Flinching, Freddie spun in place to
behold the man who patiently
regarded them from less than six feet away. The street had been empty
impossibly, he watched them with eyes that were crinkled at
the corner by gentle amusement, the only concession to humor
otherwise serious mein.
He was old, his face craggy as weatherbeaten cliffs. The beard and
that floated nearly to the ground was the purest white Joe had
ever seen, so white that it seemed to glow with a light
that cast by nearby streetlights. He wore a suit of the same hue,
except for his shirt, which
was the softest of dove grays, matching
the head of his cane.
All together it was too much for his delicate
optics; Joe had to shade
his eyes from the glare and saw Freddie next to him doing the same.
the figure said in a powerful but not unkind voice. "It
has been a long time . . ."
The glow muted
until Joe and Freddie could gaze comfortably on the
man's strange countenance. He smiled, held his cane up in a
salute, and nodded. "Greetings, Frederika Bashir."
Freddie stiffened, drawing closer to Joe.
"How did you know my name?"
The old man cocked his head at her, his eyes piercing. "I
about you. Probably more than you know about yourself."
"Uh-huh." Backing away, Freddie
grasped Joe's arm, tugging him with
her. "Come on, Joe. Let's get out of here. Mr. Williamson was
this was a bad idea."
"Wait, please," the old man called after them, holding out an
"Miss Bashir, would you really walk away from your
"Destiny? What are you talking about?"
the girl snapped with growing
Freddie's hair whipped in a sudden wind, Joe's coat flapping
bat's wings around his legs. The man's face carved itself into grim
lines, shadows moving in an eerie dance
over his radiant shape. "I am
talking about the ring you carry with you, and the one who wants it."
Freddie repeated. "How did . . . I don't have a ring."
His smile back, the old man shook his head.
"Come now, Miss Bashir.
You know precisely what I mean, and I think you already have an
inkling of how supremely
dangerous it is. You wore it, didn't you?"
"I . . . accidentally," Freddie gasped, her eyes flying to Joe's.
did this man seem to know so much? "I tripped and it slipped on."
"And what happened then?"
Freddie leaned unconsciously against Joe. "I don't know."
"You do know. You stepped from this world
into a shadow realm. And
he saw you, didn't he? Just for an instant."
"I . . . someone, maybe
. . . who was it?"
Putting a comforting arm around the girl, Joe listened to the old
A eclipse seemed to fall over his face as he spoke,
leaving only his exceptional eyes out of the darkness. "The
carry was to have been destroyed over ten thousand years ago. Most
thought it was, but its master reached
out with the very last of his
power to protect it. At the time, he could do no more and he lost it,
of being destroyed in the fires that created it, it was
shielded by the molten rock around it, cocooned and buried.
even its master didn't know, for his power was spent and he could no
longer keep his connection to this world."
and Freddie exchanged glances. The old one was obviously crazy.
And yet . . . Reaching into her pocket, Freddie
slowly drew out the
ring. It lay passive in her palm, but there was a malevolence in the
way it gleamed in the
yellow beam of surrounding streetlights.
Freddie gulped, holding it away from herself. "If you're saying you
want your ring back, you can have it," she said hastily. "It's not
The old man considered
her for a moment, then reached out as if to
take it. Freddie's hand started to jerk back, but she caught herself,
holding her arm steady though it trembled with the effort.
The man drew away. "Good. It hasn't
taken complete hold yet. You
must not let it. You must resist its allure, and above all the
to use it. It calls to Lord Sauron. When it was found and
freed from its prison, he felt it and was able to
find his way back to
the world, back to this New Earth. He would have found it if I hadn't
felt it too, and
put it in your path."
"My path? Why? Why can't you take it?" Freddie asked desperately,
could feel it too, now, a pull that drew his eyes towards the
"I dare not. I would
use it. I would use it to try and destroy
Sauron and in trying to save others I would become as evil as he," the
old man explained sadly, his own gaze locked on the tiny object
resting in Freddie's hand. "I would destroy
the world as surely as he
will if he gets it in his possession."
Cupping her hand, Freddie cut off the man's
view, and Joe's own. Joe
found he could look away now with little difficulty.
"Why my path?" Freddie
"I did all I could," the old man murmured. "I hid it from Sauron's
awareness long enough
to put it within reach of the person most likely
"You mean him?" Freddie asked, looking at Joe.
the girl shrieked. "Why me?"
Sighing deeply, the man leaned on his cane. "Once there were nine.
Nine companions that set out on a mission to take the Ring of Power to
Mordor and Mount Doom, there to cast it into
the fires from whence it
came." Looking at her with tired, narrowed eyes, the old man nodded.
"Now, after ten
thousand years of laying quiet and unnoticed, the
ring again beckons to the darkness that created it. And now, after
all the world has forgotten, when no one remembers a time of warring
for the world's very soul, after Mount Doom itself
no longer exists,
when all evidence of the old world has been eradicated, now the
bloodlines that produced seven of
those companions converge into one."
"Me?" Freddie whispered.
"You." Folding his hands over
the head of his cane, the man tipped
his head forward until he looked at her from the shadow of his brow.
name was the only to survive in any form through the eons."
"Yes." With a tiny smile,
the man chuckled. "When goblins and
griffins still had a foothold, your name would have been `Baggins of
Shire.' You are a cousin hundreds of times removed of the last
"Baggins," Freddie repeated.
"Baggins." She sounded as though she
was pleased with the sound, tasting it as she spoke. "Yes, it sounds
. . . right," she agreed. "But who are you?"
"I . . . I was one of the nine. My name is Gandalf.
White." Raising his arms, the old man seemed to stand taller. His
hair and beard flowed in
a nonexistent breeze, his expensive suit
flapping around him, flowing like his hair into long white robes. His
grew, lengthening into a tall staff of carved white wood.
Gasping, Freddie pressed close to Joe, staring.
Gandalf stared back,
his face proud but softened by an unnamed emotion. "There is
something of a resemblance
to your cousin," he commented quietly,
almost to himself. "And to the others . . . Aragorn, Pippin, Sam . .
Cutting himself short, Gandalf pointed theatrically to the small
form in front of him. "Frederika Baggins, do you accept
the old man thundered, seeming to grow until he filled the street.
Gravely gazing out from the
circle of Joe's protective arms, the girl
Joe dropped his arms and backed away.
His electronic brain was
reeling, struggling to accept what it knew couldn't be true. But his
eyes had seen
it, his ears had heard it; it had to be real.
Then, unexpectedly, Gandalf's burning eyes fell on him. "And
you?" Moving closer, his eyes squinting, the old man tapped Joe's
chest with his staff. "What
"I . . . am a Mecha," Joe answered blankly.
Freddie and Joe exchanged
glances again. "He's a machine," the girl
finally explained. "A thinking machine."
How wonderful," Gandalf said, taking another step closer,
moving around Joe to inspect him from every angle. "Extraordinary.
And what is your function?"
"I . . ." for some reason, Joe didn't want to answer the man. To so
his kind were the lowest form of electronic life, the least
useful and most vile.
"He's a companion,"
Freddie answered hastily, laying a hand against
his arm and squeezing gently.
"Ah. A companion,
eh? Perfect." Staring Joe full in the face in a
way no one ever had before, Gandalf put a hand on his shoulder.
will be dangerous. I'm not even certain how the thing may be
accomplished. She will need friends.
Will you accompany her?"
"I?" Joe repeated in genuine surprise. "I cannot. My owners would
allow me . . ."
"Owners?" Gandalf said with a disgusted snort. Using his staff to
pull back the collar
of Joe's shirt, the man revealed the luminous
green of a Mecha's operating licence. He considered for a moment,
then tapped it once with the tip of his staff.
At once Joe felt lighter, freer. There was no compulsion
that he must return to his owners once Freddie's time ran out.
Invisible bonds let go in the center
of his brain. Looking down, he
saw his licence gone, his chest smooth and unblemished.
"I ask again,
will you accompany her?" Gandalf murmured, smiling,
already knowing the answer.
Joe didn't speak. Wrapping
the chain of his blank, empty pager around
his fist, Joe wrenched viciously, snapping it, and let the disk fall
Gandalf's smile spread wider. "The company grows," he said.
"Gandalf . . ." Freddie began, frowning at the old man.
Mount Doom is gone, how can the ring be destroyed? If that was the
only way and it failed last time,
how can I do it now? Do you want me
to drop it in a nuclear reactor or something? If the thing is that
I wouldn't want to be around to see what happens afterward .
Joe and Gandalf both glanced at the small
hand that clutched the ring.
Seeing the direction of their attention, Freddie carefully withdrew
it, settling it firmly
in her pocket.
Gandalf leaned heavily on his staff, gathering his robes closer around
him. "There are
stories from long ago, rumor mostly, but the world's
only hope that I can see."
"What might those rumors
be?" Joe asked.
Gandalf hesitated, his gaze drawn to something behind Joe's left
shoulder. He tried
to look grim, but a broad smile he couldn't hold
back ruined the effect.
"Are you still telling tales?" scoffed
the figure that strolled up the
sidewalk towards them. "Dragon's fire indeed. Even if it were true,
Baggins helped the men of Laketown destroy the last dragon over
ten millennia ago. If that is our last hope, then
we are indeed
"Legolas," Gandalf greeted, still smiling. "You doubt me?"
halted beside the old man. He was tall and slender, around
Joe's apparent age but holding himself with the easy
surety of one
much older. His skin was fair and perfect, his ripe-wheat hair
falling halfway down his back,
tamed only by a pair of tiny braids at
his temples. He wore a pair of grey cotton slacks and a white
T-shirt under a long, loose hooded garment of an
indeterminate color somewhere between green and grey that was more
than coat. His smile was slightly mocking, but it did nothing
to mar the perfection of beauty that would almost
have named him Mecha
if it hadn't been for the bow and full quiver of arrows he carried,
and the glint of sharpened
steel that flashed at his belt when his
"I don't question you, Gandalf, only the wild imaginings
desperation." Pushing back his hair, the young man revealed startling
ears that swept gracefully into sharp
Freddie gawped, and Joe was as close to the expression as he had ever
come. His powerful Mecha
senses could detect differences that his
human companion could not; pulse, respiration, body temperature, none
it fell within normal human limits.
Gandalf clucked his tongue. "You must forgive an old man's wandering
mind, all of you," he said. "Frederika Bash . . ." catching the
girl's raised brow, he stopped, inclining his
Baggins, and . . ." he stopped again, and it was his turn to raise an
Freddie supplied, abashed. "This is Joe."
"Frederika Baggins and Joe. This is Legolas of the woodlands.
Legolas is Elvenkind."
"He's an elf?" Freddie repeated dubiously. She glanced once at Joe,
again, her face lightening with a sudden grin.
"What is it?" Joe asked.
"A hundred and fifty years
ago, people would have said you were just
as impossible," the girl replied. "Why not an elf?"
a moment and nodded solemnly, which for some reason made
her giggle. The girl was right. As a Mecha, he did
not possess the
human talent of denying one's own senses; every one of Joe's told him
that this young man was neither
human nor Mecha. Elf was as good a
description as any.
The mocking light vanished from Legolas's expression,
softened by remembered fondness. "She's very like Frodo when she
smiles," he murmured.
like Aragorn when she's serious. And like Sam when she's
worried," Gandalf agreed. "Every light and darkness
shows a different
face of our friends; I've a feeling she holds some of Gimli's steel in
her soul, and Merry and Pippin's
mischief, possibly even Boromir's
pride. She will do."
Sweeping his coat out of the way, Legolas went
down on one knee before
her in a theatrical gesture such as Joe might have used. Reaching to
his neck, he unclasped
a delicate chain and held it out to her. She
paused before taking the beautiful thing, holding a hand out
Legolas dropped the chain into her palm, curling both his
hands around hers. "This was made from a few links taken
from a coat
of mail belonging to Frodo," he explained. "It is Mithril, a kind of
silver mined and worked by
dwarves into the strongest chain mail, able
to turn any sword and deflect any arrow. Use it to keep the ring safe
from those that would try to take it from you." Releasing her, he
rose to his feet and bowed low.
you," Freddie whispered, staring entranced at the tiny,
delicate strand. She wordlessly handed it to Joe; running
his fingers, he could feel the inherent strength of the metal despite
its almost aluminum lightness.
"Remarkable," he commented, handing it
back. "I've never felt a stronger metal."
Legolas tossed his
head with the shadow of a haughty sneer. "Many,
many old talents have been lost despite the new technologies that
complicate and pollute the world," he answered bitterly.
"When I felt Sauron reawaken, you were the only
one who wanted to
accompany me back to the world," Gandalf reminded the elf gently.
"The others wanted to leave
this place to its fate, having felt the
changes wrought by Man. They requested that I destroy all evidence of
old magics a thousand years ago for fear of discovery, and thought
that should be an end to it. You came by your
own choice. Don't
punish our friends for a history they couldn't control."
"Not all the others would
have stayed behind," Legolas countered, but
in a slightly subdued tone. "There were two who would have come to
"Two others who have been through enough on my account," Gandalf said
you," Freddie murmured softly, interrupting what sounded like
the beginning of a possible argument. Taking the ring
out of her
jacket pocket, she slid it onto the chain and gravely hung it around
her neck, slipping it under her mauve-pink
T-shirt. "Now what?"
Gandalf frowned. "Now I have some questions that I didn't have time
before I came here. I can't take you with me; you must take
the ring into hiding, somewhere it will be difficult
for you to be
followed. Do you know of such a place?"
Freddie glanced at Joe, who read her answer in
the odd smirk that
crooked her mouth. "Rouge City," he said. "Even if they expect us
there or we are followed,
it will be difficult to find three in two
million anonymous faces."
Gandalf nodded slowly. "Yes.
That sounds as good an idea as any. I
will meet you there three days from now. But don't go there directly,
take unexpected paths, and watch your step. Trust no beasts or birds,
and tell no one of your mission.
And do not repeat the name Baggins
anywhere," the old man ordered. Spinning on his heels, he strode
robes once again melting into a neat white suit and carved
"But how will he find . . ." Freddie started
to protest, moving to
"He will find us," Legolas assured her. "He is the greatest of
and a wise man, even when he pretends not to be."
"All right then," the girl shrugged. "Let's go back to
so I can get some clothes and the rest of my money. Then it's off to
Rouge City." She smiled
at Legolas. "You're going to LOVE this," she
said with a mischievous sweetness.
They had just come within sight of the Shangri-La when Freddie
murmured low in her throat, crouching beside something that lay on the
edge of the sidewalk. "Joe . . ." she
said, picking it up and
cradling it in both hands, her voice trembling with a sudden terror
that made her arms tremble
when she held the object out to him.
It was a small, pigeon-like bird, its wings spread over her palms and
head lolling. Its iridescent feathers still sparkled brightly,
but its jeweled eyes were already fogged over.
Joe took the bird,
examining it with gentle, nimble fingers. There were no visible
wounds, and no indications
that it had been struck by a passing car.
The creature was still warm, but its heart was still, stalled in
came near, frowning at the lifeless form. "What is it? Its
only a bird. Sad, yes, but all too common
Freddie shook her head, taking the pink and brown bundle from Joe and
laying it on a small patch
of grass, the only green visible on the
block. She folded its wings and stroked its tiny back for a moment.
"You don't understand," she said, glancing around uneasily as she
stood and brushed off the knees of her jeans.
"It was Gandalf's
The elf's eyes widened, more white showing around the blue. He began
exhibit signs of Freddie's horror. "Gandalf's? We'd best get
inside quickly," he suggested.
one argued. Mr. Williamson looked up at their entrance, both
eyebrows raising when he saw the companion Joe and
Freddie had brought
with them. "Hey, Joe," he said with a mischievous gleam, obviously
Mr. Williamson," Joe answered quickly. He saw the man's eyes
fall on the blank space where his licence used to be,
flick up an inch
or two to search for his missing pager, and his brows flew further
only be a couple minutes," Freddie told the men hastily. "I'm
paid up until the end of the week. I may be
gone for a few days, is
it all right if I leave some of my stuff here?" she asked the clerk.
for, none of my business what you do with it," the man
answered, still staring at Joe. "Joe, what did you . . ."
disappeared up the stairs. Joe didn't know how to answer, and
Legolas was completely ignoring the man. "Keep
watch, Joe," the elf
told him. "Something isn't right."
A distant roar made them both tense.
It quickly got louder, coming
closer, closer . . . much too close. Lights slashed across the small
the clerk squint against the glare. Joe looked through
the glass door to see a single burning headlight barreling
front steps; behind it, where he should have seen the rider's face,
there was only a blank patch of shadow
much deeper than the darkness
"Get down!" Joe cried, leaping over the desk and dragging Mr.
Williamson to the ground, shoving him into a hollow space beneath the
desk. The crash of splintering glass and
tinkling shower that
sprinkled them with sharp, biting glitters and sparkles was followed
by the echoing growls of
an engine in a room too small to contain it.
Another followed, then a third, until the room was full to the brim
noise and exhaust, cloying chemicals that Joe couldn't scent but
could sense and measure in other ways.
Williamson choked next to him, covering his mouth and nose, his
watering eyes wide with fear and outrage. "My motel!"
he cried in a
muffled voice. He tried to rise, but Joe pushed him down. Legolas
was on the other side,
an arrow ready on his bow. Glancing at Joe, he
drew back the string and nodded. They rose at the same time,
to battle and Joe to protect to the limits of programming that would
not allow him to harm a human, no matter
what the circumstances.
The three motorcycles didn't have room to maneuver around one another.
riders screeched in high-pitched wails, sniffing
the air audibly, like beasts. Legolas's bow twanged next to his
the thick wooden shaft burrowing into the tattered voluminous cloak of
the nearest rider.
paid no heed; it seemed as though the shaft passed straight
through the center of its cloak without touching flesh.
"You shall not have it!" Legolas bellowed, reaching to his belt and
drawing a pair
of short swords, standing straddle-legged with a blade
clutched expertly in each fist. The riders turned as one,
faceless hoods towards the elf as each one drew a long sword in
perfect unison. Hefting their blades,
the figures glided towards
Legolas, not even seeming to touch the ground.
Joe stood for one helpless moment,
certain he was about to watch the
young man slaughtered, then his senses buzzed with a new insight.
these creatures were, they weren't alive. They moved, and
showed awareness, and spoke to one another if their squeals
speech, but they were not alive.
He could not hurt something that did not live.
to Legolas's side, he pried a blade from the elf's grasp.
Faster then the elf could move, he was between Legolas
black-cloaked bikers. The first swung at Joe, but it could not beat
his Mecha reflexes. Though
he had never held or even seen a weapon,
he grasped his blade in both hands and deflected the jab as neatly as
this was what he was programmed to do, followed through with
his own swing, and brought the blade back in a vicious backwards
before the biker had a chance to adjust the hold on its own blade.
Joe's sword sliced through the rider's
neck with less resistance than
there should have been. He staggered, his balance thrown by the
strength of his
swing, and jumped back defensively to regain his
equilibrium and be ready for the next attack.
The lead rider's
sword clattered noisily when it hit the floor, but
nowhere near as noisily as the wails rising from the other two.
leader's hood fluttered to the ground, empty. The headless body
flailed for a few seconds, then it fell,
the cloak deflating until it
pooled on the floor, as empty as the hood.
The other two riders retreated one
step, then another, then they fled
through the twisted metal supports and broken shards of glass that was
remained of the door. Joe stood very, very still as he
watched them leave, the sword still held ready to swing.
lowered it until it hung loose from his hand and turned to find
Legolas gaping at him and Mr. Williamson
peering white-faced, peeking
over the edge of the front desk. Freddie cowered halfway down the
stairs, a mostly
empty bag clutched to her chest.
"What kind of trouble are you in now, Joe?" Mr. Williamson gasped
easing out from behind the barrier to stare at the empty
cloak spread across his floor. It looked much less imposing
filled, a collection of dusty, torn rags held haphazardly together.
"Very bad, I think, Mr.
Williamson," Joe answered, his voice not as
calm and unflappable as a Mecha's should have been.
those things?" Freddie asked shakily, coming slowly down
the stairs as other residents of the motel began to peek out
"Nasgûl," Legolas answered, his dark blue eyes narrowed as he regarded
Joe. "Also known as
ringwraiths. They were once men, but Sauron made
other rings, rings the main Ring of Power could control.
He must have
had enough power to enslave more wraiths. We must act quickly if he
is growing so strong this fast.
Their hunger is insatiable. The One
Ring calls to them endlessly. We must go now, while they need to
of Power, ringwraiths . . . I don't know what's going on Joe, or
what you've gotten yourself into, but . . ."
Mr. Williamson, it's not Joe, it's me," Freddie hastily tried
to sooth the shaken desk clerk. "They're after me,
not him. They
want something of mine. They . . ." she paused, then her eyes
terrorists," she finished.
"Yes. We must leave now, Mr. Williamson, before they come back," Joe
the girl. "As you can see, they don't care who they hurt."
The clerk hesitated, glaring at each one in
turn, then his gaze
dropped again to the cloak. "Sounds like something out of James Bond
to me. All right,
if you need to leave, you'd better go now. I'm
sure someone has already called the cops." He kicked the black
"Got this for evidence now, maybe they can help this time. Here . .
." bending, he wrestled one of the
abandoned bikes upright. "You'll
go faster on this. Looks like it has a full tank."
looked uncertain, but Joe and Freddie thanked the man and
grasped the handlebars, holding the motorcycle up between them.
Sirens were audible in the distance now; Freddie looked imploringly at
the man. "Got a back way out?"
a service entrance behind my office," Mr. Williamson
supplied, pointing. "Down that hallway, leads to the alley.
or they'll catch you."
"Good thing I ran into you, Mr. Williamson," Joe said with a slight
The clerk blinked at him, then waved them on. "Don't know why I
believe you, but I do.
Good luck. I have a feeling that you're
really going to need it."
"More than you realize," Legolas
commented with a dark wryness. "My
thanks," he called back as the little group rolled the motorcycle into
They stayed still, hidden in the shadows behind a dumpster while red
and blue lights flashed across
the alley. When the harsh police
voices had disappeared inside, they crept the opposite way, rolling
silently until they came to the other side of the alley.
There, Joe started the engine, and Legolas sat gingerly
Freddie squeezed on last, slipping on the backpack she carried, then
clutching Legolas's waist.
"Rouge City, here we come," she said.
The wolf-headed motorcycle roared underneath them, carrying them at
speed out of town and onto the highway. Legolas held himself
stiff, his face a little pale as he watched the scenery
whip by. "Is
this a common form of transportation?" he called over the engine and
Freddie yelled back. "Cars are the most common, but a lot of
people ride motorcycles for fun."
seems a bit . . . excessive to me," Legolas commented a little
greenly. Freddie gave him a sympathetic grin, but
the elf didn't
Freddie temporarily lost all ability and desire to smile when the bike
shuddered, sputtered, and rolled to a suddenly quiet stop. Joe,
frowning lightly, tried turning the key and
gunning the motor, with no
results. Sighing, Freddie clambered off the bike.
Legolas slid off
gratefully the instant Freddie's grip on him was
gone. Joe remained straddling the bike, carefully examining every
gauge. "There's no oil," he finally decided. "There must be a crack
somewhere." Easing off the motorcycle,
he rolled it into the ditch
and left it lay in the long grass.
"Brilliant," Freddie snorted. "We're
lucky it didn't start on fire."
"We could ask for a ride," Joe suggested, nodding towards a passing
frowned. His brilliantly blue eyes swept across the highway,
measuring the river of cement and gauging the amount
of traffic that
passed. "Is this one of your main roads?" he asked.
"Of course. We need to follow
it to get to Rouge City," Freddie
"Then we should get off it. They'll be looking this way.
We need to
keep hidden. The Dark Lord could be using anything as his spies. We
have no way to know who
or what might be his servants."
"Dark Lord?" Freddie snorted. "Now that's going too far. Doesn't
think much of himself, does he?" Glancing at her android companion,
she shrugged. "What do you think,
Joe? He could be right. Gandalf
said something similar."
Joe looked at Legolas and nodded slowly.
"We don't know what guise
the riders in black might take next," he agreed. "Perhaps we do need
to show more
Legolas gazed around, pointing into the thick forest that bordered the
highway. "Can we
go through that way?"
Freddie gazed with badly-hidden trepidation. "The last time I went
was about four years old. Joe? Can we cut through here?"
"We can keep to the trees for nearly half
the way, but no longer," Joe
supplied. "If we continue to avoid both roads and cities from there,
the way will
be mostly flatlands."
"Imperfect, but still unexpected," Legolas said. "There are ways to
passage on any kind of landscape."
"If they figure out where we're going, they'll get there first,"
countered. "Wouldn't it be better to try to find a ride and
take the back roads? Gandalf wanted us there in
"We could make the trip in three days," Joe remarked, drawing a mild
glare from Freddie.
"If indeed these creatures are following us and
they track us to this point, there are at least four cities we could
traveling towards. If we avoid encountering any of their number,
it may take them some time to guess our destination."
We'll go your way," Freddie grumped. "Walking to Rouge City.
I don't believe I'm doing this." She hefted her
it more firmly on her shoulders, and started into the trees. "I
didn't exactly plan on this.
We don't have any food."
"I can provide what food we need," Legolas promised. The words could
been boastful, but he spoke quietly, simply stating a fact.
Freddie, however, seemed less than appreciative.
"I don't know if I
could eat anything that I knew had just been alive," she commented
are alive, and you ate the muscle tissue from a chicken not
long ago," Joe reminded her.
Joe. Thank you so much. You make it sound so fabulously
appetizing!" Freddie exclaimed. Catching the
small smile that passed
between her companions, she stuck out her tongue. "Men," she snorted.
they're all the same." Raising her nose in the
air, she stalked ahead in a mock huff.
his pace to catch up. Taking her arm, he gently stopped
her in her tracks, relieving her of her burden. "I
can carry your
pack," he stated firmly when she tried to protest. "It will make no
difference to me."
could not refute his logic and simply acquiesced with a murmur of
Hours later, nearly three in the
morning, Freddie was too tired to do
much but agree with anything. She stomped glaze-eyed in Joe's wake,
by Legolas. The elf showed none of her physical discomfort,
seeming as wide-awake and fresh as he had before they'd
Freddie jerked to full awareness when a snapping branch and soft growl
immediate company. Without thinking, the three of them
stood back-to-back-to-back, Legolas slipping Joe one of his
blades while he arranged the second close to hand while notching an
arrow onto his bow. Freddie grabbed
a nearby dead branch that was
shorter than Legolas's blades but sturdy.
Red eyes gleamed through the trees
like hostile Christmas lights, more
and more blinking to life around them until a dozen or so large, burly
into the moonlight. It was too dark to tell their color,
but none of them was purebred anything, their shaggy coats
mangy, their twisted muzzles showing crowded batteries of yellow
teeth. "Ugly things," Freddie muttered.
of Sauron," Legolas whispered, pulling back his bow and
letting his first arrow fly.
He almost missed, the
dogs' attack was so sudden and swift. One fell
as it leapt, an arrow entering the front of its chest on one side
emerging from behind its massive shoulder on the opposite side.
Legolas managed one more shot before the
dogs were too close and he
had to draw his remaining sword.
The pack swarmed over them, ignoring their fallen
mates. They were
clumsy but fast and strong, feral but unafraid as real wild animals
never were. They
circled the trio, snapping and biting as Joe and
Legolas sliced at them and Freddie swung her makeshift club like a
not doing as much lethal damage but making them feel every
strike. A few growls turned to yelps; Legolas slit the
throat of one,
sending blood spurting over the pack where it glistened in their fur.
Freddie swung and got in a lucky
hit that cracked the skull of
another. Joe dispatched a third by stabbing it in the chest as it
him, but his blade got momentarily stuck, giving
another the opportunity to seize his hand between its heavy jaws and
rip away large chunks of his epidermis.
Fortunately Legolas saw and decapitated the creature before it got
teeth deep enough to do damage to any of his joints, but metal gleamed
through his silicone skin, his inner workings
exposed to the elements.
Worse, his pain receptors didn't stop firing once the damage ceased,
making his hand more
difficult to control with any kind of precision.
The battle was over relatively quickly. None of the dogs escaped,
most brought down with their
throats or vital organs slashed, a couple
with their head or ribcage battered in. Blood splashed across fur,
across grass, and splattered the three protagonists, but Joe's
was the only injury.
Freddie dropped her blood-
and fur-smeared club with a twisted
expression of disgust, turning her back on the carnage to take Joe's
hand in hers,
examining his tattered skin and gleaming metal skeleton.
"How bad is it?" she asked seriously.
"My hand is
eighty-nine percent functional," Joe told her. "The
joints, hydraulics, and lubrication systems were not damaged."
stared wide-eyed at the gaping, bloodless wounds. "What are
"I am a robot, a Mecha. A machine
that can make decisions and act on
its own," Joe explained patiently. "My shape is humanoid for the
and convenience of my human makers."
"Strange," Legolas muttered.
"So speaks a sword-wielding elf,"
Freddie snorted shakily. Joe
instinctively pulled her closer into the embrace of his undamaged arm
and she cuddled
against him for just a moment before pulling away and
walking over to one of the dead dogs. "Why did they attack
Sauron really control their minds?"
Legolas had already crouched to examine one of the more
animals, carful to avoid a nearby pool of blood and innards. "I
believe they have Warg blood. If
descendants of Sauron's creatures
are still living, we must be doubly careful. He will have an inherent
to such things."
Frederika's friendly face was thunderstorm clouded as she trudged nest
to Joe. She huddled deep
into her jacket as if cold, yet bright
droplets of sweat stood out on her face. Joe didn't say anything, but
noticed their elf companion looking increasingly grim whenever his
glance happened to fall on the girl. Black memories
Legolas's expression, his aristocratic lips twisted in worry.
Joe wondered if he too could see
the dark energy beginning to seep
from the ring onto Freddie. It was a slow process, but the thin
to encircle her had grown since the beginning of
The Mecha's concerned inner reflections, another
gift from his time
with David, were interrupted by a soft brush of extreme cold on the
side of his face. A second
later, another icy feather touched his
cheek, then another kissed his forehead.
Freddie halted in her tracks,
looking up. Joe followed her eyes to
find the sky suddenly filled with tiny flecks of sparkling white. A
analysis showed them to be nothing more than frozen water that
had crystalized, sometimes around tiny impurities.
for a few moments, then turned to him, her face pure befuddlement, and
Joe knew he shared a t least
a measure of the expression.
Not noticing their uneasiness at first, Legolas glanced up once
as he passed them. He stopped when he realized that they
weren't following and turned back with both brows raised.
is it?" Freddie whispered, holding out a hand to catch a few
specks of the unfamiliar substance. The white fluff
diamond dust before melting into plain drops of water.
"I have never seen such a thing," Joe
murmured in return, his generous
lips pulled into a slight, puzzled frown.
"What? It's snow," Legolas
said incredulously. "You have never seen
"Snow," Freddie repeated slowly, rolling the word on
"Snow . . . yes, of course, I've read of it, and studied it in school,
for science classes.
No, Legolas, it hasn't snowed anywhere on Earth
for nearly four generations."
The elf stared, his face both
incredulous and grief-stricken. "So
many changes," he whispered to himself. "The world doesn't belong to
anymore. It has become a slave."
Freddie looked away in shame, and even Joe had difficulty meeting the
elf's eyes. It was true; man had only truly paid attention to the
world around him when the environment was
damaged beyond repair. It
was the very reason Mechas had been built, the necessity for help that
Freddie shivered suddenly, hard, wrapping both arms around herself.
the mood, and Joe resumed the lead, marking a sharp drop in
temperature. It very soon became clear that Freddie
shelter from the weather. Legolas, too, though more hardy than the
girl, was not going to withstand
the cold for much longer. In a short
time even Joe began having difficulties, unused to such a slippery,
surface. Worse, the lubricating fluids in his joints
were threatening to freeze. None of them were equipped
temperatures that hadn't been experienced for over a hundred years.
Things only got more desperate when
the wind began to pick up. Joe
and Legolas kept Freddie between them, as protected from the bite as
but she was shuddering constantly now, her teeth chattering
and her lips an unhealthy shade of blue. "We must find
a way out of
this!" Legolas called. "Is there any shelter nearby?"
"Not unless a Flesh Fair has set
up nearby," Joe answered. The irony
of hoping to run into such a show if only for his charges' sakes was
lost on him.
In the middle of breaking a path through a drift, Joe stopped,
knee-deep in snow while he cocked
his head curiously. "Music?" he
"What? I hear noth . . . wait, yes. What is it?
It almost sounds
"How about we stop wondering and go find it?" Freddie snapped.
of course," Joe said, quickly forging a path in the direction of
The singing grew quickly louder,
and soon a light was visible through
the trees. Legolas stopped, his eyes narrowed. "Wait . . ."
warning came too late. Joe and Freddie stepped into a clearing,
from snowy, frozen ground onto summer-warm grass.
There was no
obvious source for the light; the only other things in the clearing
were a ring of large, grey-white
mushrooms that seemed to form the
boarder and several small creatures flitting around.
It seemed to be they
who were singing. Legolas floundered through the
snow to Freddie's side, took one look at the brightly-winged beings,
and snarled a single word. "Fairies." He grabbed Freddie's arm in an
attempt to drag her back into the
snow, but the fairies noticed them
before they'd taken a step. The singing stopped, and two of the
They were tiny but perfectly-formed human things, femininely
androgynous with wildly-hued
insect wings. Their pretty faces
contorted into terrible snarls, showing small but needle-sharp pointed
The buzzing wings darkened to reds, purples, and blacks, their
tiny fingers curled viciously. The few in the clearing
a multitude, uncounted numbers of jewel-yellow eyes gleaming in hungry
not good," Freddie murmured. She tried to back out of the
circle, but the fairies had completely encircled them.
drew both his blades and swung them in a fruitless attempt to
clear a path. The three of them drew together, but
this time it was
more for comfort than any kind of defense. "Fairies are meat-eaters,"
he told his companions,
glancing at Joe. "I don't know what they'll
make of you, metal man."
"I'm thinking that right now they
don't care as long as they can tear
him apart," Freddie said, trying to watch every direction at once.
find a way, the vicious little . . ." Legolas began, but the
buzzing grew so loud that he stopped trying to make himself
steadied himself, balancing easily in a way that would let him leap in
brightened suddenly, flaring painfully, then dimming to no
more than bright moonlight. "You know better than this,"
feminine voice chided. "Visitors are always welcome in my wood,
provided they possess the will to see
A tall, slender figure stepped into the center of the clearing.
Silver hair fell to her feet,
flowing around a dress the exact green
of new leaves. She moved with a calm grace, her lined face still
Something there reminded Joe strongly of Mrs. Robinson,
but this woman was like Legolas, humanoid but not human.
an elf, in fact was even more different than Legolas, but her dark
brown eyes were kind and as warm as
"Leave them, little ones, or I shall have to become stern with you,"
she laughed, though
there was a serious note there, too.
The fairies' buzzing sounded reluctant, but they dispersed quickly
they had all disappeared. The strange woman watched them leave,
her eyes crinkled with humor, then turned to the
strangers. You will need warmth and comfort on this night," she said
in a voice like a
chuckling stream. "Come with me to the house of
Joe glanced at Legolas. The elf had
relaxed to the point of smiling.
Trusting his judgement, Joe inclined his head in acceptance and
followed her back
into the storm.
The snow melted under her svelte feet, easing their path through the
Still, Joe frowned deeply until, noticing, Freddie asked him
what the matter was.
"Is that the nature of
the creature David seeks?" Joe murmured.
Freddie thought silently for a few seconds, then shook her head.
Laying a hand on his arm, Freddie looked into his eyes with an earnest
expression. "I don't think that was the
same kind of fairy. David's
Blue Fairy has the power to grant wishes. I don't believe those
the power to bring anything but pain."
Joe brushed her fingers with his unblemished ones, smiling silently
In a short time they had come to a little cottage that appeared to
have grown from the forest floor instead of having
been built. She
opened the door for them, ushering them into its single room with a
rueful smile. "It's
small, I'm afraid, but there is food for all, and
places for you to sleep away the storm. The Dark Presence isn't
strong enough to make it last long."
"This is Sauron's doing?" Legolas asked.
you know of him, then you know why we are traveling through your
"Yes, I know that as well."
Moving to Freddie's side, she laid a hand
on the younger woman's shoulder. "The burden you carry is heavy, and
only get heavier as his power grows," she said solemnly. "Yet
hope is not lost. You can finish the quest that
was begun untold ages
Freddie's eyes were wide but she nodded. Goldberry brushed her face
then clapped her hands. "You are hungry and tired. First
food, then sleep. I'm sorry that all I can
offer is beds of straw,
but it is clean and fresh-smelling. Since the death of my husband Tom
ago, my needs are simple."
Legolas jumped. "Tom Bombadil . . . that is a name familiar to Elvish
He is dead?"
"Many centuries ago," Goldberry replied sadly. "When Industry
overtook Nature as the dominant
force on this world, he faded
Groaning softly, Freddie dropped her head. Goldberry tipped
chin with slender but still strong fingers. "You have too much to
carry already. You cannot shoulder
the sins of an entire race. Don't
create more of a burden."
"Thank you," Freddie whispered.
Goldberry said merrily, clapping her hands, "let us eat."
Winking at Joe, she grinned in delight. "You can
simply rest your
Joe smiled in appreciation, sitting at the table with the others and
them devour sweet breads, savory cheeses, ripe fruits, and
assorted nuts. "Delicious," Freddie proclaimed when she
seeming to be in much better spirits.
"Good," Goldberry said, rising to clear the dishes.
When the others
leapt up to help, she waved them off. "This won't take me long. Now
you sleep. Rest
may be hard to come by later." She directed them to
two piles of straw that lay against opposite walls. "You
your accommodations odd, perhaps, but soft and warm."
Murmuring gratitude, Freddie and Legolas snuggled
into the straw.
Legolas was asleep almost at once. Freddie remained awake for some
time, drawing out the
ring to look at it, putting it back, then
fingering it through the thin fabric of her shirt before taking it out
more. Finally Joe sat next to her, letting her curl close with
her head in his lap. He stroked her hair until
she eased slowly into
slumber. When she became restless, her face flushing hot, he petted
her cheek until she
relaxed, sighing contentedly.
Looking up, Joe found Goldberry observing him from quite close.
a good man," she said quietly.
"I'm not a man," was Joe's automatic response.
Shaking her head,
Goldberry took his damaged hand between both of
hers, not touching but so close that he could feel the tiny electrical
charges every time her nerve endings fired. She passed her hands over
his. When she drew back, his hand
was unmarred, without a sign that
it had been damaged. "Yes you are," she said, and withdrew to
was going to spend the night.
The morning dawned clear and cool with no sign left of the snow but the
that soaked the forest floor. Joe waited patiently for
his companions to wake, stroking Freddie's soft hair now and
lifting it to let the satin strands slide through his fingers.
The sun had been up for a very few minutes when Legolas woke, going
none of a typical Orga's ritual grogginess. The elf was
simply asleep one moment, aware the next, his dark blue eyes
over the room. When he observed nothing more threatening
than Joe, Legolas's hand relaxed away from the weapons at
his belt and
he sat up.
Goldberry seemed to sense his waking; she glided into the room
by the palpable warmth of her gentle smile. Gently shaking
Freddie awake, Joe helped the girl sit up. "Good
morning, my lady,"
Joe greeted the older woman, rising with a bow. "Your lovely presence
brightens a morning until
the sun envies the light of your eyes."
Tinkling a laugh, Goldberry curtsied deeply, a light blush touching
cheeks. "Why sir, the sun does loosen thy tongue to wax poetical
in a most delightful song," she replied.
"And I can see why the girls went nuts over you," Freddie snorted
hiding a yawn. She grinned. "I called Electric Nights to
ask a couple questions. They had a few interesting
things to say."
She stretched and scrambled to her feet. "Good morning, Goldberry.
Thank you. I don't know
what we would have done without you last
"I am certain you would have discovered something," Goldberry told her
a more serious tone. "The White Wizard would not choose you for
your stupidity and cowardice." Gesturing to
the table, she indicated
a breakfast already laid out. Fruit, new milk, and honey gleamed
fresh and inviting amidst
the sunbeams. "Breakfast, then I'm afraid
you must go. Time is short. Possibly shorter than any of us
Reminded of their purpose, Freddie lost her cheeky smile. Settling
the table, she and Legolas began to eat. When they were done,
Goldberry showed them to a clean, crystal pool where they washed
refreshed themselves. Then they were each presented with packs filled
with food, bottles of water, and supplies.
To Joe she gave Freddie's
pack, stuffed as full as the other two. "It contains food and water
for the others,
but you may find uses for the other gifts," she
explained. "Now come, there's something I want to show you all."
The three of them hefted their packs and followed the slender woman
She led them a little ways into the woods, onto a small
knell in the middle of a clearing. Hesitating, she looked
all, pressing a fond hand to the side of Freddie's face, her
expression soft. "I'm not sure why, but I
think you need to see
this," she said softly. Turning from them, she raised her arms to the
Freddie and Legolas gasped. Joe stared around in wonder.
to be standing on the edge of a huge, dark, green forest. The trees
stretched out to the horizon on
one side, rolling like a sea whose
very waters were alive. In front of them lay a plain, the long
with spring newness. A breeze blew around them without
touching them, sending branches swaying and grass undulating
touching his clothes or hair, or leaving the slightest sensation
against the sensitive receptors in his skin.
Light streamed down on them without giving any warmth, yet the sun
larger, closer. The place seemed both fresh and new, and
incalculably ancient, looming with a mix of beauty and menace.
is this?" Joe murmured.
"It's the world I once knew," Legolas answered in a reverent whisper.
"The world Sauron knew when he was powerful." Glancing
the elf shook his head. "Why have you shown us this?"
"To show them what Sauron was willing to destroy, what he wanted to
Goldberry answered calmly. "He has no mercy, no goodness.
He only lusts for the power to destroy." Dropping
her arms, she let
the vision fade until they were standing in the poor facsimile of a
forest she now lived in.
Freddie stood in place with her hands balled into fists, tears
in her eyes. "He has to be stopped. He has to."
"Yes," Goldberry murmured.
Gasping once, then again, the girl regained a measure of control.
to Goldberry with an appeal almost lost to utter despair, she
swallowed hard. "But even if we do, we can never go
back there, can
we?" she whispered.
"No," Goldberry answered in her gentlest voice.
Looking down, Freddie nodded, sadness lining her face. Joe wondered
anyone else noticed how the dark energy had retreated back into the
ring, the smoky tendrils around her at less than half
away by white-hot grief. "Let's go," the girl said quietly. "He's
not going to get what's
"I wish I could go with you," Goldberry murmured. "But I must remain
and care for what's mine."
"I wish I could stay and find a way to help you," Freddie replied in
same low tone.
Goldberry's smile encompassed them all. "Knowing there are a few
who care does help," she said. "Now go, before it becomes too hard."
Joe and Legolas both bowed low before turning away. Freddie gazed
a moment longer, lifted her hand in a farewell, then followed the
men hastily. Joe tried to stop and let her rest
once, but she
refused, threatening to keep on without them if they tried. She was
in an obvious hurry to leave
the forest, so Joe complied with her
wishes, his infallible internal sensors leading them on. They were
and watchful, but saw nothing more threatening than two
battered old abandoned Mechas that scrambled to avoid them.
The trio left the forest that evening. Only then did Freddie agree
stop, throwing herself to the ground and digging into the pack
Goldberry had provided.
Flanking her watchfully, Joe and Legolas crouched on either side.
should see how much food we've got," Freddie murmured, unpacking
curiously. "How much longer will it take
to get there, Joe?" she
"Two days to reach the bridge," Joe answered slowly. "But . . .
those creatures are watching the roads, and they guess our
destination, then we dare not cross there."
Freddie groaned. "So how do we get there?"
"We can cross at a different place and circle . . ."
"Huh-uh, no way. Do you have any idea how far out of our way that
take us?" She looked out over their path, open country dotted
with trees. "They might not figure out which
way we went. "I still
don't see the problem with trying to hitch a ride there. We could be
to Rouge City
in a few hours. Those . . . things . . . were pretty
shaken up. And they didn't seem all that smart."
"They don't need to be," Legolas warned. "You don't know the Nazgul.
only chance is to stay away from them." He nodded towards Joe.
"Especially now that they know what to expect.
They have ways. We
must keep ourselves hidden."
"Yeah. All right. I don't ever want to see one of those again,"
Freddie agreed reluctantly. "But we can at least try the main
first. We only have two days before Gandalf said to meet him. If
there's any sign of trouble, we can
find another way."
Joe and Legolas exchanged glances. Legolas raised his shoulders
millimeter. "She's right, Gandalf will be waiting for us."
"Will he know about those . . . what did you call them, Nazgul?"
asked, looking up from the bundle of fabric she had just
pulled out of the bottom of her pack.
"He will be expecting them," Legolas answered grimly. "But perhaps
this soon. I'm not sure he knows how powerful Sauron has grown."
"He knows," Freddie declared. She spread out the fabric; it was
hooded cloak, woven of a greenish fabric something like the coat
Legolas wore, but thinner and finer, like a cross
between cotton and
Seeing the cloak, Legolas gasped, reaching out to brush the fabric
long, slender fingers. Its colors shifted as it moved with a
radiant iridescence, but it was all earth-color, greens
and browns and
greys depending on light and shadow. "This is elven made," he said in
"It's beautiful," Freddie murmured.
"And warm. It will also help hide us from unseen eyes." Opening
own pack, Legolas pulled out another, larger cloak.
Joe as well found one folded in the bottom of Freddie's backpack.
the other two, it was made as specific for him as though exact
measurements had been taken. When they settled down
approaching dark, centered in the nearest grove of maple trees, Joe
found that even up close, his optic
centers had a more difficult time
picking out his companions in the deep shadows under the leafy
cloaks seemed to soak up the color of the shadows,
taking on the subtle hues around them. It held heat well, too,
his organic counterparts comfortable in the night chill as
they ate a quick meal before settling down to sleep.
Joe didn't need protection against these less extreme temperatures, of
but the fabric was soft and smooth against his epidermis, like
nothing he'd ever felt before.
It didn't rival the sleek warmth of Freddie's body, however, when she
close to sleep. She moved hesitantly at first, as though
afraid he'd refuse, but when he only held an arm out and
position to make her more comfortable, a small smile curved her lips
and she curled into his embrace, closing
her eyes more readily than
she had the previous night.
But even asleep, her hand clutched unconsciously at the ring hidden
"You're a machine that can think," Legolas's voice floated quietly out
the dark. Joe looked in the elf's direction, but all he could see
was an outline and the gleam of Legolas's blue
eyes throwing back a
beam of moonlight. "Can you feel as well?"
"I sense both pleasure and pain. I can tell heat from cold.
tactile processors are more sensitive than an Orga's . . ."
"I did not mean with your hands," Legolas interrupted.
"No. I am programmed to emulate emotions, not feel them."
Legolas's eyes flashed doubt, looking from him to the woman bundled in
arms, then puzzlement. "What is `programmed?'" he questioned.
Joe opened his mouth, then closed it. How was one to explain the
of computers to someone who had never even seen a mechanical
mode of transportation?
"It means that someone else built his brain, and told him how he is
to think," a sleepy voice murmured from Joe's lap. One
half-open eye gleamed at Legolas as Freddie snuggled deeper
cloak. "But Joe is learning how to do it for himself," she finished.
"You were sleeping," Joe said sternly. "You need rest."
"When I sleep, I can feel someone watching me," Freddie whispered,
sounding scared and little-girlish. "It was like knowing
there was a monster in my closet when I was a kid, only
this is worse.
The closet is all around, and there isn't any door to close."
"Sauron is looking," Legolas said. "He doesn't sleep."
"He can't find us here," Joe reassured the shivering girl. "Sleep,
up your strength." Flicking his head quickly to one side, he
accessed his music files, sending the soft strains of
"I Only Have
Eyes for You" wafting across the grove of trees. The leaves seemed to
rustle in time to the music,
and Legolas gaped at him.
Freddie giggled quietly, humming along with the tune. A song and
half later, Joe sensed her sink into slumber, her breathing and
heartbeat slow and even. He let the music gradually
fade, so as not
to disturb her uneasy sleep. Glancing up, he found Legolas still
staring. "You are like
nothing I have ever seen before, metal man,"
the elf said.
"Others can do as much and more than I," Joe answered shortly.
am a source of amazement, our destination will be an endless stream of
the miraculous. You, too, should
conserve your strength. If not
human, you are still Orga."
"It means not machine. Real."
"You were real enough to destroy one of the wraiths," Legolas snorted.
Stretching out, he gave Joe a small smile before closing his
His lithe body seemed to meld with the ground in perfect comfort, as
though he were on a feather bed with silk
sheets. "These trees have
never seen an elf," he murmured to himself. "They seem glad of the
Joe didn't comment, simply watching the elf drop into a light but
sleep, his hands near his weapons. The surrounding trees
were somehow oddly aware of their presence, circling protectively.
Once Joe saw a branch move overhead, just before he heard the strident
cry of some bird. There was no wind.
* * *
The next morning the sky was clear, blue, and uncomfortably hot, a
that must have had the Orga weather forecasters utterly
discombobulated. Freddie, who had slept in fits and starts
night punctuated by an unusual cacophony of bird calls, woke
hollow-eyed. Legolas rose as alert and ready
as ever, but he too was
quiet and unusually solemn.
Breakfast was eaten in a wooden and unnatural silence. Legolas
on the fruit and bread, still fresh and sweet, with the attitude of an
epicure at a fine restaurant. Freddie
nibbled a few grudging bites,
her eyes flickering from side to side, lingering on the sky then
touching every nook and
shadow of the tree grove.
"You should eat more," Joe chided when Freddie tossed aside a
"Not hungry," Freddie murmured indistinctly, kicking at the
Joe opened his mouth to further admonish the girl, but Legolas caught
eye with a quick, negative shake of his fair head.
Glancing at Freddie's drawn, closed-in face, Joe withdrew, remaining
even when the small woman sidled closer to pull the hood of his
cloak over his head, hiding his face from any overhead
only time she spoke was to look tiredly at Joe and ask "Which way
now?" in a heavy voice.
Besides that single short sentence, their trek began in utter silence.
Joe took the lead once more, an unusual position for a Mecha. Freddie
behind him and Legolas took the last position, one hand always
hovering near his weapons. Through the day Joe glanced
watch on his companions. Legolas continued as watchful and energetic
as on the first steps of their
journey. Freddie, however, dragged
herself behind him in an exhausted shuffle he deemed quite extreme for
age and level of physical health. Physically she was nowhere near
the elf's strength and endurance, which seemed
to approach that of a
Mecha, but she looked more ill than tired. More and more frequently
her hand was to her
chest, directly over the ring. Most terribly, the
ring's dark essence was once again seeping onto Freddie, the invasion
at an exponential rate.
They needed to get to Rouge City and Gandalf.
Freddie must have sensed something herself because she refused to stop
lunch, pressing on even when Joe and Legolas both glowered at her.
She did submit enough to eat some berries and
half a piece of bread,
but insisted on eating while they walked.
Mid afternoon found them hesitating on the top of a small knoll,
a lonely home in the distance. "I don't believe anyone is
there," Legolas finally determined, shading his eyes.
investigate? The water won't last."
"I believe that would be an advisable course of action," Joe conceded.
Moving cautiously, alert for any signs of being watched, the small
made their way to the front door. Before they reached it, Joe
snatched out a hand and caught Freddie's upper arm,
"Something isn't right," he said tensely.
Freddie looked at him questioningly, then at Legolas. The elf was
lightly on the balls of his feet, one of his blades drawn.
"What . . ." Freddie started to ask in a small, uneasy voice.
"The door is open," Joe whispered. "The house is dark."
"We should leave," Legolas grunted.
"No. No, someone could be hurt," Freddie whispered. "We should
least check. If it was just a burglar or an absent-minded homeowner,
we can leave."
"I don't like this," the elf growled.
"I don't either," Freddie agreed. "C'me on." She edged towards
door, Joe following protectively close. Using her elbow to nudge the
door open, she kept her hands well away
from any surfaces as she
Freddie stopped with a gasp, one hand over her mouth. Joe crowded
her and froze just as she had, his eyes wide.
Hearing the girl's distress, Legolas followed them inside. "Nazgul,"
There was no sign of whoever had lived here, except for massive
of reddish-brown that painted the floor and two walls, flaking
in places, thick and gummy in others. Fat black flies
around the room, taking no notice of anything but the old blood.
"This is old," Legolas said. "Several days old. This happened
we were attacked the first time."
Joe backed up a step. This went far beyond bad trouble, too far,
even than discovering Sam Bevin's body. Catching his reflection
in the nearest window, he didn't recognize his own
face. Gone was the
serene, somewhat vacant expression of a Mecha. His eyes, slightly
narrowed, flicked nervously
in an almost human manner.
Freddie turned to look at him, her face pasty and greenish. She
his face, then shivered and took him by the arm, pulling him
away from the grisly scene. "I'm so sorry, Joe.
You shouldn't have
seen that," she wavered, tears coating the surface of her large eyes.
"I'm so sorry."
Joe didn't answer. He'd seen the after effects of car accidents,
murder, but this was different. Despite the uses and abuses of his
customers, his was still an innocent soul.
The people inside that
room, more than one without a doubt from the amount of blood pooled
everywhere, had been butchered,
slaughtered like food animals. That
such things happened was a known fact, but to see it, experience it,
know how they must have died, to have seen the sharp-edged
instruments of such careless, indifferent destruction was a
"We must leave here," Legolas murmured, joining them.
The others followed him mindlessly until they were out of sight of the
then Freddie stopped, still white-faced. Taking Joe's arm, she
sat him down in the sun-warmed grass, lowering herself
next to him and
guiding his head onto her shoulder. "It's all right," she murmured in
his ear, stroking a hand
through his hair. "It's all right, we're
going to stop the bastards. We're going to stop them."
This was a new experience. Joe had done quite a lot of comforting,
emotional and physical, but had never been on the receiving end.
Strangely, another's presence truly did seem to make events easier to
The small hands petting his hair and rubbing the back of his
neck were soothing, reassuring, somehow right. Looking
into her eyes,
he saw fierceness there, a determination that was not overcoming the
ring's influence but was holding
it, for the moment, at bay. "This is
going to end," Freddie hissed. "I can't let them hurt anyone else."
Rising to her feet, Freddie stood with her legs straddled and her
on her hips. "No more stopping unless we absolutely have to,"
she said firmly.
"Frederika, you cannot walk to Rouge City without a rest," Joe
scrambling to his feet.
"I can damn well try," Freddie huffed. "Legolas, did you notice
following or watching?"
"No. There was nothing. The wraiths passed her several
"Good. Let's go."
Joe looked to Legolas in a silent appeal for sanity, but the elf
nodded towards Freddie's already retreating back, prodding Joe to
follow. The Mecha jogged to her side, as
eager as the others to get
as far from the grisly scene as possible; perhaps distance would calm her.
Obviously shaken, grey-faced and grim, Freddie urged Joe into a faster
that had her panting in short order, but when he tried to slow to
a more suitable speed she snarled at him to move it.
course had no trouble keeping pace, although he too was troubled and
Joe's core programming screamed for him to comfort both of his
but this time he simply didn't know how, other than what
they were already doing. The physical succor he offered
inappropriate in either case, and his verbal abilities had never been
tested or tried in such circumstances, so
he simply did as he was bid,
remaining silent and alert.
It wasn't until Freddie's legs were visibly shaking and Joe flatly
to go any further that the girl agreed to a short rest. They
found a shallow valley between two rounded hills
that would hide them
from observation from anywhere but directly overhead. Legolas harried
Freddie into walking
slowly for several minutes to cool her muscles so
they wouldn't freeze when she finally sat down.
When he finally allowed her to stop after the flush faded from her
and her steps were steadier, she flopped on the ground between
her friends. "I'll pay triple your normal fee if you
can find me a
shower," she grunted to Joe. Curling into a ball, she used her pack
as a pillow; after a few seconds
her eyes closed by themselves,
ignoring her determination to battle them open.
Balling sleepily tighter, Freddie began to shiver even under her
cloak. Brushing her face, Joe found her flesh cooler than it should
have been, and clammy with sweat.
Ticking his head to one side twice in quick succession, he raised
body heat to its maximum setting, which simulated a human temperature
of 38 degrees Celsius. Laying next to
her, he removed his own cloak
and wrapped it around them both, cuddling around her in a tight embrace.
He tried to move as slowly as possible, but one bleary eye slid open
glanced at him. Freddie didn't react except to snuggle even
closer with a small contented sigh, and her temperature
began to warm
to a normal level, but Joe was not happy with her condition.
She slept, yet her body never relaxed. It was not an ever-present
such as Legolas exhibited even in repose, such as now; the
elf was on his side, facing Joe, his brilliantly blue eyes closed
his face at ease, but with a constant sense of readiness. Freddie was
stiff and restless, trembling as though
terrified or enraged, and none
of Joe's caresses or quiet, comforting murmurs did anything to ease
the lines etched
into her brow.
Inefficient as her sleep was, it only lasted an hour and seven
Her eyelids snapped open without warning or prelude; rolling
on top of Joe, she held him down with her hands propped on
shoulders. "Wha . . ." he tried to ask, but she clamped a hand firmly
over his mouth, staring up over the
crest of the taller hill.
Awakened by the flurry of her movements, Legolas's eyes too were
staring in the same direction though he was otherwise still.
Time ticked by silently as the three of them stared into the darkness
a moonless, overcast sky. Suddenly a shriek rang out, short and
cut off, then again, unearthly screeches that clawed
at Joe's auditory
"They know, dammit," Freddie whispered hoarsely. "They know,
there's too many out there."
Legolas rose to a low crouch, drawing his twin swords. "They'll
take the ring while I live."
"No," Freddie argued. "That won't work. We can't fight
them all off."
"Then what? I will not surrender," Legolas growled.
"I'm not asking you to," Freddie snapped back. She looked around
little valley, to Legolas, then to Joe. "They know I have it," she
mused to herself. Another screech
grated through their ears;
Freddie's eyes flinched towards the sound, her jaw clenching until the
muscles stood out
diamond-hard. Moving slowly, she lifted the Mithril
chain from around her neck and unhooked it. Sliding the
ring off the
chain, she clenched her hand around it for a moment, then held it out
to Joe, her arm trembling.
Brows drawn in with a puzzled expression, Joe didn't react until
shook her hand emphatically. Staring at her, he reached out,
still hesitant, with his hand outspread. One moment
several until Freddie opened her fingers with a spasmodic jerk, her
eyes narrowed as though she were
in tremendous pain.
The ring dropped into Joe's grasp. It's dark thread of connection
the girl stretched out and snapped, but the corruption that had
already touched her did not fade. Its weight
was a pressure not just
in his hand but over his whole body.
"They know I have it," Freddie grunted hoarsely. "If I lead
. . ."
"Madness," Legolas scoffed angrily. "They only know the ring
us, not who carries it."
"Even if that is true, they can sense the ring. They'll know
don't have it with you."
"Perhaps not," Joe said softly. The darkness still wrapped
Freddie like a storm cloud's embrace.
"What do you mean?" Legolas demanded, frowning at the way Joe studied
girl. "You see something, metal man. What is it?"
"They'll know she carried the ring. That might be enough,"
replied. "But you don't know the way to Rouge City," he directed at
"Not a problem. I can make for the main highway and hopefully
ride. If I can get ahead of them . . ." She trailed off, not
mentioning what would happen if she
Legolas looked from one to the other several times, his handsome
pulled into a deeper frown with each circuit. Finally, with a chorus
of shrieks closing around them, he
held out one of his short blades,
handing it to Freddie.
"At least you're not leaving me with a stick this time," the girl
taking it. "And this, after Mom worked so hard to teach me
not to play with knives." She eyed Legolas, shook
her head, and
pointed to the ground. "Hide. If they notice you, they won't follow me."
Grudgingly obeying her orders, Legolas curled into a small depression
the grass and threw his cloak over himself, effectively
disappearing from Joe's optical sensors. His ultra-violet
picked up nothing, and only a very pale, flickering heat reading
registered. Interesting stuff was elven-made
fabric. Joe huddled
under his own cloak, certain he had become as nearly invisible as
Legolas, yet he was able
to see with very little obstruction.
He watched Freddie examine them both, reach out to tug a small fold
Joe's cloak, nod in satisfaction, the disappear over the crest of
the nearest hill, towards the loudest wraith-speech.
The noises increased in volume and excitement suddenly, followed
squall of thumping footsteps heading away from the tiny hidden valley.
It grew quiet after Freddie's running steps faded. Watching the
patch of ground that was Legolas, Joe waited for a signal to move on.
While waiting, he closed his eyes
and began running his diagnostics
program; unaccustomed to this kind of use, he'd begun running it at
three times his
Everything checked clear until he tried to assess his central
processors. A single alarm flashed behind his eyes, then
everything went red. It was hot, sulfur and brimstone
smoking around him, the air thick with foul pollution. He was
wrestling, his thin, sinewy arms wrapped
about an unseen but wildly
Heat and steam billowed thickly around them but he ignored it, ignored
but the desire screaming in his brain, powerful hands holding his
brain in an uncompromising grip, wanting the tiny golden
was his own, his precious . . .
Suddenly he felt its cold brush against his fingers, burning him.
knew the feel of his precious better than he knew the feel of sun on
his face, or cold night caressing his sickly
hide, or the taste of
slippery fish sliding down his skinny gullet. Grabbing at it, he
caught it with both hands, grasping
but unable to wrest it from its perch.
Finally, desperate for it, he brought it to his mouth, biting with a
of sparse but sharp and jagged teeth.
Spitting, he felt a small yet heavy circle of metal land in his palm
connected to a bit of warm flesh. At last, after too long, he
was whole. Happiness filled him such as he never
thought he'd feel
again, making him young. His adversary, visible now, tried to take
his beloved away, but it
was a futile effort against the strength of
his joy. Leaping on bony legs, he danced and sang for his precious
he found he was trying to dance on air. He plunged into the
liquid fire below, still triumphing, until the grip around
loosened, letting the ashes of his mid trickle from between weakening
fingers, to close again on the ring
. . .
"Joe. Joe, wake up!"
Joe's eyelids snapped up, leaving him staring into Legolas's brilliant
Was this what Freddie saw every time she closed her eyes? Were
these images the ones that made her moan and thrash
in her fevered sleep?
The elf looked more frazzled than Joe had yet seen him. The hand
rubbing the side of his face was warm as though with a mild
fever, the skin retaining the velvety softness of a small child,
Legolas's practiced, easy skill with his weapons. What must
the females of the species be like, if the males carried
"What happened?" Legolas asked when Joe sat up after quickly
all his systems.
"I do not know," Joe answered. "All my systems register at normal
"Good. We need to move quickly. If Freddie is journeying
main roadways, she will likely reach out destination first."
"Do you truly believe she will return?" Joe asked quietly.
Legolas shook his head, but there was a stubborn set to his graceful
"I know the blood that runs in her veins."
Remaining silent, Joe didn't voice his doubts. It was not in his
or his programming, to bring early grief or kill hope, false
as it must be. Realizing the ring, as icy now as the
snow, was still clutched in his hand, he stored it carefully in his
The girl's rash actions seemed to have drawn off their enemies.
pair moved carefully, well wrapped in their cloaks, but there was no
sign of wraith speech or glinting blades.
Without needing to alter their pace for Freddie, Joe and Legolas
half again their former speed. The lights of Rouge City came
into sight as the next night fell, before the morning
they were to
meet Gandalf. Though Mechas did not know hope, Joe found himself
joining Legolas in watching for
a small figure to join them.
She did not. He and Legolas alone surveyed the road leading into
city, Joe's hand in his pocket, caressing the gold. It was smoother
than any woman's skin, the most precious
thing he had ever touched.
The elf stared blank-faced at the sculptured bridge and past it at the
multitude of lights. "Are there truly so many living in one
place?" he murmured with a small shudder.
"There are over a million Orga residents, half that amount Mecha, and
as many tourists," Joe supplied.
"Mechas . . . beings such as you?"
Joe hesitated before answering. "Yes." But were they really?"
David's earnest, trusing face flashed through his memory banks. No
Mecha ever looked at another that way.
No Mecha ever took on a
responsibility because of such a look. He wondered if David was still
under the saltwater
waves, or if his Blue Fairy had come.
"Is this the only way into the city?" Legolas asked, his narrowed eyes
the flowing river of head-and tail-lights move steadily over
the bridge, through the bright pink lighted lips of a woman's
"No. There is a smaller bridge that leads into the residential
"Perhaps we should go that way."
Joe shook his head. "Mechas are not allowed in that entrance."
"So we won't be expected to make it through?"
Joe blinked, looked at the elf, and nodded slowly. "It is not far."
"Good. Gandalf and Frederika will be waiting."
Joe didn't reply to the futile hope. Silently leading the way,
broke into a quick lope that Legolas had no trouble matching. The
two-and-a-half mile journey took them twelve
minutes, a feat few Orgas
could duplicate. He slowed as they approached the smaller, dimly-lit
bridge, wary and
attentive for any other presence. He was petting the
ring again, as though it were a tiny cat.
The long concrete expanse appeared empty, the only sounds from the
and an occasional bird call.
Legolas's eyes, shadowed by the hood of his cloak, scanned the road.
"I don't see anything, but there is a car approaching."
Joe frowned doubtfully, then crooked an eyebrow when he heard the roar
an engine. Impressive.
Retreating from the road, the pair watched a single pair of headlights
much too fast and scream to a stop just before reaching the
bridge. The passenger door opened, letting a small figure
the road. She waved at the unseen driver, shook her head at an
unheard question, and shut the door.
The car continued on its way alone.
Joe stared. Legolas, smiling, jogged forward to greet Freddie.
girl grinned tiredly. "I knew you'd show up here."
"What happened?" Joe asked. "Where did you go? Where are
Freddie's grin disappeared. "I don't know. I got to the highway
hitched a ride back to Haddonfield. The wraiths stopped following me
sometime between leaving you and the
highway. I don't know where they
went." Her gaze flickered to Joe, her expression changing. "Where is
"Safe," Joe told her, resisting the urge to back away.
"Give it back." Holding out her hand, Freddie advanced on him.
Joe's hand automatically reached for his pocket, then stopped,
the small, precious lump in his jacket protectively. "No."
Her face glowing, Freddie bared her teeth, her hands rising with her
curled claw-like. She didn't say anything more before
Unwilling to hurt an Orga even by accident, Joe skipped out of the way
the girl's attack, but she kept coming, her movements more erratic
and less ruled by reason. She succeeded in grasping
his arms and they
grappled for a few seconds, but Joe's greater strength let him throw
her off easily.
But the girl kept coming, more enraged with every failed attempt at
him. Legolas tried to intercede but she ducked out from under
his grip and produced the sword she had given him.
clumsily, she slashed at Joe with wild, unpracticed swings.
The blade was sharp, slicing a gash in his jacket over his chest.
reacted before his processors had time to evaluate the situation;
passing by Legolas, he slipped the second blade
from the elf's belt,
bringing it down on Freddie's blade and knocking it from her hand.
Seeing nothing but the ring,
he brought his own sword up, aiming it
straight for her heart.
He heard shouts but didn't register any of the words. When a pair
slender, strong arms wrapped around his shoulders and dragged him
backwards, he wrenched himself free, swung around,
There was a flash of blinding light; the blade grew heavy in his hand,
its deadly course as though passing through something on the
way to its mark. He tried to drop it, but before his
loosen their grip, the tip slid several inches into Legolas's side.
Screams piled in herds from Freddie's throat, but there was no fear in
sound. It was primal, from a time before people could be
classified as human, or even sentient. Even Joe, a
programmed to understand such things, recognized the pain and fury
boiling from the deepest, darkest dregs
of her soul. Staring first
into Legolas's shocked expression, then Gandalf's horrified eyes, he
wished he could
make such a sound himself.
Joe stepped back. The point of his blade was coated with ruby fluid,
jewel-bright to be human. Dropping the sword, he watched Legoalas
grimace and press a hand to his wound. Blood trickled
the elf's graceful fingers.
Gandalf, gleaming in his floor-length robes, stepped around Joe. The
gently lifted Legolas's hand, bending close to inspect the wound.
"It's not bad," the elf gasped, but his face was
white and strained.
Freddie sobbed once, her hands clapped over her mouth.
Still silent, Gandalf regarded Joe gravely.
Joe stared back for a
second or two, then fell to his knees, hands cradled over his face.
Cold withered his processors,
a new sensation that made him feel that
he was sinking into the soil, polluting it with his presence.
seen it often in his customers. How could he have
tried, with his shallow physical comforts, to banish such a thing?
boy. No." Taking him by the shoulders, Gandalf forced him to
his feet. "You weren't to know. Either of you," he said, including
snowy face in his burning gaze. "There is nothing that
could prepare you for such a thing, no words that could describe
There was forgiveness in his expression, even pity, but there was
also a sternness there that said quite clearly
that the old man
expected them to learn.
Freddie gulped, recognizing his expectation as well. Joe nodded
He finally understood why they must be rid of the ring, and
why Gandalf did not trust himself or Legolas with the task.
could the ring do in the hands of someone powerful, who knew how to
Removing the ring from his pocket,
he held it out to Freddie. The
woman took a step back and for a second it looked like she would
refuse to take it, but
then her face subtly twisted, her eyes lighting
with predatory hunger. She snatched it from his hand, cradled it,
to it as though comforting a baby, and slipped the chain
over her head.
"Come," Gandalf ordered gently.
. . . Legolas," Freddie protested, looking up from the ring. The
reflection seemed to stay in her eyes, a circlet of gold
pupil, yet her face gentled into an expression of concern. "He's hurt."
"It's not bad," the elf repeated,
and his voice did sound stronger,
although he remained in a slightly bent position, one hand clamped to
. . . am truly sorry," Joe whispered.
"It was an accident," the elf said curtly. But when he picked up
he returned it to its place in its sheath, beside its
mate. "There is no time. Follow Gandalf."
giving Legolas a worried look, which the elf utterly
ignored. Passing Joe, she took his hand in hers, squeezing gently
a moment before taking her place behind the tall wizard, whose robes
had morphed back into the white suit.
group hadn't gone far along the road before they were blinded by
headlights coming around a wide curve. The car slowed,
colorful lights flashing in their eyes. The driver stepped out and
seemed to unfold, and kept going until
he looked three times too big
to fit in the police cruiser. "No Mechas on this road," he said. His
voice was calm, but
still rolled like thunder from his
Gandalf was eyeing the man impatiently when Freddie
"I know. I'm sorry, but we had an accident. We were heading for the
main bridge, but we lost the car
and didn't know what else to do.
There was some . . ." she glanced back at Legolas's impossible beauty
and pointed ears.
"There was some damage," she finished.
Clever; the man would likely take Legolas's blood, which looked like
cell were faceted like a diamond, for some kind of lubricating
fluid, or possibly the inner layer of a chamaeleon dermis.
policeman's eyes traveled over each of them in turn, then he
smiled. "I can see that," he said. "I can take you to a repair
he said, indicating the cruiser behind him. "Or do you
need a hospital?" he asked with a glance at Freddie.
don't need to stain your car," Freddie answered hastily.
"Our place of residence is close," Gandalf added, with a quick
at Freddie. "We appreciate the assistance, but it is quite unnecessary."
"My . . . grandfather owns a brothel,"
Freddie put in. "These two
were rented out for a bachelorette party tonight. He has most of the
repairs done in-house."
Tugging Joe's sleeve, she pulled him a few
inches to one side, attempting to hide Legolas's increasingly
expression. "Thank you, though. And thank you for
letting us through. Now, if you'll excuse us, we need to call the
Still uncertain, the policeman waved them on. Freddie blew out a
relieved breath. Joe, who had been expecting
far more trouble,
noticed Gandalf give his walking stick a subtle wave, aimed back
towards the policeman. Interesting.
of earshot, Gandalf stopped, turned, and faced Freddie.
"Grandfather?" he said. "A brothel?"
"Well . . . right now,
you fit the part," Freddie shot back,
continuing down the road.
"Well . . .!" Gandlaf huffed. Head high, he re-took
the lead, his
suit flowing into robes that billowed imposingly around his form.
Legolas smiled, aiming a wink in
Freddie's direction that was
carefully kept out of Gandalf's view. Joe trailed behind, his eyes
roving along the sides
of the road. The city was still a quarter-mile
away, only an occasional house built out here, away from the noise and
by some of the more affluent residents. It was too similar a
setting to where they had found the Wraith's handiwork.
contrast to the lights, noise, and bustle of Rouge City's tourist
areas, the outskirt of the residential area was dark
and too quiet.
The little group slowed, the younger members drawing near to the
wizard in their midst. Joe's processors
were set so high that they
popped now and then, sending bursts of subtle white noise into his
auditory centers. Freddie
stayed so close to his side that now and
again she brushed against his cloak, or even the slick vinyl of his
He didn't protest; even Gandalf's face was unusually grave,
and Legolas was watching what seemed like every direction at
eyes gleaming with a faint, catlike glow. "Something isn't right,"
the elf murmured.
grunted, but Joe saw him clutch his staff tighter,
holding it in front rather than at his side. There were no street
here. The dark was of no consequence to Joe's eyes, which
included functions in the heat-sensitive and ultraviolet ranges.
and Gandalf both moved as casually as if this were a sunny
summer afternoon, but Freddie was cursing to herself, occasionally
over obstacles. She resisted Joe's attempts to help her
until he heard her gasp in pain after kicking a tree root. After
she allowed him to take her arm and guide her path.
Which was fortunate, or she might have tumbled into the shallow
that loomed in their path. Joe stared at the broken metal and bits of
fake flesh strewn across the bottom, gazing
into blank eyes that
glittered with the false life of reflected moonlight. It was a Mecha
graveyard, like the one he
had fled to and been captured at. Like the
one that, in the end, had led him to David. For a moment he thought
warm hand clutching his belonged to the throwaway boy,
until he looked into Freddie's drawn face.
For once she was
looking at him without any of her attention on the
small lump under her shirt. Her large eyes were sad when they dropped
what for her must have been mostly reflections and silhouettes.
Joe automatically followed her gaze.
to Rouge City with assorted tastes, many that were
unacceptable and even illegal in other places. Children were not
to be harmed, even facsimile children, but almost any other
interests could be fulfilled. Sometimes the most battered Mechas
fetch as good a price as the newest, top-of-the-line models, at
least in the more specialized brothels. Most of the Mechas
well-used; few in Rouge City were abandoned while still functional.
Yet something moved in the pit, shifting
around in the shadows. An
arm scuttled towards them, then stopped. A half-fleshed foot lifted
from a pile of broken
inner components, settling on the edge of the
pit. Then a huge form lifted itself from the center with an electric
screamed shrilly, backing away until she was pressed tight
against Joe, and trying to go farther. Legolas muttered something
an alien, musical language that, while beautiful, sounded somehow
impolite. Even Gandalf gasped, his face gone white.
didn't move, he just watched the monstrous figure pull itself up
on eight long limbs, each one made from the arms and legs
Mechas, the wiring tangled together like viscera, the hands gripping
each other like puzzle pieces. The torso
was cobbled together using
dozens of pieces. Heads, some without lower jaws, some without outer
dermis, some nearly
whole, jutted from the body haphazardly, all with
their eyes aimed at the four companions.
Two of the heads, one
masculine and one feminine, both blonde and
healthy-looking, were attached where a spider's head would be. Their
moved silently and their expressions were blank, utterly
vacant. Pulling itself to its tallest height, almost twice Joe's
the thing took one heavy step towards them, then another.
"Do you like my new pet?" a mocking voice asked out
of the darkness
behind the creature. Coming forward into the dim moonlight, a tall,
slender figure cocked his head in
Gandalf's direction. "There were
some interesting changes, my friend, were there not?"
Joe, Freddie, and Legolas
all turned to see the old wizard's reaction.
It was not encouraging. Gandalf was dumbfounded, shaking his head.
It cannot be. You . . . you were . . ."
"Looks can be deceiving, as they say," the new character chuckled.
should know that better than anyone." Dressed in black clothes
that accentuated his height and pleasing slimness, the dark-haired,
goateed man was handsome for an Orga. The arrogance and
madness in his face detracted from it, however, giving his narrow
the desperate self-centeredness of a sewer rat.
"Who is he?" Legolas asked, bewildered.
"He once served
a wizard known as the Necromancer," Gandalf whispered.
"It was what the Dark Lord called himself before any knew his true
But his servant was destroyed eons ago . . ."
"You thought I was," the man corrected smoothly. "But even then I had
such as you could not even imagine. And I learned from my
master." Leaping lightly into the pit, the sorcerer stroked one
of his creation. "The materials here are much more fun to use than
soft flesh and bone," he laughed. Glancing up
at the mechanical
beast, he smiled indulgently. "Go," he ordered softly.
The creature lunged much faster than such
a clumsy contraption should
have been able to move. Pushing Freddie behind him, Joe retreated in
pace with Legolas.
Gandalf moved more slowly, raising his staff and
releasing waves of light so pure it was impossible.
The thing hesitated
long enough to close its dozens of eyes, then
forged towards them, pulling itself lightly from the pit and looming
his blades with a grace that belied his power, Legolas
slashed at the nearest limb. The keen edge sliced through silicone
but clashed ineffectually against the aluminum skeleton.
Then things got as bad as they could. Calling out with eager
the eight remaining ringwraiths formed a half-circle behind the tiny
group, trapping them within the Mecha-spider's
Was this fear? This knowledge of imminent destruction,
along with the
stubborn refusal to accept? The desire-yes, desire, the thought
actually set off some of his pleasure
centers-to hurt whatever
threatened? All his joints and gyros and hydraulics trying to lock at
once and impede his ability
to deal that hurt?
No, he decided. The self-proclaimed "Lord" Johnson-Johnson was fear,
had Joe recognized it at
the time. This was deep, program-freezing
The wraiths glided closer, herding them towards the grotesque
The Necromancer's acolyte watched from the edge of the Mecha dumping
pit, his face curved into a mad smile that
stole most of its
handsomeness, the glitter in his eyes poisonous.
Gandalf, Legolas, and Joe automatically formed
a protective flank
around Freddie, the unarmed, physically weakest, yet ultimately the
most important among them. The
cobbled-together monster reached for
them with a limb that ended in too many hands. Stumbling, it ruffled
the air inches
from Joe's head and swayed backwards, the eyes on its
central heads rolling.
The sorcerer frowned and raised a hand.
Something invisible yet
palpable flowed between him and his creation. The monstrous Mecha
regained its footing, focusing
on the small group. Only with its two
"See the weakness?" Legolas murmured beside him.
his swords into Joe's hands, the elf drew his bow. "I'm too
slow right now. I'll distract it."
Joe replied with
a sharp nod, hefting the swords. The creature lunged
again; Legolas sent an arrow to embed itself into the body where one
attached. It jerked, then continued reaching. Joe lashed out
with both blades, half severing one hand when it ran into
while trying to avoid the other. The limb pulled back reflexively.
It still had working pain receptors. Good.
wait," Gandalf called. His eyes were on the enemy wizard, and
the Mecha thing, and the wraiths still waiting behind them.
they waiting? Ah, yes, he could hurt them, couldn't he? And if he
could, so possibly could the monster. They
would wait for him to be
incapacitated and the spider called off.
He didn't know what Gandalf wanted him to wait
for, but he obeyed,
using Legolas's blades for defense, making sure he was always between
Freddie and the nearest leg.
limb tipped with two ragged, nearly fleshless hands managed to grasp
Joe's arm, but he severed half a dozen fingers, breaking
Freddie and Legolas both screamed. A low groan escaped Joe. Gandalf,
held by too many arms to fend off,
rose into the air, more than a
dozen hands scrabbling for a better hold on his body while the legs
smoked and crackled
wherever his staff touched.
Joe lurched forward but was stopped by a glare from the wizard. "No!"
the old man snarled.
His beard whipped around him as he was shaken,
but he turned to watch not the monster but its master.
its intent to shake Gandalf to pieces, the Mecha slowed.
The sorcerer raised his hand and Gandalf waved frantically at
"Now!" he barked.
Darting between the thing's front limbs, Joe staggered when a smaller
figure pushed past
him, ducking and dodging a flurry of legs.
"Joe! Do it!" Legolas shouted, his bow humming with
the speed of his
Joe fought his way past the creature's limbs; it was becoming
confused. Struggling with
Gandalf, trying to catch Freddie, fending
off Legolas's arrows, and watching Joe took too much out of its
bow stilled after a double dozen shots. "I'm out!" he warned.
Joe swing both swords, scissoring the blades. The thin
at the abuse, but as the blades fell to his sides during the
down-stroke, two heads thudded at his feet.
Gandalf, the monster began to vibrate, its limbs jerking and
flailing like a wounded spider's. Its creator screamed in
unable to break whatever connection fed the creature its power. The
invisible energy turned a hot red, then flared
Joe tackled Legolas, pushing the elf's head to the ground and curling
over him. Gandalf threw himself
over Joe, raising his staff.
The Mecha beast exploded. Wraith shrieks took on a new note that
could have been called
pain, maybe even alarm, and they fled. Debris
bounced in every direction, propelled by Gandalf's staff. Smoke
around them and melted plastic spattered onto the grass,
hissing where it hit; despite recent rain that left the grass
cold, small fires dotted the ground around them.
Gandalf pushed himself to his feet. Walking to the edge
dumping pit, he used his staff to retrieve the remains of a tall,
wide-brimmed grey hat, muttering darkly about
the scorch marks and
holes while he tucked it back into his gleaming robes.
Scrambling to his knees, Joe freed the
elf. Legolas heaved himself up
more slowly, his arm held tight to his wounded side. He looked at Joe
with sober eyes,
then in the direction Freddie had run.
The three of them picked their way across the pit, following the sound
thick-voiced moans. They edged around burning pieces of Mecha.
Legolas looked sickened. "They were like you, metal man,"
"What kind of people do this? It looks like the work of the Uruk-hai!"
Joe shrugged. "It's the normal fate
of a Mecha that has grown too
Legolas stared at the piles of broken pieces under his feet and shuddered.
reached the far edge of the pit first. Climbing out nimbly,
he stared down at something, trying to look severe. The twinkle
his eyes and twitch at the corners of his mouth ruined the expression.
Joe followed the wizard and was startled
into a grin himself. Freddie
knelt on the sorcerer's shoulders, one elbow planted into the back of
his neck. The man
grimaced in pain, pale and sweating, his hands red
Freddie was in little better shape. The back of
her shirt was
scorched, and blood dripped down her cheek when something burning had
struck, leaving a smear of ashes
around the cut.
"Let him up," Gandalf said.
Freddie glowered but obeyed, rolling to her feet ready to spring
the downed man tried to run.
He didn't run. He rose gracefully and faced Gandalf with his head
You are all going to die."
"What do we do with him?" Freddie asked.
"Leave him. He's no more danger to anybody,"
staring into the dark wizard's face.
The tattered man sneered. Gandalf only leaned on his staff,
him without much interest. Smoothing back his black hair, the
sorcerer turned and walked away, muttering under
his breath. "Fools."
"How did you know that would happen?" Legolas asked after the quartet
had started to move towards
"You know what. How did you know that thing would . . ."
"Overload," Joe supplied.
opened his mouth, but Joe smiled and answered for him.
"Goldberry answered your question before it was asked," he said.
When Industry overtook Nature,' do you remember? Magic and technology
are not compatible." Hearing extended silence
from Gandalf, Joe
lowered his head. "I apologize. I . . ."
Waving a hand, Gandalf cut him off. "You explained that
. . . very
well, my boy."
Joe looked up, answering the wizard's smile with one of his own.
at him, then at Gandalf. Sudden understanding widened
his brilliant eyes and pain darkened them. He took a breath, ready
speak, but Gandalf shook his head firmly. Legolas subsided
uncertainly, but his eyes continued to flicker, and for
the first time
Joe thought there might be fear in the elf's immortally handsome face.
Twenty minutes later, Freddie
growled. "We should have asked the cop
for a ride," she said. "We would have been there already. And we
would have missed
"But then he would still be free, with his powers intact," Joe
"All right. Good
point. It worked out. Just as long as we can find
someplace to take a shower," the girl grunted. She aimed a
glare at Legolas's amused smile. "Yeah, keep laughing,
"I made no sound,"
Legolas answered lightly.
"You wanted to. Admit it, you feel sorry for us poor, mortal human
cocked his head thoughtfully. "Sometimes," he admitted. "But
I need not feel sorry for you, not for that reason."
do you mean?"
"I mean that Aragorn, one of your ancestors, wed an elf. Her name was
asked after a long, surprised silence. She glanced
down at herself. "I don't see . . . wait. What do you mean, her name
Arwen? What happened?"
Now Legolas's smile was sad. "Arwen chose . . . another path, one
that led away from her
"Oh." Freddie walked with her eyes cast down for several steps, then
looked at the elf, searching his face
intently. "Did that path make
"Yes. Yes, I think it did," Legolas answered.
"That's . . . that's
A few minutes later, Joe broke the heavy silence, raising an arm to
point. "We're here," he said.
the last row of houses and coming over a small hill, the group
paused to survey the ocean of lurid neon lights and outlandish
that was Rouge City's business center.
Legolas was tense as they walked onto Rouge City's central
which was littered with lurid neon signs and more-than-suggestive
light sculptures, more tense than he'd been
in any situation they had
encountered so far. "This is unnatural," he growled. "Nobody was
meant to live like this.
No trees or water in sight, not grasslands
or mountains . . . even the sky is hidden."
His comments drew three different
looks from his three companions;
mute incomprehension from Joe, who had little experience outside of a
city, and none
besides the tiny glimpse granted by Goldberry that
would inspire him to seek out the wilds, understanding and empathy
Gandalf, who had shared Legolas's world, and a vague sympathy
from Freddie, who had been born and raised in cities but
who seemed to
share the common Orga thirst for surrounding greenstuffs.
"We need to find a place to rest," Gandalf
said, "where there is no
chance of being over heard."
"A hotel room," Freddie answered firmly. "With a shower."
frowned thoughtfully and eyed Joe. "You've spent a lot of time around
here. Know any places where we'll be inconspicuous?"
surveyed his companions and broke into a sudden grin. "In Rouge
City, the harder task would be to find a place where we
would be of
any particular note. But I believe I know the perfect location."
The motel was small but not seedy,
clean and pleasant, priced low
enough for those seeking an hour's entertainment yet cozy enough to
attract some looking
for a less garish, longer-term stay.
Freddie headed directly to the shower, dumping her pack and cloak on
bed. Joe watched her start to slip the delicate
silver chain over her head and stop with a pinched look about her eyes
Joe had seen on the faces of his human counterparts, and
sometimes customers, usually mixed with the marks of needles on
areas of their bodies. Shoulders slumping, Freddie let go of
the chain. Avoiding everyone's eyes, she scuttled into the
Gandalf didn't look happy but he mostly ignored it, directing Legolas
to sit on the bed and let him examine
the stab wound Joe had dealt.
The elf complied without bothering to protest; he obviously knew better.
but not as bad as it could be," Gandalf pronounced after
examining the slash, prodding gently around the bruised flesh.
should rest while you can."
"So what's next?" Freddie asked from the bathroom door.
The three men turned
to face her, and Joe frowned. Her clean face
only served to emphasize her pale, drawn features and her darkly
red-rimmed eyes. The graze on her cheek stood out like
neon, raw and bruised with soot embedded in the scrape, matching
tendrils of dark influence than writhed from the ring, throbbing
around her like a sick corona.
to find the last dragon," Gandalf answered her solemnly.
"Good. And how are we to do this?" Legolas asked, a trace
winding its way into the elf's pleasant tone.
"She is sleeping, near a place called Manhattan."
do you know this?"
"There are a few of us left in this world," the wizard answered, his
gaze drifting to the window.
"Bare few, but like Goldberry, they
"Manhattan?" Joe repeated.
Freddie gave him a sympathetic
look, biting her lower lip. "You'll be
okay, Joe?" she murmured, her voice rising in a question, and he
she was showing concern for his feelings.
"Of course," he answered her with one of his high-voltage smiles, but
didn't look convinced.
Legolas slipped past them into the bathroom. For several minutes, the
only sound was the
shower, then silence when the elf emerged, his damp
locks in their usual perfect order.
Joe gave himself a quick,
cursory inspection, cleaning the worst
smears of dirt from his face and finger-combing his hair into
its usual gelled perfection. There was nothing he
could do for the tears and tatters in his clothes; they were simply
made for the kind of abuse he had subjected them to. But there
were no customers to impress and he doubted his appearance
Freddie walked to the small window, her black-circled eyes scanning
the street. "Let's
go," she said abruptly. "They're here."
Gandalf and Legolas exchanged looks and moved to the window, leaing on
side of her to follow her gaze.
The street was dark and oddly empty. Even a small corner of Rouge
City such as this
was a gathering place for the vice-ridden and the
simply curious. "Something is not right," Joe agreed.
they don't think to check the airport," Freddie grunted
tiredly, wriggling into her pack.
Joe's processors buzzed.
"The airport is on the other side of the city."
Freddie paused to throw him a half-smile he couldn't read. "Nervous?"
asked. "Good. We'll need to keep our eyes open."
"Indeed," Gandalf murmured.
Leaving the room card on the table
rather than taking the time to
leave it at the desk, the quartet of travelers left the hotel through
the back door.
Freddie suggested that they remove the elf-made
cloaks, but Joe waved off her concerns. If they were too conspicuous,
told her, it would be because they looked too average.
He was almost right. The city was emptier than he had ever seen
The Orgas that did wander the streets were edgy, quickly seeking
shelter with whatever brand of Mecha ran to their
It was even more apparent that business was desperately slow when they
were able to stop the first taxi they
hailed. The Mecha driver,
plainer than Joe but with an open, friendly face designed to inspire
immediate trust, gave
Joe a cool examination when Freddie told him
"I am not a rogue or a runaway," Joe assured him.
"I belong to these
The driver accepted his statement. Freddie turned in her seat beside
stare at Joe.
It was only then that Joe realized; he had lied. Supposedly an
impossibility for a Mecha, and something
he had never before
attempted. He glanced at Gandalf over Legolas's oblivious head. The
old man gave him a slow wink,
and Joe suddenly suspected that the
wizard knew more about things than he was willing to reveal.
so did Sauron. They were almost to the airport when
the car turned a corner. If the driver had been Orga, they would have
the blockade. The driver stopped, his face hard and blank. He
must have been through a violent mugging; the usual Mecha
would have been mild confusion.
Four more motorcycles growled behind them, joining the four in front.
about this," Freddie said to the driver. "I hope they let you
go when we get out."
Now the driver looked confused,
especially when his other three fares
left the car and the motorcycles immediately moved to surround the
watched the taxi leave with dull eyes. "I hope he
doesn't call for help," she murmured. "I don't want anyone else to
"Let's end this quickly," Legolas said, his face grim. Joe moved up a
pace to stand at the elf's shoulder,
facing the opposite direction.
Freddie stayed a few steps back, her eyes black with frustration, the
winding tighter around her.
The Nazgúl dismounted from their motorcycles, their eight swords
drawn. The stoutest
of them stayed half a step ahead of the rest,
surveying their prey.
They wouldn't get out of this one, Joe was certain.
The enemy was
more prepared, and knew what he could do. And there were eight of the
creatures, surrounding them on a
flat patch of road that gave all the
advantage to greater numbers. It didn't require a Mecha's high-speed
to analyze the mathematics.
Eight swords were leveled at them, and with a small sign from the
leader, the black-cloaked riders
charged. Joe, Legolas, and Gandalf
parried the blows, keeping Freddie in a protective semi-circle.
staff deflected the blades as though it were made of
the heaviest stone. Legolas and Joe, both much faster than the
methodical Nazgْl, warded off any attack within reach, but
Joe knew it couldn't last. Wizard and Elf or no, Gandalf
were Orga, and would tire. And Joe would never be able to hold off
all eight. His strength and reflexes
were already being tested more
rigorously than the most intense of his trials ever had.
The riders' numbers were
already beginning to tell. Three to eight,
with the three trying to protect an unarmed fourth, would eventually
It was pure luck when Joe turned to block one blow and saw another
coming from the corner of his eye.
Following through with his
original swing, he brought his shorter sword down in a powerful swipe,
slicing through his
attacker's arm just above the wrist.
The Nazgْl flinched back with a hoarse shriek like metal against
metal. A scrap of threadbare black fluttered to the ground,
following an empty gauntlet that still clutched a wicked sword.
softly, Freddie darted in between Joe and Gandalf, snatching
the fallen blade. Face tightening, Joe crowded her, forcing
"Stay behind me!" he barked. "Keep out of reach!"
Her face flushed angrily, but Joe didn't give her a
chance to disobey
out of a misplaced desire to prove herself, or worse, the ring's
desire to be captured. It did ease
some of their burden now that she
had a means of defense, but as the only true human, or nearest human,
she lacked the speed and strength of her companions.
Legolas seemed unhampered by his wound, but there was a growing
stain on his side. Then, for the first time ever, Joe saw the elf
stumble under a double onslaught. The Mecha sprang
to protect his
companion, leaving a space open between him and Gandalf.
Three riders swarmed to take advantage of
the momentary lapse.
Freddie was surrounded. She was doing an acceptable job of repelling
her opponents, but they were
trying to circle behind and cut her
completely off from her friends. She took a precious moment to
analyze the situation,
reached under her shirt, and yanked the chain
over her head. Her face twisted and tortured, she tossed it. "Joe!"
Joe snatched at the ring. The point of a sword raked his wrist,
slicking through about half the tactile
sensors and setting off an
intense pain response in the rest. His hand clenched automatically,
almost making him miss
the ring. Instead of being caught in his palm,
it slipped onto his littlest finger.
A roar filled his ears and the
world around him consisted of muffled
shadows. Except for the riders. They were no longer clack, amorphous
Faces he knew. He stared into the nearest, lead, Nazgْl's shrunken,
skeletal face, his processors
running fast and hot.
Even without the lines of hard living on the road and the weight of a
cheap, fat-laden diet,
the man-former man-was still recognizable. How
had "Lord" Johnson-Johnson come to this fate?
The eyes that looked
at him flickered, recognition dawning. There was
no life in his face, but there was desperation, terror, and pain.
such as Joe had never seen, not in the loneliest, most abused of
his customers, not in the lowest drug-riddled waif of
counterparts. The Nazgْl stared into his face, the heavy sword lifted
in hands that trembled slightly.
He lifted it higher, over his head
for a killing strike, but his empty eyes begged.
Joe's lips thinned. No one deserved
this. Lifting his own blade, he
Gratitude flared in Johnson-Johnson's face just before his head parted
Joe pulled the ring from his hand, bringing himself back to light and
color. He watched an empty cloak
drift to the ground at his feet.
When he looked up, it was over. Four more cloaks fluttered in the
at an accelerated rate. Freddie panted over him, the
cut on her cheek weeping blood, streaking her grimy, grey face
Her teeth were bared with a ferocity he hadn't expected from
her, and Legolas and Gandalf watched her with raised eyebrows.
of them went for you," Legolas told Joe. "She took them both.
The last three left."
"Give her back the ring," Gandalf
suggested. The old man's voice was
calm, but it held a warning at the edges.
Joe held it out to Freddie. She stayed
still, fighting some dark
impulse within. After a few moments, she slowly retrieved it. She
didn't snatch it, or strike
out at him, or hurt him in any way, but
she cradled the ring to her, stroking its smooth, cold surface. Joe's
the movement; for an instant, he wanted to take it back.
He could do much with such power. He could find David, and either
the little Mecha on his quest, or simply take him away . . .
When he forced his gaze away, Gandalf was watching him.
"We go to
Manhattan," the wizard said.
"Manhattan," Joe agreed.
A short plane ride brought them within a
mile of the ocean. After
their journey, it was an easy walk to the shore. They stood, toes to
the tide, and pondered
their next step.
Freddie stared across the water. "Now what?" she asked, rubbing at
her neck where it was red and
"Now we find a way to reach Manhattan," Gandalf answered, his voice
serene despite the slight worry that
weighted his expression.
Picking up a rock, Freddie threw it as hard as she could, watching it
splash into the waves.
"Why me, anyway? I am hardly the best person
for this. I'm short, I"m weak, I'm useless . . ."
"You are not useless,"
Gandalf snapped. "And weak doesn't belong in
"Legolas would be better. Or Joe! They're both . .
The elf was shaking his head silently, still facing out to sea, and
Gandalf raised a hand to still her outburst.
"The ring would not
accept them as it has you. It would take them within hours, as it
"It almost did,"
Joe reminded her quietly.
"What do you mean, it wouldn't accept them? Why would it accept me?
Fate?" The girl sneered.
have an advantage over all of us. Call yourself a catalyst that
links magic and modern life. It recognizes you. Call it
fate, if you
will. You were born to this. You may not be a direct descendant, but
the Baggins line is a strong one.
You are the last living relative of
the Ringbearer, and of the Fellowship."
"Seven bloodlines out of nine," Legolas
murmured. "No one else could
"And just let me guess, you and Gandalf are the final two. I've read
fairy tales, I know how these things work."
Gandalf smiled. "`These things' rarely work as expected, but yes, we
head drooping on her shoulders, Freddie almost laughed, but the
tiny sound she made was savage. "I guess it's good to know
family has a history. A lot of history, from what you've said."
Taking the ring out, she glared at it. "Why
can't we finish it now?"
Yanking it off, she held it dangling over the water. Even now, when
it should have sparkled
innocently, vulnerable on the end of a slender
chain held in a shaking hand, there was an air of evil around it. Its
aura was twisted into Freddie Baggin's so tightly that Joe
doubted it could ever really let go. "Let the fish take it,"
said, with desperate longing but no conviction.
"No," Gandalf said.
"Why not?" Pulling her arm back,
ready to throw it, she looked
defiantly at the wizard. "Why can't I get rid of it?" Joe could hear
both meanings behind
the plaintive question, knowing there was no way
for him to erase the angry tears that brightened her eyes like false
"I hate it!!"
Reaching out, Gandalf folded his long fingers over her straining hand,
gently easing her arm forward.
"Hold onto that hate. You will need it."
For a moment it looked like Freddie would fight, then she relaxed.
so out of control," she muttered in a calmer tone.
"It's like the whole world is using me."
Joe slid an arm around
her shoulders, giving her a soft squeeze.
Freddie glanced up at him with a wince. "I think I know why Gandalf
you to come with us," she said.
Joe didn't answer, just squeezed tighter and let go. Freddie leaned
him for a few seconds, then tucked the ring back in its
usual place. She looked thoughtfully out at the ocean. "Too bad
aren't any commercial flights to Manhattan. Though I suppose
there isn't enough left of it. Joe, is there anywhere near
"Perhaps. The main highway isn't far from here," he answered.
"However, our destination
lays several miles from shore. Is there any
of us who has the expertise to pilot such a craft that distance?"
cleared his throat. When he had their attention, he nodded to
the inert figure beside him.
Legolas was still staring
at the water, his eyes dreamy. Freddie
raised her eyebrows. "Is he all right? He looks like he's on drugs."
lips twitched. "Elves have a racial-deep love for the ocean
that boarders, and sometimes crosses past, obsession."
leads home," Legolas explained, his voice almost drowsy.
"A boat, then," Joe said with a smile that was softer than
Their journey was shorter than expected, and surprisingly obstacle
free. At the edge of
a small dirt road, they came to a slightly
run-down marina aimed at deep-sea fishermen. The middle-aged man who
it beamed when Freddie inquired about rentals. "Perfect day for
it," he commented.
"Indeed," Gandalf returned, his
eyes on the horizon.
To Be Continued...