriculum she'd never studied at the Sanctum. Nelony had studied it. Shaela had studied it. Yirfir and Jasmir too. Mila had never deemed it to be personally useful until now and this very situation.


"Dammit, I'm a Master of Aetherial Artistry. The only one of my school. I'll figure it out!" she urged herself.


How hard could it be to travel so far? She'd only need to get to Shepperton off the Thames, a district in London where Sato's Shop had been for the last forty years. After all it was only a mere five and a half thousand kilometres to London from Alivale.


She thought of the world as a canvas and then considered how she might magically travel that distance.


A few feet away, one of her cats, meowed loudly. It sat still looking at her confidently.


"Come on Snuggles. Come here... tsk tsk tsk" she urged her cat over to her.


After several tries the cat remained where it sat. Her pet Beagle, Muggielump began barking at Snuggles the cat perhaps urging the cat to go to Mila as she'd insisted.


Mila instead stood and went over the Snuggles, who stepped further way where she began meowing again.


"What has gotten into you Snuggles?" Mila said as once again followed the cat.


It was then that she realized that Snuggles was trying to tell her something.


"Wait. You mean that I shouldn't be asked how I get to London. I should be asking how I get London to me, you little sneak? You mean that I should bend the canvas so that London and Alivale are so close together that I can just make one step to get to London?" Mila looked in amazement to her cat.


Snuggles looked up at her and meowed again.


"You're brilliant Snuggles! I'll give it a try." Mila responded returning to the canvas still slightly drunk.


Mila concentrated, conjuring the weave first then shaping it before she applied it to reality. From there, she began to shape reality itself and more specifically time and space. She first tried bending it, the space between London and Alivale, only to find that she'd actually brought the star Alpha Centauri to within fifty parsecs of Aerth. She quickly returned that portion of time space back to normal and then continued working on bringing London to her.


She moulded the Aerth a few times like a sculpture, becoming familiar with its density and form before she pressed them together into one. Time and space. From there she bridged the two in their relationship to London and Alivale. Suddenly an oddly shaped portal opened within her studio.


"Well Snuggles, I think that it worked. There's a lot of food in your bowl and the water feeder is full. I'll be back soon." Mila said as she stepped through the portal with two bottles of Merlot and a bottle of Sake, thinking that portal travel would be like walking. She was of course gravely mistaken.


In a sense, portal travel was much like walking if your leg span was two thousand kilometres and you were shaped like a six-dimensional Mobius strip. Of course with Mila being neither, her trip was quite bumpy. Add to that the fact that she was already mostly intoxicated on Merlot wine and the trip wasn't very pleasant at all. A moment after the portal had swallowed her, she was belched out onto a familiar wooden floor in the middle of a knick-knack shop.


"What in the blazes was that? Is that you again Happīu~isuka?" Sato said stepping out into his shop.


Sato had just finished his breakfast and was preparing to open the shop for the day. He approached the front door of his shop, where he flipped the light switch to the right of the door. He then turned the latch on the door, unlocking it with a loud click.


"Sato?!" Mila gasped.


Sato turned, suddenly startled by her voice, turned to face a lady in her late twenties laying on his shop floor.


"How may I ask did you get in my shhhh...   Mila? Is that you?" Sato asked her in complete amazement.


Mila rolled over onto her bum and proceeded to speak.


"Yes... I don't feel too well. I just travelled five and a half thousand miles... in like half a second. I can't even remember how I cast that darn weave. Have you got a corkscrew?" she handed him the two bottles of Merlot and a bottle of Sake.


"I see. None of us have seen you for a long time but you're always welcome nonetheless. Please, come in and relax. Would you like something to eat?" Sato offered her is hand and she accepted.


"No thank you. Well, maybe a snack if you have something to offer. Chips? Snacks?" Mila suggested.


"Did you bump your head on way here Mila? This isn't a convenience store. You know that."


"I'll do my best. I suggest that you get into my back office and seated. Are you sure that you wouldn't prefer a tea? I've got many different varieties, coffee even?" Sato answered.


"No. I'd much prefer the corkscrew and a wine glass. We need to talk. I suggest you get a Sake glass. You're going to need it." Mila advised the much more senior Sato.


"Mila. Just for you. I'll bring a wine glass. A corkscrew too. I'll also bring two Ochoko though I plan not a drink at this time." Sato gave Mila his back, just as she addressed his departure.


"If you'd watch me drink myself into a drunken state alone, then what kind of friend are you?" demanded Mila.


"I only bring Ochoko for Barris and myself. It is tradition Mila. Let me remind you that you are in MY shop. You play by my rules." Sato turned his back to her and proceeded in the direction of his dining ware.


"Then bring your second Ochoko, for it is in Barris honour... to his revival that we drink..." Mila scourged him.


"Revival? You mean that Barris is..." Sato stopped, dumbfounded.

Rainforest Wytch


Dandelbraden sat atop a tree branch, high amidst the jungle canopy, his pinkish-tanned skin standing out like a sore thumb amidst branch and brush alike. Dandelbraden was a nineteen year old Scandinavian student with the University Of Copenhagen. During his summer vacation he'd been volunteering for PEN, Protect the Environment Now, an activist group protecting rainforests in Brazil. His body wiry and fit enough for such an ascent into the tree tops, which he'd made an hour earlier with the benefit of specialized climbing gear and training. One would think that with his messy punk style spiked hair that he'd stand out like a sore thumb, but in this environment, he actually fit in better than most.


From sixty feet in the air, upon a tree limb, he observed the movements of a Pathfinder SAVS, a semi-autonomous tracked scout that led numerous large tree scouring vehicles through the rainforests of Brazil.


"I've got eyes on a Pathfinder. About a hundred meters north of your position, Treetop 2. Over" Dandelbraden advised one of his team mates.


The Pathfinder paused, examining a tightly packed grove of hundred-year-old trees, examining them before moving towards a less dense and newly grown batch of jungle greens. The pathfinder paused as it sampled the CO2 levels in order to determine the age of its target batch.


"Treetop 1, it looks like they're heading for these younger trees, though I'd bet they'll go for the old agers. The hundred and over grove. Over." Athelbra replied, responding to Dandelbraden's earlier signal.


At eighteen years old, Athelbra was a second-year student herself, though she studied at the University Of Jordan. Much like her counterpart, Dandelbraden, she too was fit, though shorter and more curvaceous. Her long hair she kept wrapped in a bun atop her head to keep it from getting in the way. Her tanned face housed two deep brown eyes, a tiny nose and naturally pinkish-red lips. Though certainly very attractive, her interests were more geared towards academia than romance. Being firm and confident, she was very good at brushing off the noble or devious attempts of any men to bed her, and there had been many. Dandelbraden had been one of her first real male friends, a bond they'd formed early on as he was the first man she'd met that hadn't tried to pick her up within five minutes of meeting her.


"Copy that. Wait. It's changing direction. It's headed towards your location Treetop 2. Over." Dandelbraden watched as the Pathfinder turned in its tracks and started heading directly towards the grove of trees in which Athelbra was perched.


It continued moving, sniffing the air as it did through a filtered snorkel atop its chassis. It paused once again and a small flying drone emerged from a shuttered alcove atop its chassis. The drone flew into the grove of trees, sampling the air taking measurements via chemical chromoscopy camera. The drone quickly flew back to the Pathfinder and landed back in its alcove.


The Pathfinder's horn and sirens signalling three times, the sound of the air horn echoing through the jungle.


"That's it. That's their signal. It just called in the tree shredders on your grove, you have to get down. Now!" Dandelbraden blared into his headset.


"Already working on it!" Athelbra started the precarious descent back to the jungle floor, a task which could easily take twenty minutes.


She vowed to herself that she'd do it in under two minutes.


She checked her pitons first and then leaned off of the supporting limb, allowing the climbing tether to bear her full weight. She began inching her way down, using the release grip on her swiss chair to feed more tether. If she descended too fast, there was the risk that her pitons atop the tree might give, in which case she'd fall the full sixty feet likely to her death. The tension grip of the swiss chair could break, in which case it would either sieze and prevent the feeding of any tether stopping her descent altogether, or it simply wouldn't stop feeding tether in which case she'd fall.


The tree shredders suddenly appeared, there were three of them. Large blue vehicles with a pair of multi-toothed grinders in front and an arm atop which would hold the tree as the grinders did their work. The arm would then cut the tree into twenty-foot lengths and lay them into the pail on the back of the machine.


The shredders were heading directly for the grove of trees where Athelbra struggled to descend. She felt the ground rumbling at their approach and knew that at this height, the drivers would never see her. She'd be as good as dead once they set upon the grove. She only had minutes to get down and she was still up fifty feet.


In an effect to pick up her pace, she clamped her hand around the tension grip for the swiss chair, and she suddenly plummeted towards the ground at nine point eight meters per second squared. Gravity had taken the driver's seat in her descent. Suddenly the swiss chair locked, and she was violently flipped upside down, dangling from the tree at a height of thirty feet. A negligible height. If she had to cut the cable, she could survive the fall, possibly escaping with minor contusions and a broken limb. Nonetheless, she'd still have her life.


She struggled, searching for her vest pocket in which a utility knife resided. She unclipped the pocket and the knife tumbled out, falling to the jungle floor beneath her.


"Treetop 1, this is Treetop 2. I'm not going to make it down. I'm at the thirty-foot mark. I'm behind the tree from the perspective of the tree shredders. They're not going to see me in time. I just lost my knife so I can't cut my line either. I'm done for. Any suggestions? Over." Athelbra steadied herself against the tree as the pressure swelled within her head.


"I'm at the twenty-foot mark myself. I'm coming to get you. Just hold on! Over!" Dandelbraden made his way down the remaining twenty feet and fell the jungle floor as he landed.


He mucked about with his climbing gear trying to free himself, leaving the swiss chair and his climbing vest behind. He ran for Athelbra's position some three hundred and fifty meters away. The tree shredders had arrived and were already devouring the first line of trees. Another two minutes and they'd be at Athelbra's tree.


Dandelbraden ran, tripping over a large root, sliding to the ground with a thud, scraping his knee against the root as he did. He struggled to his feet and found that he could no longer run.


"Just hang in there, I'm nearly there." he lied.


"That's exactly what I'll do. After all, I have no choice in that matter." she replied to him jokingly.


He cursed his leg and he struggled to sprint, only falling once again. He got to his feet once again and pushed himself to his limits.


Athelbra's consciousness slowly escaped her as the blood rushed to her head. So much so that she began to hallucinate. There floating before her was a pretty blonde haired lady, certainly not clothed for this environment. She wore a long, light coloured coat, wore green jeans and a reddish blouse and two low heeled boots.


"You're in a bit of a predicament aren't you?" asked Nelony as she hovered before Athelbra like a guardian angel.


"I think so. I'm close to passing out. I'm assuming that you're a hallucination?" Athelbra asked the angel.


"Well, yes and no. I'm a friend and certainly an ally. It's a pretty courageous thing you're doing here. It would be a shame to lose your life doing so. However, that's not going to happen." Nelony replied as she gestured with her hands shaping the weave before Athelbra.


The tree suddenly came to life, animated in every way. One of its limbs reached for Athelbra, branches opening like a hand to grasp her.


Another couple of limbs grasped the line holding her in place and snapped it, free her from her predicament. Then, the tree passed her safely from limb to limb until she was planted upon the jungle floor.


"Now to deal with those machines..." Nelony floated towards the oncoming tree shredders.


The driver of the first shredder caught sight of Nelony first, as she floated a meter away from the cab of his machine.



"O que? Quem é Você? O que você está fazendo aqui! Isso é perigoso para você, senhora. É melhor você ir embora. Você pode se machucar com esta máquina." the driver spoke through a loudspeaker on his shredder.

[Translation: What? Who are you? What are you doing here! This is dangerous for you lady. You'd better leave. You could get hurt by this machine.]


"Não se preocupe comigo, estou perfeitamente seguro. É com você que eu estou preocupado. Veja bem, as pessoas para quem você trabalha enviaram você e sua equipe para cá ilegalmente. Você está violando os termos de um tratado mundial ratificado pelas Nações Unidas para proteger essa região de selva, mas aposto que você não sabia disso." Nelony spoke in perfect Porteguese.


[Translation: Don't worry about me, I'm perfectly safe. It's you that I'm worried about. You see, the people that you're working for sent you and your team here illegally. You're violating the terms of a world treaty ratified by the United Nations to protect this region of jungle, but I'd bet that you didn't know that.]



"Quem é Você? A natureza Polícia?" asked the driver.

[Translation: Who are you? The nature Police?]


"Não, sou muito pior. Eu sou a bruxa da selva." Nelony replied as the forest surrounding the shredders came to life.

[Translation: No. I'm much worse. I'm the Nature Wytch.]


Suddenly the day became and night and the jungle darkened to an eerie blackness. From every direction, there was the sound of snapping branches as the trees were no longer trees, but sixty-foot tall giant behemoths, with multiple arms, and long sharp claws and teeth. Their eyes glowed with fire and their mouths frothed. Every tree in the grove they'd been cutting came to life in this way and started to advance upon the machines.


The driver screamed his lungs dry as he put his shredder in reverse, dropping the tree he'd been devouring. The other shredders followed suit, quickly speeding back in the direction from whence they'd come.


Dandelbraden arrived and quickly found Athelbra laying on the ground, recovering from her earlier plight.


"Thank goodness you're alright. I mean it really would have been a drag to have to look for another mate for my team you know." Dandelbraden joked as he lay down cowering beside Athelbra at the giant horrors currently about them.


"We're not out of this yet. We still have to deal with her." Athelbra advised him.


"Who?" Dandelbraden asked her, still cowering beside her.


"The nature lady. My guardian angel." Athelbra told him.


"She means me." Nelony startled them both as they huddled together.


Nelony descended to the ground to join them, sitting just beside them as the jungle slowly returned to normal. The night returned to day and there was peace in the jungle once again.


"Who are you? What are you?" Athelbra asked the blonde haired lady.


"That depends upon who you ask. If you ask them, the drivers of those shredders, I'd say that I'm a bad day. I'd hope that if someone asked you the same question about me, that you two would regard me in a much better light, or even better, not regard me at all. Just pretend none of this ever happened. Besides, if you ever tried to describe this to anyone else, you'd be labelled as being insane, or a conspiracy theorist, which to many people is essentially the same thing." Nelony advised them.


"How did you do those things? I mean, you can fly. You can animate the trees to come to life. I'm guessing by your British accent that you're not from Brazil, but you just spoke impeccable Porteguese. Is there anything that you can't do?" Athelbra asked Nelony.


"Well, surprisingly enough with me being from Britain and all, I can't quite get the hang of cooking bubble and squeak, one of my favourite dishes. Also for some reason, my begonias never seem to turn out. There's a lot of other things too, so yes, there are many things I can't do." Nelony answered them.


"Do you live here? Do you protect this jungle?" Athelbra asked her, pressing her further for answers.


"No. I don't live in here. I do protect jungles, habitats and their fauna all over the world. Not just jungles, just about everything to do with nature that can be interfered with by humankind." Nelony answered her question.


"You're an activist aren't you? Are you with Greenpeace? PETA?..." Athelbra became excited and began asking a barrage of questions.


"That takes a lot of courage to do those things. I support them for sure and keep tabs on them too. That's what led me to find you in this predicament. Just keep up the good work, but don't ignore your schooling either. Focus on that and find a good career when you graduate. If you don't graduate, don't be too hard upon yourself. You can still do anything you put your heart and mind to. You're safe from here. Your friends will be here to pick you up soon. In another half hour, I'd say. I must be going, there's still much to do." Nelony stood and began summoning a portal for herself thirty feet in the air for security's sake.


"Can we join you? You know, become your secret apprentices?" asked Athelbra.


Nelony paused at that question. Something about which she'd recently been giving much thought. After all, since the death of Nelony Theearin, she was the last of her Order, the Order Of The Aerth Mother. The last Aerth Wytch and she wasn't getting any younger, even with the Sanctum's anti-ageing effect. Taking on apprentices was something very important if she'd intended to carry on the tradition of her Order.


The Aerth Mother: Matron Goddess Of The Order Of The Aerth Mother
Hundreds of years earlier, in the 1600s, the Aerth Wytches were hunted nearly to complete extinction, leaving Nelony Theearin, the last of the Aerth Wytches as the carrier of the knowledge of the Aerth Mother, a powerful deity derived from the combined magical energies of the Aerth. She often appeared in the form of a beautiful woman, with long silvery hair. In fact in ancient myths, they believed the Milky Way galaxy to be her hair and that she held and nurtured the Aerth in her bosom. She was the sum force and manifestation of their magical energy, which they referred to as the weave, though the weave is infinite and extends beyond our universe into many other worlds and planes in all of existence. All of this knowledge would be lost if Nelony were never to take on an apprentice.


"I'll be watching. I will return one day to answer that question. For now, continue with your lives as if you'd never have met me. Please don't force me to make you forget our encounter." Nelony floated into the air and into the whirling blackness of her summoned portal.


A moment later she was gone.


"We've got to keep this secret." Athelbra advised Dandelbraden.


"I know. I know." Dandelbraden kissed her forehead gently, intending compassion more so than passion, and she understood.


They lay together for another forty five minutes until the utility vehicle arrived to pick them up. They slept for the rest of the four hour trip back to Alta Floresta.


Ancient And Alone


Barris walked the length of a long roughly dug trench-way, grasping tightly a flaming torch. The shadows danced amidst the intrusions of light, leaving spots in his vision as he strode forward. His sandaled foot struck a stone and he winced in pain, cursing his conditions.


His anger wasn't so much focused at the pain that he was experiencing as it was at the lack of Sato's presence through which he could deal with such pain through humour. Quite often at Sato's expense.


"Well, it looks like you're not even here for that...!" Barris cursed, stumbling once again, this time into a pothole.


He grasped at the walls of the trench which gave easily as he fell forward, kissing the ground roughly with his left cheekbone.


Oddly enough the torch landed as if it had been purposely driven into the dirt, there the flames standing a foot and a half above the ground, still dancing their hypnotic randomness.


"Well, how do you like this Doctor Alicia Westin? Only moments ago I was talking with you through a gaping hole in the ground, and now I'm getting intimate and cozy with the underside of a trench." Barris lay still as he spoke.


"Decide to speak through a hole in the ceiling in this underground cavity and who do I get? Doctor Alicia Westin. Doctor of nothing useful at all. Doctor of public speaking. Doctor of show and tell. Hello peoples. Look at me, the pretty girl with the Doctor prefix on her name." he mocked the futility of his situation.


At that moment, the torch which had been stable in the ground now teetered over just barely missing his hair. The flames sizzled as they hit the clay dirt, with Barris rolling to his trench far wall to avert becoming a human torch himself. He quickly grabbed the handle of the torch, righting it before it could douse its own flame.


"Haha! I even bested my own torch, which apparently considered mutiny upon me." Barris got to his feet and began following the length of the seemingly endless trench.


"So where was I? Oh yes. Complaining about that Doctor of makeup and mascara, Alicia Westin. Now of course, of all the people that I was hoping for in speaking through a hole in the ceiling of a mysterious underground pit, I'd have at least expected... Doctor, you know Who. Even the more recent female one. But nooooo. I don't even get Tom Baker or Mary Jane Watson. I mean, with the number of times that Mila and I role-played the Doctor and Mary Jane in the bedroom, Tardis, Daleks and all, you'd have at least thought that I'd get the real Doctor upon beckoning for help through a ceiling hole in a mysterious cave, after dying to protect Mila's family, upon finding out that the amulet she'd worn around her neck since the battle of Alivale, was nothing more than a fancy gem to protect a lie in the midst of an altered reality in which I wasn't supposed to exist, wouldn't you?" Barris stopped for a moment and considered the fact that he might be going in the direction from whence he was coming before he fell.


"Where am I? Am I even going in the right direction? How long have I been here? I can't even tell if time is passing? It must be, or all my words and actions would just be one big pile. Wouldn't they? Maybe I should ask Doctor Westin?" Barris looked to either direction and then eventually picked one and continued.


"You know what? Maybe I need some new heroes. Maybe this whole thing of Edgar Allen Poe, the Doctor and Benny Hill isn't working out for me? Maybe I should start following different heroes. Like how about... Christopher Lee? Peter Cushing? I mean they did a lot of things together and stopped a lot of bad people. Maybe even more than the Doctor? Certainly more than Poe." Barris instinctively stopped as if to test whether his new reality was selectively punishing him for his less than flattering statements.


"Alright. I've ruled that out. There is NO conspiracy by reality to undermine my complaining... errr... rather my protest against seemingly diabolical and unfair circumstances." Barris said examining both the ground and ceiling ahead to ensure no further traps lay in wait for him,  concealed by the darkness.


"Wait. How about... Spike Jones? He was a walking foley studio! I mean, when I saw that hole in the ceiling of this cave, I could have just made the sound of unwinding rope, and then grabbed onto it, making the sound of it fastening itself to the exterior of this cave and then climbed out of this hole in the ground! Ha! Take that Doctor... I mean Benny Hill never ever escaped from a dark entrenched cave. Nor did Edgar Allen Poe! But Spike Jones could have done it with nothing more than sound effects!" Barris cringed at his sudden mental state and then broke down crying.


"I'm going completely and utterly insane. In fact, I'm now the poster child for the utterly and completely insane, looking to promote themselves to the world of insanity. Now you too can leave behind the world of utter and complete insanity, to become just insane. Imagine your friends' envy when you arrive at the party, people calling you completely or utterly insane! You can now just smile back at them and say: I'm sorry, but I'm no longer utter or complete. I'm only insane and damned proud of it. Is that a mute cantaloupe in your drink or are you happy to see me?  Excuse me while I dig these grubs out of my sandals." Barris fell to the ground within the trench, ripping the sandals from his feet.


He then began rubbing his feet, perhaps trying to urge some feeling from them. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time that he'd felt anything in his current body. He didn't feel hungry nor did he feel the need to defecate or urinate. He didn't feel hot or cold at all. In fact, he didn't feel a thing. As if his nerves simply did not exist.


He pressed at his feet trying to imbue some form of soreness, a trophy for all of the walking he'd done.


Nothing.


Yet, his emotions were ever-present and just as intense as they were in his former mortal life.


I can laugh and cry, but I'm completely impervious to any bodily pain. Or pleasure.


"This is a lesson." he rationalized.


"Did I try hard enough to ensure Mila enjoyed our... times together? That I was pleasing to her? Did she? Ever? Was she.... No. She couldn't have. She wouldn't have. Maybe this is some kind of punishment in the afterlife? For not being pleasing to a woman that you love?" Barris was suddenly paranoid and shocked by realization.


"Now I've lost all feeling in my body! I have eternity to feel the emotional pain of knowing that I never really turned her on. She was just pretending the whole time. What kind of man am I? I couldn't even be pleasing to her...!!! She was doing it all just to spare my ego! How worthless a man am I that I'd be unable to please the woman who'd spare her own pleasure just to protect my fragile ego and pretend that I was so pleasing to her...?" Barris struggled against the weight of immense emotions.


"How could fate be so cruel to take the love of such a perfect woman away?" Barris fought a seemingly impossible battle of intensity.


"But at least I'm only insane." he laughed momentarily and uneasily.


At that moment in the distance along the direction he'd been travelling, he spied something he'd nought seen during his prior travels. He shook his head as if to clear an impossible vision from his mind. When he looked again, it was still there.


"That's a light... at the end of the tunnel... trench... tunnel...   There's a way out of here!" Barris was once again upon his feet, and this time sprinting.


"Ha. Thank you Doctor! Thank you Benny! Edgar, I was with you the whole time! You were testing me! I knew it! I bet I had you convinced I'd given up? Ha ha! Never. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing hold nothing against you! Spike Jones? He's an amateur compared to you three! Mila...? Mila? Did she really...?" Barris ran full tilt towards the light.


"Mila! It's me! I'm coming home!" Barris yelled at the top of his lungs as he ran through the blinding light at the end of the tunnel.


Outside, on a grassy and flattened hill, several columns of men wearing leather piece-mail fittings and dull brass armour, held vigil as their battalion commander joined a group of experts examining a  large circular stone structure amidst concentric circles of other similar stone structures.

[Corbus, what is the length of that shadow?]
"Corbus, quanta longitudo umbra?" asked a man garbed in a toga, directing his inquiry towards another man in brass armour.

[Three cubits. Approximately.]
"Tribus cubitum. Proximus." answered the man in the armour.


[Excellent. With the time nearly being noon, that would give us an error term of less than a quarter cubit.]
"Optimum. In tempore meridie prope esse, ut det nobis errorem esse terminus, minus quarta cubiti virilis manus." responded the man in the toga, perhaps speaking more to himself.

[You're a fool to trust this to Greek calculation methods, let alone those of Euclid. Aristotle's methods are more sound for measuring real estate. He was an imperial thinker.]
"Tu es stultus, ut hoc speramus calculation modi Graeca, et illi soli Euclidis. Aristoteles modi in pluribus es sonus mensuræ in verus praedium.Et erat imperatoria amicitie." Corbus responded though not entirely hearing the man's private mutterings.


[To deal in the sciences is to deal in truth. The truth belongs to God. To deal in God is to appease the Emporer. Corbus, I advise you to know your place.]
"Ad agam in scientiis ea una est cui gratior usus in veritate. Quod vero pertinet ad Deum. Ad agam in hoc capite placemus deum principem molliret. Corbus, ut monere te locum tuum novi." the man in the toga glared at Corbus, nearly piercing his brass armour.


[Anima Petasum, your way with words are your only power. The Emperor's power is kept not by words but by force.]
"Anima Petasum tuus viam per verba tua potentia tantum. Imperatore potestate servanda est, non verba, sed vi." Corbus placed his hand carefully upon the pommel of his Gladius.


[Then let us celebrate for we've discovered that this Druid monument is an antiquated calendar. The Roman Calendar lives on and the Druids wither to progress. So says this measurement.]
"Et hoc agamus ut nos reperta est obsoletis fastis druidae monumentum. Druides atque siccabitur proficere Calendarii Romani vivit. Dicit ergo Mensuratio- nem hanc." Anima Petasum grinned at the marvel he'd uncovered without Gladius.


[Your next duty of measure should be Roman integration of this Welsh monument and its population into the surrounding lands.]
"Deinde hoc munere Walensium titulum mensura et populum Romanum in integratione terrarum." Corbus rubbed the pommel of his Gladius, as if it attested to the size of his manhood.


[We know nothing of the Druids or their Gods. Mercury may been born of Hermes, much as Mars was born of Ares. That however, does not mean that this Deism of trees will ever give birth to Acorns in the Roman Pantheon of Gods.]
"Scimus nihil de bello abesse consuerunt, aut suam Deorum. Mercurium Mercurio est primogenitus, Mars natus Ares tria. Quamvis non semper id deismus arborum glandem pariunt Pantheon Deorum Romanorum." Anima Petasum assured Corbus.


A quarter naked man suddenly burst forth from within the underground caves of the Druid structure. He pushed through a line of armed soldiers and then beyond into a circle of men protecting Corbus and Anima Petasum.


The strange man sprinted through their lines, passing between the two senior men of the Roman Empire and continued running, muttering some form of barely linguistic insanity as he ran.


A column of soldiers began running after the fellow, causing Anima Petasum to stand and challenge them.


[Wait! This could be a real Druid! Hold your weapons fast! Stay yourselves. There will be no blood drawn today. Catch him, yet let there be no death.]
"Manere! Et hoc esse verum Druias eunti! Apprehende arma ieiunium Obstupescite. Non erit ultra in sanguine instructa est hodie. Iamque sed nulla sit." Anima Petasum commanded, drawing a scornful gaze from Corbus.


"Ha! You see! Even Benny Hill can best you all! I think I just outwitted a Roman Orgy. I should be safe so long as I keep running and they don't mistake me for Caligula. Or Caligula's girlfriend. Or Caligula's horse... Or perhaps even Caligula's girlfriend's horse..." Barris kept his sprint in full form, taking advantage of the fact that he could not feel any pain within his body.


Barris had covered the distance of a football field and one half, imagining himself to be a star player of his favourite team, the Greenwich Borough Football Club.


"Yes! I'm on a breakaway! I'm going to score!" Barris yelled as he ran towards the enormous stone goal post some fifty meters from him.


He reasoned that in order to win, he only needed to somehow run through an opening in the enormous stone structure and come out the other side.


Behind him, a collection of the five fittest men from Corbus Carius' battalion paced Barris carefully, even keeping speed with him in full armour.


"I'm almost there Mila!" Barris yelled as he pushed his pain absent body to it's fullest.


The first of the armoured soldiers dove, crashing into the field, just missing Barris.


The second caught Barris' ankle with his hand. Barris struggled against the soldier's grip, breaking free and continuing his sprint.


The third soldier used a whip to catch Barris' leg. Barris fell to the field, tumbling several times as he fell. The remaining two soliders jumped him, quickly overwhelming him. Together they held him down.


[Corbus, the Druid is stopped.]
"Corbus. The Priest meus intercluditur." the senior soldier advised Corbus as he and Mindhat arrived to inspect Barris.


"Yesss! Yesss! Greenwich Football Club scores on its home field of... Stonehenge...? ...to win the game and finals! Barris Windsor: 1  Ugly Roman Soldiers That Desperately Need Deodorant And Hair Removal Surgery: 0!" Barris screamed, writhing in joy on the grass.


[I've never heard that language. Tell your men to backup, quickly! It's a spell!]
"Ego numquam audivi, quod lingua. Amen dico vobis homines ad tergum, Celeriter! Est fascinavit!" Anima Petasum warned Corbus who then signalled to the rest of his troops to keep their distance.


Barris continued to cheer and then eventually stopped. He then started giggling uncontrollably and then stopped that too somewhat uneasily.


"Alright. Running into the light might not have been such a great idea. I mean I've always heard that when you die, that you should go for the light, except that in those shows and books, there's never any mention of hairy, smelly Roman soldiers being on the other side of that light. Unless of course it's a Monty Python skit in which case it would be entirely normal." Barris reasoned to himself aloud.


"WAIT! I'm in a living PYTHON Skit! It must be the one about the..." one of the soldiers punched Barris hard enough to knock him unconscious.


If Barris could have communicated with the soldier who'd affronted him, sending him into the land of nod, he'd have thanked him profusely, for waiting for Barris in his dreamland was Mila, scantily clad and wearing his favourite outfit of her's.


She did little talking, but what she did say told him all he needed to hear.


"Believe" she said as she emulsified him in her love.


Meanwhile, back on the field Corbus addressed his soldiers.


[Take this heathen Druid from this *Roman* field and hold him for interrogation.]
"Ego numquam audivi, quod lingua. Amen dico vobis homines ad tergum, Celeriter! Est fascinavit!" demanded Corbus Carius.


Power And The Aftermath


Deep in the recesses of a Manor located within a dark woods bordering the township of Pieds De L'Arbour Noire, a broken man sat upon his broken throne.


To each side of his throne were several Norbids, adorned in their long brown robes with hoods covering their faces. The stood silent contemplating nothing, for it was not their place to think but rather, to be. Their thoughts and minds were solely the property of Lorr, who did all of their thinking for them. The real power of Lorr had not been in the minds of his followers, nor in the consensual cooperation of free individuals working together but rather in the despotic rule of a eugenics based bloodline centred cult leader.


In his diminished state, Lorr was as just alone as he'd been at the height of his power for he'd never prized the individual, just what their numbers could offer in the way of power. To him, his followers had been nothing but biomechanical machines. Meat puppets, out to do his bidding and the bidding of those directly within his bloodline. As there had been in the height of his power, there now was only his mind and him.


Even the twins for all of their generations and during their lifetime, were subject to his whim by way of his seniority, for even bloodlines had their hierarchy. Their castes.


Had the Norbids been capable of individual thought, they might have reasoned that Lorr's mind and will was the result of their cumulative consciousness. That it was Lorr that had no mind of his own and that it was their collective will that Lorr was experiencing as if it were his own. It would have been a flawed logic in the face of the fact that within such a collective, there were no individuals except the individual will of the most willful member.


By their very nature, anyone within such a collective who'd agreed to surrender their individualism and sense of self-identity to the group no longer possessed a mind nor even a cumulative mind. Instead, they possessed what the most willed of them was able to impose upon them. Their collective experience was more like an addiction to the extreme passion for life that resided within the strong-willed. Those who'd never surrender their individual identity or nature except for the purposes of social cooperation and perhaps compassion.


The truth was that whether it was Lorr's mind or the mind of the collective conscious minds of the Twins and Norbids who were in control, in either case, a psychoanalyst would have diagnosed that whole as being a psychopath. A giant sociopathic organism made up of individuals who'd given up their individual status in favour of what they deemed to be compassion but that instead resulted in the creation of one giant selfish organism called a group. A group that would single out those who failed to surrender themselves, attempting to control them and eventually devouring them, showing favour only to those such a group had come to iconify and using them only long enough to devour the power arising from that iconification.


The truth was that to give up one's own individualism and self-identity for the greater good, was to risk giving rise to a far greater and more powerful form of selfishness.


Lorr had learned much over the millennia since his parting of ways with Lyra, and his rise to power over the Norbids, but there was much that he still lacked. For instance, Lorr could tell far more about each of his individual foes from the Sanctum than he could about the individuals within his own ranks, of whom he literally knew nothing that distinguished them from one another. To him, they were merely the flesh vessels that housed his wishes and through which he pursued his lust for power.


His ignorance was not exclusive to those whom he'd in prior generations cajoled into giving up their individuality, but extended towards his own immediate family and the twins themselves. He'd never known that six generations ago, the line of Twins produced an anomaly. That one of the Twins, the Sister Twin, had acquired an individual mind that had been obscured from detection by any kind of scrying of the Norbids, of the Brother Twin or even Lorr himself.


She'd even given herself a unique name. Something that Lorr had barred more than four thousand years prior. The name had come to her one day while she walked with her Twin brother through a field full of flowering life. She'd spied an unusual flower, shaped like the first breath of a pink flame. She became so intrigued by it that she started to learn about all flowers. It wasn't until months of study through books and reading that she became aware that the flower she'd found so breathtaking was called an Iris. Hence she adopted this name for herself and from that point forward, she told nobody of this proclivity for her individual nature and her newly acquired name. That would be her first step into the understanding that she and her twin brother were merely pawns in a much larger game where she would become the seeds of a coming awareness.


One of her tutors, Deymora, was perhaps the closest thing that Iris had to a Mother. Her own Mother, Lyra had many generations before, disappeared during the first wars between the Power Lords, the Norbids and the Lyra's allies. Neither of the twins had any semblance of family but rather were part of a hierarchical system of despotic rule. A system whereby the many existed to serve the needs of the few. The few whose blood powered the source of the weave. Their spell powered form of magic which was drawn from the life essence of the suffering of others. This power had been preserved through the generations of the blood line of the twins, with Lyra and Lorr being the first parents in the first generation of magic.


Lyra was the first of the people of Aerth to become aware the weave. She'd observed it through her keen sense of awareness in the midst of nature. In the first light of every single day and the first moon of every night. In the point where shadow and light were one, for where one cannot see in total light, others can in complete darkness. In the eyes of every living creature, those who looked back and saw the same. In the curiosity of every newborn fauna and the restraint of wisdom in those soon to pass. She saw it. All of it.


It was to her first and only love, that she tried to explain what she'd come to understand. That she'd seen the underlying mystery that makes fire burn and water flow. What makes the heart beat, and the mind know. That it was something for which she could only feel the love of mystery. Of wonder and learning.


Lorr listened to her speak. She explained herself, opening her deepest understanding to him and he could only feel jealousy and contempt for her insight, for the mysteries of nature were a power he wanted for himself. To be able to steer that great hidden mystery and to wield the power of being itself. To bend nature to one's will and time his whims. He lusted for this even more so than he did for her.


He was then curious about what she saw in him. He asked her to look into his eyes and then he asked her what she saw. Upon answering and for the first time in her life, she lied. He then looked into her eyes as she asked the same question of him, for the first time he spoke the truth. From that moment forward, Lorr realized that she knew intimately about the nature of everything that he'd ever wanted. Lyra from that time onward fooled herself into believing that she could change such a man as he. It was from these differences between them that the power of the twins was born, and thus, the first magic of disparity was unearthed upon humanity.


Lorr recalled the distant past of thousands of years, yet with all of his former power he could not even remember her face. She was a mystery as much so now as she was once upon a time. A woman that had once loved him, absent from his life. A woman that had determined his future and hence his current state of being. A woman whom from behind the hidden veil had sewn the seeds of the first truly free Twin and through her, the opportunity for his failed redemption.


Upon his throne he sat, broken and alone. Yet even from the depths of his greatest failure he managed to concoct one final plan. If he could not wield the power of the Librum Universalis Codex, the record of truth for all of the Aerth, living and gone alike, then perhaps nobody would.


"Veldur, have the Norbid Magi come to my throne at once. You are to prepare us for a trip." Lorr ordered the Norbid Lord.


"Forgive me my Lord for asking, but a trip to where?" Veldur, adorned in his brown robe and cloak which obscured his face, leaned in towards Lorr's ear.


"Tell the Magi that we're going to the Midspace and the Sanctum Of The New..." the corner of Lorr's mouth ever so slightly twitched upward.


"I'm sooo happy that I was able to see you Sato."

And A Sake Breakfast


Sato steadied himself as he poured uneasily, a bottle of his finest Sake. Fortunately, Mila had placed the two Ochoko close together, enough so that they were touching. As such, Sato could miss neither as long as he aimed for the point at which they met. After a few attempts, he put the bottle down contented with his success.


"Here's to the return of our good friend..." Sato raised his cup as he'd done eight times prior already.


"I'm sooo happy that I was able to see you Sato. You're the firssht person I've told..." Mila clanked her Ochoko to his and they both drank.


"...you speak of the pendant... Is it the one which you've worn since the Battle Of Alivale?" Sato asked her as he swayed slightly on his chair.


"...I'm guessing... but that would be the only pendant that he would mention... I mean it was the oath pendant I wore to keep the secret of his death from the Codex..." Mila pondered the long road that they'd taken to arrive at this moment in time.


"...a secret that must have been a great weight no doubt?" Sato said thoughtfully.


Mila pulled her chair closer in to the table at which they sat, carefully using the hachi Sato had provided to clasp a delicate piece of ginger, and followed by thinly sliced morsel of Salmon as she considered Sato's point fully.


"In order to keep a falsehood of such magnitude alive within the Prime Plane of the Aerth, it requires a commitment of great magnitude. While I wore it, there was never a moment when I wasn't in some way reminded of this. As if the universe itself was doing everything that it could to shake me of it. Every word from friend and foe alike contained something that could be interpreted or twisted to allude to that secret. There was never a moment when that weight wasn't in the forefront of my being. There was never a moment however when such a weight compared to my love for Barris and my parents. There were times when those conflicting forces could have driven me insane but at those times, my art and my familiarity with the weave were most potent and they gave me an outlet. It was like being on the edge of a cliff and at the precipice of falling off... forever." Mila pondered, speaking directly from her heart.


"Perhaps then the universe is returning to a state of balance for something seems amiss... if Barris truly was meant not to be, and such a secret had been foiled by Lorr himself... then why is Barris still in existence? Why are your parents still here? You said yourself that it takes a great commitment to alter the nature of reality in such a way. According to what you've revealed to me... to us... your friends from the Sanctum... reality has shown you bias and favour far beyond the allowed balance of being. There is never a time when energy is given for free as it must be returned. There is a fine balance. Some deal with it immediately giving up in accordance to the magnitude of what they'd gained. Some deal with it over time, giving back a little bit each day to maintain the balance of a great magnitude taken. Yet within this, Barris still is. Your parents still are. That would indicate to me that there is something not being taken into account, for as you said, the universe keeps no secrets for which there is no great price... As surely as we'll pay for this Sake breakfast..." Sato explained his insights to her, snickering upon his last statement.


"Its so good to talk to you again, Sato. I really missed you. Its like having been locked away in a dark cave with nothing but my own lonely darkness to comfort me. His message to us... and it is to us... is the first hope I've had for a very long time." Mila's smiled from her eyes and then her soul.


It was a warmth that Sato could feel and for the first time in a long time, he too felt the dark veil lifted.


"You must get more of this food into you and then you're going to have a nice long sleep while I prepare us for our journey." Sato insisted.


"Journey? Where are we going to start? I haven't spoken with the Sanctum for a very long time. It's been years. Shaela? Nelony? Our teacher Yirfir? I've nought seen or heard word from them since leaving the Sanctum on that gloomy night. Its not as if I can just waltz in there and ask them for their help." Mila sat up addressing his suggestion.


"I'm aware of your falling out with the Sanctum. There will be time for old friends when you're ready. I suggest that we start looking for clues to Barris' whereabouts nearby. Well, reasonable nearby." Sato advised her.


"Where were you thinking?" Mila asked him leaning towards him slightly as if to keep their travels a secret.


"Well something you said when you explained his message to us gave me a clue. You said something about my cooking? You also said Snuggles." Sato confirmed with Mila.


"Yes. I assumed that Barris mentioning Snuggles was a reference to our cat. You see, I've never cast a portal before. It was our cat, Snuggles who gave me the clue on how to do it. I assumed that Barris was somehow alluding to that... that he had special knowledge he was sharing..." Mila shared.


"That does make sense. Who named the cat?" Sato asked her.


"He did. I named our Beagle, Muggielumps and he named our cat, Snuggles." Mila spoke with an outpouring of charm.


"I think we're rapidly approaching the threshold for the overuse of cuteness...!" Sato smirked his eyebrows furrowing.


"I'm sorry but that's what we named our pets..." Mila held her ground as Sato cringed.


"Now I can easily see how you two hit it off so well! Snuggles is also the name that Barris gave his cat here though I contested it fiercely with him. My logic being: how could any cat ever hope for a shred of dignity with name like Snuggles? I'm sure that Shaela would support me on this." Sato responded.


"I see your point, but our cat isn't a three-ton giant shadow predator that eats everyone with whom it has conflict. Not to mention that if Barris and I ever had kids..." Mila defended their use of names.


"Though the thought of that gives me no end of joy, let's save that for when Barris is back here. My point is that Snuggles was his choice of name for the cat. I instead wanted to call it Happīu. When he decided on the name Snuggles, to counter him I bought a bird, which I named Happīu~isuka. Happīu just happens to be very fussy when it comes to food, and it took me a long time to find the correct grain and seed mixture with which to feed Happīu~isuka..." Sato explained to Mila, who politely interrupted him.


"...I take it that there's a point to this?" Mila asked him playfully.




"Yes. There is. As it turned out, there was a farmer's market that sold mixed grains just around the corner from here though they're intended for breakfast cereal and baking by the locals. A lot of the green-friendly patrons that come to my store here, many of whom are young professionals recommended I try the market. So I did, and found that combination of seed which Happīu~isuka loves." Sato smiled finishing the last of his Sake.


"...and...?" Mila asked somewhat impatiently.


"As it turns out, those grains are grown by a farm that is a neighbour to one of England's tourist attractions. So these grains are called Stonehenge's Finest. They're Happīu~isuka's breakfast but she won't eat them unless they're slightly cooked." Sato said proudly displaying his prowess as a detective.


"...whereas Snuggles would likely eat Happīu~isuka uncooked? I'm sure that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be impressed. So we're going to Stonehenge?" Mila stated, impressed with his reasoning.


"After you eat and get some much-needed rest, that we are..." Sato replied as he stood and began cleaning up after them.


Mila made her way to Barris' original room within Sato's shop and fell asleep on his old bed. Much to her delight, it still had his scent.


Order Meets Chaos


Jasmer walked the distance as he had so many times from the Inner Breath Chambers deep within the recesses of the fortress he'd known for so long as the Sanctum. He passed the uncataloged spaces of the Lost Chambers Of The Bode and continued on through into the Hall Of Master Mediums.


"G'day Jasmer." nodded one of the guards.


"Always is, under your guard." Jasmer responded to the member of the detachment of the Elementalist Guard.


The other guard clasped his hands, summoning forth a security filter. A great glowing membrane enveloped the area of the main hall they occupied.


The guard then stepped back, observing Jasmer's form and movements very carefully.


Jasmer paused, allowing the examination before speaking as if to break the tension.


"What. Are you expecting a Kilt or something?" Jasmer replied.


"No Sir. That's you for certain. Just checking." replied the guard.


"He actually looks quite good in his Tartan." spoke Yirfir as she entered the main hall, stepping over to her husband and giving him a peck on the cheek.


"I should hope so. My Family's Tartan has been in Canada and North America since before the Confederation." Jasmer replied returning Yirfir's kiss.


"He's just being careful. We've had recent intelligence indicating that shapeshifters might factor into the recent security threats we're experiencing." Yirfir advised Jasmer.


"Can we get on with this then, I've got some important intelligence to share with the council." Jasmer responded.


"You're free to enter, Sir." the guard responded.


"Thank you. If you'll excuse us." Jasmer replied firmly accompanying Yirfir through the slowly opening door to the Sanctum Council Chambers.


Inside the chamber, a heated debate raged on. Lannay, a somewhat gangly man with thinning salt and pepper hair, stood, lecturing the council.


"These events must be cataloged in great detail. That takes time and resources. Resources within the Sanctum that are ever dwindling." Lannay addressed the council.


The Sanctum Council Hall itself was scarcely populated in comparison to the height of its glory. Many of the representatives of the Infinite Planes Of The Netherverse either were not present for the session or had abandoned the Sanctum completely. The remaining representatives and the interior members of the Sanctum itself were stretched to their limits.


Operatives were still situated throughout the Aerth as they had been, though scarcely comparatively to their numbers in years prior, leaving a gaping hole in the protective security they'd provided. As a result, the Sanctum had become disconnected from the very world they sought to protect and at least as much so from the rest of the Netherverse. The infinite planar worlds of being. Where before they were a part of the fold, they now looked on from a darkening distance with ever-dwindling eyes.


Their capacity to protect and manage the Librum Universalis Codex: the Universal Library Of Events was also reduced as was their ability to oversee its operation. The passage of time and every conscious event was within contained in this infinite record, deep within the bowels of the Sanctum.


The true record of everything stemming from Aerth herself.


"That sounds like you Lannay, asking for more resources to tend your bureacracy while the rest of us operatives are stretched to our very limits!" responded Baranten to Lannay's suggestion.


"Without an organization and infrastructure, we're all alone in the dark. We need this bureaucracy so that we can coordinate and share what we learn and create strategic plans to thwart our enemies, of whom I might remind you there are many in the Netherverse." Jexelen came to Lannay's defense.


"We can however compromise. We must if the Sanctum is to survive this crisis. I can spare some people for Lannay. What about you Thara?" Jeong Soon spoke, sharing solution.


"Our Order is stretched to its limits. We've lost many since the Battle of the Sanctum. Since Lorr went into seclusion. Many of the Wytch-kind fail to see a need for the Sanctum anymore. Our biggest threat has been dealt its final blow and that was more than seven years ago. I can spare no one." Thara responded honestly.


"I can spare some of my Dweomer Knights, but I hardly think that they'd be of much use for the clerical purposes of the bureaucracy. I'm certain you'd agree Lannay?" added Sir Manfred.


"If they can walk, talk and see with their own eyes, of someone else's eyes, they're fine." Lannay replied.


"That doesn't help us with our world situation and especially with the many ongoing investigations in which we're knee-deep already. We've have had the disappearances of more than forty of Aerth's top Data and Computer Scientists, and we're no closer to finding the source for these occurrences than we were when we started the investigation. These are serious circumstances not to mention there have been casualties during our last operation." Thara reminded the council.


"...Shaela has been brought to the infirmary and seems to be..." started Healer Mordane as a red-haired vixen in a long black dress strode into the room.


"They were trying to restrain me in there! I'm alright! I have much to report. I brought Senchella with me. She's working with..." after interrupting Healer Mordane, Shaela was interrupted by her direct superior.


"Shaela! May I remind you that you are under oath not to reveal details of this investigation. Even within the Council Chambers." Thara reminded her.


"Then how in the blazes are we supposed to catch the people responsible and stop this madness if not by sharing our findings here?" Shaela shot back at Thara, still deeply scarred by the loss of her Shadow Cat.


"May I remind Council that this is a special session. That no details of what we discuss here are to leave this room by any means. Word or weave." Jexelen asserted.


"We are already aware of the tightened security. Please do explain Shaela? Thara?" Lannay insisted.


"We have intelligence that suggests by way of the unexplained sharing of information that there is a leak in the Sanctum." Yirfir announced as she too entered the Council Chamber with Jasmer at her side.


"What of Lorr? Certainly, he has such resources at his disposal, even as diminished as he is." Jexelen asked of the present members of the Council.


"He's incapacitated. He hasn't so much as blinked for the last two years. For the prior five years before that, he attempted to rebuild his forces by rallying otherworldly beings to his aid. Apparently his credit with them is not in good standing and they refused, fortunately for us. He's of no apparent threat and very obviously a broken man. The truth is that the Norbids and the Power Lords are in a far worse state than we'll ever be." Jasmer announced to the Council.


"Did not Lorr have you as his ally at one time?" Lannay suggested, casting doubt amongst the Council.


"Yes, but that was under much different political circumstances for both Lorr and the Sanctum itself. A time I might add when the Sanctum of the Old was in a cessation of action as the result of a crippling bureaucracy." Jasmer furrowed his brows at Lannay.


"...er... Yes, there were many ...hurdles at that time." Lannay agreed hesitantly and defensively.


"We also have information that Lorr met with the representatives of another group. A recently emerged Order of Magi and Wytch-kind, made up of the outcasts and deserters of the Sanctum and the Norbids. They seem to wield a reach far beyond their apparent capacity and numbers. They were the target of our last investigation... the one about which Shaela was about to inform Council." Yirfir brought Council up to speed.


Shaela Sheowellyn
"...Exactly as Yirfir said. An hour ago, Danton Alista, the Director of Artificial Intelligence research at Static Morphonics was murdered, with one witness present: myself. The murderer or rather; murderess was a former member of the Order Of The Night Wytch, Mianamor Selembrosi..." Shaela began her report only to be interrupted by Jexelen.


"...Wait a minute, wasn't Miana a veteran of the Battle of the Sanctum?" asked Jexelen, almost leaning across her place at the Grand Podium to address Shaela.


"Yes, she was as you said a veteran of our last battle against the forces of Lorr, the Norbids and the Power Lords. She fought valiantly though under these circumstances I'd say that she's burned those accomplishments in favour of conducting murder for her new masters. I attempted to stop her though she'd already summoned a new form of predator from the Shadow Realm. A large colony of shadow insects. I could do nothing but confront her. A struggle ensued between us and after her insect army had devoured Danton, they proceeded to attack my Shadow Cat..." Shaela struggled, fighting against a growing sense of frustration and anger within her.


"...please go on when you're ready..." Lannay requested of her.


"I was at a great disposition with her, and vulnerable to one of her more deadly attacks when my Shadow Cat already in its death throes, vanquished Miana, saving my life. She managed to summon a portal to the Shadow plane through which my Shadow Cat pursued her. Both were lost." Shaela's chest rose and fell uneasily.


"...we did, however, manage to recover Senchella, one of their operatives and a member of a security detachment that had been sent to accompany Miana to the party where Mr. Alista's life was taken," Yirfir advised Council.


"...which would imply that whomever Miana was working for knew that we'd send someone to the party... more evidence of an intelligence leak," Thara explained to Council.


"These people, whoever they are, seem to be one step ahead of us at every turn," Yirfir told her audience.


"Then we need to flush them out and corner them," Jasmer suggested.


"Easier said than done. Especially with our current lack of resources." Thara responded.


"The only thing that we've managed to gather is that their targets are all leading Scientists who work in the field of Artificial Intelligence. There's not too many remaining however and that list is growing smaller with every passing week." Thara informed her peers.


"Then we need to find the next possible target and act immediately to provide them with some protection. Bring them here to us where we can question them and find a common trail that will lead us to the perpetrators." Yirfir organized the Council towards a common goal.


"Then who is most likely the next target? You must have some idea?" Lady Naemi Soon asked Yirfir.


"We do. Doctor Grant Smythe. But we've been unable to track that person down. He's currently conducting field research in the Amazon Rainforest." Thara informed them.


"In the Amazon? What would an AI researcher want with the Amazon Forest?" Lannay asked the most obvious question.


"We have no idea. We only know that he's there in the field conducting research and that we have nobody qualified to operate in the Amazon..." Yirfir replied.


"...You do now...!" Nelony said entering the Council Chambers.


Shaela nodded slightly, but only enough so that to the others it appeared that there was no greeting at all. Nelony narrowed her eyes slightly at the Night Wytch and everything that needed saying between the two former friends was spoken without words.


"You have impeccable timing, as usual, my dear. We're in dire need of your services... In the Amazon Rainforest, I might add..." Yirfir gave Nelony a friendly handshake as she joined them.


"I just returned from there. You see, there were some activists in danger from some of the newer tree excavators and I..." Nelony began.


"Save it Nelony. We need to brief you. This is a very serious situation." Thara advised Nelony, allowing her a moment to catch her breath before proceeding.


"We need you to enter the Amazon Rainforest just north of the shores of Lago Anamã. Once in there you'll need to track Doctor Smythe's team. Once you've made contact with his team, you'll need to by any means necessary bring him back to the Sanctum alive for questioning. We can give you no further directions other than that. Any questions?" Thara briefed Nelony on her operation.


Nelony Ardbloem
"I'm fine thank you very much, how are you? That's good to hear. I was a little bit worried about you in my absence. I wish I could say the same of you towards me! My first question is: will I be going alone?" Nelony asked Thara, though looking to Yirfir pleadingly.


"We have no further people to spare. We're as sparse as you see us here and those who are to be returning soon are already tasked with other duties. That means that you'll be going alone." Thara advised Nelony.


"When do I leave?" Nelony asked them. still somewhat surprised that this had been thrust upon her so suddenly.


"Immediately. Why? Do you have anything you'd like to share with us?" Thara addressed her, looking to Shaela and then back to Nelony.


There was an awkward moment as Nelony struggled with her ego, which was somewhat smaller and less overbearing than was Shaela's. Shaela didn't budge and didn't give any signs that she would.


Nelony paused for a moment throwing Shaela a cold glance and then replied to Thara.


"No. I've nothing more to say. I shall be gone after I've cleaned up a bit in the baths and the lavatory." Nelony shared with Council her plans.


"Very well. That leaves you Shaela. What are your plans for her, Yirfir?" Thara addressed the one of the Sanctum's first leaders.


"I think Shaela should have some recovery time whether she likes it or nought. We can't afford another failure. Then we'll be assigning her to protect one of the last priority researchers on our list. Zheng Ni Wong." Yirfir gave Shaela a firm glance and then looked to Thara.


"I refuse to be put on a leash while Miana is still possibly running around," Shaela said furiously.


"I thought you said that she was killed during your altercation..." Yirfir confirmed.


"She received a mortal wound but she was still mobile enough to make it through a summoned portal to the Shadow Plane. She could still be alive and if so, she'd be our greatest source of information about this new threat to the world." Shaela stepped forward, looking much like a cat ready to pounce if Yirfir or Thara failed to respond to her wishes.


Yirfir Lacharme
"The answer is no! I'll not have you running around in the Shadow realm looking for your cat or Miana while you are so needed on the Aerth to help us investigate these crimes! You will report to the infirmary at once where you'll receive a healer's treatment and four hours of rest after which you'll rendezvous with us in the main hall where we'll depart for Aerth to locate Zheng Ni Wong. Do you understand!?" Yirfir left no room for bargaining.


"I understand very well Mistress. I don't like it at all but I understand. I'll head for the infirmary as you wish." Shaela all but spat on the stone floor of the Council Chambers and stormed out through the main door.


"I don't think that she's ready. Psychologically speaking. It took years for her to bond with that cat. She didn't just lose a friend. She lost a part of herself. She's going to need more time. If not, she'll be a risk to any operation of which she participates." Lady Naemi Soon looked compassionately towards Yirfir and Thara.


"There are times when the weight of the responsibility of our duty to the Sanctum far outweighs our own health and well being. Even our emotional state. We all swore that oath and when we did, few of us knew what a hefty responsibility that would be. Yet, we're facing these challenges now for which that very oath was created. Shaela understands that as well as the rest of us that remain with the Sanctum. She'll receive treatment and rest and then we'll continue as planned. I thank you for your concern." Yirfir looked firmly to Lady Soon.


"Record that Lady Naemi Soon questioned these decisions at this time and for the protection of the good of the Sanctum." Jeong Soon spoke, standing by his peer and wife.


Jasmer McCavanaugh
"We are down to our last able bodied Magi and Wytches whom are able to meet our staffing requirements. Within a week, we'll be without guard at the Sanctum, we're so understaffed. That raises some serious questions about how we're going to protect the Librum Universalis Codex in such an event?" Jasmer brought up.


"Assuming that it becomes known that we are so vulnerable at this time?" Lannay added.


"You heard Thara. There's a leak in the Sanctum. How long do you suspect before someone or something is pounding down our front doors?" Jasmer spoke scathingly at Lannay.


"We'll deal with that bridge when we come to it, Jasmer. Know your place, here. Don't live always in the glory of your past." Lannay reminded him.


"Then I suppose that when those doors come tumbling down, it will be you, bureaucrat that will protect the Codex!? Likely not. You'll cower behind your chair while the rest of us risk losing our lives fighting because of your lack of preparations for this eventuality!" Jasmer stepped forward as if to challenge Lannay.


"We're all under much stress here. There is nothing to be gained by fighting one another and yet everything to be lost. Stand down Jasmer! This is not productive and will get us nowhere, and quickly I might add. Lannay, Jasmer has a valid point. These are issues that we need to plan for now while still being malleable enough to adapt as our situation changes." Sir Manfred stood, slamming his gauntlet down hard upon the stone table.


"I say that we all take a break and reconvene in four hours. That will leave us an hour before we send Shaela into the fray once again. We can plan for any contingencies then. Our situation may have changed drastically for the better by then, and most certainly it will have benefited from some much-needed rest." Yirfir reasoned to them.


They looked at one another and spoke simultaneously.


"Aye." they spoke.


"Then let us not waste another moment. We've got a fresh shift of guards now. Let them do their job while we recover some of our energy for what's to come." Yirfir suggested.


"We're all in agreement. Council is adjourned for four and one-half hours." Jexelen stood and the room began to clear.


Jasmer started towards the infirmary.


"Where are you going?" Yirfir asked him.


"I'm going to check up on Shaela. Believe it or not, I'm concerned for the girl." Jasmer turned to face Yirfir.


"You mean that you're not going to spend our last four hours of rest and relaxation with your wife? A woman, I might remind you due to much stress, currently needs the servicing of her husband?" Yirfir pressed herself against Jasmer seductively, kissing him softly on the lips.


He paused for a moment and the grimace disappeared from his face, only to be replaced by a flush or red and his rising temperature.


"I suppose that I could be persuaded into such servitude for my wife," he replied.


"I don't want your servitude. I want you to service me." she smiled and their lips met for the first time in a long time.


...


Outside of the walls of the Sanctum, beyond the great Aetheric Barrier, a solitary portal appeared and from within came a procession. First, several Norbid Magi emerged from the portal and scouted the area upon their arrival, quickly followed by several Beast Mage Norbids. They took up defensive positions around the portal as the throne of Lorr floated through the portal and into the surrounding Midspace of the Sanctum.


The floating throne slowed to a stop as Lorr looked upon the Aetheric Barrier. From beneath his veil, he smiled.


"I do seem to remember a colloquialism cherished by many a vanquished Wytch. Back during the great Wytch hunt of the sixteen hundreds. Back in the days of Sharlesbury. West View. A blackened history that Alivale tried to bury. I believe that it went: When Aerth does fall, and none heed call, so do we all. Their barrier is weakened which means that they have few Magi to maintain it. As far as I have fallen, it would then appear that we never fall alone... My Norbids, let us prepare to breach the Sanctum." Lorr grimaced from beneath his cloak.


Shaela's Independence


Serena walked beside Shaela, just barely keeping pace with the taller red-headed Wytch.


"Your injuries... do they ail you?" asked Serena.


Shaela considered the question carefully for a moment. She looked back to the guards behind them and then ahead towards the end of the hall and to the infirmary. She then answered.


"No. Wait. I do feel some pain. It's in my abdomen. Left side..." Shaela lured Serena closer as their guard complement ensured that Shaela complied with Yirfir's orders.


Serena leaned in close to Shaela, as Shaela kneeled to the marble floor.


"Do you remember the Shape Ghost? How you vanquished it? With negative healing energy?" asked Shaela of Serena.


"Yes. but we dealing with..." Serena tried to finish before Shaela interrupted her.


"I trust you because of that bond we have..."
"I trust you because of that bond we have. You saved our lives. I'm asking you to create a distraction. I must leave you and go elsewhere. Now. It's imperative for the survival of the Sanctum!" Shaela feigned the pain of a severe injury as she pleaded with Serena Feylashar to assist her in violating direct Sanctum orders.


Serena paused and recalled her history with Shaela. Two women who'd mutually saved each other's lives, yet one was recalling the favour, and in the midst of turmoil.


"Serena. If you don't trust me now. All may be lost..." Shaela urged the Lifewell Healer.


Serena paused momentarily and then erupted.


"Quick! We have an extreme emergency! Shaela's Scalp has become... discombobulated... into a rupture of Shadow Spores! Very contagious! Alert Jexelen and Lannay at once! ...the rest of you run for your lives!" Serena turned away from Shaela momentarily.


The guards immediately heeded her advice, charging back towards the Council Hall.


As they disappeared one by one, Shaela stood to her full height and summoned a shadow portal in the midst of the Main Hall.


A tiny hole erupted from a space between her twirling hands, sucking in a tremendous volume of air, balancing the air pressure between the Midspace and the destination of Shaela's portal.


"If they interrogate you, hold your ground. Tell them I was devoured by Shadow Spores..." Shaela insisted.


"Don't forget us Shaela..." Serena urged her friend.


"I won't. I promise." Shaela turned and dove into the Shadow portal, leaving the Midspace behind.


Serena immediately fell to the cold marble floor and feigned unconsciousness as the Sanctum Inner Guards arrived.


By that time, Shaela was gone, disappeared into the realm of shadows.


Stonehenge 60 AD


[Wake up you wretch!]
"Excitare, miser!" a rather small man slapped Barris in the face.


Barris shook his head, chasing the cobwebs away only to be met with another full handed slap.


[You are in the hands of the finest interrogator that the Roman Empire has ever possessed. I am Hurtyu Baddus.]
"Quod interrogator de auro es in manibus Romani Imperii quae semper habiti. Ego Hurtyu Baddus." the tiny threatening man imposed his presence upon Barris.


"What? You're going to hurt me? Baddus? How baddus? Very baddus? Oh no! A little manus is going to hurtus me baddus! Oh no! ...us." Barris responded just as another of the tiny man's seemingly endless supply of full faced slaps landed against his cheek.


"Ouch... usss! Ouch uses! You see? You just got a raise because of me! Work with me here!" Barris responded mockingly.


[You don't fool me demon. You are Hannibal inhabiting the body of this filthy peasant!]
"Et non fatuus me daemonium. Tu Hannibalem ex lutulento caeno corpus locos incolentes duritiae exsequitur!" the small man responded.


"You mean Lecter? Hannibal Lecter!? I saw Silence of the lambs too you know! Jodi Foster? Anthony Hopkins? A good movie. You see, now we're communicating..." Barris responded as the small man gestured to one of the guards, who then struck Barris with a large club.


"Wait! I get it! I didn't end my sentence with uses. Oh, I'm sorry-usss, shorty-usss. Life must be hard from the perspective of everyone else's nose hairs..." Barris replied drawing him another firm attack by one of the guards.


"Damn! I forgot your rule about ending every sentence with usss. I must be in Rome...          ussss. With my name, I should fit in quickly..." Barris quickly added the suffix in hopes that he might avert the coming blow but by that time it was already too late.


Barris fell backwards to the ground.


"Wrong answer, Barris. You forgot to add the usss suffix to the end of your statement. This is like playing Jeopardy with Roman Nazis." Barris rose quickly to receive another assault.


[Sir, I think that this man is simply a peasant. He is not right in his mind. We are simply adding to his ills by this interrogation.]
"Domine, puto quod haec est simpliciter exsequitur. Quod rectum est in mente. Nos autem simpliciter addere ad huius quaestionis a malis." another man stepped into the room from outside, where he'd been observing the interrogation.


[I am beginning to see your point Ponderosus. Perhaps his incoherent ramblings are nothing more than insane gibberish?]
"videre incipio: iam Ponderosus. Eius fortasse non cohaerentia pervagatus nihil aliud est, quam insanire INANIS STREPITUS?" the interrogator considered this possibility.


[Yes. Perhaps. To torture, such a man would be pointless cruelty and would yield no gain for the Empire. We are facing a much bigger threat with Boudica. Praefecti Galandus insisted I retrieve this prisoner. Your services are required for the uncovering the plans of the Picts, not gibberish spewing peasants Centurion Importunus.]
"Quod sic. Fortasse. Tormentorum acerbitatem tam inutile futurum utile foret imperii. Nos autem adversus multo maior comminatio et Boudica gentem addiderunt. Praefecti Galandus et is insisteret, quod captivus recuperare. Tua consilia et officia requiruntur ad discooperto pallio, a Pictorum aliquantis diebus manens, non emere INANIS STREPITUS vomens Centurion Importanus." Legatus Ponderosus insisted to his subordinate.


Ponderosus as his name implied, was a thinking man who considered all sides of every challenge that had come before him. He was born of a powerful family with representation in the Roman Senate and as such was raised as an aristocrat and educated by the best tutors and philosophers in the Roman Empire. Many of those tutors quickly discovered that Ponderosus had a strong sense of curiosity backed by unbreachable patience. He would almost always question every lesson, though not out of skepticism but rather to further his understanding. It was his nature. A nature that drove some of his tutors to anger while others praised Ponderosus for his interest in what was being taught.


As he reached adulthood, he found himself bored with the aristocratic lifestyle and instead sought ways that he could apply his immense knowledge to the betterment of Rome and the people of the Empire. One of his first such efforts found him acting on behalf of farmers to ensure their fair pay for the service they provided to the Empire, even representing them against a Senate appointed committee.


After that success, he had become enamoured by the stories he'd heard about the fringes and frontier of the Empire. Stories of the wars against Hannibal. Tales of the great city of Lygos, a place of history, adventure and romance. Ultimately upon hearing of the conquest of the northern barbaric lands of Albion, which would eventually come to be known as England.


Ponderosus applied for a position as a strategic advisor to Praetor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and by AD 55 he was accepted for the position. The Senate helped him to get the placement, but only because they'd wanted him out of their hair. By the mid-summer of AD 56, he left with a section of Roman reinforcements and was in Albion just before Autumn of the same year.


Suetonius received Ponderosus at Camulodunum, during a meeting in his court office in the Roman capital of Albion. They met as two men, very similar in nature, though Suetonius had been hardened by the realities of war on the frontier. Suetonius had even kept extensive records of Roman activities in Albion and his own personal journal, much the same as Ponderosus had done for most of his life from the point he'd learned to read and write. The two men talked for most of two hours and by that time they'd found a curiosity for one another.


By AD 57, reports of vandalism and attacks against Roman assets in the region of the Great Stone Monument had drawn Seutonius from Camulodunum. He readied a sizeable force and took them to Calleva from where he'd planned to engage in a campaign to quell any potential rebels in the area.


In late AD 59, when a small detachment of troops sent to the monument discovered a strangely clothed man, who spoke an unknown language, Ponderosus was called upon by Seutonius to investigate. By the time Ponderus had arrived on the site, Praetori Corbus Carrius had already ordered the man subject a Roman interrogation. Ponderosus, knowing that if he came in under the guise of superior rank that he'd lose the cooperation of the local troops, so instead he'd come in under the auspices as an advisor and as such, the troops trusted him, as did Praetori Corbus Carrius. This had worked out much the Barris' advantage as Ponderosus was very curious about him.


Ponderosus believed little in Roman superstition. Especially with regard to demonic possession or even the interference by the Roman Gods in the affairs of the Empire. He believed that there was a natural order, but that it arose out of cause and effect resulting from the interaction of all living things, and the forces of nature. As such, he believed Barris to be a mortal man just like any other, who spoke an as of yet uncatalogued language. The mystery of Barris implied many unforeseen potential challenges for the Roman conquest of Albion. For Ponderosus, to be able to understand this mystery was to foresee those challenges. As such, Seutonius had given Ponderosus' investigation into the matter the highest priority next to the capture of any rebel savages.


Barris walked with Ponderosus, behind them followed several Phalanx guards, each armed with a Gladius and a bronze shield.


Barris examined Ponderosus, who appeared to be less a soldier and more a man of the state. Given his earlier attempts at communication, he decided that he might have better luck with this man rather than anyone wearing armour and carrying a sword.


"I don't suppose you can tell me where we are? I mean, it's obvious that we were at Stonehenge but after your guard introduced my face to his fist, my memory's a tad bit off." Barris addressed Ponderosus.


Ponderosus' eyebrows elevated to the middle of his forehead as he listened to Barris. He then responded.


Ponderosus
"Ponderosus. Mihi. Ponderosus." Ponderosus pointed to himself as he spoke.


"??? Ponderosus? You're Ponderosus! Ponderosus! You..." Barris responded overwhelmingly joyed that someone had made the attempt to communicate.


"Mihi, Ponderosus. Mihi, Vos. Vos?" Ponderosus pointed to himself at the word mihi and then to Barris upon the word vos.


"Mihi means me. Vos means you. Vos Ponderosus?" Barris pointed to himself as he used to word mihi and then to Ponderosus and he used the word vos.


Ponderosus smiled and laughed aloud.


"Ita! Ita! Mihi Ponderosus. Vos?" Ponderosus once again pointed to himself and then to Barris.


"ahhhh... Mihi Barris. Vos Ponderosus. Mihi Barris. Barris." Barris gestured to himself and then to Ponderosus and then back to himself twice.


"...Barrus? Vos Barrus?" Ponderosus verified.


"Yes! Yes! Ummm... I mean ita! Ita. Mihi Barris. Vos Ponderosus!" Barris was overjoyed that they'd made progress.


The guards became uneasy, one of them pushing Barris with his shield.


Ponderosus turned to the guard.


[Be careful with Suetonius' prize!]
"Custodite animas vestras et de fisco Caesaris!" Ponderosus spoke firmly to the guard who backed off.


"Nice shield! Very shiny!" Barris held his thumb up to the guard who suddenly took offence to the gesture.


The guard threw his shield down and held his fists up at Barris, who backed up cautiously.


"No wait! Honestly, I meant something good. Nice." Barris held his thumb up again, this time inverting it, which seemed to enrage the guard even more.


The guard threw a punch that landed squarely on Barris' forehead, sending him back a few steps.


Ponderosus stepped between them, hollering at the guard.


[You are relieved of duty for this day. You will report to Praetori Corbus Carrius for reassignment at once!]
"Ad quos ordinantur ad officium tibi hodie. Et nuntiaverunt ei praetori CORBUS Carrius in Repositione simul!" Ponderosus demanded as the guard picked up his shield.


"You heard the man. I'm important enough not to punch. I hope this poor chap doesn't go home and do the same to his wife! Vos meanie!" Barris spoke boldly.


Ponderosus turned to Barris and waved his hand at Barris.


"Nullum" Ponderosus seemed to be expressing a negative reaction to Barris.


"No? You mean no! Alright. Ita means yes, nullum means no." Barris responded, backing up peacefully.


They once again continued their walk.


"Ponderosus? What does this mean?" Barris asked Ponderosus while holding up his thumb.


Ponderosus quickly grabbed his thumb and hid it.


"Nullum" he responded.


"Why?" asked Barris.


Ponderosus considered Barris statements for a moment then discerned what Barris was asking.


Ponderosus held up his thumb towards Barris and then spoke.


[This gesture means an insult. Especially to men. It means you have a small penis.]
"Gestus est iniuria. Maxime in hominibus. Non est parvum tibi videtur." Ponderosus gestured to his crotch, then held up two fingers to imply length, bringing his fingers closer together to indicate small.


Barris cringed and then slowly began chuckling, causing Ponderosus to begin laughing himself. The two of them laughed for the rest of their walk, and in the end, it was a sense of humour that had saved Barris on that day.


Mila Returns And Stonehenge Yearns


[Yesterday (May 6, 2020) at around 3 PM EST I wrote this chapter, although thanks to my browser crashing, it did not get saved and I ended up having to rewrite it again on May 7, 2020 at around 12 PM. I actually expanded the chapter, being a bit more descriptive than I had in yesterday's version, not to mention that I wrote my own text editor in Delphi that automatically saves my work every thirty seconds as I write. Anyway, this chapter is as close to what I wrote yesterday as I could get and I believe that it turned out even better.]


Mila searched through the darkness for the source of the humming, droning sound though ultimately finding nothing but nothing. She stumbled further into the darkness and a found wall, very obviously made from brick. Still too dark to see, she followed the wall to her left and upon rounding a corner, she spied a bright vertical shaft of light.


As she approached, her surroundings became clearer and she recognized that she was in an alley between two three story buildings. The light that she was seeing led out onto an unknown avenue or road. She backed away from the wall that had been her guide thus far and began running towards the street.


She slowed herself to a stop on a familiar sidewalk, where she spun twice to take in her new surroundings. She recognized Grand Street, the main strip of her home town of Alivale. She oriented herself towards the main intersection of the small town, a 'T' shaped junction between Grand Street and Highway 115. Route 115 would bring in most of the rural residents, the out-of-towners and the tourists, while Grand Street was Alivale's market street. One could buy farming supplies, furniture, food, trinkets and knick knacks produced locally including Mila's own art, which sold through a consignment arrangement she had with one of the shops.


Realizing that she was on familiar territory, she began to walk north confidently towards the intersection of Grand and 115 from the west side of Grand Street. She first passed Aben's Furniture And Refinishing, noting that he had cabinet in the display case that matched her own dining room furniture. She paused a moment to admire it when something inside of the store moved, quickly evading her glance. She looked again and thought nothing of it, resuming her stroll down memory lane.


On the other side of the street she spied the Alivale Music Shoppe, where the same vintage grand piano held its place in the display window alongside a cello, a viola, a banjo and a guitar. Old sheet music arrangements plastered much of the background of the display case and was contrasted by digital tablets and handheld recorders, which filled in the remaining openings ignorant of any implied anachronism. As she admired the shop, she got the distinct feeling as if she was being watched carefully.


On her left hand side as she walked, she happened upon the Alivale Hardware Store, an old establishment that had been around since the mid eighteen hundreds. It had at one point been a blacksmith and tool maker, supplying most of the local farmers with their equipment. The store was overhauled in the nineteen sixties by the family who'd purchased it. They turned it into a modern hardware store, though they kept much of the Smithing equipment on display and as a tourist draw.


She spied the display case window where a mannequin kept vigil, garbed in blue suspendered pants and a red farming shirt. In its right hand it kept a pitchfork propped vertically, its spikes aimed at the ceiling. Beside it was a lawn tractor, a tool in high demand in Alivale as most of the rural residents of the town had masses of land. It was a local bylaw that if your property was within the Alivale township, during the summer months from May until September your front yard area was required to be tended to and your grass trimmed. Mila had even purchased one for herself on her first year at Alivale and hired a local student to cut the grass on her property for which she paid him well. Years later upon solidifying her relationship with Barris, he'd taken over that duty and many others in caring for her property, leaving her to focus on her artwork.


She reveled in her memories for a moment and was thrust back to reality upon seeing the farmer mannequin's hand move from the corner of her eye. She shook her head, thinking it to be an illusion or possibly delusion. The mannequin's head suddenly turned to face her, looking right through her with its non-existent listless eyes. She screamed as she backed away from the display case, suddenly recalling her nightmare from many years ago on the very night of her yearly dinner and wine party.


The farmer mannequin came to life, opening the display case window like a door and stepping out onto the sidewalk, closing the display case behind it. Mila continued to back away, feeling suddenly lost and helpless. Paralyzed by what she antipated. As she backed away, she bumped into something. She turned to see another mannequin, this one garbed in a butcher's apron wielding a clever in its right hand.


She fell backwards onto the street, crawling away as fast as she could suddenly realizing that she was surrounded. The mannequins, numbering close to a hundred, closed in on her. She shriveled up and waited for the worst. In what she thought to be her last moment, she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see that it was the hand of the farmer mannequin. Its empy hand was extended to her, an offer to help her to her feet, the pitchfork still held fast in its right hand.


She accepted the farmer mannequin's hand and was hoisted to her feet. The mannequins backed away from her leaving an opening towards the 'T' intersection of Grand Street and Route 115. There she spied the warehouse where she'd fought Lorr for the first time. It had since been converted into a superstore grocer for the region but the warehouse still remained intact, likely as part of the receiving operation for the superstore. She proceeded towards the intersection through the opening that the mannequins had left for her and as she approached the warehouse they followed her.


As she got closer, she could hear the sound of rushing water and she nce again recalled her nightmare. As she recalled, the streets had become flooded in her nightmare, Route 155 had become a deep canal, water had replaced the paveing of the road itself. As she approached 115, the sound of rushing water grew and then she saw what the mannequins had been doing. They'd built up a retaining wall of sandbags, preventing Route 115 from flooding as it had in her nightmare, leaving it safe for her to cross and face whatever awaited her in the warehouse. She crossed the road and found the service entrance to the warehouse, still followed by her army of mannequins. She turned the knob of the door and the latch clicked, allowing her to move the door freely. She opened it, leaving it ajar for her new allies.


The interior of the warehouse was empty and eerily similar to the night she'd faced Lorr. Several bulbed lights hung from the ceiling just barely illuminating the area. As she stepped further into the warehouse, she spied what appeared to be a large ornate chair just barely hidden in the shadows of the far corner of the warehouse. She proceeded towards it cautiously.


As she got closer she recognized it as being an elaborately decorated throne whereupon sat a lifeless body garbed in dark robes. She approached the figure, the mannequins close behind her. The body has seated in the throne however it was hunched over, appearing as if only a nudge would push it from the throne. When she was within an arms length of the body, she reached out and touched the top of its head and thinning hair. It didn't move nor did it feel warm to her touch. She moved closer and this time hoisted the head and body upwards to an upright position.


She shrieked and jumped back recognizing Lorr's withered face, though it was not Lorr that frightened her. It was the fact that he was wearing the oath pendant that she'd worn to keep Barris' and her parent's secret. The secret of their evasion of death. That secret in which they'd tricked the most fundamental of forces of nature out of its due. A price for which Barris had paid with his life, to protect the lives of Mila's parents. The very oath stone pendant that symbolized secret was now around the neck of Lorr, once upon a time, the Sanctum's most powerful enemy.


Lorr's eyes suddenly opened and he became animated.


"You won't get away this time..." Lorr spat at Mila as she struggled to back away from him.


Several of the mannequins threw themselves at Lorr while others grabbed hold of Mila, dragging her backwards across the floor towards the service exit.


Lorr's hands streamed molten lava and brimstone, immersing the attacking mannequins in flame. The farmer mannequin took the pitchfork in both hands and plunged it into Lorr's abdomen. Lorr screamed in agony as he ripped the farmer mannequin in half. He carefully pulled the pitchfork from his body and cast it at the cement floor of the warehouse, disgusted that such a crude weapon had violated his body. He then charged at Mila.


The mannequins had just reached the door and were pulling her through when Lorr grabbed hold of her legs, trying to pull her into the warehouse.


"Let's finish what you started!" Lorr screamed at her.


Mila kicked at him furiously and his grip broke. The mannequins fell with Mila to sidewalk.


"Mila? Mila! You're having a nightmare! Wake up! Wake up!" Sato shook Mila, who was seated next to him in a small car.


"...huh? Where am I?" Mila sat up suddenly, looking around wild eyed and startled.


"You're safe. We're at Stonehenge. Its just around the corner." Sato told her consolingly.


"How did I get here?" Mila asked him.


"You do remember coming to visit me, don't you?" Sato verified with Mila.


"Yes. I do. We discussed Barris... and how he's possibly alive..." Mila recalled.


"Exactly. Well, you were a few sheets east of the wind, so I put you to bed. I rested for a few hours myself, at least until I was sober, after all we did have some Sake. There's a car rental place a London block from my shop, so I rented a Mini, bought us some food and supplies and loaded you in and drove here, to Stonehenge." Sato told her.


"We could have portalled... you didn't have to..." Mila explained to Sato.


"No, this was much better and far more fun. I haven't driven in ages. Look, there's some face cloths and water in the glovebox. Some soap too. There's a cooler in trunk with some Sushi and a few sandwiches. Get ready and we can go investigate." Sato assured Mila.


"I really appreciate that you did all of this, but I really need you to keep watch for me..." Mila asked Sato.


"You mean that you need to use the lew? There are public washrooms in the park. This is a National Monument and protected historical site you know." Sato informed her.


"I appreciate it but trust me, I need you to keep watch for me." Mila asked of him as she got out of the car.


"Alright. I'll watch from here. But not too closely. Take your time." Sato said uncomfortably still riding the thrill of their drive.


Mila walked fifty yards into the brush and found an appropriate place for her plans.


"This ought to do." she said to herself as she began moving her hands as if she was shaping potter's clay.


The wind picked up suddenly and the air itself seemed to open. Through a fissure, Mila reached in a retrieved a large doorway-sized painting. She leaned the painting against a nearby tree and admired it.


It was a painting of a marble bath-house and spa, with flowing waters, a steam room and  warmed lava rocks. All appearing both mystical and yet modern.


"This should do." Mila said modestly as she once again began shaping another weave.


This time, the painting itself began to glow and the surface of the canvas rippled like water. Mila then stepped into the painting, where she began the process of cleaning and cleansing herself in the heated marble bath.


Nearly half an hour later, Sato's impatience could no longer be contained. He'd actually become anxious after three minutes of Mila's absense. It took all of his constraint to keep from going to look for her, though he ultimately decided against it. Instead he kept watch from the car as she'd asked. At the thirty minute mark he got out of the Mini, slamming the door as he did in attempt to get Mila's attention.


He then began marching in the direction in which Mila had left for the bushes. He walked for about a minute and stumbled upon a masterpiece painting leaning against a tree.


Who would just leave this here? This has to be worth a...


Mila suddenly emerged from the canvas of the painting itself, smelling like the fresh cherry blossoms he'd remembered from his homeland of Japan. She looked very different than she had upon arriving on his doorstep this morning. She was now lightly made up, the back of her hair tied in a small bun while the rest of her hair fell freely and seductively around her face. She wore a stylish outfit perfect for the kind of hiking they'd likely do at Stonehenge, with tight figure hugging athletic pants, a pair of athletic hiking boots, a pink down filled vest and a white shirt beneath.


"Do I look better?" Mila asked Sato.


"You're really back. It's you!" Sato smiled, realizing that Mila had indeed returned.


"In the flesh. Now, we have ourselves a Barris to go find." Mila urged Sato.


"Don't forget, I came out here to find you." Sato threw back at her sarcastically.


"It look like Sato's back too..." Mila joked.


"You'd better believe it. Do you need help with your painting?" Sato asked her.


"No, I'll take care of it." Mila replied as she tucked the painting back into the time and space fissure from whence it came.


They made their way back to the Mini together and from there drove up to the entrance to Stonehenge.


The a service clerk in a gate house greeted them as they pulled up to the window.


"G'day to you. How many?" asked the clerk.


"Two. Adults please." Sato replied.


"That will be twenty pound fifty." the clerk told Sato.


Sato paid the man, who advised them that the park would only be open for another hour before they had to leave.


"We should have enough time to look around, and if not, we'll check it out on our own." Mila suggested.


"Exactly what I was thinking. Let's hope that we can find what we're looking for before then. That brings up an interesting point. What exactly are we looking for?" Sato asked inquisitively if not somewhat sarcastically.


"We're looking for any clues related to Barris. Anything at all which I can use to get a draw on his energy. If we find something, I can use the weave to zero in on his location. Possibly. I'm still a little rusty." Mila advised him.


"Rusty? You didn't seem too rusty when you summoned a full body spa and bath for yourself back there. Did you even consider that I might have benefited from such a treatment?" Sato said lining up the Mini into a parking space.


"That one is personal. You're lucky I even let you see the painting or walk away with your memory of having seen it afterwards." Mila warned him.


"Then maybe on the way back home, you could summon the public one. You know, the one you'd bring your family and friends to?" Sato suggested.


"Only if you're a good boy." Mila replied stepping from the stopped car.


"As long as you don't ask me to roll over and beg." Sato went to the boot, opened it and grabbed the portable cooler.


"In case we need nourishment, unless your private spa has a restaurant too." Sato inquired.


"No. Just a spa." Mila said innocently as they strode towards the path leading up the hill to Stonehenge.


As they got closer it grew in scale and became enormous to them, even looking much bigger than it had in the pictures they'd seen.


Signs littered the pathway advising visitors to stay on the path, barring any visitors direct access to Stonehenge itself.


"That's going to be a problem. I don't think that if Barris left us any clues, that he'd be thinking about the fact that we'd be seeing it only from the tourist paths." Sato observed.


"Yes well that could be a problem. Also there's the fact that depending upon what time he's here, whatever clue he leaves us must survive long enough for us to find it." Mila said astutely.


"This is definitely going to be a longshot, then." Sato shook his head.



Mila and Sato walked along the path arriving at the southern observation point of the main site by which most people recognize Stonehenge. They paused, examining the south western stones, many of which were part of the fallen of the site. The point through which the sun shone during the winter solstice. Mila examined what she could see very carefully, looking for any sign that Barris may have tinkered in order to leave them a message.


"I can't see anything that reminds me of Barris, other than the presence of these giant stones, as in he's as dumb as..." Sato blurted out sarcastically.


"Watch it, that's my future husband that you're speaking of..." Mila said playfully yet defensively.


"...and my long time friend. I've a license for such humour at his expense. Besides, I'm almost certain that whereever he is, he's likely doing the same of me," Sato reminded Mila.


"I'm certain that he's doing what he can to be on his best behaviour," Mila once again stood in his defense.


"There's no swaying you, is there?" Sato replied with an edge of playful sarcasm as he examined the giant stone formation.


"Perhaps we should try the other observation area? The one to the north east?" Sato continued as he looked to see that Mila was already a third of the way there.


They arrived at the second observation point, one of the most familiar places to those who've seen it in pictures. Mila, once again put her eye for detail to work looking for any clues that he might have left for them.


"There's something amiss here... I can't quite figure it out..." Mila observed, examining the stones through which the summer soltice shone perfectly during sunset.


They were still a month away from the summer solstice and the already setting sun was nearing the center point of the stone formation.


"Hmmm. It would seem that there are a great many more stones still standing here. Maybe Barris accidentlly played dominoes with them?" Sato quibbed.


"That's it..." Mila looked carefully at the solstice stones, a group of four vertical stones still erect at the site, the center two through which the sun shone during the solstice.


"Do you have one of the tourist pamphlets?" Mila asked Sato.


Sato walked over to a couple and asked to borrow one of their tourist pamphlets. When they refused, he offered to buy it. A number of other people overheard his attempt to purchase the pamphlet and offered theirs as well, starting a price war.


"I'll throw in one of my Stonehenge postcards for an extra three quid..." yelled one man.


"Mate, I'll do you one better. I've a picture from inside the circle that I snuck earlier that I'll sell you a copy of for five quid plus five for my pamphlet," another man offered.


"I'll take that one..." Mila interjected accepting the man's offer.


She gave him her email address and he sent the pic to her phone, which she immediately opened, looking closely at the screen.


"Pamphlet?" Mila asked Sato.


"Right here," Sato handed Mila their purchased pamphlet.


She compared the two images for a long time though not finding that for which she was looking. She then opened a web browser on her phone and searched for Stonehenge images. All of them appeared the same as what she was seeing before her.


"There's still something off. I need to check this out. Do you have a blank piece of paper? Wait! That postcard! Buy that man's postcard!" Mila told Sato.


Sato immediately chased down the man that had offered up his postcard with the purchase of his pamphlet, who'd continued his site seeing after having lost the price war.


"Is that postcard still available?" asked Sato.


"Yes, but its gone up in price..." the man replied.


"How much?" asked Sato.


The man looked to his wife momentarily and then back to Sato.


"Fifteen quid," the man replied confidently.


"Are you kidding me! That's more than the price to get in here!" Sato became frustrated with the man.


"Just buy it Sato. I'll pay you back," Mila asked him.


"Alright. You win... this time, thanks for nothing..." Sato dug into his pocket pulling the last of his paper money and handing it to the man, who then handed Sato the postcard.


"Here..." Sato said handing it to Mila.


"Alright. Cover me. I'm going to do something special... ahem... you know...?" Mila winked at Sato a few times.


Sato looked around seeing that they'd drawn an interested crowd of people, curious about them as a result of their sudden purchases from the other tourists.


Mila had stepped out onto the grass and began moving her hands in performance of her thaumaturgy. Despite being as inconspicuous as possible, some of the people became curious.


"She's a New Ager. She's into hippy beads. Oils, lotions and ointment. Incense. She did this when we visited the Big Ben too..." Sato remarked trying to distract them from watching her.


When Mila finished, she flipped the postcard over to the blank side and there was another photograph etched onto it.  A photograph much different from the one they'd purchased. Different from the postcard itself too. In fact, Mila's summoned photograph was different from the Stonehenge that sat in front of them.


"We need to go," Mila advised Sato.


"No luck? Shouldn't we stick around and try to find something more?" insisted Sato.


"You don't understand. We need to get back to the car. Now." Mila said as she turned and started walking.


Sato caught up with her.


"Why, what did you see?" Sato asked.


"We'll talk when we get back to the car." Mila informed him.


They both picked up their pace and within ten minutes they were back at the car, sitting inside of the Mini.


"Alright. Here's the picture that you bought. Here's the postcard that you bought." Mila handed them to Sato.


"We bought. You did have to rub it in, didn't you!?" Sato said impatiently.


"Just look at them." Mila asked of him ignoring his comment.


"Yes, they look like what we saw. So what's the big deal?" asked Sato once again impatiently.


"Turn over the postcard. That's what I summoned. Its a photograph too though I summoned it from the true record of everything," Mila told him.


"True record? You mean from the Codex? At the Sanctum?" Sato confirmed with Mila.


Left: Mila's summoned image from the Librum Universalis Codex which depicts the real Stonehenge,  Right: The postcard Sato purchased which depicts the version of Stonehenge they see. Note the missing horizontal capstone in the right image.


"Yes. Something has been altered in our time. You see how the four vertical stones have horizontal stones capping them? Two in our version of reality, three in the Sanctum's version of reality," Mila told him.


"By the Nine Yokai! You're right! But Barris couldn't remove a three ton stone from the top of those vertical stones. So what are you thinking?" Sato asked Mila.


"Maybe not by himself, but he could have done it with some help. That's not all, if you take the photograph of the capped vertical stones and turn it clockwise by ninety degrees, do you see what I see?" Mila asked Sato to confirm for him.


Sato did as she asked, turning the summoned photograph by ninety degrees and then he examined it again. That's when he noticed it.


"That's how Barris signs his name! His initials! BW! Just like that!" Sato was suddenly taken aback.


Just then one of the Stonehenge Park guards tapped on their window.


Sato rolled down his window and addressed the guard.


"We're closing for the day in ten minutes. We're just advising all of our guests. Thank you." the guard spoke and Sato acknowledged.


After the guard left they continued their conversation.


"So I assume that we're going to stay here and investigate covertly?" Sato asked her.


"Are you kidding me? Did you think that we could leave after having uncovered this? We're going to stay and see what else we can find. Just as you said, covertly," Mila agreed.


They left the parking lot and found a safe place to stash the Mini on the side of one of the nearby smaller roads.


It was from there that they continued their investigation as the day disappeared to become the night.


Challenges And Solutions



Within their well furnished private quarters in the Sanctum, Yirfir paced the floor, back and forth anxiously while Jasmer stood and watched.


"I cannot believe the nerve of that girl! I gave her direct instructions and yet she still...!" Yirfir was clearly fuming.


"What is done, is done. She followed her own path and for her own reasons. We have to believe that she had the interests of the Sanctum in mind when she made that choice." Jasmer presented the voice of reason.


"We're supposed to work as a team, not go galavanting off on our own adventures whenever we fancy! We are so understaffed that her leaving like that is a very serious matter!" Yirfir corrected him.


"When they swore the oath, it did not mean giving up their individuality and freedom to a tyrant..." Jasmer responded.


"So now I'm a tyrant am I? I'll have you know that I've put a lot of myself into them! All of my students! And for my three star pupils to one by one disappear, as if their commitments to the Sanctum were as simple as procrastinating household chores? How presumptuous and preposterous!" Yirfir peaked, waving her index finger like a baton as she spoke.


"Perfectly put! Precisely! How could they those Panda-poops!" Jasmer spoke in full seriousness perhaps having learned from Barris how best to diffuse a difficult situation.


It worked because a moment later, Yirfir broke out in laughter, her eyes watering and on the brink of tears. Jasmer joined her in laughter the moment after and they continued for another five minutes before they finally stopped. By that time Yirfir had found her way into Jasmer's arms.


"I am so worried about her. Shaela. I also think that the stress of this situation is getting to me." Yirfir snuggled in close to Jasmer.


"That it is. You're shouldering far more than you should." Jasmer told her honestly.


"I have to. If I don't, who will?" Yirfir asked of him.


"Us. Me. Thara. Lannay. Jexelen. Jeong Soon. Lady Soon. Sir Manfred. The rest of us remaining in the Sanctum and charged with its protection..." Jasmer informed her.


"It has always been my way. This is something that I need to do." Yirfir implored.


"I know. I know you very well. Too well. It is your way, but nobody else's. Don't make it their problem when its you that shoulders that much responsibility. We all have our share of it, especially in these times. Lets deal with these problems one at a time. Right now." Jasmer suggested.


"Alright. Shaela. She's gone. To the Shadow Plane I presume. May I remind you that only one other Night Wytch has attempted such a feat, six hundred Aerth years ago and was never heard from again." Yirfir reminded Jasmer.


"Then we regard her as missing in action. If we find clues to suggest that she can be found and returned safely, we'll do so as the resources become available to assist her, but not before then." Jasmer suggested.


"Fair enough. That's one down. There's the issue of the defensive perimeter of the Sanctum. We're down to our last shift of the Elemental Guard. After this shift ends in four hours, we'll have none to replace them except for those who've returned from other missions." Yirfir presented to Jasmer.


"Before I returned I checked on the propress of the three divisions of Elementalists out on missions for the Sanctum. Two of those divisions will return within the next six to eight hours and that's an over estimate. One division will be enough to provide full protection." Jasmer gave his solution.


"Two divisions. One to perform the actual guard duties and power the Atherial Barrier, the remainder to alternate shifts with those on guard duty so we have sustained and indefinite protection." Yirfir corrected Jasmer.


"Perfect. Then that should work out well. We'll only be at risk for at most an hour or two. After that we're at full strength again. Next problem?" Jasmer asked for her next lead.


"Security detail for Zheng Ni Wong." Yirfir told Jasmer.


"Who was she again?" Jasmer asked.


"She's a Computational Biologist and ex-researcher of MindSpice Incorporated. She worked on one of their top secret projects with regard to Artificial Intelligence. She's been deemed a high priority target by our scrying network." Yirfir explained to Jasmer.


"We've got the two of us. We're a pretty security detail, if not overpowered for this sort of thing." Jasmer said confidently.


"The threat is far greater than you think. Even Shaela underestimated them and you know how well she can deal with the unexpected." Yirfir reminded Jasmer.


"What about Athandra Rithyani?" asked Jasmer.


"She's still out on an assignment related to this situation and should be back within the next few days." Yirfir told him.


"She told me that Xenshi and Xushu were on that assignment?" Jasmer responded with a surprised look on his face.


"Athandra ended up taking the assignment as it is close to her home of Mumbai." Yirfir told him still stroking his chin.


"Well then, that means that Xenshi and Xushu are on standby. We could  bring them as our backup." Jasmer suggested.


"We'll be working on Aerth and will require discretion. Those two aren't exactly discrete." Yirfir indicated to him.


"They're Ancestor Spirits. They can remain unseen to the living. I think that they'll do fine. Besides, they might give us the added advantage we'll need." Jasmer urged her.


"Alright. We'll bring them, but they must remain unseen until needed." Yirfir finally agreed.


"Anything else?" Jasmer asked her.


"Nothing more pressing than that. That still leaves us with nobody but Lannay, Jexelen, Sir Manfred and Thara to defend the Sanctum for two days." Yirfir reminded him.


"Two days is a small window. I doubt that anyone could exploit it as a window of opportunity." Jasmer reasoned with her.


"I'd have to agree but I'm still uneasy with the idea." Yirfir admitted to him.


"A risk we have to take. Lets finish our rest here and then go find Zheng Ni Wong." Jasmer returned to their bed and Yirfir followed him.


Together they fell asleep obvlivious that they'd been observed for the whole time.


Out in the darkness of the Midspace sky, Lorr sat with the remainder of his forces in wait.


"It seems that our opportunity will soon become manifest. Keep our forces on standby. Soon the Sanctum and the Librum Universalis Codex will be ours." Lorr spoke.



Enter The Apprentices



Athelbra had fallen asleep for most of the drive, leaning into Dandelbraden's shoulder which he'd padded with his pajamas.


The relationship between the two had never been of a sexual nature, yet there was a dedicated intimacy between them, as much so as there was for many of the eco-protection partners working the field. Many of them were dedicated souls, yet had become so lonely in their efforts that they'd failed to attend to their own needs, putting nature first.


In many such cases, romances had formed, though more so out of the need of companionship rather than actual intimate attraction and dedication. Convenience. Which sometimes does happen between adults. The young and old alike. Even conveniently or much less thereof. After all, these were compassionate people laying everything on the line for the sake of their mother nature. Their one and only nurturer. Their life.


Their one true love, albeit, truth being in the eye of the observer. Their eyes were equally closed and therefore equally in question of observation. Of each other or anywhere else.


They were both nearly asleep in each other's arms when the unibus in which they were riding capsized. It happened quickly and without warning as the unibus driver swerved to avoid an oncoming jungle service vehicle. The twelve passenger unibus was on its roof tumbling on its side into the escarpment just left of the lane in which it had been driving.


Dandelbraden had been rendered physically unconscious, while Athelbra was bashedly reminded of her mortality, though she remained coherent.


When she'd spied that Dandelbraden had been wounded, she quickly recalled her training. First she examined Dandelbraden's body for any moral wounds. After releasing her safety belt, she fell onto her shoulders and wrenched Dandelbraden from the roof rested wreck of their unibus. When she'd dragged him from the vehicle a good distance, the returned, pulling the driver and five other passengers from the vehicle in turn before she rolled over onto her back and gasped for her first breath of air since.


There was no explosion, as both Athelbra and Dandelbraden had seen (and heard) in many Hollywood blockbuster movies, and numerous times as such. Instead the engine of the vehicle slowly sputtered to a stop, swaying the unibus back and forth as a result of the momentum from the V-twin piston block driven electric hybrid.


Athelbra coughed as the vehicle sputtered and died.


"Definitely not an Tesla Electra. It would have kept at least until running until the battery had died." Athelbra commented barely capable of keeping her breath.


"A die hard fan of electric cars. My mor would certainly love you. As would my far. You're the keepin' kind you ar'" Dandelbraden awoke from his unconscious stupor admiring Athelbra's work.


"Keep your tongue in your trousers if your far or mor wants ever to hear you speak. I suspect they'd never suspected words like that from you!" Athelbra struggled to speak as she still gasped for breath after her athetic rescue of the other passengers.


She paused a moment to catch her breath and then rolled over nearly onto Dandelbraden, in laughter where she snuggled up to him.


"I like working with you." She chummed up to his body, nice and warm.


"As do I. I'd marry you if you weren't so darn dedicated to this..." Dandelbraden commented questioningly.


"Perhaps I'd marry you if you weren't always trying to rescue me!" Athelbra replied to him, overjoyed to see that he was healthy.


"...the medical kits... from the unibus?..." Dandelbraden asked her.


"I grabbed what I could. The rest are in the unibus, though I honestly think that everyone's alright." Athelbra responded modestly.


"Well here we are in another fudge of nature, aren't we? Surprising, considering how much we put into defending her..." Dandelbraden responded to Athelbra.


"Don't ever think that nature doesn't listen. She does. All the time. She doesn't always reply in ways that you see." Nelony responded, suddenly standing beside them as if from nowhere.


"Where in heck did you come from?! You didn't just cause that crash mysterious nature lady? Did you?" asked Dandelbraden pushing himself back in the dirt upon Nelony's appearance.


"No. Quite honestly, one the service vehicles sent to deal with the failure of the machinery we incapacitated earlier in order to rescue you did." Nelony answered honestly.


"So why in the blazes are you here again!? Are you stalking us?" Dandelbraden imposed himself between Athelbra and the Wytch lady.


"You're very protective and noble. You have much potential. I like that, though she doesn't see in you what I do. She's far beyond your grasp and a noble and heroic soul beyond your comprehension at that. But you're very close to deserving a lady such as her." Nelony responded.


"Do you think me some prize to be bartered?" Athelbra asked of Nelony.


"Never as much and certainly not. You are your own. I have no say over your will, as much so does anyone else except you. I apologize for it must be quite unnerving for a woman so powerful as yourself to hear that a mortal man has such desires of you? One of your being?" Nelony posed of Athelbra.


"I am mortal as he! I will answer to the same mortality as does he!" Athelbra defended Dandelbraden.


"As much is true. You are honest and whole. I admire you honestly. If I had been as focused as you when I was your age, your world would have been much better protected than I alone can offer." Nelony replied as she pondered the past.


"Can I ask you a question?" Dandelbraden asked of Nelony.


"You may. So long as you remain noble as you've prior demonstrated." Nelony replied honestly.


"Are you completely nuts and out of your mind crazy?" Dandelbraden fired fully with his breath, mouth and tongue.


Nelony bore the brunt of Dandelbraden's words. Each of them in force and for all the pain they caused her.


"That hurt. Really. It did. You men have no idea of the power of the your words. Nor do I recall that you ever bare the responsibility for their utterance. They hurt. Really. It isn't a power of which you are worthy all the time. It is a responsibility beyond which you can comprehend. When you know how much those words can hurt, then perhaps you can wield them responsibly." Nelony replied honestly and wholeheartedly.


"But what of those who brought them about? Those who provoked them? I mean if you or anyone else forbid, states something not tasteful to my circle of being, and I respond, then is it not them that are responsible!" Dandelbraden asked of Nelony.


"You are truly a soul of noble worth to question such a dilemma. I admire you even more, though you're still a whelp compared to Athelbra. She's better than you'll ever know. But you'll make a good pet." Nelony replied.


"A pet?!" Dandelbraden confirmed that he'd heard her words correctly.


"If yet I can through words alone manipulate you. Yes. A pet.To anyone who has such prowess with words." Nelony responded knowingly.


"If he's to be a 'PET' then I will suffer as much so does he!" Athelbra defended Dandelbraden.


"Very well. It has been decided. You will be my pets. Agreed?" confirmed Nelony.


"No! We did not agree to any such thing!" Athelbra confirmed.


"We will, as we suggested earlier be your apprentices, but not your pets!" Dandelbraden agreed with Athelbra.


"Wow! Humility too coupled with just the right dose of dignity. This is a good start. You're actually pretty awesome. I'll take you both. As my Apprentices then." Nelony replied to them.


"No no nooo... wait a minute! We'll take you! You're not going to finagle us into some scam. We make our own decisions. We're with you!" Dandelbraden pushed himself in close to Athelbra as did she to Dandelbraden.


"We can work with this too. Alright. You are Initiates. I will formally bring you into the Sanctum after you've passed some tests... Until then, you're on trial. Once you pass the tests, I'll take you as my Apprentices, as you so asked of me only hours ago. Remember that this is something that you have to earn and that it is a responsibility not unlike the responsibilities you've already taken on in fighting for nature's cause." Nelony told .


"You mean that you accept us?" Athelbra replied.'


"Hmm... Yes. I do. As Initiates. You both have great potential. Don't waste it! Lets get these people ready for the medical care they're going to receive. Agreed? I'll get the vehicle back on the road while you deal with the injured. I already checked and there are no life threatening injuries, though I'd be careful with that lady's arm, she might have a fracture." Nelony replied.


"Agreed!" Athelbra jumped to her feet.


"Yep. I'm with her. That is if we're both apprentices?" asked Dandelbraden.



"Initiates. That, you are. Hopefully you'll become the best of apprentices." Nelony responded.


Security Check



Lannay had escorted Jexelen to her quarters, as it was customary of the senior staff protecting one another.  Two senior members of the elemental guard accompanied him, leaving one behind outside of her door,  and then back to his quarters where he settled in for his scheduled four hour rest break.


From the moment his head hit the pillow, the entire Sanctum was under the immediate protection of no more than five of the most skilled elementalists ever trained within its walls. The least defended the Sanctum had ever been, which is exactly why Lorr chose this moment to make his move.


The remaining three elemental guard members proceeded to their patrol route which brought them to Thara's quarters, where one of them remained, stationed as a four hour sentry while the other two patrolled a route interconnected with all of the senior staff residences of the Sanctum. Three stationary guard and two patrolmen. The weakest the security of the once formidable Sanctum had ever been.


In the darkness of the Midspace, the remaining Norbids hauled Lorr's throne to the energetic aetherial boundary. The point at which the weave powered shield met the barren rocky surface of the ever timeless Midspace. In fact Lorr had them haul him to the one spot where he'd detected a formidable weakness. As much so as was he vulnerable, so was the infinite Sanctum of the New, and his most cherished prize: the Librum Universalis Codex. The one record of time and truth for the Prime Plane of existence. It had been called many things during its discovery and realization. The Record Of Truth. The Akashic Record. The True Record Of All. The one thing that it had never become was an instrument of lies.

The load bearers laid his throne upon the rocky crust of the Midspace. Lorr sat still and silent as his eyes dissected the energetic flow of the free weave. The unbound weave. The magical energy that fueled all of the Sanctum's power. Beyond the familiarity of blood so natural to Lorr's perception of the weave. It was like a constant nightmare to him for he could see nothing but her magic. Her weave. It intertwined itself in the most minute of particles and the greatest of structures. Worse yet, it was all constructed of life. The very essence of being. Something so very native to us each and every one, and of all creatures, great and small, and yet so distant a concept to one such as Lorr. His Twins lost. His line vanquished. He was the last source of all the blood weave magic. Yet within the midst of his greatest failure, he was determined to rise to his greatest triumph. Yet, his fate ultimately hinged upon the patrol of two Elementalists. The last line of security for the once mighty Sanctum.


Lorr's eyes watched as the unfamiliar patterns of univeral weave merged with the static nature of unconscious matter, and it was there that he observed the one true weakness of humankind. Their dissociated kinship with the very matter that fueled the weave that powered them. Gave them animation and life. The point in the field that distinguished them from the matter of the Prime Plane to be more than just thinking mechanical concoctions of matter, bio-chemistry and genetics.


A tear beaded in his otherwise dry eyes, and within he felt the essence of his lost Lyra. His pain suddenly turned to a burning rage. One that he contained within.


"So beautiful, yet so fragile..." he spoke upon the arrival of his epiphony.


His understanding and comprehension of the bloodless weave. The magic that had powered the Sanctum against him for ages was suddenly as clear as daylight, and yet it was about to fall to the observations of Lorr.


He concentrated, focusing upon this weakness and everything suddenly unraveled. It all happened at once. The barrier disappeared, fracturing the upper reaches of the Midspace sky with a loud clap, which echoed through the valley that housed the foundations of the great structure.


Within the Sanctum there was suddenly darkness. Whole and complete.


Yirfir awoke with a start.


"Its gone!" she breathed through motionless lips.


There was a moment of timeless silence before a voice pierced the darkness.


"What's gone?" Jasmer's hand found Yirfir's breast suddenly in the darkness.


He then found her hand and held on tightly.


"Something's happened. The Grounded Source is gone." Yirfir sat up suddenly in the darkness.


"What do you mean, gone? Wait. I feel it too. What in the blazes happened?" Jasmer pulled Yirfir from their Sanctum bed.


Yirfir yanked her hand free from Jasmer's protective grasp. A moment later and there was a tremendous bead of magical light emanating from a point above her head. Deep, dark, thick shadows were cast upon their surroundings.


"It's the Aetherial Barrier Core. Something overloaded it." Yirfir quickly began to dress herself before her husband's admiring eyes.


She stopped long enough to glare at him.


"Well, can you blame me?" he spoke still admiring her under the contrasting light.


"Are you saying that we should...?" Yirfir paused dressing herself in the confusion, appearing like a fantasy from Jasmer's dreams of her.


"No, but I'd love nothing more in any other circumstances. My love, you are always a turn-on to me, but its as you stated. There's something wrong with Barrier Core. I feel it too." Jasmer quickly drew his pants up over his waist and buckled them tight.


"Then I'll take a rain-check. Promise me that the next time the Barrier Core goes down suddenly, that we'll make intense and passionate love in the sudden darkness?" Yirfir asked of him.


"We'd be doing so right now if not for your keen senses. There's something wrong. This isn't a natural occurrence." Jasmer advised her.


"What? You mean making love in the darkness of a power outage is unnatural?" Yirfir asked pulling her boots over her feet.


"Maybe on Aerth, but not on the Sanctum." Jasmer stepped into the stone hall.


What he saw, even in the lightless corridor, broke him.


As Yirfir stood, Jasmer ducked back into the room, closing the door behind him.


"Honey. You're not going to believe this but the halls are lined with Norbid Magi.


"You're right." Yirfir agreed.


"I'm so glad you believe me honey." Jasmer forced himself against the door of their room.


"No. Actually, I don't believe you. Let me see." Yirfir demanded grabbing the door from him.


"Fine. See for yourself." Jasmer relinquished the door to his wife.


She stepped out into the corridor, looking first one direction and then the other. Upon her venture she quickly closed the door, returning to the room.


"I see. It is as you said. Lots of them too." Yirfir responded still somewhat in shock.


The patrolling guards had summoned their own sources of light, and were running for one of the entryways of the portal network within the Sanctum. They rounded a corner, entering into a chamber which housed a circular gateway. One of them spoke.


"Noran Bennis." he spoke, stating his name.


The portal suddenly came to life, twirling and crackling with energy as the two elementalists quickly jumped through.


They suddenly appeared at a portal by the main entry way into the Sanctum just in time to see the tremendous stone doors sliding open. Beyond the doors there was nothing but complete darkness. A thick opaque impenetrable blackness of the weave obscuring their view. They quickly prepared themselves for battle.


Four Norbid Magi suddenly emerged from the darkness charging for them. As they ran, their form changed becoming shadowy missiles streaming a dark sinewy ocher in their path. The elementalists quickly dodged as the first two of the Norbid Magi in missile form plunged into the wall behind them. They weren't as fortunate with the remaining two, both of which hit their targets, sending the elementalists into the same stone wall.


The four Norbid Magi materialized once again, one of them casting a stream of hot molten rock fire at Noran.


"Duban. Run for it! Trigger the safeguard!" Noran yelled as he summoned an elemental water form to douse the sudden rain of fire.


Duban wasted no time, doing exactly as Noran had ordered, two of the Norbid Magi pursuing him.


He summoned an air geyser behind himself, thrusting him forward as the force of wind gave him its push. The pursuing Norbid Magi once again transformed themselves into the ocher missiles, which easily kept pace with Duban's gain in speed.


He kept his flight furiously, running up a wall to balance his momentum in order to round a corner. From there he dove into a chamber, shouting his name as he entered.


"Duban Stad!" he yelled, bringing the portal to life.


He wasted no time in jumping through just as the Norbids in missile form arrived. They quickly transformed themselves back to their cloaked Norbid Magi form as the portal closed.


One of them spoke, imitating with exact preciseness Duban's voice.


"Duban Stad!" it yelled just as Duban himself had earlier.


The portal once again came to life, though this time there was no light coming from it but rather a swirling black energy.


The Norbids stepped through it, emerging on the other suddenly from the ceiling in a dark room. They fell twenty feet to the floor with a thud.


"He's gone." one of them stated as the other summoned a light.


From beyond the edges of the area affected by the summoned light, they heard a growling and hissing sound. It sent chills through their spines.


Suddenly, something grabbed one of them from above, pulling him into the darkness as he screamed. The grotesque sound of vicious eating could be heard by the other as the screams stopped abruptly.


The remaining Norbid Magi ran as fast as he could taking any direction indiscriminately as his imminent death followed from behind. He lasted for another three seconds before he too was devoured.


Duban had made it to the emergency security chamber. He once again stated his name, triggering a large stone cabinet to open. A drawer emerged revealing a large glowing crystal. He took this crystal in both of his hand and placed into an equally large receptacle, very obviously designed to receive it. As it became seated, a low humming sound could be heard throughout the Sanctum. The emergency lighting came on, casting an eerie glow throughout the structure and a klaxon began to sound. The emergency security system had been activated.


Noran fought the two Norbid Magi, holding his ground against both, though it was taking its toll upon his endurance. One of them managed to catch him off guard, singing his left arm with molten rock. He screamed in pain as his arm burst into fire, backing off away from the Norbids.


From behind the the advancing Norbids there came a bright flash of light. They turned to see a beautiful woman, wearing an elaborate headdress, adorned in a long red gown. They turned to face her as Noran backed away trying to douse his burning arm.


"No. You should not be in here. Very wrong. Very bad." the woman spoke, as if an adult scolding mischievous children.


One of the Norbids quickly threw a molten rock at her. She easily dodged it to one side.


"You very bad boy! You need to stop this." she said firmly, raising her hand.


The Norbid suddenly stopped, motionless as if a photograph, caught in time.


The other Norbid didn't wait before attempting to attack her. Both his hands became illuminated with flame as he charged at her.


"Bad boy! You shouldn't play with fire! Very bad!" she dodged him easily as he attempted to strike her.


From behind Noran had caught the Norbid's shoulder. From that point, the Norbid slowly began to transform into stone. This transformation progressed slowly as the Norbid struggled against it. He turned once again to face Noran, hitting his injured arm with another splash of molten rock. Noran screamed as he struggled to maintain his grip and spell upon the Norbid. A moment later the Norbid was entirely turned to stone and ceased to be a threat.


"Thank you..." Noran fell to the stone floor as the flames on his injured arm went out.


"You need to be careful. You very sick. I help you." the woman floated over to Noran, leaning down to him just as another threat emerged from the darkness outside of the main doors.


This time, it was Lorr himself, floating on his throne. His cloaked form keeping his body hidden. From beneath his helm, his skin glowed ocher while his darkened blue eyes pierced the air.


"The once great and mighty Sanctum, brought to its knees. You may either assist me or perish. The choice is yours." Lorr spoke thundrously, shaking the foundations of the Sanctum itself.


"We'll never help you!" Noran yelled in defiance.


"Ohhhh. You the very bad man. No. You need to get out and go! I not help you." the woman stated defiantly.


"Very well. Then I shall relieve you of your lives." Lorr raised his hands.


A pair of long sinewy blackened tentacles emerged from Lorr's extended hands, growing like chutes quickly extending towards the woman and Noran.


The woman stood before Noran protectively as the tentacles arrived. Just as they were about to fall upon their prey, Lorr's throne was pulled backwards and tipped, dumping him and his tentacles to the stone floor.


"Sister. Take him. Go to hall of rest chambers. Now! I will meet you there!" another man emerged from the darkness.


His skin glowed a bright yellowish light revealing a bald head and smooth skin. He appeared to be a Monk of some form, certainly originating from the Far East of Asia.


The woman lifed Noran and wrapped herself around him. The air around them suddenly folded inward devouring them without a trace as Lorr quickly got to his feet.


"You've all made your choice. Death it is..." Lorr's hands once again came to life as tentacles grabbing at the Monk.


He quickly dodged them, leaping and cartwheeling as necessary to avoid contact with them. Frustrated with his lack of success, Lorr concentrated and the tentacles suddenly divided, becoming four and then eight. Each of them strove for their target, just barely missing him as the very adept Monk dodged.


"I don't have time for you right now." the Monk said, bringing his hands up to his chest in a closed fist.


Just as it had done moments ago, the air collapsed around the Monk and he disappeared leaving Lorr alone in the entryway to the Sanctum.


"Very well. If you won't help me, then I'll need some backup." Lorr spoke aloud and to himself.


He concentrated and his throne suddenly righted itself and floated before him. He stepped up and took his place upon it. A moment later another Norbid Magi stepped forward from the darkness and took its place before the throne.


"Are you ready?" asked Lorr.


"I am ready as you ask my master." the Norbid Magi replied.


Lorr's eyes glowed from behind his helm and cast a ray of energy at the Norbid Magi. He remained still while a second Norbid Magi emerged from him and ran twenty paces forward. When it reached its destination, another Norbid Magi emerged and did the same thing. Ran twenty paces and stopped. This process continued, accelerating as it did. When any of the Norbids arrived at a junction, instead of becoming one, they would become three, each running twenty paces until the entire Sanctum was filled with Norbid Magi.


"That's more like it." Lorr said, very satisfied with his new powers.


Meanwhile, Yirfir and Jasmer were about to step out into the corridor when the emergency security lighting came on.


"That's better. It seems that Noran is on it. That's a good sign." Yirfir observed.


"At least we know that the security system is active. We've got a few more options now." Jasmer agreed.


"We need to get to the others. Protect the bureaucrats." Jasmer continued.


"Jexelen and Lannay can handle themselves in a pinch, but we certainly need to regroup." Yirfir agreed as they modified their plan.


Suddenly there came a knock at their chamber doors.


"Its very unlike Norbid Magi to knock." Yirfir observed.


"That it is. Then who?" Jasmer asked.


"Open it. I'll ready myself for trouble." Yirfir took a step back readying a powerful spell.


"Very well." Jasmer said as he opened the door.


Xenxi floated into the room, carrying Noran as she did. Just behind them, Xuxu, the Monk followed.


"Glad you could make it to the party." Jasmer said looking very relieved.


"I'll second that for certain. What's the situation?" asked Yirfir of Xenxi.


"There's a party? So sorry. I only have this to wear? My brother has no shirt. Can we still come to your party?" Xenxi confirmed with Yirfir.


"Of course you can come, but its not that kind of party. Its our party and the Norbids are crashing it..." Yirfir explained.


"Norbids? Lorr. Bad man. He's here. Very powerful now. He got through the front door." Xenxi informed Yirfir and Jasmer.


"We need to get out of here and meet up with Thara, Jexelen, Lannay and Sir Manfred. They're about three hundred meters from here down this hall and into the second wing of rest chambers. They're not yet awake." Yirfir informed them.


"Why don't we dream walk then? At least we could communicate with them and arrange to meet somewhere." Jasmer suggested.


"It would take too long to setup the link with each of them. By the time we did the Norbids would be upon us. If we move as a group we should be able to take out the Norbids between here and there.


"With Lorr here, there might be more difficulty." Xuxu stated.


"Certainly there will be, but he isn't concerned with any of us. He just wants access to the Librum Universalis Codex. Even with heightened powers it will take him a long time to gain that access, not to mention that he can't use the portal system. For anyone not authorized, its just a death trap. I should know, I helped design the trap system and the security." Jasmer informed them.


"Then lets go. The more time we waste, the closer he is to achieving that goal." Yirfir urged them to action.


"I'll take point. I exceed at doing so." Xuxu suggested.


"Good idea. I'll carry Noran. That way Yirfir and Xenxi can guard." Jasmer offered.


"Let's go with it." Yirfir responded, opening the door for them.


Xuxu went first, followed by Xenxi and then Jasmer with Yirfir taking up their rear. Together they proceeded towards the second wing to reunite with their peers.



















Shaela And The Darkness


There are many places in the planes of all. In fact, there are infinite spaces and planes woven into the tapestry that we call reality. Some of them fall within our comprehension and ability to reason. To understand. Some of them go well beyond our limited capacity for comprehension, operating in ways and means we can barely grasp. Then there are some we come to understand by adapting our current ability to comprehend in patterned ways. Like the relationship between light and darkness, and the interchangeability of the two, for there are places where the darkness is light, with the light being its shade.


In one such plane, a place comprehensible by our limited senses, existed a dangerous world where every moment was a struggle for survival between the predators and the prey. A place where being at the top of the food chain, a creature might suddenly fall victim to a more innovative creature at the bottom of that same chain. A place where nothing was guaranteed when it came to survival and success had come to few. In fact, so few that over the billions of years of its emergence into the planes of all, not a single civilization had developed from the innumerable life it contained. There are places where the competition for survival is the bane of all organization. Where no civilization can be birthed and where no order thrives, except the order of disorder.


It was upon a rocky crag set amidst a field that lined the borders of an immense jungle that the air sparked and twirled. Where the sparks emitted from plasma and lightning touched upon matter that had never seen photons except in the shade. The air became violent, a turbulent maelstrom and a vortex opened and inhaled the air of the Shadow Plane, as the air pressure attempted to balance between the Sanctum and Shaela's destination.


The vortex suddenly coughed as Shaela emerged from the portal exit, beyond the swirling darkness of a reality that only existed within the realm where darkness was light and light was shade.


It was impossible to describe, though one could easily compare it to a photographic negative in appearances. It was almost comprehensible but very dangerous to assume one could understand it.


Even for a Night Wytch of the Prime. An Amazon of the realm of darkness. As much a Wytch of the Wight as a dame of the night. An eternal night, forever and more. Darkness forever and light in its wake.


Beyond the darkness her eyes could so clearly see that she spied the emerging shadow rise. A world where night ruled and the shade was the majority. A place of which Night Wytches fantasized and where the solitary Shadow Cats hunted as the top predator.


The place to which Shaela had pursued her own prey, Mianamor Selembrosi. Fellow Night Wytch. Betrayer of the Sanctum and the Order Of The Night Wytch, though Shaela had come as much to hunt her prey as to bury her best friend with respect and dignity. She'd give her cat the burial of a hero, with the only temple and grave site to exist in the Shadow Plane.


Shaela paused as her body adjusted to the harsh requirements of her new abode. A place where the importance of respiration lay in exhalation rather than inhalation, for to breath the air of the Shadow Plane was to invite poison into one's body. For Shaela, her lungs metabolized oxygen upon breathing out rather than in. From the first breath she'd taken in the Shadow Plane, she was committed to exhale lest she suffocate.


She looked upon the rocky crag and a beach of pebbles and thought of her arrival to the outskirts of West View many years before. Where she'd met her second father in life. A surrogate father that she'd been given in the worst of circumstances. In the early beginnings of the Witch Hunt, Evan Edwards was a man of moral conviction who'd stumbled upon Shaela in the outback during an attempted bounty claim by witch hunters. Here however in the Shadow Plane, no such saviour had greeted her. Instead she had become woven into an intricate ecosystem where already, many denizens of the plane were sizing her up as a meal.


Shaela's presence upon the Aerth and in the midst of people was somewhat intimidating. She was a tall woman, standing nearly six feet and one inch tall. In fact, she never wore heels, even to social functions as she'd stand out as a result, which of course was in defiance of her school of magic and craft.


While many men had found her attractive, especially with her seemingly unnatural fiery red hair and luscious red lips, just as many had found her to be intimidating. Shaela was never the kind of woman who'd sacrifice her own sense of confidence and being just to appease a man's need for domination and control. She could not be subdued as a prize. Tamed by having her spirit broken. She was a horse, free forever to run pastures that few could ever graze upon. As such she found herself attracted to men who saw beyond the role of dominance and submission, though she was not beyond such games in the bedroom. The men who in reality saw her as an equal. A partner. A pillar holding up the same roof that shielded them both from the challenges of life.


She'd found that man in the Magistrate of West View. Reginald. A man of the year 1654 who'd been thrust into the battle for claim of a European colony, a joint venture by the powers of Europe in the face of the English Civil War. In fact, Evan Edwards had been a key man at arms and horse handler for Oliver Cromwell, and the right flank of Cromwell's Ironsides.


Edwards had disliked Cromwell from the start, considering him a zealot, faring only for his own religion and disregarding those who believed differently from him. Evan however was a principled man who loved his country as much as he did his own wife. In fact, whenever he'd leave to work for the Parliamentarians and/or the Crown, the private joke between himself and his wife was that he going to see his "other" mistress, referring to his work for the country.


Evan had committed and sworn himself to three Crowns during his tenure prior to the Parliamentarian movement and the English Civil War, and had loyalties for both sides. He did not fall for their polarization, for his vision of England included the tradition or Royalty and the Rights and representation of the people there to and by. If England had become overrun by Parliamentarians, then they too would become dictators. They needed another power to keep them in balance and answering to the people. That power was the tradition or Royalty, one of the hallmarks of England and integral to its historical identity.


Reginald had been a Lord in the house of Charles. A wealthy land owner and investor in the new colonies of the Americas who'd been trained in legality and philosophy. He was a well read man, who'd promoted literacy amongst the people and even had started his own schools, some of which were run by the religious aristocracy, to ensure that every woman, man and child could read. He saw ignorance as the enemy of humanity and the ally of suffering.


Evan had written a number of philosophical books comparing his work with horses to philosophy, one of which he called Working with Freedom and Liberation: A Horse Handler's Guide To Cooperation. Evan's works were popular to Reginald, and many other readers in the Royal Court as much so as they were interpreted as beacons of representative Government by the Parliamentarians. Yet Evan's works remained neutral to either side, even skirting religion as well.


Cromwell had noted this and brought the topic up before a session with the Parliamentarians. He'd first cited that Evan may be a traitor to the people of England for his omission of God and religion. That notion however was quickly dashed by the remaining Parliamentarians who saw Evan as a skilled rebel. The kind they needed to help their movement and to train their cavalry.


Reginald had become aware of this through his intelligence network and had his sources keep an eye on the situation. He really had his eye on Evan as well, seeing a good man who that really loved his country. When the war had broken out and the Parliamentarians began mobilizing their own cavalry, they paid a visit directly to Evan's stable. Cromwell himself was a part of the venture.


For those who'd remembered and recalled the debate between Evan and Cromwell, most would say that Cromwell was bested by a man of his convictions in Evan. However, Evan had agreed that at least some of the goals of the Parliamentarians were worthy and in the interest of England (his mistress his wife had nudged him) and the people. So he'd agreed to work with them and train their cavalry on the condition that he nor their front line cavalry never drew Royal blood, and always ensured the best treatment of enemy combatants that the situation would allow. These people aren't our enemy, they're our brothers and sisters though their views are different from ours.


This had gotten back to Reginald who'd kept a close eye upon Evan for the entire war. When the war had been won first by the Parliamentarians in a shaky peace and then with the Government fallen to Royal rule, and then finally to a collaborative Government of Parliamentarians and Royal oversight, Reginald himself had contacted Evan.


When the two men met, they became instant friends. Reginald had brought up the fact that he had become embroiled in the new colonies of the Americas, to a place French explorer Jacques Cartier had referred to as the Kanatas. In fact, Reginald himself had invested heavily in a place far west upon the north banks of the St. Lawrence river called The West View, for it was west of the mouth of the Saint Lawrence river. A channel pointing to and leading directly to England, like the barrel of some tremendous geographic cannon.


Reginald had insisted that a man of Evan's skill and conviction could have tremendous effect upon this emerging colony. They'd shared a common vision of morality, rights and law, keeping it neutral of belief and religion, without stifling the rights of others to uphold their faith.


Both Evan and Reginald had dealt with many zealots of the sixteen hundreds, those who'd cajoled them for being blasphemous heretics for their views. In fact, the only reason that many of these religions had promoted literacy was so they could indoctrinate others to the views of the religion, perhaps the greatest instrument of both literacy and oppression the world over. The problem was not with belief itself they both contended. It was with the interpretation thereof and acting upon it in a way that violated the moral rights and beliefs of other citizens and in contravention of the law.


Reginald therefore convinced Evan to join him and act as the arm of the law in the West View. As Magistrate, Reginald would oversee matters of morality and law, considering, creating and defining it with Evan's practical experience. Together, they with the elected Mayor and by the representative of the business council would ensure the West View a future. They'd done all they could for their Lady England, and now was the time to ensure her children grew to become strong minded and independent liberating forces in the world. A legacy to which Evan an his wife readily agreed, though that decision was hers all along as Evan would have agreed. So it was by her choice that she had changed the world for the better forever.


When in the midst of the outskirts of their colony Shaela had arrived, in the midst of the witch hunt, things had become much different by that point. Both Reginald and Evan had become embroiled in the greatest challenge their colony would ever face.


It had started with the arrival of the "strangers". An idealist group who'd come both from Europe and other colonies in the Americas, who sought to use growing disparity as a vehicle for a change of hands of the wealth of the colonies. They would come in as saviours and identify the evils of society as witches and warlocks one at a time, hunting them down and bringing them to a justice their god could only offer. Executing them as needed and giving their resources back to the people. Actually, how this translated was that someone who wanted the land and resources of someone else would accuse them of witchcraft, and gain the support of others as part of a communal investment. They'd work together to have their victim tried on wytchcraft charges and executed with the victim's land and resourced being rewarded to these wytch hunters as part of the settlement. So really, it had become a legal loophole through which a growing ideological group was stealing land and resources from honest, hard working citizens through the guidance and effort of these Strangers.


The Strangers were in fact a splinter group who'd allied with the forces of Lorr to further the Dark Lord's goals of the complete domination of the Aerth. Lorr had leaked the intelligence that Shaela herself would arrive outside of the West View colony in the rough, naked, alone and vulnerable. Lorr however had underestimated the abilities of the key members of the Sanctum and Shaela had turned out to be anything but helpless.


On that dark pebble beach of the Saint Lawrence river, she attempted to summon her familiar: a giant denizen and top predator of the Shadow Plane - a mature shadow cat. A giant feline composed of shadow matter that could with its Jacobson organ, detect the intent of any living being. In fact, Shadow cats only hunt those of ill intent, never harming or killing those of peaceful mind and being. They can literally smell intent from a great distance.


So when Shaela attempted to summon her familiar, from a time four hundred years before the time she'd earned the trust of such a beast, she never realized that she'd not only summoned her then infant kitten shadow cat, but its terrifyingly huge ancient mother. A beast at the top of the predator chain in the shadow plane and a legend amongst those of the same species.


When the mother of her own shadow cat arrived, and the kitten itself had become a target of these witch hunters, their fate was sealed. Death for the lot of them. Evan who'd accompanied the group as a legal representative of the law and to ensure that the law was executed fairly, confronted the shadow cat himself, fearlessly.


When it measured him as a moral man, smelling his intent, it regarded him as an equal and ally for Evan was pure of intent when it came to life, the living and truth. As a result, the cat had let him live and instead devoured the remaining witch hunters. And that was when Shaela had become familiar with the man she'd remember as her second father. The father she'd always wanted but that life had taken from her far too young. There upon the pebble shallows of the Saint Lawrence River. She watched her familiar's mother devour her enemies and preserve her friends.


Evan had taught her how to ride a horse and more importantly how to become their friends, because to any rider, that was the most important thing. After all, a horse learns much of the person upon their back, as much so as the shadow cat learns of those it can sense with its unique intent detecting organ. Perhaps this is what the shadow cat detected of Evan, a man as much concerned with righteousness as he was with the trail he'd left of his own words and actions for others to bear.


After they'd left the pebble beach, Evan had enlisted Shaela to help investigate these strangers. The ones who'd brought the witch hunt and instituted it like a business franchise in the colony he was sworn to protect. That was when Shaela had met the only man to which she'd given herself, Reginald, Lord Of Shepperton, of London. A man who not long after was executed by the witch hunters in their pursuit of control of the colonies.


She emerged from her memory, focusing upon the jagged outcropping of rock, pebbles and sand of the shadow plane. Her senses had awoken her and that was when she heard what sounded like a twig snapping amidst the weight of a hidden pursuer.


She quickly pulled from the shadow energy around her and became invisible to whatever it was pursuing her. A vast cloud emerged from her point in space and covered the crag and field in which she could see everything and others could see nothing.


She suddenly spied it, a large being, much taller than her laying prone in the fields surrounding the crag.


"A Troombou..." Shaela said aloud, referring to a large tribal creature, the only organized culture in the shadow plane.


The Troombou stood close to eight feet tall, and possessed four arms. The first pair positioned in much the same way you'd find them on a human body, extending from shoulders and roughly one third of the body height in length. The second pair emerged from a point just under the latissimus dorsi muscle where another set of ball and socket joints much like the shoulder had formed. The second pair of arms were shorter, but what they lacked for in length, they made up for in strength. With these extra set of arms, the Troombou could wield four weapons at a time and manage great feats of strength.


Being organized enough to have developed a simple language, they were capable of producing a wide variety of tools and goods, even engaging in trade with one another. Their tribal society however had never developed beyond the stone age because of the fierce requirements for their survival. There simply was not enough peace for them to spend time developing their tools. At any moment the Shadow Plane world might produce their death in the form of one of the many natural predators they had.


The trapped creature suddenly emitted a guttural clicking sound from deep within its throat. Shaela suddenly became aware that this Troombou was part of a hunting party. She spotted another five Troombou within her cloud, each of them armed with a spear.


Two of them rose from their positions and tossed their spears. Shaela dodged the first spear and caught the second, throwing it towards a third that had suddenly popped up. It deflected the spear and charged at her, throwing a projectile weapon. As it spun, it emitted a series of sinewy spindles, each ending with a rounded solid surface, one of which just barely missed Shaela's head instead impacting her shoulder. She winced at the pain of the impact.


"Damn you! I'm trying not to kill you, you worthless Troombous! But obviously you are not so nearly considerate as I!" she yelled back to them as she wrenched a series of tendrils of her own from air.


Theu appeared around each of the Troombous, grasping them and wrapping themselves around their limbs, reaching up from the ground, and pulling them within. The Troombous were suddenly stuck at head's depth within the land of the field, unable to move.


"There! Are you happy! Would you like me to come to each of you and relieve each of you of your heads?" Shaela screamed, invigorated by the exhalation of her breath.


Another Troombou arose immediately beside Shaela, wielding a different melee weapon in each of its four arms. It struck at Shaela as she dodged, able to see the attacker's movement ahead of time while it was within her fog. She struggled against the attack of the Troombou, suddenly casting a shadow band across the Troombou's arms. It struggled against the restraints as a new threat emerged to defend it. This time, a group of six mature Shadow Cats emerged from the fog, unseen by Shaela.


They closed in on their prey.



Shaela turned to face each of them as they closed in. One of them, the pack leader got close enough to Shaela and suddenly backed off, bowing before her.


The remaining Shadow Cats did the same, following the alpha female's lead.


The Troombou that had attacked her stopped struggling and instead bowed before Shaela.


"Nak Sa!" it screamed, gestering with all of its restrained arms.


The other submerged Troombous too suddenly started chanting: "Nak Sa! Nak Sa! Nak Sa!..."


"Call off the attack! At once! We have a celebrity amongst us from the Wytch clan! Back off and leave her be!" a voice spoke in plain English.


"So you must be Shaela, legend of the Cats." a man emerged hidden within the light.


"Who the heck are you?" Shaela demanded keeping her guard up.


"I am Thervair the lost..." the man spoke.


"That's impossible! Thervair died during Lorr's conquest of the Shadow Plane! You were Thara's greatest love! How can you be alive? How can you have betrayed her?!" Shaela remained steady.


"There was no betrayal and do not use her name or mine in the same sentence with that word or you will find swift death, prodigy. You are speaking of something you fail to understand and of whose details you lack. You are only alive because the Cats submitted to you. Remember that, prodigy!" Thervair approached her from behind circling her.


"So the legend is true. The prodigy had come before us finally..." Thervair spoke with distaste for her.


"Maybe she had come to fulfil the prophecy?" the four armed Troombou looked up momentarily to meet eyes with Thervair.


"Hold your tongue Witch! There is no prophecy! This is Shaela of the Night Wytch Order. The prodigy who first befriended the Shadow Cats. After her example, they became allies of the Troombou clan, before the great cleanse. She is just the herald to something much bigger." Thervair inferred.


"You are better damned Thervair for your betrayal of the woman who loved you! I am not your prodigy and I will not be a part of your manipulation of these people! I here seeking Mianamor Selembrosi, the former and disgraced Night Wytch of our Order! Don't get in my way of this task or you'll be wishing for the mercy of hungry Shadow Cats!" Shaela responded.


"I warned you already not to use Thara's or my name that way Wytch prodigy. I care not of your legend and have bested those of your status in other tribes. You have obviously ignored my words and are seeking a quick end to your life. I shall as give you this as you've so clearly requested!" Thervair spoke as he charged at the Night Wytch.


Shaela side stepped his first attack, just barely averting the strike of his sharpened blade. She extended her grip to catch his second hand, using it to block his first.


He disappeared, reappearing behind her, yet she anticipated the move and became of Shadow Form. His blades both passed through her corporeal form and she turned to face him, using his own momentum against him. She solidified and pushed at his shoulder, maintaining his spinning force as she stuck her left leg between his legs. He stumbled upon her leg and folded to the ground.


A shadow blade quickly emerged from Shaela's hand, and she raised her hand high about to bring it down upon his skull.


A hand quickly caught Shaela's and she found herself in struggled with another unknown adversary that had managed to keep itself obscured from her cloud.


She spun to see Thara's face.


"Shaela, things are not so simple as they appear! I cannot allow you to kill my husband!" Thara advance upon Shaela attempting to push her to the ground.


"You betrayed the Sanctum! There are others too! You've led us all to doom, never mind the countless people of Aerth you've betrayed! How could you do this!?" Shaela backed off defensively.


"You are making assumptions based upon what you know now, Shaela. We've all been betrayed. The whole lot of us at the Sanctum and none of use detected it. Despite all of the abilities and protections we wield, nobody, not one of us figured it out. Not even you, prodigy!" Thara backed up away from Shaela preparing herself for another onslaught.


"You're not leaving us much room to talk about this, so I can only assume that you already know my stance when faced with your current actions and my apparent lack of knowledge. You've already made us enemies." Shaela reminded Thara.


"You are my enemy only by proxy Shaela. You are my enemy's friend and therefore my enemy too until I am proven otherwise." Thara charged at Shaela, releasing the constrained Troombous from the grip of the land.


They rose from the ground and advanced upon Shaela at Thara's request.


"I know all of your tricks Shaela. I am your better for I am a Night Wytch of rank. The leader of the order. Surrender and I promise to be merciful. Continue and I promise to be merciless. With your Shadow Cat deceased, you are no challenge." Thara challenged Shaela.


"Well if one can be blinded by light on Aerth, then you can be blinded by darkness here!" Shaela defied Thara as she summoned her spell.


A tremendous burst of darkness emerged from Shaela and as she had anticipated, it was blinding to all that had observed it.


Even Thara grasped at her eyes in pain, unable to see having been blinded by Shaela's burst. The only of the forces present who'd not been blinded where the Shadow Cats, who'd had their eyes closed the whole time.


When their eyes opened, they remained loyal to Shaela and when the blindness had subsided, they surrounded Shaela's enemies and the conflict had been decided.


"What will you do with us now that you know of our betrayal, Shaela?" asked Thara.


"I know not of any such betrayal. I only know that you have a motive for your actions that I cannot understand and I wish to understand them. So, you are my prisoners for now. I will learn from you and you will learn from me, and we'll try to resolve this situation. I've got other more important matters to attend to, and you will help me achieve those goals or at the very least, tell me of Mianamor's whereabouts, or can I assume that you're working with her?" Shaela approached Thara, one of the Shadow Cats keeping a close eye upon the former Matron of the order.


"No. We are not working with Mianamor. She is working for our mutual enemy. A much more deadly threat to all of humanity and conscious sentient beings everywhere. She's enlisted the subservience and cooperation of the only other tribe on the Shadow Plane. The mortal enemy of the Troombou. Troombou means the individuals who together cooperate. Mianamor is working with the Maklasar. That means the many who become a large devourer of others." Thara advised Shaela.


"Then you'll tell me everything about these Maklasar and who Mianamor is working for. Then I'll hunt her down." Shaela told them as the Shadow Cats looked on.


"No Shaela, prodigy. We'll hunt them down." Thara agreed.


The small war party had gathered itself, while the six Shadow Cats kept vigil. From there, Thara and Thervair led the group back to the Troombou tribal settlement.


During their voyage, they were attacked three times, each time by something large enough to consume a Troombou in a single sitting meal. The Agnaster was the worse of these attackers for it was a large carnivorous Elephantine creature. Where an elephant's snout would have been, there instead were three snake-like tendrils, whose tips bore the head of what appeared to be a viper. One bite from these would inject enough paralyzing and digestion poison to spell a painful end for any Troombou. Fortunately the war party had managed to fight off the Agnaster, who had to find other prey from which to fulfill its daily nutritional requirements.


There was little talking during the trip as that would certainly have attracted more attention. So they stealthily made their way back to the spike walls of the Troombou encampment.


The walls were a not really walls per se, but rather a conglomeration of sharpened plant lumber and thorn brambles, far too volatile for any medium or large sized creature to traverse without sustaining great injury. That left them susceptible to the the smaller creatures that could easily navigate the spikes with no injury at all. Of such creatures, there were only two species that could pose any threat to a Troombou. The first species, the Volesharsen were very rare, a crawling and flying insect colony that acted together to bring down the largest prey. The second species, the Calakan were solitary omnivores and amongst the most poisonous of creatures of the Shadow Plane. They appeared much like a hairless badger, almost reptilian in appearance. When threatened, they emitted a vaporous cloud from their skin. Any who inhaled the vapor would not take another breath before they were rendered into an unconscious seizure, writhing uncontrollably, which the Troombou called the dance of death.


Fortunately for the Troombou, the Calakan was very sensitive to the scent of the fruit from a Pomlok tree. A fruit which also acted as an antibiotic when consumed. As such it became the only plant actively cultivated and farmed by the Troombou, mostly as a result of the ease of doing so. Pomlok trees were rare in the wild, however where you found one, you would often find a hundred. Where they did grow, they dominated, but the competition amongst the plant life of the Shadow Plane was just as vicious as it was for the animal life. Success was costly and short lived.


So the spike walls of the Troombou village were also lined with dried Pomlok fruit, which kept the Calakan away. Even with such defenses, they still required constant guard shifts to ensure that any other threat didn't make its way into their village. For instance, to keep the flying predators from grabbing a Troombou baby as a quick snack.


Thara and Thervair led Shaela through the entrance carefully. The war party turned in their worn and used weapons and were given new ones. Shaela dispersed the Shadow Cats back to the wild, where they would hunt in the surroundings, remaining close enough for emergencies.


"This is the only Troombou village in existence. It has stood for nearly a million human years of time. Hence, it is called Hebbadu Ta, which means Timeless Home." Thara informed Shaela.


"Somewhat similar to our own Sanctum?" Shaela reminded Thara.


"Yes, in a metaphorical way. Perhaps." Thara agreed.


"You left the Sanctum to come after me?" Shaela pressed Thara.


"I know you all too well Shaela. I knew that you wouldn't let the matter of Mianamor go. Especially having watched your Shadow Cat give its life to protect you. I know how serious this is to you. I've never known you to obey a direct order for the entire time you've been a part of the Night Wytch Order. You're a rebel all the way and always will be. That makes you predictable, Shaela. Very predictable." Thara stood to face the red haired Night Wytch.


"You've been keeping the secret of Thervair from the Sanctum the whole time? Why? Many great Wytches and Sorcerers gave their lives to protect the Shadow Plane from attack. You used the news of Thervair's death to convince them to join the struggle to defend the Shadow Plane. They gave their lives thinking that they were the last line of defense after Thervair's passing. You lied to them and they died as a result." Shaela spoke her words scathingly.


"If they hadn't come, the Shadow Plane would not be the same. In fact, it may have ceased to exist entirely. Thervair did die in a sense. You see, Thervair isn't human. He's Korvan..." Thara defended.


"...you mean...?" Shaela's face compressed in emotional pain.


"Yes, I married a man who is a part of the civilization that set about to destroy the Shadow Plane. You could say that he's very much like Jasmer. A man of principle who won't just go along with the status quot his own people attempted to impose upon him. Upon being unable to convince his own people to give up the conquest of the Planes, he left and took up life in the Prime Plane as a human on Aerth. He sought out the help of the Night Wytches, where he met me. I was much younger then, and lusted after such a worldly man. Eventually he gave in to my seduction and his own desires and we were wed. I only learned of the secrets of his origins before his first death. The only death you know of for Thervair. As you know, the Korvan have three lives. The truth is that he's died twice. His next death will be his last. During the Korvan conquest of the Shadow Planes, when Thervair died during the battle of Ranbluk Pass, we leaked that it had been his third and final death. We used that ruse to lure the remaining forces of Korvan to attack, thinking they'd crushed the defenders. As they rallied their troops, we sought the assistance of the Sanctum. Believing Thervair the defender to be dead, they agreed, operating under the assumption that they were the Shadow Plane's only hope for defense in Thervair's absence. They gave their lives for the right cause. Had we not spread the news of Thervair's death, they would not have joined and the Shadow Plane would have fallen in the onslaught. The Order Of The Night Wytch would no longer be. After the final battle, it took Thervair's fallen body a year to become corporeal again. During that time most considered him dead along with the fallen defenders from the Sanctum. In order to avert drawing the wrath of future campaigns by the Korvan, we kept his death and rebirth permanently secret. I've been secretly visiting the Shadow Planes ever since in order to spend time with my husband. Surely you of all people must be able to relate, having lost Reginald?" Thara reminded Shaela.


"No. I can't. You see, Reginald died and he didn't come back to life. All of those lost lives, and Thervair gets to live again. There is no justice in this outcome. But it is the way things turned out. I suppose the least that I can do is thank Thervair for the sacrifice of his first two lives to protect the Shadow Plane and the Order Of The Night Wytch. I'm not sure how to thank you for being a liar." Shaela smirked at Thara.


"You have much on your mind Shaela. A horrible weight upon your soul that needs remedy. We will continue this conversation if you follow me to the Central Cusp of this village." Thervair stepped in as mediator.


Shaela agreed and three of them walked through the village to the center where they met the Chief and Chieftess of the tribe.


"This is Jek Ban, the tribal Chief." Thervair introduced the Chief.


"Mak mu nuk sa duu...<clk clk clk>" the Chief addressed Shaela.


"Nice to make your acquaintance" she responded.


"This is Jek Wan, the tribal Chieftess and Jek Ban's wife," Thervair introduced the Chieftess.


"Mak su nub sa duu" the Chieftess nodded, greeting Shaela.


"The Troombou operate under the leadership of the Chieftess and the Chief. They report to a tribal council who both act as advisors and represent each of the twenty one houses of the village. A house refers to an entire family line. Each of the houses represent about sixty to ninety Troombou. So there's a sizeable population here. The only such village in all of the Shadow Plane." Thervair explained.


"What about on other planets?" asked Shaela.


"The Shadow Plane isn't like other planes. It doesn't exist as an entire distinct universe, but rather it is the combined echo of other planes and anywhere within those planes that life exists. Inanimate matter doesn't cast a planar echo or shadow. Only life does. Hence the Shadow Plane is the manifestation of an echo or the shadow of any plane that houses life." Thervair answered Shaela's question.


"Then why doesn't life here become death if its the opposite?" Shaela asked.


"Surely you know the answer to that question yourself? How do we know that death isn't life? For me it surely is. How can you say with certainty that its not the same for you? Perhaps death is life. The flip side of the coin as it were. Death is a difficult subject with which to grapple, especially for conscious organisms like us. Remember, that death occurs ever single moment within your body at some level. Your cells die and are replaced with new generations of cells, yet your being isn't altered by this at any conscious level. You don't become less yourself as the cells that make you up in this moment die, to be replaced by entire generations of cells. The concept of you remains. So death is a part of every moment of your life. You're always dying and always being born. The death of which you speak is more like catastrophic failure of all the parts that make up your being. The point beyond which your various organic systems cannot recover, and fail one by one. Then the cellular network that contains the organic hardware through which your mind becomes manifest, fails to exist. Tell me this. When your radio breaks down, does that mean that all the radio stations are gone too? No. They still exist and keep running their content and can be heard once again when you repair your radio or buy a new one. Consider your body to be like a radio receiver, and your mind to be like a radio station that exists in another part of reality where space and time are one and the same." Thervair explained his understanding of death to Shaela.


"The enemy that you currently hunt considers herself to be part of something great, an ideology that protects this concept of consciousness from impurities. From artificial beings. From anything that is alive and mimics having a mind but isn't truly conscious." Thara added.


"But who decides what consciousness is and then deems those without it unfit to live? To be?" Shaela asked.


"Your quarry Shaela. Those you are currently hunting. But be careful, they are very crafty. They've been a part of this game since the beginning, even before the first weave. They are masters of deceit and yet purveyors of truth. They seek to maintain control over universal consciousness and to keep the universe free of conscious impurity. There is much you don't know Shaela. They've already infiltrated the Sanctum. Even Lorr is their puppet. Nelony remains free thanks to her conscious connection to nature. Yirfir and Jasmer are in grave danger. You even detected this and that's why you came here seeking answers. There remains only one chance to stop their plans. Who do you think is killing all of these AI researchers? How is it that every mission you've been sent to act as protector has failed miserably. Because you're being played from the inside. The Sanctum is no longer the power protecting the Prime Plane." Thara informed Shaela, who looked on with amazement and disbelief.


"So my encounter with Mianamor was with purpose. Constructed by these people?" Shaela asked.


"Yes. Mianamor has developed a new technique of the weave in order to be able to summon the Volesharsen: the Shadow Insects." Thara reminded Shaela whose face compressed in anger.


"How could she do this? They are many lives and yet our summoning magic is only tuned to one life at a time." Shaela spoke perplexed by the conundrum of Mianamor's abilities.


"You have what you need to be able to defeat her. The question is will you use it?" Thara asked Shaela.


"Stop speaking in riddles and answer me, Matron." Shaela demanded.


"Three victories must be won to defeat this enemy. Yours is but one and we must help to guide the others. This conversation is done. Tomorrow you will leave the safety of Hebbadu Ta. You will have to hunt your quarry on your own from there and survive the horrors of the Shadow Plane wild." Thara told Shaela who backed away.


"But you've not told me what I need to beat her!" Shaela demanded on the verge of tears.


"You have all that you need, but you must find it before you need it." Thara finished.


"Now we must eat and then rest. Preserve your energy and sleep well tonight. You will need it for what lays ahead. They will bring you your food. You will sleep here, under the night sky of the Shadow Plane." Thervair asserted to Shaela, then stood and accompanied Thara to their hut.



Stonehenge By Night


Mila and Sato huddled together in the brush surrounding the great monument, watching as the last of the guards left the grounds. They'd been replaced by the night shift, consisting of three guards, two of which would likely conduct a routine roaming security check of the site while the remaining one manned the security camera deck.


"Good, now we just make our way to the main exhibit and from there we'll have a closer look for any clues that Barris may have left for us." Mila stood and began walking towards the site still some three hundred yards away.


"Are you kidding me? This isn't nineteen seventy. They have technology for seeing in the dark. I've seen it on the movies. If we just waltz our way up there, we'll show up like two sore spots on a forearm!" Sato advised her somewhat manically as she stepped out from the brush.


"Don't you worry about a thing. I've already got it covered..." Mila smiled reassuringly for Sato, who missed it in the darkness.

Mila gestured with her hands, waving them high above her head and then stretching them out from her shoulders as she spun, drawing herself into a pirouette. As she did, the air itself became illuminated by what appeared to be tiny fireflies trailing from Mila's motions.


"Now try taking a peek at me or even a picture with your cell phone camera." Mila asked Sato, who stood rumaging through his pocket to find his phone.


"Alright but I think this will prove noth..." Sato stopped as he looked through the viewfinder.


Whenever the camera crossed Mila's visage, she was completely invisible to the electronics of the camera. So Sato did as she asked and tried taking a picture. The camera "clicked" as the photo was recorded. Sato then browsed the most recent picture, finding it to be completely empty of any sign of Mila. The surrounding brush was there as was the hairline of the horizon, but any sign of Mila was completely gone.


"I see your point. That seems to work quite well. But what if they come in person?" Sato asked.


"They won't see you nor myself unless they get closer than arms length. We'll be able to see as clear as day so we'll know if and when they're coming. They will however be able to hear us, so we're going to have to be quiet." Mila assured him.


"Arm's length? That's good enough for me." Sato agreed.


"Alright, I suggest we get going in case Barris changes his mind before we find something?" Mila advised Sato who became confused when thinking about it.


"Har har. Very funny." he said slyly when he realized he'd been played by Mila.


The two of them began their journey towards the central exhibit of Stonehenge. As they ventured forth and despite the clarity with which their surroundings were revealed, the night sky was as brilliant as the day. The stars shone so clearly and brightly that they could clearly make out the entire roster of constellations in the absence of the light pollution of the city.


"It really makes you wonder if our children are really getting the full picture? The inspiration they need, living beneath a blanket of light that hides the night sky?" Mila posed for Sato.


"Our children?! What under the heavens are you blathering about?! Oh, you mean rhetorically. I see. I suppose that growing up under a sky whose treasures are concealed from the naked eye could be limiting compared to the inspiration and sense of wonder to which the children of a century and a half ago were exposed. Like not being able to see the rest of the world through the light pollution and buildings that surround you. Yes I suppose that could be very confining upon a young mind. I still remember the first time my father took my mother and I to see the night sky, under the air of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. We watched a meteor shower from the deck of a small boat. The Naminootome. It left quite an impression upon me. Like gazing into infinity and knowing that infinity was looking back, with equal wonder." Sato mired his memory.


"Yes, that must have been a great sight to see. Perhaps that's it. It's just as much about being able to look through the veil and see, as it is to be seen through the same by someone... something else. Eternity maybe? Like realizing the universe exists, and knowing that it knows that you exist." Mila spoke, keeping a careful eye upon their progress.


"Maybe that same eternity is looking down upon Barris? Maybe by some bizarre fortune of this existence we'll find proof of his meddling around here?" Sato quipped as they approached the final twenty yards, arriving at the great monument.


"We have to get in the inner circle and check everything!" Mila whispered excitedly.


"We'll split the circle in half, you take west side, I'll take the east side." Sato suggested as he began to examine his half of the site carefully.


"Good idea. Just remember to periodically check to make sure we're not in any danger of being found..." Mila spoke just as Sato gestured to her to duck.


Mila hit the ground as Sato had instructed just as a sizeable drone flew above them. Sato fell to his back and watched as the drone hovered over them from a height of twenty feet, perhaps watching for movement.


"I didn't think they could..." Mila started, Sato quickly shushing her.


The drone hovered as the domed camera scanned the area with its thermal vision. A moment later the drone flew away following the visitor tour path back to its charging station.


"That was close. I wasn't sure if my spell had kept us hidden or not." Mila breathed a sigh of relief.


"Good work. Apparently it did. Now let's see if we can't find any clues..." Sato got up, helping Mila to her feet.


They continued their search quietly. After a half an hour of painstaking examination of each side of the monument, Sato finally spoke.


"Why that weasel! He wouldn't! He couldn't! Do you think that he would assume that we're working together? I mean to find him." Sato asked Mila.


"That's a good question. I think that he knew that I'd contact you when I found his clue in my painting." Mila agreed.


"Well then I think that I just found a clue. You see this here? It looks like a rune carved into this rock..." Sato pointed the rune out to Mila.


"That looks like something you'd see in a Tolkien book..." Mila noted.


"...that's what I thought. But then I looked closer and realized that its one of Barris' doodles. A very specific scribble drawing he used to sign all of his notes and reminders in the shop. I was perplexed by it until one day he told me that it was a caricature of me!" Sato's face cringed in anger.


"How could he deface this monument with a caricature of me! The nerve of...!!!" Sato struggled to keep his temper contained as Mila struggled to keep herself from breaking out in laughter.


"...help me with it. It's not that big. He must have drawn this in order to draw our attention to this stone. We can turn it over together." Mila began digging around the fringes of ths stone as Sato did the same on the other side.


When they'd uncovered enough of the sizeable stone, they used all of their combined might and turned it over onto the surrounding grass and dirt. On the stone's underside, they were greeted with another puzzle.


A series of letters were etched very clearly into the stone by the same artist who'd drawn Sato's caricature. The letters were:


CNDIMPIES



Sato looked at the word completely perplexed. He had been expecting something a little more directed from Barris.


"What in hazel are CNDimpies?!!!" Sato spoke frustratedly.


"You've got me. Ummmm. Candy Impies?" Mila suggested.


"Canned IM Pies?" Sato responded, throwing out another suggestion.


"That sounds like something! Canned... IM... Instant Messenger Pies?" Mila added excitedly, before her face sank to disappointment.


"No. No. This isn't getting us anywhere... but why do I feel like this word is something so familiar?" Mila asked aloud.


"I was just going to say the same thing. Like I've seen this word before." Sato twisted his chops carefully in his fingers.


With Sato's words, it hit Mila. She suddenly struggled with the large stone, trying to put it back in its original place. Sato upon seeing this helped her and together they replaced the stone.


"So what were you thinking?" Sato asked.


"This..." Mila began screaming and waving her arms in the air like a banshee.


She ran in circles clapping her hands and stomping on the ground, yelling and screaming.


"Mila! Have you completely lost your mind!? They're going to find us if you keep this..." Sato urged Mila to calm herself just as he spotted the drone returning for another pass.


Mila immediately ceased her noise and fell backwards onto the ground as Sato did the same. They lay beside each other, each of their heads beside the other's feet. They then watched carefully as the drone flew overhead, scanning the area for any signs of disturbance. That's when Mila noticed what she'd already seen. A single word sprawled across the bottom of the drone.


MINDSPICE



Sato caught it moments later, counting the letters as it passed overhead. The two of them watched as the drone struggled to find any signs of mischief or trouble. Thirty seconds later, the drone continued by to the charging station a hundred and fifty yards away.


"I take it that we know where we're going next?" Sato spoke in a very satisfied manner.


"That we most certainly do." Mila's satisfaction and release apparent in her voice and smile.


"Good. Because when we find that miscreant, Barris, I'm going to ring his neck!" Sato spoke still containing his anger over the caricature rune.


A four thousand year old caricature that would forever be a part of this altered history. Sato's cartoon face had become a part of humanity's permanent history and the collection at Stonehenge.


Zheng's Plight - Briggs' Fight


Zen ran the length of the main floor once again at full speed. She stopped momentarily, looking around quizzically first and then resumed her high speed antics, even performing a wall-run for Zheng, who looked on in amazement. Clearly the Cat was a little frisky and perturbed about something.


"I don't know what's gotten into you, but you certainly are a little circus star when you get like this." Zheng commented at Zen's antics.


Zen ran over to her feet and fell to the floor, sprawling himself in front of her. He proceeded to roll over a few times, emitting a loud growling mreeeeeooooww as he did.


Zheng had just finished cutting up a fillet of salmon, part of the dinner her and Stephen Briggs had planned for the night. She took one of the smallest pieces and offered it to Zen.


Zen was quickly back on his feet and quickly devoured the chunk of fish.


"I guess he's a little excited about the smell of salmon..." Zheng thought aloud.


Zen then ran around her legs three times and then mreeowled once again as he headed for the back door.


"You want to go out? Alright. You were just out, but alright." Zheng followed the Cat to the back door.


Before she arrived, a man with short, perfectly white hair intercepted her.


"It would seem that Doctor Briggs' cat has much better senses that do you. Perhaps he was warning you about me? Us?" the man gestured to his compatriots.


"I'm Deronamor. A guardian of sorts. This is Nandi, the lady in white, while this is Estok, a bane to your sight. Don't worry. Estok doesn't bite. As a matter of fact, he's just like anyone. He has a heart too, that can be broken. Much as I'm sure Doctor Briggs will know if you fail to give me what I'm seeking." Deronamor introduced himself and his peers.


Zheng didn't wait for the man to finish his sentence. She immediately ran for the kitchen where the wireless phone sat in its charger.


She picked it up and hit the speed dial directly to 911, still running for the front door of the house.


Upon hearing the operator, she immediately screamed into the phone as loud as she could, throwing the phone through the front window.


Estok had set upon Zheng, running through the back hall pursuing her into the kitchen. As he was about to grab her, Zen flew through the air, wrapping its little body around his exposed forearm. The cat savagely bit into Estok's arm, extending its claws and shredding Estok's forearm to ribbons.


He screamed in pain as Zheng ran for the front door.


Estok grabbed at Zen, getting hold of his fur. He was about to snap Zen's neck when Nandi stepped in.


"That's a no no Estok!" Nandi waved her finger at Estok, reminding him of Mianamor and her failure against Shaela.


"We don't kill the unknowing..." Nandi reminded Estok.


"Arrrrrgh!" Estok screamed savagely relinquishing the cat into Nandi's arms before pursuing Zheng once again.


Zheng by that time had already thrown the phone through the front window and was grappling with the front door. She flung the door open and burst through it and the screen door, directly into Briggs.


"Run! Its a  home invasion!" Zheng screamed at Briggs.


Briggs stepped in front of her, forming a barrier between Estok and Zheng.


"You don't want to proceed. I have to inform you that I'm a fourth dan black belt in Goju Jiu Jitsu-Ryu and Kendo." Briggs informed Estok.


"So we've heard Doctor Briggs. You're an expert on the affairs of the Far East of Asia. It is only fitting that you've also studied their methods of combat and warfare. Even peaceful men must remain astute in the ways of war. I assure you that we only need a minute to discuss something of vital importance with your beloved Ms. Wong. As you can see, she is already complicit to these ends." Deronamor directed Doctor Briggs' attention to Zheng, who was no accompanying Nandi, the lady in white back into the house willingly.


She had the phone in her hand and up to her ear and was speaking with Police dispatch.


"It was a false alarm. There is no emergency here. It was a joke gone wrong by my boyfriend. We're all fine here. No emergency." Zheng assured the operator.


"Zheng?" Briggs signaled her.


She ignored him and continued her slow walk into the house accompanying Nandi.


Estok and Deronamor remained to negotiate with Doctor Briggs.


"It would seem that your beloved has seen the error in her poor assessment of us. Perhaps you could learn something from her suddenly higher and more accurate senses?" Deronamor reasoned with Doctor Briggs.


Briggs had partly bluffed about his martial arts experience. It was true that he was an expert in Far East culture and history, and that he had studied both Jiu Jitsu and Kendo, though he had never acquired his first Kyu, his degree. His black belt. Not to mention that his studies had happened shortly after his University years, many years ago. With martial arts, it was important to maintain the body in order to accomplish the waza. Over the years, he'd let his former physique fade and as a result he wasn't as confident that his retention of training alone would help him in this matter. It was like riding a bicycle. Once you learned, you never forgot. But if you didn't maintain your body and muscles, even the best students would fail in their application of waza, the Japanese term for technique. Hence, those who did not maintain their body would fall from the bicycle. Body and technique were intertwined. The mind could will all it wanted, but without the cooperation of the body and good technique, it would fail.


He didn't mention the fact that recently he'd also been studying Chen style Tai Chi as part of an Alumni program at his former University. Though not geared towards martial combat and considered more a form of exercise and even dance, Briggs had known from the Chen history archives that it was in fact an advanced form of combat technique, adapted to become both exercise and the telling of a complex story, all wrapped into a performance best practiced at sunrise.


He quickly weighed his chances outside, surmising that even if he bested these two men that Zheng would be in the hands of the woman in white and hence, at risk. He gave up on his bluff instead giving them theirs. Perhaps in doing so he'd gain the opportunity inside that he'd lost outside. In fact, he thought he might employ a Korean tactic. When faced with a war of the two, make them three and gain an ally.


He accompanied them inside, Estok quickly taking up position behind him as he followed Deronamor.


"Doctor Briggs, you need not worry about Zen. Your cat is fine and safe. In fact, Nandi, the lady in white would have nothing of seeing an innocent harmed." Deronamor explained as they walked.


"So what is the definition for innocence?" asked Doctor Briggs.


"The difference between the knowing and the unknowing. Your cat nor you know of why we're here and most likely have no idea about what we seek. Therefore, you both are the unknowing." Deronamor assured Doctor Briggs.


"And what of Zheng?" Briggs pressed.


"Her situation is a bit more complicated you see. She worked for a particularly despicable man you know as Gabe Asnon? You've heard of him surely? Perhaps you've even spoken to him?" Deronamor asked Briggs.


"Zheng has nothing to do with Gabe Asnon. She worked for the man and nothing more. She knows as little about him and his projects as does Zen." Briggs spoke truth in a twisted sense.


"Ever the defensive boyfriend you are Doctor Briggs. I can assure you that no harm will come to her if she reveals all that she knows of Project Mystic." Deronamor arrived within the kitchen where Nandi and Zheng sat together.


"She's prepared Deronamor," Nandi informed her peer.


"Nandi, this is Doctor Stephen Briggs, an esteemed expert on the affairs of the Far East of Asia, and a fellow colleague, though my area of study was much different than was his," Deronamor introduced Doctor Briggs.


"And what area of study was that? Kidnapping? Abduction?" Briggs accused.


"No. History. Philosophy. Computer Science. That's pretty much it for me Doctor Briggs. Hence my interest in Ms. Zheng. Now I need you to remain silent, and please I urge you not to force us to violence to reach that request?" Deronamor replied.


"I won't utter a peep," Briggs promised them.


Estok placed his hands upon each of Briggs shoulders to remind him why he shouldn't.


"Zheng, what was your capacity as a contractor for Gabe Asnon?" Deronamor asked the Computational Biologist.


"...I worked on simulation parameterization. The engineers wanted access to specific data logging features during a running simulation, I gave them parameters and differentials that would lead to accurate time dilated based logging of complex systems." Zheng answered truthfully.


"Very good Zheng. I'm sure that you did a great job for Mr. Asnon. Did you ever work on the intelligence or cognizance systems for such a simulation?" Deronamor queried her.


"...I ...I don't understand..." Zheng hesitated.


Briggs observed her carefully at this point, seeing qualities he'd recognized in her when they'd had a disagreement. He kept his poker face and his observations concealed.


"I mean the simulation of artificial beings. Were you a party to the concrete simulation of artificial beings using quantum based hardware?" Deronamor asked her a little more impatiently.


"Quantum hardware is a long way off... I'm not sure of your question..." Zheng resisted.


"I have it from good sources that such quantum hardware is actually being readily used by Gabe Asnon for such projects as Project Mystic. Have you worked with this hardware?" Deronamor pressed her.


"...I fail to see the relevance of the question... I'm a computational biologist... I have no familiarity with quantum biology or simulation..." she lied.


Briggs watched Deronamor carefully and then Nandi for any signs of secretive facial language.


"I take it we're free to go now? It would appear that we're unknowing, not ignorant but unknowing, wouldn't it?" Briggs distracted Deronamor.


"Doctor Briggs, we need to question Zheng a bit further. You'll know when we're done. I assure you." Deronamor responded to Briggs.


Just then the doorbell sounded.


Nandi's eyes closed momentarily.


"There's a cruiser. Two Officers outside of the front door. One with his hand on his holster." Nandi spoke.


Her sentence wasn't finished before Briggs sprung into action.


He first grabbed hold of both of Estok's hands, leaning forward, forcing Estok over his right shoulder and onto the granite tiled floor. Briggs kept his grip on Estok's left arm, twisting it forcing Estok into a joint lock. Estok screamed in pain as both his elbow and shoulder joints ground into nerve and solid bone. Briggs twisted as hard as he could, looking for the dislocation point. Estok screamed further, twisting and writhing, eventually pulling Briggs to the floor with him.


"Run Zheng!" Briggs screamed as he fell.


Zheng suddenly sprung to life, slamming her elbow across Nandi's jaw and grabbing Zen as she did. She repeated her sprint to the front door as she had earlier, only to have Estok grab her ankle as she fled.


Zen flew from her arms leading towards the front door. Deronamor suddenly came to life amidst the calamity, and motioned with his hands.


Time suddenly came to a near stop. Zen was stuck in mid leap, trying to escape through the same hole that Zheng's phone had made in the window. All stood nearly ceased as time trickled.


Deronamor strode through the calamity without pause as if time flowed normally for himself while all others in his midst were ceased.


"And now Zheng, I must commit myself to your demise unfortunately. You've just proven your guilt in this tribunal session..." Deronamor reached for Zheng's neck.


The Queen Against The Invaders


The scouts returned from their survey of the derelict monument. A monument that had been built and abandoned. Perhaps left for them. For the protectors of the land and the heralds of the great blue heron.


It had been there, built long before the presence of those who now there resided. A reminder that the land is protected not only by those who reside upon which but by those whose minds act as eyes into the future.


There, they had seen the invaders. In fact, they were many and perhaps in a game, hunting a strangely clad man.


He'd run more than three horse lengths before being apprehended by the invaders. Screaming and babbling complete gibberish. A lunatic on the run, but perhaps the monument's lunatic for it had been heard that the monument was as much the moon's as it was the sun's. Perhaps he was of both?


The scouts considered this as they approached the war tent of their Queen. The Great Warrior Queen. The Savage Lady Of Albion. The eater of many man husks, and the husk of many man eaters. She was their light in the dark. She was a savage. As savage as any man general. She was in fact a tactical genius and she longed for her taken land. Their taken land.


The scouts dismounted their steeds leaving them for the handlers stationed outside of the war tent.

[We come with sights gained at the great stone monument. We need speak with the great savage queen.]
"Thig sinn le seallaidhean a fhuaireadh aig a ’charragh-cuimhne mhòr cloiche. Feumaidh sinn bruidhinn ris a ’bhanrigh shunndach." the first scout addressed the first of ten guards.


The guard held a short blade to the scout's throat.


[You will enter this day with your life. Toil not with her for she'll gut you alive.]
"Thig thu a-steach air an latha seo le do bheatha. Toil no còmhla rithe oir bheir i beò thu." the guard spat at the scout's feet, allowing him passage, watching him carefully afterwards.


The scouts entered the tent. The guards within held their blades to the knees of the scouts. They immediately fell to theirs upon the guards signal.

[Not a move on your feet or skewered you'll be.]
"Chan e gluasad air do chasan no skewed bidh thu." the interior guard spoke harshly.


The scout proceeded on his knees until he reached the interior wall of the tent and then ceased.


From the other side of the tent wall, an immense female voice referred to him.

[What news does a scout bring forth before the Great Queen?]
"Dè an naidheachd a bheir scout a-mach ron Bhanrigh Mhòr?" a voice of tremendous presence spoke.


[Great Queen, we bear news that there has been action at the stone monument of the ancients. A man who ran like the great heron opposed the invaders. He spat at them and even insulted them, yet he is alive. Their prisoner.]

"A ’Bhanrigh Mhòr, tha naidheachd againn gun deach gnìomh a dhèanamh aig carragh cloiche nan seann daoine. Bha fear a bha a ’ruith mar a’ chorra-ghritheach an aghaidh an luchd-ionnsaigh. Bha e a ’spatadh orra agus eadhon a’ dèanamh tàir orra, ach tha e beò. Am prìosanach aca." the scout bowed low before the tent wall.


[What action has occurred that even my eyes have missed scout? What words did this man utter?]


"Dè a thachair gu bheil eadhon mo shùilean air a bhith ag ionndrainn scout? Dè na faclan a thug an duine seo seachad?" a blade slipped out from the midst of the tent wall finding the scout's throat.


[Your greatness. He uttered nothing but complete gibberish. In any language or speak of which we've known. I'd recon that in the language of gibberish, that he'd even have largely gone untranslated.]

"Do mhòrachd. Cha do rinn e dad ach gibberish iomlan. Ann an cànan no bruidhinn sam bith air an robh sinn eòlach. Shaoilinn le bhith a ’bruidhinn air gibberish, gum biodh e eadhon air a dhol gu ìre mhòr gun eadar-theangachadh." the scout advised.


[You'd play with your life to bring such folly before me?]

"Bhiodh tu a ’cluich le do bheatha gus an amaideachd sin a thoirt romham?" the visage of a tremendously tall and thin woman confronted the scout.


The scout paused for a moment unsure of how to respond.


[That and more.]


"Sin agus barrachd." the scout responded.


There was a moment of silence, and then a very obvious struggled by the woman to restrain her giggle, which very quickly became a short burst of laughter.


[I like this scout. I like this man of whom he speaks. If we find this gibberish spewing man, you'll be a hero.]


"Is toil leam an scout seo. Is toil leam an duine seo air a bheil e a ’bruidhinn. Ma lorgas sinn an duine spewing gibberish seo, bidh thu nad ghaisgeach." the great lady responded struggling to contain herself.


Outside of the tent wall, the scout suddenly became relieved and began his attempt to stand. As he did, a guard immediately knocked his knees from him.


[You collect your reward on your knees or lose them!]

"Cruinnichidh tu do dhuais air do ghlùinean no caillidh tu iad!" one of the guards quickly cut him down from his attempt to stand.


Doctor Grant Smythe I Presume?


"Sooo what's with all the hiking and marching through the jungle? I mean, I thought Wytches could teleport long distances or use magic to make themselves faster. Yet, here we are traversing the deeping darkest part of the Brazilian jungle to rendezvous with a Doctor?" Dandelbraden spat at the ground and brush beneath his feet.


"I don't think that I've ever walked this much through the rainforest in the whole time I've been an activist." Athelbra added.


"So you're enjoying our little romp through the brush are you?" was Nelony's only response as she proceeded happily.


"See, you get to enjoy this part because you're more experienced. We don't on account of the fact we're amateurs. No fair!" Dandelbraden whined.


"A good observation Dandelbraden. You are very right, though part of acquiring experience is trudging your way through that which others have and you've nought. Besides, I wouldn't want you to miss any opportunity to learn something. Opportunities that arise while we take the long way rather than the shortcut." Nelony responded continuing happily along the jungle path.


"I thought you said this was the shortcut?" Athelbra suddenly stopped, putting both her hands on her hips.


"It is, but its a bit longer a trip than using my broomstick." Nelony responded, causing Athelbra to simultaneously smirk and roll her eyes as she continued.


"Isn't Lago Anamã nearly a thousand kilometres north of Alta Floresta? I mean, we can't just walk a thousand kilometres in a few hours?" Dandelbraden asked of Nelony, sounding very much confused.


"It is, but we're still taking a short cut. You see, I warped space and time a little bit back there, though neither of you noticed. I don't really know the science of it, I just used a little Wytch's magic. So in our last hour of hiking, we covered perhaps four hundred, nearly five hundred miles. That's most of our trip." Nelony advised them.


"So you cheated. We did use magic to travel faster!" Dandelbraden accused her.


"No. I merely used a shortcut. You're still getting the same experience, just much less of it than I'd have liked. We're constrained for time you see. It would seem that there's a lot resting on our little foray into the wild. So time is of the essence." Nelony summarized her explanation for their quick journey.


Athelbra and Dandelbraden looked at one another in astonishment, unable to conceive of the world they'd just entered into.


They ventured forth quietly, contemplating this new knowledge before one of them broke the silence.


"How do you even know Doctor Smythe is in this direction?" asked Dandelbraden.


"A good question, perhaps the first good question of the day? I'm watching for certain signs in the behaviour of local wildlife. You see, the creatures of the jungle are often very perturbed when someone or something new comes through their territory. They each lead their lives seeing to their own needs. They have unique personalities and as such, different things that bring to joy or make them upset. When a sizable group of humans traverse into their territory, an astute observer will notice their reactions. Differences in their behaviour. Some become uptight. Other become downright frightened. Yet others, curious. For instance, haven't you noticed that at certain points along our path, the insects were silent?" asked Nelony as she explained the life of the jungle.


"I was going to ask about that." Athelbra stated.


"Don't hesitate. The only bad question is the one you don't ask. So when large troupes travel through the jungle, they often cause the local insects life to cease their noise. After all, those coming into the territory could be predators right? Insects know that survival depends upon remaining hidden when necessary, and to be easily found by members of the opposite sex. Most often, their noise is all about attracting a suitable mate. However, if an unknown threat crosses into their area, they become silent. A good strategy wouldn't you think?" Nelony posed the question to her students.


"I guess so." Dandelbraden responded.


"I agree. That is a good strategy in many ways. If you simply keep trying to attract a mate in the presence of danger, you could potentially reveal your location and the location of any potential mates responding to your call." Athelbra explained.


"Very good Athelbra. Well explained too. You demonstrate a great understanding of the jungle. Dandelbraden... I guess so. You just need a little more confidence to present your point of view. I have a feeling that what you prevent yourself from saying could potentially be beneficial to us all. If I disagree, I'll explain why. You don't have to agree and you can even explain that too. Don't try too hard to be anything or anyone but yourself. I have a feeling you'll do fine when the time is right." Nelony assured her students.


"So we're following a trail of silent regions in the jungle?" confirmed Dandelbraden.


"Exactly. Though I have also been getting many clues from the local avian population." Nelony elaborated on her previous answer.


"I thought I saw you checking out the birds. You're keeping your eyes on the Jacamars specifically if I'm not mistaken." Dandelbraden astutely observed.


"Precisely. The Yellow-Billed Jacamars. They're insectivores and generally territorial, not traveling more than a mile from their nesting place and only in extreme cases. I've noted that the local Jacamars are keeping an eye on a situation. They're sticking to the band of silent regions that form a trail to our own quarry, Doctor Smythe. So his party likely passed close to this region and disturbed the natural flow of things enough to upset the local fauna. Not purposely mind you." Nelony explained.


"Why aren't they responding to us in the same way?" Athelbra asked.


"Another good question. Because I've used other-worldly means to mask our presence to the local population. They can't see, hear and most importantly, smell us." Nelony informed her students.


"That's sooo cool! You should patent that and turn it into a deodorant!" Dandelbraden joked drawing a series of hysterical giggles from Athelbra.


"What's the recipe?" asked Dandelbraden of Nelony, waiting for Athelbra to collect herself.


"Ahhhh... for the Wytch's deodorant brew? Amazonian reed root, Strangler Figs, Orchid petals and Poison Frog vomit. Mix them together, simmer and say the magic words, then drink as a tea." Nelony replied informed her students.


"...you mean the tea we had earlier was..." Dandelbraden's face suddenly became a shade of yellowish green, and he began to gag causing Athelbra to laugh even harder.


"No... I'm just kidding. You must know that Wytches have a sense of humour too? Did you know that if we were traveling in the desert that we'd be called Sandwiches?" Nelony attempted a joke of her own.


Her students rolled their eyes and groaned.


"Stick to being a Wytch. Leave the comedy to your students." Dandelbraden advised her, drawing a little laughter from Nelony.


In the distance, there sounded the report of a high powered rifle. It echoed throughout the clearing they'd traversed coming around to the northern tip of the Lake from the east.


"That sounded like a rifle?!" Dandelbraden noted aloud.


"That it was. Keep advancing to the destination, I'll be back for your very soon!" Nelony ordered her students as the space before them split into a twirling vortex of plasma and darkness.


Nelony leapt through it and before her students could respond, the vortex disappeared.


"I wonder when we'll get to do that?" Dandelbraden asked sarcastically.


Athelbra shifted her step closer to Dandelbraden.


"Soon, I hope." she remarked as they continued on.


...


Doctor Smythe sat on the forest floor on the outskirts of Lago Anamã whose waters lay a short distance to his south. His porters had set a quick camp while the medic tended to his wound. Two of the guides held rifles in their hands, keeping guard for any sign of attack from the forest.


"Have you ever been shot Doctor Smythe?" the medic asked him in a thick Latin-American accent, trying to distract him while he attempted to sew the wound on the calf of his leg shut.


"No. In video games when I was a kid, but never in reality... It really friggin' hurts!" he replied to the medic.


"In a year from now, you'll be bragging about this to members of your alumni over beer." the medic comforted him as he finished the last stitch.


"Ha! I could really use a beer or more appropriately a bottle of tequila maybe? Do any of you porters have a hidden stash of tequila by chance? I'll pay you a hundred American Dollars for it right now." Doctor Smythe spoke loud, addressing his porters.


One of the porters fished into his pack and pulled forth a mickey sized canteen. He then walked over to Doctor Smythe and offered it to him.


Doctor Smythe reached for it, but the porter withdrew it from his reach.


"The money? A deal is a deal." the porter waited patiently.


"What is it? Tequila?" confirmed Doctor Smythe.


"Yes. Its a special family recipe. Home made. No worms. Just one drink and your hallucinating." a sinister smile crossed the porter's face.


"That's exactly what the Doctor ordered. Literally." Doctor Smythe fished into the cargo pocket in his right leg and pulled forth a crisp American hundred dollar bill.


The porter handed him the canteen. As soon as it was in his hands, Doctor Smythe unscrewed the cap and took a deep haul of the liquid it contained. He suddenly began coughing as if his mouth and insides were on fire.


"Whoa! That's some strong hooch my friend. I'll pace myself and keep it as painkiller for my new battle scar. Damned poachers!" Doctor Smythe cursed.


"They're still out there. Close. They're scoping our camp. We need to call in the transport and get you away from here. These are no ordinary poachers. They might be guerrilheiros." Tona, one of the gun toting guides advised him.


"How can you be so sure?" asked Doctor Smythe.


"I used to be a guerrilheiro. With the NLA. The National Liberation Action." Tona lifted his shirt and revealed a tattoo across his chest, depicting the letters N L A, which were underlined by the depiction of a carbine rifle.


"I see. It would seem that I have a colourful group with me and well suited for this expedition. I mean, we could leave at this point and our research effort would be considered a success. We've already uncovered evidence of the nature of the genetic algorithms that play out in emergent collective behaviour amongst the voracious ant species of South America. But I'm the kind of guy that likes to go that extra mile. I'm not happy with the mediocre discovery we currently have, but the grand discovery around the corner from us. So lets just keep these... guerrilheiros and poachers at bay then. Whaddaya say?" Doctor Smythe ordered his crew.


"As you wish, until our lives are on the line. Then you might find that we're not so accommodating regardless of your American dollars." Tona advised Doctor Smythe.


...


A two hundred yards away, a man with a sizable hunting rifle sat perched in a tree. Through the scope  of his rifle, he spied Doctor Smythe's head, specifically aiming for the left temple. The second choice fast kill point for a sniper shot, with the first being located neatly behind the either ear. Not because these points contained any specific body part that was vulnerable, but more so because any projectile impact would weaponize bone fragments, leading to severe damage to the brain or severing the spinal cord. This sniper could only hope to hit Doctor Smythe at the second most lethal point given his current angle in relation to the target.


[The target is not vacating the region. He's decided to stay and continue his research into AI. Do we have a kill order?]

"O destino não está desocupando a região. Ele decidiu ficar e continuar sua pesquisa sobre IA. Temos uma ordem de extermínio?" asked the sniper of the crew at the base of the tree upon which he'd positioned himself.


[We're waiting on a response from the Orion, the grand hunter.]

"Estamos esperando uma resposta do Orion, o grande caçador." the radio man replied to the sniper.


Nelony's exit portal appeared silently, less than a hundred yards from her quarry. She leapt out onto the forest floor silently and sized up the situation.


Walls of trees protected both her and her prey from ranged attack, so any ranged spells that exploited natural phenomenon were out of the question. She even thought about using lighting, but recalled that trees are natural insulators. Whether her lightning strike came from the sky or the ground, her prey would be protected.


Nearby a silent predator introduced itself to her, sensing her presence.


"Mrreow. Grrrr." it announced its presence to her.


She looked in the direction of the newly arrived fauna of the Amazon forest, recognizing a large Jaguar.


"What a pleasant surprise. The prime hunter of the Amazon in my presence. I am extremely humbled and honoured," she lowered herself before the Jaguar as a show of respect.


The Jaguar, very obviously amused, lay itself upon the forest floor majestically, keeping a close eye on Nelony.


[Man hunters are hunting on your land. There are many. You need help. We need help.]

"Tecumseh ath harwk. Secum. Secum. Saaa harrrlroo." Nelony spoke to the Jaguar.


The Jaguar lay still, watching Nelony carefully before it replied.


[There is a large serpent nearby. Ancient. Some tree monkeys as well. Four more large felines, one is adolescent.]

"Rrreow. Rrr rrr. Rowree. Mmmmrrrrowl. Mooorrreeeel Crraaaal." the Jaguar replied.


[We need them all. These are man with tools. Familiar hunters. We need stealth and numbers.]

"Tshok Tun fallas muna shhhhrooo tad ahdaha. Tkee. Craowll." Nelony elicited for the Jaguar.


[These are my hunting grounds. My for many, many generations. I, you have shown the proper respect. I allow you to call for their aid. I give you my aid. You leave my hunting ground on succeed we hunt together.]

"Shhhhrrrowl! Ccckatak! Cgroolowr! Grrrrrrrlllowrolll! Crrrrowleorlwrl! Shhhhreowl cruuuuoewl! tsk tsk chsk chrrreowl!" the Jaguar remained poised and majestic abreast of her by ten yards.


[I give my thankfulness and my eternal protection of your hunting grounds. They will bear your name forever more as they exist and beyond.]

"Chtoo too saka tak mreoool. Taka moo mroo mala moki muu. Terinoool looureoool. Shreol shhhh shrooo. Seku tooo tetuku taaa gato trhsru," Nelony assured the hunter Jaguar.


"Alright, we need a little help here from our avian friends..." Nelony spoke aloud raising her hand in the air, presenting her index finger as a perch.


A tiny bird flew from the forest canopy above and landed upon her extended finger.


"I need you to carry a special message..." Nelony brought the bird close to her face, speaking quietly.


A moment later, the little bird flew from her finger forth as requested.


...


[We have the kill order. Doctor Smythe is to be assassinated with extreme prejudice.]

"Nós temos a ordem de extermínio. O Dr. Smythe deve ser assassinado com extremo preconceito." the radio man relayed the order to the sniper, as the team around him covered with their assault rifles.


[Very well. Lining up the kill shot. For the glory of the Molipo!]

"Muito bem. Alinhando o tiro mortal. Pela glória do Molipo!" the sniper acknowledged as he lined up the target in his sights.


Suddenly, his view was completely blackened and obscured. He removed his eye from the ocular of the scope and saw a large bird perched atop his rifle, blocking the view of the scope. He batted at the bird several times, though ultimately the bird barely budged. Instead it pecked at his fingers as he urged it to leave. During the altercation between man and bird, the bird managed to inflict some severe wounds upon the sniper's index finger. Even through his kevlar protective gloves, breaking the sniper's proximal phalanx. The main support bone of his index finger.


The sniper cursed in pain as he batted away at the bird.


[I can't take the shot! I can't take the shot!]

"Eu não aguento! Eu não aguento!" the sniper responded.


The radio operator attempt to respond only to find that a large bird had suddenly absconded with his radio. He attempted to shoot the bird as it flew into the forest canopy, missing completely as the bird disappeared.


Meanwhile, the three guardian sections of their platoon which were composed of two man squads suddenly fell under attack.


One of the teams lay fully one quarter prone on the jungle floor as a pair of large carnivorous cats pounced upon him. His squad partner quickly turned to fire upon one of the cats, only to find that it was already upon him. It quickly tore at his eyes with its claws, leaving the man blind and unable to defend himself.


From the forest erupted numerous points of erratic gunfire, which quickly ceased and then silence once again rained.


The radio man had managed to obtain the sniper's rifle and was determined to carry out the mission himself.


He crawled along the jungle floor in an attempt to find a suitable position from which to take out Doctor Smythe. He'd managed to elevate himself upon a fallen tree, propping his rifle upon it for stabilization he aimed for the Doctor's head.


Suddenly he felt something wrapping itself around him, squeezing the breath from his lungs and throwing his view, preventing him from taking the shot. He tried desperately to scream but found no air in his lungs to do so. A few moments later his body fell silent and immobile.


Nelony approached on foot, looking upon the sniper's lifeless body.


"So much for your glory." she smirked at the fallen guerrilheiro.


...


Back at Doctor Smythe's camp, a pair of young students approached. As they got closer, two armed men exposed themselves.


"Don't come any closer!" they yelled in English.


"We're here to save Doctor Smythe!" yelled Dandelbraden, nearly out of breath.


"Son, you've obviously done a wonderful job as I'm still here." Doctor Smythe assured them, directing his guides to lower their weapons.


"So you're Doctor Smythe?" asked Athelbra.


"The one and only. The only Computer Scientist foolish enough to brave the Amazon jungle in the name of research. I've got the scars to prove it." he responded, slightly tipsy if not altogether drunk.


Nelony suddenly emerged from the brush some fifty yards east of their position.


"I see you've met my students. Doctor Smythe, I'm Nelony Ardbloem. We're here to protect you." she marched forward through the surrounding foliage.


"It seems we have quite the troupe here? You're all welcome as long as I can't feel the pain of this gunshot wound. You've already done an astounding job!" Doctor Smythe assured the Aerth Wytches.


"Oh, we had some help from some friends... But I bid you that we must leave this area in peace. We'll speak in detail when we've set camp again by nightfall." Nelony turned to see the Jaguars finding their way back into the jungle to their respective hunting grounds.


"You heard her... We have to be on the move. Let's move until nightfall and set camp then. We'll talk then. Tona, help me to my feet." Doctor Smythe agreed.


Tona agreed hesitantly.


The Roman Albion


Barris had spent hours communicating with Ponderosus, and the two men had gained a tremendous understanding and appreciation of each other's native languages. More so, they'd found a common vein in their appreciation for humour.


For instance, during Barris' faux pas with one of Corbus Carius' men, displaying his thumbs up to the Roman soldier, which of course was an immense insult, drew nearly continuous laughter from Ponderosus and his peers. Ponderosus himself had shared the story of this encounter with his own. As one might share a joke amidst their peers. Barris' antics had become as legend amongst the local leadership and aristocrats of the Roman occupation, and by way of social humour were making their way to those whose toil was long and hard. The farmers and labourers of Albion, or Britannia, residence thereof, depending upon whom you asked. For those whom the price of a good laugh was beyond measure.


For as much time, their education of language was a mutual telling of popular jokes of their time. And between the two, it was very difficult to tell who'd won. Who'd actually made the other laugh harder than they'd been made to laugh.


Barris, despite his seemingly ignorant capacity to comprehend the situation of others, had in fact managed to fathom life before the first century. Had he told a modern joke, referring to modern technology or sociol situations in any way, he'd have failed miserably. Instead, he took his time, reasoning upon principles Sato had taught him and found the most universally funny joke. A timeless treasure that women and men of any time could appreciate. Given the corresponding temporal and regional understanding of language. To tell the truth, Barris wasn't much better off in terms of such understanding as much so as he was intuitive.


[Letter from the writer: If you'd like to hear the jokes that Barris and Ponderosus told each other, you'll have to write directly to brian.joseph.johns@shhhhdigital.com with the subject line: "Lets hear the darned jokes already!" between the quotes of course]


During his time communicating with Ponderosus, he never mentioned that he himself was of Welsh origins and that his early ancestors were likely oppressed or even evicted by the Roman presence in Brittania. Despite Barris' bitter reservations about religion, he was quickly learning that what the Romans had brought with them to Brittania had nothing to do with it.


Already, Roman engineers were arriving and planning for a complex aquaduct system to be built in the Brittania region. Others were drawing up plans for a system of roads in order to keep the military supply chain well fed. Yet others were busy calculating the capacity for supply resulting from farming and other local resource extraction. The first stones of early modern civilization were being laid.


The Roman Blacksmiths were evaluating the level of technology possessed by the Albions, finding that most of it was on par with Roman expertise with the exception of Roman forges versus those of Albion. The Roman forges had been designed to meet the requirements of providing a constant flow of iron and brass for the smithing of Roman swords and armour. As such, their design and techniques allowed for a much more efficient production of such resources given the steady input of raw metals. The Roman refining process could arm and armour thousands of soldiers with little maintenance to the forges themselves, while the Brittania process was geared towards production on a much smaller scale though ending with a similar product.


Shields and spears were the real work horses of the Roman Army, finding their use in any number of different tactics and against a wide variety of threats, while the gladius was the soldier's sidearm of choice. As they established their presence in Albion, they'd need to produce arms and train new recruits as the population became indoctrinated into Roman civilization.


Their plans were indeed grand.


Despite the fact that Barris' freedom was very limited, he'd learned much during his talks with Ponderosus. The flow of information had not been in one direction as Ponderosus would not have it and the possibility of Barris being a spy had come up in private meetings with Praetor Seutonius Paulinus.


Barris deep in thought
Fortunately, Corbus Carrius was in disagreement with any such notion, perhaps as a result of Barris' unintentional insult but more so because he did not want any such sense of intrigue to become a part of Barris' reputation. Corbus was wholeheartedly ensuring that the only repute that accompanied Barris was one of cowardice and lacking the devotion to any principle. As such, any meetings he attended with Ponderosus that happened upon the subject of Barris, the two had become a dichotomy of opposition. Surprisingly this actually worked out to Barris' advantage for it kept a subject of much greater mystery from the Praetor's awareness. That of the fact that Barris seemed not to need sleep or sustenance of any kind. In fact, during the whole time he'd spent in Ponderosus custody, he'd not eaten or drank anything.


This was something very startling to Barris as well. So much so that he'd nibbled at the food brought before him but seldom actually ate or drank anything. He had been a prisoner with privileges for at least four days and not felt so much as a single hunger pang. Nor had he felt tired despite not having slept. One night during his captivity he became so concerned by these facts that he began pinching himself furiously, trying to achieve any sense of touch or pain, and failing to do so.


"Sooner or later I'm going to have to start eating something lest they begin to become suspicious..." he blurted aloud in a moment of late night anxiety.


Then his mind went to Mila, as it had every time in the absence of his captors. How could he possibly reach her from here and now? Barris had never been much for details though he did know British history better than most. The question was could he figure out where he was given the indications he'd encountered thus far given his sometimes poor memory.


There had been mention of Praetor Suetonius Paulinus, a name familiar to Barris though from where and whence he wasn't sure. He knew that it was the name of someone important in Roman history, a General in fact as meant the word Praetor. He knew they were in Britain (or Albion as the Romans had called it). He knew that they were near Brittania, which he'd assumed to be ancient London. It wasn't the where part that perplexed him. It was the when.


He figured that the time could be anywhere between thirty or twenty BC through to three hundred AD, given the current state of things. The Romans were entrenched but not fortified. They were in control but clearly not the rulers. There was a sense of urgency about them ever present amongst the officers, who were clearly relying upon the supply chain through Europe to Rome, however the Roman infrastructure was clearly not present. It was in the process of planning, perhaps years before it would be built.


As if on cue, a pair of guards walked by the single level home being used to imprison him. They were deep in banter when Barris heard a word that made his skin crawl.


[Prastutagus, he should keep Boudicca ]

""


It was at that moment that he'd realized that he was in Brittania, circa 60 AD.


"Egad! Boudica!? We're going to be slaughtered!" Barris said aloud within his prison.



Flight From The Sanctum


Lannay tapped Jexelen's door a second time and then waited, looking up and down the corridor nervously.


"Who may I ask is at my door?" Jexelen's griseled voice spoke from the other side of the door.


"Why its me, Lannay of course. There seems to be trouble afoot." Lannay stated as calmly as he could.


"The only trouble on feet seems to be you, knocking at my door when I am trying to sleep!" Jexelen replied impatiently.


"I assure you that this matter is urgent. The Sanctum appears to have been breached," panic crept into Lannay's voice as he spoke.


The lock on Jexelen's door clicked as the latch was withdrawn. The door then opened slightly enough for her to peek around it.


"Where are the others?" Jexelen asked.


"Yirfir and Jasmer are still in their quarters. The guard rotation may be doing the rounds but from what I've seen, that might not be possible," Lannay advised her as she peeked at him from behind the door.


"Not possible? Why ever so?" asked Jexelen.


"Because as I stated, the Sanctum has been breeched. There are Norbid Magi running around the halls of the Sanctum as we speak..." Lannay was not able to finish his sentence before Jexelen pulled him into her quarters.


"If this is so then we must follow protocol," Jexelen said as she disappeared into her wardrobe.


As she left Lannay alone in the room, there came a knock on the door.


"I think they're here!" Lannay yelled to Jexelen, looking for cover.


"Who? The Norbids?" she yelled from within her wardrobe.


"Lannay!!! Jexelen!!! For crying out loud its me, Jasmer! Open the door! I've got wounded!" a loud voice came from the other side of the door.


Lannay immediately made his way to the door, unlatching  and opening it.


Jasmer pushed his way into the room, leading Noran over to a chair in Jexelen's room while Yirfir, Xenshi and Xuxu followed, closing the door behind them.


"Only you here?" Jasmer asked Lannay.


"I'm getting changed!" Jexelen yelled from her wardrobe.


"Alright then. That's most of us if not all of us. You've found out for yourselves what is going on?" Jasmer questioned them.


"Yes, unfortunately. Jexelen was saying something about protocol..." Lannay advised Jasmer.


"I already set the security to a state of emergency. Anyone using the internal portal system will become lunch for the Vexvoles," Noran informed them.


"That leaves the portal beacon to the Midspace. It must disabled so that none may portal to the Sanctum from elsewhere," Yirfir advised them.


"That would mean none of us will be able to return to the Midspace or the Sanctum," Lannay spoke astonished at the proposition.


"Yirfir and I know how to get here. We're the only two that can navigate the portal space to the Midspace. We'll return to retake the Sanctum, and when we do, we'll need to reactivate the portal beacon," Jasmer informed them in the room as Jexelen returned from the wardrobe to join them.


"Where's Thara?" Yirfir asked Lannay.


"She left after the council meeting for an urgent matter," Jexelen explained.


"Strange that she'd just up and leave when the Sanctum is so vulnerable," Yirfir pondered aloud.


"Perhaps that is for the better that she is safe?" posed Xenxi.


"We'll take it as such. Yirfir, I'm going to take care of the portal beacon. I'll meet you on Aerth at our rendezvous point for Zheng," Jasmer advised Yirfir.


"I am not letting you do that by yourself!" Yirfir demanded.


"Then I will accompany him, despite how despicable he is!" Xuxu responded nearly cursing Jasmer.


"I accept your offer, Xuxu. Thank you, I think?" Jasmer responded.


"Jexelen and Lannay, we'll need you to at the Bastion Of The Midspace after I've deactivated the beacon. Anyone trying to portal to the Sanctum will end up there, including Athandra Rithyani, the Order Of The Life Well and the remnants of the Elemental Guard, from there you will resume Sanctum operations until we are able to muster a force to retake the Sanctum. You'll be taking Noran with you. See to it that he receives the healing treatment he so deserves," Yirfir advised her peers.


"That he will. We will see to him until the Life Well healers arrive," Jexelen assured Yirfir.


"In the meantime, Xenxi and I will find Zheng Ni Wong and bring her to our rendezvous point," Yirfir moved closer to Jasmer and gave him a sensuous kiss as the others shuffled uncomfortably in the sudden silence.


Yirfir began the motions of summoning her portal as did Jexelen hers. On either side of the room a vortex opened a throat reaching to distant places in space.


Yirfir stepped through her's first, followed by Xenxi.


Lannay helped Noran into Jexelen's portal, followed by Jexelen herself, all three disappearing.


Jasmer and Xuxu were suddenly alone.


"They're gone safely," Jasmer spoke as they disappeared into the vortexes.


"Good, I didn't like them anyway!" Xuxu scoffed sarcastically.








To be continued...


Brian Joseph Johns
https://www.shhhhdigital.ca
https://twitter.com/MediaShhhh



References



Amazon Rainforest Ecology - Yale School Of The Environment

Strangler Figs - Backyard Nature

Wikipedia





This story is A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity by Brian Joseph Johns. It is being written by myself, Brian in 200 Sherbourne Street in apartment 701 where I live.

Copyright © 2020 Brian Joseph Johns

Trending...