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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

"What is it now, Celine?" Chansa said, impatiently. He had given up running multiple avatars and had instead transferred to the lab.

"I thought you should see my newest toy," Celine said with a smile. "It's . . . right up your alley."

She led him down a corridor, then through a series of security screens until they were looking down into a metal-lined pit. Inside was a bipedal beast. It was nearly three meters in height, stoop shouldered and long of leg with massive biceps and thighs. The fingers were long and strong with hooked claws. The face was bestial but it looked up at them with a surprising degree of intelligence and Chansa could see it sizing up the walls trying to determine if it could reach the top. The eyes also burned with fury and it finally leapt into the air, striking a punitive force screen that threw it back to the floor. It screamed in pain and rage.

"Interesting," Chansa agreed. "This is, indeed, worth my time. If, of course, these things are controllable. And how hard are they to produce?"

"Well, this one is a prototype," Celine said with a feral grin. "Look closer. Do you see anything different?"

Chansa looked more closely and shrugged in irritation. "Don't play games with me, Celine. It's a Change."

"But not a human Change," Celine said with a laugh.

Chansa looked closer at the face and body and then blanched. "Elf?" he snapped. "Are you mad? If you bring the elves in on the Freedom side . . ."

"They don't know that I have him," Celine said imperturbably. "And now that I'm done he can be eliminated. But capturing elves and then converting them is so . . . intensive. Follow me."

She led him deeper into the complex and down a series of stairs deep under the lab. As they went downward the composition of the walls changed from the smooth plastic of the majority of the lab to rough masonry and then natural rock.

"This facility is old," she said, waving around. "It was a castle in the depths of time but later it was a military stronghold and research center. This portion is ancient, so old it predates the known history. One wonders what mysteries were plumbed since its construction."

There was cold breeze upon the stair that carried from the depths a whiff of corruption, at first faint but then stronger until they reached a stair above a large, deep cavern, apparently natural.

The passageway above had been lit by the cool, omnidirectional light of glowpaint but the cavern was lit only by torches placed at great distances. They gave off a faint, flickering light that barely relieved the gloom and weirdly lit the eldritch scene. For the vast room was packed with life.

In the center was a pit filled with a black, nameless goo that roiled with movement. Surrounding the pit were low masses of nameless purple fungi that extended delicate pseudpods to its edge and apparently drew sustenance from it. Extending outward from these, others seem to draw from them in turn until the entire room was packed with strange growths, colored in noisome purple and leprous green. The growths reached all the way to the walls and there pods appeared, some still small but others the size of Chansa's torso. The fungi were not still, but seemed to pulse in the odd light, many of them shimmering with colors and giving off a faint glow of their own. The overall impression was of a gigantic organism driven to some malign purpose.

"Okay," he choked out after a moment, trying to conceal how disgusted he was, "this is pretty . . . horrible."

"Oh, it is far more than that," Celine laughed lightly and led him down the stairs and to one of the pods against the wall.

"Here, look here," Celine said, excitedly, kneeling down to rub the noisome black liquid off of the pouch. "Look."

Chansa, fighting his gorge, squatted down opposite her and looked at the sack, moving the torch around to try to see through the translucent material of which it was made. As he moved the torch to the side and leaned forward for a better look, the sack gave a lurch from within and a face out of nightmare turned up to look at him.

It was the face of an elven child, perfect and pure, and it twisted and struggled against the enwrapping material, seeming to scream from within the liquid. It had an expression of absolute pain and total horror and its eyes were open and unseeing. After a brief, merciful, moment its writhings took it out of sight if not mind.

Chansa rocked back and looked across at the woman who had created this monstrosity.

"My God, Celine, even for you . . . !"

"It is perfect, no?" she replied, her eyes bright and her mouth moist in the torchlight. "Do you know the story of the elves?" she asked, snatching back the torch and standing up.

"No, I do not," Chansa said, considering translating out right now. For whatever reason they were brought to the conspiracy, this . . . infernal pit was beyond anything that could be allowed to exist.

"They were created by the North American Union as the perfect soldier," she said walking over to the main portion of the pit and turning to look at him with the pit as her backdrop. "But the spineless leaders of that weak and puling land wanted soldiers that could be trusted to bring as little harm as possible to the people that they fought. That . . . idiot society thought that they could take the sting, the horror, from war."

"That is a somewhat incorrect description . . ." Chansa said but was cut off.

"They created the elves as their supersoldiers, mostly from the genes of the chimpanzees. They had studied the best of their own soldiers and come to the conclusion that the primary strength of the greatest was, believe it or not, calmness. They wanted soldiers who would not, even in the greatest stress of battle, perform atrocities, so they made them calm. They bred a species that was so calm that after a time they would not fight at all. Indeed, many opted out from the beginning, preferring to spend all their time in games and, eventually, the Dream."

"Elves do not fight," Chansa said. "Well, hardly ever."

"Of course not," Celine snorted. "They're all living in a delightful world of perfect calmness; why should they fight? But the basics of the elves remain. Intense strength, incredible reflexes, superhuman intelligence and the ability to turn aside the stress of war and simply be in the most intense battlefield. And the weak scientists of Norau failed in only one particular. What they forgot was anger. These, these will never quit killing for all the rage and hatred for which they hold the world. And they are fully under our control, I have ensured that. Whosoever couples that to their side will surely defeat all of their opponents!"

"And . . . this?!" Chansa said, waving at the pit. "You breed elves?"

"I breed demons," Celine laughed happily. "The elves have not self bred for a thousand years; they are born of special trees under the dispensation of the Lady. I simply . . . tweaked the method a bit. There they are born in pain and that pain and anger remains with them all of their lives. The perfect monster. And they can grow with anything. Take a seed of the growing pit, put it in a dark place, feed it with fell meats, and . . . power! Just one specimen of the pit, fed with sufficient organic material, and this whole room will grow from it. And in time . . . warriors." She laughed delightedly and patted the pouch like a mother might pat her pregnant belly.

Chansa lowered the barriers of his horror and thought about that. "How long for them to grow?"

"Oh, some years," Celine admitted. "But they can grow on practically nothing, anywhere that conditions are appropriate in the caverns of the area. The cavern can't be too hot or too cold and there has to be no sunlight; the fungi are very susceptible to ultraviolet. But, within those constraints, we can grow them in job lots."

"We must keep this secret," Chansa said.

"Oh, yes," Celine replied. "We must surprise those weak fools who would stand in the way of my research."

"I wasn't thinking of them," Chansa snapped. "I'm still hoping beyond hope we can conceal it from Her Ladyship!"

"All it is is a bit of genetic manipulation," Celine smiled. "Everyone does that."

* * *

Azure woke up, stretched and sniffed the morning air. From the scent of the house it was obvious that the main human had gone and not much food was left around to scrounge. He walked to the back, nudged open the door and stalked outside.

Another quick sniff confirmed that there was nothing to eat, screw or fight in the immediate vicinity. How boring. There was a faint chittering of mice somewhere in the woodpile, but that was hardly worth his time. After contemplating the distressingly empty scene for a moment, he wandered down the hill to Raven's Mill.

It was immediately apparent that more of the humans were in town than normal. And the excess didn't seem to be doing anything except scratching fleas. He wandered through town, accepting the occasional pet on the head that was only his due, headed in the general direction of the kitchens. So there he was, peacefully minding his own business, when he spotted what he had been searching for; a new dog in town.

Perhaps apprised by an instinct for trouble, after a few moments the napping Rottweiler opened up his eyes and scanned the area. Much to his surprise, the first thing that he saw was the world's largest house cat. Glaring at him. Balefully.

Azure wasn't too sure what was going through the doggie's simple little mind, but it probably was something like this: Cat. Big cat, but cat. Must chase.

The Rottweiler began barking frantically, on his feet now and edging closer to the cat.

Azure cleaned one paw, sliding the five centimeter retractable claws out to carefully get underneath.

The dog got closer, barking harder, unable to believe that any cat, no matter how large, would be stupid enough to stand up to him.

Azure used the paw to clean his ear, rubbing hard to make sure he got it good, one eye closed in apparent ecstasy.

Finally, enraged beyond reason, the Rottweiler charged. With an apparently startled yowl, Azure leapt straight into the air, landing on the dog's back. The yelp that was emitted was more of a scream as sixty kilos of happy cat landed on the dog's back. The Rottweiler tried to roll and for a few moments there was nothing but dust, yelps and the furious yowling of an enraged tomcat.

Finally one side of the dust cloud spit out a badly mauled Rotweiler, which disappeared into the distance. As the dust settled Azure was revealed peacefully cleaning a spot of dirt off of one leg. After a moment he stood up, stretched, then wandered over to the patch of sunshine the Rottweiler had previously occupied.

Checking the area for signs of threat, he turned around a couple of times, dug at the ground to prepare it to properly accept his personage, and curled up in a ball. In a moment he was, apparently, sound asleep. But one ear was cocked vertically and twitched back and forth as if it were a doggie-search radar.

* * *

Herzer awoke with a feeling of disorientation and it took him a moment to remember that he was back in the dormitories in Raven's Mill. He had been sleeping out for so long, or so it felt, that the dimness of the interior was startling. He felt in his pockets for his chits and was relieved they were still there. After bathing the night before he had hung around with Courtney and Mike through dinner, then afterwards had wandered around the town. The entire population of the surrounding area seemed to have descended upon the town in anticipation of the free-day. The town was filled with groups of people, most of them sitting around talking. Almost no one had anything in the way of cash or trade available to them so while there were some merchants offering wares, there was very little in the way of buying.

Herzer ended up buying a small leather pouch to hold his coins and tossed a few more of those coins to a redheaded female fiddle player who had staked out a spot by the stream and was playing mostly traditional Celtic ballads. But the privations of the previous month had taught him the importance of always knowing where your next meal was coming from so he was careful not to run through his spare change too quickly.

After a moment he sat up, rolled up the fur blanket and stuffed it in the wicker basket, grateful for both of Bast's gifts. After the previous week he had become used to the relative comfort of a bed made of spruce boughs, especially compared to hard packed earth. But the blanket had enough cushion that it mitigated sleeping on the ground again. The part that annoyed him was that he had no place to leave anything; if he left the basket and blanket in the dormitories it was sure to disappear in an instant. That thought extended to the fact that except for his clothes, basket, blanket and now pouch, he had nothing of his own. Mike and Courtney didn't even have that. He had stepped in one moment from a life of wretched affluence to complete lack thereof. He realized that he wanted a place of his own, even if it was just a bed and . . . a place to store his blanket in relative security.

He walked out into the town wondering abstractedly if joining the apprenticeship program was really the best thing he could have done. He had skills related to this technology level. He knew he could fight, if he could get his hands on some weapons and equipment. There were things to be gathered in the wilderness; he remembered June's comments about clothing and how nobody had anything. There were deserted homes aplenty in the wilderness. He could find them, somehow, and pull out anything of value. Surely that would mean more than a couple of extra chits a week and bleeding hands from cutting trees.

On the other hand, some of the homes belonged to people who were right here in Raven's Mill. And how would he feel if someone went into his bungalow and took all of his clothes?

He thought about that for a little longer and contemplated, for the first time in his life, the whole subject of looting. All the games he had played had assumed an ethical indifference to it. Kill the orcs, take their gold. He suddenly realized the games never included hungry orc children when their crops had been burned.

Even a bow. He knew next to nothing about hunting but he knew that he could hit what he aimed at. He wondered for a moment if he should go look up the guard force and try to enlist. Did it make sense to waste another twelve weeks of his life learning things he would never have a need for? He knew he wasn't going to be a maker of charcoal or a woodcutter or a tanner. There had to be something more than this.

These gloomy thoughts carried him through his morning ablutions, peeing in the public jakes and washing his face in a font of water diverted from an uphill stream. He walked over to the community kitchens looking anxiously at the sky. The sun was well up. He had slept through the majority of the morning and he was afraid they might have already closed to prepare for the lunch meal. His stomach was rumbling and it would be unpleasant to wait.

They were open, however, and the smell from the kitchens made his mouth water. He handed over his chit to a pleasant-faced girl holding down the entrance and walked over to the serving line. To his amazement there was far more than a bubbling pot of mush. The mush was there but so were eggs to order, fried potatoes, rounds of a golden, rich-looking bread, jam, butter and piles of steaming sausage being kept warm in pans by the fire. Instead of the usual roughly formed wooden bowls there were slabs of wood.

"This is nice," he said to the server, giving her a warm smile.

"The council decided that a rest day should mean a day of celebration," she replied, smiling back. "So they allotted extra food for today."

"And better," Herzer said. "What can I have?"

"Take anything you'd like," she said with a vixenish grin. "But eat everything that you take."

"Hmmm . . ." he replied.

"How would you like your eggs?" she asked, picking up a frying pan.

"Eggs . . ." Herzer said, shaking his head. "I have no idea."

"Fried? Scrambled? Over?"

"Over I guess. Uh . . . whites cooked."

"No problem," she said. "It'll take just a moment."

He picked up a piece of the bread. It was baked brown on the outside, not much bigger than his hand, and emitted a rich, buttery aroma. He broke it open and the interior, instead of being white, was a light golden brown. He took a sniff and a nibble, then ripped off a large piece and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing happily.

"Iff ig goob!" he muttered, his mouth full. "Iff ig erly goob!"

The two cooks laughed and the server who was doing his eggs flipped them over and winked at him.

"That's just about the oldest known recipe for bread in the world," the girl said. "We've just now been able to make enough flour for it."

"Wug ib it?" Herzer asked, then cleared his mouth. "I mean, 'what is it?' "

"That's the bread that built the pyramids," an older woman answered. "Egyptian bread. Heavy, doughy, chock full of vitamins and minerals."

"Bread and beer," he said with a nod. "I'd heard of it, but this was not what I expected as the 'bread.' This is a meal in itself."

"That's what they say," the server replied cheerily. "They built the pyramids on bread and beer with a little fish and, on a holiday like today, a bit of meat. And look what they did." She looked somber for a moment as she flipped his eggs out of the pan and onto his slab of a plate.

He leaned forward and laid a hand on hers.

"Someday they'll look back on us and say the same thing," he said with a nod.

She smiled back whimsically then leaned sideways and speared one of the link sausages.

"Sausage?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.

So how come it took the end of the world for women to start to notice me? Herzer thought. The term that came to Herzer's mind was "saucy wench." She was nicely, and unfashionably, rounded, and had somewhere dredged up a period dress that was just a tad too small for her up top; it showed a more than ample quantity of her limited bosom. Red curls peeked from under her cap but that was all that could be seen of her hair. Another memory floated to the surface and he smiled at her.

"No thanks," he said with a wink. "Sixteen's my limit."

He did grab a bowl of cornmeal mush—he didn't know what he'd do without a bowl of mush in the morning—another piece of the bread, and butter and jam for the mush. He took his heavily loaded tray over to one of the tables and sat down, looking out the open sides of the mess hall. More people were moving around but like the night before there wasn't any focus. Groups were gathering along the stream, talking, occasionally arguing. Looking around at all the people, he realized all the people he didn't know in the town. There must have been at least two or three thousand who had gathered to the town and he probably only knew fifteen or twenty of them. It was strange to feel alone with so many people around him. He also realized how . . . diverse and yet curiously constrained his life had been before the Fall.

He had never attended the Faires, and the largest gatherings he had ever been at before were parties like Marguerite's. His illness had tended to make him avoid groups where he didn't know the people and as it progressed he had become more and more of a loner. Right now he probably had more friends, counting some of the members of the class as friends, than he ever had in his life. And was around more people in one area than he had ever seen.

He thought about trying to run Mike and Courtney down or one of the other members of the class but he didn't have any idea how. The two of them had wandered off the night before to try to find someplace they could doss together rather than in the segregated dormitories and at this point they could be anywhere in the town. He considered going up to the baths. He could probably strike up a conversation there. But he reconsidered when he thought about his dwindling money supply. It was oddly depressing to realize how limiting it was to have an unavailability of funds. He'd been given two meal chits "over and above" his three squares a day. It was already so late in the day that it would be worth it to skip lunch, thus giving him that much more disposable funds. So that would give him three chits over and above food. He'd used a tenth for the bath and another tenth to have his clothes cleaned. A tenth for the singer and a quarter for the pouch. It seemed a lot for a little piece of sewn leather, but on the other hand he'd talked the vendor down from a half. He wasn't exactly burning through his money but there was tonight and tomorrow to think about. There was also next week; there was no guarantee that he'd get another bonus. When he got out of the apprenticeship program, whether he joined the guard or found another use for his skills, it would be good to have a little start-up money. So he intended to be very conservative.

While he was contemplating his money situation, his eyes unseeingly scanning the crowd outside the building, the server he had been talking to came over and plopped down on the bench across from him, breaking the view and bringing him back to the present with a jolt.

She fanned her hand theatrically at her face and sighed, smiling at him as she did so.

"Been working hard?" Herzer asked, stirring the last of the mush in his bowl.

"Ah! You missed it, it was a madhouse in here!" she said, waving at her face again although there was no apparent sweat. "But, I've got this afternoon and all of tomorrow off for working this morning. Morgen Kirby," she continued, extending her hand across the table.

"Herzer Herrick," Herzer replied, taking the hand. It was delightfully warm.

"Herzer Herrick," she said, rolling the sound on her tongue. "Her-zer Herrick! It's got a delightfully masculine sound to it!"

"Well you're the first person who ever said that." Herzer laughed, shaking his head.

"So what do you do for your meal chits, Herzer Herrick?"

"I'm in the apprenticeship program," he said, spooning up the last of the meal. The majority of the mob had apparently drifted off and they were close enough to the stream for the sound of chuckling water to reach them along with a pleasantly cool breeze. Herzer was pretty sure he could go on sitting here forever, especially if it meant not having to cut any more trees. And he really didn't even want to think about going back to work.

"Maybe I should go over there," she replied. "I am not going to stay working in a kitchen for the rest of my life. Will you look at these hands," she added, holding up the appendages in question.

Herzer's first thought was that they were quite shapely and altogether pleasant. But he was pretty sure she was referring to the fact that they were somewhat red and chapped. So saying "they look pretty good to me" was probably out.

"If I never wash another bowl in my life it will be too soon," she said, shaking her head.

Something, something . . . Herzer wracked his brains for a moment. Which plant was it? Bast had said something on their walk . . . It had broad leaves . . . and a purple flowerhead if he remembered correctly.

"I might know something that would help with that," he said, turning one of her hands over and running a finger across the palm, at which Morgen gave a delightful twitch.

"Really," she asked huskily then cleared her throat. "We had some oil that I rubbed on them, but it didn't help much."

"Well, I don't think it will cure anything permanently," Herzer pointed out thoughtfully. "But it should help some. It's a plant . . . and it will take some searching to find it. . . ."

"Where?"

"Out in the woods, along streambeds where it's dark and moist. I'll have to get up on the hills and out of the cleared areas."

"Out in the woods?" she asked dubiously, surprise evident on her face.

"Yeah," Herzer replied, raising an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Well . . . people don't go in the woods much these days. You know there are wild animals out there?"

"Yes."

"There are tigers and leopards and mountain lions?"

Herzer thought about it for a moment and shrugged.

"Haven't been eaten yet."

"Oh." Pause. "Well when are you planning on going?"

"I don't have anything better to do. I'll probably go now."

"Well, if you wait until we're done with the breakfast dishes, I could come along."

"Aren't you afraid of being eaten?" Herzer asked, then hastily added: "By a tiger?"

"Not if I'm with you," she replied.

"Well . . . I'll be back in a little bit."

She smiled and picked up his tray, carrying it back over to the serving area with a decided sway to her hips.

Okay, Herzer thought. What is it about the end of the world?

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