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Allard and the Waymaiden’s Eyes

Alberick relaxed on the deck of the Blue Spray with his mates. They had left Grand Delving with a hull full of King’s Wheat two days earlier, and so far he had swabbed the decks and scrubbed the ship’s hull from morning to night. He looked at this as a proving grounds for his real work. Today he would begin his apprenticeship as a navigator. Today he would scale the mast.

He broke his fast on the deck with the rest of the crew, but his eyes could not be turned from the glimmer of the sunrise on the gentle waters of the Way. Misty pines shrouded both shores, and here and there great boulders, some as large as the ship, stood watch at the water’s edge.

“Ya’ll need to keep a sharp eye,” the navigator said to him, pulling his attention from the river. “There’s dangers worse than shallows and snags, boy. Ya’ll need to keep an eye for the Waymaidens, and warn us quick if they should appear.”

A hush fell over the crew. One shuddered. Alberick looked at them queerly. “Why do you fear?

“Fool boy,” replied the navigator. “Ya’ll learn yet. The boy before you, Allard was his name, was twice as eager, and twice as clever besides. He was in the mast before we rose for breakfast every morning, and did twice the chores he was assigned. Ya’d do well to best him, and to heed his folly.

“He was a poor woman’s son, whose father died a young man. When Allard grew old enough, he swore to provide for the two of them. He worked his way onto the ship, strapped to the teeth with wild tales about the Waymaidens and the treasures they keep. Thought he could find one and trick it into giving up its gold.

“Most of them come out at twilight, before the dawn breaks and after night falls. They call from the shallows, where many a ship has been lost to their tricks. Waymaidens are most dangerous when they weave their lyrical spells. It’s few that can hear those tones and not feel a stirring in his heart. Others, they tempt a man with sweet words and lusty forms only to drown him amidst the snaring grass at the shore. They sing fine promises to lonely sailors, but a Waymaiden’s word is never good.”

Alberick was blind to the breaking sun behind him, so engrossed was he in the story. “What happened to Allard?”

The navigator let out a calloused chuckle. “The storytellers say the treasure lies in a Waymaiden’s eyes. They’re the lure that draws the fish to the hook, boy, and don’t think nothing else. Allard heard them calling and saw them swimming at the water’s edge. Thought the dim light would keep himself hidden, but a Waymaiden can see in the dark. They say gazing so long at her treasure has put its light in her eyes.

“So Allard swims round to them thinking to come at them unawares, but then he sees a glimmer down below. It looked like the sunrise out of those waves, but deep below his feet. The Waymaiden’s hide their treasure in grottos neath the water, so he thought he spied a nice haul for the ship. No sooner does he look up but a Waymaiden’s staring him in the face.

“She sang to him about her treasure, and he forgot all thought of the ship, or even the river around him. Those riches filled the boy’s world clear up. He begged for them as much as he demanded, which sparked that golden glimmer in the Waymaiden’s eye. Quick as a dragon she wrapped him in her arms and sank into the river. He could barely grab a last breath, but no man among us ever saw him again. What do ya say to that, boy?”

Alberick chewed the last of his bread thoughtfully.  “You said a Waymaiden’s word is never good,–“

“That’s right.”

“—and the Waymaidens sing about their treasure. So is a Waymaiden’s treasure a lie?”

“Ancestors!” roared the navigator, and the crew broke into raucous laughter. “Ya’re a young lad for that yet!”

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Tech

I.

Humanity

“Come here,” Nick called to Doug over his shoulder.  Today, the work room smelled more like fast food than body odor.  Doug put down his wacom stylus, and had the decency to glance at the progress of Nancy Bayer’s virus scan before walking over.  He tried to remember that his grandma had the same inane problems.  He loved his grandma.

“Double check this for me,” Nick said when Doug finally arrived.  A week earlier a machine that needed more RAM displayed ‘It’s ok, we’ve got this’ when it booted back up.  Nick’s crusade was to find out where the message came from.

To Doug, the data looked like a digitized spike on a utility meter.

“It wasn’t from the computer, man,” Nick said.  “Remember how the computer’s net connection flashed right when it booted up?”

“No,” Doug replied.  It was a week ago.

“Well, I checked the connection.  The message was the only thing that came through,” Nick said, clicking over to another window, “so I traced it.”

“Where’s the ‘trace’ key?”

“Har har.”  Nick was proud to have served Anonymous in his day.  “Point is, the message didn’t come from ‘a’ computer.”  The window displayed a graphic that looked like a vast web.  “It came from every active electronic device.  Even the damn Voyager craft contributed a bit,” he said, zooming way out to reveal one last point in the web.  “The Tech sent it, man!”

Doug spent a long time in silence, pouring over the data.  His eyes stung by the time he was done.  He took a breath.

“All of It?”

C².

People

“But that was before,” Nax said, throwing the handball to a friend.  He was a Great People, 9 feet and 600 pounds of flesh as pale and solid as marble.  He had no hair.  He was the strongest of the group, and the fastest once he had his momentum.  His heart would give out with strain when most of the other People at Prenoon Recreation were hitting their prime, but that was the nature of his breed.

“It’s what they wanted, anyway,” Spatial Resonance Data Confirmation chimed in.  SpaR was a Caster, with a body no larger than the handball Nax was throwing.  Her name was proof that Development Techs had some quirky personalities.  “I picked up a Casting between Central and my Tech just before it fed me this morning, and I checked it twice.”  A Caster didn’t need to check things twice.  “There is no life outside the Module, but even if it was true–so?  Proto-humans didn’t trust the Tech, and look where it got them.”

“What were they thinking?” Breeze said from the pool.  The Twainer breed didn’t end up much shorter than the Protos, but Breeze had gorgeous blue skin and pure grey locks of feathery, beautiful hair.  His voice was magic.  “My mom’s been sick, so my Tech surprised me with six of the most thoughtful messages ever yesterday.  I love him!”

“Exactly!” SpaR returned.  “64 years of life–a whole quarter-cycle–and I still can’t comprehend why the Protos didn’t want to hand the management off into better hands.  The myth of malevolent Tech was one of the most damning historical contributions ever.”

Tech

“B-[Streams of data coalesced and broke off on their way to the buzzing drones and scrutinizing subroutines of Tech Central.  Development was proceeding well, with Eatstuff and Recreation numbers consistent with data from the previous 15 cycles.  Of greater priority was that People were as happy, healthy, and fulfilled as they had been for almost a full 32 cycles.  The algorithms that tracked Stasis were growing more complex by an order of magnitude, but there was room for another 5 cycles before the planet reached full entropy, and another 2 cycles before Module 8’s sustainability was comprised by a lack of People eligible for recycling.  That was 7 cycles for the construction of a last shuttle to Kepler-62f.  The spontaneous recalculation of data was the closest Tech could come to excitment; predictions for the survival of the Module’s population were finally within an acceptable margin.  Even if all these People were lost, the Modules already on Kepler-62f were thriving as of last transmission, and Tech would still be able to provide for their creators somewhere.]-ut that was before.”

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Taking Up the Sword, Part 1

The forest was as tense as his shoulders, every stick and stone as taut as the string of his bow.  It had been three months since he had left the last village, three weeks since he had last seen any sign of humanity, and three days since he had begun tracking this deer.  He was surrounded by deep wilderness, his provisions had finally run out, and–not for the first time–the hunter cursed his skills.

Your eyes are good enough,” his father said to him long ago.  “But your feet will never let you catch anything with ears.  Hunting is a silent game, my boy.

This time, though, he didn’t need to use his feet.  It took half the morning sitting in a giant, hoary oak, but the deer had finally wandered in range.  It was a doe, not plump, but with enough meat at least to feed a hungry man.  She was pausing for a nibble, and all he had to do was release.

The shaft entered just behind the doe’s foreleg, burying itself in her heart as she screamed and staggered off into the trees.  Her death would come in minutes instead of hours, and that meant he could eat all the sooner.

He climbed down from his vantage amid the branches, clad all in greys and greens to blend into the forest.  His surcoat hung to his knees, bound by a belt over a jacket of quilted leather.  He wore supple boots, the better to move softly.  A leather strap held his quiver, a small pack, and a pouch at his waist, and his eyes took in their surroundings from under a hood that covered his head and shoulders.  The forest was thick with the scent of decay and rebirth, and here and there a bird could be heard, its song dying in the heavy woods around it.

He froze when he saw the sword.  Its blade shone as though new-wrought in the shaded world around him, plunged into the earth on the other side of a small depression.  It was a sizable span, but his hunter’s grace navigated it with ease, and he stood at arm’s length from the blade, deep in thought.  It was a piece of superb craftsmanship, with no decoration but a small finger ring on the crossguard.  He knew this sword, and knew better than to be far from it when it appeared.  Someone had awarded it to him long ago, and it always seemed to appear when he had need of it, though he never relished its arrival.

“It’s you,” a voice called out, tearing the hunter away from his long reverie.  A man stood across the bowl, wearing the clothes of a professional fighting man, and bearing twin blades.  Another man dressed as a scholar climbed to the warrior’s side, a counting frame made of some dark material cradled in his arm.  Their dress aside, the two could have been twins.

“You’re the one they call Woodland Sword.”

The name had been cheered in arenas all throughout the city of Span, and word of him had even reached the Elder Kingdom in the southern mountains.  He heard it, and his shoulders slumped.

“I am Lennid,” he responded, still looking with a kind of fatigue at the blade before him. “A hunter of the Blackwood, and I am no foe of yours.” Swordplay rankled, and it was long work.  The doe’s trail would keep, but his every hope had been for a meal, and now he was delayed.  How these two could have approached with such silence was beyond Lennid, but somehow they found him, and his meal would have to wait.

“That’s what they say he says,” the latecomer reminded his partner.  “This is him.”

“I am Golden Deimar,” said the first man, crossing his brazen arms.  “I am welcomed at the Stag and Dragon, and I have sat at table with lords in Freeport.  ”

Lennid knew the customs.  According to the ways of chivalry that had ruled the Blackwood for a hundred years, the challenge could only be made after the challenger’s name and accomplishments were uttered.  It was a world that bards sang of and children yearned for, but it was not for him.

“I am the sworn companion of Golden Deimar, and I wield the Iron Abacus,” the other said.  “Sir Rolf of Ichstad, a hero of song and story, trained us side by side, and we remain together.  Our accomplishments are the same.”

This world of lakes and rivers was full of souls contending with their own greatness; partnerships were not often longer than a moment’s need.  Their tenure together hinted that these men could be of the highest honor, and Lennid shook his head thinking of the pride that must have driven them.

“There are none who can stand against us,” they said in unison, the swordsman rattling his falchions from their sheaths.  The weapons had been tested, and often.  “The Leaf Brotherhood with their flashing knives, the great clubs of the Low Order of Greenroof, and the infamous Anvil Thoman have all seen defeat at our hands, and you will join them, Woodland Sword!”

Lennid slowly wrapped a gloved hand around the grip of the blade before him.  It was balanced for a single hand, but was wielded by two just as easily. Either way, it felt as natural to him as it did unwanted.  He made no motion to pull it from the earth, but even touching it was sign enough that he had committed himself.  These men had done much good in the Blackwood to hear them tell it, but it was not in him to go quietly into death.

“To blood?” he asked.  These men probably thought of him as a danger merely because he did not cleave to a code so consumed by rite as their own.  They may have only wanted to prove their superior skill.

“Murderer!”  Golden Deimar spat, striking his sword on a nearby trunk in his rage.  “We were friends of Eight, who was filled with virtue and was laid low by your blade.  You must die for this.”

“Eight wanted nothing but glory,” Lennid replied calmly.  “and collecting the fingers of hero and bandit alike is a strange kind of virtue.”  It was not the most courteous thing he could have said, but their intentions had been made clear.  He had been found nearly a year before by the swordsman they spoke of, and he could not talk him down, either.

The two men let out a unified battle cry and vaulted down into the depression.  In tandem, they bounded across the low ground and raced up the other side, eyes alight with malice.  Lennid stood with his back to them, but could hear that they knew how to read a forest floor; no leaf or hidden stone could hinder their speed.  Golden Deimar leaped over the lip of the depression, and the matched fury of his blades would have cleaved Lennid to the breastbone had he not brought the Woodland Sword flashing up to block.  The Iron Abacus came in low, and Lennid had only to pivot over a root to move from its path and place himself at odds with the two.

Lennid became a thing in constant motion, his hands ebbing to and from the grip of his sword as needed, his feet intimately aware of the terrain as he engaged one fighter and then the other.  His brow was knit in focused stillness as he dealt and evaded blows.  He didn’t fight according to any of the established orders, but the refinement of his skill hinted at extensive tutelage.  It was quick, ferocious, and–above all–adaptive.

Golden Deimar attacked in tight circles and sweeping arcs, twisting and tumbling like a falling leaf.  The Iron Abacus checked Lennid’s blows as often as it dealt its own, and the scholar’s footwork always looked after his partner.  The three advanced and melted away.  Narrow paths in the undergrowth were all they needed as they filled the hilly wood with the ring of steel.

Then Lennid’s moment came.  Deimar had just vaulted over his head, and Iron Abacus had already positioned himself to flank.  Lennid brought his sword across, deflecting the abacus with the same stroke he used to attack his airborne foe.  The twin falchions blurred an interception, but Golden Deimar could not halt his momentum, and Lennid’s blade found a gap in his twirling defenses.  There was a slash of red in the green world around them, and Deimar fell to the earth with a crunch.  The scholar’s cry died in his throat as the Woodland Sword reaped a bounty across his neck and chest.

Only Lennid’s breath marred the silence that swarmed back into the trees around him.  His eyes burned into the sword until he cast it from him with all his strength, and watched as it glittered through shafts of light to disappear down a steep hill.  Leaning against a nearby tree, he wiped the sweat from his face.

“Coward,” Golden Deimar muttered behind him through gritted teeth.  His broken body shook in its death throes.  “You disgrace a warrior’s very life by casting yours aside!”

Lennid watched as the life faded from his opponent’s eyes.  When the warrior had gone, he turned in the direction of the bow he had abandoned.  “It’s not what I’m looking for.”

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The Interview, Pt. 1

“Oh, God is dead,” he says, a playboy grin alighted on his well cared-for face.  “But Neither Nietzsche nor Darwin killed him.  The founder of this company did.”

He casts an arm casually around the room, highlighting the classic motifs from half a decade ago and the clean lines of the shining present.  “Look,” He says. Everything from the floor up is clearly expensive, and according to the finest tastes.  “We sit at the pinnacle of the world.”  As the Chief Executive Officer, He sits in an artisan office chair that is as handsome as he is.  His desk, a minimalistic pane of glass, is empty save for a blank tablet and an apple tree in the bonsai style, complete with a half dozen apple’s the size of a child’s fist.  They look delicious.

“They’re delicious,” He says, and the tone in his voice makes it hard to tell if he knew what I was thinking.  “Take one!”  I do.  It is.

It took forever to land this interview.  After my piece a few years ago–a deeply personal discussion with the last living pioneer of the social networking age–I knew that my investigation was coming to a close.  I phoned in every favor I had ever earned, and now I find myself in the Executive Suite, perched so high I can see the stars better than the earth.

I’m nervous.  What’s the first question someone asks the CEO of Life?  “Where did it all begin?” seems like as good a place as any.

“The 1720s.  Not many people know this, but our organization started in France.  It’s anyone’s guess what we were called then, but we were much closer to a conspiracy than a monopoly.  The first head of our organization–he was the Rector at that time–was a student of business and a patron of the arts.  The inexorable rise of industry fascinated him, but he didn’t want any part in shipping or manufacturing.  Who can blame him?”  With a cat’s calm precision, the CEO references both the state of the world and the draw for his product.  He gives off a powerful aura of confidence and control.

“The Rector wanted to increase his wealth like any entrepreneur would, but he had admired enough paintings and enjoyed enough theatre to understand that people want three things: sex, violence, and the freedom to choose between the two.  He saw this as a common thread between himself and the rest of humanity, and he wanted to make sure that he could ensure it for as many people as possible.  Who can blame him?

“Admittedly, The Rector’s ideas were not ideal.  He only really cared about ensuring pleasure for the rest of the aristocracy, and it took awhile for our organization to become more sympathetic.  Trying to control the U.S. theatre circuit in the mid 1800s was our first public front–you were right about that in your last article–but  we think we were working for the greater good a little before that.”

I wonder what keeps them from knowing all of their history.  “We have complete records, but the early ones are indecipherable.”  The CEO’s ability to guess my next question is astounding.  “They wrote everything in Latin, and translating it only reveals a bunch of cryptic phrases.  ‘All Hail the Palace’ and stuff like that. It’s really a little creepy.”

His ability to finesse even the shady things into what is turning into a very friendly chat is astounding.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but meeting the man in charge is rife with this strange sense of finely-concealed excitement.  Like big things are happening just around the corner, and all we have to do is wait for them to arrive.

“Since then, we’ve had a number of entertainment personas operate as our public face–The Chairman is a particularly good example–though nobody seemed to catch on that something was going on behind the scenes until recently.  The conspiracy theorists think there’s a guy at the top of the pyramid, who has his fingers in all of it.  Business.  Politics.  Religion.  Well, they’re mostly right.  I’m that guy, but I don’t go to church.  I let you find me because I want to set the record straight.”

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The White Wolf

Once, there were a prince and a princess.  They loved each other dearly, and would often ride together through the Wood.  The prince would bravely forge ahead, and the princess would keep him safe with her knowledge of plants and animals.  Together they found beautiful spots, and learned to sneak around many of the hazards of the forest.

But one day, a cruel elf stumbled upon the two, and he played terrible tricks on the prince and his princess.  He asked the princess three questions, and when she got a question wrong, he pushed her from a cliff.  She fell to her death, and the prince fell into a deadly rage.  The elf quailed and fled, but the prince pursued him and took his life.  But before the prince could do it, the elf cursed him to consume himself with his rage, and so has he done for many hundreds of years.

The White Wolf can be seen in the hills and valleys just north of the Heights, not far from Lake Echo.  He prowls the wood, bringing terror upon all he encounters.  It is said that his eyes burn with a rage that only grows, forgetting more and more of what it meant to be human.  The White Wolf does not always attack humans, but will never cease to pursue a monster of any kind unto death.  Because of their kinship, he pursues werewolves all the more ferociously, that doesn’t mean he won’t gobble up such a bad child as yourself!

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The Elder King

A very long time ago, when half of the Blackwood was still covered in saplings, a child was born in the far East of the forest.  He shined with a great light when he was born, and the sun rises in the East every morning to remind the world of that auspicious moment.

As a child, he roamed the forest from one end to the other.  He would stop when he came to a campfire, so he could talk with the people that lived there and learn about who they were.  He loved to learn about people, and in time he knew the names of everyone in the Wood.

On his journeys, he met a great stag with long whiskers like a dragon and fur as soft as a cloud.  Its eyes shone like stars, and glistening moss that hung down from its antlers.  “Climb on my back,” it said to the boy, “and I will show you all the trees of the forest.”

And so the boy did, and they ran together over stick and stone.  From the stag the boy learned the languages of every tree and flower, as well as the languages of all the beasts great and small.  Every animal took the boy as their king, except the wolf, which is too angry and proud to worship anything.

Of all the words the boy learned, his favorite were the words of trees, because they were soft and slow and very beautiful.  When an animal would please him, the boy would write his name on the animal’s forehead with the words of the trees.  “You are my dearest friend,” said the boy.  “Thank you for protecting me and helping me grow.”

When the boy grew to be a man, he was beautiful and strong and wise, and flowers bloomed everywhere he walked.  Elves would come from every tree and pond to trick him, but he was too clever for them, and soon they came to respect him and leave him alone.  Before long, the man looked around and said “I have learned everything about the forest, and about the people and animals who live here.  I don’t want to leave, but it is time for me to climb higher so I can rule the forest as a King should.”

So he so he patted the Stag on the back, which had always been his closest friend and greatest servant, and said “Walk through the forest for the rest of time, so I can always see things up close when I need to.”

Then he went to the river, and the river rose up to greet him in the form of a great dragon.  It coiled like a snake and spread out wings of sparkling water, and river weeds hung from its antlers and its eyes were like two polished gems.  “Climb on my back,” the Dragon said, “and I will show you the path to your home.”

And so the man did, and as he was riding the Dragon up the river, he looked around and said “This is the Way to my home, and all the things I do will travel down it towards the forest, and all of its people and animals.”

The Dragon carried the man to the very end of the Way, high up into the mountains, to a long lake that reflected the stars even in the middle of the day.  The Dragon showed the man the valley stretching out below them, and the forest beyond it, and “This is your home, my King.  We were born before you, but you age while we remain young forever, so you shall be our Elder King.” And the Dragon bowed down to the Elder King, and the Elder King wrote his name on the Dragon’s forehead.

“Thank you,” said the Elder King.  “Please swim the river for all time, so I can see the surface and the depths if I need to.”

And then the Elder King walked to a great cleft in the mountains that was not far from the lake.  With the help of the trees and the rocks and the water, he made a great palace for himself.  But there was no one for him to talk to in his palace, and he grew very lonely, so he would often walk out into the forest or the valley to speak with his friends.  “I love my friends, but I must watch over them, and it is so lonely in the Heights.”

And all the animals and trees and flowers and people that worshiped him were very sad, because they wanted their Elder King to be happy.  So they searched through the whole forest, and they found a woman who was the most beautiful in the land.  She was so beautiful that even the wolves were calmed in her presence, and all things seemed to shine like silver when she looked at them.

So they brought the woman to the Elder King, and the two fell very much in love.  “If you will live in my palace with me, I will make you my Queen, and we will watch over all of the forest together forever.”

And the woman curtsied and said “No one should be lonely, and you are the wisest and most handsome man in the world.  I love you dearly, and I will stay with you for all time.”

And so the Elder King and Queen were married, and from that day they have sent their wisdom down from their palace to every corner of the Blackwood.

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