For the love of unnecessary character backstories – these from Destiny 2
“I saw you die.”
Celeste-3 studied the warlock’s expression for acknowledgment of the encounter, any glimmer of recollection of the ill-fated expedition. Her machine sister by batch, Zihra-17 had been counted among those killed in action years prior. Celeste could not read Zihra’s face, a burning intensity in her crimson eyes. She waited for a witty remark, any sign of the sibling she had lost on that day. The hum of the ship’s automations was punctuated by the precise rhythm of the refurbished ion propulsion system. Below the din, a soft clink of glass as the Drifter poured a drink.
The witty reply never came. Celeste felt renewed heartbreak as the realization sunk in that the horror had not ended for Zihra that day. The silence between the two cut like a knife. The Drifter froze, the steady hand of one who had survived gunfights that started with less warning.
“Zihra, I-“Celeste’s apology was interrupted.
“It’s been a long time,” Zihra interjected.
Zihra’s inflection was not lost on Celeste. The Vex machinations had indeed taken them through both the distant past and one of the darkest of possible futures – Sol itself lifeless and blackened. The proud Sunbreaker Titan, Flag Bearer of the Vanguard, felt an instinctive heat rising. The weight of the hammer in her belt steeled her nerves. The Drifter quietly cleared his throat.
“Tell her what you saw,” the Drifter mediated. It was he who had arranged the reunion after Zihra was discovered at the edge of the solar system – a tip from Dead Orbit scouts.
Zihra paced carefully, stopping to examine the bottle of exotic liquor. “Do you remember the pursuit of Oryx?”
Celeste did. Each time they had faced the manifestation in battle the Taken King had fled into the ascendant realm, untouchable. “Of course,” Celeste replied. “Eris Morn-“she was interrupted again.
“Yes. Eris,” Zihra continued. “Do you remember what she asked us to do to be able to cross into the ascendant realm to end him?”
The Ocean of Storms, Luna. Deep within Hellmouth they had to retrieve essence of the slain god Crota, son of Oryx. Borrowing the uncontrolled magic of the Hive to enter the ascendant realm was the last thing any of them had wanted to meddle with, but the stakes were too dire to refuse. Celeste felt a chill in her systems at the suggestion.
“It was no mere key, sister” Zihra continued pacing. She set down the bottle, and for a fraction of a second there was a trail of dark where her hand had been, like smoke.
Celeste braced for a fight. “You’re,” she hesitated. Zihra waited for the answer. Celeste’s fist closed and opened nervously.
Zihra smirked. “I think the word you were looking for is we”.
Happy Anniversary, discordianbliss.com. I looked back to the first posts on this blog ten years ago, even then marked with a look back and some uncertainty of what the future would hold. I mused on my music collection, on astronomy and advancements in particle physics, a game innovator who I admired, and I wrote about my love for the beach.
The whole of outdoors is a draw to me, I feel similar about my hikes on and to the top of Humphrey’s Peak Arizona, weekends snowboarding or just exploring the trails in Coconino National Forest. Even still, my feelings about the thin line between ocean and sand have yet to fade, that spot in Topsail, North Carolina in particular. I’ve been to other beaches and enjoyed them, but I feel like I left a piece of my heart there on the pier on the east coast.
I wonder how that quiet beach community has changed in ten years. I feel like it was simultaneously yesterday and a hundred years ago that I picked up a pair of coffees from a local coffee shop there. Would I feel a sense of the familiar if I returned? Or would it be like returning to my childhood home, discovering even the house where I lived in grade school had been razed to widen the main road and the market I bought candy and trading cards at was converted into a gym. There is a metaphor in there somewhere.
No, I don’t think I am headed back to that beach soon. Some things are best left to memory, and the thrill of the unknown is the stronger pull for me today. Somewhere on one of the countless lengths of sand I have yet to visit, the wind whispers to me. Beneath the ocean’s surface, the shipwrecks of my imagination hum a siren song. Enthralled, I will find my way.
Conversation starting re-imagined short stories of Arthurian legend. Edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, the assorted works by sixteen contributing authors in “Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices” are vibrant, alternative perspectives on classic tales surrounding the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, King Arthur, Merlin and more. Each is just the right length to be read in a sitting, ideal for a casual reader like myself, and every one as thought provoking as the last.
Powerful from the start, I knew right away I would recommend this book to my friends who love to read. I found several of the stories stayed with me long after for their compelling angle on the well-told myth. Even the order and arrangement of the stories is done with care, giving the anthology a sense of flow and creating a positive experience for the reader. The range and style of stories is a journey itself, some that swept me in with fantastic detail, others that made me cackle with glee and one or two that had me blush. LGBTQIA+ inclusive.
Easily a highlight of my reading so far this year, I look forward to picking this up again when it is released July 13.
Taking a glance at my own archive for “Discordian Bliss”, I noticed the first post on this site was April 2011 – ten years ago next month. Maybe it is time for a new theme, new banner, or a refresh? No time like the present..
I think back to where I was when I started this site, freshly relocated to North Carolina and feeling nostalgic about my first web page ages prior, before Google, Facebook or “the like button” were a thing. I’ve since moved again and am staring down yet another cross-state move, who knows if for the last time. Some things remain the same – my interest in science and technology, my love for books, art, writing, gaming and my passion to keep learning and exploring.
The security analyst could barely remember getting home to her shoebox apartment. You did good work tonight, the senior analyst had told her. She had time for about an hour’s sleep before getting a message on her phone from their boss who had reviewed the data she provided at the end of the last sequence. More praise, and the day off. A long weekend.
She lay in bed and thought for a second about catching up on sleep when her cat began quietly fussing at her to see why she was not getting up. “Fine,” she wrestled the cat playfully with her hand, but she was still thinking about work. The senior analyst who had been advising on her unexpected double shift tracking the rogue animus frame’s activity made little secret he knew more about the data anomalies than he would directly say. He made sure she had seen them, and soon after disengaged. As if he lost interest. Yes, the rogue frame was not the only actor on the network, data he did not instruct to leave out of their report, but how many additional actors?
“She knew something was out of place,” the analyst explained to her cat as she opened a small can of food. “The girl,” she clarified to her captive audience, and then began to stare off into space. “It was painful, physically.” Like a ringing in her ears. The simulation was more malleable than logic would suggest, but the subjects in turn could detect that.
The cat let out a small impatient meow. “Oh sorry,” the analyst snapped out of recollection, placing the food dish down and moving to fix herself a cup of coffee. She looked at her coffee mug and made a face, changing her mind. She had enough last night. She could get something else out later.
She absentmindedly cleared the notifications from her phone, no longer surprised when there was nothing interesting there. She caught herself glancing twice when she enabled her Bluetooth to connect to the tiny apartment speakers. Just checking to see if there were any new devices, but there never were.
She put on something upbeat, long weekend vibes, and started running the hot water in the shower. As the humidity from the steam began to obscure the mirror, she watched her reflection disappear. She could not get the puzzle out of her mind. Someone was helping the girl, too.
No one at the office seemed to notice her when she arrived. She sat down at her desk without bothering to take off her parka. She looked around; it was the usual office chit chat and people largely browsing social media during pointless conference calls. On her desk, an unopened bag of assorted nuts and chocolate. Jerk.
Through the small gap in the cube divider she could see another of the junior analyst’s monitors. Mr. ‘I don’t care if IT sees my social media because I never do anything wrong’, busily engaged in a post on recent political activity downtown. The amateur mobile phone footage at the peaceful assembly began buffering unexpectedly. Just as she caught herself staring at his screen with its buffering circle spinning, she noticed indistinct dark shapes in one of the large downtown trees in the frozen image. Corvids. Crows, Jackdaws or Ravens.
She pulled off her gloves and swiped her access card and pulled up the data transit display. It was quiet. Pulling up the command history, she retrieved the query they had set up for the sequence. Following intuition, she adjusted the scope of the query. Careful, she warned herself. No additional hits. She considered further; she wasn’t thinking big enough. She removed the constraints on the historical date. Anomalies; everywhere. Also, the second phenomena she had tracked. Ancient Greece, London, Italy, Paris. North Africa.
She drilled further into the data, isolating the variance. Senu, is that you?
A bitter midwinter wind whipped around Eivor and Hadda atop the seaside cliff. Freyja waited idly lower on the path leading up to the spot. Together they managed to arrange the tall stone cairn despite the ever-present push of the trade winds. Below it, a number of smaller tributes. Each to someone they had lost.
It had been a journey of few words, and none since they arrived at the cliff. Even the horse was silent as she tried to find any scrap of grass that could grow in the inhospitable stone. On the ride back Eivor finally spoke. “How was he?” she wondered aloud.
Hadda knew she meant Able, who she had recently returned from checking up on. The other Vikings could not make the journey under the current conditions of war. “He is in good spirits,” Hadda chose her words.
“Able?” Eivor almost laughed. “Who is this other man you visited then?” she joked.
“He misses us,” Hadda began. “But he is well taken care of at the monastery and is kept busy with his work.” She paused, remembering the conversation they had over honey bread. “He was actually excited for what he was working on with the other scribes. An important work.
“He was also happy to see what we had managed to save from his home that was not lost to the fire. Even the partial scrolls.” Hadda continued.
“And the book?” Eivor questioned further.
“He had not seen it since the night we arrived. The clergy did not keep it with the other written works, but rather in a much more secure depth of the fortress the scribes are not allowed to go.” Hadda replied.
It was ironic that one of the safest places to hide something or someone from the King was in the castle-like monastery of his own holy church. The tension between clergy and King was obvious even on the streets. They kept his authority in check, but for how long no one could guess. It was a dark time in Wessex.
“He did ask me something,” Hadda furrowed her brow. “Something I had wondered myself.” She considered again the night she found the book. “What value were just a few pages that was worth more than the whole book?
“Why did he leave the book?”
Eivor considered it, and her expression said she had thought on the same question. “Perhaps the story was worth more to them with a piece left out.”
The silhouette of mounted bannermen framed the light regiment as it approached, smoke rising from the razed village behind them. Women, children, and the elderly scattered in the chaos as the Vikings struggled to assemble. Grain stores burned. They struck against the peace accord during the heart of a celebration when they would be the least defended during the first snow of Winter. It was a calculated execution of a people they would no longer tolerate. The calvary did not come to gamble with the veteran raider settlement; it was a show of force flying the colors of the King.
The falling snow swirled thick as the strongest of the Vikings rushed to head off the armored men on horses away from those least able to defend themselves. The thunder of hooves and boots bid Hadda’s blood to run hot. There was something unasked-for, visceral in the sound of steel striking shield that made her senses come alive. She swept up a young child, fearful but strangely silent in the chaos as she surveyed the ensuing battle. In the midst, Eivor struck her first opponent with a force like thunder.
Above the battle, a thin line of the regiment’s leadership watched under banner flapping. The snow and blood mixed on the ground until it ran freely. Sundered shield and splintered spear alike littered the ground as Saxon and Viking fell in a cacophony of death. An arrow pierced a girl through the shoulder just feet from where Hadda and the toddler fled. Amid screaming, Hadda passed the small child to another fleeing woman with a mutual glance and turned to aid the girl who had been struck. The girl with the bundle of small black-eyed yellow flowers now falling out of Hadda’s hair. The wound was severe, but with haste the girl could be saved.
“Torben!” Hadda called out, spotting him on the edge of the skirmish. In his eyes even at a distance Hadda could see the grim determination of a man preparing to die. “Torben!” she called again, attempting to restrain the girl who was fading in her arms. Unable to hear her cries, Torben redoubled the grip on his axe and charged into the fray. He fell two Saxons on foot before a slender-framed rider struck him from horseback. Torben hit the snow like an unbound sack of rocks. He was killed instantly.
She could not hear her own scream. Hadda fought a stream of tears as a strength beyond her own turned to the thick shaft of the arrow piercing the girl she held. She snapped the shaft, and with a bellow pulled the other end through the girl’s torso. She tore her dress into a broad strip until no fabric remained below her knees. She wrapped it tightly as the girl cried out, tying it into a knot before helping her retreat further down the hill towards the lodge. Out of the corner of her eye, something trivial, something otherwise very unimportant caught her eye. The door to Able’s hut was open. The same she had personally closed shut before leaving to the celebration.
Reaching the lodge Hadda and the girl came face to face with the mystic. The same air touched by the Gods radiated around her as she took the girl from Hadda to lead her into the lodge as it was being fortified to withstand a direct attack. A thankful glance from the girl and a knowing nod from the mystic dismissed Hadda as she doubled back to investigate Able’s home. A she raced up the path now obscured by snow it felt as if all sound faded away. She could hear only dull noise over her own footprints crushing snow. Cautiously, she slipped in the door.
Standing the center of a wreck of overturned bookshelves and spilled parchment was a familiar dark figure. Heavy coat framed flowing tunic and belt of a man she had seen before. The man from the garrison of her warden, he who owned the decorative knife left on the chapel table. Laying eyes upon him, Hadda’s ears began to ring louder than any sound she had heard before.
In a corner, Able stood as if turned to stone while falling. His wooden crutch hung suspended in air. In the gaze of the stranger even the dust seemed to freeze in time until he locked gaze with Hadda; deaf with fear. The interior of the home was destroyed. Helpless, Hadda looked on her adversary. Indulgent gold adorned pearl white silk and a radiant red cross. His impeccably trimmed beard and mustache contoured a face wrought by angels. He was a full foot taller than Hadda, blond hair bouncing at his collar. His steel eyes cut her to kneeling. The very earth beneath her trembled. The figure made show of breathing deeply through his nose.
“Intoxicating, isn’t it?” He chimed airily, voice cracking open the heavens above them.
The security analyst pulled one half of her headset off her ears in frustration, staring directly at the senior analyst. He could barely contain his amusement. She was well beyond asking questions she knew she would not get a straight answer to. The simulation had been modified. She was as certain as the glee on her mentor’s stupid face. She hoped her glare was as icy as it felt. He continued to smile as he lobbed a chocolate into his mouth.
Enough games, she cursed to herself as she turned back to the swarming data transit flashing before her. The second anomaly she had observed was still there, also. Cooley, she returned the headset to her ears and relaxed in her chair as the scene continued to unfold.
Hadda shook, fighting the shrill noise in her ears. The dark figure paced as Able’s adobe began collapsing around them, embers raining without source until a number of tiny fires started among the scrolls. Hadda’s cheeks were soaked with tears. The man withdrew something from his long coat. A single scrap of paper, which Hadda recognized immediately as belonging to her. The Greek prose.
“Like the very gods in my sight is he who sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness murmur in love..” he read aloud. Bright flames danced around him. Able lay in a heap too close to the blaze. The figure tossed the paper into the flames, where it incinerated immediately. Hadda sobbed. “Sappho,” he continued. “Lost to time.’ He declared.
The cry of a raven pierced the night as Hadda regained control of her senses. Eivor leapt into the fray with a fury of a dozen men. Sparks showered as the stranger parried her twin axe strikes with a blade that shone like pure sunlight. Eivor did not relent. Strike after strike, she tested his footwork until she had backed him out of the open door and onto the path outside. In the distance a Saxon horn signaled retreat. The Vikings had held their ground. “Hadda, get Able to the ships!” She urged.
With a practiced riposte, the dark figure disarmed Eivor, exchanging positions so his back faced the scribe’s home, now engulfed in fire. Hadda drug a still-conscious Able past where the pair faced off. Eivor checked her footing, but her opponent took two additional steps back. Into the flames. With a smirk he disappeared in the inferno. Eivor spent no more time than necessary doubting what she had seen. Towards the sandy shore, ahead of Hadda and Able, a lone horseman rode to intercept.
Hadda recognized immediately the slender rider. The man who had killed Torben. His horse made a restless sound. “Winnifred?” Hadda gasped, out of breath. She lacked the strength to stand, and Able could barely support his weight with help.
“Traitor!” Her stepbrother Brandon shouted. A long moment passed, nothing but the distant sound of burning, the agitated horse and the sea lapping against the hull of the longship. He held his sword aloft. In his eyes, cold intent.
Eivor rushed to Hadda’s side, a long spear held low ready to strike. Brandon kicked his armored heels into his horse’s flank, urging her to charge.
“No!” Hadda cried, leaping between Eivor and Brandon. The horse panicked, rearing up and throwing Brandon into a heap of armor and pride. Eivor lowered her weapon.
Brandon gasped for air, struggling at length to remove his helmet so he could breath. Hadda stood as tall as she could muster, weary but filled with resolve. Brandon slowly collected himself and retrieved his sword. “Do you know what happens to horses who throw their riders in battle?” He sneered, slow stepping to Hadda’s left. Eivor studied the two carefully. Her raven called from above.
With no further warning Hadda uncoiled, releasing the river-worn stone concealed in her hand. It sailed the twenty paces between them, striking him squarely in the forehead. He collapsed into the sand, rolling to support his bleeding head in his gauntlets. His voice was hollow with pain.
The horse shuffled anxiously until Hadda spoke to her. Eivor stood tall. “This horse knows you?” Eivor let out her breath. “Your favor with the Gods..” Eivor put a hand on Hadda’s shoulder, meeting eyes with Able as he helped himself to kneeling. “You surprise us all.”
Hadda nuzzled her face into the horse’s neck, sobbing in relief. Brandon struggled nearby. “Eivor, this is Freyja” Hadda introduced her through tears. The horse affectionately stepped towards Eivor.
Brandon pulled himself to standing. “Freak!” he screeched at Hadda, opening crying. Above them on the slope the eldest of Eivor’s raiders ran to investigate, scar over his blind eye.
“Just go,” Hadda pleaded with Brandon. She motioned with her hand for the grizzled warrior to wait.
Brandon’s knees visibly shook. Without another word, he turned to a darkened stretch of the river bank in the approximate direction that the other Saxons had retreated and ran.
Quiet settled before anyone spoke. The older Viking pointed with his sword in the direction Brandon had gone. “A lot of rough swimming that way” He deadpanned to laughter.
Able helped himself to standing with Hadda’s assistance. Several more of Eivor’s best men approached with serious faces. The broad-shouldered warrior held with him the treasured bound book; renowned axe holstered on his back. The others carried supplies for a journey.
Eivor faced Hadda directly, gently straightening her torn dress. “You must get Able to safety. The book cannot remain here.” Eivor looked down, solemn. “War is upon us.” She shuffled her boots, considering her next words. She held forth her hand, revealing the bracelet Hadda was to receive in the celebration earlier that night. “This is for you.” Hadda fought tears. “Hadda, with these men as witness, I declare you a free woman.”
Hadda stood tall, tears rolling free down her cheeks. On the hill above, a silhouette of a woman with antler headdress watched. With trembling hands, she put on the bracelet. She was not sure what to say.
Without a word, Eivor pulled her into a mighty hug. “Go now,” Eivor reassured. “I will care for Freyja personally.”
A brief moment passed as they regarded one another before Eivor spoke again. “Odin is with you.”
The last full moon of harvest rose and brought with it the first signs of snow. Tomorrow it would be winter. The last of the crops were to be harvested, and that night a great feast; Winter Blót. Hadda’s days were filled both with work in the fields with the other children of age and work for Able, the scribe. She dutifully copied a number of written texts as he produced them from nooks in his tidy small hut.
Able’s collected assortment of scrolls and other papers was an amassment from a variety of places he had collected, or more commonly as brought to him by raiders who could not read and wondered if they were of value. Wooden cross-membered shelves lay neatly along every available wall and even into the loft yet somehow remained in order. In some spots the shelves were lined two deep and had to be moved to be accessed. Only Able could keep sort of it, locked in his troubled mind.
He was not cruel as Hadda had feared, but rather held by a darkness inside as if always with pain. He was a strict instructor; brilliant. Some days he was too ill to leave his home. There was an unspoken boundary that kept Hadda from aiding him when he was low, but she made sure the younger Brita would bring him soup or hot drink if he would take it. Hadda would herself, but Able regarded her like neither Northman nor Saxon. She was like him, a woman of two worlds still alive for a purpose they may not fully know. This nameless distance was mutual, and later grew into respect.
Hadda had much still to learn for reading and more still for writing to express her own thoughts but was quickly taught the more important contextual reading regarding trade and agreements. Contracts, even letters of peace. The Saxons universally regarded the Vikings as lesser men, barbaric and as vulnerable to being manipulated against their own interests. Able was no longer fit for long travel, so Hadda would accompany settlement elders when possible to ensure terms of trade were written as spoken.
Saxons had grown increasingly resentful of the Northmen settlements’ success even in times of peace. Isolated hostilities and disappearances had become too common. Hadda recalled on one such trip to outside York for medicinal herbs the otherwise peaceful exchange with an eccentric traveling apothecary was interrupted by a mounted armored patrol. The roadside exchange was perfectly legal, but it nearly turned into a sudden slaughter. Hadda quickly calculated the tax exchange in her head they should owe had the transaction been held in the city, and while it was at a sore disadvantage to the Northmen, the guards were surprisingly open to the idea of pocketing the tariff. It was not all she won that night.
She kept under her straw bed a single leaflet of strange text. The desert skinned trader had told her it was Greek. There were but a few lines of it, the formatting alone looked less like spoken word and more like art. Prose. She hoped one day to translate it but had not shown it to Able. He had told her once of a great purge of all writing that was not to the benefit of the wellness of the soul, some hundred or more years prior. The burning of the greatest library every known to woman or man. The deep pain in her heart at the thought matched for a split second what she saw in the older scribe’s eyes. In that instant she imagined he had almost smiled to reassure her.
The sun rose on that first winter day, and with it an air of celebration. In a spot of cleared field men worked to prepare a space with stacked bales of grass, makeshift tables and decorations carved from wood. Hadda was only a little surprised when she learned her chores were more than double. Where were most of the other children?
Able added to her work. He was prepared when she arrived with a neat stack of scrolls she had not seen before. With sweat still on her brow she sat down diligently to begin copying the letters that would surely take all afternoon. Soon after she was sat down Able prepared to leave. Eivor had summoned him, he explained.
In the back of her mind she wondered where Eivor had secured the wondrous book they had brought back on that night that now felt long ago. She had first suspected it to be hidden among Able’s other well-kept texts, but over time she concluded there was no corner of the hut she was yet to see where it would have been safe. No, she suspected the Viking leader had a more secure stash, perhaps beneath the lodge, one sealed by something it took several men to move. Smart.
When Hadda had finally finished and cleaned up, she felt like she was the last one left to head towards where the rest of the settlement now gathered. A great carved wooden pillar had been erected in the center of the cleared field; a monument to Odin the Allfather. The sun was low in the sky, she could see visitors from the next settlement upriver were arriving on the bare dirt path into their village. It looked like there would be upwards of more than fifty in attendance. Among the visitors Hadda spotted the enigmatic mystic, the ätts’ selected who spoke with the gods. The mystic was soon busy with the preparation for ritual slaughter of the season’s cattle, the main event of the night.
When Hadda arrived, the other children were already adorned festively. Brita and a second girl closer to Hadda’s age pulled her aside to weave bright string and brilliant poms into Hadda’s hair. They laughed gaily as a group of boys tried to nonchalantly catch a glance at them from nearby. Occasionally a cold breeze would cut through accompanied by a stray flake of snow as if to remind them how cold the night would soon get.
Joining the gathered crowd Hadda slowly scanned the celebration, finding everyone present. Eivor, Able, Torben, the village elders and a number of visiting families she had not yet been introduced to. Here eyes settled on the mystic, who through the crowd was watching her, specifically. Still as the statue who’s shadow she blended into, crowned by leather and antler headdress. The settlement’s resident raven – Eivor’s raven – clucked. Then, the great boom of a drum. Everyone came to attention.
The sun set as Eivor approached the monolith to Odin reverently where the mystic waited. Low lit torches cast high shadows on the carved pillar. In the mystic’s hand a ceremonial plate. Eivor and the mystic exchanged silent words for a long moment before Eivor turned to gathered crowd. “Hadda,” Eivor spoke with authority. “Come forward.” The crowd parted.
Hadda froze. So many people, all looking at her. Timidly, she put one foot in front of the other until she had crossed the space to the outer circle of decorations around the monolith. Eivor stepped to one side as the mystic stepped forward. On the ceremonial plate lay wrapped leather cord set with polished bone and beads fashioned into a bracelet. The mystic’s enlightened face was broad at first with a smile as she watched for Hadda’s reaction, but suddenly turned dark as if she heard something no one else could. Eivor sensed it, and the raven cried out. In the distance a young boy’s urgent voice carried to them. On the near horizon, a lone tendril of smoke rose above a glow of fire.
Removing her headset, the security analyst had a question formed on her lips. On one monitor to her right, the scene at the chapel sat frozen with Hadda speaking to the Vikings, digital lines tearing through the image. What had they just watched?
“No, you cannot ‘alter’ history,” the senior analyst standing behind her began. The two perched at the machines at her desk with windows overlooking the metropolis behind them. There was virtually no one else on the floor and the lights were dimmed to minimal. Hers was the only station active out of rows of hundreds of desks. She had lost track of time; it was now past midnight. She nursed her coffee.
“The sequence record at rest is immutable,” he continued. “But by examining the attacker’s patterns and movements we can target and omit key data in transit in a way they might not immediately detect and lead them to draw conclusion they might not otherwise had.” The sharply dressed middle aged gentleman shifted as he explained further. He was boundlessly polite but had a manner of stepping into her space that could not be accidental. It was the body language of someone who knew power imbalance favored them. “Cautiously, though.”
He reached across her to pick up a glass bowl of assorted nuts and chocolate from her desk she had filled the prior morning. He shook it for effect, listening to the sound. “See, if I reach into this bowl and retrieve nothing, I will know right away there was a mistake.” He eyed her, popping one into his mouth. A storage array nearby clicked softly. “But if I reach in and retrieve only cashews, I might conclude it was a bowl of cashews.” He smiled, setting the bowl back down and taking a few steps to pace. “I love cashews.”
He is toying with you, she thought to herself while retaining her composure. Columns of data on the rogue animus frame danced in the corner of her eyes. She stifled a follow up question but could see in his eyes he read her intent. The puzzle was laid out before her, but to ask was a trap. He knew she would find something.
“What of the triangulation?” she changed topics. They had isolated both the circuit and geolocation of the attacker.
“Save it. Do nothing for now,” he said curtly. “This is the mistake the last team made, going to ground. This nuisance evaded us twice, they are too paranoid to fall for it a third time.”
“And their access?” She persisted.
“Leave it,” he stared out the window. “No firm could provide us the same data on the vulnerability as efficiently.”
She forced a sip from the bottom of her now cold coffee with a wince. She brought the data transit display to the forefront, eyes picking up on the strange phenomena she had noticed before. She restrained herself not to make eye contact with the senior analyst. Then a fresh slew of information began pouring in.
“Ah, the next sequence has begun,” he concluded. “I will get you another coffee?”
Hadda tapped the hull of the longship with her new boots idly as they cut across the glass smooth waters of the inlet. Boarding the swift vessel was even grander than she remembered it, filling her with a wild mix of butterflies and exhilaration. The cool sea breeze whipped at her hair. The men aboard greeted her as an esteemed guest; men that had unwavering loyalty to the woman who led them. Flush with garrison supplies and food, the fast attack ships now returned home.
Ahead rose rolling hillsides, many terminating in cliffs that crumbled into the river. It was not long before she could see their destination built into a sprawling wooded hillside above the estuary. Many great wooden homes and fortifications dotted the slope above a crude sandy dock. Partially constructed ships lined a stretch of the water, shining proudly in the early evening sun where workers continued to shape the wood.
Disembarking as they arrived, Hadda breathed deep the late autumn air. Up the slope a wiry older Northman stepped out from a covered forge and anvil near the shipyard. He looked down through the crowd of men to where she stood. With a nod from the woman who led the raid, he smiled wide.
“Hadda!?” the old shipwright called out in surprise, stepping carefully down towards her.
She felt a spark of recognition. He had been the smithy of her childhood settlement. She was barely tall enough to see onto his workbench at the time. He had not changed at all. She felt her eyes welling with tears at the sound of her name. “Torben?” she remembered.
“Giantess indeed!” he cried as he wrapped her in a warm embrace. “You are so tall!” he exclaimed, looking her over with a smile that split his face. She was just a hair taller than the heavily tattooed, bald elder.
Further up the hill a lone figure stood, robe flapping about him in the breeze. He supported himself standing with a shoulder-height apparatus of wood. He was not of Northman build, with tightly groomed black hair. Hadda felt a sudden chill as she realized he was staring down at them on the bank. He had one good leg: the other lost above the knee.
“That,” Torben paused as his expression became more serious. “That is Able. He is our scribe.” The began walking up the sandy approach. “He won’t bite, but I wouldn’t get too close either,” Torben winked with a grin.
Near where the first houses began Hadda could see others working in fields or preparing fish on several long hanging lines. An open sided stone grain mill sat opposite a large area with a few recessed stone ovens and cooking pits. The great lodge was nestled in trees beyond a wide-open circle where all the walking paths met at a well. Near the well a Northman stood with his daughter, Hadda would guess about ten years of age. Above them on one of the massive weight-bearing lodge beams, a single raven let out a resounding click.
The young girl approached Hadda at her father’s instruction, introducing herself as Brita. Brita was kind with piercing hazel-green eyes. She led Hadda through the village and introduced her to what seemed like every living soul before showing her where she would stay and keep her things. She had her own room and learned of the sad story of how it came to have no occupant.
Darkness had fallen and many gathered to eat and celebrate the successful raid. Brita led Hadda at last to the Viking woman who led the settlement; now sat at the mighty chair at the end of the long table in the lodge hall. In a corner Hadda spotted the scribe Able, who as before seemed to carry shadow with him.
“Hadda,” Brita began her introduction. “Meet Eivor, Wolf Kissed”
This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla
The Bookworm – part 1
Absolute Silence. Hanna peered through the thin gap at the door outside at the thick billowing fog that had settled in the dark hours before dawn. It was eerie how it seemed to suffocate all sound. She had been lying awake, but the long absence of even the creak of a tree limb alerted her to what else she could not hear, her warden’s horse. The same she had been responsible for putting to stable the prior night. She’d have no skin left after the lashing she was sure to receive.
Moving from near slumber to alert in an instant she quietly slipped out the door, confirming immediately her fears. The horse was no where to be seen, and the unusual fog and predawn false light seemed to have swallowed the entire village past the low stone fence at the edge of the yard. Even the bare limbs of the great tree she woke to every morning were but suggestions of a shape in the mist. She pulled her worn blanket over her arms and made her way into the yard.
She was afraid to call after the horse only to wake her warden or his mean-spirited son, Brandon. She scowled at the thought of his mocking sneer. Her cheek and eye still hurt from where he had struck her with a rock, but she got even. Her scowl twisted into a smile as she recalled his expression when he was told he would also be whipped for the rock fight he insisted she had started. So, what if she had? He was not the only of the children in the village who was mean, just the meanest. They teased her for being tall. For not having a family, and for where she was from. Most days quiet indifference stung worse than words, but Brandon clearly resented her.
She walked gingerly through the thorny grass in her bare feet until she had checked everywhere close to the small home. Winnifred had left, which was uncharacteristic for her after dark. Or Freyja, as Hanna would call her in solitude; as they both had two names.
Hanna made her way up the worn path toward the middle of the village, where the weathered stone chapel towered over the surrounding village and small garrison nearby. This was where she would usually walk the horse each morning. With a sigh of relief, she found Winnifred eating flowers near the great wooden chapel doors. She patted the horse lovingly as her gaze wandered to the darkened glass windows above. To her surprise there was a faint flicker of light from inside. She looked both ways, in one direction a lone watchman struggled to stay awake under his torch, and the other way not a soul in sight. Then she noticed one of the great wooden chapel doors was slightly ajar. Whispering a kind word to the horse, Hanna stepped closer to peek inside.
The light came from a few candles at a large table at the far end of the main chamber, where several parchments lay rolled next to a heavy bound book. A book she breathed, staring with wide eyes. The horse continued to graze on the bright petals nearby. Hanna looked twice and slipped into the chapel. Someone had been here just minutes before she was sure, but she could not contain her curiosity. Before she had come into the care of her warden, she had just started to learn letters and remained fascinated by reading. Sometimes she would lay awake dreaming of stories of ancient libraries told to her by the Skald who visited the settlement she grew up in, among her earliest memories which now felt like a life ago. A life when she lived with the Northmen.
She had been told she was of Saxon birth but taken young as a servant to invading Vikings. Sometimes she thought she could remember the longships, but her warden would chide her that she was far too young at the time to possibly recall that. He made no illusion of his disdain for her time there in servitude, which she now only recalled with fond memory. It was hard work, but life with the Northmen felt freer than the oppression she felt today. Since the soldiers saved her, as she was often reminded. Saved, as the settlement she grew up in was burnt and the Northmen scattered or killed. Saved, and given a new name they preferred the sound of.
Her feet had carried her carefully through the main chamber, expecting at any moment to discover somebody there. She reached the large table with no one else in sight. She studied the shadows intently; the candles could not have burnt as such for long. Then her eyes fixed on the prize at the center of the light, the lone massive book. Its reinforced cover was intricate leather work and precious stone inlays. Surely this was too valuable to just be carelessly left out. The edge of the pages shone like gold. Midway through the pages there was a disturbed edge, as if it had been handled roughly. She opened it to the spot. The brilliant colors leapt off the page into her eyes like a vivid dream. Illustrations of men dressed like kings and row after row of careful tight script filled the page. She noticed a bit of the prior page was torn. No, not torn, an entire page was missing but for a corner. Who would damage such a priceless wonder?
She turned her attention to the rolls of parchment. One was held flat by the candle and a decorative knife. This looked like something a man she had seen at the garrison carrying. Neat rows of words paired with numbers. A list of things for the soldiers, she guessed. A sudden waver in the light caught her attention. A draft came from the door, now open wide. She heard hurried footsteps outside, but they were not coming for her. Winnifred made a nervous sound. Next, she heard the village bell.
They were being attacked.
The garrison was alive with commotion as soldiers rushed to down the hill towards the banks of the river where she could hear the first indistinct sounds of men shouting, weapons striking shields and the dull rumble of many boots. She could smell smoke. Then from nearby a familiar voice, Brandon. He had spotted Winnifred and was trying to guide the horse, who was objecting. Winnifred did not like him and when he got frustrated the horse listened even less.
“Hanna!” Brandon yelled out as he struggled with the horse before repeating his cry. He had come searching for her and the horse.
Hanna reverently closed the wondrous book and pinched the candles out as she prepared to quickly leave. Outside she found Brandon red in the face and dressed in a riding coat. In his fist he had doubled the end of a rope and was rising his hand to strike the defiant horse. Hanna caught his fist, gaze locked steady with his. In the eyes of the slightly older boy a flicker of fear, quickly replaced by anger.
“We have to go,” he shouted at her. “Now!”
Hanna took the tack and bridle from Brandon and helped put it on Winnifred, soothing the horse until Brandon was able to mount. She caught herself looking back into the chapel at the now dark table and book. Her feet felt heavy, something was amiss and even with the approaching din of battle she felt compelled to sort out why. Who had been there minutes before her looking at the book?
“Come on!” Brandon bellowed at her. Then, a burning arrow struck near where they stood. The glow of burning roofs from down the hill now illuminated the fog with a harrowing light.
“Freyja, go!” Hanna commanded, a crack in her voice. Hanna refused to get on with him. To Brandon’s protest the horse obediently started towards their home without her. Hanna trusted she would get them there, where his father was surely waiting so they could flee. She watched as they disappeared.
Footsteps approached where the watchman one stood, and Hanna slipped back inside the chapel and quickly hid in an adjoining chamber not far from the table. Two Vikings, one of broad shoulders with a bloodied great axe and the other taller, older with numerous scars and one blind eye. The latter carried a torch as they pushed open the chapel doors and began rummaging for anything of value. It did not take long for the elder of the two to come to a standstill at the table. She could hear them discussing something they were looking for; the book she now held where she hid. She recognized the dialect. They were not of the same ätt as her childhood family, but one she remembered to be a neighbor with a storied history of raiding.
A third raider approached the chapel. “Is it here?” the woman called to the two men as she entered. Her torchlight quickly met near where the others were searching, just narrowly out of Hanna’s line of sight. Her idea of sneaking out the door when they moved to search the rear of the great chamber was seeming a little less bright by the minute. The Vikings split up, turning through coffers and shelves, torch light casting long shadows everywhere. Slowly they made their way to the rear of the chamber as Hanna had hoped.
Hanna tip toed from her hiding spot and made a quiet dash to the door, only to come face to face with the keen point of an axe. The woman raider was taller than her, rows of blond braids framing her war painted face. “Ooh,” the woman spoke in a sing-song tone as Hanna froze. “Light reading?” She joked, lowering her axe. The other men stood near silently as if by command, watching. Outside the sounds of fighting was growing quiet. Hanna smelled rain.
“Someone was here,” Hanna replied in the tongue of her youth. All three raiders expressions shifted in response. “There are pages torn out,” she continued as she handed the book to the woman.
They opened the book; the eldest let out a whistle of appreciation. Observing the same missing pages she closed the book and began checking the situation outside. “Girl, what is your name?” the Viking woman demanded. “Do you read?”
“Hanna,” she replied, clearing her throat. “I mean, Hadda” she corrected bashfully. “And no. I want to learn to read.” She added.
The woman turned to face her directly. “How do you feel about sailing?”
Farah sat soaking the Miami midday sun at the window seat bar in the Bistro just across the street from the plainly labeled datacenter complex. Social media giant operations personnel chatted opsec secrets loudly adjacent to public safety IT analysts. Everyone here was in a technical field of some manner or another. The cute Puerto Rican gentleman waiting tables flashed a toothy smile at her and made a hand gesture to ask if she was doing ok or needed a refill on her drink.
It was a scorching Miami summer day, where the streets were freshly painted asphalt or concrete. No car under a hundred thousand euros to be found; no building without vibrant street art in sight. Her ride from the airport only briefly interrupted to check into her hotel room in the bay, she had met the engineer who would escort her into the datacenter where the animus bed was hiding in plain sight. The elderly gentleman, a Boston native Russian with cartoonishly wild white hair provided her with an access key card prepared already with her photo, assumed name and a sticky note with a key code in plain red print. He made two impossibly cliché “in the motherland” jokes in the span of ten minutes. Who was this clown? Nadji seemed to know him well. Nadji was to attend lunch with her, but received a text message he would not read out loud and departed with short notice. She still had not heard from him.
She hit the bottom of her glass of water with a loud buzz of her straw, momentarily pausing every spoken conversation in the restaurant. The waiter laughed, and without asking produced a different drink that looked like ice and milk with a dash of cinnamon. Farah thanked him and took a sip. It was overwhelmingly sweet with a hint of rice. “What is this drink called?” she asked through a mock expression of disgust.
“Venezuelan chicha” he laughed with a wink. Farah felt a rush of color in her cheeks. Did he just serve her alcohol at lunch? Then there was a tinkling of the bell on the door. Sitting down at the only free stool left in the place, the one next to Farah, was Farah’s mother.
“Is it five o’clock already?” her mother’s tone was like knives at play.
Farah’s face stung. She could only imagine her expression. No one else in the bistro noticed.
“I thought you were in-“ Farah started, mind hitting racing speed in an instant.
“The only place on Earth I knew you would not follow,” her mother replied as if she had recited it in her head for this very moment. Neither said the name; the following silence was mutual.
“Inside,” her mother said with gravity. She watched Farah draw a conclusion before speaking again. “She was a remarkable woman, was she not?” The smile that followed was genuine. The first Farah had seen of her mother in years.
The conversation did not resume until they were safely inside the datacenter. The dull business grey partitions and privacy screened rows of machines were grander than any she had seen. The elderly engineer hummed a limerick of some sort in front of a small display. Compared to the underground hacker space, this looked more like they had misplaced a tanning bed at a mall print kiosk. The animus frame looked nothing like the other model, maybe an entire decade older without a preformed body recess or body sensors. A wheel-about medical sensor with just two monitor cables sat idle nearby. Hiding in plain sight, indeed.
Her mother quietly filled Farah in on what felt like years of their mutual ancestor’s history as she had experienced it. They determined they had in fact experienced the same brief island encounter following the sinking the first ship she had commanded. As it turns out, it was not the last one she lost. They talked for hours, eventually catching up in real life too. It was a funny thought, to be discussing multiple timelines and lives that connected them. One detail remained: How did Abstergo not already have this ship, the most feared pirate vessel of all time? Her captain’s death was well documented history.
The tone of the conversation turned somber; her mother sinking as if she was retelling a death. Because, she was. She had pursued the ship and her crew, commanding what to that day had been the deadliest ship to sail the South Asian Sea. She lost the battle and her crew. As she struggled to keep her own head above water, she desynchronized. Farah’s mother then told how she went into cardiac arrest in the animus frame – the same they now sat beside – and had to be resuscitated, followed by urgent surgery. She believed that was the end of the story. She found the ship of legend and died for it. Nearly twice.
The elderly gentleman stopped humming. “Ah yes, but there was more data.” He laughed at his own thoughts. “She was desynchronized just a third of the way into the memory frame. The subject lived to be 55!” he explained proudly.
“I cannot go back,” Farah’s mother mourned. “I cannot risk it so soon after the surgery”
Farah got excited. “Abstergo never found it because it did not sink? So, you put me back in at that point and I pursue the ship!”
Her mother nodded with a renewed smile. Everything started to come together, and they powered up the machine. Farah kept looking to the door to see if Nadji would show up. She checked her phone more than once, even though he had technically never properly texted her in the plain. The minutes grew closer together and soon she was lying on the unremarkable glass bed with coffin style lid looming over her. Sensors connected, injections complete and lights out.
Pinpoints of shadowless light, shifting lines and a return of her alter self’s strength. She was filled with even more vigor and cunning than before. Her mind blazed at the rush of collected memories. Above, the cry of an eagle. She had grown to know this sound, it was one that reassured her she would somehow always come out on top, no matter how dire the circumstances. No matter how unlikely she was to survive a leap from incredible heights.
She was on the deck of a ship, tied to a wooden chair at a small uneven table. Her armor and weapons were gone. Her head tied firmly back, the very center of her gaze on the great Black Flag above.
The ships captain approached, full crew at attention. A flagon of mead in one hand he sat down in front of her.
“Marry me” he proposed loudly, slamming down his flagon. “For today we return to the Caribbean!”
Farah could not contain her shock. “I’ll do no such thing!”. He crumbled, first with the anger of a man who despises being told no, then rejection. Sorrow faded into resignation and long silence. He finished his mead.
“Very well, then” he concluded and stood up to leave. “Cut her loose,” he commanded. “Return her weapons. It would be a shame if she expired.” His once boisterous crew was silent as the grave, producing one small rowboat and a blanket wrapped around a few pieces of armor and her trusted cutlass. They waited until she and the boat were lowered into the water and free of the ropes before throwing down the wrapped equipment.
There was no land in sight.
Farah’s pulse would not soon relent. The nerve!
She woke the following morning, momentarily confused that she had fallen asleep in the animus and woke up still there like the rowboat was her forever home. There was a silent image in her mind. A sidebar note on a Wikipedia page. Her page.
Died 3 December 1737 (aged 55). Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Her brow furrowed first in silent revelation, then confusion. “No, that was definitely NOT Captain Edward Kenway!”
Furiously, she unwrapped her equipment. A few belts, bags, the cutlass and a familiar leather bracer with three buckled straps. With a flick of her wrist, she looked to the horizon.