Cybermancy

If it looks too easy, it probably is. The sequel to WebMage sends Ravirn and Melchior on a mission to Hell and back to rescue Cerice’s familiar and her dissertation. CyberMancy also sees Ravirn learning what it means to be the Raven and coping with his new status among the descendants of the Titan’s as he interacts with old “friends” like the Furies and meets new ones like Hades and Persephone

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Cybermancy: Book #2 of the WebMage Story, an Excerpt

#Chapter 1#

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? The eyes of Cerberus glared down at me, six balls of black fire. There was no dog older or more dangerous. But here I was standing practically in his mouths, trick in hand.

“Oh, get on with it,” growled the right head, the one called Mort, a mastiff. “We haven’t got all night.”

Almost against my will, I looked over Cerberus’s shoulder. The river Styx lay behind him, and beyond it the gate to Hades, land of the dead and present residence of a webgoblin by the name of Shara. My lover’s computer-familiar, Shara was the child of her magic, and a dear friend of mine. Her current address would have been hard enough to bear if it weren’t my fault she’d ended up on the wrong side of the river. Knowing I was responsible for her death…

Thoughts for another time. I flipped my last card over, the six of spades. Not much of a card, but enough to take the trick and fulfill our contract.

“Read it and weep!” said the middle head. A rottweiler named Dave.

He was my normal partner, if you could call anything about playing bridge with the three-headed dog of the underworld normal. They had to do an elaborate dance that involved a lot of closing of eyes and some sort of special deal with the central intelligence that ran the body and connected the heads in order to even make the game possible. But as far I could tell, none of them were cheating and they all seemed to enjoy it.

“I believe that’s three hands in a row,” chortled Dave.

Bob, the Doberman third head, gave me a gimlet look. “I wish you’d never taught us this game, little Raven.”

I looked away to hide my expression. I don’t much like being called Raven and it isn’t the name I was born with. That’s Ravirn, which I still insist on for daily wear. Unfortunately, I’d had a little disagreement with my family’s matriarchs, better know as the Fates. Yes, the crones who measure out the destiny of every living being like threads for a tapestry are my own flesh and blood. I’m thrilled. As a result of our little spat, the name I think of as my real one got taken away.

It could have been worse certainly. My great-aunt Atropos is the Fate who wields the shears, and she would have preferred to take my birthday away, or at least make sure I didn’t have any more of them. My umpteen-times-great-grandmother, Lachesis, the lady who measures the threads, initially agreed with her.

Only the intervention of Necessity, the one goddess even the Fates fear, kept me alive. Robbed of the opportunity to remove me from the land of the living, Lachesis cast me out of the family of Fate and revoked my name. Then, for reasons I still don’t understand, Clotho, the spinner, broke with her sister Fates, declared me a legitimate force for chaos and gave me a new name, Raven.

It’s better than not owning a name at all, but it feels wrong every time I hear it, a bitter reminder of my outcast status, and I’d prefer not to think about it. That attitude has caused considerable friction with Cerice, my lady fair and a child of Clotho’s House. She insists I’m foolishly ignoring the power of names.

Perhaps she’s right, but remembering that day and its aftermath still burns my heart. Yes, I took the side of Eris against the houses of Fate. Yes, the Goddess of Discord is my family’s oldest and bitterest enemy. But it was that or let Atropos turn every thinking being in all of the infinite worlds of existence into a gaggle of marionettes dancing to Fate’s every whim. For the crime of choosing free will over slavish destiny I’d been banished and stripped of my identity. All of which meant that Bob’s little dig bit deep.

“That was uncalled for,” said Dave, taking my side. “I didn’t hear you complaining last week when you and Mort took three rubbers in a row.”

“I’m sorry, Ravirn,” said Bob.

“It’s all right,” I answered.

It wasn’t really, but I let it slide. I liked Cerberus far more than I did many of my closer cousins. Why did all of my problems have to involve family ties? The whole giant inbred Greek pantheon was a divine mess. Cerberus might be a distant enough cousin that friendship was more important to our relationship than blood, but the damned blood was still there. That mix of loyalties would make what I had to do to him in the coming days both harder and easier.

“Hurry up and deal,” said Mort, jolting me back into the moment.

He had a calculating expression on his face, and I couldn’t help worrying that my look over the Styx had given too much away. But nothing seemed to come of it. An hour and a bit later it had gotten very late or started to get early, depending on how you looked at it. Part of the reason Cerberus and I get along is that we’re both night people, me because I sleep deepest between four a.m. and noon, him because he’s a raving insomniac. Anyway, it was time to pack it in. The last game had been mine and Dave’s but we’d lost the evening. Bob and Mort were quite pleased with themselves—himself? I was never quite sure how to think of the three of them: as Mort, Dave, and Bob, my buddies? Or as Cerberus, dread guardian of the underworld?

Thoughts for another late night, I guess. I packed up the cards as Mort and Bob good-naturedly ribbed their fellow head. I was just getting ready to drop the deck into my shoulder bag when all three suddenly stopped what they were doing and turned to look at me as one. I froze. Something about their collective expression made me shrink inwardly.

“Ravirn,” said Dave, “we like you.”

I nodded, forcing myself to smile. I could hear the “but” he didn’t voice.

“You’re a good friend,” said Mort.

For a moment I was transported back to my first crush. It ended as such things all too often do, with the dreaded “friends” speech. The thought almost made me giggle. I liked the hound of hell too, just not that way.

“Don’t think that makes us blind,” said Bob.

I realized then that they were doing the scary three-mouths-speaking-as-one thing the Furies do when they are about to pronounce judgment, and any thought of laughter died. This was Cerberus, not my canine friends.

“I didn’t think it would,” I managed to say through a mouth gone terribly dry.

“Good!” said all three in perfect unison, their voices as solemn and final as the closing of a sepulcher. “We must oppose any who dare the underworld gate, no matter who they are, or how we feel about them. None may pass within save through death or the will of Hades, and for the dead the passage is one way.”

“Ah, how exactly would this relate to me?” I asked, though I thought I knew.

“Cerberus has spoken.” The three heads nodded.

“Guys…I’m really not sure I get where you’re going with this,” I said.

“We don’t get a lot of company,” said the left head, reverting once more to my buddy, Bob.

“Nobody comes here for fun,” said Mort.

“Are you questioning my card playing motives?” I assumed my best hurt-innocence expression. “I know we didn’t start off on the best foot, but I thought that was all in the past.”

If I hadn’t done some fast talking when I tried to make that initial contact, I’d have ended up as doggie chow. Fortunately, on my second and subsequent visits the trio had proved much more friendly. That made this sudden shift in canine attitude all the more surprising.

“Don’t be an idiot,” said Dave, “and don’t take us for fools.”

“Orpheus was the last to come and go unsanctioned and unscathed,” said Bob.

Another demigod cousin of mine, Orpheus had played a tune of such beauty and wonder that it put Cerberus into a deep sleep, allowing the musician to pass into the underworld and retrieve his beloved bride, Euridice. It was a great triumph but short lived, since Apollo had cut his head off and made it into an oracle not long after.

“He wasn’t the last to try,” said Mort. “There have been others.”

“Many passed the gate alive,” said Dave. “In is easy. Out is the problem. None of them made it back, though there have been thousands.”

“Tens of thousands,” said Bob. “They failed and they died. Their names are forgotten.”

“Except by us,” said Mort. “We do not forget.” He looked sad but determined. With a move so fast I barely saw it, his head darted forward and he caught the slab of basalt we’d been using as a table in his massive jaws.

“Don’t make us turn you into a memory,” said Bob. While he spoke, Mort’s jaws began to close, crushing the stone as a lesser dog might a rotten bone. “We’d hate to have to kill you.”

The noise was terrible, but I had no trouble hearing Dave’s voice. “But we would kill you. Never doubt it. You’re no Orpheus.” He pronounced the name with a heavy emphasis that rang oddly.

“Of course not,” I replied. “I couldn’t play a lyre to save my life, and my singing voice is only good for attracting harpies.”

Mort made a last effort and the rock burst completely asunder, showering me with shards and dust. “Let whoever it is you lost go, Ravirn.”

Without another word, Cerberus swung his giant bulldog’s body around and stalked back toward the river and the cave Hades had dug for his kennel. I wiped sweat from my face and let out a little sigh of relief.

A faint “bing” came from my shoulder bag as Cerberus passed out of sight. I unzipped it and dropped the cards inside, reaching down to retrieve the bright blue clamshell of my laptop with the same movement. Setting it on a rock, I flipped the lid up.

Large red letters read, That went well! A small goblin-head logo below and to the left of the screen was sadly shaking itself back and forth, an unmistakable sarcastic “not.”

“On the contrary, Mel. For the first time in ages and despite everything, I think this all might just work out.”

The laptop made a rude noise. Melchior is not what you’d call the most reverent of creatures in either of his forms, laptop or webgoblin. When I’d first programmed the spell that gave my familiar life, I’d put in a subroutine designed to provide a touch of sarcasm and backtalk. He’d long since exceeded his specs.

I’m never quite sure how to feel about that. Mixing magic with computer code has changed the way my family works at every level, merging hacker with sorcerer, and forever scrambling the logical and the irrational into one big WYSIWYG mess. I’m sometimes tempted to agree with the traditionalists in the pantheon that all this new-fangled computer stuff is a royal pain. Then I actually have to perform a spell, and I’m reminded just how much less dangerous magic has become since the advent of the mweb and the birth of digital sorcery.

I typed, Run Melchior. Please. There was a time when I’d issued actual commands to my computer the way most people did. Sometimes I missed it. He could be a nasty and stubborn little piece of hardware.

The red letters returned. Fat chance. The logo raised a skeptical eyebrow. I’m not getting anywhere near Rover.

I sighed. Hades, as part of the whole original Olympus-home-of-the-gods milieu, was located in the basement of the central structure of reality. My next destination had a less ritzy address and getting there required temporarily converting my flesh-and-blood analog body into a string of ones and zeroes and electronically transmitting it from point a to point b.

That meant running a spell. Melchior, I typed. Mtp://mweb.DecLocus.prime.minus0208/harvard.edu~theyard. Please.

Executing. Connecting to prime.minus0208. A brief pause followed. Connected. Initiating Gate procedure.

The eyes and mouth of the logo opened and bright laser-like beams shot forth, one blue, one green, one red. Together they stitched a hexagonal pattern of light on the ground. A green glow began to climb upward in the area above the hexagon as though the edges of the diagram delineated the walls of an invisible glass eight feet in height. I eyed it a little more warily than I once would have.

The digital me would make the trip via the mweb, the magical computer network that tied all of the infinite worlds of possibility into one gigantic matrix. When I was a boy, I’d been led to believe the Fates had created the system, but I’d since learned that wasn’t quite true. Necessity, the shadowy and enormously powerful entity sometimes called the Fate of the Gods, was responsible for spinning the mweb from the primal chaos, though she left its day-to-day administration to my grandmother and her sisters.

In another context, that firm hand on the reins might have provided a certain amount of reassurance to a traveler about to embark on a little jaunt between the worlds. Unfortunately, I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that Fate hates me. So all the hazards inherent to mweb-based travel go double for me.

Just like the various human sorts of network, the mweb experiences the occasional hiccup. But what’s merely frustrating when the error involves an email going astray becomes infinitely worse when it happens in the few brief moments while a person exists as nothing more than a very fragile string of ones and zeroes traveling between gates. I’d lost relatives that way. Still, I suppose it beats walking.

I stepped into the column of light.

Gating, said the words on Melchior’s screen.

The stone-dotted shores of the Styx wavered before my eyes as the gate transformed me into one more electronic signal in a sea of data. For an infinite instant I could almost feel myself streaming down the channel between worlds, the pressure of chaos all around me, my laptop familiar a dim presence at my nonexistent side. Then, as abruptly as it had opened, the gate closed, returning us to the world of the physical.

We arrived in a cold and moonlit elsewhere, Harvard Yard in another layer of reality, one where winter held sway. Our point of entry, a secluded corner between Stoughton Hall and the Phillips Brooks House, was further shielded from view by the bulk of a tree. Since I’d been excommunicated from my family and dropped out of college, I’d been living in a nearby apartment with my girlfriend.

Cerice, another of the Greek pantheon’s demi-immortal children was technically something like a forty-third cousin, but the relationship bore little resemblance to the human one of the same name. She was finishing up a doctorate in C-Sci at the Harvard Center for Experimental Computing before going to work as a coder for Clotho, her family matriarch. I could have gated directly back to our apartment, but I wanted to walk a bit and I wanted to see Cerice. As anyone who’s ever lived with a Ph.D. science candidate in her last year of research knows, she would be found in the lab and not at home, even so very late on Thursday night.

Run Melchior. Please, I typed into the laptop for a second time.

Executing in 5, 4…

I set the computer on the ground as the countdown ended. The screen, suddenly as pliable as a sheet of latex, bulged forward as though someone—or perhaps something would be more apt—had pressed its face against it from the far side. Sharp ears and a sharper nose shaped themselves into being as my familiar shifted from laptop to webgoblin. The back of the screen formed into the round dome of his bald blue head. The lower half of the clamshell frame became a miniature torso with arms and legs ending in clever hands and tiny feet.

He stretched and grinned. “Better. I was starting to get a little stiff.”

“It’s your own fault for insisting on playing laptop whenever we visit Cerberus.”

“Given the choice,” said Melchior, “I wouldn’t get within a hundred decision loci of the security firm, Fido, Fido, and Rover. At least in laptop shape I don’t look quite so edible.” He cocked his head to one side. “Speaking of shapes, yours could use a little work.”

“Chaos and Discord!” I swore, though the oath no longer held the outrage it once had. I tended to think of the goddesses in question as the loyal opposition these days rather than the monsters I’d been raised to see. “Since I quit bothering with the wardrobe change, I keep forgetting to fix my face.”

I whistled a half-dozen bars of binary code, initiating a process of transformation. Melchior nodded his approval as the vertical slits of my green eyes became human-like circles and my slightly pointed ears rounded themselves. I left my long black hair, fine bone structure and dead white skin—I could always pretend I was a goth.

“Better?” I asked.

He shook his head sadly. “What would you do without me?”

“Get a moment’s peace?” I responded sourly.

“I don’t think so,” replied Melchior. “Not with that sword attracting the attention of every cop within a thousand yards.”

“Oops.” I blushed.

In former times, whenever I visited with family—cousin Cerberus for example—I’d always made sure to follow the protocols laid down by my grandmother, Lachesis, and worn my natural face along with the proper court garb in my black and green colors: tights, doublet, boots and, of course, rapier and dagger. Now that I was apostate, I didn’t bother with the fancy clothes, preferring the protection and comfort of my Kevlar-lined motorcycle jacket, emerald Jack-of-lost-souls tee-shirt, and black jeans. The boots I kept. Likewise the blades. They still seemed prudent, as did my .45 automatic. It wouldn’t do much good if Cerberus decided I looked bite-size, but I had other enemies.

I undid the sheaths on my belt and handed them to Melchior, though I retained my pistol. The low-profile shoulder holster barely made a bulge under my leathers. He whistled a complicated binary passage that would have taken me an hour to perform on top of three days of practice and who-knows-how-much coding time, did something creative with the local fabric of space-time, and made the weapons disappear.

And that is why I thank the Powers and Incarnations that I was born into modern times, when a hacker-cum-sorcerer like myself doesn’t need to do all of his coding on a dumb-terminal, or worse, perform actual wild magic with all its inherent dangers and limitations. All magic taps chaos for its power, but the advent of the mweb with its carefully regulated energy flows has made the process much safer.

“Let’s go find Cerice and tell her what happened,” I said. She wasn’t going to be happy, but then, with her thesis defense scheduled in seven weeks, how would that be any different from her base state? Lately she’d been so stressed, I half expected her to start bleeding from the ears.

“It’s your neck,” said Melchior, perhaps divining the direction of my thoughts. “Kneel down, would you?”

I knelt and he scrambled up onto my shoulder, where another whistled spell made him fade into his surroundings. It wasn’t quite invisibility, but anyone who saw him probably wouldn’t believe it anyway. Webgoblins didn’t exist. For that matter—a thought to remember when next I forgot to alter my appearance—neither did ex-princes of the middle house of Fate.

It was very late and the night cold was really gnawing at my joints, especially the old injuries in my right knee so I hurried. We had just reached the steps of Cerice’s lab building when a tiny blue hexagon of light appeared on the concrete railing.

“Now what?” I muttered.

There were any number of folks who might gate in on me unannounced, most of them with ill intent, but none of them were six inches tall. Because of that I waited to see what happened next rather than doing anything drastic. A moment later, a tiny naked woman popped into existence atop the pitted concrete. She had waist-length black hair, dragonfly wings, and—as I’d discovered the first time I met her—a thoroughly nasty disposition. A webpixie and sometime PDA, her name was Kira.

“There yer are,” she snarled as soon as she spotted me. She did a lot of snarling.

“And a lovely good-morning to you too, Kira.”

“Ar, go on with yer,” she said. “What’s the likes o’ yer care about formalities from the likes o’ me?”

“Can I eat her?” asked Melchior, hopefully.

“Just yer try it!” said Kira. “I’ll tear yer eyes out and feed ’em to yer.”

“Somehow, Mel, I think she’d stick in your throat. What do you want, Kira?” She might be a royal pain, but I owed her a favor or two.

“What makes yer think I want summat?” I just looked at her. “Ar, all right. So maybe I’m in a bit o’ need and I thought I could touch yer fer help.”

She did look rather bedraggled, exhibiting a few rips in her wings and a certain air of poverty. “Go on.”

“It’s been forever and a day since I’ve had a bit of an upgrade, and I figured yer was the one ought to set things to rights, seein’ as it’s yer fault I’m out o’ work.”

True enough on one level. She’d once been the property of my cousin Dairn, who had very different views on the rights of the AI, which might have something to do with both her disposition and grammar, and I had been responsible for their parting. At the time she’d thanked me.

“What do you need?” I asked. She looked at her feet. “Come on, I’m kind of in a hurry. Besides, this isn’t exactly a private forum.” Only the lateness of the hour and the emptiness of the streets had kept our conversation from attracting attention already, and I really didn’t want to have explain Kira to any passersby.

“Well, it’s been near two years since I came online and my RAM is sorely inadequate by today’s standards. Also, I don’t have any o’ them fancy cell phone doo-dads, and I’ll need one. Voice Over Mweb Protocol enabled o’ course.”

“Anything else?” This was clearly going to take work.

“I don’t know. I’m about three OS upgrades behind the curve, and I haven’t exactly been keepin’ up with the trade magazines. What would yer suggest?”

“I could suggest that you go jump…” She looked heartbroken. I sighed, then smiled a yes. For some reason, I can’t resist a damsel in distress, even if she’s only six inches tall and has the manners of a moth-eaten weasel. Besides, I’d just had an idea. I put out my hand, palm up. “Hop aboard and we’ll talk. Melchior, would you get the door?”

He rolled his eyes but whistled a spell of unlocking—nobody in his right mind would give an old hacker like me the keys to Harvard’s crown jewels of computing—then held the door. I decided to wait on seeing Cerice until I’d found out whether I could manage the upgrade I had in mind. So I had Mel open up the small computer repair shop just down the hall from her lab. I did a quick inventory and decided they had about half of what I needed on hand.

“The software will be easy enough. So will the RAM. But the rest? Your microphone is totally inadequate, so that’ll have to go. You haven’t got an audio-out jack, and I can’t imagine where I’d put an antenna.”

“Are yer trying to slither out on me?” she demanded.

“No, just thinking aloud. I wish this could wait until after I get back from—”

She cut me off. “No chance. I know yer too well fer that,” she said. “Yer errands tend to the hazardous. How am I supposed to get fixed with yer dead and gone?”

“See,” said Melchior, “even the great unwashed can tell you’re not long for this world.” He looked her up and down. “Well, unwashed at any rate.”

“Why is everyone convinced I’m going to get myself killed?” I asked. The look of scorn and disbelief on the two small faces was identical. “Right. Mel, why don’t you make yourself useful? I need you to run to the electronics store and find me the highest capacity flash memory device you can find. Oh, and a couple of really nice cell phones.”

“I could still eat her,” he replied. “It’d probably be easier.”

“Go.” He went. I turned back to Kira and gave her a visual once over. She put her hands on her tiny hips and glared back at me. It was quite disconcerting. “Do you want help or not?” She held my gaze a moment longer, then nodded, almost meekly.

“Right. Then you, Handheld. Execute, please.”

For a moment I thought she was going to argue, but all she said was, “Executing,” in the strange, almost timbreless voice the various AIs used when running commands.

With that, the webpixie was gone. In her place lay a small translucent-green handheld computer. There were scuffs on her cover, and the top left corner of her case was badly cracked, but she was still a fine little piece of hardware—state of the art in her day. I started removing screws. After a time, Melchior returned with the gear. I mumbled a quick thank you, then got back to work.

I removed the cracked bit of casing and used the resultant hole to mount her new antenna and a headset jack. Inelegant but functional, and a little bit of liquid latex helped with the looks. In addition to the bits I’d asked for, Melchior had turned up one of the new ultra-miniature hard drives.

When he handed that over, I looked a question at him. He pointed at Kira and tapped his ear inquiringly.

“Fully shut down,” I answered. “Can’t hear a thing.”

“She’ll need that if she’s going to get into MP3s.” I raised an eyebrow. “I figured that was what you wanted the flash memory for. This is a better storage solution. Individually MP3s may not take much memory, but they do add up and…” I kept my eyebrow up. “All right. She’s about as much fun as a sandburr in your shorts, but she’s got enough attitude for a whole herd of webtroll servers. She’s fragile and obsolete, but she’s not going to let anyone push her around. She’s got this whole free will thing nailed. Since I’m still working on it, I admire that.””I just hope I haven’t scrambled her brains completely with this rush job,” I replied.

Two hours after I’d started the project, it was time to find out. With a quick jab of my smallest screwdriver I initiated a hard reboot. Several long seconds passed with the only sound a faint whir from her new hard drive. Then her little speaker let out a rude Bronx cheer.

“If her start-up sound is any indicator,” said Melchior, “she’s well on her way to normal.”

When she shifted into webpixie shape, she confirmed that. “A bloody butcher yer are,” she growled, “lopping a great huge chunk of my casing off like that. And with no anesthetic, I might add. Ar!” She took wing and shot out the door into the hallway.

“Not even a ‘thank yer,'” said Melchior. “Typical.”

But before I could get out of my chair Kira had returned, hovering a few inches in front of my nose.

“Thanks, yer great booby.” She flitted down to Melchior. “Yer too, blue boy. I know that hard drive weren’t his lordship’s idea.” She jerked a thumb at me. “That’s pure fellow webcritter thoughtfulness that is.” She grinned impishly. “It’s too bad yer such a monstrous huge fellow, or I might show you my gratitude in a manner a bit more personal, if yer catch my drift.” Melchior blushed a deep indigo. “Ar well, different ports for different connectors and all that. But if yer ever have the urge, remember this.” She zipped up close to his ear and let out a burst of binary far too fast for my ears to decode.

Melchior was still looking stunned when she opened a tiny gate in the substance of reality and vanished.

“What was that last?” I asked.

“She gave me her new cell number,” said Melchior. “She said now that she’s got one, she might as well get some use out of it.” He blushed again. “Then she suggested that even if we didn’t have any hardware in common we could always try wireless.”

I grinned but didn’t say a word as I headed out the door. We’d kept Cerice waiting long enough.

As expected, I found her in the lab pacing and swearing. She did a lot of that lately; the dissertation was practically killing her. She looked depressed and exhausted. Around her lay a couple reams of paper covered with a million or so lines of code that I could barely read, much less really understand, and a dozen monitors scrolling different sorts of graphical and textual representations of The Program of Doom.

Did I mention that Cerice is way smarter than I am? She’s also beautiful, with ice-blonde hair, eyes like blue fire, and a bone structure that makes mine look crude. As always, she wore red and gold, in this case jeans in a muted gold, a red silk blouse, and scarlet high-tops.

“There you are!” she said about a minute after I sat down behind a desk strewn with junk. It took her that long to notice me in her fogged state. “It’s about time.”

“Were you expecting me?” I asked in surprise.

“No, I wasn’t.” She came and sat down on the edge of the desk, putting her feet on my chair so that they rested on either side of my knees. “But I had hopes.” Dark circles underlined her eyes.

She leaned forward, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, and rested her chin on top of my head with a sigh. This put my lips squarely between her collar bones, so I kissed her gently in the hollow there, then again a bit lower. She pulled back and shook her head, though there was a wistful smile on her face.

“You tempt me,” she said, her voice husky.

“I’ve got all night.”

“It’s morning, and I don’t have any time at all,” she replied, abruptly rising and starting to pace again. “I promised Doctor Doravian I’d have the analysis data on the theta-theta decision point subroutines ready for him by Tuesday noon.”

“And?”

“And my thesis defense is going to look like an auto-de-fe.” She tried to make a joke of it, but I could hear the strain in her voice. “The whole segment’s gone trashcan.”

I thought about that for a moment. Cerice is smarter than I am and a better from-the-ground-up-coder, but nobody anywhere finds programming flaws better than I do. It’s where my share of divine spark manifests itself. Even Atropos, my most inveterate critic, acknowledges that, though she has some problems with the fact that I mostly use that talent on other people’s security software. I looked at the screens of data and stacks of paper Cerice had accumulated and frowned. She’d been working on this project for years.

She’d even created her own programming language when the available choices proved inadequate. And that was the problem. Given time to learn the system, I might be able to do something for her, but it would take a month to get up to speed and she only had three days before she needed the segment running again. Still, I had to offer.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

She gave me a look that mixed longing and concern with resignation and real fear. That gave me a clue as to what she wanted but wasn’t willing to ask. She shook her head and looked away. I caught her chin in my left hand and gently turned her back to face me. She covered my hand with her own, gently stroking the end of my foreshortened pinkie.

I’d permanently lost the first joint to a spell a bit over a year before. It had happened the night she’d saved my life for the first of several times. It was a debt she’d never think to call in, but one I owed her all the same. She owned more than just my heart.

I took a deep breath and plunged forward, “What do you need? Really. If I can help, I will.”

She closed her eyes and practically stopped breathing while long seconds slid by. Finally, pulling loose of my hand and turning her face toward the floor, she whispered, “Nothing. There’s nothing you can do.”

“What if you had Shara?”

“She’s gone, Ravirn. Dead, and that’s not a problem with a solution.”

“Orpheus—”

“No!” She cut me off. “That’s madness. All that’ll happen if you try to bring her back is that I’ll lose you too. Don’t even think about it.”

But the moment had come. Cerice knew I’d been working on how to get Shara out of Hades. She’d tried to talk me out of it enough times. Maybe she was right; maybe it was crazy. But I couldn’t let that stop me. Shara’d died because of me—a victim of collateral damage in my recent confrontation with the Fates. An arrow that should have had my name on it had punched right through her screen, causing massive short-circuits.

While I’d been horrified, I’d figured fixing her up would involve little more than solving a really tricky hardware problem. Cerice, knowing the architecture of the various webgoblins and webtrolls that ran the backbone of the mweb better than I ever would, had concurred. But when we’d gotten all the parts put back together, Shara wouldn’t boot. The hardware was fine, the software was fine, but no Shara. That’s when we’d realized that she had a “spiritware” problem. Her soul had passed through the gate so ably guarded by my new pal Cerberus, probably at the instigation of my great-aunt Atropos.

I owed it to Shara to at least make the attempt to restore her to life, and now was the time—when a rescue could do double duty. Shara was as much Cerice’s programming counterpart as Melchior was mine. She contained every scrap of information Cerice had ever voiced or written about her thesis project. As a coding resource and a friend, Cerice’s familiar was irreplaceable. If anything could save Cerice’s thesis, Shara was it.

So, all I had to do was get moving. It was time and past to screw my “courage to the sticking-place,” as Lady MacBeth had so elegantly phrased it. But now that the time had arrived I felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a hammer. Best to act now before I had any second thoughts. “Melchior,” I said, “my dagger.”

The webgoblin, who’d been keeping a low profile so that Cerice and I could pretend we were alone, swallowed audibly. “Ahhh, Boss, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Please.” He didn’t answer, but a moment later he handed it over.

“Don’t,” whispered Cerice, looking half panicked. She shivered when I pricked my index finger.

Instantly, bright blood welled up. I touched it to my lips. “I swear by my blood and my honor to return Shara to you before the sun rises on Sunday.”

There, I was committed. A fool perhaps, but a committed one.

Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2007. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.