Chapter Seven

 

Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum!

 

The voice of the System pierced through the havoc that was the Guardian’s current blur of violent thoughts.  Due to the way in which the System was currently engaging with the creature, its voice sounded as though it came from without, an external but unseen presence.

 

“This System detects multiple behavioral errors in standard protocol subroutines of the Guardian unit.  Recommend temporary shutdown until maintenance units can retrieve Guardian and place it back within the stasis chamber.”

 

“Never again,” the Guardian roared, leveling its arm and launching another rocket out into the city.  The projectile impacted with a tall, narrow building with a circular dish mounted on its top, and the resulting explosion sent the upper half of the building upward and outward, towards the jungle.  “I will not sleep, not ever again!”  Pivoting to its left, the Guardian smashed its left forearm through a support column fronting yet another of the city’s scores of structures.

 

The Guardian started running forward, a storage hatch in his left upper thigh whirring open.  He reached in and withdrew a long silver-plated handle, his thumb finding the red button that activated the energy-formed axe head from the weapon’s core.  Charging at nearly full speed, he skidded to a halt just in front of one of the residential buildings that once housed research staff on the island’s facility.  Using its momentum and raw power, enhanced by pistons and gravity modifiers embedded in its arm, it swung the energy axe in a sweeping left-to-right arc, blasting through the front of the structure with ease.

 

The rubble from his blow scattered through the air, bouncing off of the blacktop street he stood upon.  A proximity signal lit up the right side of his vision, and he wheeled left to spot a pack of brutes, all of them coming at him in a wedge formation.  “Puny little insects,” he rumbled, squaring himself with the oncoming beasts.  “Come and be destroyed!”  Formidable foes though the brutes might have been in such numbers for the average warrior, they were felled in battle with almost no effort by the Guardian.  His energy axe cut the foremost three brutes cleanly in half, their lower torsos taking several more running steps before collapsing in bloody heaps to the street.  Another leaped high with its fist cocked back, but the Guardian caught it in its free right hand, using the repulsor unit in its palm to send a blast of blue energy through its writhing body.  He dropped its limp, ragged form to the ground with its kin.

 

This is only a warm-up, the Guardian thought.

 

Henden brought his people to a stop with a single hand motion as he nearly ran right into the back of Telfin once more.  “What is it, why have you stopped,” he asked in a rush, panting.  Telfin’s head unit cocked to one side, as if observing some unseen curiosity.  Its eyes blinked rapidly with a green light, and then returned to their standard yellow shine.

 

“For some unknown reason, the System has returned control of the SF0012 units to me.  The lone remaining Heavy Roller has also been rerouted to my command input, and the Light Rollers have all gone offline,” said Telfin in a hushed tone.  “I believe the Guardian has severed its link to the System.”

 

“So what does that mean for us,” Henden asked, rubbing his artificial arm.

 

“It means that the System’s authorization protocols have automatically assigned secondary systems’ control to the next ranking unit, which is myself.  I have already sent a recognition command to the remaining units to act as defenders for ourselves and your companions throughout the city,” said the machine man.   “It also means that the Guardian is likely on the warpath and hunting for us.  We should make haste back to your vessel.”

 

As the group got to running again, the Gnome Engineer remembered something that he should have brought up moments ago.  “Um, the Steel Fist is sort of broken, remember?  The captain and his crew haven’t had the chance to fix it so as we can get back on the water.”

 

“That is, as your people say, a bridge we shall cross when we come to it,” said Telfin, long legs pumping away.

 

“If this Guardian doesn’t burn it first,” the Patriarch muttered darkly, trying to keep up.

 

Hina wondered if perhaps what she saw to the west at the intersection her group was charging through could somehow be even more terrifying than what she’d seen in her prophetic dream vision.  When the Guardian dropped the sack of dead meat from its right hand, she came to the conclusion that yes, it probably was more frightening, now that the creature was so close.

 

The only pleasant surprise her group came across was the squad of ten or eleven machine sentries that went running right past them on the left, their weapons readied by their tube-like head units fixed straight ahead down the street in the direction they had come from.  “What’s going on with them,” Timothy asked as they continued to run along.  “I thought for sure they were going to open fire on us.”

 

“I’m pretty sure they have something worse to worry about than us,” shouted Henry, the Kobold Aeromancer.  He was riding a swirling white ball of concentrated wind again, but it didn’t seem he could make it go any faster than it was, even if he wanted it to. “And if you saw what I did back there, they’re not going to be any threat anyway in about two minutes.”

 

“Agreed,” said Hina, using a brief Scan spell to look ahead.  There were more machine units coming from all directions, but they didn’t appear to be converging on her group.  They were moving on the Guardian, which apparently didn’t have as much control over them as perhaps it had when it was still asleep in its stasis chamber from Hina’s dreams.  She took no comfort from that speculation, however, even if it were true.  The Guardian would tear the other machines of the city apart with little trouble, unless one of those tanks could show up to slow it down.

 

What worried the Elven Q Mage even more, however, was the awful knowledge that regardless of his intention to leave this place with her in one piece, her husband, Timothy Vandross, would eventually try to confront the looming construct should it keep coming after them.  It was simply in his nature to try and defend anyone he came in contact with and chose to name his friend.  With her present, he might be less reckless about it, but he’d still choose to fight.  When it came right down to it, she knew that in the end, he always would.  Conflict was just another part of his blood heritage.

 

Despite her protests that she would be more useful if she were free to fight in the event they needed to, Thelma Mattock took the unconscious Elven Bishop from Gronen, who had moved instantly to make sure that Kyle Vreki was still alive when he fell into a faint after unleashing his disruptive power through the city’s systems.  Cradling him in his arms, he lifted the Bishop with ease and turned to face his wife.

 

“We must not let anything happen to him, Thelma,” the captain said solemnly.  “He is still our charge, and he is still young for his people.  You and I have already lived long on the scale of years allotted our kind.”

 

“I understand, but the ship needs its captain,” she said, taking Kyle into her arms.  “If that thing comes upon us, and you stand alone against it, you will be killed.”

 

“A risk that must be taken,” he replied, taking his stone warhammer from its back mount.  “If someone must stand up to this monster, then it should be me.  I am takman agotar renos,” he said in the gruff, guttural tones of his native Jaft tongue.  “I am leader and protector of my crew.  Would you deny me the responsibilities of my position?”  Thelma cast her eyes down to the floor, shaking her head slowly.

 

“No, husband.  I could not deny you that,” she said.  She looked up, meeting his stoic gaze once again.  “But I can that you also remember your duty to me as ken brohan.”  Gronen Mattock managed a slight grin and gave his wife a light kiss on the lips.

 

“I will never forget that duty, not even if I am slain,” he said low so that only she could hear him.  “All right,” he said, addressing his entire group.  “Let’s get out of here and down to the ship.  The others should be waiting for us to catch them up.”  Gronen led the way downstairs and out of the building, looking to the compass mounted on his left wrist bracer.  Turning south, he led the group away.

 

Pathetic, thought the Guardian as he kicked another of the SF0012 units off into the middle distance.  He watched it pass the apex of its arch and slam directly into the side of a maintenance building, crashing through its plate glass windows as easily as if it had been sugar glass instead.  I cannot believe these toys were once considered the height of security technology.

 

The machine sentries were concentrating their fire on the Guardian, but its own shielding system had been designed to withstand such energy-based weaponry with ease.  The translucent blue bubble of energy surrounding him had taken on no less than two-hundred direct blasts, and had only lost one percent of its defensive capability and protection.  At forty-seven percent power, he was still sitting comfortably.

 

The Guardian brought its metal shod foot up and brought it down atop another SF0012, slowly bearing down on it with his full weight.  Sparks shot out and metal casing units crumpled with a metallic scream as the machine sentry was crushed underfoot, its weapon loosing one last random blast up toward the Guardian.  Due to its proximity, the red hyphen of energy managed to strike the Guardian in his other leg, but the bolt only succeeded in leaving a deep scorch mark on the exposed synthflesh.  It stung, but the Guardian only noticed it for a second.

 

System, why are these units attacking me, it sent to the System. Moments passed, and the Guardian realized that when he’d severed his connection from the network earlier to stop its incessant suggestions that it shut down for maintenance, a protocol had been activated, transferring authority away from him.  Telfin, he thought, clenching his right hand into a tight ball.  His mouth twitched to one side of his face, his eyes narrowing. These shouldn’t take more than another minute, and then I will find that bucket of bolts, and destroy him.  I will regain access then.

 

Turning to sweep the last of the SF0012 units aside with his energy axe, the Guardian made short work of them and started away from his current battle position.  It took seven great strides into another of the city’s multitude of intersections, and there it was finally taken off guard.  A Heavy Roller unit sat one hundred yards away at another crossroads, its enormous cannon barrel pointed squarely at the Guardian.

 

“This is unexpected,” he managed to mutter before the Heavy Roller opened fire with a shell.  The ballistic round impacted with the Guardian’s shield and exploded, the force of the concussion blast throwing him back and to the right, crashing into the front of a vehicle garage.  His internal diagnostic display informed him that his shielding had been reduced to forty percent power.  Not good, he thought, struggling to get up.  A small pain flared in his left forearm; a chunk of rebar had lodged itself right through the appendage.

 

The Heavy Roller unit rolled forward into firing range again, its turret adjusting quickly for its new trajectory.  The Guardian anticipated the attack, using his internal network data on the Heavy Roller units and their combat routines and capabilities.  Just as he counted to four, he rolled to the left, the cannon shell that burst from the cannon flying off harmlessly into the distance.

 

As he came up out of his roll in a crouch, the Guardian was sent sprawling once again, however, for the Heavy Roller rammed into him at full speed, halting upon impact.  Such an attack could not be repelled by the defensive shield at the Guardian’s disposal, and he cursed himself for a fool as he came to another crashing halt, this time against a rusted, ancient autocart. He got to his hands and knees, and looked up at the Heavy Roller.  Its cannon was once again trained on him.

 

As the shell came at him, the Guardian whipped his right palm up, sending out a repulsor charge that deflected the cannon at near sonic speeds down another side street, exploding into a communications relay.  Charging forward from his crouch, the Guardian got within striking range and wrapped his right arm around the Roller’s cannon, swinging his energy axe into its turret mount once, twice, three times to hack it clean off.  He hefted the turret up into the air like a club with his right hand, and brought both it and his axe down into the remaining guts of the machine.

 

Dropping the turret, he turned his attention south of his position.  “And now, I’m coming for you, Telfin,” he growled.  “And after you, the professor.”

 

Whatever that was, it sounded loud, and it sounded close.  Timothy Vandross’s train of thought before hearing the battle between the Guardian and the Heavy Roller nearby had been quite simple.  Run, run, dodge, run, run, and little else.  Certainly he was worried for the safety of everybody else from the Wayfarer troupe and the crew of the Steel Fist, but if he tried to say he wasn’t concerned for his own life and limb, he would have been a liar.

 

The Void magic that ran through Tim’s body sometimes acted without his having to access it, granting him protections and advantages out of pure magical instinct.  It was a handy trait to be imbued with, but sometimes it could cause as much discomfort as it did safety.  He felt a great chill running over his chest, stomach and back, and realized that a cuirass of armor composed of supremely dense ice was forming around his upper body.

 

He could sense Hina’s magical reinforcements around her own person, which she then started providing for each member of their group as they hustled along through the city towards the jungle, which now stood only minutes away from them.  Her protective spells turned out to be quite the blessing; moments after Timothy saw the defensive barrier wrap itself around Henry, a small house on the right of the group exploded from the impact of the last of the Guardian’s missiles.

 

Fire and flaming chunks of concrete, wood and steel pummeled every last member of his group, and Timothy himself, running along near the middle of the group, was unfortunate enough to be flattened by what he saw streaking down at him was once a ceramic bathtub.  It pounded him to the pavement, rolling away as the momentum carried it on into one of the Jaft sailors, who grunted from the impact but remained on his feet.  As Timothy rose, he saw that the others with him were also largely unwounded, but groggy from being struck by bits and pieces of the destroyed house.

 

He looked in the direction the missile came from, and in the distance he spotted the Guardian, but it didn’t appear to be coming after him and his group specifically.  It must have spotted us and thought that would be enough, he thought.  He took one step in the creature’s direction, halted by Hina’s hand on his arm.  She stared with wide, shimmering eyes into his own, piercing into his being.

 

“Tim, you can’t be considering it,” she said plaintively.

 

“You know I am, though,” he replied.

 

“This isn’t like the last time, Timothy.  The Gods aren’t demanding anything of us now,” she said, trying to reason with him.

 

“Maybe not, but it is by what we do even when they’re not looking that we are judged,” he said, looking in the direction of the Guardian again.  It was once more on the move, and it moved quite fast for a creature so large.  “Hina, if that thing keeps going, we’re all going to be dead.  If I go after it now, maybe some of the others will have the same idea and we’ll be able to stop it while the rest of you get back to the ship.”

 

“Do you really think anybody else has lost their senses enough to wantto go after that thing,” Hina asked.  But then she thought about the members of the group that she and Timothy had come to help out from the start.  Yes, she thought, there will be a handful of them.  “All right, never mind that question.”

 

“You realize there will be others,” he asked, offering her a smile in return.

 

“Yes, and you should go now before I decide to come along with you,” she replied.  Timothy nodded curtly and started off in the direction of a nearby side street which would take him toward the Guardian.  Hina started running with the rest of the group, but when she looked back over her shoulder, she spotted Henry riding that ball of wind of his right behind Timothy.  Gods keep you safe, you lummox, she thought.

 

Once again Derrick Henden’s group came up short when Telfin stopped ahead of them all, his head cocked to one side.  “Oh my.  That does not bode well,” said the automaton.

 

“What doesn’t,” asked Derrick Henden.

 

“I had linked myself to the city’s only remaining Heavy Roller, in order to do battle with the Guardian from a safe distance.  But the unit has been destroyed.  The audio receptors are still functional, however, and it would seem that the Guardian intends to come after myself and then the professor,” he said, pointing to Liotus.  “It might be best for all of us if the professor and I removed ourselves from your group.”

 

“No,” said the Gnome, his face pinched and red, his hands closing and opening, closing and opening.  “We shouldn’t be running from that thing, we should be dealing with it.”

 

“You cannot be serious,” said Liotus behind him.  Henden turned toward him, hands on his hips.  “Your people aren’t anywhere near being able to handle that thing.”

 

“Maybe they’re not, but they’re not sticking around to find out,” said Henden, his demeanor far more gruff than he could ever be said to usually be. He turned toward the others of his group to take in their faces, to lock them in his mind.  He might not see them again in this lifetime, and he thought it would be good to remember them in the hereafter.  Once more he glared at Liotus. “Telfin said it was going to come for him, then for you.  That means you aren’t the primary target, Telfin here is.”

 

“What would you have us do,” the professor balked.  He pointed a narrow finger at Telfin.  “And by the way, I resent the idea that I should have to stick around any longer than is necessary, thank you.  I’ve been stuck on this island for far longer than I care to consider or calculate.”

 

“And that is my point exactly,” said Henden, cutting the professor off with a wave of his hand.  “You will go with these people south, to the beach where our ship is currently waiting for us.  It’s damaged, so even if we get to it before that freak out there,” he said, pointing into the city, “it wouldn’t do us any sodding good until the ship’s fixed.  And trust me, it’ll take a few days at least for that to happen.”

 

“What about you, then,” asked Liotus.

 

“I believe it is master Henden’s intention to remain with me and confront the Guardian unit,” said Telfin, at which the Gnome Engineer nodded. The professor just looked at the two of them back and forth, until Foamrider stepped up behind Henden and tapped him on the shoulder, shaking his head.

 

“Captain says you’re one of our charges, and you must be kept safe,” said the blue-fleshed warrior.  “You have to come with us to the ship.”

 

“Bullocks,” snapped Henden, his face now completely flushed.  “Your captain said I was to be treated as his equal, and that means you will obey and respect my orders, right?”  Foamrider took a surprised step back, but even as his eyes darted back and forth, trying to find a quick counter-argument, he nodded.  “Excellent!  Mr. Foamrider, you will go with the group and help protect them until you get to the ship.  You will begin affecting repairs immediately upon arrival.  I will remain here with Telfin and we’ll deal with this Guardian fellow.  In short enough order, we’ll be coming along to the beach as well, and we’ll all head home together, savvy?”  Though the Jaft suspected Henden’s chances of survival were next to nil, he nodded, saluted, and turned to the others, barking orders for them to get moving again.  The professor trailed along after, sparing the automaton and Gnome one final confused glance before he set off toward the rendezvous point into the jungle with the others.

 

“You don’t really expect to survive this, do you,” Telfin asked quietly as they began walking almost casually in the direction of the sounds of oncoming destruction.

 

“No, not really,” said Henden with a sigh.  “But this is why every Wayfarer clan has a Faenwol, so that they may become Patriarch or Matriarch over the clan and carry on.”

 

“And if the Patriarch and Faenwol should perish at the same time,” asked Telfin.

 

“The remaining members of the clan come together to vote on and select a new Patriarch or Matriarch, and that person selects a new Faenwol,” said Henden, adjusting the bolts and levers on his artificial arm once again. “We’ve very big on keeping the clan lasting as long as possible.”

 

“But I imagine that some of these Wayfarer clans have died out entirely?”

 

“Goodness yes,” said the Gnome Engineer, sauntering along next to the towering machine man.

 

“So nothing lasts forever,” said Telfin.

 

“Ah, but when a clan dies, the other clans come together to compose ballads and poems and sonnets about the clans passed on.  We keep them alive through memory,” said Henden.

 

“But even songs and poetry are forgotten,” said the automaton, clearly confused.  “Aren’t they?”

 

“In a way, yes,” said Henden with a smile.  “But not usually until after someone has come along and picked up the ways of that long-dead clan or people, making the written and sung material unnecessary.  It’s a cycle, you see,” Henden said, rolling his hands over one another to illustrate his point.  “As such, nothing ever really ends, not really and truly,” he said.  “It just takes on a new form, a new shape, in a new place.  That’s why I’m not too worried, Telfin me lad,” said the Gnome.  “Because nothing really ever ends, not even us puny mortals.”

 

Telfin pondered that as they approached the Guardian.

 

When Gronen Mattock collided with Timothy Vandross rounding another corner in the smaller side streets of the city, both men nearly swung blindly, without thought.  Had they done so, both would have been injured, in Gronen’s case probably seriously maimed, because the weapon Timothy had shaped his Void rod into was known as a maul-blade, a multi-sectional sword upon which three sets of protruding spikes rotated at high velocity.  Tim stared at Thelma Mattock, or rather, the bundle in her arms.

 

“Is he,” he began to ask.

 

“No, he is merely unconscious, Timothy Vandross,” said the captain. Henry showed up behind Timothy, hopping down off of his ball of wind, dissipating it with a snap of his fingers.  “Henry, you should not be here,” said the captain.  “You are still our charge, and,” he began.

 

“Yeah, yeah, that’s nice and all, pretty words and such,” said the Kobold, his high, reedy voice loaded with impatience.  “But in case you haven’t thought about it, Triana and I are more than capable, and she’s staying with the rest of our group to help keep them safe, right along with Ms. Hina.  Somebody had to come help you guys fight that beast.”

 

“There isn’t going to be any convincing you otherwise, is there,” asked the captain, leaning on the handle of his upturned warhammer.

 

“Not really,” said Henry.  He pulled a small packet out of one of his pockets, stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and lit it with a match.  He exhaled with a sigh of relief.  “Haven’t had one of these since we got here.”

 

“Thelma, take the padre and the others to the ship,” Gronen said to his wife.

 

“Here,” said Henry, summoning up a much smaller ball of wind.  “Follow this white ball to the others at the rendezvous.  You’re only a couple of minutes behind them right now,” he added.  Thelma clearly didn’t like this order, but she gave her husband another quick kiss and led the rest of their group away towards the safety of the jungle.  Henry offered his pack to the Void Mage and the Jaft captain, but both declined.  “Suit yourselves,” he said.

 

Before he could stick the cigarette in his mouth, however, Derrick Henden came up from another side street and plucked it out of his hand, taking a long drag on it.  “That’s much better,” he said, passing it back to the stunned Kobold Aeromancer.  “Thank you, Henry.”  Telfin stood tall behind him, gleaming in the sunlight.  “So, it’s to be the five of us against the big fellow, is it,” he asked, looking into the eyes of each of the others.  Nobody spoke, nobody moved, for what seemed like a long time.  Not far away, the Guardian smashed something apart and let out another of its war cries.

 

“Yeah, this might be easier for me to deal with if we had an army,” said Henry.  Timothy clapped his hands together, snapping his Void rod back into its original shape and putting it into its slot on his belt.  “What?  Did I say something funny,” asked Henry.

 

“No, but you’ve given me an idea,” said Timothy, focusing on his mana. Let’s see the Guardian deal with this, he thought.

 

Seven heat sources flared up on the right edge of the Guardian’s field of vision, his diagnostic eye only just now finally picking up on the signatures. Man-shaped, he thought, readying his repulsor weapon.  “You cannot hide from me, intruders,” he boomed, firing the blast of barely visible wavering energy from his palm into the corner of a nearby building.  The heat sources were buried in the rubble, and slowly began to fade, already cooling in death.  The Guardian threw back its head and began to laugh maniacally when something struck him from behind, smacking into his energy shielding.  “What was that,” he grumbled, turning around in the street.

 

But there was nothing to be seen, not at first.  He looked down and spotted a small chunk of debris near the edge of the defensive bubble, a thin strand of magical energy still clinging to it.  Wind magic, he thought as the analysis came flashing across his artificial right eye.  How amusing.  He took a step in the direction the debris had been flung from, but flinched as more thumps began striking his back again, absorbed by the energy shield.  He wheeled about, and saw four or five hyphens of red energy lancing at him from the upper floor windows of another residential building.  Hmph, more of the SF0012s, he thought.  No matter.

 

He brought his energy axe up to his side, and once again swiped horizontally through the third floor of the building, which stood just over his eye level.  Yet he felt no connection from the blow except for the building itself.  When he finished the follow-through, he heard more blasts coming from weapons, and looked down to the ground.  Five of the sentries’ weapons had been manipulated to continuously fire, lengths of wire used to tie the triggers into the firing position.  All of those wires had been tied to some sort of pulley, hastily put together but effective.

 

Only someone with a basic understanding of combat engineering could have done this, he thought.  His left hand tightened further on the handle of his energy axe.  “Telfin,” he rumbled.

 

“You rang,” came the voice of the hated automaton.  The Guardian turned himself toward the sound of the voice, taking a few steps forward to finally spot the machine standing confidently atop one of the energy stations, a low, single-storied affair.  The machine man stood with its arms folded over its chest, lights blinking rapidly at the Guardian, as if laughing at him.

 

“You should have been scrapped ages ago,” said the Guardian, opening a hatch on the outside of his right leg.  From the port he extracted an artillery shell, modified to act as a grenade, except that there was no delay; once it struck its target, it would explode.  “That’s okay, though.  I’ll take great joy in dragging off your fragments,” the Guardian shouted, lobbing the shell at the automaton.

 

His aim was true, there could be no question about that.  But when the shell should have impacted, it carried straight through, falling several dozen yards farther and exploding with a scream of destruction.  The image of Telfin wavered slightly only, but remained standing confidently on the station rooftop.  What the hell is this?  An illusion, the Guardian asked itself.  A quick scan confirmed that suspicion, and the illusion quickly dissipated.

 

“This trickery cannot spare you forever, whoever you are,” the Guardian shouted, firing his repulsor north, west, and finally south.  But in the wake of the damage he was dealing to the city itself and its structures, he heard no screams, no cries of surprise or injury.  He was beginning to realize that he may well have underestimated the intruders to the island.  As he turned around in a slow circle to perform a deeper sensor scan, he finally spotted a lifeforce signature to the north and slightly east, but he saw it only for an instant.

 

The wreckage of the Heavy Roller he had destroyed only fifteen to twenty minutes ago was rapidly filling his field of vision as it flew at him.  The weight and total volume of the wreckage, combined with the speed with which it was coming at him, overloaded his shield unit, and the whole mess smashed into him, casting him like a stone into what remained of the building where he’d been shot from.

 

This is UNBELIEVABLE, he screamed in his own head.  The Guardian started to heave the Roller unit off of himself, and was met with yet more pain, passing right through the pitiful ten percent of his shield remaining after the impact of the broken machine.  Something blunt and heavy came down on his left leg with a potent strike.  Not as bad as the Roller, but the shield didn’t dampen this blow at all.  The Guardian screamed in pain, kicking out and connecting with something solid at long last.

 

That something solid had been Gronen Mattock, and he was knocked aside as hard as the Guardian had been.  To his benefit, however, his heavy plate armor mostly protected him from the blow, but his head bounced off of the concrete as he rolled down the road away from the group’s enemy.  This hurts, this sucks, what was I thinking, he thought when he finally came to a limp stop nearly seventy yards from the construct.

 

The Guardian sat up, and found himself looking at a Gnome crouched some twenty yards away, half-hidden behind an old autocart.  The Gnome’s right arm, looking a lot like Telfin’s original appendage in design, opened its palm to reveal a tube in the palm.  Blue bolts of energy lanced into the shield bubble, but unlike the SF0012 units, this sentient didn’t have a calculated rate of fire to adhere to.  Before the Guardian could even gain his footing again, almost twenty blasts had struck his shield, knocking it down to six percent power capacity.

 

The Guardian took four lunging steps toward the Gnome, but as he brought his energy axe down on him, the little man just vanished, as if he’d never even been there.  The diagnostic eye flashed information across his field of vision again; a short-range teleportation spell had been locked onto the Gnome, unleashed when the Guardian got close enough to release it.  I cannot believe this is happening.  This is not possible!  No enemy can stand against me, I am Guardian!

 

But even as the construct thought this, he was tackled to the ground, knocked down yet again.  Whatever struck him wasn’t inanimate, though.  He recognized the metallic hands trying to grasp his face and rip it open from behind, and when he rolled over, he heard the buzzing and internal clacking of Telfin’s interior gears and pistons.  “So you finally show yourself, Telfin,” he rumbled, snapping up to his feet and taking a fighting posture, facing the automaton.

 

“That is affirmative,” said Telfin, getting up and taking his own melee stance.  “I am in command of the System once again, Guardian.  I command you to stand down and return to your stasis chamber.”

 

“Never,” said the Guardian, reaching into his right leg compartment and taking out another artillery shell.  He didn’t throw it at Telfin, however.  Instead he spun on his toes and, with a quick calculation, hurled the explosive round toward the center of the city, watching with glee as it impacted low on the building that housed his stasis chamber.  Flames erupted into the sky as the explosive ignited all manner of incendiary chemicals and systems within the building.  He faced Telfin once again.  “I will never sleep again, Telfin.”

 

“Hmm,” said Telfin, eye units flashing bright orange rapidly.  “I must say, I had not calculated that you might do something like that.”

 

“Chalk it up to another of your glaring failures,” said the Guardian, lunging forward.  He launched a rapid flurry of punches in combinations at Telfin, many of which the automaton blocked, but time and lack of maintenance had slowed him.  At least a third of the attacks landed, letting the Guardian wail on Telfin enough to drive him backwards.  The synthflesh ripped, tearing free from the metallic hands of the Guardian unit.

 

A lucky haymaker managed to connect with the side of Telfin’s head unit, and the robot was knocked to the ground.  Guardian stood over him, picking up his energy axe from the ground.  It had been knocked free when Telfin blocked its first swing, but now the Guardian held it high overhead.  “This has been a long time in coming, Telfin.”

 

“Indeed it has,” the robot replied flatly.  The Guardian raised an eyebrow, dazed by this acceptance of fate.  He shrugged, but the killing blow didn’t come down.  Instead, a trembling ball of blue flames crashed into the Guardian, knocking him sideways and setting his synthflesh and hair on fire. Screaming in agony, the Guardian fell to the ground and quickly rolled himself around, putting out the magical flames as quickly as he could.  It got to a crouching position once again, and found a humanoid, one he’d only barely glanced on the surveillance cameras when he’d still been in his stasis pod, helping Telfin to his feet.

 

The Guardian’s insides trembled momentarily.  He is the one who destroyed the Heavy Roller in the jungle.  He is the one who made me fearful. How can that be?  Sensors indicate he’s just a Half-Elf.  But there is power in this one, power I cannot understand.

 

The Guardian started to rise, but yet again he was pushed from his left flank, this time by a powerful gust of wind magic.  But the Guardian was capable of learning, if nothing else.  His adaptability, being possessed of a brain that was equal parts machine and organic, made him far more dangerous than the machines of the island.  He rolled with the wind, gauging his rate of movement, and with a deft flick of his wrist, hurled his energy axe at the Kobold Aeromancer across the street from him.

 

Timothy tried to shout a warning to Henry, but it was too late.  The blade cleaved his head at an almost obscenely precise diagonal, half of his brain exposed to the open air.  The Kobold was dead before he even hit the ground. Derrick Henden, hidden nearby after the Void Mage’s teleportation spell saved him from a similar fate, lost himself upon seeing the Kobold slain, and he came screaming, charging from his bolt hole, firing his artificial arm’s energy cell repeatedly at the Guardian.

 

Telfin acted before Timothy could even think to, vaulting high into the air from where he stood, utilizing the energy left in his mechanical frame to propel himself with enough force to land on the Guardian’s shoulders in a straddling position.  Henden stood to one side as Telfin began punching the Guardian on top of its head, keeping up a steady stream of blasts into that fading blue protective bubble around it.

 

Rage filled the Guardian to near his limit.  He might have killed Henden when he finally got a hold of one of Telfin’s arms, but captain Gronen Mattock ran up, shoving Henden to the ground as the Guardian swung Telfin around in an arc like a club.  The automaton slammed into Mattock with the force of a battering ram, making him cry out as he tumbled through the air, landing finally on one leg, which crunched inside of the plate armor greaves as it broke. Timothy had to dive forward to the ground to avoid Telfin’s limp, ragdoll form landing on him.  Tim scrambled up to his feet, looking quickly at the machine.

 

Telfin’s head unit had been completely crushed in.

 

“You,” the Guardian called out, pointing directly at the Half-Elf Void Mage.  “You must die.  You should have been my first concern,” he said.  Tim looked down at the crumpled form of Telfin once again, smiling.  This, of course, gave the Guardian pause once again.  “How can you stand there and smile,” it said, punting Derrick Henden like a football into the autocart he’d been using for cover earlier, splattering him across its surface like a spoiled fruit.  “Is this what you want?  Are these not your friends I have slain?”

 

“No, they’re not,” said Timothy Vandross very plainly, still smiling like a loon.  “Take a look for yourself,” he said, pointing over to where the Kobold Aeromancer’s corpse lay.  The Guardian looked over, and saw something that made no sense, because neither the organic nor the artificial components of his brain had ever seen anything like it.

 

The corpse was melting into an inky black puddle.

 

“What, what is this,” the Guardian asked in a hushed voice, watching as the splattered remains of the Gnome also melted into that same darkness, as did Telfin behind the Half-Elf.  “What is this!”

 

“This is just another part of my complicated heritage,” said Timothy Vandross.  He waved a hand at Gronen Mattock, who floated over to Timothy’s side, seated on the ground, holding his leg in clear pain and agony.  “Those three were just shadow mimics, perfectly constructed to copy most of the abilities and behaviors of their source.  It took a lot out of the three of them, and a bit out of me, but it was well worth it.”

 

“But,” said Gronen through gritted teeth.  “I needed to be here too, because this power doesn’t work on my people so well.  A shadow mimic of me would have looked unnatural, and you might have seen through it.”

 

“Then, the damage they did to me,” the Guardian said, starting to regain some of his lost confidence.

 

“Oh, that was all quite real,” said Tim with a bright, cheery smile.  “They were shadow mimics, not illusions like the first Telfin you tried to destroy.” Timothy took the dagger offered him by Mattock, and he hurled it at the Guardian.  As it connected with the blue energy bubble surrounding the construct, the Guardian watched as the protective bubble burst apart with a loud, audible ‘POP!’  “So now, you see, not only are you damaged, but you’re also without any kind of armor.  But don’t worry,” Tim said, helping Gronen up and slinging one of his arms over his shoulders.  “I’m not going to kill you.”

 

“You, you’re not,” asked the Guardian, nonplussed, readying his repulsor to attack the Half-Elf and blue-fleshed humanoid.

 

“No,” said Timothy.  He looked with his eyes up at another nearby rooftop.  “He is,” he said, starting away from the area with the captain leaning on him.  The Guardian watched them for a couple of seconds, but because of his own mortal, humanoid curiosity, he turned his head and looked toward the skyline, spotting Telfin atop the city’s primary communications tower.  The automaton had a rocket launcher held and steadied on each shoulder, aimed down at him.

 

“Oh, son of a,” BOOM!

 

Chapter Eight

 

Heading Home

 

The repairs took only four days with the assistance of Telfin and the remaining dozen or so SF0012 units pitching in.  Additionally, the plan that had seemed to instantly hatch in Timothy Vandross’s head prior to his encounter with the Guardian had not been without its flaws.  Though the shadow mimics had been mere copies of Henry, Derrick Henden and Telfin, each of them had been wracked with aches, sores, and pains, phantom injuries that disoriented and confused them.  Captain Mattock’s leg had actually been broken as well, but despite the severity of the injury, his own regenerative powers, combined with Kyle Vreki’s healing magics, had restored him by the third morning.

 

It was the fourth evening, and the last repairs had been completed, only needing to settle so that they could all feel safe sailing off into the blue again. They had lost approximately one third of their companions in their time on this island, but when one considered that it could have been all of them, had the Guardian continued on its rampage, everyone felt pretty grateful to be alive.

 

Henden, for his part, felt more than alive, he felt renewed.  It might have had something to do with the new artificial limb Telfin had helped him install, complete with dampeners and artificial nervous sensors.  It may also have been the fact that professor Heathrow Liotus was going to be joining his Wayfarer clan, returning to Tamalaria with them all.

 

Timothy Vandross looked off into the near distance of the jungle, his eyes scanning for any sign of trouble that might be coming toward them.  Since the destruction of the Guardian and their return to the beachhead, the company had only been attacked once by a straggler group of brutes, none of which managed to harm anybody due to their preparedness.  Telfin’s sensors, which had been repaired by Liotus, played a large part in keeping them aware of the changes going on around them, but for the most part proved unnecessary.

 

The Half-Elf Void Mage let out a sigh as his gaze angled up from the jungle to the stars above.  “It makes you wonder, doesn’t it,” asked a low, gruff voice from behind him.  Tim turned to find captain Gronen Mattock standing behind him, arms folded over his chest, wearing a sleeveless white work shirt and black trousers.  His armor would not be fixed until the group was already a few days at sea, but for the time being, that didn’t seem to bother him.

 

“What’s that, captain,” Tim asked quietly.

 

“The passage of time, young master Vandross,” said the captain, stepping up beside Timothy.  “The day we spent in the city, exploring its inner workings and fighting for our lives.  That one day seemed to stretch out much longer than these last few days we’ve spent fixing my vessel, did it not?”

 

“Yeah, I suppose it did,” Tim replied.

 

“That is because of how much was packed into that one day, I believe,” said the blue-fleshed warrior.  “I lost some good men that day as well, and I will never forget that.  I myself could have been killed.”

 

“I’m really sorry about that,” said Tim, shaking his head.  “The shadow mimic power I inherited from my father doesn’t work very well on Jafts.  Nor does it work well on most lycanthropes.  I think it’s something to do with the regenerative powers of your people.”  The captain grunted, nodding.

 

“Seems as likely a reason as any, I guess.  I must say, too, this has certainly been one of the most costly ventures my wife and I have led in a long time, in terms of loss of life.”

 

“Really,” asked Timothy.  “You’ve had worse than this?”

 

“Oh goodness, yes,” said the captain, shaking his head.  He let out a sigh, rubbing his upper arms.  “Only two I can immediately think of.  The first of those trips was about forty years ago, heading south to the continent of Tallowmere.  We ran afoul of a pair of vessels bearing mercenaries, both ships having run low on supplies.  Our ship was boarded from both sides, and the battle that ensued wasn’t pretty in the least, I can tell you.”

 

“Wow,” said Tim.  “How did you and your wife survive?”

 

“Well, we largely have Mr. Sperio to thank for that,” said the captain with a grin.  “That ship there,” he pointed to the Steel Fist.  “That is not the vessel we sailed upon that day, no sir.  It belonged to one of those mercenary outfits.  During the fray, Mr. Sperio led my wife and I through the thick of the fighting.  We were all three of us wounded and bleeding quite badly, so none of the mercs saw us as a threat until we were already aboard one of their ships and sailing back toward Tamalaria.  We lost the entire crew, save the three of us,” said the captain.  He stared at the Steel Fist, his eyes hazed over with the memory of times long since passed.  “Our whole crew, and our ship.  That was without a doubt the worst voyage Thelma and I have ever seen.”

 

“When you put it that way,” Tim said, turning to look at the ship with the captain, “this doesn’t seem quite so bad.”

 

“Oh, but it is, young master Vandross,” said Gronen Mattock.  “We not only lost crew, but we lost Wayfarers as well, who were in our care.  They were our charges, to be protected and transported to Lenan safely and without incident.  Any Jaft who takes to sea must honor the agreements he makes, or have his honor tarnished by his failures forevermore,” said the captain in a low, grave tone.  “We have much to atone for after we return to Tamalaria.”

 

“But you couldn’t have known all of this was going to happen,” said Tim. “Telfin himself said just the other day that the actual likelihood of your vessel winding up here was a fraction of a percentage of a chance.”

 

“Perhaps that is so, but it doesn’t change the facts of what has happened,” said Mattock.  “No, when we return to Tamalaria, I will return Patriarch Henden’s travel fees to him and give him my condolences, as well as an oath to give his group passage wherever he may wish to sail next.  It is what I owe, on my honor as captain, and as a member of my people,” he said, pounding one fist to his chest.  Tim couldn’t help but admire the man for his determination and his sense of pride.

 

The night dragged on, dark and quiet then, and until he was relieved by Foamrider, Timothy Vandross thought of the Guardian, and the destruction that creature had wrought upon the island that had been its own home.

 

“Are you sure you won’t come with us,” Hina asked the automaton as the crew and Wayfarers started heading up on the deck of the ship, preparing to set sail for their homelands.  Telfin stood to one side of the activity, watching everything passively, the light units on his cylindrical steel head flashing blue every now and again amid the stream of constant yellow light.  “The captain already said there’s room for you, if you want to come along.  And with the damage your city has gone through, well, it just doesn’t make sense for you to stay here.”

 

“I thank you for your offer, Ms. Hinas,” said Telfin, waving one hand to cast her offer aside.  “But you must understand that I have things to finish up here.  I have already called back the Aquatic Unit, and it should return in plenty of time for me to take it as transport to your continent after I have finished with matters here.”  Hina raised an eyebrow at him, wondering what sort of matters the machine man could possibly have left to deal with on this strange island.

 

“You’re absolutely sure,” she asked.

 

“Yes, I’m quite sure, but thank you again,” said Telfin.  Hina began heading up the boarding ramp onto the ship, Timothy with his arm around her shoulders, their gear gathered on his back as they readied themselves to leave. Derrick Henden waved over the rear of the ship as the company set sail back for Tamalaria, and he was joined by Kyle Vreki, the Elven Bishop.  Though the men and women of the Bishop class tended to abhor all technology, Kyle had seen more humanity and sentience in Telfin than he had seen in some of the organic peoples of his home land.

 

Telfin waved back, watching them from the shore until their vessel was barely visible on the outskirts of his standard optical range.  He had no desire to zoom out his visual range and keep an eye on them; he had no need.  The automaton had indeed called back the Aquatic Unit that the Guardian had sent west towards Tamalaria, but he had no intention of riding it back to the land of the organics he’d just seen off on their way.  On that issue, he had indeed lied to Ms. Hinas.  But there was a truth as well in his farewell to her, in that he had some unresolved business to attend to.

 

He began this work by gathering the remaining SF0012 units, almost sixty of them, leading them back into the city to the Gateway Experiment Station building.  Once standing across the street from the tall building, he ordered them to open fire on the building’s support structures and upper levels in a continuous barrage.  When a couple of the units reported to him that their central power cells were nearly depleted, he ordered them to charge into the building and expunge the last of their remaining energy in a self-destruct sequence.

 

Within a little less than an hour, the entire building had been demolished, and nearly forty of the SF0012 units remained.  Without the threat of the Gateway ever being used again, Telfin felt there was very little left to worry about, and so he led the rest of the machines to the secondary maintenance building, where he spent the last couple of days rigging the entire framework with a series of pulse charge devices that would render all electronics inert and useless.

 

This would include himself, of course.  Logically speaking, Telfin found that according to his subroutines, this would be the best course of action to take.  In order to ensure that no more sentient organic life forms that may happen upon the island should be harmed by himself or the SF0012 units, they would have to be removed from the equation entirely.  As each of the small sentry drones settled themselves into their maintenance pods and Telfin himself connected into his own station, he felt a mental grin spread across his artificial mind.

 

He was, after all, only doing what his program dictated was the best course of action.

 

Captain Gronen Mattock had no qualms about taking the Steel Fist around the continent of Tamalaria to its southwestern shores, docking in a small port township of the Elven Kingdom to let the Wayfarers off, along with Timothy Vandross and Hina Hinas.  The blue-fleshed warrior bade them good fortune and his condolences, and as he’d told Tim he would, he swore to Derrick Henden that should the Patriarch and his clan ever need to set sail again, they needed only to seek him out.

 

Henden and his clan accompanied Tim and Hina all the way to their home village, renting out lodging as soon as they arrived and settling in for a few days’ worth of rest on solid land.  Tim and Hina invited Kyle Vreki to stay with them while his clan was in town, and the Bishop happily obliged.  The three of them sat around the polished oak kitchen table that first evening home, sipping a calm Earl Gray tea, enjoying the peace and quiet.  It was Kyle who finally broke the comfortable silence.

 

“Hina, I was hoping you might tell me some more about these dreams of yours,” he asked, blowing on his cup.  “How often would you say you have them?”

 

“Typically,” she asked.  She looked to Tim, who just shrugged.  “Not too often, really, but enough that sometimes I feel like I might be getting an unfair advantage sometimes.”

 

“How do you mean,” asked Kyle.

 

“Sometimes the things she dreams about don’t have anything to do with us,” said Tim, pouring himself another cup.  He dropped in a cube of sugar, stirring it in slowly, eyes locked on his wife.  What would I do without her, he wondered momentarily.  “But even when they don’t, we find that the information is good to have, because we can respond appropriately when someone tells us about it.”

 

“And how is that,” asked Kyle.

 

“Well, for instance,” said Hina.  “One dream I had concerned a group of marauders who were making raids against the smaller villages in the southern tier of the Desanadron city-state.  I just happened to mention that I had a bad feeling about some rumors I’d been hearing to some of our friends in the Border Guard, and they sent a couple of units north out of the Kingdom.”

 

“And,” asked Kyle.

 

“They intercepted the gang en route to the third village they were going to hit,” said Tim, finishing for Hina.  “They had a list with the names of six other villages, all of which they’d been casing and planned to hit in the span of about two weeks.  It would have been easy enough for them to evade capture, because they were planning to hide out in a cave in the northern forest of the Kingdom.”

 

“Ah, I see,” said Kyle.  “Well, thanks for the tea, and for the hospitality. I’m a bit bushed myself,” he said with a yawn.  All three agreed to call it a night, and after Kyle Vreki was well adjusted in the guest bedroom, Timothy and Hina went off to their own room to enjoy the company of one another as husband and wife.

 

For some weeks after that night, Hina would wonder if perhaps the dreams she had after falling asleep were only brought on by their speaking of such things, or if perhaps there was something far more sinister, more worrisome, to be looking ahead to.  In her dreams that night, she stood first in the middle of Desanadron itself, the continent’s largest metropolis.  All around her, the denizens of the city ran mad, tearing themselves and each other and their city apart, acting like lunatics, screaming and raving and thrashing about uncontrollably and without reason.  The scene faded, and she found herself standing in Whitewood, the capital of the Elven Kingdom, where much the same was occurring.  She recognized one of the raving mad people screaming as she ran right past her, a woman naked from the waist up, blood smeared across her face; the madwoman was the Queen herself.

 

The vision faded, and now Hina found herself standing in the famous Skye Garden in the center of Palen, known the realms over as the Capital of Magic.  But here too the streets were filled with people behaving irrationally, like they’d all taken leave of their senses.  What is this, she wondered, spinning in place to take in all that she could of this madness.  From what does this insanity stem?

 

When she woke in the morning, she hoped that her dreams of the night before had been dreams, and nothing more.

 

 

The End

 

A Note From the Author

 

Thus concludes yet another entry in the Tamalarian Tales series, the second primary appearance of Timothy Vandross and Hina Hinas.  You’ll be seeing these two again in the next entry in the series, as well as some other familiar faces.  Without giving too much away, if you’ve been following all of the Tamalarian Tales, you’ll actually be seeing a lot of familiar faces, as well as some new ones.

 

The next forthcoming tale will bring together a whole host of the characters who have become vital to Tamalaria and its continuation.  Among the list of those to appear will be (but not limited to): Portenda the Quiet, Ignatious Stockholm, Annabelle Deus, Flint Ananham, Thaddeus Fly, Lee Toren, Shoryu Tearfang, Ellen Daires-Tearfang, Timothy Vandross, Hina Hinas, Tiberious Amon, Morek Rockmight, Grigory Molis, Gronen Mattock, the Tiverski Brothers.  And that’s just to name a few.

 

The idea of bringing together a large gathering of major characters from various stories told within the same overall world is not a new one, and I am certainly not able to claim that I’m the first to do it.  Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels often have a good deal of overlap, especially with any tales told in the city of Ankh-Morpork.  Certainly I’m not Mr. Pratchett; I can only someday aspire to work on the same level as he and Mr. Terry Brooks, two of my favorite authors of all time.

 

But I find I’ll also be presenting myself with a challenge in the form of stylistic differences.  For instance, Portenda’s stories are not set in the same tone as those that have principally featured Anna Deus and her Hoods, nor Tim and Hina’s tales.  Sure, there was a good-sized cameo for the burly Bounty Hunter in ‘Let the Games Begin’, but the style of the storytelling was not quite the same as I tend to reserve for him.

 

So I’ll be dealing with trying to tie together all of these different personalities and storytelling styles I’ve tweaked or modified to give each set of characters their own flair, their own feel.  I only hope that at the end of the day, the effort will have been worth it.

 

And I hope you’ll be there when the final result becomes available. Cheers.

 

Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy

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