Amcw storylines Nyrini at Delvinn

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After many a hop and a wandering, Nyrini arrives at Delvinn. The skyline leaves no margin for error. Skyscrapers stretch impossibly high, connected by bridges and archways, illuminated with bright, greenish-yellow lights made into every single possible shape and size by some kind of sorcery. Black screens run shows, images of people advertising the strangest products, while above the goddess’ head, strange vehicles, somewhat reminding of Never More’s flying Sovereign but smaller and less… well, ship-like, speed through the air in unseen tracks or roads, so orderly they move from place to place, crisscrossing paths without the smallest sign of ever a doubt on who has the right of way. Down below, at ground level, people walk without apparent fear or care, exchanging greetings and browsing the windows of shops that seem to be made of only just that: a window.

Nyrini watches with interest as a man taps the window of what looks like a bakery and, in response to his fingers tapped in a pre-defined sequence, a fragrant pastry is produced from so far inconspicuous recess.

“Pfff… Buying things I can’t see or touch beforehand…” the goddess mutters. “That’d be a first! How do these people know that they’re not being tricked?!”

A sudden feeling of wetness on her right leg makes her look down. A pair of huge bright blue, artificial eyes looks back at her. Only slightly taller than her shin, body made of metal and covered in what is hopefully artificial fur, leg still raised on a 90 degree angle with the floor (and Nyri’s leg), the robot dog stares at the goddess as if awaiting command. She can see it very slowly retract a tiny metallic hose into its rounded abdomen. The leg is lowered, footpad resting on the floor again. And still, the strange thing stares at her.

“Oh no, you didn’t…” Nyrini hisses, fuming and bending over to grab the robot by the fur on what, on a live animal, would be called the scruff of the neck.

She raises and holds the metal critter to eye level. “Those boots were new! And I just got here! And now, I’m gonna have to walk around with one foot all squishy-squashy! And that better have not been oil, Mister!!”

Suddenly, the color of the dog’s eyes changes to bright red and something like the sound of a ratchet getting caught in a set of cogwheels rises from the dog’s vocal system. The dog is growling.

“Don’t you dare, growl at me!” Nyrini exclaims, shaking the critter. “I’m not afraid of you!”

The growling grows deeper and louder and, with a frightening sound, the dog’s toothless metallic jaws snap, catching Nyrini’s arm. She yells in anger, more than in pain, trying to get rid of the robotic pest. The goddess shakes her arm violently, bangs the robot against a nearby lighting post, even lowers him down to the floor and holds him in place with a foot while trying to pry the spring-loaded jaws open. Nothing works.

“You stupid thing, let me go!!” Nyrini cries.

Suddenly, the dog’s jaws snap open, sending Nyri, who had been tugging violently at her arm, straight down to the floor to land on her rear end. She gets up, still rubbing her sore bum, to see the mechanic thing lying as if dead, its once bright eyes now lifelessly black.

“Right... that’s what I meant to do,” the goddess grumbles.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Are you OK?” A male voice asks from behind.

Nyrini turns to see a scrawny blonde man, no older than his early 30s, dressed in what is starting to look like “everyday-Delvinn”, running at her, his cheeks huffing and puffing from the unusual effort of running.

“Uuhh… yeah! I’m OK,” the goddess replies.

“I am soooooo sorry! I was just testing him out and lost the signal. Took me ages to find him. I hope he didn’t cause any damage. Poor thing is just a prototype,” the man says.

“Wait a minute… You MADE him?!” Nyrini asks.

“Oh, yes! We haven’t had any real life pets in ages but virtual ones are so limited! I just wanted to come up with a nice compromise. I’m Miles, by the way,” the man states, offering a slightly greasy hand in greeting.

Nyrini shakes it almost as if in a trance. Miles gestures at the lifeless robo-dog.

“And meet D.O.G MkI, the first of his kind!” he adds. “Doesn’t he look just like the real thing?”

Well, you got the personality right. If you were going for miniature poodle, the goddess thinks.

“Not really, no,” Nyri says. “Wait, are you telling me that you’ve never seen a real dog?”

“Oh, of course not! We haven’t had those in the city for 2 centuries!” Miles’ eyes narrow. “Why, have you?”

“Uuhh… I’m… not from around here. I’m from the… countryside…visiting… family… cousins…” Nyrini half stutters.

“Ah… That explains the outdated clothes,” the man replies quickly. His eyes widen all of a sudden. “Oh, dear! I’m so very sorry! I didn’t mean to insinuate that you look bad. You really don’t— Oh, I’m just terrible at this…“

Miles goes on and on in his apologies but Nyri pays little attention to his ramblings. She feels her cheeks growing warm, a strange, unfamiliar feeling to her and her eyes widen in terror. The man before her looks pleasantly attractive, even with his untamed short-yet-spiky hair and the slightly greyish glint in his blue eyes. But it is mostly his direct and clumsy ways, his strange humility and innocence and that naïf care for the metallic beast that have her completely lost for words.

Snap out of it, Nyrini!_ she scolds herself. You’re just not used to dealing with truly innocent people, that’s all!

Shaking her head, the goddess regains her sense of self and snaps out of the strange trance.

“It’s fine, don’t worry, love,” she says (and here she notices Miles blushing in return). “I’m just sorry I seem to have... uuhh… killed your dog.”

Miles looks down at the MkI. “Oh, no. He just ran out of battery, that’s all.”

“So… I didn’t kill him?” Nyri asks.

“Was that your intention?” Miles responds, eyebrow raised.

Nyrini replies a bit too quickly for comfort. “Nope. No. Not really. Say, where can I find a map of the city?”

“Hmm… Your best chance is to try one of the info-panels. You’ll find one just up that street, some 5 blocks away,” Miles says, pointing east.

“Thank you!” Nyri says, quickly moving in that direction.

“Wait! You never told me your name!” Miles cries as she gets further and further away.

“No need, love! I’m planning on seeing you again, anyway!” Nyrini replies. A few blocks away, she finally stops and takes her hand to her face. “Well, that came out right…”

Nyrini looks at the long oblong shape hovering quietly above the cobbled street (old fashioned, I know, but come on… it’s not even a proper street unless it’s got some cobbles in it). Its mirrored surface is convex, made so that only the person standing before it will have access to the information being displayed on the dark screen, populated with bright colorful images and text, the energy supplying it obviously coming from solar panels. The panel stretches from the goddess’ knees to the top of her head, its screen currently displaying a large *I*.

“So, this must be the ‘info’ panel that guy Miles mentioned,” Nyrini deduces. “Hmm… I wonder if it has a map somewhere.” She inspects the screen closer. “But how does this work? Ugh, I should have paid more attention to Never More and his gizmos…”

She starts tapping the screen with the tips of her fingers, hoping to get some reaction from the darned thing. After a while, the screen changes to display the following message.

OK! OK! I’M ON! YOU CAN STOP POKING ME NOW!

The message then changes to the panel’s preset greeting:

Greetings, fellow Delviann and welcome to info-panel 98-B53, block 76, district 9. Please state your query and I will point you in the right direction.

“All right! I got it to work!” Nyrini cheers. “OK, gadget thingy, I’m looking for the bad guys’ headquarters!”

…And good morning to you too citizen…

“Oh, come on! Don’t you tell me I just found a whole civilization based on touchy robots!” Nyrini cries. “Fine… Good morning, info-panel. Now can I have my query answered?”

And what is your query on this fine sunny day?

Nyrini sighs. “I want to know where the D.E.L.T.A. buildings are.”

Result: Too many entries available. Query too vague. Please provide more search terms.

“You gotta be kidding me! Look, I’m looking for the D.E.L.T.A. headquarters. Like, their biggest building.”

Result: One result available. D.E.L.T.A. largest building: 90,000 sq ft. D.E.L.T.A. cafeteria and dormitories, district 78, block 32.

“This is insane,” Nyrini growls. “Look, you pile of nuts and bolts! If I wanted a cafeteria, I’d have asked for one! I want their headquarters, do you hear?!”

Does not compute. Citizen’s tone too aggressive. Please rephrase your query in a calmer tone.

“You quit your cheeky act or I’ll rephrase my query with my fist, you oversized battery!” Nyrini hisses, waging a threatening finger at the screen. She sighs and breathes deep before restating her question. “Look, I want to know where I can find Lord… what was his name again?... Davey?... Dennis?... Oh, right! Lord Delvinn’s headquarters. He’s bound to have what I want!”

This time the panel takes some time to answer. Eventually, the panel shows the following message:

… What is it to you, citizen?

“AAARRRGGGHHH!!!!” Nyrini wails. “Just give me an answer! One straight answer! It’s none of your business what I do with it! Give me an answer or I swear I’ll reprogram you into a toaster!”

Ha. Ha. Ha. Pull the other one. Where would you insert the bread, anyway?

“You keep messing with me, you bit-brained watch glass, and I WILL make a slot for bread!!” Nyrini rages at the info-panel, drawing her crossbow. “Just give me the damned information or else—DO YOU MIND, LOVE?! I’M DOING SOME TROUBLESHOOTING HERE!!” she exclaims, turning at the person standing behind her.

“H-How--- How did you know it was me?” Miles asks , wide-eyed, the D.O.G. now hanging limply from a backpack slung over the man’s shoulders. “Heck, how did you know I was here?”

Nyrini hesitates for a moment, caught between anger and the need to be vague.

“I… I’ve got very good hearing. And I call everyone ‘love’, so I’ve got that going for me.” She turns back to the info-panel. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have this can opener to deal with.”

“Yes… Looks like that’s going well, ” Miles mutters, by her side.

Nyrini sighs and turns to face him again. “Fine, what do you want from me?”

Miles smiles and leans against the side of the info-panel in a non-chalantly (or at least that’s what it hopes it looks like. It certainly looks like he is trying to catch his breath after running the marathon barefooted. In August.). “Well, you said you were planning to see me again and then I thought to myself ‘Hmm, how is she going to find me in this big city? Maybe I could find her’. But, of course, I’d need to know your name in order to do that and alas, I don’t have it. So… here I am, asking again. What is your name?”

Nyrini stares him in the eye for awhile, keeping her cool while, in the meantime, the man’s smile turns into a grin, then a line of worry complemented by raised eyebrows and an even paler skin tone. She sighs when he gets so nervous that he loses his hold on the info-panel and nearly falls flat, face-first on the cobblestones.

“Look, you’re cute, I’ll give you that,” the goddess concedes as she holds Miles steady. “Actually, I’ll see the cute and raise it to freakin’ handsome. But you see, I’ve got places to go, people to evade, technology to steal. I really don’t have time to avoid your failed attempts at picking me up.”

“Wait, you’re here to steal technology?” Miles hisses.

“Pfff! Of course not!!” Nyrini waves him off. “That stuff’s way too heavy to carry. Now, the plans, on the other hand…”

The man looks at Nyri in confusion and then laughs. “Ah! You’re funny.”

The goddess hangs her head in frustration. “You really don’t believe me, do you?”

Miles looks at her with growing compassion, rubbing the back of his neck in a nervous gesture. “Well, considering that you can’t even operate an info-panel properly, I’ll just take a quantum leap and say that technology really isn’t your thing.”

“Yeah… it really isn’t,” Nyrini sighs. “Damn it! I just wanted to know where the D.E.L.T.A. headquarters are.”

Miles brightens up suddenly. “Well, why didn’t you say so? That’s where I’m going! Come on, I’ll show you the way.”

He gestures at her to follow him and starts walking away. Nyrini is left scowling at the man’s back for a while.

“Yeah, right… What a coincidence, huh?” she mutters.

Sighing again, she shrugs and sets out to follow him. A passing glance at the side of the info-panel reveals a small area covered with a fine grid at about knee height, the only slightly less solid point in the whole contraption. Nyrini stops at this, looks in all directions, and then kicks the grid with a mighty blow that sends it, bent and broken deep into the body of the machine. She quickly turns and jogs her way to where Miles is now waiting for her.

As they leave, the info-panel reads...

OW! OW! OW! OW! YOU BRUTE!! SHEESH! PEOPLE, THESE DAYS...!!

“Well, she said it was big but this is ridiculous!” Nyrini exclaims.

They stand in front of a long, tall building that stretches to cover their whole field of vision, from side to side and ground to sky. Dark and eerie, covered in glass and illuminated by the reddish-yellow lights that line each floor and balcony. Not that there are many balconies. The building looks solid and shaped like a fortress, impossibly long near the ground and then slowly narrowing as terraces and auxiliary towers sprout here and there, a long way above Nyri’s head. Miles smiles by her side.

“Yep! Welcome to D.E.L.T.A. headquarters!” he says, urging her to follow him. “Come on, I’ll give you the tour to my lab.”

“Wait, you work here?!” Nyrini asks, jaw dropped.

Miles merely shrugs. “Heh, it’s D.E.L.T.A.. Half of the people in this city work at some D.E.L.T.A. facility.” His eyes narrow and he gives the goddess a good look before asking, “You really aren’t from around here, are you?”

“What can I say? The countryside isn’t really big on acronyms,” Nyrini replies nonchalantly.

Miles looks at the goddess in silence for a moment. “Is everyone in the countryside like you?”

“Not really. Some people are actually nicer.”

The prompt reply has Miles laughing heartly. “Oh, you’re a hoot! Very well, then. Shall we go in?”

He guides her through the labyrinthine hallways and criss-crossing paths of the inner building. Down elevators and stairs, around corners and through low archways, each fitted with secure-lock doors ready to slide out of a groove in the wall and seal the hallways section by section. They finally arrive at a narrow hall, apparently rarely visited, featuring a single door with the letters WR-1041. Miles enters his personal code on the keypad on the right and sees Nyri into the room.

“And here’s my lab,” he announces. “Well, it’s mostly a workshop.”

Nyri walks into the small, dimly lit room and takes in the endless contraptions (and respective spare parts), the plans and sketches lining the walls, the sedimentary paleontological management method of organized chaos that is the hallmark of anyone frequently too busy with new thoughts to put old projects to rest first. And everywhere a hint of available surface can be found, drawings, pictures and holographic projections of stars, galaxies and solar systems fill the room with the twinkling and glittering of a nightly sky.

“Stars everywhere…” Nyrini whispers.

“Oh? Yeah…” Miles says, flicking a switch to turn off the projections and replace them with a standard white light. “We haven’t seen a starry sky here in 20 years, since D.E.L.T.A. installed the shield. But I remember being very young and looking up at all the stars up there and wondering if they were looking down on me.” He sighs and starts clearing up a small table. “Oh well… I’m sorry for the mess. Since NetAI got stolen, this place has been in chaos, what with everyone trying to restore the AI system.”

“Stolen?” Nyrini queries, the level of curiosity in her voice kept carefully under control.

“Yes. Tea?” Miles offers, turning on an electric kettle and preparing two (hopefully clean) cups and saucers. “It’s a really sad story, really. NetAI created this android. It almost sounds as if the interface was feeling lonely and created a… daughter, you know?”

Inviting Nyri to take a seat by the now fairly empty table, he sets down the cups, saucers, tea pellets and biscuits as he proceeds with his tale. “We sent one of our best techs to deactivate it but, instead, he stole the android. I still can’t believe it. He was a good friend. We were together through all our schooling years.”

Nyrini holds her cup for Miles to fill. “Yeah, sounds sad--Ouch!” she cries when he inadvertently touches the kettle’s hot pressure-safety valve to her hand.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!!” Miles exclaims immediately, putting the kettle away and grabbing a towel dipped in cold water to hold against the burnt skin. “I’ve been meaning to fix the thermostat on this thing.”

“It’s OK. I’m fine, really.”

Nyrini tries to stop him but the man wraps the towel around her hand and holds it with his own.

“No, the teapot was really hot,” Miles insists, holding the towel in place until it starts feeling warm. He removes it to look at the wound. “It’ll be a second degree burn, at le-- What the heck just happened?!”

“What do you mean?” Nyrini asks at the sight of the now standing, clearly shocked man. She looks at her hand, perfect and untouched. “Oh, this? I just heal real fast, that’s all.”

“No human heals that fast!” Miles exclaims. “What are you?”

“A goddess…” Miles says slowly. “You want me to believe you’re a goddess.”

Nyrini sighs. Half an hour of this is starting to wear her down and she feels the time ticking away from under her feet. Every good spy knows that the key to a successful mission lies in getting and out quickly and unnoticed. And yet, here she is, currently sharing more information than she’s been able to collect so far. The investment better be worth it...

“I am,” she insists. “The Goddess of Thresholds and Pathways,” she says, disappearing and reappearing behind Miles. “I’m a pathfinder,” she adds, teleporting all around the room. “a traveller. There’s no place I can’t get in or out of.”

Her solid form fades slightly and she phases through the man’s body like a ghost through a wall, causing him to shiver at the sensation. “I’m hundreds of years old and yet, I don’t grow old and I can’t die. Well, I mean, I can be killed but there’s only a couple of people I know who could actually manage that.”

She finally settles down in Miles’ abandoned seat. “You’ve seen how fast I heal. What other proof do you need?”

“The teleporting… what kind of device are you using?” Miles asks, stubbornly hanging to the last threads of his scientific skepticism. “It must be real small. Smaller than we can muster.”

“There’s no device,” Nyrini says, shaking her head slowly. “Just me.”

“Impossible…” the man whispers.

Nyri growls her frustration. “Look, do you need me to take my clothes off and prove it to you?”

Miles’ eyes grow wide all of a sudden, at the thought. His lower lip hangs down, tongue turned to a slightly squishy brick, throat issuing nothing more than a soft grunt. “...Uhm…”

“Well, fine…” Nyrini says rolling her eyes and advancing towards him.

“No, wait! I believe--”

“Oh, wow… So many stars! More than I remember!” the man whispers, looking up at the night sky like a child gazing at the moon for the first time.

“No shield here,” Nyrini notes, standing by his side. “Nothing to keep you from your beloved stars.”

“Where are we?” Miles asks, looking at the stretch of desert that encompasses the entirety of his field of vision.

Very far away (and even further away than it seems), the city of Klatch shines its night-lights into the blue-black velvet darkness. But Miles wouldn’t know that, considering he’s been living in Delvinn his whole life.

Nyrini shrugs. “Does it matter? We’re far away from Delvinn and D.E.L.T.A., for the time being.”

“I guess it doesn’t,” the man concedes, stretching his arms as if attempting to grab the night before him. He lets himself collapse back, landing on the tilted surface of a sand dune and staring at the sky. “What do you think they’re thinking, when they look down at us like that?”

Nyrini sits down, cross-legged, by his side.

“Well, most stories say that the stars in the sky are great heroes of old,” she says, idly playing with a handful of sand, made silvery and shimmering in the faint light of the crescent moon. “And considering most heroes I know, I’d say they’re considering how much a pint of beer goes for these days.”

Miles goes silent at this. “I don’t--”

“Sorry. It’s a god thing,” Nyri explains vaguely, prompting another long silence. She breaks it after a while. “What if he didn’t? Steal her, I mean.”

“What do you mean?” Miles aks, sitting up to look at the goddess.

Nyrini doesn’t face him but instead keeps her eyes fixed on the distant brilliant silhouette of Klatch. “What if I told you that your friend is innocent. That he didn’t steal anything. And that, in fact,” - here she turns her head to look straight at the man - “he is dead.”

Miles suddenly grows extremely pale, his mouth hanging open in shock. “Dead?! Never!” he cries, shaking his head violently. “Even if he had been captured, a fair trial would follow! Why would he be--” His eyebrows furrow. “And how could you possibly know that?”

Nyrini remains surprisingly calm and the tranquility in her words is like a slap to the man’s psyche.

“His name is Jorge. And the android’s name is Netara-163,” she reveals. “And I know this because I know them. I mean… I know her. But he seems to be in there somewhere. His mind at least. His body is only good for fish bait now.”

“No…” Miles barely manages to say.

Nyrini lightly touches his arm and teleports both of them back to Miles’ lab, where she helps him down to his stool.

“Sit down, Miles,” she says softly, taking a seat herself. “I’m gonna tell you a little story.”

“So, you’ve either been lied to or I’ve been lied to,” Nyrini concludes. “But considering your Lord Delvinn came in person to get Netty back, I’d say that I’m probably the one who’s right.”

“The government has lied to us...” Miles whispers half to himself.

Nyrini snorts and leans back in her chair. “And somehow you look shocked…”

“Of course, I’m shocked!” Miles cries, shooting up from his three-legged stool as if struck by lightning. “We’re being lied to left and right!” He starts pacing around the room in his fury. “Oh, I knew it! I knew Jorge would never do something like that! All this time… All this time, we’ve been fooled.”

Nyrini shrugs and stands up herself. “Well, I’m glad you could find some kind of bureaucratic enlightenment, but I really need to get going.” She walks to the door and steps outside, stopping to look left and right and then back at Miles. “If you could only point me in the general direction of wherever it is that these guys keep their technology secrets…”

“Wait!” Miles calls out. “You can’t just go off like that! People need to know what’s going on!”

“Uhm… sure. I’ll leave you to it, then,” Nyrini says, opting to take the rightside corridor.

“No!” Miles runs out of his laboratory and stops Nyrini halfway down the hall, panting from the short run, so quick is the goddess’ stride (and so unused to exercise he is). “Listen, I can help you. And you could help me in return.”

“Ugh… Dom is sooooooo going to install that shield for free…” Nyrini mutters to herself. “Very well, love, what’s the plan?”

“So that’s it. You give me access to the main computer and in return, you can have all the techno specs you want,” Miles summarizes, again back in his secluded lab and three-legged stool.

Nyrini lets the plan sink in for a moment, then shrugs.

“Sounds easy enough. Can I go now?” she asks, getting up. “I wanna get back before Nevy comes back from his adventures.”

“Nevy?” Miles asks, hanging on to the fleeting mention of the name like a cat pouncing on a scurrying mouse. “Is he your… boyfriend?”

Nyrini hesitates at this. “He’s my… partner in crime, let us say.”

“So… not your boyfriend?” the man insists, a touch of hope in his hesitant voice.

“Look, it’s complicated, OK?” Nyrini replies in irritation, turning her eyes from the questioning blue pools of Miles’ irises. “And recent...”

A kind of saddened sympathy takes over his face but Miles tries to shrug off the awkward moment, moving instead to a fullsized locker on the far left corner and punching in the code to open it.

“Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t like you to get hurt.” He takes out a sleek, black and blue bodysuit and hands it to Nyrini. “Here, take this. It’s a prototype for the new standard female D.E.L.T.A. operative uniform that I’ve been working on. Their weapons can’t penetrate it.”

While Nyri teleports into the suit (which automatically adjusts to fit her as if it was painted on), disappearing and reappearing with her former clothing now hanging from her arm, he produces a pair of black gloves made of the same material from a box hidden in the recesses of the locker. “And these gloves… Take good care of these. They’ll allow you to create and project solid illusions. My own design.”

The goddess wills her old costume away and takes the gloves. They glow with tiny flashes of hidden circuitry as Nyrini slips her long, thin fingers into them and straps the adjusting band around her wrists.

“Ooooh… they fit wonderfully,” she says, admiring the fluttering image of a bluebird that projects from them at her command.

“‘If you can see it in your mind, it will happen before your eyes’, that’s my motto,” Miles says brightly. “Oh!”

From under an old workbench, he removes a dusty box, not longer than his forearm. He opens it to reveal what looks like a black, solid cylinder adorned with two silvery buttons. “And this… well, I had a thing for old weapons back in college.”

He takes the cylinder in his hand and holds it upright. Touching one of the buttons causes the thing to stretch to about two thirds of the man’s height. Touching the other, makes the weapon glow with a faint blue edge around both tips. Nyrini’s eyes widen and glow at the sight of the weapon, seemingly made to be a perfect complement to her crossbow.

“I made this collapsible staff and edged it with laser some years ago. It’s a bit of an overkill, I know, but I was much younger then. I hope you can use it.” He hands it to her. “I sure can’t. Nearly got myself killed the last time…”

Nyrini feels the weight of the weapon, the perfectly balanced staff moving in flawless harmony with her body as she twirls it and practices a couple of moves with it. She pushes the buttons and collapses the staff back to its much shorter appearance.

“Why are you giving me all this?” she asks, glancing suspiciously at Miles.

“Because, trust me, you will need it,” the man replies without a hint of deception. “Besides, I like you. There’s something about your eyes that speaks of a good heart.”

“Oh…” Nyrini feels her cheeks getting warmer again. She shakes it off and heads for the door. “Well, off I go, then. Now, if you could just point me in the right direction…”

“I’ll do better than that,” Miles offers, beating her to the door. “I’ll show you the way.”

“No!” Nyrini hisses, grabbing his arm and stopping him in his tracks.

“You don’t know this place!” Miles argues. “It’s a labyrinth! You’d get lost in less than a minute!”

“Then draw me a map,” the goddess states, her voice now edged with ice. “But I am not taking you.”

Miles looks distraught. “Why not?”

Nyrini sighs and releases the man, instead placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. The coldness in her voice disappears for a moment and the battle-ready goddess gives way to the tired, worn warrior of old.

“Love…” she says. “If I get caught, the worst they can do to me is wound me and/or imprison me. And even then, I’ll be out in a second. I’m immortal, remember? If you get caught, though, you could get killed. There will be no trial. There wasn’t one for your friend, either.”

“But I--”

“No buts,” Nyrini says, matter-of-factly, tapping Miles’ shoulder before walking between him and the door. “I’ve had to carry the weight of enough dead friends and strangers on my shoulders through the centuries. I will not add yours to that burden.”

For a moment, Miles holds his silence, letting her words sink in and his many questions die in his throat. He looks at the goddess with that mixture of fascination and compassion that one would reserve for a favorite hero fallen from grace or an angel bereft of wings. The young, bright woman before him seems to grow older and darker as each shadow in the room seems to gather around her, weighing on her, lining her body in a void of ghosts and countless years. Her head half turned to glance at him over her shoulder, back turned to him, slender figure drawn and framed by the still closed door, she looks nothing like the flamboyant girl that threatened the info-panel with a crossbow just a few hours before. His shoulders hang in defeat.

“Centuries of guilt…” he says, barely above a whisper.“I can’t even imagine. I guess… there really is a downside to this whole immortality thing.”

“There is,” Nyrini replies, turning her head to face the door, grateful that he can’t see the black rings around her brown eyes grow wider and darker. “The greatest one of all: memory.”

She strides out.

The endless hallways stretch before her as she negotiates each turn and passage. In her left ear, the voice of Miles whispers directions through a hearing device, duly assisted by a camera made of a very thin mesh and placed over Nyri’s right cornea. On her earlobe, the earring that allows her to hear Twilight if there’s any problem merely hums with a disquieting buzz of inactivity.

»» OK, now turn left there and mind the guards.

“They can’t see me, love,” Nyri says, touching the necklace she received as payment for the plans for the Storm. “Or hear me.”

»» Well, I’ll bet they’ll find it weird when the doors start opening and closing of their own volition.

“I can teleport and phase through walls, dear,” Nyrini counters, moving stealthily between the guards and entering the next room on her path without engaging the door.

»»Well, can you make computers silent? The next room has three guards in it and a computer that you’ll need to use to get today’s codes for the main core computer.

“You do realize I’m not exactly an expert at computer stuff, right?” Nyrini asks, looking slightly dismayed at the lack of need for any particular care, so effective is Dom’s cloaking device.

Another wall, another short leap, and Nyrini finds herself in the computer room. In front of her, three guards stand facing the center of the room, where a console stands, like a half-broken pillar decorated with a ridiculous number of luminous buttons. Nyrini breathes deep.

“Well, I guess it’s time. Look away now, love,” she orders. “I’ll let you know when it’s safe to look again.”

»»Look away? But why? What are you going to do?

“What I was actually trained to do,” the goddess says, feeling for the staff hanging from her belt with her left hand and holding her right hand in front of her. “Not a lot of people get to see it. Well, not more than once, at least. I’d rather you didn’t see it either.”

»»Very well. Let me know when it’s safe.

Knowing that she must abandon her cloak in order for her plan to work, Nyrini focuses her thoughts and projects them, just as she becomes visible, through the gloves, into an image of Susan's wolf, Silvershade, sitting on the central console and staring placidly at one of the guards. The guards stare back at holographic wolf for no more than a second before reacting.

But it is a second too long...

Nyrini sneaks up to one of the guards and takes him from behind, throwing her arms around his neck, holding his spine steady with one arm and reaching for his jaw with her free hand. The muffled crack of a twisted neck travels up her arms and resounds in her ears but she barely glances at the corpse as she releases it, to fall limply on the floor with a thud that echoes around the room.

The illusion vanishes.

The second guard sees her. He reaches for his weapon but the tip of a staff hits his skull with such force that he falls backwards, calling out to the third guard, who answers and draws his gun...

The feathered shaft of a crossbow bolt sticks out of his opened mouth as his knees fold under him. A gurgling sound comes out of his throat and he collapses, face first, on the floor, jerking slightly when the explosive tip piercing through the roof of his mouth and into his hypothalamus goes off.

Nyrini watches the scene dispassionately before returning her crossbow to its place across her back and ending the misery of the second guard, still lying half conscious on the floor, with a violent plunge of her staff against his throat. Cartilage collapses, bone shatters, nerves are severed. The body goes limp, paralyzed, useless as the semiautonomous heart pumps its last spurts of blood before the lack of oxygen finally takes its toll. The life goes out slowly in the man's eyes, without pain, without feeling, without hurry. He dies looking at nothing.

The goddess walks up to the main console.

"It's done," she announces. "Tell me what to do."

Nyrini walks down a barren hallway, somewhere on the upper levels of the building. It's difficult to know where, exactly. Without a map or some other visual clue, the goddess can only tell where in relation to the ground and surrounding territories this is, but not how many turns and staircases away from Miles' lab.

In her ear, his voice buzzes with shock and disgust at the sight of the fallen guards in the computer room. She can hear him talking to himself, blaming himself. She's growing weary of it.

»»Those guards... They're dead, aren't they?

The goddess breathes deep and prepares for what comes next. The rookie rebel rite of passage is never fun.

"It's easier if you don't think about it," she says, voice carefully leveled, hollow.

In her ear, Miles' voice sounds strained, hoarse. Each word is weighed, carefully picked, each question following a long, breathless silent pause.

»»Why did you kill them? Why did they have to die?

Nyrini stifles a sigh. She plays her part as the long-known script plays itself out.

"Because they would have tried to kill me. They would have failed. And then they would have raised the alarm."

His voice sounds louder in her ear.

»»You do realize that they're not going to wake up again, right? Not ever. They're not gods.

Unconsciously, Nyrini nods. "I know. They're dead."

Another pause.

»»They didn't have to die.

This time, the goddess sighs. "Does it matter, now? They're dead."

Sounds in her ear speak to her of footsteps. Miles is pacing.

»»I could have stopped you. If I had gone with you...

"You would be dead," Nyrini states, matter-of-factly.

Silence stretches between them. Just as Nyrini reaches the end of the hallway, Miles finally speaks.

»»The next part won't be so easy.

Nyrini grins. "Good. Easy is boring."

Nyrini teleports into the main core computer room, leaving behind her an antechamber slightly more empty of guards and less devoid of dead bodies than it was just a few minutes ago. They would have been able to intervene, were she to trip any alarms. Better to deal with things beforehand. At least Miles isn’t complaining about it anymore.

The round room is small, no more than 60 feet in diameter, and barren. White walls and floor give an illusion of borderless immensitude, stretching around and beyond the center console. More complex than the one before, this one has seven separate pads arranged at different levels, somewhat reminiscent of the petals of an orchid. Nyrini moves towards it and extends a hand to the lower pad.

The room goes dark.

White turns to black, then to grey. The colorless infinity is replaced with the straight lines of steel and concrete as a city emerges from the ground, empty and decadent and stained by the years. Suddenly, the console is gone and Nyrini finds herself alone in the middle of this labyrinth of moulding, rotting cement.

»»Ugh... This isn't good.

"What happened?” Nyrini asks, looking around. “The place looks different."

»»You must have triggered the secondary defense mechanisms. This is a holographic trap. An illusion, let us say.

"That doesn't sound very threatening," the goddess notes, reaching for the soothing wooden frame of her crossbow, nonetheless.

A familiar sensation of impending danger crawls up her spine, raising the hairs on the back of her neck.

»»Well, I may have failed to mention that this illusion is just as solid as the ones created by your gloves. You can get lost in it permanently. You can also get killed.

"Killed? By whom?”

The goddess draws her crossbow, her body responding to adrenaline even before her eyes catch the movement of something lurking just behind a tumbled fire-staircase.

The ground shakes, the air thunders with the sound of heavy machinery landing just in front of Nyri. A black, massive android stands before her, scanners and sensors locked on the goddess, shiny armor reflecting her image, broken and distorted like a child’s kaleidoscope. The smell of metal and gunpowder fills the air. The barrel of a machine gun rises to occupy most of Nyrini’s immediate field of vision.

»»Uhm... Him?

»»This isn't woooorkiiiing!

"You don't saaaay!" Nyrini responds in a singsong voice.

Beaten and cut, the goddess hides from the shots behind the ruins of a fallen wall, cursing under her breath. Breathing is painful. The left side of her ribcage sends lightning bolts up her spine with every breath, yelling complaints about three fractured ribs. Her left arm cries for attention, still throbbing from the last blow (although considerably less now that she’s managed to pop her shoulder back into place). The mathematical attacks of the strange android have been brutal and frighteningly effective. And she is getting weaker...

Another burst of bullets grazes the wall just above Nyri’s head.

"Gods, what is this guy made of?" Nyrini hisses.

»»He's a CGI, a computer generated image.

It all started out easy enough, mind you. The first few blows were swift and hard and delivered efficiently by Nyrini’s staff and crossbow to her attacker, without even an attempt at defense from the android’s side.

But those produced no effect. Bolts moved through him and so did the staff, although the lasers did manage some damage. On the contrary, each blow from him has felt solid, real and devastating.

And it has been learning her moves...

The dragon defeats all... The thought drifts into her mind.

»» I thought gods were almighty!

Nyrini snorts. “You’ve clearly never met one. Only some gods… are… almighty.”

The wandering thought finds the right buttons to push, triggering old memories of bedtime stories.

The dragon defeats all...

An idea forms in her head.

“That’s it!” she exclaims.

»»What is it? Are you going to call them?

“Call who?”

»»Those other gods.

The bullets stop flying for a moment. Nyrini’s muscles tense in anticipation.

“Something like it. Wish me luck, love.”

»»May your gods be with you, I guess.”

The goddess grins. “They always are.”

Nyrini clenches and unclenches her hands slowly as she focuses her thoughts. She breathes deeply.

The dragon defeats all...

Fighting fire with fire, the goddess summons the image of a flintlock pistol to her right hand.

I gotta get me a dragon.

Three armor-piercing bullets hit the android, destroying its main weapon. The useless machine gun falls on the floor as the android adapts its strategy and creates an energy shield around it. The sizzling touch of the wall of concentrated light disintegrates even the rubble left behind by the last hour of intense, ceaseless fighting.

Nyrini dissolves the pistol illusion and presses both palms against the floor. At her command, the ground under the android’s feet opens, unleashing blood-curdling cries of endless tortured souls. Through the gaps, tanned arms shoot up and grab the android’s legs, robbing it of its balance and movement. It points an auxiliary weapon at the ghastly, disembodied arms and fires once.

The gun falls to the floor, along with the arm holding it. The android looks up to see the scythe in Nyri’s hand disappear and be replaced with a ball of energy.

She grabs its head, enveloping it in light, making it burst in a shower of sparks and broken parts. Back-up sensors on the thing’s torso are turned on just as the sharp blade of a rapier is thrust onto what, in a human, would be the solar plexus.

The sword is pulled out, its blade glowing blue, steel and ice dancing in the air, twirling in elegant arches, again and again under Nyrini’s grip. Her hair shimmers with silvery accents, her tanned skin bathed in the cold, pale light of the rapier as it slashes, impossibly sharp, slicing through the metal armor of the android until nothing is left but a pile of slightly electrified wreckage.

Nyrini takes a couple of steps back, the rapier dissolving in her hand. Her breathing heavy, each movement slowly and painfully, she raises a gloved hand.

Above the dismantled android, an amber halo stains the air. Heavy rain starts pouring from it, golden-brown, sticky, slightly carbonated rain that covers the wrecks in white froth that exudes the distinctive scent of fermented hops.

What electric life remains in the heap of metal and silicone goes out in one long, drowned short-circuit.

The illusion vanishes. The room is empty again.

»»There! The console, quick! Before the back-up is activated!

Exhausted, Nyrini stumbles toward the console and punches in the codes obtained before, along with others meant to give remote access to Miles.

“Did I win?” she asks, shoulders hanging in weariness.

»»Yes! And wow… What you did was amazing! I never even knew the gloves could be used like that.

“The dragon defeats all…” Nyrini whispers, reciting old, deeply ingrained lessons connected with soft feminine voices. “...even the dragon itself.”

Her legs give out. She falls to her knees.

»»Use an illusion to defeat an illusion. And then change your fighting style so the computer can’t predict your next move. Just… amazing.

“Is this gonna take much longer?” Nyrini asks, already feeling her mind slipping into unconsciousness.

»»Sorry--no. Almost done...

A small crystal emerges from the console.

»»There! The specs you came for and then some. Now, get out of there. I’ll take care of the rest.

“Thank you,” Nyrini says, grabbing hold of the crystal. “Goodbye, love.”

»»Wait! I never got to know your name.

Nyrini exhales deeply, her presence already beginning to fade.

“My name, love, is Nyrini.”

The goddess vanishes, leaving but an earwig in her wake. From the tiny piece of equipment, the softest of voices hums…

»»Nyrini…