Janna and Ashlyn
We packed up and got moving. Melsa would fly from tree to tree as we traveled. Lien set up snares as we went.
The sisters had gotten impatient waiting for us and doubled back. By midday they approached us from behind, Thain was the first to spot them approaching.
“Ho there!” He called.
We came to a halt and allowed them to approach. They moved silently through the trees like they were part of the woods.
“Where is Jash?” Janna demanded.
“Jash is dead.” I answered.
Janna stopped in her tracks. Ashlyn turned and started to circle around us.
“How?” Janna asked.
“My father killed him.” I said.
“Tow killed him? Why?” She asked.
“I was hoping you’d know.” I said.
“Has anything else unusual happened since then?” She probed.
“Do you know why my father killed Jash?” I insisted.
“No.” She said.
“What was the understanding they had between them? Jash was going to tell me when we got out of the town.” I said.
“I really don’t know.” She answered.
“Do you know how my brother died?” I asked.
“That I do know. I’ll tell you if you answer my question.” She said.
“Yes I’m a Tow.” I said.
“But do you know what that means?” She said with a smile curling on her lips.
“Melsa, shut down until I call you.” I called.
“Shutting down.” Melsa said from her tree.
“Interesting, your animal is a woman. I like her already.” Janna said.
“I know that answering a question like that in front of Melsa is a bad idea. She doesn’t like it when I don’t act like a Tow, only I’m not exactly sure how one is supposed to act.” I said.
Janna nodded. “Go with Ashlyn. She will explain things to you. This kind of thing shouldn’t be discussed in front of these others.” she said.
“Tell me here.” I said.
“That’s not how this works.” Ashlyn said. “If you want answers, you’ll come with me.”
“Go ahead, if you don’t come back, we’ll make sure her sister doesn’t make it back to town.” Morg said.
Janna barked out a laugh. “It would take twenty of you to make me worry even a little.”
“It’s ok sister, let them feel like they’re safe, they’ll behave for us if they do.” Ashlyn said.
“Does that include me?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re fine. You’re too useful to hurt.” Ashlyn said.
I looked at Thain. He nodded. “Go and get whatever answers you can.” He said.
Ashlyn smiled. “Sensible boy.” She said to Thain. Turning to me she said “Come, I have things to teach you.” as she walked into the woods.
I looked at the men, each one with a different expression of concern. I looked up to Melsa, she was preening her feathers.
I walked into the woods following after Ashlyn. I was amazed at the speed she could move through the dense underbrush.
“There you are, I was beginning to wonder if you didn’t like me!” She said.
“I’d prefer the others to know what’s going on. They need to know how this works too.” I said.
“No they don’t. Really, this is for you to know and them to figure out. Honestly, why should they benefit from what you can do? What have they done to deserve your loyalty?” She said.
“Why should you benefit from what I can do? What have you done to deserve my loyalty?” I replied.
Ashlyn put on a pout. “Oh, that hurts! And here I’m about to let you in on what Jash didn’t even know.”
“I’m more concerned with what he did know.” I said.
She smiled. “I can help you with that too. First you have to see something.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Look through here.” She pointed through a gap in the brush.
I looked where she pointed. Only a stone’s throw away, a large bull Spineox was sleeping.
“Go walk up to it.” She said.
I looked at her incredulous. “That thing will kill me!”
She huffed. “Silly, if you were a regular person, you’d be dead already. It would have heard your clumsy footsteps and charged and then gored you on it’s thorns, ripping you to ribbons.”
She stepped through the clearing toward the Spineox.
“Wait!” I said through gritted teeth but she didn’t slow down.
I watched her walk up to the sleeping beast and kneel beside it. She looked like a rodent compared to it. She beckoned me to join her. I reluctantly followed but didn’t get as close as she did.
“It doesn’t know we’re here. To him, we don’t exist.” She said. “But if it wakes up, it could hurt us accidentally. That’s lesson one. Don’t get in their way.”
“So are you a Tow?” I asked.
She let out a throaty laugh. “No, silly we wouldn’t need you if I was.”
She got up and put her finger on my chest.
“You are a Tow. I’m just invisible.” She said. “So was my sister until she killed. That’s lesson two. This ends if you use a weapon on an animal. So I find the animals, and my sister kills them.”
“Your sister kills the animals herself? How is that possible? I’ve heard of you bringing home huge kills that made this beast look puny. No one even knows how you move the kills.” I said.
Ashlyn smiled a coy smile. “That’s a secret we won’t talk about today. Maybe if you’re a good little boy you’ll learn that secret too, but not yet.”
“Is that how my brother died? He attacked an animal and it killed him?” I asked.
“No, your father and brother used their invisibility to get up to an animal and make a killing blow. They both killed the animal they were after. It was what happened next that killed your brother.” She said. “He’s starting to move, we should step back.”
We moved back to the brush and watched the beast rise and look around.
“He hears your friends, he might charge and kill them.” She said.
“We have to warn them!” I said.
“You can’t stop it.” She replied.
The Spineox’s ears rotated forward, listening for anyone intruding in it’s territory.
“Your sister is with them!” I said.
“She can handle it.” Ashlyn said. “She knows it’s coming.”
I started running. Crashing through the brush, thorns ripping into my legs and arms.
The Spineox let out a deep snort from it’s nostrils and pawed the ground, getting ready to charge.
“Melsa! Melsa!” I shouted as I ran.
The Spineox charged through trees, some thicker than a man’s leg, snapping them like twigs.
“Melsa!” I shouted again. “Lock the Spineox!”
I had to turn and run out of it’s path to avoid being trampled as it ran by me.
“Melsa! Lock the Spinox!”
The bull planted it’s feet and slid to a stop.
Melsa flew up to me and landed on a twig.
“Acknowledged. In the future, my response time is reduced when shut down. You may want to give me some time in between starting up the interface and issuing a command.” She said.
I heard shouting from the hunters. They’d spotted the animal.
“Melsa, I forget, what happens if the hunters attack the Spineox?” I asked.
“Obviously the lock will be broken. An animal cannot be locked if it is actively being hunted.” She said.
I ran down the path the Spineox made and crashed past it, hoping it wouldn’t step on me.
“Don’t attack it! Don’t attack!” I cried.
Thain had his bow drawn. Morg stood ready with his spear.
“Don’t attack it.” I panted. “Put down your weapons.”
Thain relaxed his bow but Morg didn’t put down his spear.
“If you attack it, the lock will break and it will charge again.” I explained. “The sisters planned this so the Spinox would kill you.”
“That’s not true, we wanted to test your ability.” Janna objected.
“What would have happened if I failed?” I demanded.
“I could have stopped the beast. There was never any real danger.” She said coyly.
Melsa flew up and landed on the ground.
“Your observation technique is unusual. What is your evaluation of the Spineox?” She asked.
“Uh, it’s a fine animal, very nice.” I sputtered. “But it’s too close to these hunters.”
Melsa twitched her head back and forth, looking at them.
“These hunters are improperly equipped. They should return to the visitor’s center for safety.” She said.
She turned to Janna who was coming up behind her.
“This hunter is properly equipped, but her gear is in need of repair. She should also return to the visitor’s center.” Melsa said.
Janna stopped and glared at the bird.
“Melsa, can you move the Spineox to a safe distance from these men?” I asked.
“That is not proper procedure, disturbing the movements of the animals alters the nature of the hunting experience. However none of these hunters have proper transportation. I can transfer the interface to the Spineox and you can lead it away. Afterwards the interface can be transferred to another animal if desired.” Melsa said.
“You can do that?” I asked. “I mean, of course you can, I forget these things.”
“Tow, you seem to be forgetting a number of basic things about your position. Are you feeling unwell? Your vitals appear normal but perhaps you should also return to the visitor’s center and have a medic examine you.” Melsa said.
“You’re right, I am forgetting a lot. I’ll get a doctor treat me, but we first need to find the error the Glyph warned about.” I said.
“Lien, do you have a cage that Melsa will fit in?” I asked.
Lien nodded and produced one from a bag. I picked up Melsa and put her in the cage.
“Transfer to the Spineox.” I said to Melsa.
The bird that was Melsa fluttered and nervously flapped around the small cage. The Spineox started moving again. Thain drew his bow again Morg readied his spear. I signaled them to relax.
“I am still unable to connect to the Glyph, have you been able to contact an administrator?” Melsa said. Her voice remained unchanged even though it now came from the huge Spineox.
“No, we won’t be able to find one until the error is found. Let’s move away from the hunters.” I said as I walked away from the group.
“That is an unusual course of action, since access to the Glyph would allow us to locate this error more quickly.” Melsa said.
“Melsa, no one has been able to communicate with the Glyph for a very long time. I don’t think we can fix it.” I said.
“That is unusual, I’m detecting the Glyph’s activity in regulating this world but it will not communicate. Restoring communication should be the first priority.” Melsa said.
“Melsa, people have tried, this error could bring a plague that kills many people. It’s our priority to find the error first.” I said.
“This is an unusual situation. It makes some sense that a Tow would observe such an event depending on its nature but it would be better to follow proper procedure in handling system errors.” The Spineox said.
“Wait, what do you mean by system errors?” I asked.
“A Glyph would only indicate an error if there was a failure in the world system as that is it’s primary function. Really, you may not be a administrator, but this is basic knowledge. I am detecting some inflammation in your brain but it is not consistent with a concussion. Have you taken an injury from a pressure wave or possibly eaten something toxic?” Melsa said.
“No, I. . .” I paused for a few moments. Could she be seeing the brain fever? “I have been, er, very distressed.”
The Spineox shook its head back and forth like it was shaking off insects.
“It would require a significant event to produce this kind of reaction.” Melsa said.
“I watched my father kill a man two days ago.” I replied.
“That could possibly qualify.” She said.
“Could a person cause a system error by doing something the Glyph didn’t like?” I asked.
“The Glyph does not become offended, it only has permissions and procedure. A procedural violation would be difficult for a person to accomplish and would be unlikely to produce a system error. A violation of permissions, depending on what was done could produce an error.” She said.
“I was near the Glyph when it announced there was an error, could I have violated permissions by mistake?” I thought for a moment and added “But the Glyph said the error was two hundred spaces away. Could I have caused an error that happened way out there?” I said pointing out into the forest.
“It would be nearly impossible for that sequence of events to occur, especially as you have stated no one has been able to access the Glyph. It is more likely that an error was introduced before Glyph access was lost and it has been triggered now.” Melsa said.
“So it’s not our fault, the plagues aren’t punishment.” I said.
“The Glyph does not punish. It would violate its procedures.” Melsa said.
As we walked, I contemplated this revelation. All the killings of people that were thought to be responsible for an error meant nothing. It was no great wonder then, that none of our efforts to ‘correct’ the errors was ever successful.
“Melsa, did you ever serve as an interface for other Tows? Could you tell me what happened to other Tows?” I asked.
“I was generated by the world when you were detected. Your knowledge of system function is severely impaired, I am worried that you will be unable to perform your function as a Tow. The actions of other interfaces are recorded in the Glyph. I could access the information if my connection to the Glyph was restored. This will become a more pressing issue when I have finished my tour with you and need to upload my records. Without Glyph access, much of my function of record keeping is impaired.” She said.
“So we’re in the same situation then, both of us are going to have a hard time doing what we’re supposed to do because of problems that we didn’t cause.” I said.
“That would be a fair evaluation of the situation.” Melsa said.
“Then let’s help each other however we can to do our jobs.” I offered.
“Agreed.” Melsa answered.
“You two are cute.” Ashlyn said, appearing from the forest right next to us. She looked at the Spineox again. “Sort of.”
“Have you been listening?” I asked.
“Oh, just a little.” She made a pinching motion with her fingers and giggled.
“What do you and your sister want from me?” I asked.
“In a minute. First, have you figured out how your brother died yet?” She said gesturing to Melsa.
“Melsa wasn’t my brother’s interface.” I said.
“No, no.” Ashlyn growled. She forcefully gestured to Melsa again. “Think!”
“I don’t get your meaning.” I shook my head.
“Never mind. So have you ever heard about the legend of the last world door?” She asked.
“What? No, what’s a world door?” I said.
“It makes sense that you wouldn’t, you’re too young. Did you know that my Grandmother was one of the original villagers? It’s true. She was one of the people that first built our village.” Ashlyn said.
“Built our village? I never thought of a time before our village existed. I suppose it must have had a beginning, but how did people keep the animals out before the wall?” I said.
“They didn’t.” She said and drew closer to me and whispered. “You’re not supposed to know this part.”
“What part?” I said.
“Well, my Grandmother died, waiting for what she called the world doors to open. All the people that founded the village talked about it. Their children, never saw a world door and decided not to speak of them. They thought the doors were gone for good.” She explained.
“What does that have to do with me?” I asked.
“I’m getting to that.” She paused and looked at Melsa. “My Grandmother said that one world door was kept open but the Glyph protected it by putting a fearsome creature at it’s entrance.” She grinned.
“And?” I asked.
“I can guess what Jash and Tow agreed to. It’s pretty obvious from what Jash told us when he came to recruit us for this hunt. I’ll tell you if you help us.” Ashlyn said, looking down her nose at me.
“I have to find the error first, preventing a plague is more important than your stories.” I said.
“Hrmph! They’re not stories, they’re true.” Ashlyn said. “Aren’t they Melsa?”
Melsa ignored her.
“Go ahead, ask her if there is still a world door open.” Ashlyn said.
I thought about this for a moment. What would it hurt to ask?
“Melsa, is there a world door that is open?” I asked.
Melsa shook her head. “I am unable to locate a world door because I cannot access the Glyph.”
I glared at Ashlyn.
“If world doors were just stories, she would have said there was no such thing. She said that she didn’t know where it was, so it must exist.” Ashlyn insisted.
“Fine, I’ll help after we find the error. You better be right about knowing what Jash and my father agreed to.” I said.
“I hate waiting.” Ashlyn said.
“So do I, but we both have something the other wants and neither of us can get what we want now. If you really are part of this hunting expedition then help us get to our destination, and not distract us with ambushes.” I snarled.
Ashlyn laughed low. “If you say so hunt master but Jash knew our rules and you don’t. So let me explain them to you. We will not travel with you. We will leave you messages to warn you of danger. If you fail to heed our messages, it’s your fault.”
“Understood but remember that I can still die. If we don’t understand your message and get killed, I can’t help you with your door.” I warned.
“Of course. Also, we will not tolerate anyone trying to observe us. We kill any man that tries and that includes you.” Ashlyn said.
“Fine.” I said.
I stopped. “Melsa, is this far enough?”
“It’s highly unlikely the Spineox will attack from this distance.” Melsa answered.
“Good, transfer to the bird and we’ll head back.” I commanded.
The Spineox looked around, confused. It slowly calmed and laid down.
“Please let me out of this cage. It breaks protocol for a Tow to keep this bird contained.” Melsa objected.
I opened the cage door. “Sorry.” I said.
Melsa flew out of the cage. “Please do not allow it to happen again.”
Ashlyn was already gone, she had slipped into the woods again.