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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    PirateGuy

    Join Date
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    Brazil
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    Default SirKazum's Wondrous and Exquisite Fiction Dispensary

    Taking a page after Thanqol, I'm using this thread to post fiction, hopefully in a weekly basis. Rather than just the "Heplion Contingency" story, I'm posting a number of different series I'm working on, alternating, so I don't burn out on any of them. Enjoy!

    Note: If you're curious, I'm developing the "Heplion Contingency" setting back in the World-Building forum. Check it out!



    The Heplion Contingency - Chapter 1

    Astal raced through the night, her boots splashing across the puddles on the street. Although the tram accident – its horses crashed through the front doors, courtesy of her friends at Urush – bought her some time, it was barely enough. One could never be too careful around the likes of Karnati Incorporated.

    She quickly found the hole in the perimeter she was looking for – some guard who strayed too far from his station to see what that commotion was all about – and considered her possibilities. She could get to work on the wall right away, but there was no knowing how long the guy’s curiosity would last, and he was a bit too close for comfort at any rate. Eh, to hell with it, she decided, unsheathing her knives as she crept up behind him.

    Fortunately for her – not so much for the poor bastard – he was distracted enough to let her walk right up to him. He was shifting around, trying to find a better position to peek at the front of the building, so Astal had to wait breathlessly until he settled enough for the path to the area under his chin to be clear. A quick double stab and scissor-cut – to chop his windpipe and any chance of calling for help with it – later, he was just a metal-covered sack of flesh to be dragged behind the garbage at the nearest alley. Goddamn idiots, she thought with a snort, they armor up every part of their bodies except for what really matters.

    That obstacle out of the way, Astal turned to the imposing skyscraper. The Karnati building wasn’t among the tallest in the city of Harmony, but it was still a daunting climb, even more so under that rain, which made its glass façade dangerously slick. Sure, she deliberately picked a rainy night to avoid being seen and captured, which she feared even worse than a lethal fall… but that didn’t make her job any easier.

    The thief soon found an exposed concrete column that made for good climbing and fastened her crampons. Intelligence from her employers placed her objective in the top three floors of the building’s east wing, necessitating a roof entrance. Not allowing herself time to ponder the madness of what she was doing, Astal launched herself up, clinging to imperfections in the concrete surface, drizzle streaming over the black leather of her clothing.

    Minutes later, the young woman crept onto the rooftop, hiding behind an air vent to catch her breath and ponder her options. As she unfastened her crampons, she ran her eyes over the scene looking for guards, and found them atop a small tower, watching the skies. They were probably there to detect aerial threats, and would not notice a suspicious figure sneaking among the shadows on the roof. So Astal did exactly that, moving toward a service door, whose lock she easily worked open.

    Once inside the building, the thief uncovered her lantern and began to walk the hallways in search of her target. Knowing how Karnati’s personnel worked, the object would probably be inside the office of one of the top local bosses, even if it wasn’t currently in use; they liked to keep a close watch on their possessions. The top floor didn’t seem very promising, mostly deposits and machinery, such as air circulators and food generators. Carefully, Astal made her way to the stairs and down a level.

    In the next-to-last floor, the thief heard steps echoing across the dark corridor. Although that made things more difficult for her, it was also a good sign – after all, they’d hardly waste a night-shift watchman on a floor that didn’t have something important in it. She moved away from the sound, walking into a side corridor and looking for an unlocked door. After two tries, she opened a door into a storage locker, closing it after herself and hiding behind a cabinet.

    The steps sped up and drew closer. “Is anyone there?” a voice echoed. Light from a lantern shone in under the door, reminding Astal to cover her own. After a few seconds’ hesitation, the person knocked on the door. “Hello? Anyone there?” he asked. The door opened, and lantern light shone across the small room, barely missing the woman concealed by the cabinet.

    The steps continued, now coming into the locker, and the source of the light came closer. Astal slowly slid her hand toward one of her daggers. The watchman was approaching the end of the room, and she’d soon be within his view… and he, within her dagger’s reach. She silently pulled her weapon out of its sheath, and was prepared to pounce, as a snake trained on its prey, when the sound of a door opening drew the attention of both of them.

    “Thranur?” a man called from afar. “Everything alright there?”

    The lantern swung back toward the exit, once again plunging the back of the locker into darkness. “No problem… doctor Byrger? Didn’t know you were still there.” The watchman walked out, closing the door on his way out. Astal breathed a sigh of relief, as the two strangers exchanged distant words.

    The thief waited a few minutes after the brief conversation ended before resuming her work. She would have to keep absolutely silent, now that she knew there were not one, but two persons nearby, but this was no problem for an experienced burglar such as herself.

    With light feet and liquid movements, she hurried across the hallway, running her light over the plaques beside the doors. D. Kshatari, Chief Financial Officer. Seemed promising, but not enough. F. Langpur, Institutional Relations Advisor. Warming up. M. Baramunz, Head of Transplanetary Business. Now she was getting somewhere…

    Y. Spusacky, Chief Executive Officer, 2514 Bhadrapada VI. That was it. If anyone had the clout to hold what Astal was looking for, it had to be Karnati’s biggest boss in this planet.

    Looking periodically over her shoulder, the girl picked the door’s lock slowly and cautiously, carefully spinning the tumbler so it would not make a sound. As she opened the door, she shone her light across the luxurious chamber, whose enormous, finely polished furniture brightly reflected the lantern’s glare. Drapes and curtains gleamed red under her light, and a few crystal machines (a phonograph, a telegraph, and even a simpler artificial brain, sitting atop the imposing desk) glimmered and splattered pinpoints of light across the walls.

    Astal didn’t bother with the brain on the desk – what she was looking for wouldn’t be in such an obvious place. She took her gloves off and ran her fingers across the ponderous table, searching for panels or false bottoms, but the desk was little more than a massive block of hardwood – mahogany, if she wasn’t mistaken – with no apparent empty spaces other than the drawers on the right side of the chair. She idly opened a drawer – there were a few loose papers inside – and, seeing the small lock on the next one, didn’t bother picking it open. A lock this simple wouldn’t hide anything really important.

    Turning her attention to the wooden panel behind the large armchair, the lady started rapping on it with her fingers, very lightly, to avoid being heard outside the office. Her lips opened in a smile when she heard a hollow sound coming from a section of the panel; her intuition never let her down. Softly sliding her fingers across the wooden surface, she found a loose segment, which she pressed, making the plate pop open.

    There was a safe behind it. Before picking it open, however, Astal thoroughly examined it; after all, one would expect someone in a position as high as that of this office’s occupant to employ additional security measures when guarding his most valued possessions. And indeed, shining her light from side to side over the safe’s metal surface, the thief saw a slight alteration in the way the light bounced off it – a soft contour, nearly imperceptible, but clear to her trained eyes. Recognizing the shape of the trap, which would cause a large psychic explosion right to her face if she wasn’t careful, she skillfully nicked the contour on its safe spots, thus undoing the psychic diagram that powered the trap.

    Free to work the lock, the burglar picked it open with some effort, opening the heavy metal door. There were several shelves inside the safe, but the young woman barely saw what most of them held, as her attention was immediately drawn to a shiny object – a green, fist-sized oval crystal, embedded onto a metal base that was studded with several smaller crystals, and with several intricate patterns etched onto its surface. That was one of the most advanced brains out there, to be sure – but what motivated the folks at Urush (or whoever was behind them) to pay such a steep price for this item’s retrieval surely wasn’t its psychic capabilities. No, all the effort and investment showed that its true worth was in the information contained within this artificial mind. Industrial projects? Diplomatic secrets? Military plans? When it came to Karnati, anything was possible. Astal had no idea at all what this was about, though, and didn’t care. After all, she was a professional, used to knowing no more than what was necessary to go through with her mission.

    The lady pulled from her pocket a small copper plate, inscribed with a complex diagram set in crystal powder. Concentrating on the plate’s psychic tracks – even with no psionic training, she understood this type of equipment enough to activate it – she managed to complete its pattern, releasing its energy onto the artificial brain and incapacitating it. There was no knowing which directives it had been given, and how would it react to its theft; maybe it would attack her, or use some sort of telepathic power to contact its owners.

    Minutes later, she was on the roof again, preparing to climb back down, when she heard the service door booming open. When she saw who walked out of it, the girl abandoned all hope of escape, or even survival. It was an enormous man, over ten feet tall, with charcoal-black skin and fiery red hair and beard, wearing a finely-tailored dark suit, with a tie as brightly orange as his eyes. He was a dykhlun, one of the most powerful transhuman races… and he was furious at her.

    “Stop right there!” roared the man, with a deep, powerful voice. Astal started running across the wet rooftop, but suddenly stopped when she raised her eyes and saw the creature right in front of her. “Going anywhere?” he asked, playfully. She turned around and bolted away in the opposite direction, only to see him materialize again in front of her with a flash of violet light, his arms crossed.

    “You know, I can do this all night long,” he said. The lady looked around her, nervously, not spotting anything that could help her. “Or you could just return what you’ve stolen, and avoid an even bigger headache.”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said, slowly stepping away.

    “Come on… you’re telling me that now?” The giant just followed her with his eyes. “What are you doing here then? Enough with this nonsense. Let’s work this out now.”

    Astal looked to her sides again. “I think we’re having some misunderstanding here. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to– oof!” She was interrupted by a sudden blow to her gut. Her questioner was still a few paces away, though, his arms still crossed; it was as if she was punched by the air itself.

    “Look, I’m running out of patience.” The dykhlun frowned. “Are we settling this the easy way or the hard way?”

    Without thinking, the young woman dashed to the right, throwing a dagger at the charcoal giant. The blade hit his belly, tearing his expensive suit, but clattered off his skin, harmlessly. Before she could go very far, though, another telekinetic blow hit her back, knocking her to the ground.

    The man looked down, his face twisted into an angry grimace. “Now you’ve pissed me off! You got any idea what this costs?” he screamed, pulling at his suit jacket. “It’s a custom-fitted Nandoladh!”

    Astal struggled up, dripping with filthy rainwater, an agonizing pain spreading across her back. “Oh, I’m sure that was nothing. You look like you can buy a whole store with what you make in a month.”

    “So you’ve started talking, huh?” he growled, stepping forward. “Then go ahead and tell me what you’re doing up here!”

    “Oh, nothing,” she said, wiping water off her face. “Just a routine job. You know.” She shrugged.

    He pointed a thick finger at her face. “Listen up, I’ve been pulled out of an important meeting in Chertan just because of you. I don’t step on this miserable little planet unless it’s absolutely necessary. So you’re returning what you stole to me right now, or–”

    “Too late,” she broke in. “I don’t have it anymore.”

    The thief’s arms were suddenly pushed toward her body. She felt a force pressing on her, crushing her, and then lifting her off the ground. She would have kicked if her legs hadn’t been pressed together by the same impulse. She was lifted into the air and brought closer to the giant, until her eyes were less than a hand’s length from his. “Do not toy with me,” he grumbled.

    “I… mean… it,” she said breathlessly, straining out her words. “It’s… gone.”

    Astal’s small backpack was rudely torn out from her back and ripped apart mid-air by an invisible force. Pieces of her jacket came apart and flew off in every direction. The man studied her at length with his burning eyes.

    “Where is it?” Rage was stamped across the face of the huge executive, who tightened his telekinetic vise on Astal, crushing her organs and breaking a few bones. A trickle of blood started coming out of her nose.

    Spitting out a pink foam of saliva and blood, she managed to squeeze two words out: “Don’t… know.” Her wry smile said that was probably true.

    The dykhlun flexed his telekinetic tentacle, tossing the thief toward the watchtower. She loudly crashed into the wall, falling limply to the ground. That’s bad, the transhuman thought. They probably teleported the brain away already. That’s what I’d do if I was on the other side. He looked up, gazing at the rainy skies of 2514 Bhadrapada VI, better known as Rancent’s World. I think I’m stuck here in this humdrum world. God forbid I come back without any information on where’s that data.

    With a sigh, he focused on the building’s main security office and opened a hyperspace fold, disappearing from the roof in a purple flash. They wouldn’t be of much help, but he had to start somewhere… and fast. If this knowledge fell into the wrong hands… he didn’t want to think about what that would bring.
    Last edited by SirKazum; 2015-02-04 at 09:25 AM.

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    PirateGuy

    Join Date
    Jun 2009
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    Brazil
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    Default Re: SirKazum's Wondrous and Exquisite Fiction Dispensary

    The Man from Lagash - Chapter 1

    A storm was raging under the sea. Clouds of dark sand lashed about under the dusky glow – even near noon, the crew had to bring lanterns to travel this deep – as stinging thermals, reeking faintly of sulphur, raced across the ocean floor. Precious little life ventured into the badlands of Lagash, and what few creatures were left after mining started – mostly slugs and starfish in this barren terrain – slunk into crevices for shelter.

    “Move!” – roared a distant voice, muffled by the current. “You’re not paid to dawdle!”

    From a fissure in the ground, which had been widened to about three yards across for the ore bowls to move in and out of what was known as Site Eleven, emerged a gaunt figure. Its rubbery, mottled-gray skin was covered by drab peasant’s garbs – a threaded greenish-brown shirt, a pair of loose leather trousers, and a thin kelpen scarf wrapped around the lower half of its face, topped by a pair of large, bloodshot, slitted eyes. No helmet covered this poor miner’s bald and spiny head. He held a short rod topped by a sphere glowing with greenish-amber light in one webbed hand, and removed the scarf with the other, revealing a pair of nostrils and a wide mouth lined with tiny triangular teeth, framed by an angular jaw festooned with thin ropy strands of flesh.

    As the foreman, clad in scaled skins and an iron helmet, swam down through the clouds, cutting his way across the streams with his wide and powerful webbed feet, he saw the workman and turned to face him. “What’s wrong with the lot of you?”, he bellowed. “It’s been almost a turn o’ the clock since I’ve seen anything come outta there!”

    “It’s something we hit, master,” the crewman shouted. “We’ve been trying to clean it up and... best you see for yourself, sir.”

    The crewmaster dove into the aperture. “It ain’t gold that you dug up, is it? You worms think you gonna sneak gold under my chin, you got something else coming!” He weaved through the tunnels, guided more by the faint rumble of discussion coming from below than by the trail marked by the lanterns stuck to the cave wall.

    “...should just bury it right back and leave it well alone,” a voice floated up. “You’re a dolt,” said another, “we’ll go home a rich bunch o’ bastards, mark my words!” A third cut in: “Nah, he’s right, smells like trouble to...”

    “What are you barnacles blabbing about like a gaggle of old wives?” – the foreman burst into the discussion. The miners were in a chamber along the newest shaft, circled around a nook in a wall, their tools fallen to the ground far below. The lanterns pressed together close to their object of attention looked like a shimmering sun on a rippling surface.

    “We was about to call you down here, master, just wanted to make sure–” one of the workers started, before his boss shoved him aside and pushed his way into the circle. “What you got here, worms?” – the foreman asked.

    Their response was just to swim away, letting him have a clear view of the niche. The wall had a hole about four feet across, and embedded a foot or so into the rock was a smooth metal surface. It was inlaid with perfectly straight lines, and a foot-wide depressed metal square was set above a series of intricate etched patterns.

    “We put that cover right back on, master,” a crewman said almost pleadingly. “It was giving us the willies. I say we leave it well alone and pretend nobody saw nothing.”

    “Silence!” The foreman struggled with the square lid. He could feel it coming loose, but it had no handholds. “Gimme something to pry it out!” He swam down to the ground, grumbling, to pick up a wedge as his crew floated about mouthing half-formed excuses.

    He finally tore out the thick metal cover. As it clattered down, he knocked into the smooth, hard surface under it. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “a plate under a plate. This some worm’s idea of a joke?”

    “Master...” One of the miners spoke in a thin voice. “Look again. Into the plate.”

    “What do you mean, into the...” He raised his lantern, and caught a glimpse of it. The light seeped into the hard surface, broken up, as if into a crystal, only clearer... and this material had something set deep into it.

    The foreman bolted away reflexively, mouth agape. He looked around at his underlings, who silently nodded. He swam back and pressed both his face and his lantern into the crystal. The shape inside was unmistakable. He had seen it before, in carvings and statues – there was a large one, supposedly life-sized, in the children’s center he was raised in. This one was a thin, slumped figure, much different from the triumphant pose he recalled from memory... but there was no doubt that it was one of them. One of the ancients.

    A human.

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    PirateGuy

    Join Date
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    Default Re: SirKazum's Wondrous and Exquisite Fiction Dispensary

    (Sorry for the long delay... should be back on track now! This is the last of the 3 serials I'd like to work on here for now. Feel free to comment!)

    Un-Heroes (working title) - Chapter 1

    “Remind me once again why we’re doing this,” the young woman said, peering over the crate. Her back was aching from all that ducking, her nose screamed at the filth covering the cave’s floor and walls, and her stomach wasn’t too happy about her situation either.

    “I told you, Neelie!” The man crouching beside her was much more genial about their whole predicament; in fact, he completely failed to notice his companion’s discomfort. “It’s for the Spirit of the Forest! This is a very important mission.”

    “Yeah, right,” Neelie snorted, “I don’t buy it. What sort of holy mission is that? Getting ten rats? What’s an ancestral spirit gonna do with those?”

    “It’s… a test of faith.” The lad looked annoyed. He brushed the creeping doubt away from his mind, more out of stubbornness than any sort of piety. “It’s very spiritual. You wouldn’t understand it.”

    “Oh, I understand practical jokes just fine, and I know one when…” Her attention was drawn to a flurry of movement coming from the darkness in the corner of the abandoned cellar. “Jarrod, look! It’s there!”

    Jarrod leapt forward, sword in hand, his large armored body clumsily vaulting over the crates and crashing into a few decrepit shelves on the wall. Neelie raised the lantern, shaking her silver-haired head at her companion’s lack of grace, as he slashed wildly into the rat’s general direction.

    “Look, Neelie, I got it!” He grabbed the carcass by its tail and swung the mangled clump of fur and guts toward the girl.

    “Yeah, some of it anyway,” she winced. “Keep that thing away from me, alright?”

    “Ex-cuse me, princess,” the warrior mocked. He went back into their hiding place and tossed the rat into a sack. “There ya go, safe and sound.” He checked the contents of the bag. “Six more to go… c’mon, I think we can get this done before dinner!”

    “Dinner? Eugh… how can you even think about that now?” She got up, adjusting her leather armor and shortsword. “Anyway, let’s move on. That racket of yours probably sent the rest of the critters in here packing. Let me handle the next bunch, okay?”

    The young man sheathed his sword with a smile. “Glad to see you’re coming around to it!” He picked his wooden shield back up, slid his arm into its straps, and grabbed the sack with his other hand. “It’s gonna be fun, you’ll see!”

    “Oh, it’s a barrel of laughs,” the half-elven girl led the way back up. “Never had this much fun since the last time I had a tooth pulled.”

    The two made their way back to the surface, by an abandoned house. Having already explored it, they took to the derelict streets and started canvassing the rest of the ruins.

    “You know it breaks my heart to say something like that, since you’re such a good guy,” Neelie said as they walked, “but you’re just too goddamn gullible. I mean, Spirit of the Forest? Come on.”

    “Hey, that’s unfair!” Jarrod protested. “I know how that sounds, but you haven’t seen it. It’s just so… magical. The trees, they spoke to me! That’s not something you see every day.”

    “Yeah, sure…while we’re at it, I’ve got a castle in the clouds that I’d love to sell you at a couple hundred gold.”

    “Now you’re just being mean,” he frowned. “I’m not that kind of rube, you know.”

    “Oh, c’mon, for a palace this magnificent?” She turned toward him, a mock pleading expression on her face. “It’s so cheap, you could say it’s a steal!”

    “Shut up!”

    “It’s got crystal windows, golden doors, silver walls, and a chamber pot made out of–”

    “Hush!” He raised his hand. “Did you hear that?”

    She stopped for a moment, looking around. “There! Behind that wall!” she pointed. Jarrod started toward it, but she held him. “I said I got this one!”

    She readied her crossbow, nocking a quarrel into it, and started creeping toward a collapsed portion of the wall. The man stood where he was, watching nervously. As Neelie reached the wall, she slowly leaned around its edge, crossbow first, looking into the overgrown lot behind it… and suddenly ran away, screaming in terror.

    The warrior chuckled. “It’s just a mouse! What’s it with ladies and rats?” He started toward the aperture, shaking his head.

    “No!” Neelie was panicked. “It’s no rat, it’s… it’s… a monster! This place is haunted! Get away from there, Jarrod!”

    “Yeah, sure,” he laughed. “Like I’m gonna fall for that.” He stepped into the vacant lot at once and froze for a moment. There was a skeleton leaning against the wall, dressed in purple robes and with a wide-brimmed, pointy purple hat.

    “Oh, that?” he said, after a moment. “Don’t worry, it’s just some dead guy. Some joker had the bright idea to put some clothes on it and prop it up on something, that’s all. Here…” he drew his sword, and tentatively reached for the skeleton with its tip.

    Neelie looked on, apprehensively. The boy gave her a quick smile, then reached a bit further, coming within a couple inches of the body… and, when he thrusted his sword, the skeleton leapt back. “Raaargh”, it roared, with a rasping voice.

    “Aaah!” Jarrod cried out, running toward Neelie. “It’s alive!”

    “I told you!” She hit him. “It’s some sort of undead!”

    “Who’s there?” a booming voice called from an alley.

    The pair turned toward it, startled. “We… we’re just passing through!” Jarrod blurted out. “Who’s there?”

    From a dark recess, a large, ornate hammer emerged, floating in mid-air. “What are you doing here?” came the resounding voice again, disembodied, from the weapon’s direction.

    Aaaaaah! A ghost!” they both screamed. They scrambled away from the two monstrosities, running blindly across the ruined city until they reached its outskirts, and then fleeing into the forest beyond until the town went out of their sight, and let themselves crash into the ground, exhausted.

    “Did… did you see that?” Neelie was breathless. “The hammer? That’s a ghost, if I ever saw one!”

    “Of course I did!” the man said, also panting. “Not the sort of thing I’d ever forget. And that skeleton… I was lucky to get away as quickly as I did, ‘cause I swear it was about to cast some spell! A nasty one, by the look of it!”

    “Do you think it was… y’know, one of those undead wizards? A lich?”

    The word sent chills down the warrior’s spine. He hadn’t heard much about those beings, but what little he had was quite terrifying. “I hope to the gods it wasn’t, but then again… sure did look like one, didn’t it? I mean, an undead mage… and that thing about freezing you dead from fright… you know me, Neelie, I’m far from being a scaredy-cat, but I swear I could feel my blood already going cold in my veins!”

    “Yeah, well, you’re too brave for your own good, I’ll give you that,” the girl replied. “If anything, you’d be too dumb to run away if a dragon the size of a mountain came at you.”

    Hey!” he protested.

    “So yeah, for you to scream like a little girl, I guess that means it was pretty serious,” she continued. “Between that, its looks, and the spell, I’d say it’s a lich. With a ghost bringing up the rear, it’s a wonder we got away.”

    Jarrod’s eyes opened wide with realization. “Neelie… we have to go back!”

    “Aaand here’s that too-dumb-to-survive thing again.” She rolled her eyes. “Haven’t you been paying any attention? Lich? Ghost? Hello? Do you wanna die? Or worse, turn into some… zombie, serving those monsters’ dark biddings?”

    “No, Neelie, listen to me!” He was excited. “This is what we were put here to do! It’s our fate!”

    “Oh no, don’t you even start,” she replied. “Who do you think we are? We’re not great heroes of legend, Jarrod, we’re just some… kids!”

    “All great legends start somewhere!” He got up and started pacing around. “Don’t you see it? Why did you think the Spirit of the Forest sent us in there? It’s our sacred mission!”

    “Okay, okay, let’s stop it right there,” Neelie got up as well. “I was willing to go along with that nonsense when it was nothing more than a waste of time, but if you’re gonna put yourself in mortal danger over this ‘Great Forest Spirit’ hogwash, lemme just nip it in the bud right now.” She stepped up to him, and, inches away from his face, said: “There. Is. No. Forest. SPIRIT!

    The warrior just shook his head, smiling. “I knew you’d say that, so, you know what? I’m gonna show you. Let me take you right to the sacred grove, so you can see for yourself.”

    The lady shrugged. “Well, that sure as hell beats going back into that damn haunted place. Okay, if that’s what it takes, let’s go see this spirit of yours. Should be good for a laugh. Lead the way, O woodsy prophet!”

    The pair made their way across the forest, led by Jarrod’s admittedly poor woodsmanship, who took the better part of an hour to find the clearing by the side of the road where he first had his mystical encounter. By the time they reached it, the sun was hanging low in the west, drenching the woods in complex shadows. A light-brown owl dashed across the sky above them, hooting tremulously, and dove into the treetops by the side of the glade.

    “This is it,” the boy said, almost whispering. “The sacred grove. You can feel the spiritual energy.”

    “If by that you mean ‘lots of bugs’, yeah, I feel it too,” Neelie quipped. “Let’s get on with it, it’s getting dark.”

    Jarrod slowly stepped toward the middle of the clearing, opening his arms wide. “O, great spirit of the forest, I have returned!”

    The summons was met with utter silence, broken after several tense moments with a short hoot from the owl. The half-elf rolled her eyes.

    “Great Spirit of the Forest!” the young man insisted. “It is I, your humble servant, returned from the quest you have… hath given me!”

    Silence again. The owl hooted once more, emphatically.

    Neelie started toward the road. “Okay, let’s–”

    Shhh!” Jarrod waved at her, nervously. “Harrumph. Uh… O, great and ancient spirit of these woods, who hath sent me on a sacred quest, I have finally returned to your fold and…”

    The owl started frantically hooting and pecking at the branch it was perched on. The tree shook, sending the bird tumbling away. It beat its wings to recover its bearings, and turned to the middle of the glade, flying toward the warrior and landing in front of him.

    “Sorry ‘bout that tree,” the bird spoke with a creaky voice. “It’s a bit, uh… forgetful, as forest spirits go.”

    Jarrod looked at it in puzzlement, but Neelie was positively shocked. “What the… what in the blazing fires of hell is going on here?!” she exclaimed.

    “Ey there, lady, sorry for not properly introducin’ myself,” the owl turned toward her. “I’m the, ah, great avatar of the bird gods in this ‘ere forest. Speakin’ on the behalf of some forest spirit right behind me who jus’ forgot its role in our noble warrior’s quest!”

    “Ah, right,” a deep voice came from the woods. “Yes, indeed, I am the Spirit of the Forest, and I salute you on the success of your demand, fair… uh…”

    “Jarrod,” he said. He seemed to be taking the whole scene much more nonchalantly than his partner, who just stood with her mouth agape. “And indeed, I have returned! Although I am sad to say the quest was not, uh, a complete success…”

    The owl turned its head toward him. “You mean you haven’ found any rats? Seriously?”

    “Oh, no, I have,” he rushed to say, fumbling through his gear for the sack. “It’s just… something came up, so I didn’t have time to catch all ten of ‘em…” He opened the bag, spilling its gory contents in the ground. The bird pounced on them, excitedly gobbling up one of the rats, while the girl turned away, retching.

    “Oh, it seems you’ve done just fine,” the voice from the trees said. “Look at ‘im. Doubt he’ll mind, eh?”

    “Well, ten rats sure beats four of ‘em,” the bird said between bites, “but I ain’t complaining.”

    “So… is this it?” The young man seemed a bit disappointed.

    “Yes,” the forest voice said. “You have attained great success, O warrior! Now you can go on your way!”

    “No… words of enlightenment?” he asked.

    “Uh… remember to eat your vegetables!” the voice responded. The owl stopped for a moment to swivel its head back, frowning. “And consider yourself blessed!”

    “Thank… you.” Jarrod was despondent. “I guess I’ll, uh, get going with my journey then?”

    “Hooold on right there,” Neelie butted in. “This ain’t right!”

    “C’mon, Neelie, you heard it,” the man said softly. “Let’s not disturb the spirits any further.”

    “Yes,” the voice of the trees said, “let us spirits enjoy a lil’ rest here, will ya?”

    “First off,” she pointed a finger at the voice, “if you guys are forest spirits, I’m the friggin’ Queen of Moonrise.”

    “Vewy pweaffed to make your acquaintanfe”, the owl said over a mouthful of rodent, a rat’s tail jutting out of its beak, with a deep mock curtsy.

    “She’s just kidding,” Jarrod said with an uneasy smile, “she’s not really…”

    “Yeah, we’re not daft, thanks,” the deep voice said. “Alright, girl, you got us fair ‘n square. We’re no ancient spirits of any sort. Whoopsie-daisies. Ya happy now?”

    “Like hell I am!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know… what you two are, but you don’t have the right to send my good friend here to his certain death just so you–”

    “Hey, hey, what’s that all about?” the owl piped up. “I mean, I’m sorry ‘bout this whole thing, what with makin’ this boy here believe this forest spirits nonsense. My idea, I confess.” It opened its wings in a shrug. “Jus’ figured, all those young would-be heroes runnin’ around, lookin’ for some quest, some mission, some greater purpose to accomplish… thought I’d give ‘em what they want, and get a nice hearty meal out o’ the deal. With my good ol’ friend back there doin’ the theatrics, it was jus’ a matter of waitin’ for the right sort of rube to come along. ‘E gets ‘is exercise, I get my rats, everybody wins… right?”

    “So that’s what it was,” the warrior said, his face contorted by disgust. “Just some con. Pulling the ol’ wool over some poor sap’s eyes, eh?”

    “No need to get this crass,” the forest voice said. “Just some fun between friends. It’s harmless.”

    Harmless?!” the girl was incredulous. “How can you say that? With those… things there in those ruins you sent him to?”

    “Whoa, wait, what things?” the bird asked. “I thought it was jus’ rats an’ bugs in there. What in the pits are you talkin’ about?”

    “Why, all those undead, of course!” she said. “The ghost and that uh, skeleton thing, the lich!”

    “That’s news to us,” the voice said. A birch tree started moving in the patch of forest the sounds came from – first uprooting itself, and then ambling along on its roots and trunk, pushing aside the other trees with its branches, like a large man shouldering his way through a crowd. It walked out into the clearing until it stopped in front of the human and elf, and beside the owl. “What can you tell us about those undead?” the tree spoke, that deep voice emanating from it, with no mouth to be seen.

    “Wow… look at that, Neelie!” Jarrod’s disappointment was nearly gone, replaced by his amazement at the scene. “Betcha weren’t expecting a tree to just walk up to us and talk when you came over here with me today, huh?”

    “Yeah… by the way,” she eyed the tree with bewilderment, “before we go on with the weirdest conversation I’ve had my whole life – and I’ve been places – I’d really like to know just what in the gods’ name you guys are.”

    “Of course, pardon us,” the owl said, flying up to one of the tree’s lower branches so it could be at eye level with the pair. “My name’s Kerwick. I’m, y’know… an owl. A tawny owl, to be specific.”

    “And I’m Bertrand,” the tree said, bending its trunk in a slight bow. “A birch tree. Sylvan birch, to be specific as well. You’re… Jarrath, right?” he pointed a branch at the warrior.”

    “Jarrod. A, uh, human. And this is my friend Neelie, a half-elf.”

    “Other half’s human. Pleased to meet you,” she said, uneasily shaking a branch that the tree extended toward her. “Not that it really explains much, mind… I’ve seen lots of trees and birds in my day, and none of them ever said a word. Well, there was this parrot once, but, y’know… not the same thing.”

    “Yeah, I don’t believe they do,” Kerwick said. “Not that I haven’t tried chattin’ up some other tawnies, y’know, come matin’ season.” He bobbed his head up and down suggestively. “They’re like, ‘tu-whit’ and I’m like, ‘hey lil’ chick, what’s goin’ on’ and they’re all like, ‘tu-whoop’, and just fly off with some big dumb lunk that don’t even know ‘is name. I mean, I can do a nice trilled squawk, a gu gur-ruuh that drives ‘em nuts for a piece of ol’ Kerwick, but some days I just wanna get to know them, you got me? Make some small talk on the news, the weather, favorite rodent, y’know, that sort o’ thing. But ain’t none o’ them that can talk back.”

    “Can’t say I’ve met any other talking trees either,” Bertrand added, “not that it bothers me. I’m fine with some sunshine, a light rain, and a nice patch of rich, dark earth. Point is, that’s just the way we are. You don’t like it, feel free to move to another neck o’ the woods.”

    “Oh, no, not at all,” the human said. “It’s amazing, really. We’re honored to get to know people… well, beings such as yourselves, right, Neelie?”

    “Yeah, for sure,” she added, “not that it would do a lot of good to tell the folks back home about this. ‘Sounds like some good booze you’ve got’, they’d say, most likely.”

    “Anyway, enough with the chit-chat,” Kerwick interrupted. “You guys were saying something about some undead?”

    “Not much, in fact,” the girl replied. “We ran into a creepy skeleton wizard and what sounds like a ghost back there, but scrammed faster than you can blink, so it’s not like we exactly gathered a treasure trove of information about them. Why are you so interested in those things anyway?”

    The birch and owl looked at each other for a moment. “Well, y’see…” Bertrand started, “there’s someone we’re looking for. Someone sorta close to us, who we haven’t heard news from in a while.”

    “And ‘e got mixed up real bad wit’ some necromancers back in the day,” Kerwick continued, “so we figured a hotspot o’ undead in the area is as good a lead to follow up on as any. And, what the hell, it’s not like we’re exactly busy right now.”

    “So you wanna investigate?” Jarrod’s excitement was back in full swing. “Count us in! We’re in, aren’t we, Nee?”

    “Yeah, no,” the half-elf said. “If those things are what we think they are, sounds way too dangerous.”

    “Er…” The tree’s branches shifted awkwardly. “Thing is… I don’t really think whatever it is you found back there is really as powerful as all that.”

    “How do you figure?” the boy asked.

    “Well… you’re still alive, aren’t you?” It waved its branches in a shrug. “You’re not exactly epic saga material right there.”

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    PirateGuy

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    The Heplion Contingency - Chapter 2

    Nimban woke up into total darkness. What was that? – it asked itself. It had been unconscious for a while, no way to know how long. How could something like that happen?

    The last image recorded in its memory came to the fore: after its safe’s sudden opening, it had a light shone on it, and behind that, a young human woman. Nimban had barely had time to register this intruder before she activated a psionic plate. A psychic nullifier, to be sure – only that should be capable of disabling its artificial mind.

    It extended its senses outward. Sight was useless there, of course, but a psionic brain such as Nimban had other resources to draw upon. Sonar input revealed it was inside a much thinner container than its usual safe, which was hardly surprising; it had obviously been stolen. It didn’t seem to be moving. Its telepathic probe wasn’t registering anyone nearby. It was deciding whether to activate its uplink to the Conglomerate database and consult it about the present situation, when it detected a mind approaching.

    Concentrating on the new arrival, the artificial brain felt around in its thoughts. That was a fairly complex mind, sentient, but still unprotected. He (or she) was preoccupied with fleeing from someone, but not very urgently; his pursuers shouldn’t be close by. At the edges of his consciousness, there was also a desire to acquire something that could be sold or bartered for some kind of food and shelter.

    Hey! Look here! Nimban mentalized, sending these thoughts to the approaching stranger. There’s something really interesting for you here!

    The being out there got curious. Did I hear something?, he wondered. It’s like I heard a voice in my head, calling me...

    That’s right! Nimban answered. Go on and look around! There’s something very valuable here. You could make a lot of money.

    Ah, what the hell, the stranger thought. I’ve got nothing else to do anyway. Where’s this thing?

    I’m not sure, the brain sent back. You’ll have to search.

    After several minutes of searching – during which Nimban heard several objects being moved and thrown around – the container was finally opened. On the outside, there was a dark alley, filled with junk, drenched by recent rain, the last of which was still coming down lightly. The creature whose mind it had reached out to was humanoid, with a gaunt body and thin limbs. The hands pulling the hidey-hole’s wooden lid away had three thick digits each, and the face leaning in had two large, round eyes with slitted pupils, a tiny nose and mouth, and a pair of small antennae on top.

    “Yrrzk klyk dikhty”, the stranger said in an unfamiliar tongue.

    Interesting, Nimban thought to itself. If I’m not mistaken, that’s one of Bhadrapada VI’s races. At least I’m not off-planet.

    “I’m sorry, I cannot speak your language,” the psionic brain said out loud, in the common tongue. “Do you speak common?”

    The alien pulled it out of its hiding place, bringing it under the soft light of a distant lamp-post. “Of course I do,” he answered. “Well, look at that... seems I wasn’t going crazy after all.” He turned the strange object over in its hands, examining it. “Yeah, very pretty... worth some nice scratch just for the jewelry. And it talks, to boot... by the way, what the hell are you?”

    “First of all, please allow me to apologize for so rudely intruding upon your evening,” the device said, its green light pulsing with every word. “I’m an eighth-generation Lemnis series artificial brain, designed to aid my owners in various functions involving intellect and knowledge. I have been nicknamed Nimban, so you may call me that. And you would be...?”

    “Uh... Dykstri,” the man said. “I’m just some guy. A gryzzik, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    “I was simply wondering about your name, but thanks for the information. I’ve never had much contact with people outside the office where I was installed, so I have so far never had the pleasure of encountering a member of your species. By the way, Dykstri... could you please tell me where we are? This looks nothing like my office!” Nimban’s artificial voice took on a lightly jocular tone.

    The gryzzik stared at the jewel, dumbfounded. He could hardly believe he was talking to this gizmo – worse, he was answering its questions, as if he had any reason to indulge the curiosity of some bauble. However, he somehow couldn’t help doing so. Words flowed out of his mouth, almost against his will.

    “We’re in Arabar Downs,” Dykstri answered. “In Harmony. By the harbor.”

    “Oh, splendid,” Nimban said. “I haven’t gone very far then. Good to know. And, just to be sure... this is still the night between the 13th and 14th, right?”

    “Uh... yeah. Little over two. Why?”

    Just a matter of minutes, then, the artificial intelligence pondered. I must have been teleported. This looks like a retrieval spot... I wonder when will the thief’s associates come pick me up. As well as who are they, come to think of it.

    “No reason,” it replied simply. “So... I need to be returned. I don’t even know how did I wind up here. Could you give me a hand? I’m sure my owners will reward you handsomely for that.”

    The gryzzik’s large eyes narrowed. “Yeah... I suppose so. Sounds like a good idea. Where are we going then?”

    “Thank you for your cooperation!” Nimban’s tone was genial. “Would you please drop me off at Karnati’s local headquarters, at Umrad Hill? Kemish Avenue, 3112.”

    “Sure, sure... I’m on it. Going there now.” The man put the artifact in his coat pocket and started walking. Or I could just drop it off at the nearest pawn shop, he pondered. Lot less risky that way. Too much exposure, dealing with a big corporation. They’ll ask questions.

    Still listening to the half-insectoid’s thoughts, Nimban was considering whether to allow itself to be pawned off – and maybe find someone more reliable to bring it home – when its sonar picked up another creature nearby, tailing their movements from about a dozen paces away. It was too far away for telepathic monitoring, however, and the coat blocked visuals. Friend or foe? the device wondered, and decided it couldn’t afford to take chances.

    “Hey, Dykstri?” it said. “It’s rather late, and I’m sure my company is quite preoccupied with my absence. Could we please hurry along to Kemish Avenue?”

    “Told you, I’m getting there,” the man said, although he was headed in a different direction. Yovan’s shop is half an hour away, he thought. I just have to stand this pain-in-the-ass gadget this long and I’m getting rid of it for good.

    No, you’re not, Nimban replied telepathically. A chill ran down Dykstri’s spine. “I must insist,” it added vocally. “Please return to the correct path and speed up your pace.”

    “Why... you just can’t...” The humanoid felt exposed, vulnerable, and a little betrayed.

    “I can, and I will.” The brain’s voice was steady and forceful. “If you will not cooperate in good faith, I’m afraid I will have to take measures to ensure your compliance.”

    The gryzzik’s legs stiffened and started moving of their own accord. He tried to control them, but the presence in his brain was just too heavy. It seemed to buzz with raw power, numbing his will, obscuring his personality, until it almost seemed like he had always intended to do what the artifact willed him to in the first place. His head pounding from the struggle, he turned into a side street and started walking faster.

    “Okay, I’ll do it,” Dykstri whispered. “I’ll do what you want. I just don’t want anyone asking questions when I get there.”

    “I’ll put in a good word,” Nimban replied softly, “but I can’t make any guarantees. They have their protocols.”

    “What’s the point?” he protested. “They should just be happy to get their stuff back! Maybe if I just toss you at their door and...”

    “You know, you’re not exactly helping your case here. Need I remind you that you don’t quite hold the most favorable position in this debate?”

    “Alright, alright, I’ll play along!” The half-insectoid sighed. Let’s just hope they haven’t brought in the cops yet, he thought. “Can you let go of me now?”

    “Do you promise to keep walking to Karnati as quickly as possible if I do?”

    “I promise, I promise! Just don’t do this... thing again!”

    Nimban released its control over the humanoid’s mind. He stopped for a bit to breathe a sigh of relief, and feeling the presence starting to encroach on the edges of his consciousness again, bolted off toward Umrad Hill. “I’m going, alright?” he said, breathlessly. “Chill out, and just leave me alone.”

    They moved silently across the city, feet quickly crashing over the last dregs of the night’s rain, and ducked into a dark alley to short-cut a wide commercial block along Novelke Avenue. About halfway along the corridor, from one of the garbage piles lining its walls, a man-sized figure pounced at the running man, knocking him out cold before Nimban had a chance to react to the sudden movement.

    The assailant patted the gryzzik’s limp body, and finding the bump in his pocket, pulled the device out. The moonlight filtering down from the piles of junk above them barely touched the scene, but Nimban’s night-vision caught her just fine. Her Emishan features – tan skin, curled red hair, epicanthic-fold eyes – were familiar.

    It seemed that thief had found it after all.

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    PirateGuy

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    The Man from Lagash - Chapter 2

    The man awoke into an amber haze. He opened his dark eyes slowly, straining to focus them, finding nothing but a blur. He moved a brown-skinned hand jerkily, as if rusted, in front of his face, and found out his eyes worked after all. He struggled to find his bearings, to no avail. There seemed to be nothing but a soft, shimmering glow around him.

    Am I dead? The thought suddenly formed inside his head. What happened to me? Where was I before I got here? He had trouble remembering. He closed his eyes, willing the knowledge into his consciousness. There were people moving around him, vague, as if through a mist. They appeared to be doing some procedure to him. Aliens? Was I abducted? The idea popped up unbidden, and he quickly brushed it away, amused. No, his memory seemed to be of something he consented to, though he couldn’t remember exactly what. On the other hand, it seemed to have no connection to his current situation, so he focused on that instead.

    He started to move his limbs around. They ached when he did so, a good ache, as if they hadn’t been moved in a long time. He could feel his tendons working under his skin as he flexed his arms and legs. Guess I’m not dead after all, he thought. His arms felt heavy though – he reasoned they were just stiff, but something wasn’t quite right about them. Something that had to do with his face as well, which felt bloated. Pulling his hand up to his cheek, he realized what was wrong – he was hanging face-down.

    A jolt of panic sent a surge of energy through his body. He became suddenly aware of restraints on his chest, belly and thighs. He wasn’t certain about before, but now felt like an abduction of some sort. He started struggling against his bonds, which seemed to be some sort of black rope, and soon stopped. Where am I going to fall down to from here? Looking down, he realized the shimmering haze was water. Distorted shapes started to resolve in it – tunnels, spheres set on the wall, which were giving off that amber glow, statues of undecipherable shape, and a large round apparatus of some sort directly under him, inlaid with complex concentric designs.

    The man stretched down his arm and managed to touch the water with his fingertips. It was cold. He brought his fingers into his mouth, and tasted salt. They got me to some maritime base, he thought. He looked up and realized he was hanging from some sort of stonework dome. The bricks were some unfamiliar sort of brown stone, and seemed to fuse into one another. He was starting to ponder about how this must be some place off the coast when movement down into the water caught his eye.

    “Hey!” – he yelled. Whatever was down there was already gone into one of the tunnels. He managed only to catch a quick glimpse of if – some pale, fluid form, swimming away rapidly. It seemed to be some sort of aquatic animal – some large fish, or maybe a squid. Something with limbs. “Come back here!” – he cried out, only a moment later realizing the futility of talking into water.

    Fully alert now, he once again started struggling against the ropes, this time taking care to not fall off from them. He turned himself around, pulling his body up and sitting on the ropes as on a swing. He wasn’t really tied up, he realized, noticing for the first time he was naked. Thinking about who captured him, or why, led the man to wondering who he was. That memory seemed hazy and distant as well. I’m rich, he remembered. That could be it. I’m some sort of big figure. I’m…

    He felt a sudden sense of dread. The fact just dawned on him that he had forgotten who he was, where he was, what he did. His name. Amnesia, he thought, but that didn’t seem quite right. After all, he could feel his memories buried just under the surface. He just had to dig a little more. I own a company, he realized, relief gradually seeping into his mind. I meet with people. I close deals. I make things. I… design things. It all seemed to make sense now, like a puzzle whose pieces were just starting to fit together. I’m popular. People talk about me. I see my face on the news. The image came to him – a thin, smiling face, clean-shaven, brown-skinned, with wild and curled black hair. They love and hate me. They argue about me. They call me a genius, or a fraud. They call me many things. They…

    They call me Chan.

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