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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Rachel woke up with a face peering at her upside down.

"Who is this sleeping in my bed?" the girl asked. Her voice was low and sibilant with odd under and overtones, as if she was speaking through the opening in a cello.

Rachel sat up, pulling the bedclothes to her and spun around so that she could see who she was addressing.

The girl standing arms akimbo by the bed was short, no more than a meter and a quarter, and very oddly dressed. She had a sharply pointed face and long, black hair that dropped in curly waves down her back. She was wearing what could only be described as a green leather bikini made of some soft, washed leather. Leaves were entwined in her hair. On her left shoulder she had a pauldron while the other was bare. On her right calf she had a metal greave while her left calf was covered in a fur leg warmer. She was wearing sandals with a very slight heel and on her left forearm was an archer's brace. That appeared to be the only bit of her ensemble that wasn't for show since it was heavily scarred on the inside.

Her ears were pointed and her eyebrows curved upwards sharply . . .

"Are you an elf?" Rachel exclaimed. She had met a few. They were all tall, slender, and wore refined delicate clothing . . . the exact opposite in many ways of the caricature before her.

"Hai," the elf exclaimed, sticking out a hand. That was another oddity; most elves avoided personal contact. "Bast the Wood Elf. Pleased ta meetcha. And who might you be?"

"I'm Rachel, Rachel Ghorbani . . . Edmund is . . ."

"Oh, aye! I know you! Haven't seen you since you were a wee brat, though. No wonder you're fillin' up my bed. I nearly snuggled in with Edmund but he seemed as if he needed the sleep."

"O-kay," Rachel said. "Snuggled in . . . ?"

"Oh, aye," the elf replied. "Yer father an I go way back," she added with a wink. "Before your mother, actually. And after a bit. Not during, though. I think Edmund had been hit on the head one too many times those days to toss me out of his bed for that wee slip of a lass. And you do be favoring her. You're not going to go doing the same, are you?"

"With my father?"

"Ack, guess not. Good. We'll be friends then." Bast grabbed her by the shoulder and dragged her out of the bed, still clutching at the covers. For all her diminutive size the elf was enormously strong. "Come on, gal! Day's a wastin'! Time to be up and about! Time for singin' and dancin'. Wine, men and song!"

"Oh, Good God," Edmund said from the open doorway. "I wondered what that racket was."

"Mundi!" Bast yelled and ran across the room to swarm up the smith. She wrapped both legs around his waist and planted a kiss on him that would have scorched most men to the floor.

"Father! I'm not clothed!" Rachel snapped.

"I've seen it. Hell, I cleaned it as a baby," Edmund answered in a muffled tone. "Bast," he added, unwrapping the elf from his body and lowering her to the floor, "where in the hell did you come from? I thought you were in Elfheim."

"And on that we need to be talking, Edmund Talbot," Bast said with a tone of sadness. "We've much talking to do. But as I was tellin' yer daughter, when I got in last night she was in one bed, Daneh, as I now take it, was in another and you looked all done in. Badly in need of a bit of snugglin', but all done in. So I slept in the forge."

"You didn't have to do that," Edmund said.

"Eh, Carb's good company," the elf said with an eloquent shrug of her shoulders. "He knows some right good dirty jokes."

"Yes, he does," Edmund said, shaking his head. "And you're too old for them. Rachel, for God's sake, get some clothes on and then join us in the kitchen."

"I will if you'll get out of my room!" Rachel snapped.

"Well, maybe later," Bast said, glancing at her again. "I've been known to care for the fairer sex as well . . ." she added with a wink.

She left Rachel sputtering.

* * *

When Rachel entered the kitchen she was surprised to see both Bast and Edmund looking sad and somber. She'd gotten over her surprise at the awakening and was looking forward to talking to the wood elf who had been the first person since the Fall who seemed actively cheerful.

"What's wrong now?" she asked, scooping up a bowl of cornmeal mush, loading it with sorghum syrup and sitting down.

"Elfheim is closed," Edmund said, seriously. "Closed from both sides, apparently."

"The Lady does not want to be involved in your human war," Bast said with another elegant shrug. "So She has closed Elfheim. All of the openings are shut."

"But it's not just a 'human' war," Rachel said. "Paul is against all the Changed as well!"

She looked at Edmund's wince and Bast's amused expression and shook her head. "What did I say?"

"Elves are not Changed," Bast said. "We were before Change. We are ourselves. Not human, not half-human. Humanlike, but not human. We are Elves."

"Paul won't care," Rachel pointed out.

"Ah, agreed," Bast said. "But the Lady makes the decisions for Elfheim and all the Race. And Her decision is to sit this one out as we sat out the AI wars and the Final War. In all of those, individual elves chose sides. It was from the group that fought in the AI wars, on both sides, that the wood elves arose. But the Lady stays neutral."

"Not if Paul wins," Rachel said. "If he wins he'll destroy the elves."

"Maybe," Edmund said. "And then again, maybe not. The Lady has power in her own right. A lot of power. I wouldn't want to go up against her. Is it just you on the outside?"

"No, Gothoriel and others are in exile. I don't know where Gothoriel is now, but he said that he would come here anon."

"And you?"

"I think for a while I will guest with you humans," Bast said with a smile. "The woods are lovely in spring, but after a while hunting for the pot day in and day out begins to pall."

"It's not all beer and skittles here, Bast," Edmund warned. "We're all working as hard as we can."

"Oh, I'm sure I'll find a place to fill some need," the elf said. "There are so many opportunities!" she added with a wink and a wiggle that would have been banned in most ages.

"Minx," Edmund said, standing up. "I've got another meeting to attend in just a few minutes so I had better go get cleaned up. I guess you two can keep yourselves entertained for the day. God help me."

"Oh, I'm sure that Rachel won't let me get in much trouble," Bast said with a wink. "Go scrape a razor on your face, you look like a yeti."

"They're just legends," Rachel said.

"Tell that to the one I was married to for a while," Bast snorted.

"You were married to a yeti?" Rachel snorted. "Even if they were real, I mean why?"

"You ever seen their hands?" Bast said with a laugh. "Now think lower!"

"Argh, I stepped right into that."

"You know you like it," Bast chuckled.

"As the master said to his slave," Rachel retorted then slapped her hand over her mouth. "I can't believe I said that."

"Neither can I!" Bast said with a glower. "You beat me to it!"

"Bast, there's something important I have to tell you," Rachel said.

"It's okay, I don't really go both ways," Bast replied. "Often."

"No, not that," Rachel said exasperatedly. "I'm serious. On the way here my mother . . . we ran into some men."

Bast leaned forward and stared into Rachel's eyes. "She had a bad time with them?"

"Yes," Rachel replied, thankful that she didn't have to say the words.

"Where?" Bast asked.

"On a trail. South of the Via Appalia."

"Hai. Take me to the place. They will not make same mistake twice. I'll use hot irons, they'll even be able to walk after a few days. If they survive the shock."

"It's a long way from here . . ." Rachel said.

"Not so far, I'd make it in one day," Bast replied.

"And they'd be gone from there . . ."

"Am I not Bast? The greatest tracker in all of Norau, perhaps all of Elfdom?" Bast said.

"I don't know, are you?" Rachel replied with a slight chuckle. "Bast, the point is, we also know who they are. It was Dionys McCanoc and his merry men."

"Ach! That one! Him I'd kill just for the fun of it!"

"But the point is that going back to where it happened wouldn't help."

"No, you're right," Bast said, frowning. "He would not linger. So I must find him further afield."

"What? Why?" Rachel said.

"He hurt your mother," Bast said as if that settled it. "You are my friend. And he hurt the lover of my best human friend, Edmund Talbot. For that, I shall mount his balls on my trophy wall!" She paused and frowned. "If I can ever get back to my apartment in Elfheim."

"Apartment?"

"Close enough for human words," Bast said. "More of a closet, really, but with a very fine view of the next tree and if you lean way over," she added, suiting actions to words, "you can see a stream. A small one. More of a run-off creek, really. Intermittent anyway. Elfheim is . . . rather crowded. We're immortal. Even with not having babies very often, hardly at all, really, it's gotten . . . crowded."

"I'm surprised more of you don't live in the World," Rachel said, wide-eyed. Her image of the elves had never included them living shoulder to shoulder.

"Me too," Bast admitted. "But in Elfheim, most of them live in the Dream of the Woods, rather than in the real woods. In some ways, the Dream is better, more intense, than the reality. But I like to touch the woods, to see the trees grow, to watch the petal open in reality, even if it is less . . . beautiful than Dream."

"And so you're caught out here," Rachel said.

"Yes, severed from the Dream," Bast sighed. "Some day the Lady will relent and we exiles will return. Until the Dream palls upon me and I must walk the world of Men once more. To see the buds open in the sicamauga tree and to watch the trout leaping in the streams. To see each day anew, less perfect than Dream but oh so much more real."

"And as if the last few days haven't been really bad enough," Daneh said from the door to the kitchen. "Hello Bast."

"Daneh! My friend, how are you?" the elf asked.

"Better than I was," she replied. "Did I hear you two talking about Elfheim?"

"A bit, I like your daughter. She has grown much. You humans grow so quickly!"

"And die just as quickly," Daneh sighed, coming over to the table and sitting down. "How have you been?"

"I have been much," Bast said. "I have traveled much this time out. Always before I was in Norau, and eastern Norau at that. The woods are so lovely now, I have watched them grow and grow. But this time I took a trip to the jungles in the south. They are much more rich than the woods, especially the parts that missed the Great Killing, but . . . I missed my woods. And there were too many things in the south that made me itchy." She paused and looked past Daneh. "Daneh, stay still. You are being stalked."

"That's just Azure," Rachel said. She walked over and opened up the cold stove and took from it some more of the meat she had had the night before. "Here Azure."

The cat took it and sniffed at it then held it down with one paw to tear at the meat. He didn't seem particularly hungry, though, because after taking a bite or two he started to toss the piece around like a squeaky-toy.

"That is a white leopard if ever I saw one," Bast said warily. "They seem friendly, sure. But I had one leap on me in the mountains once. What a fight!"

"When was that?" Daneh asked, getting her own bowl of mush.

"When I lived with the yetis that this youngster says are a myth," Bast replied. "They lived in high mountains, far from here. I had heard of them and wanted to know the truth so I stayed with them and took a man among them. I bore his child and then when the child aged and the man was long dead I left, lest I see the child age and die as well." For just a moment she looked sad but then she brightened. "Hey, there are probably some long-lived yetis these days, ey?"

"You lived with . . ." Daneh said. "You had . . . I don't believe it!"

"Tell me I lie," Bast said with a chuckle. "Go there and find out."

"How did you, I mean . . ."

"Everyone's the same height lying down!" Bast said.

"Not something I want to think about right now," Daneh said.

"So I was told," Bast replied, looking sad again. "Are humans long lived enough to forget?"

"Forget, never," Daneh said. "Repair? Rebuild? I don't know. Ask me some other time."

"Nothing gets better if you pick at it," Bast said. "You are too good to be always in hurt. Someday, get back on the horse. Well, maybe not horse . . ."

"Bast!" Rachel snapped.

"You can't quell her," Daneh said, shaking her head. "She's been like this for as long as I've known her and longer."

"Life is too short to cry," Bast said. "Even for an elf. Horse, it's gonna buck and you're not going to like the ride at first, but you'll get past it. You're strong. Hey, Rachel, let's go out and see what mischief we can wreak!"

"Bast . . ." Daneh said.

"Always so serious," the elf replied soberly, reaching out to stroke her cheek. "I won't get your child in trouble, Daneh Ghorbani-Talbot. On my honor as a wood elf. Right now, you have enough problems."

"It's just Ghorbani, Bast."

"So, if not horse you get back on . . ."

"Enough!"

"Right, we're out of here," she said, grabbing Rachel by the shoulder again.

Rachel found herself being dragged to the door. "Bye Mom. We'll talk later!"

"Try to keep her out of trouble," Daneh said.

"Me?"

"You have sense."

Azure watched them wander out, then looked over at Daneh.

"I don't know," the woman grumbled. "You think I can keep an eye on her?"

The cat seemed to shrug then, with one more look at the woman, turned in the other direction and nudged open the back door.

"And don't you stay out too late, either!" Daneh called after him.

* * *

Sheida sat up in her bed and stretched, rubbing at her temples in an attempt to quell the myriad voices that seemed to be running around in her head. Managing the avatars was turning out to be harder than she had ever imagined. Each of them was an almost perfect replica of her, just as sentient, just as "alive" and just as capable of making decisions. But she was the final repository and judge, so every day, sometimes every hour, they sent her gestalts of their actions. The gestalts tended to have their own personality attached and since the avatars were "her" there would be emotional content included. It was the best way to manage the massive number of interactions necessary to maintain some order in the chaos following the Fall, but it was beginning to drive her just a little bit crazy.

She crawled across the bed and stuck her feet into slippers, padding across the empty room to a table at the side.

"Tea, raspberry," she said, sitting down on the float-chair and taking the tea as it appeared in the air. She sipped the bitter-sweet concoction and considered the situation that her avatars had reported. So far, the loss of life in Norau had been low, considering the conditions. People were responding to the emergency much better than she had dreamed was possible. Communities were opening up their limited stores and trying to get people back on their feet. In the central plains area it was easier than in the others since food, for the time being, was in abundance. It would be nice if there was some way to move it outward, but so far none of the plans for that had worked.

She shook her head and realized that she had to start worrying long term rather than short. Right now things were stabilizing. But Paul was continuing his assault on every power plant available to the Coalition and he'd managed to take two down. Furthermore, he was beginning ground attacks against settlements that were in support of the Coalition. There had to be some way to counterattack, but everything they had tried had failed.

"Sheida." An avatar of Ungphahorn had appeared in the room and she looked at it with a frown. It was hard to read a quetzacoatl but he appeared worried.

"Yes."

"Paul has destroyed the Amricar power plant," the quetza said tonelessly.

"How?" she sighed.

"A massive energy burst burned through the force-field and he sent in a suicide squad behind it. They overwhelmed the guards and then sent the plant into overload."

"Where in the hell are they getting all this power?" she snarled. "It's all we can do to keep them from breaking through our defenses and they have enough storage for this?"

"I don't know," he replied. "I have given the full report to Harry, perhaps he can shed some light on the subject. In the meantime, I have other needs to attend to. Take care."

"Same to you," she sighed again, pulling at her hair. The door chimed and she shook her head. "Enter."

Harry came in carrying a pad, his expression grim.

"You know about Amricar?" he asked, pulling up another float-pad. Since being translated to Eagle Home he had taken up a position equivalent to aide, dealing mostly with minor issues that required human management but that she didn't even set her avatars on. He also had been trying to develop as much intelligence about Paul's side, including their near-term intentions, as possible.

His thigh had been repaired but he still had a slight limp. She sometimes wondered if it was from lack of therapy or if it was psychosomatic. Nobody in this fallen world seemed to be without scars.

"He told me, but I don't believe it," she snorted. "How much power did they use?"

"Nearly forty terawatts, concentrated in an area less than a meter across," he replied.

"Forty?" she gasped. "Even Mother would find it hard to manage that!"

"And She is the only one that could be providing it," he replied, grimly. "That's not all. There was another attack on Sowese and they used another thirty on that. They have the constant output of their plants, to the watt, on our shields; we can't even move in or out without translating, which takes power. And yet they're finding more, much more, to attack us."

"The elves?" she asked, quietly.

"I . . . don't know," Harry said. "Do the elves have their own power sources?"

"Yes," she replied. "Powerful ones. But . . . the Lady said that they were sitting this out."

"Perhaps you should contact her and get some confirmation on that," Harry said dryly.

"The Lady is not someone you just send an avatar to," Sheida replied. "Among other things, with Elfheim closed, there's no way that I know of to get to her. She'd have to contact us."

"One of the elves that is in the Outside?"

"I don't think they can get through either," she said with a shake of her head. "There is one hanging around Edmund, I'll send him a message. But we must find new sources of power!"

"We've penetrated the Stone Lands and all the other active volcanic areas in Norau and off the coast," he said. "There's no more to be drawn there. We could try deep mantle insertions, but that has never been very stable."

"Nuclear, hydro . . . there were other forms of power generation once," she muttered.

"I suppose," he replied, frowning. "But they did a lot of damage. And how much could you get from them? Compared to a fusion plant or the tectonics?"

"We can get some," she replied. "With the loss of Amricar we are truly up a creek without a paddle. I think I'll contact Aikawa. He sees opportunities where most don't."

"In addition to the power wars, Paul is moving on the ground as well," Harry said, bring up a hologram. "He has consolidated all of Ropasa and Frika. Chansa has taken control in most of Frika, and Celine controls Efesia. Minjie and Aikawa are battling over control of Vishnya and the other areas around that region.

"The oceans are a real toss-up. Most of the mer and delphinos are taking a neutral position but Paul has a significant number of kupuas and ixchitl that have come to his side. They're not attacking the mer, yet. But I think they're biding their time.

"And there are significant Destiny societies in both Soam and Norau with virtually no corresponding Coalition areas in Ropasa or Frika. Or areas that have declared themselves to be neutral, in Norau at least." He said the latter with a frown.

"I'm not going to force them," Sheida said, shaking her head. "We need to get in contact with all the towns that have gotten on their feet. It's about time for a constitutional convention."

"You're actually going ahead with that?" he said, shaking his head in reply. "Sheida, this is a war. It's not something you want run by a committee!"

"I'm also not going to fight it with slaves," she replied. "Or serfs or anything of the sort. People will fight harder for their freedom than they will for chains."

"But not necessarily as well," Harry said. "Okay, if that's how you want to run it, fine. But we've got enemies in our bosom right now. And the Kent has declared itself to be neutral. We need those horsemen if we're ever going to fight on the ground in earnest."

"In good time," Sheida replied. "Is there any good news?"

"Ungphakorn seems to be holding the Destiny forces that have been pushing against him from Edor. He gathered up a motley army of refugees and they are holding the main pass out of Edor into Bovil where most of his communities have concentrated. Other than that, no."

"Well, we'll just have to hope that it holds," she replied.

"I . . . have a question," Harry said, looking at the hologram of the world that was still spangled with red and green.

"Shoot."

"Tanisha has turned in her Key," Harry said.

"Yes, she has," Sheida replied evenly. "She found herself slipping into Dream."

"Has it been reassigned?"

"Yes, it has."

"To whom?"

"Elnora Sill. She is a protégé of Aikawa."

"Okay," Harry replied, flexing his jaw. He paused for a moment then shook his head. "Did you even consider asking me?" he asked, evenly.

"No," Sheida said, just as evenly.

"What? Why?" Harry said, surprised.

"Aikawa asked for it to go to Elnora," Sheida replied. "And I have known Elnora for some time. She is well trained in Web management and has practiced extensively in avatar generation. That was what crushed Tanisha; the inability to split herself and the lure of Dream. You have no training in splitting or resisting Dream."

"And I can't get it if I don't have a Key," Harry argued doggedly.

"You could," Sheida replied. "It doesn't take any more power than what you are doing already. And it's a good way to get things done. Very effective time management. But also somewhat dangerous. It's easy to find your personality splitting or to lose control of an avatar that becomes too much 'itself.' If you want to split, just ask and I'll approve it."

"And to get a Key, I have to learn to split myself?" he asked.

"There is no sure path to becoming a member of the Council," Sheida said. "But learning to split, effectively, is a good first step."

"Yes, ma'am," the aide said, flexing his jaw again.

"Don't get snippy," Sheida said tiredly. "You asked. I answered."

"I understand," Harry replied, standing up. "Is there anything else?"

"No," she said. "I'm going to have a light meal and get some real sleep. All my avatars have been dispelled and for once I can wake up knowing it's me."

"I . . . very well," he replied, frowning. "Good night, then."

"Good night, Harry," she said to his retreating back.

And it will be a cold day in hell before I let you have a Key.  

The first thing that a Council member should know is that it was a curse, not a boon. And wanting it was halfway to never getting it.

"For Brutus is an honorable man," she muttered. "Genie, light meal . . ."

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