Bartholomew Takes the Stage

Drawing his rapier, Bartholomew flicked his whiskers in confidence. Rays of sun radiated from his orange fur. An image drew within his mind of how valiant he must look to the common eye. Building conviction, he swung his sword fiercely at the air. Demonstrating his martial prowess for others was always a favorite pass time for him. It was good to know people believed in his ability to defend them.

“And then, my good people, I made quick work of the bulldog that was determined to stand in my way! With a distracting slash and a strike from the flat of the blade-”

A quick flick of the wrist was all it took to show exactly what he had done. Though it was true the tale is exaggerated, the truth is often times much less glorious than the stories we base them on.

“... and my foe was out cold on the floor! I didn't even need to draw blood in order to triumph over this obstacle!”

The bustling crowd that had gathered into the small wooden amphitheater cheered in jubilation. Praises were exclaimed over the bustling noise of the passionate gathering.

“That my friends, is why we must strive to think of others as if they have just as much right to live as we. I found in my training that it is not terribly difficult to kill your opponent. It is vastly more difficult to effectively render them incapacitated so that-”

A squeaky young voice of a girl shouted above the now silent crowd.

“What's inka-pass-ee-tatered mean?”

Looking towards the crown in front of him, he saw the young one asking. Bartholomew also noticed that everyone gathered around him was a young one. Kittens, all of them. In the back was two male cats chatting and laughing. A Siamese and a black tabby.

Bartholomew didn't know what to do. His enamored crowd was nothing more than a group of youngsters who liked to hear stories. Was he simply babysitting for the local couples?

“What happened to the bulldog after? C'mon mister the bulldog was cool! We want more of the Bulldog!”

One youngster shouted above the group, inspiring the entire group of them to begin shouting and asking themselves the same thing. Bartholomew sheathed his sword, took a deep breath, and wondered how he got here. Perhaps this would be the last time he agreed to put on a show for his friend's catnip festival. Sitting on the edge of the stage, he put his paw under his chin, frowned, and muttered under his breath.
    
“Don't know... Don't care...”

Uncharted Territory Draft - Meeting The Crew

Kicking my feet up onto the titanium work bench, I leaned back in the comfiest roller chair I could find in the research wing. That was no small feat, mind you. I ran my fingers through the thick, long black hair I'd come to despise for it's impracticality. Always getting caught in the fibers of my lab coat. My bangs liked to dangle right in front of my eyes most of the time.  

I tried to focus my eyes past the video I pulled up on my Augmented Reality feed. The improvements to the UI faded the image out as I changed focus. Sure enough, despite having tried to keep it all behind my head, a few strands of hair had rested directly in front of my right eye. Hard to notice when I'm watching cat videos on an AR linked directly to my vision.  

Putting my feet down with a heavy thud, a tinge of red caught my eye. Peering out the window into the void of space, small bulbs of energy refracted on the windows surface. Red, two dimensional circles of energy danced across the window like laser lights at a rave.  

"Rig, report."  

A chime came through the loud speaker, indicating the AI was creating a response.  

"Report compiled. Is there a specific area you would like to inquire about Rey?"  

Her sultry voice always got me. She sounded like a woman with a past to hide. Not sure why they made her that way, but it was strange talking to an AI that sounded like it could carry out a full conversation.  

"What's with these red lights on the windows? Ley anomaly?"  

She didn't answer right away, which was strange. Didn't she already compile the full diagnostic report?  

"Scans indicate Ley activity is increased in this sector. It is not interfering with warp travel, however I have picked up a nearby beacon that indicated we are reaching the outer ring of Pangean explored territory."  

We're leaving Pangean space? Wow, Dokk is really throwing me out there. Cause, you know, losing my family and all my friends wasn't enough. As the red lights slowly danced on the window I couldn't help but think about what's happened. Thoughts of the COM center back on station six. Li and I had taken a trip there one time, just to see how they all differed.  

It certainly was different from the gardens we had at station three. Six was notorious for being... eccentric. Art was a mainstay of their culture, so when it came to decorating their spaces they went all out. They had hung a model replica of the first warp capable Ley-Cruiser, The Event Horizon. It was actually really cool how it floated in the air near the glass dome that covered the COM center.  

"Rey? Are there any further inquiries?"  

I spaced again. Go figure. I tend to do that a lot.  

"No Rig, just let me know if there's any trouble with systems."  

An icon appeared in my vision. A new document had been sent to my AR.  

"Attached is a full report of areas that require work. Main systems are running at full capacity. Can I be of any further assistance Rey?"  

Leaning forward in the roller chair, I rolled it up to the desk terminal. It was easier to open messages with a real screen in front of me. The report she sent me was filled with minor repairs to random systems. Most of it could be taken care of with a simple tweak to Rig's self-repair protocols.  

"No, that'll do for now Rig. Thank you."  

The familiar chime through the loudspeaker told me her subroutines took her to managing the ship again. As I sifted through the report, I couldn't help but think how strange it was to have an AI as my only interaction. This ship was evacuated and all that was left was her. Seems kind of a waste to leave all of this tied up in dry dock.  

Major repairs needed on the security deck's training room. Holographic projectors lost integration to the host crystal. Red Light district lost connection to the COM grid. That's strange... Red light district? Looking out the window into space, the red lights continued to shift across the glass. Shapes of differing sizes and types, slowly crawling across the grid-like panes like amoebas.  

Ley-Lines certainly caused some strange phenomenon. I wonder if they've done any proper research on it. Guess that's more reading for me to pick up on later. Now it's time for me to find something else to occupy my time. I can't spend all day learning how to reconfigure warp coils for a crystal engine. Not that I'm really able to follow much of it anyway.  

I stretched my arms and arched my back, letting my hair fall behind me. The ceiling was plain. White steel. The smell of polished metal and somehow grease had been a friend for a while. That's basically what Yuri smelled like every day. Greased up riding his platform around. I remember one time I had...  

Yuri isn't here. I know this. It's been months since all of that happened. Yet I can't get what happened out of my head. They're all just gone. I know now it doesn't do me much good to dwell on it. Dokk had made it clear that life wasn't going to be easy moving forward.  

Still... Being out here, alone. It takes it's toll on a girl. I suppose I should find something to distract myself... I'm told working out is a good distraction. Pulling up a list of civilian utilities was all I needed. There were facilities for just about every kind of passion on this ship. Even if there wasn't, it's possible they just used holo-rooms to facilitate whatever they didn't have.  

Sure enough, near the Recreational district was the health facilities. Oh hello there, what's this? There is a wing that says it's locked. Security Personnel Training Facility. An entire training facility for security? What does it have that the civilian facility doesn't? Nothing I would need I imagine. No matter, it's simply a twenty minute walk from the research wing.  

Would be faster if Rig would unlock use of the security carts. Although it's not like I have anything but time right now. Willing my legs to take on my weight again, they did so with little protest. Hopefully soon they'll be protesting loud enough to make me forget what I lost.  

#####  

A heavy warm mist lingered in the locker room where I decided to take a shower. The smell of eucalyptus reminded me of Li's gardens. Every noise made a lonely echo in the room lined with tile. My locker shutting as I threw my lab coat back on over my leggings and tank top. The COM station near the exit beeped with confirmation of a bottle of water I requested. It made the whole room sound so empty.  

Loudspeakers turned on and a gentlemanly voice began reading an automated message.  

"Please remember to check in at the counter before using the facilities. Lintnell enterprises is happy to accommodate every need. Help us to help you. If you have-"  

I've already heard this spiel. Opening the door from the locker room, I exited into the reception area proper. It opened up into a three story room lined with digital screens that flashed between motivational posters and upcoming class schedules. I don't know who honestly becomes motivated simply by a lion roaring and a cheesy You can do it! kind of line.  

You know what always motivates me? Queso dip. Maybe put a steak on there with the line Now it's just getting your protein in. Yeah. Well, I suppose if I get bored later I can make my own motivational posters.  

"Do you require direction, ma'am?"  

To my left was the reception counter. A well toned guy with short blond hair stood behind the counter looking cheery at me. He seemed familiar in a way. How, I couldn't be sure. I had to remind myself he was just an AI used to automate questions about the gym area.  

"No, I know where I'm going. Thank you."  

His smile faded slightly as he nodded and looked down at the terminal in front of him. Easy enough response I guess. Opening my bottle of water, I took a drink and began to walk out past the small trees that were planted near either side of the automatic door. Cool air blasted in as it opened up and the pressures evened out. Directly outside the door was visible space through the glass windows.  

Red circles danced across a much bigger canvas. Streaks of light passed by beyond the red with black filling the rest of space. Ley-anomalys varied, I know that. But this is something strange I've never seen before. It doesn't seem to be hurting anything. I stood for a moment and realized my legs were definitely screaming at me. Wherever I was going to go, I should head there quickly.  

Stretching my right leg, I rubbed the back part of my thigh where it was feeling sore. Running for an hour straight will do that I suppose. The corridor smelled like coffee and pastries. What in space is creating that heavenly smell? I thought it would be good to pull up a map on my AR to see what information I could find. Sure enough  

Nearby was a small cafe. They're just starting to open too it looks like. Only 6 am? It looks like I picked a good time to come to the gym. I guess I haven't been on much of a schedule. Just kinda when I get tired, which isn't often. Ok, this cafe is about a kilometer towards aft from here. Not bad.  

Strawberry overwhelmed my sense of smell. Screens flickered with advertisements on the walls. One caught my eye in particular, and that was for self-defense classes in the security wing. A moving ad of the guy from the gym counter, but wearing full tactical gear and displaying his knowledge in random b-roll fashion. At one point there was even the patented throw your attacker over your shoulder defense. Classic.  

I swear that guy looks familiar. This is gonna bother me until I figure it out. Before I knew it I had reached the tiny cafe. Jackie's Nook. How adorable. I will judge thee only upon the availability of real pumpkin spice o' robot cafe. It was a strange dynamic sometimes living with COM stations.  

You could pre-program a world famous dish into it, and it could replicate it down to the exact number of flakes of oregano if you wanted to. Still, it didn't quite taste the same after being reconstructed. It was filling and tasty, for sure. But it lacked a strange tangibility.  

"Excuse me, Ma'am? Would you like a table?"  

Snapping out of my day dream, I realized I had been approached by a rather young girl in a blue dress and apron. Her long brunette hair was tied up in a pony-tail. It accentuated her young complexion. I also can't help but notice her breasts are quite large. They really went for a class act here.  

Strange though, she looks oddly familiar as well. Her face reminds me of... Lionel?  

"Ma'am? Are you ok? Do you need a moment?"  

Yet again I had to snap out of my own mind. I must have just been staring at her. Awkward.  

"No... Sorry, you just look familiar."  

Her face brightened up instantly, with a huge smile ready to emerge. Yet it didn't.  

"Would you like to get something to eat? We have fresh made scones! Not even from COM ingredients, we have a garden on deck E and a protein synthesizer that my brother has learned to work wonders with!"  

She giggled and sounded so happy just to say it. A wide smile slipped through as she mentioned her brother. Whoever programmed these AI was a strange person. Maybe their personality subroutines are damaged. Either way, if it's not even COM food I suppose it's worth a try.  

The door was propped open behind her. Raspberry and vanilla filled my nostrils again and a vague hint of nutmeg mixed in with a strong coffee. Whatever this place is, it smells wonderful.  

"Sure, I'll stop in for breakfast."  

I wasn't really sure how to react. She was an AI, obviously. Yet her smile grew even wider as she hopped a little in place and turned on her heel towards the door.  

"Come in! Please!"  

As she walked in she clicked on the open sign, and she shouted towards the back.  

"Li you won't believe it! Someone's here!"  

Li?! My heart sank as I walked up to the door. A hole opened in my stomach and suddenly I didn't feel so hungry. From behind an open doorway a teenager walked through. The smile on his face made my eyes start watering. White hair. Blue eyes(verify color). A jaw line that was unmistakable.  

"Welcome! Please! I just finished making a pumpkin puree. I can't decide whether I want to make syrup or a pie out of this week's harvest though. Is there something you'd... prefer? Ma'am?"  

Tears started streaming down my eyes. Here I was, on a ship thousands of light years away from station 3. Everything was taken from me. Including a younger AI version of one of the only men that ever even showed a vague interest in me. At this moment I knew why the gym clerk and this Jackie girl looked familiar. They were all part of the Lintnell family.  

"Ma'am? Are you ok?"  

The look on his face was genuine concern. For a moment I stood and stared at him. I didn't meet Lionel until his early twenties. When he requested his post on Station 3. This version didn't even know who I was. I don't think I can handle that right now.  

"I'm sorry... I can't... I'll be back!"  

I turned from the door and ran as fast as I could towards aft. I had no idea where I was going. Anywhere but there. 

Uncharted Territory - Companion AI

Lights filled my eyes as smells of fried foods and coffee filled my nostrils. Cold white steel walls from the maintenance corridor led me to this jumbled mess of consumerism. The ceiling was massive, reaching nearly fifty stories with huge crystal clear tempered window that revealed the universe behind. Streaks of light flew past as everything on the ship traveled through warped space and time. Windows to space always reminded me how small I am. It was nice sometimes. Scary other times.

Space was wonderful, sure. This man made oasis of pleasure which could move throughout the entirety of space was certainly a wonder in itself. Loud music blared from inside of a bar which I was now in the alley behind. Stacked logs that had been cleaned of bark, roughly sanded, and even varnished created a two story log cabin looking restaurant. A dumpster sat in back, though it looked immaculately clean. Chances are good it's just for show. Most garbage was simply deconstructed digitally and stored as energy in the COM network.

Loud shouting resonated beyond the door, followed by more loud chatter. A break in the song revealed a hint of the conversation.

“... really uncalled for man. Why are you always st-”

Another song started up, this one more upbeat than the last. Guitar drowned out the conversation. Who could possibly be talking? I thought this ship was abandoned? Fear tickled my heart. I don't know what to do. I don't have any reason to think they would be hostile if there were stow aways. My head grew light and I tried to regain my composure. Deja Vu set in. That told me something was up. An icon that resembled a woman with a crown of laurel in her tied up hair appeared on my AR.

“Rey? What are you doing in the COM sector?”

I heard her as if she were right next to me.

“I don't know. I was just exploring the maintenance tunnels when I ended up out here. Are there people on board Rig? I hear talking in this bar.”

Silence for a moment. That didn't sit well with me.

“Scans show there are no life forms besides yourself on board. The COM center is however equipped with companion AI. They are solid holograms that you check out from certain... establishments.”

Wait, what?

“Like escorts?”

I know it sounds crazy, but I swear I saw Rig's icon roll it's eyes.

“Yes, like escorts. They are not simply for sexual use however. They are also for psychological health purposes for crew who live and work on the ship for years at a time. Would you like me to forward you information on Companion AI?”

That's a thing? I guess I never thought about it.

“Uh, sure Rig. I've got plenty of time to kill.”

Stepping forward, I began to debate whether I should even venture further into the COM sector. I feel like this companion AI business could get tricky. Just as I decided to turn back and head to the security office the door to the restaurant opened. A rather fetching guy stepped out and grabbed a cigarette out of his pocket. He looked right at me as he began to light up the cigarette. I smiled awkwardly and waved. His mouth opened in a wide excited smile as he frantically opened the door back up and shouted as loud as he could.

Someone's on board! Holy crap guys someone's here!”

Serge's Soapbox

Pain shot through Serge's shoulder as a large man punched him right at the joint. A crowd had gathered from nearby tables and people passing by from outside. Whispers and shouts. Provocation and desire for conflict. Serge's brain reeled as it flipped a switch to being combat ready. It was just a bar fight, but mob mentality builds fast and people do crazy things when there was a crowd around.

Sizing up his opponent, he realized the man's attire was hardly an ideal situation for the guy. Wearing skinny jeans and a tacky button down shirt, he looked like he was trying too hard to be every girl's best friend and maybe hopefully eventually with benefits. That kinda guy. His slicked up blonde hair certainly didn't give him any extra points in Serge's book.

“If you don't like Johnson that's one thing, but what you're sayin' is just downright offensive!”

Serge noted the tenseness of the man's body. He was too riled up. Adrenaline was controlling his every move. Unfortunately for him, that gave Serge the confidence he needed to ensure the man didn't get any farther with this fight of his.

“Be offended all you want. Just remember, that just means you care about what I think.”

The bar manager caught his eye from behind the marbled bar top. Serge could make out him trying to mouth something to him among the few people shouting at Serge now too. Get this jackass out of here. Booze breath of dozens of patrons filled the air, all the while servers are doing their best to keep people in their seats. The guy just laughed and wound up another punch.

Serge knew what was coming. Dodging the man's right hook, Serge grabbed his leg and yanked it out from underneath him. A loud and somewhat satisfying thud resounded as he hit the ground on his back. Wasting no time, Serge stepped over the man and laid his foot firmly on his chest.

“Let's make one thing clear. We're civilized men, are we not? Don't civilized men choose words over blows? Don't worry though, you're not the only one at fault here.”

Raising his voice, Serge looked around the room and applied extra pressure to the man's chest to keep him down.

“Most of you don't even know what the fight is about. Yet something inside you just makes you wanna see a couple guys throw down huh? Don't get enough of that on fight night?”

The room grew silent, barring the man on the floor having minor difficulties breathing.

“What? Now you won't stand up for how you feel? What happened to 'Be who you are!'? You wanna know why nothing's getting done? It's because people are who they are. The world reflects that. So if the world seems like a giant crap heap, who do you blame? The government? No. Culture has far more to do with it.”

Land of the Ley-Lines - Lessons from a Sellsword

The smell of burning hickory and meat clashed with the clean moisture of the river. An army of invisible crickets and frogs sang an unending quiet song as Marcus sat on a rocky outcropping near a river. A simple looking wooden bow slung behind him resting on stone.

Rustling of leaves betrayed the movement of a rather large man trying desperately to push through the brush. Cursing under his breath, he finally broke through the line of pines and ruffage that lay a handful of meters from the river's edge.

“Bloody fine place you picked to relax. Food's ready ya emo bastard.”

Marcus turned only his head towards Carney. The slow whisper of water flowing made it easier to deal with looking at an enemy who became a friend within a matter of hours.

“Not sure if I'm hungry.”

Carney brushed his hand over his bald head and gave a disapproving snort. Stepping down with ease from the wooded outcropping, he found it hard to get a proper foothold on the loose rocks being nearly eight feet tall. The fact that he was wearing a simple sleeveless tunic and shorts didn't help his trek through the woods, and his sandals are betraying him on uneven ground. Not the sharpest sword in the barracks, but not someone you want to underestimate either.

“Don't give me that crap boyo. Ye haven't eaten since the border skirmish. That was three days ago.”

Carney managed to slowly make his way over to wobble on a stone just behind Marcus.

“Carney, I've got bigger things on my mind. I'm not worried about nourishment. I'm worried about leaving a border completely unde-”

Carney shouted with such force it caused the crickets and frogs to still in fear. Marcus was more shocked at the interruption.

“Aye, I get it. This whole self-pity argument. Ye damn city kids are just too soft in the head ye know that? Ye may have a tough outer shell and yer wits sharper than any I've seen, but ye're daft to spend time moping about it. Ye wanna know a secret there pup? I've killed a lot of men in my day. Many didn't deserve it. Even on the battlefield I always wonder if the men I'm layin' low really had hate for me in their heart. Were they really out to kill me? Or were they fightin' the people I worked for? Doesn't change the fact I've killed a lot of people. Right or wrong boy, it's reality. Ain't a damn thing you can do about it now. Now get yer arse off those rocks and come eat before I pick ye up and smack yer head on a few branches on the way back.”

Carney put a massive hand on Marcus' shoulder and squeezed lightly. Marcus sighed and gave up hope on having time to think about what had happened. It seemed Carney believed that was a bad thing. Maybe he was right.

"You're a pain in my arse sometimes, you know that?"

Carney took his massive hand off Marcus' shoulder, content with the outcome.

"At least we're not starin' down each others' blade mate. I'm quite thankful I don't have ye as an opponent. Not sure I'd win that fight to be honest."

Marcus looked back at Carney, puzzled. Carney was a formidable foe. Chainmail hung from his hardened muscular torso like an old favorite shirt. His axe was as tall as Marcus, and probably just as heavy. Thankfully he left that back at the camp. A light breeze touched the trees just enough to cause them to rustle.

Carney began awkwardly walking back over the rocks towards the tree line, while Marcus began to stand up. His bow clattered on the rocks, while he grabbed the quiver of arrows next to him. Slinging the quiver over his shoulder, he felt comfortable again. He always felt uneasy in unfamiliar territory, but having a weapon always at the ready made it easier.

"Hey Carney."

Carney was stepping up to the small hill towards the trees as he stopped and turned back.

"Aye, Marcus?"

Marcus turned towards him and scanned the tree line. An owl hooted in a tree just above where Carney stood. It was a strange occurrence considering owls had natural predators all around the forests. In fact, it made Marcus uneasy.

"Do you see owls around here often?"

Pointing just above him, Carney looked up at the owl in the tree just above him. His eyes grew wide, and Marcus nimbly made his way over the rocks. With a whistle, the owl spread it's wings and started to take to the air. Retrieving his bow, Marcus pulled it from behind him and released the latch on the sling.

The owl fiercely started flapping as Marcus started to knock the bow. It was clearly no ordinary owl. The breeze picked up, and it gained altitude quickly. Marcus knocked the arrow, drew and aimed directly in the Owl's line of flight. Releasing as quickly as he could, he imbued it with air energy to ensure unfettered flight.

The bow made a comfortable twang as the blade tipped arrow released and flew with intense speed at the Owl. It managed to dodge out of the way, as the arrow flew past it. Marcus wanted to draw another arrow, but knew by then the owl would be out of range.

"Carney, that bird is a familiar and I have a feeling it's not friendly. We need to get-"

With barely a sound, a massive form burst forth from behind him and snatched the owl before it could get much farther. A blast of air swept up over the riverside and the trees shook violently. An elegant and terrifying screech escaped the massive predator as it flew away without a second glance back.

Marcus felt a light touch on his shoulder, and the overwhelming sweet smell of birch filled his nostrils. He knew that the flying monster was no accident.

"Well, that's a bit o' luck ain't it? A familiar ye say? Who's could it have been?"

Marcus didn't like the answer to that question.

"Luck's got nothin' to do with it Carney. We're safe for now, but we'd best be movin' elsewhere by morning. I don't like the sniff of this."

Carney looked at Marcus bewildered. A hearty laugh escaped the massive man which prompted Marcus to cock an eyebrow.

"Oh boy, what 'ave I gotten myself tangled into? Let's get back to camp and eat, then we'll pack up and get movin'."

Another breeze blew gently over the river, and the touch on Marcus' shoulder tightened lightly. A whisper came into his ear, and he knew exactly the voice he heard. One he hadn't heard since he was young. A girl's voice so sweet there was no mistaking it as she whispered one word into his ear.

Emperor

Land of the Ley-Lines - Kim's Corruption

Kim sat in the oak chair he had relished so many nights reading in front of a fire. A small layer of sand spilled through beneath the rustic wooden door, as candle light flickered beneath the ornate obsidian interior. It had been days since the torrent of sand had stranded everyone in the city in their homes.

Holding a bottle of gin he had been saving for a special occasion, he scratched at the armrest in deep thought. Mumbled words burst forth as his eyes darted back and forth. A book sat in his lap, brown with golden binding. There was no name to the strange scripture he had stumbled on in his library.

For years Kim had been a book collector, spending his time crossing the expanse of the Tyrianian Empire for the rarest volumes he could find. This one he had stumbled upon from a traveling adventurer who sought to pawn it after finding it in a lost tomb.

“How could it be? Just from reading it? That's... no... Not really. Can't believe that at all.”

Mumbling continued as Kim's mind raced with strange visions of distant past lives. An eery silence had fallen over his humble abode. All he could think about was the words he had read out of boredom. It didn't take long for him to finish the entire volume. At first he didn't know really what it was talking about. There were diagrams and charts.

Pictures of human anatomy, brain structure, and even speculation on how the nervous system interacts with Ley-Line energy. There were ideas Kim had never thought of before. Musings on life and death, and how you can't have one without the other. Much of the book was incredibly intriguing philosophically. Yet there was one detail that bothered him.

Something Kim couldn't shake about the last page. He had word of power within words, but nothing like this. Opening the book again, he slowly opened it to the last page.

Tuus iam non est vita tua, necesse est permanere ad exolvuntur

That was when it started. Visions. Voices. The maelstrom that buried his beloved city in grains of hell.

Uncharted Territory - Rigging The Ship

Cup of coffee in hand, I managed to tap out a few command lines while I took a sip. Over the last forty-eight hours I've slept maybe two. Dokk left me on this ship. Told me to get it running. We're both lucky I'm smart because this whole job has been a bitch. It took me long enough just to open up the commerce grid in the ship.

 

[Command Line=/subroutine.ai.rig.exe//]

 

It seems too simple. After all my hours of work, this was the magic line that made everything work. Apparently the ship's on board AI, Rig, had a base subroutine that could be manipulated to maintain the ship in cases of emergency. Why it wasn't already in play in the ship's command functions, I can't really say.

“Functions to all Ley-Reactors have been rerouted to my crystal matrix. All further functions will be calculated and reinforced by the current subroutine. Are there any questions before implementing this protocol, Rey?”

I had to think about that for a moment. Sure there were questions. Would any of them help? Probably not.

“No, I guess not Rig. Please execute.”

Taking another sip of my coffee, I pulled my left leg up onto my right and leaned back in the swivel chair. I had found the engineering bay, where there were more cubicles than complicated chambers. Automation of ships have come a long way.

A chime came through the speaker in the small sterile looking office. A picture frame sat next to the computer, with a dog standing in front of a tree. Someone used to work in this office. I wonder why they kept it so barren?

Lights flickered on and off, and the terminal I was working on reset. Thankfully it wasn't tied to my augmented reality. It was of minimal use anyway until I could integrate it with some of the ship's systems. This took priority.

Dokk told me about what the Pangean military would do if they found the vessel after it had been quarantined to sub orbit above this hell hole. It didn't sound fun.

Bartholomew Meets Sir Jerome

Bartholomew knew it best to trust his instincts. Perhaps his good friend Sir Thomas had known the contact he had given Bartholomew would be a perturbing experience. Regardless of his fellow's trust in those which cannot be trusted is misguided. Perhaps it is not. Something about his instincts bothered him.

Twitching his whiskers and fidgeting with the hilt of his sword, he tried to appear nonchalant to his new companion. Though deep down in his gut, he knew he could never truly trust a mouse. Sir Jerome stood not four inches tall on his hind legs. Dressed in traditional rapier and feathered cap, he truly was a strange sight for a cat to behold.

“Sir Thomas has spoken highly of you, good Sir. I trust he has filled you in on our dealings here?”

It was all Bartholomew could do to keep from lashing out. It felt wrong to even address a mouse. Sitting at a simple wood table, Jerome stood on the table across from Bartholomew. The smell of cheese and fish lingered in the air among the musty stench of dust and mold. A light warm breeze tickled their whiskers as it escorted the scent of food.

“In fact, good Sir he has not.”

Sir Jerome gave Bartholomew a neutral glance as he spoke. It would appear he also did not want to seem disturbed. Bartholomew thought a moment. Placing his paw face down on the table, he looked at Sir Thomas intently.

“It appears we are both in a... strange position? Might I make a personal inquiry good Sir Jerome?”

Jerome gave a troubled glance at Bartholomew's paw. It was nearly bigger than the mouse himself. After a moment of searching for intent, Jerome gave a simple sigh and a nod.

“You may indeed.”

A twinkle formed in Bartholomew's eye. His gut felt better. His instincts subsided and he was able to think clearly even if for a moment. It was always best to take advantage of such clarity of mind.

“Thank you. You do not trust cats, do you?”

Jerome looked oddly surprised and instantly looked down at the table.

“It's ok, Sir Jerome. I do not trust mice either. However, it does not mean we cannot trust each other. Sir Thomas is a dear friend. I trust his judgment. If he believes you are worthy of a cat's trust, then I will trust you. Will you trust me?”

Bartholomew gingerly turned his palm face up.

The Junto - Darcy Jones

Sitting on a lawn chair, Darcy ran her hands through her long black hair. A blue bikini top and a pair of daisy dukes hugged her slender body like an old friend. Serge stood in the doorway to to the Jones' backyard. Glancing over at Darcy was all he could do whenever he visited them. Digging in his black cargo pants, he pulled out a small card and handed it to Darcy's mother, Tracy.

“We've begun operations in this area now Tracy. I want to make sure you have my personal line if anything happens.”

A warm smile shined through his stubble and unkempt brown hair. Serge wasn't one to worry about appearances. Staring back at Serge through sunglasses, Tracy cracked a tiny awkward smile. She was wearing a thin, dirty tan blouse and shorts. Something felt off entirely about the interaction. He didn't feel welcome.

“Thank you Serge. I'm not sure why you think anything bad would happen here... But I appreciate the offer.”

She looked at him like she didn't know what more to say. Serge sighed and relaxed a bit.

“I'm sorry for the formalities. I'm so used to this crap by now I've just gotten used to treating everyone like this. The truth is, I'm not really here for that.”

He glanced over at Darcy who had begun pruning weeds near the garden. Although he wasn't here for any romantic reasons, Darcy certainly was nice to have around.

“What do you want with Darcy? She's still in college. And boy if you're thinking about getting anywhere near her-”

Shaking his head quickly, he chuckled a little for effect.

“No, that's not it at all. I mentioned to her a little bit about the Junto, but I wanted to come talk to her in person about it. We could really use some translators, and we have a lot to offer in return for her help.”

Tracy threw the card to the side and frowned.

“Really? So you are here on business then. What, do you think I'll just let her join your little thug group?”

Serge had to take a moment to realize what was going on. Serge had known Tracy's family since he was a kid. His father Greg was in the same Spec Ops team as her husband Jared. He used to come over and play with Darcy. They had barbeques and parties together, he had known her his whole life actually in one way or another.

“Tracy... I'm not here to offer her to be a mercenary. I'm here to offer her the ability to help people on an every day basis. We need signers involved in the community!”

She frowned even more, leaving Serge confused.

“You can sign, can't you? Why don't you do it?” Her voice grew loud and harsh. She was pissed.

“Be safe, Tracy.” He needed to end the conversation. It wasn't going anywhere from here.

Forming A System - Blessing of Frau Holle

What in the hell is going on? Grabbing my head, I couldn't help but feel like it wanted me to suffer. A terrible migraine formed from something, but I couldn't quite tell what. Did I go drinking last night? "Rey, are you awake?" Rig's voice rang like it was screamed directly into my ear. Something awful must have happened while I was asleep. "Yeah. Why is it so... hurty in here?" A chime came through the intercom, followed by the sound of a med drone being constructed at a nearby crystal.

"I'm sending a med bot to you now. Are you ok? How are you feeling?" Good god it's so loud! Can we... make this stop now? The medical drone rolled to me on it's weird creepy gyro and human torso. Designed flawlessly, don't get me wrong. In terms of functionality they're great. Doesn't mean they're not creepy looking and it's not fun watching one speed towards you in the docking bay. Wait, the docking bay? What am I doing here?

"We need to get you to the triage so we can scan you. I know there's a lot to take in but I'll explain everything on the way. Can you walk?" Standing up, I could barely balance properly. An image flashed in my mind of a forest filled with massive redwood trees. All around me was nothing but snow and pine needles. Air moved slowly between the trees as if the forest itself was breathing. "Rey! There you went again! What's going on?" My eyes had to adjust to the light. It's almost like I had actually been out in the forest.

A chill swept over me, sending shivers down my spine. Somehow the reverie made my migraine feel better. "I... don't know at all. There's-" Snow blasted my face so hard I could barely breathe. Covering my arms was all I could do to keep warm in my sweats and a tank top. I really wish I knew what was happening. Standing in the cold shivering, this reverie lasted much longer.

It felt like ages standing there in the cold. Looking around proved worthless, considering I couldn't even see a few feet in front of me. Through the sound of blaring wind, I heard footsteps. They obviously weren't mine, because my body was so cold it locked up and wouldn't move. My hair felt like it was going to freeze off. "Rey! There you are! What do you see?"  I would respond, but I'm so cold I'm still locked up.

Just as quickly as it returned, reality left me. This time, to a much more pleasant light snowfall. On the trees glistened small bugs that shone red with bio luminescence. "Tis a wonderful sight, is it not?" A woman's voice? It feels so calming and warm. To my right a woman approached covered in brown bear furs. She must have been a whole foot taller than me, and strong considering how bulky her body seemed to be.

"Uh, I guess. Maybe I'd appreciate it more if I hadn't been forced here at random moments without having any idea what's going on." The girl giggled spryly, and gave a smile. Pulling her hood down, I could see her fiery red hair braided behind her neck. "Welcome, sister. I do apologize for my method of bringing you here. I know it's a lot to take in, but I would suggest starting with the conduit flies. Though it is best to look, and not touch." 

My god she's pretty. Something about her was so comforting. Although now that I look at them, those bugs do have an alluring charm to them. I'll have to try not to touch one. For some reason I really want to, but I'll listen. I hope. "Yeah, they're... charming. As for you, I'm curious as to what it is you want with me." She looked at me with a smile, which melted my heart by the way. I can't explain why. It still did. This is weird. 

"It's not what I want with you, so much as what I want for you. I bring you here, to impart upon you a gift. It is a guide of sorts. A way to help you learn and appreciate what it is that you are. I'm here to give you direction, and provide for you a purpose with which to chase. Whether or not you choose to is entirely up to you. However, I can promise you this path will unlock for you a level of freedom that not many in existence see."

Existence? That's a bit of a strong word. I guess I must be cosmically important because all this random cosmically important garbage keeps happening. Rubbing my face, I grunted in frustration. "Like... really? Ok, well it can't be any weirder than the whole thing with Dokk." She cocked her head a moment, looking puzzled. "Dokk?" I can't quite understand what she's puzzled about. She doesn't seem to be uncomfortable with that name.

"Yeah, he's this... thing that basically ruined my life. Killed everyone important to me then told me to have a nice life. Oh, and I know about as much about him as I do potato salad. And by that I mean that it exists and I don't like it very much." She giggled as I brushed off the snow from me. Somehow I wasn't cold anymore. Maybe she turned off the cold in whatever ridiculous magical sideshow this is.

"Well, I'll try to make it easier on you then. I'm here to give you a gift. Here." Waving her hand by her leg, she manifested something from her inventory modifier. A small red orb hovered in her hand as she extended it towards me. "Go ahead, take it." Extending my hand, I tried to grab the orb but it passed right through. Figures. "Oh goody, just what I wanted for Christmas." She chuckled and reached to grab my hand.

"Close enough. Although I generally tend to leave my gift giving to my sisters. That is why I'm here actually!" As she grabbed my hand, the orb sank into it. Something felt strange in my head, and a tingling sensation ran through my whole body. Suddenly, a small red crystal appeared in my vision. I hadn't noticed, but my augmented reality interface hadn't been on. Looks like it is now. Where's the vomiting though? "Uh, ok? This doesn't look like my UI."

It really doesn't. Mainly because there's nothing to it. A message icon popped up, and immediately opened. I watched as it automatically pulled up a file named [UI(Old)] and opened it. It loaded a pack and everything cleared in my vision quickly, then reloaded to my comfortable green DOS feel. I loved it old school. "So, you're in my AR now? Impressive. What exactly is this gift then?" 

She let go of my hand and I felt a little disappointed for a moment. This chick has gotta be using some kind of spell here. "It's the gift of knowledge. Of direction. While you may not understand your path now, there is beauty in the road you walk. Your life is entirely up to you. There is no one to tell you no. To influence your decisions in any way. There are many who would die to live this kind of life. I just wanted to make sure you were well equipped to live that life without fear. Entirely by choice."

Yeah, no matter what in life there's always outside influences. "Choice? Oh, just what I needed. More choices of what to do when I honestly didn't have any idea what direction to go in the first place. So thanks, I guess, for whatever it is you did." She didn't like my tone very much, or what I said apparently. "I understand you struggle with this, but allow me to offer some perspective."

Waving her hand, we were now inside of one of the simulation decks. Pulling her fur hood back up, she waved her hand again and a simulation ran again. "In front of you lies three doors. You do not know where each door leads, but you have a choice. One door is made of gold." A door digitally constructed through the simulation, made entirely of polished gold. "One is made of Wood." Another door appeared, crafted from gnarled wood and iron. 

"And the last is made of steel." The final door constructed, though it was two stories tall and looked like the door was made to seal in something massive. "If you were given the choice of one door, and one door alone, which would it be?" She walked around the doors slowly with her hood covering her face. I'm not really sure. I guess I don't really care. Man this kinda existential crap pisses me off. "Do I have to go in one of them? What if I don't care enough to?" The woman stopped for a moment, and looked up at me.

She looked like she was confused, but part of me felt like she knew that would be my answer. Using my AR, I pulled up the UI for the simulation and linked with it by just thinking about it. I told it to construct a lazy boy recliner right behind me, and I heard it digitally construct. Looking back at it, I plopped down with my full weight on it. Kicking the recliner up, I crossed my arms behind my head. "What if I want to sit and wait for one of them to open?" This thinky stuff agitates me so much.

As I finished the thought, the steel door opened by itself. On the other side, I could hear explosions and gunfire. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh stung my nostrils. I don't like this, so I'll shut it again. It did with a lot of force. "What if I don't want it to open?" A moment passed and the girl walked next to the wooden door, opening it herself.

On the other side lay a forest, the scent of birch and flowers blowing through the opening. Birds sang and frogs chirped. I willed the door shut and it slammed so hard it splintered the wood. She began walking over to the golden door, but before she did I willed it gone. "Oh, honey. Money don't mean jack to me. That one isn't even worth opening." 

In my mind I pulled up another door, a plain wooden bedroom door. She looked at it, and then at me. I knew what was on the other side of it. I just didn't know that was what was important to me. Opening it, she peeked in curiously. The sound of people laughing, smells of food that had excited me since I was a kid. A bright rainbow of light found it's way around her head. It didn't take long for her to look into and pull back out. "I'm... sorry." 

Yeah. Me too. I always have to ruin these things. Guess I have a hard time accepting what few outside influences there are in my life. "No, I'm sorry. You came here with a purpose and I... made fun of it and brushed it aside. I guess I'm just tired of this life of no direction. I just always thought life would take me wherever and I wouldn't have to think about it too much. Now, all I have is time to think. I know you came here with a gift, but just know that the only thing I want in life, I can't have. And that's my old life back."

My eyes started welling up a bit. I'm not good with emotions. "Knowing that my family was just a two day shuttle away. It may take a while to get there, but at least they existed and were within reach. You come here on one of the hardest days of the year because it used to be a celebration of family. Whatever gifts that could possibly be given to me could never replace the people that I lost. That's all I want. Is time with them again. Can you give me that?" 

She looked saddened, and her own eyes were glossed over. Obviously she understood my pain. Giving me a smile, tears started falling down her face slowly. She walked over to me and hugged me tightly, and I couldn't help but hug her back. It felt like family. Even if that was just my brain's way of getting it when I couldn't have it, I'll take that feeling even if for a moment. "You have family. You just haven't met them yet. I promise."

Her furs felt strange against my bare arms, and she smelled like pine. Backing away, she lifted out her hand again, and a small red orb appeared. This time it shifted and took the shape of a small memory card. "Here. Plant this seed, and you will regain that which is lost to you. There may be one yet in your family whom you can save." I reached for the card, and felt it up link to my AR. Nothing happened.

"What do I do with it?" She smiled at me and pulled her hood back over her head. "You do nothing. It is not for you directly. All you need to know is that it will help you recollect one that is close to you." I felt the tug of reality changing. She was gearing up to leave. "Before you go. Who are you?"

A rift as black as empty space opened behind her. "I've lived the lives of many, and seen them all through the Ley-Lines. It was nice to meet you Rey. I hope to see you again soon." She disappeared inside the rift, and I felt her presence leave. I went to take a step, and my foot bumped into something. A gift wrapped elegantly in Christmas colors sat on the floor in front of me. Picking it up, I inspected it.

Not too terribly heavy. There's a card on it. It reads:

Rey - You are not alone. While there are many gifts to be given, it seems like the biggest gift I could give you is the gift of direction. Inside this package lies a reminder. A reminder to continue to seek knowledge. To seek a life for yourself. Whatever you choose it to be.

- Frau Holle

Frau Holle? Whatever, I'll look it up later. Opening the gift, I tore it apart. Who cares about the wrapping? As the wrapping fell and a box remained, I tried to ignore all the possibilities of what could be inside going through my head. Yet as I opened it, I realized it wasn't anything I had expected. It was a picture frame, with a photo in it.

It was simply a picture of Lionel and I, smiling at the COM station and talking over coffee. 

Edward and the Raven

Lilac. That's the smell that always brought Ed out to this nature trail. Dirt whispered beneath his feet as a soft breeze tickled the leaves of the oak trees. A small lilac bush grew wild amid the trail, surrounded by various other plants of all kinds. Trekking through the thinly beaten path of dirt and grass led him exactly where he wanted to go.

He trudged this path wearing a new pair of brown cargo pants, a thin t-shirt with the logo of his favorite beer "Shweitzer", and some basic sneakers. The week had been crazy working behind the bar. Being a bartender downtown meant an inordinate amount of people every night. It was a good living for sure. But hardly an ideal one for an introvert.

Wind blew and reminded him again of the smell of lilacs. This time it was accompanied by a smell he was entirely unfamiliar with. Musty. Earthy. Moldy. Mixing with the lilac creating a strange bitter-sweetness in his mind. Pulling out his phone, he checked the map he kept pulled up for long hikes.

This park had miles of trails. All of them were mapped, mind you. So even if he had no idea where he really was, he could check at any time. GPS was faltering, and couldn't pinpoint his location. No matter. It's not like he'd never been around this trail before. Rustling of a bush caught his attention, and he looked quickly to his right to see a deer prancing out of view.

Strange. He had never seen a trail branch off to the side. The tree line grew thick, and unfamiliar. Though he'd seen this trail before, this looked new. A small, incredibly worn down wood sign had a crude steel square on it, marked in sharpie with the words "Trail Closed". That's all Ed needed to see. Any time there's a trail closed sign he was sure to follow it down all the way to the end.

More often than not, it led to another trail that led to the main circuit. Sometimes it led to a dead end, and he simply followed it back. Not much to lose really. The grass grew taller and scattered between the gnarled oak branches. Something felt strange about them. Ed had never seen Oak trees grow with their branches entwined like that.

This trail must be something terribly special. The smell of tall grass and lilac faded, as a neutral smell of bark and mold permeated from the trail. Ahead of him the trail continued on a beaten path while oak branches gnarled even tighter and began to limit the light getting through.

It bent and curved for what felt like a good mile. Filled with the same plants, same trees. The only difference in scenery was the smell. Things started to smell cleaner. Fresher. More open. With a hint of musty mildew. Not long after noticing the smell, a cave appeared on the trail ahead. As he approached, the rustling of leaves startled him.

A raven flew out from the trees and landed on the path in front of him. It looked right at him. Stopping dead in his tracks, Ed felt a strange tinge of anxiety creep into his mind. Something didn't feel right. Yet it felt like if he didn't investigate, it would feel even worse. Cawing once, the raven picked at the ground. It picked up a small stone, round and neatly polished.

It looked back at Ed, and lifted it's wings to take off. Gracefully it flew up and back around into the cave behind it.

"Well then..." Ed muttered to himself.

It only felt proper to follow after it. Sure it was kinda scary, but that's part of the allure. What could be on the other side? Knowing this world, probably just a dead end. Or a bear. That's a possibility too. Feeling unsure of himself, Ed began to take that first shaky step. In the war against curiosity, Ed frequently lost.

The earth beneath his feet started to feel heavier. More real. It gave way like it was moist and fertile. Until he came to the cave. The smell of mold filled his nostrils, and he had to take his phone out to use as a light. Thankfully he had a flashlight app. Flashing it from wall to wall, it was difficult to really get a good picture of what the cave looked like.

He decided instead of trying to get a full picture, he'd just make sure he had firm footing ahead of him. Pointing the flashlight in front of him, he walked slowly but surely ahead. The steady hum of air moving through the stagnant cave made it difficult to concentrate. Still, he moved forward.

The sound of moving water made his heart jump. There was a river in this cave somehow. There weren't any rivers nearby. Hell, there weren't even any lakes nearby. He was really unsure of himself now, considering that was a sure fire sign that he'd stumbled on something no one else had before. Someone would have noticed a cave with an underground river in a heavy traffic state park by now, right?

He pushed forward, checking the battery on his phone. It was getting low, but it was enough to get him through and back. Hopefully. The sound of a rock skipping on the hard floor startled him. A caw echoed much louder than he'd care for, and the raven stood in front of him again. It bounced and cocked it's head, hopping towards him curiously. 

Ed stared at it quizzically. It made it's way to his feet and looked up at him. Cawing again, he reached for his ear with his free hand.

"That's a bit loud, don't you think?"

It let loose a quiet squawk, and pecked at his feet a moment. Hopping around back over to it's pebble, picking it up and taking off into the air again. Shining the flashlight on it, Ed watched to try and see where it went. It flew forward a few feet, then dove downward. A caw echoed again after a few seconds. As if to beckon Ed forward.

His heart began to beat quickly, and he walked carefully forward. A few feet ahead he came to the ledge of a steep decline. It looked dangerous to try and walk down, but he could slide down slowly without any harm. Kneeling down on the ground, he sat near where the decline started and began to slowly put his leg over to start the descent.

Another caw echoed through the cave, reminding him to push forward. Slowly he descended down the rocky hill, trying to not rip his pants. The smell of water overwhelmed his nose, leading him to believe that there was an underground pool nearby. Something strange hinted in the air too. The smell of lilacs, but different in a way.

It smelled like lilacs, but it must be another type of flower he'd never seen before. The decline started to get slippery, and he began to slide involuntarily down. His phone gripped tightly in his hand, he pointed it downward a bit more to see where he was going. Directly towards a cliff. The rush of water started to fill the cave, and slowly he realized he could be descending towards an underwater ravine.

That did not bode well. He tried to no avail to grip the rock face he now slid awkwardly down at a much more alarming rate. His heart beat intensely, and fear began to grip him. This could end very poorly. A caw echoed through the cave, and calm entered him again. It was like the raven was telling him everything will end well. 

He tried to dig his foot into the rock regardless. His sense started to overcome his curiosity. Unfortunately, as his sense beckoned him to turn back, he was now too far into his adventure. The rock face grew slippery from the moisture, and even his clothes started to dampen. At this point, he knew that he would continue downward whether he liked it or not.

Placing his phone back into his cargo pocket as quickly as he could, he hugged the rock face. He was only feet away from the cliff face now. It was right there. A caw came again, and he took a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he loosened his grip on the rock face and let himself slide.

Fear quickly overcame him as he slid quickly down and over the side. Vertigo kicked in as he tried to tell his body to straighten out for the water. Thankfully the fall wasn't that far. Although if it had, he probably wouldn't have slammed his leg on the water's surface. The current was strong, and pulled him along at an alarming rate. Rushing back to the surface, all he could hear was water rushing by.

A caw echoed through as strong as the water, and he was pulled under again by the current. For a moment, he wondered how his curiosity could have possibly gotten him into this much trouble. Then he realized he didn't have time to think about what happened. He had to think of what is happening now.

He fought as hard as he could to stay above water. It was difficult, and the current pulled him under one more time. Water pulled him along like a rag doll until finally he felt himself free of the water again. Free of water, and of solid ground beneath him. Light filled his eyes, and it took a moment for them to adjust. He felt like he was falling, and a caw came to his side again.

A heavy breeze blew past him, causing his wet clothes to give him chills. His eyes adjusted quickly. What he saw, he couldn't even begin to comprehend. A massive red crystal illuminated in the distance. Towering above the trees with massive stone structures floating around it. Looking down, he realized he was slowly falling through the air. Not like normal. Safely falling.

A raven flew by with it's wings outstretched and it circled around towards him again. There was no sound from it, only the pebble in its mouth. What had to have been hundreds of feet below him was a structure like he'd never seen before. It was a shrine built around the basin of a waterfall. The one he had just been thrown out of.

The raven circled around him, and he felt his body tug slightly forward. As it flew back in front of him, this time he followed. An exhilarating feeling overwhelmed him as he glided on the air towards the ground. It led him swiftly away from the waterfall towards the woods below. Trees colored with greens of all colors, and even some reds.

The raven flew towards the ground, and the trees creaked and moved to greet them. A small evenly grassed clearing below rushed up to him, as he floated slowly down towards it. Falling awkwardly on his side as it let him down, he looked up to see the raven hopping up to him on the ground. A giggle came from behind him, as it placed the pebble in front of him.

This cannot possibly be happening. Ravens cawed from all around him. Swarms of them were circling above. 

"Welcome Ed." The voice of a sultry woman was behind him. It was accompanied by the strange smell similar to lilac.

Bartholomew and the Bulldog

Adjusting his tabard, Bartholomew pulled his short sword from it's scabbard. It gleaned in the sunlight like a beacon of hope in these trying times. A breeze brushed his face, carrying with it the sweet scent of dandelions and honeysuckle. An eery quiet fell over the valley as he stood there among the soft grass swaying in the wind.

Before him stood a formidable bulldog, his arms crossed and staring intently at Bartholomew. His brown and white splotched fur blended well with his black cabby hat. Behind the guard was a door Bartholomew must get into. It was a dire situation that called for dire actions, and now was the time for action.

“I say good sir, I must enter the door behind you to save my dear friend Ricky! Might you find it in your heart to allow a kind soul entry in his time of need?”

The dog grunted and pointed at Bartholomew with ferocity.

“Ain't lettin' a pup like you in 'ere. Dunno 'oo dis Ricky is but I ain't ever 'eard of 'im. Dun matter to me wut 'appens. Just doin' my job here, you understand.”

Bartholomew's heart sank. Now he must fight to save his dearest of raven friends!

“Very well sir, have at you then!”

Charging with all his orange fluffy might, Bartholomew swung at the bulldog with a quickness only a cat could muster. Slash after slash, the dog stood there looking at the wiry cat like he was insane. None of these attacks were even getting close to hurting the dog, as the blade never even so much as blew a breeze in his direction.

“Ha ho! What say you now dog? You only get one warning!”

The dog crossed his arms again, and began to pick his nose slightly with his nail. Without missing a beat, Bartholomew began swinging wildly again. Again the blade danced in a fearsome display. Fearsome if the blade had actually ever met it's mark. Bartholomew began to pick up his showmanship of swordplay. Jumping more, and slashing faster, the dog stopped picking his nose and let out a big yawn.

“See, yer still a pup. Can't even go frough with 'urtin' yer enemy. Ain't nottin' 'ere fer the likes of you kitten.”

With a swift backhand, the dog stuck Bartholomew and sent him flying a few feet. His sword flew out of his hands, and flew upwards. It spun in the air until coming down and skewering the ground right next to Bartholomew. With a shake of his head, Bartholomew stood up and clutched his sword. Putting his sword back in it's scabbard, he walked up to the dog with a very unhappy look on his face.

“'Atcha gonna do pup? Scratch me?”

The bulldog laughed heartily, staring down at the poor cat in front of him. Cocking an eyebrow, Bartholomew jumped up and slammed his paw into the dog's nose as hard as he could. As the dog reeled in pain, Bartholomew opened the door and slipped inside.

 

Castle Bragi - Rän's Judgement

Castle Bragi houses many dangers. It's servants are wights, fooling the untrained eye with their demonic magics. Commoners are people living in fear of Lord Loki. Living in fear that even if they escaped all that awaited them was a vast unforgiving lake filled with terrors that even the great Loki built walls to defend against. Each brick of the wall was laid with specific purpose, each enchanted with spells to ward off unwanted attention.

Beneath the foundations lay a realm beyond nightmares. Hel, daughter of Loki, resided in wicked slumber beneath the castle. Some say Loki had banished her to craggy hellfire caverns beneath when she refused to restore life to his now long gone love. Worst of all, she was Hel's mother. To speak the name of the lady of the lake within the confines of those bricks was a death sentence. Loki cared not for the every day corruption of his people or servants, though he monitored them closely to assure his power over them never wanes.

His agents lie in every shadow. Beings none have seen but can swear they are there. Stalkers, we call them. We know they exist only in the pulling in the backs of our minds as we speak of politics. Flashes of movement out of the corner of our eyes. A feeling that your life could depend on the things you say, or do. Death is a common happening, making the deaths by stalker that much more terrifying.

Each time a man is found disemboweled and his blood drained from him. Cuts across his body so sharp one would believe the blade was not made by mortal men. Every time a woman was found mutilated and her body shamed. Things no person would wish upon even their worst enemy. That was when Lord Loki would address his people. While he has never admitted the existence of these beings, he sets a very cold tone in his speeches.

Smooth of tongue and quick of wit, we live in fear of uncertainty of his moods. Tales of his long life among the world tell of his prowess and greed. He contended and bested with even the strongest of deities. Rän despised him most, creating a champion that would eventually be more feared by her than Loki himself. He was simply known as the Blademaster, and he was the reason Loki locked himself behind solitary bunker that soon became his own prison.

Rän sought to strike Loki while he was down, and created a storm so fierce and brimming with the fury of the seas that it created a sink-hole around the mighty fortress. That fateful day, she brought with her Brick, the legendary Golem of the great mountain. They struck a deal, and he moved the earth around the castle. At the raise of a hand, he created a hole fathoms deep and and farther than the eye could see.

Standing in his study atop the highest spire, he watched through the window as dirt and rock began to crumble away with surprising speed. Before he knew it, he couldn't see past the vast dark that now engulfed his new home. Lightning and thunder rumbled with ferocity he had never seen before, and rain fell from the sky like it was being pumped right out of the ocean.

Days passed like moments as Loki watched as his solitary refuge became a barren wasteland of water.

Land of the Ley-Lines - Tyr's Sanctum

Looking down, all Marcus could do to keep himself from getting dizzy was pretend that what he was looking at was actually an illusion. Somehow he had ended up among the clouds, joined only by birds and light chills from the southern winds. It's howling was barely a whisper among the vast reaches of open sky. Beneath his feet was marbled greenish stone, which was lightly camouflaged as the distant land below him was lush with greenery.

“Right then. I, uh, suppose this is a thing.”

The moss covered door lay behind, with no real outlet off of the small ledge which he now stood. A blur of a bird swept up behind him with amazing speed, blasting him with a fierce wind as it flew past and disappeared. Losing his balance due to vertigo, he tripped and fell forward. Bracing himself for a long fall, he watched as a gust of air appeared quickly beneath him to stop his fall. The wind whistled and hissed as it increased in intensity rapidly, creating a strange smoothness that resembled hard ground.

Running his hand over it, he was awestruck.

“Wow... That's a new one.”

A screech resounded in the distance, and Marcus realized the bird was on it's way back. Before he could react, the bird had appeared and stopped with a massive burst of air that threw Marcus back at the temple door.

“I am not your enemy sharpened one. You may stay your blade.”

Brown feathers refracted light, as if the sun itself would stay it's power for the great beast. His beak moved as if he were chirping, yet he still spoke in as plain of a tongue as any man.

A voice familiar, yet distant filled Marcus' ears. Uncertainty was replaced with a feeling of confusion. Before him was the bird he had known many years ago, as a child. Mordecai was a great roc of the eastern provinces. Many days Marcus had spent riding the great hawk around the Freyan valley searching for hunting prey. He had never heard him speak before now, but perhaps there was no need to before.

“Long time no see Mordy. I take it life is treating you well?”

The bird laughed, as Marcus postured himself to appear less frazzled.

“Is life treating any creature well these days? Perhaps you, bladed one, would be most equipped to deal with the hardship our lands now face. That is why you are here, is it not?”

Flapping his wings, the wind below him swirled with barely visible tendrils of light bending. Marcus felt the mark that was now engrained on his back. It tinged with a slight burn, yet it also felt good. A reminder that for the time being, he was in control.

“I suppose I would be foolish to think I could put anything past you. Indeed, that is why I'm here.”

With a screech and a blast of wind from his wings, the air around him swirled with small tendrils, revealing a grid like structure around the whole sky.

“Welcome, old friend. You now stand before Tyr's Sanctum. Watch your step!”

Bartholomew and the Tower of the Squid Lord

It's not every day that a cat got to see underneath the ocean. Bartholomew greatly appreciated his raven friends' technology. Somehow, they had come up with the most clever ways among animals to build structures that could move them to extreme places in search of treasure. This day, Bartholomew held his hand over his sword scabbard with pride on his face. For outside the submarine window, was a coral reef that his kind had never seen before.

Supposedly the oceans were vast, terrifying places. Fish of all sizes occupied them and gave them life. Plant life even grew under water, simply under different rules. Scratching his chin with other hand and flicking his whiskers, Bartholomew pondered what it was the ravens might be after underneath the water. Besides shiny stones that is.

His tail swung back and forth behind him, flicking every once in a while as a reminder he had a tail. Ricky, his dapper raven friend had approached him from behind without his notice.

“Well my friend, what do you think of the deep blue sea? Is it not a wonderful sight to behold? Such vastness of life in many forms! Will we ever truly know everything about such a diverse ecosystem?”

Pulling from a hickory pipe, Ricky hopped up behind Bartholomew with clicking of claws on the steel floor. While Bartholomew was a formidable orange tabby, Ricky was still greater in size as he was in intellect.

“It's amazing Ricky! You ravens will go great lengths to obtain your stones won't you? What exactly are we looking for today old bean?”

Adjusting his raven lord's tabard, Bartholomew looked around at all of the bells and whistles of the machine he rode inside that kept him safe among the waves. Gears turned, steam vented, valves turned on their own. Ravens perched atop copper pipes with the all too familiar black coating that no doubt kept their feet safe from the immensely hot steam traveling through the pipes.

“Today we are looking for the Tower of the Squid Lord sir Bartholomew. Lord Cool Thool will be pleased to meet a new species from the surface. Much as I am sure you would be pleased to meet the ruler of the entire Blahdee Ocean. Are you ready for this?”

There was weight in his words. Something just felt wonderful in my heart of hearts about meeting such a distinguished ruler. Supposedly he had fountains, temples, and even scratching posts made of gold. Perhaps that last part was just wishful thinking.

The submarine shifted and jutted, coming to a stop. Bartholomew had to hold on to a nearby pipe to keep from falling over. A chime came through the loudspeaker and ravens began cawing in approval.

“Well my friend, would you like to meet Lord Cool Thool? He is waiting for us on the other side of this magical breathing barrier.”

Bartholomew flicked a whisker, got a twinkle in his eye and took a deep breath. The hatch opened, and water floated just outside of it. On the other side of that barrier was Lord Cool Thool.

Bartholomew and the Raven's Undying Search

Bartholomew had never ridden a raven airship before. His feathered Raven friends were gracious enough to show him technology and magic. The design was flawless, with shiny stones and feathers attached to scaffolding and lift engines alike. Surely there had never been a finer piece of engineering yet known to Raven kind.

“You see my fine furry friend, we Ravens value one thing over everything else. That is why these airships were built using our magic.”

Walking him through the copper planks and steam valves through the airship's engine room, Ravens were perched on pipes that had protective coatings to keep the temperature of the steam from burning their feet. Wearing everything from top hats, bow ties, and even monocles, the ravens talked amongst themselves.

“This way leads to our observation deck. Won't you join me?”

Pointing with his massive black wing, he summoned Bartholomew through a collection of pipes that led into a room. Bowing as politely as he could, Bartholomew ruffled his whiskers and flicked his tail in pleasure.

“I would be delighted dear friend!”

Ricky had been his friend for many moons, but it was not until this day that he decided Bartholomew was worthy of sharing the secrets of the Ravens. Today was a red letter day! Not even most ravens have seen what Bartholomew was about to. A technology so secret and powerful, it has been hidden from all but the select few of Raven inner society.

Turning and walking through the pipes, Bartholomew's little heart fluttered and pulsed sharply. Excitement gripped him as the light from the room evened out to reveal in plain sight what had been hidden for so long. A room full of computers hooked up to telescopes outside of the airship. Hundreds of them all scanning and calculating every inch of the ground.

“By golly chap! This is incredible! What exactly is it doing?”

Walking over to one of the big screens in the middle, Ricky pointed his wing at the display. Pebbles large and small appeared on it's screen. In a matter of seconds, several were revealed and detailed. Small numbers shown near each and every rock, though many were the same.

“It is doing the work that Ravens have been doing for a near infinite number of moons. Searching for shiny pebbles! It is what we Ravens do! It's quite brilliant really! See it sends the co-ordinates to a central database so that we can send teams-”

Ricky droned on for hours, while Bartholomew was left to ponder what exactly this meant. This meant that this big secret power that Ravens had been toting over every other species was a supercomputer designed to find polished stones.

The Valhalla Protocol - Labyrinth of Daetheria

A crystal explosion had broken the silence within the massive mossy stone halls of the ruins of Daetheria. It was the home of a notorious Minotaur that resided below his home of the Valhalla Rise. Jericho had grown up there, unknowing of the vast world that lay beyond the endless seas that raged hundreds of feet below the edge of the Rise's bluffs. There was only one way in, or out. A tunnel that had been sealed ages ago to protect us from the world's dangers.

A cough came out of nowhere, as he felt his lungs were filling with blood. He never thought he would even be beyond that tunnel, let alone running for his life from a Minotaur. Feeling his side for the shard, he concentrated on the point that felt worst, and imagined it healing all the way through. A green light emanated from his well worn leather gloves. He wasn't much of a fighter, but he knew a trick or two to stay alive. Tremors pounded like thunder and assaulted the very ruins with the Minotaur's rage.

“Your people's gall never ceases to amaze me. First, you tell me that you require aid. Then, you tell me you are of Valhallan descent. I've had interactions with humans many times in my day young one, but my axe has had many, many more!”

Looking back, Jericho picked up the pace as his wound healed. The beast was five times his size, and he wasn't exactly scrawny. The roar of a massive stone axe dragging through the labyrinth made his ears begin to lose the ability to hear anything but. It was grinding away at his very core. Nervously, he tried his best to come up with something to diffuse the situation.

“I'm terribly sorry if I disturbed you! I assure you I meant no harm! If you are unwilling to render aid, I will gladly leave!”

The noise of the beast's laughter nearly knocked him over. A tribal cloth was all that covered the furred beast. His horns had rings pierced through them, many with skulls attached. A necklace adorned with what must have been dragon teeth and a large uncut ruby left Jericho wondering if it was functional. Hoof after hoof battered the stone beneath, growing ever closer to it's prey. Looking around, All he could see were lines of separate tunnels in front of him.

He had a feeling the beast wouldn't allow him to make it that far. All he had left were his wits, and he wasn't sure what good those would do. Still, something must be done. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small vial of glittering white dust. Popping the lid off, he poured the entirety of it into his hands and let it fall loose. Readying his legs, he grasped the hand full of dust and turned to face the Minotaur.

Throwing it as hard as he could, each grain exploded into a blinding burst of light. The beast began to run forward and covered his eyes, believing it to be a simple illusion. Unfortunately for him, Jericho had picked up a trick or two during his experimenting with magic.

The dust covered the Minotaur and as it made contact, each little grain exploded with a burst of air and threw him forcefully onto his back. Jericho wondered how long that would keep him down.

Make the Mose of it

My name is Mose. I'm a zombie, technically. See, the metropolis I lived in was cursed and buried under like, a whole crap load of sand for a hand full of centuries. Although I didn't know him before all this happened, a pretty stand up guy named Kim rose me from the dead. Now, I know what you're thinking:

“Black magic?! Exile him! He is a necromancer!”

Sure, he may be meddling in powers beyond his understanding, but he's actually doing it to be nice! Did you know that he managed to tweak his spell to make us not feel negative emotions? It's certainly splendid if I do say so myself! I lost my eyeball last week and well, it all seems pretty funny the longer time goes on.

I'm sure it'll turn up one of these days! Anyway, Kim is a stand up guy I tell ya and all he wants in the whole wide world is to be accepted into the Mage's Academy in Freya. The town and I really love the guy and we will miss him dearly, but we want to help him move forward in life. So we all thought we would write letters to the academy directors and tell you why he deserves to develop his skills there!

There was this one time, when Deloris lost her left thumb, he actually grew one from the side of a pig and re-attached it to her! Golly gee she was sure happy to be able to play racket ball with us again. We had gone every Tuesday for weeks and one week she passed out at a party and woke up without it! Gotta lay off that cactus juice sometimes you know?

Well, I'm rambling, so I suppose I'll just close with reminding you Kim really is a great guy. Give him a chance, and you'll make more than just him happy! Thank you sir and/or madame!

 

Sincerely,

Mose

Story Excerpt - Land of the Ley-Lines: Kim's Glamour

The hustle and bustle of a bigger city never really was Kim's thing. Even when he was a kid he stuck out like a sore thumb. Albino, born with a host of problems that somehow worked themselves out, awkward demeanor and the like. Wearing a plain navy blue robe, he looked more like a monk than a necromancer. The only thing that might give him away would be if you could see past a glamour that made him look like a spry old man.

In reality, Kim wasn't very impressive. Shorter than most, skinnier than most, and definitely more awkward than most. Tied around his waste was a golden silk rope that held his grimoire book at his side. It was ornately designed, with ancient symbols of life and death, long forgotten in the cultures he now sought to understand. Sitting on a stone bench near the Freyan Castle courtyard, he studied people as they walked by.

Guards eyed him through polished steel as they walked by, suspicious of his presence. A pair of young lads adorned in chain mail and crystal bands around their arms approached him confidently. The smiles on their faces as they bantered at each other from across the courtyard near the tavern told a tale of unkindness approaching Kim. “Ey, old man, where's yer gatekeeper?!” Kim laughed along with the boy's friend at the young man's drunken rambling.

They both wore crystal integration bands, something reserved for wizards and nobility. While they may not look like much more than a piece of cloth with a ruby embedded in it, it could tell a person whether they should be in for the fight of their life, or a brawl that could end them up in jail. Neither are desirable outcomes, but one is definitely more desirable than the other. “Oh, he's just takin' a leak out behind the castle proper for old times sake. Used to run mead from the emirate before the war he did.”

Both young men looked at him in shock, their smug outfits adorned in clan symbols, medals of honor, and house ranking badges. These boys were at the tavern on a mission. One flicked his longer brunette hair to the side and laughed. “Got a lotta nerve sayin' fings like that 'round here old man. But I like you. Didn't get the feelin' ya meant ill of yer words. Be careful out 'ere eh? May not be ye think people can see ya, but we do. Keep yer 'ead low eh?” Maybe these boys weren't just nobility after all.

Story Excerpt - Castle Bragi

There once was a castle, jutting high above a forest of redwood trees. It's simple stone peaks pierced the sky, while balconies littered it's highest spires for those who were well enough off to afford the luxury of a view. Vines grew rampant throughout the bricks. Crystals were embedded outside it's watchtowers. From every glance outside, one would think this abode belonged to a noble of the highest power.

Yet this castle held no true owner beyond itself. Many have lived here over generations, year after year, they forget it's makers and the purpose for which their ancient home was conceived. A society now inhabited the lavish walls of Castle Bragi. It's people have carried out countless acts of kindness and terror alike. For humans, even to gods, are creatures of mystery. Capable of great acts of good and evil alike, humans now live amongst unknown gods and powers beyond their control.

For it was not the makers of this mighty castle that named it. It was the humans who found it and restored it for their own purposes. To them, it's sleek, barren stone walls looked hospitable if given the proper care. Emptiness did not dissuade them from their ideal of making this vessel their own. A single keeper remains from the first who populated Bragi. One who has inexplicably been stripped of their place in time and remains alive yet to this day.

His name is Loki. Here he has built an empire within the walls that expand beyond the laws of space. Rooms appear and disappear, doors which have both been opened and yet still remain untouched. It's citizens are unaware of the dangers that lurk in the caverns below. Fires of an ancient war still rage, kept in check by Loki and the power of the keep. At least, until he bore a son, Vali.

This unexpected child threw Loki into a panic. His compassion bid him to let the child live. Seeing the mother, a noble, distraught at the thought of losing her child caused him to make a fatal mistake for castle Bragi. He brought the child to the lowest caste, fearing nobility may breed complacency in his heart.

Yet what the workers bred was contempt. Contempt for their lord, Loki, and contempt for Castle Bragi. All of this contempt meant nothing, as soon as the true purpose of the fortress was uncovered by Vali. This was no place of happiness. No place of peace. This was the capital of the Einherjar.