A squirrel, stooping for nuts underneath the tree the Reever had stopped beside, was frightened by the falling of a small, scorched tree branch. It hit the ground beside the squirrel with a spattering of burnt and withered leaves. The branch lay where the Reever had stood, giving off a foul stench and crackling with static. Sparks seemed to dance and weave along the leaves. The squirrel ran until it couldn't smell the terrible smoke any longer.
High above in the tree, the darkness of the shadowed leaves grew less and they were limned in frightened sunlight. The watcher was gone, but the forest was still and frightened. It would be days before the birds dared to sing again.
The thief shrugged, who was he to judge art? He just knew what he liked. What he liked most was treasure, and the less well guarded the better. He turned and resumed his reconnoiter of the hallway. Soon he paused at an open doorway to allow his companions to catch up. When they did their leader spoke up:
"Well, let's see what go can do with this lot," Beloq said quietly. He shook back the hood of his dark blue robe and surveyed the small room that was open to them. After some of the things that he'd seen in this place he was prepared for just about anything. This was an L shaped room with an old cannon taking up a lot of space on the right and one nasty looking rifle hanging on the left wall, looking like a cross between a bazooka and some kind of energy weapon. The thing looked as if it could take out city blocks while set on stun. Next to it stood a funny-looking set of armor. What he could see inside of the armor looked to be filled with clockwork and lights. He wondered what it was even as he looked at the other two weapons in the room. One seemed to be a small motorized cannon and the other to be a sled of some sort. A sled with weapons if the ports and tubing on it's body were any indication. They spent half an hour trying to activate any of the mechanisms in the room. It was Gryphon that found the power cell that fit nothing else in the room. It figured, normally Gryphon wouldn't notice anything but how long that it's been since the last fight. That or how much he's looking forward to the next one. Nothing had been going right since they wandered into this nightmare.
Beloq thought Gryphon was mad when he began to search the armor for a slot that fit the small, heavy block of dull gray metal. Everything else had been tried, however, so Beloq allowed him to proceed. With Selene's help, Gryphon managed to fit the peculiar copper contacts on the box to similar contacts on the back of the armor. They were in a hand sized slot that exactly fit the power cell. When he shoved the small box home and the armor straightened up taller, Gryphon came the closest ever to soiling his own armor. As it so happened, he did fall down. Beloq had merely frowned and put his hands on his favorite magic wand. It was a long inlaid tube of some silvery metal with an ivory handle, stuck through his belt sash. He made a mental note to himself to the effect that he must seek out an apothecary sometime soon, for he was running low on the magic powder that propelled the wand's lead projectiles. When the armor made no other moves whatsoever, Beloq relaxed and recommended that his followers do the same.
"Chill!" he said to his companions."What are you?" Beloq said loudly, addressing the suit of armor.
"PXR5, PXR5, PXR5..." came the reply. As the thief looked into the room from a safe position out in the hallway, there were several grinding, thumping noises from the robot. It seemed to vibrate slightly. Then it shuddered and lurched forward. It stopped and spoke as the grinding got louder.
"I... await your... orders..."
"What...?" said Gryphon. Selene kicked him in the shin and told him to be quiet.
"Are you trying to get us all killed?"she hissed. "Shut up and let Beloq do the talking!"
Beloq stood his ground, staring at the PXR5 robot with an intensity that would burn holes in things, or so the thief thought as he noted Beloq's gaze.
"It's a mechanical man..." the thief began.
"Obviously!" Beloq interrupted.
"He'll get us caught with all that noise! Put it back, we don't need it," said the thief.
"Resthal," Beloq said menacingly, "thankfully you don't make the decisions for me. I do! And my decision is to find out more about this thing... and find a way to use it. What can you do, Oh Mechanical Man?"
"PXR5... PXR5. I can... can..." spoke the machine.
"Do nothing, it seems," muttered Resthal the thief under his breath. Beloq shot him a look which clearly meant that be would like to be shooting something more deadly at the little thief. The robot continued to speak.
"I can... Systems... check in... progress. PXR5 can serve... you soon. Preliminary scan... shows no major faults. Offensive Weaponry... ponry disabled. Defensive systems intact. It has been... some time since I was... last serviced. Extended deactivation has caused internal... damage to some circuitry. Repairs are in progress. PXR5 is now at 65.425% efficiency. Awaiting orders."
"Do you know where we are?" asked Beloq. "We seem to be lost."
"Sensor net operating," said PXP5, "Sweeping the area..."
"We want to get out of here!"
"Shut up, Resthal!"
"ALERT! ALERT!" blared the robot.
"What?" Beloq looked up sharply from his former thoughtful pose. "Explain, what are you talking about?"
"PXR5 sensor scan has been detected by a security device. It is rapidly approaching." The robot's flat voice seemed all the more menacing now that it had some bad news to report.
"How can we escape?" Beloq asked.
"PXR5 can render you invisible to the device."
"How? No, never mind, don't explain, just do it! Do it now!" Beloq ordered. Giving orders seemed to come easy to Beloq.
The PXR5 backed into it's former position. It moved much more easily now, Beloq noticed. "Do not move!" the PXR5 said. "It will detect any movement. If you move, it will detect you. PXR5 will be able to scramble the device's sensors to conceal you, if you do not move."
As the four of them stood still, they heard a shrill whine. A sonic boom sounded, like a cannon shot, out in the hallway that Resthal had just vacated. Something small zoomed past the doorway and could be heard decelerating in the hall. Suddenly it snapped into sight and hovered in the doorway.
Something the size of one of Gryphon's fists, or a small pail, floated lazily in front of them. It twisted and turned as it bobbed in the air. The gem-like glitter of lenses dotted the sphere's surface. A quiet hum filled the room as the device studied it. Then the device swooped into the center of the room and unexpectedly whirled in a small circle.
"It is not immobilized. Do not yet move." said the PXR5. "It will shortly withdraw. Do not move!"
As if waiting for a signal, the small grey sphere spun about in the center of the room. Suddenly it swooped toward the door and accelerated back the way that Beloq and the others had come. There was a crash like thunder from the security device breaking the sound barrier as it fled away.
"What was that thing?" Seliene asked.
"A highly maneuverable, lightly armored remote sensor scanner. It is one unit of a versatile household security system. There is little time, the device has alerted a supervisor drone which is approaching."
"How much time do we have?" Beloq snapped.
"Yeah," added Resthal, "and Where is the nearest getaway car?"
"The drone will arrive in 12.825 minutes. It will take 9.896 minutes to navigate to the nearest unguarded vehicle. The Drone will take approximately 4.7 minutes to calculate our most probable path and follow. There is a 78.425% chance that the Drone will choose the wrong destination."
"Too many numbers," said Gryphon sadly. "What do they all mean?"
"I thought that we were invisible!" complained Seliene.
"The Drone does not know what it is looking for. The Remote only reported the detecting of PXR5's sensor sweep in this area. That is included in the probability calculation."
"What and where is this vehicle?" Resthal asked.
"Do you want to escape or debate?" Beloq snapped. "Let's move out!"
The Collector knew that something was amiss as soon as he received a garbled report from a Security Scanner. That meant that the system had been tampered with. That, in turn, meant visitors in the Museum. Powerful visitors, it appeared. Something must be done. They must be found.
"Security Control," the Collector spoke quietly into the air.
"Responding!" said a sharp voice.
"We seem to have visitors."
"Sir!" The sharp voice was shocked sounding. "I was unaware! There have been no reports..."
"Relax, they aren't in the central complex. They're way out on the rim of the Museum, on a different planet- out of your sensor range. Not your fault, but I want it under your control. My instruments may be better than yours, but security is your area."
"Your orders, sir?" said sharp-voice, sounding relieved.
"Sector 5, Museum level 47, quarantine that area to everyone except for myself. Call off the Drones and the mobile sensors. These people may be here accidentally and I don't see any reason to kill them outright. I want to take a look at them myself... from a reasonable distance."
"As you wish, Sir. However. I harbor reservations concerning your proposed course of action."
"So do I," said the Collector. "So do I..." He signed off quietly.
As he walked into Tornay Village his steps seemed automatically to take him to the village Blacksmith's place of business. Old men were gathered around the forge in the cool of the morning air. They were taking turns telling their favorite fishing or hunting lies as they chewed tobacco and passed away the hours like any people would in a small town. Strangers would often stop at the Smith's for news, directions, or just to rest along their trips, so the Reever attracted no special attention as he leaned against the walls of the rude wooden shack that housed the forge. He listened to the talk that he thought seemed universal at a smithy. After a while, the Smith took time out from the morning's chores of fire-stoking and hammer-wielding to take notice of the new stranger in town.
"What can I do for you this mornin', stranger?" the Smith asked in a voice made rough by years of breathing smoke and soot.
"I've come a long way and need a meal. Is there an Inn close by, somewhere I can clean the road from my throat and get a good breakfast?" said the Reever.
"I was fixin' to go over to Wider Keller's for some breakfast and a pint or two of mulled cider. I need to get my 'prentice started shoein' the Baker's two selkies just now. I'd be honored to show ya the way if ya could wait a spell," the Smith said. "where are ya bound from, if ya don't mind my askin', Sir?"
"WeIl, too weeks ago I was in Nanor Fort City at the wedding of a friend of mine. He's a merchant who sells tapestries there. He asked me to go north to his brother who lives in the village of Ind at the tip of the lake. Seems that they haven't gotten on in years and my friend wants his brother to come to the Confirmation Ceremony next Trnmass Day. I hope that they can get back together."
"How wonderful that they might be able to settle their differences now," said the Smith. "Elais, fetch the Baker's team and start on them while I take the stranger to the Wider's. If ya get finished with them ya can start on the Kethy that Farmer Jern brought in this mornin'. Now get along with ya. Don't dally around wastein' time!"
"Shall we go?" asked the Reever.
"As ya like," said the Smith. "And if ya would, tell me more of yer journey. A far traveler such as yerself must have seen many strange places along the way," said the Smith as he and the Reever walked away from the clearing that framed the Smithy with fragrant leaves.
After a hearty breakfast at the Inn the Reever arranged to have a room for the night. Then he spent the day asking questions in the Tavern and the General Store. From the answers that he received, the Reever was able to piece together more of the same stories that he had been hearing all around the Kingdom of Kineth. Several women had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. None of them had ever been found and no trace of foul play was evident. He was about to retire early for the night since he wanted to get a fresh start in the morning. As he was going up the staircase to his room he was thinking only about the flask of Krupnick that he'd set out earlier to let it's spices settle. When he saw a one-armed man arguing with the barkeep over the price of a drink, he felt that he should delay his appointment with a glass or two of the 3000 year old liqueur. Some hunch made the Reever go over and join the debate. Perhaps he was a little closer to an answer than he had realized. Then again after all, What would he really loose if the one-armed man knew nothing?
"Barkeep, what seems to be the trouble?" the Reever asked.
"Beggin' your pardon, Sir- but it's just the old Smith here, no trouble at all," the bartender began to explain.
"He won't stretch m' limits fer another drink," said the one-armed man.
"Is that all? Put it on my tally and let him have his drink," said the Reever.
"As you wish, Sir. But he'll likely drink your money dry before too long. Just a word of warning."
"Just you get along back here with another pot of wine, like the gentleman told you," the one-armed man said drunkenly. "My friends call me Blackfur," he said. "but you can call me anything you want as long as you're buying!"
"Call me Reever," said the Reever with a smile. "It's an old family name that I am proud to bear."
"And just what do you reave, oh harvester? Grain? Fruits?"
The Reever chuckled at his new companion's mistake, then smiled and said "I guess you could be righter than you know. Sometimes I do have to sift through peoples stories and harvest the truth. The meagerest gleaning of facts can sometimes produce the one thing that shows where the true guilt may lie. I understand that people don't always tell the truth, so I sift through stories and harvest the facts."
"That must make you very unpopular in some circles, I should think," said Blackfur.
"Sometimes it does at that, my friend but I don't let that get in the way of what has to be done. I haven't set out to win any popularity contests, just to help people," the Reever said, hoping to loosen the tongue of his new acquaintance.
"Help people ye say? Well, ye might have come to the right place after all. Just what would ye do if ye found someone who needs yer help? Are ye a hero?" Blackfur asked 'A Warrior maybe, or a hunter after big game? Or are ye just a sword-fer-hire lookin' for a new master?"
"I've been all of those things and many more besides," the Reever said. "But tell me about the trouble here." The Reever was fishing for information. If his feelings in the forest were any indication he was needed here and now.
"You know about the trouble? It must be worse than I thought."
'Well, I've heard a little... Just rumors along the road. Is it very bad trouble?"
"Oh yes, But if ye've already heard of our misfortune, what could I add?"
"Yes well, I know what the trouble is like in other places, what I want you to do is tell me what it's like here."
"Other Places? People are disappearing in other places as well?"
"Yes, or so the rumors say."
"Then it is such worse than I thought. You can help, you said?"
"I'd like to, very much. Tell me what is happening here."
"I don't rightly know where to start. But I do know a man who could tell it much better than me. I can take ye to him right now, if ye wish," said Blackfur, putting down his empty tankard.
"I'd like that indeed," said the Reever.
"Then come with me and meet a Holy man that knows more about what is happening to us here. He has traveled far like yerself, and is a man of some learning in the magic arts as well. The villagers have already sought him out to ask his opinion, perhaps he knows more than he told them. I know that he is more than he seems, for all of his quiet life."
"You may be more than you seem yourself, my friend. But you can tell me what you know on the way. Let's go see the priest."
"It's not far, Reever. I'm afraid that I am a poor storyteller, but I'll give it a try. Most of the villages around the Lake have had people, mostly young women, disappear without a trace. Ah here's the door, after you sir."
"Oh no, after you friend Blackfur. Continue, please."
As they stepped out into the afternoon sunlight Blackfur blinked and rubbed his eyes as if unused to the glare.
"I don't have time to waste entertaining every tinker and peddler that comes into town! Tell them to go away! I am a very busy man and I don't want to be disturbed!" came a voice from inside the small stone house. A young girl of about twelve summers stood in the partially open doorway. She looked embarrassed as the voice inside rose to new heights of volume and outrage.
"...and tell that half-witted hammer slinger not to bother me again until after he sobers up!"
"The quiet life?" asked the Reever.
"Oh, he's in fine form today," said Blackfur as if to imply that the priest's behavior were nothing out of the ordinary.
"Pearl," said Blackfur, addressing the girl at the door. "Tell him to come out here himself and that I'm not going to leave until he meets this man here. Then tell him that I said I was gonna go out back to the garden and stomp every one of his precious bok-melons flat if he's not out here double-quick!"
"That ought to stir him out of his book-room," said Blackfur quietly to the Reever as the girl went inside.
"Are you sure that We came to the right place?" asked the Reever.
"Of course I'm sure, Tinhill's a little short tempered at first but he eases off on ye a bit once he gets to know ye.' said Blackfur with a touch of drunken self-confidence. Just then the door burst open to crash against the outside wall with a boom that could be heard across the lake.
"Well?" roared the old man who stood in the doorway. "If you've got something to say, say it! I've got better things to do than..." the priest stopped in astonishment as he caught sight of the Reever. They studied each other for a moment. The priest saw a tall man with a rough face dressed in dusty, grey leather clothes. His boots were stained with green from much travel through the woods. The Reever saw a medium-sized man, bent with age and sorrow. The old man looked to be well past the prime of his life, but not weak with the infirmities one expects with great age.
"As I live and breathe..." the old Priest said quietly. "It is you, isn't it? Far Walker? Reever, of Fort Mountain?..."
For a moment no one spoke. The children could feel the mood Of their elders had shifted somehow. How could they know that the Reever had stepped out of their myths to stand among them?
"Yes it is I," said the Reever. "I am, as I always was, at your service."
"I met you once before," said the Priest, "in my youth. Long, long ago that was. I am Tinhill Nuatul. Once I was High Priest of Antuth in the Kingdom of Urth in the High Valley. Now I am a simple healer here in this village."
"The God of Sun and Stars does not easily give up His Priests," said the Reever. "I remember Tinhill of Cequat, a young man of much promise. I im glad to know that such promise has been fulfilled."
"You are most kind," said Tinhill. "Please allow me to apologize for my outburst. I am an old man and much worry has come to rest on my weak shoulders. Sometimes I tend to let my temper run away with me."
"Sometimes?" Blackfur hissed. "How about every time ye open yer yap these days?"
"Master," said Pearl. "Why do you speak of this man as someone you knew in your youth? He looks far younger than either you or Master Blackfur. How can this be?"
"Let me explain," said the Reever. "I am one of the Immortals. I have lived since the world was young. All that is, all that was, I have seen as I traveled across the globe. Something is wrong here and I must put it right as best I can."
"We welcome your aid," said Tinhill. "Come inside and I will tell you of our plight."
As they listened to Tinhill, one thing became clear to the Reever; he was indeed needed here. The scores of missing people had no one to champion their recovery. The local governments were unable to locate a single victim. No sign was ever seen of these people once they vanished. There was no sign of foul play, other than their absence.
Tinhill spun a tale that was enough to frighten the strongest of men. He had been having visions of a formless monster, like an inky, black cloud, that had been killing or kidnapping women from all around the lake region. He talked about possible traps and weapons and how to find the creature's lair. Hours passed, the sun began to sink low in the western sky, and the Reever needed to return to the Widow Keller's Inn to sleep.
"Until tomorrow," said Tinhill as the Reever and Blackfur left to make their way back to the village. As they walked, the knowledge gained at the Priest's hut ran over and over through the Reever's mind.
Then they heard thunder, faint and seemingly far off.
"A storm?" asked Blackfur. "But the sky is clear..."
"Something is wrong," answered the Reever. "I can feel it. Come on!"
They ran. As they crossed into a clearing, the lake was visible in the far distance. Before them stood a cloud of darkest black, and a young woman wrapped in coils of smoke and floating far off the ground.
"Aden!" cried Blackfur. "Pearl's sister! The thing has her!"
"Quickly!" shouted the Reever. "We must aid her!"
Thunder boomed as lightning split the air. A nearby tree is struck, splits asunder, and falls on Blackfur and the Reever. As they struggle free from the branches and foliage the monster disappears. They finally win free to find themselves alone. Aden is gone.
"What was that thing?" gasped Blackfur.
"I'm not sure, but it was familiar. Like I'd seen it- or something like it before."
"You should know if you've seen that before!" exclaimed Blackfur.
"After thirteen and a half million years of life?" said the Reever. "Its not that simple. I have a lot of memories to sort through."
Bethdish is a world circling a star, called Antuth by the natives (who named the star after the chief deity in their pantheon), presently some 65 lightyears from Earth. Rumor has it that the entire solar system had earlier been located in the Andromeda Galaxy, but was moved by some mysterious force to its new location in our own Milky Way Galaxy. The surviving written history of Bethdish covers some 12,000 years, (with the afore-mentioned displacement to the Milky Way occuring in their year 6055 -- circa 3140 AD, Terran Calendar) but the records of the Immortals reportedly go back roughly a billion years and relate the rise and fall of several civilized eras of non-immortal natives before the present recorded history begins.
The Immortals claim to have been directly created by the Gods of Bethdish, while the diverse non-immortal species are said to have evolved naturally. The several alien colonies now present are, of course, immigrants. One Xenoarcheologist of note, Professor Eustas Gray of the Emperor Norton University of San Francisco, has published several monographs on the subject of excavations on Bethdish that purport to uphold the Immortal's beliefs. Other experts in the field dispute his findings, but all the evidence is not yet in.
Further records of the history of Bethdish are forthcoming from this Author, while previous excerpts are available in your local information network.
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