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Chapters 8 to 10

Chapter 8

The scream of the apparition was a horrible, screeching sound that pierced Alys' ears. The thing lay in the fire, with her sword driven into it's chest, writhing and twisting and screaming that awful noise. But after a time the screaming stopped, and the thing lay still. And then there was silence.

"Rune?" she called. "Demi?"

"We're here, Alys," Demi's voice came from the other side of the wall. "We're all right. How are you?"

Alys felt a sudden, irrepressible urge to laugh. "I'm fine. Can you guys break down that wall?"

"We can try," Rune replied. "But it would be best if you entered the tunnel. It could get dangerous once I start throwing magic around."

"I can't," Alys called. "It's sealed by magic, Rune, and I can't leave."

"Stand back, then," Rune said.

Alys pressed her back against the wall, managing to find a rough alcove to crouch in. "I'm ready, Rune."

She felt a force building on the other side of the wall, then that force was explosively released. A funnel of air, which became a twirling spiral of air, appeared in the fire wall, and it seemed to be drawing in the fire. Within moments, the wall was gone.

"Rune!" Alys cried. "That was amazing."

"Yes," Rune said humbly. "I am an amazing person."

Demi chuckled. Then, "How many were there, Rune?"

"We fought eight."

"Nine," Alys corrected. She pointed to the twisted, blackened body of the demon - she knew no better word for it - and her sword, reduced to a formless hunk of slag by the fires.

Rune looked at her, and their eyes locked. He nodded once, approvingly. "But you'll need a new weapon," Demi pointed out. "I have one available on the Landale. We'll get it when we're finished here."

"Finished?" Alys grinned bitterly. "What's to do? This was only a trap. Shaedal hasn't left anything here."

"Exactly," Rune interjected. "That's exactly it. When he left, he took something with him." Triumphantly, the wizard pointed at the indentation in the floor. "The altar."

"What altar?" Alys asked, baffled.

"With my magic, and the help of Elsydeon, I was able to get a fairly accurate picture of the cavern at the moment the Black Energy Wave was released. There was an altar in the indentation, and wherever Shaedal is, he took it with him."

"Can that help us?" Demi asked him gravely.

"Well…no, not really. We'll just have to wait for Shaedal to make the next move."

"Then what?" Alys slumped heavily against the wall. "We follow this Shaedal all over the planet, dancing his dance, until one of his traps kills one of us - or more. We can't just follow after Shaedal, Rune. That won't work."

"She's right," Demi said, hefting her pulse rifle and slinging it over one shoulder. "But I can make a suggestion. The scanning and probe systems at Nurvus are quite extensive, and I can make contact with Wren. Though Nurvus' power supplies are quite low, my master can supplement them with power from Zelan, Kuran, and the dormant bio-systems on Motavia, Dezolis and in the asteroid belt. Using them, we should be able to find out not only where Shaedal is, but how many fleas he has." Demi smiled. "And since we were heading to Kadary to refuel anyway…" She let it hang.

"Demi," Rune grinned. "I love you."

"I feel sorry it didn't occur to me earlier."

"But couldn't Zelan do the same thing, Demi? We could contact Wren and have him wiggle his fingers, or whatever it is you do, and pinpoint Shaedal for us while we're right here." Alys clasped her hands in front of her chest. Normally, she would rest one on her sword hilt, and she felt genuinely naked without a blade at her side.

"Not with the same degree of accuracy as the planet-wide systems, though. At best, and with our power levels currently being so low, he might be able to tell us what hemisphere Shaedal could possibly be in. As it is, a scan of this accuracy could permanently burn out Nurvus. It's dangerous to the unit and us, and if it does burn out, it's a shame to let all those parts go to waste." She shrugged. "But this is more important."

"Let's go then," Rune ordered. "I'm afraid that every second we wait, the Profound Darkness comes closer to being released." Turning, Rune gestured negligently and the barrier across the doorway sizzled and vanished.

Chapter 9

A panel next to the pilot's seat slid one side when Demi touched a button. Reaching in, the tiny Android drew forth a long, glistening sword and handed it back to Alys.

"It's Laconium," Demi said, "a whole lot more effective then the other weapon you were wielding. It's almost impossible to break or melt and is quite lightweight, as I'm sure you've noticed. Sit down, and buckle up. We're almost ready to take off."

"Thanks, Demi," Alys told her, sliding the Laconium sword into her sheath. "It's great."

"Yes, it is," she replied. "Now sit down."

Within moments, the Landale rose from the mountains like a great bird and set off the northwest and the Kadary Spaceport.

* * *

They were unable to reach Kadary by nightfall. Demi was forced to set the Landale down in a forest clearing for the night, which passed peacefully.

In the morning, Alys roused herself and left the ship, idly toying with the twin blades of the slasher.

A slasher is more desirable then a boomerang for several reasons. Firstly, though the boomerang and slasher have essentially the same shape, a slasher has two blades, something the boomerang lacks. Secondly, while boomerangs can easily become cumbersome, a slasher's blades can be folded together for easy carrying.

Carefully, Alys separated the blades of the throwing weapon. Her gaze focused on an ugly, dead tree. Gripping the slasher by one blade, she threw the weapon overhand, straight at it's target. One blade buried itself deeply in the center of the tree.

"That's nice," Rune said from the door of the Landale. "Nice, until you want to get it back."


"The whole point of a slasher," Rune continued, walking towards her, "is that it doesn't do gigantic damage to your opponent. But if you throw it properly, it'll come back to your hand. That is it's benefit. If you throw it the way you just threw it, it won't do much against armor, and you'll just aggravate your opponent. A slasher can be a great weapon if you know how to use it."

"Let me hold Elsydeon."

"That went by a little fast," Rune admitted.

"It's my father's sword," Alys told him, "and it's supposed to be this incredible weapon. I just want to hold it, only for a little while."

"I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Why not?"

"Trust me, Alys, you'll…."

"Rune!" The voice came from within the Landale. "Come quickly!"

Demi was seated at a control panel set to one side of the cockpit, her fingers dancing across the controls. Her brow furrowed. "I can't think of any reason for these readings," she told them as they entered. "I detecting power flow from the Vahal Fort."

"Daughter?" Rune sounded worried. "Could she have been reactivated?"

Alys knew, of course, of the Daughter unit. It was rather complex, really, and she wasn't sure she understood. The Daughter was a fallback program designed by a culture prior to the Great Collapse. The Daughter was designed to take control of all AI's on Algo should something happen to the three most important facilities - Nurvus, Zelan or Kuran. She was also designed to destroy units that did not respond to her control. A very large, complex prototype was designed on a remote island, tied into a simulated AI system mirroring that of the Motavian systems at that time. The project was abandoned during the prototype phase, but the simulation, with it's artificial Network and even weapons-producing capacity, was never dismantled. It was simply left dormant. When Nurvus was deactivated, some bug in the program reactivated Daughter. Unable to take control of existing AI's since she was not actually tied into them, Daughter began producing weaponry. She sent her robots to Birth Valley to examine Seed, made attempts on the life of Wren when it became convenient, and destroyed the Plate System. Eventually, Chaz and company managed to deactivate her.

"I'm afraid there isn't any doubt," Demi was saying. "The Landale is tied into Zelan, Rune. It's sensors wouldn't make a mistake like that." She shook her head. "We should have destroyed the Daughter installation the first chance we had."

"Can the Daughter pose a serious threat if we just avoid the installation?" Rune leaned forward, his face illuminated green by the light of the screen.

Demi shook her head. "She still has complete control over her manufacturing plant. She can build small, flying attack probes at the rate of…" She pressed several buttons. "A dozen per day. She can also manufacture several factory-type robots, such as Loaders. She will doubtless realize that more then eighty percent of the AIs present on Motavia are non-functional at this time. She will then attempt to reactivate them, take control of them, and if they refuse to fall under her control…"

"…She'll destroy them," Rune said. "Is that such a huge loss?"

Demi nodded. "Wren and I still have to keep Zelan from crashing into Motavia, and Kuran from crashing into Dezolis, you know. Eventually, the only functioning AIs in Algo will be myself, Wren, and Zelan. Deactivating these AIs is removing their power 'tithing' to Zelan. We need to deactivate the systems, then dismantle them for spare parts. Without the power they were providing earlier, it will take some time to get Zelan back on it's feet, so to speak. We can't let Daughter run amok through Motavia, Rune. It simply isn't an option. Unless of course, you want a repeat of the Great Collapse?"

"But didn't you say that the scan might burn out Nurvus?" Alys asked suddenly. "You said it would be a shame, but that's all."

"Most of Nurvus was…perverted by the presence of the Profound Darkness and Zio. They made sure that even if we recovered Nurvus, it wouldn't be much good to us. That's why I had to tie myself into it directly."

"Okay. But what if Shaedal has reactivated Daughter?"

"It's a possibility, though it could be wrong," Demi replied. "Daughter was originally reactivated by a mistake on my part. Wren might have made the same mistake. I analyzed the Daughter subroutine after the first encounter with her, and it's quite easy to trigger. I just never got around to turning her off totally."

"So what do we do?" Alys sat down heavily, glad to finally be included in the discussion. Demi pressed several buttons.

The Landale's engines hummed as it rose into the ground. Alys gripped the arms of her chair tighter.

"We go to Kadary," Demi said. She looked at Rune. "We don't have any other choice, Rune. We barely have enough fuel to make it to Kadary, much less the Vahal Fort. The Landale is a good ship, Rune, but she has her limits. Besides, no matter what we do, we'll have to start at Nurvus."

"Why?" Rune sounded a little confused.

"The Vahal Fort has a highly advanced defense system. The pre-Collapse culture had every intention of deactivating the Daughter, but as a contingency, the Fort is designed as much to keep Daughter in as others out. We can deactivate those defenses at Nurvus if you want us to do so."

"But won't that leave us open to attack from Daughter?" Alys felt better once the Landale's ascension halted and began to speed smoothly along the ground.

"Yes, but it's already been proven that the primary purpose of the Fort - keeping Daughter in - has already failed. But yes, if we deactivate it's defenses, Daughter will be even stronger."

Alys nodded. "This isn't going very well," she noted to her companions.

No one responded.

Not that she had expected one, though.

Chapter 10

Lights flickered within the dark hallway, a glistening rain. A lone figure, naked sword in hand, emerged from that light. Shaedal looked about him slowly, taking in his surroundings. A light attached to the ceiling flickered and popped. He sneered.

"This is the place you have chosen? It is useless." He idly kicked at the dust caking the floor, raising a cloud of it.

It will serve my purposes, Zio's son. It is not your duty to tell me what you think. I already know. Proceed down this hallway and turn left.

Shrugging, Shaedal followed the instructions. Farther down the hall, three wide bands of light, still functioning, were embedded in the floor. They followed the corridor down it's length and then, farther down, Shaedal could see that they turned left. He followed them.

The room he entered was huge, a high, vaulted ceiling adorned with lights that no longer worked. The walls were covered with complex buttons and switches. At the end of the room were several huge green panels, glowing, but with a diluted green light. Strange, flickering patterns appeared and disappeared within those panels, and set directly below was a control panel.

Approach the panel. Do not be afraid, young one, this installation cannot hurt you. Yet. Good, good. You will observe the small green button in the upper left hand corner. Press it. At Shaedal's touch, a hum went through the building and it shuddered slightly. We have activated it's defense net. Now, Shaedal, we must fully activate the Daughter. "Why?"

Do not question me, Shaedal. "I'm not as blind as my father was," Shaedal retorted. "I will question you. We've activated it's defenses, we're bringing in the altar - we don't need to reactivate the unit."

Daughter has had a previous conflict with the Fifth Lutz and his companions. If they come here, Daughter will strike. That shall serve our purposes nicely.

"I've had about enough of you ordering me around. I don't have to listen to you, do I? What can you possibly due to me?"

This, young one. This.

All the power from Netrdeon was withdrawn.

Shaedal doubled over, clutching his chest in agony. Pain wracked his body, pain so strong it felt like his heart would explode. His body convulsed and he fell to the floor, screaming. Then it was gone.

Shaedal gasped, rising slowly to his feet.

I can kill you, hatchling. I can find another no-one to serve my purposes as easily as I found you. Perhaps now you are willing to listen to my instructions?

"Yes," Shaedal replied slowly.

Yes what, hatchling?

"Yes, master." Shaedal ground his teeth in frustration, feeling hot tears of rage and pain run down his face. "It's not my fault he was my father," he half sobbed.

Destiny forges as it will, Shaedal.

"I don't believe in destiny," the man responded.

Do you think that will make me any less real? Shaedal didn't respond. Very well. If you will follow my directions to the letter, we should have no problem supplying the remaining power in this facility to the Daughter. Now…

* * *

"Pass me the wide black tube, Alys," Demi commanded, sliding open a panel on the Landale's hull. The warm summer breeze of the Motavian summer bathed Alys' skin, and she had stripped down to her lightest shirt and a pair of shorts. Her sword still hung at her side, though. She looked in confusion at the mass of pipes, hoses and tubes protruding from the opened panel on the Kadary space station. Quickly, she bent and picked up the protruding end of a tube and handed it's end to Demi. More tubing slid from the hole in the spaceport wall.

"No, Alys," Demi said irritably, passing the tube back. "The wide one." She sighed as Alys replaced the tube with the proper one. She fit it into the cavity on the Landale's hull. "Hit it, Rune," she called.

From inside the spaceport, Rune hit a switch and a steady hum filled the area. The tubing linking the Landale to the spaceport began to shake, then crackle as both liquid fuel and electrical power from Zelan pulsed through the spaceport and into the Landale.

Demi grinned and brushed the dust off of her hands. Then she vanished inside the Landale, reappearing a moment later.

"That's done it," she told Alys. "Wren says there's no great strain on Zelan's systems, but they couldn't afford to keep on communicating. We have to get some power, somehow. This'll take a couple of hours, which should be enough for us to do our business with Nurvus and be on our way. Rune!" She called. "We're ready."

Rune emerged from the spaceport. "I'll stay here. You guys cleared out Nurvus, right?" Demi nodded. "Then you'll want me up here to guard the Landale, rather then down there holding off imaginary monsters. You and Alys go."

Alys grinned at the chance for combat and loosened her sword in her scabbard. "I'll take care of her, Rune," she said earnestly.

For a moment it looked as if Rune might laugh, but Demi cut him off. "Thank you, Alys. It's a bit of a walk to Nurvus. Shall we go?"

After they were a distance from the spaceport, Demi looked at Alys. "You're a little to eager to fight, Alys. Killing things is highly overrated. It's unlikely you'll need that in Nurvus anyway."

"I wouldn't be so sure, Demi," Alys responded, a little disappointed nonetheless. "When my father brought me here to show it too me, we ran into a couple of old maintenance drones. We dealt with them, though."

"Maintenance drones?" Demi asked her thoughtfully. "I'll look into that once we get back to Zelan. All production within Nurvus was supposed to have been stopped…years ago."

Alys shrugged. "We can deal with them, Demi," she told the tiny Android.

"Oh," Demi replied, "certainly we can. But we shouldn't have to - we deactivated Nurvus' production and maintenance facilities almost as soon as Wren and I returned to Zelan. The drones that were still active and on alert should have worn out within several months. This is very strange."

"Should we go get Rune?" The suggestion was made tentatively. Alys was more then sure she could deal with any threats, but Demi seemed perturbed.

Demi considered that for a moment. Then, to Alys' partial relief, "No. I suppose it's possible that some drones might have survived for a while - even years, but those would be the exception, not the rule."

They walked in silence for a while, as the blazing Algo sun drifted past it's apex and began it's descent to the horizon. Finally, they arrived at what Alys had originally taken to be a sinkhole.

The hole was a gaping thing, it's sides slanted inwards, surrounded by the remains of the huge fortress that had collapsed around it. Shards of razor shard metal protruded from the place where the ceiling of Nurvus had been blown off.

"Be careful," Demi warned. "It's dangerous to try and pick your way through this rubble. Your parents wouldn't be at all pleased if I brought you home maimed." She chuckled. "Come on, then. Just follow my lead and you'll be all right."

Gripping a piece of shrapnel jutting from the side of the pit, Demi dropped down onto the embankment. After about two dozen feet's travel, Alys noticed that the sand from the desert had slid into the room at the bottom of the pit, almost totally obscuring it. When the reached a point ten feet above the bottom of the pit, Demi paused.

"Stop," she said. "The sand isn't very firm past here. We're just going to have to jump."

"Okay," Alys said. "Where?"

"Where I land, Alys," Demi replied, then leapt. She landed gracefully on a pile of sand built up in the room. "Come on," she called up, getting to her feet and brushing herself off. "It's quite soft."

Alys jumped without giving herself time to reconsider, landing on her stomach in the sand and filling her mouth with grit. Coughing and hacking, she sat up and peered at Demi, who was rooting around in the dirt across the room from her.

"Found it," Demi said suddenly, pressing her hand into the dirt. "The entrance is just on the other side of this dune." Demi unslung her blaster from where it hung on her shoulder. "Get back," she commanded. Gripping the weapon two handed, she pointed it and pulled the trigger. A high pitched screech filled the air, and a cone of force, barely visible, flashed from the blaster to the dune. The sand was blown aside, revealing a dimly lit tunnel beyond.

"Come on, Alys," Demi ordered. The tiny gem fused to her forehead began to shimmer, then glow, suffusing the area with light as if she were holding a lantern. Alys followed a short distance behind her as she entered the massive computer system of Nurvus.

The central weather control system for Motavia was a maze of catwalks and dimly lit passageways, punctuated only rarely by a large room. Thick, steel walks ran across a gigantic central chimney, suspended hundreds of feet above the bottom of the gargantuan computer.

Alys was overwhelmed, and not simply by the spectacle of the computer, something she had already seen. Throughout the course of the journey, there had rarely been a moment's peace, and she had found herself left with little or no time to contemplate the occurrences. She wasn't really very surprised to discover several things. First, she was ravenous, not having eaten since she left the farm, two days previous. She'd had dinner that night - simple, camping fare, but otherwise she hadn't eaten anything for quite some time. Second, she was bone weary. She hadn't slept very well in the alien environment of the Landale, surrounded by people who were for all intents and purposes, strangers. Third, she was homesick. After discovering that, she did her best to ignore it.

"Here we are," Demi said suddenly. The light from her forehead intensified, casting a pale blue cast to the room. They stood almost at the top of the massive central chimney in Nurvus, on a catwalk from which one could not see the bottom of the chute. Arrayed on the wall before them was the central computer, from which Nurvus actually functioned. The computer Demi alone was capable of interfacing with.

Screens set about the wall glistened with a bright green, contrasting sharply with the blue light Demi was creating.

"Okay," Demi said. "Now all I have to do is…"

Alys screamed.

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