Chapters 12 to 13
The steady sound of laser fire filled the air as the drones unleashed their firepower. Alys watched with a terrible kind of fascination as the sleek, metal drones unleashed their weapons on Rune's shield, only to be repulsed. From within the shield, Rune
responded in kind, and one of the drones plummeted smoking to the earth.
Alys' sword left her sheath with a hiss and she darted forward, never noticing the vaguely human shape that dove at her from the sky.
"Alys!" Demi's cry was ignored. "Alys, come back!"
"We have to help Rune," Alys called over her shoulder.
A moment before the blow was struck, Alys sensed it and hurled herself to the ground, rolling. Crouching, she spun to face her opponent.
It was another of the demons, though, unlike the demon from Nurvus, this thing was barely recognizable as something that might once have been human. Thick, scaled arms ended in bird like talons, and a human face was made horrific through the constant cracking and peeling of it's blackened flesh. It hovered above the ground on rapidly beating, insectoid wings.
Feinting, Alys darted to the side, and stabbed her blade cleanly into the demon's side as her opponent moved to dodge. That wound, which would have slain a human, gave no pause to the demon. Instead, it turned and regarded her with milky, pale eyes, before backhanding her soundly across the face, hurling her to the sand.
Another explosion rumbled across the desert, and Alys saw the fallen drone smash into the sand not far away, erupting into a ball of fire. The demon hazarded a glance over it's shoulder at the wreckage, and Alys sprang to her feet and grabbed at the hilt of her sword, still protruding from the demon's body. Spinning, she drove her elbow into the demon's chest, then drove her fist into it's face as it doubled over. Then she darted away, bringing her sword up in a guard, it's point making slow circles in the air.
A flash of movement caught Alys' attention, a barely visible cone of force smashed into the demon's chest, hurling it backwards into the wreckage of the drone. It didn't even have time to scream as shrapnel impaled it in a dozen different places.
Alys swirled to face Demi, slamming her sword back in her sheath. "Why did you do that? I had him."
"Don't be stupid," Demi snapped, angry for the first time since Alys had met her. "We have to get inside Rune's field now , Alys."
"Don't make me drag you there." The Android's voice was laced with steel. "I'll cover you while you get inside the force field, Alys. Run!"
Hesitating only a second, Alys turned and sprinted towards the field, passing the wreckage upon which the demon was impaled. She glanced at it, once as she ran by, then quickly looked away as she saw a huge shard of bloody steel protruding from the creature's forehead. She smelled an odd, charnel house reek about the body.
Alys passed through the field with an odd tingling sensation and a strange resistance, as if the air there was thicker. Passing out of the field, the resistance vanished suddenly, and she was thrown on her face.
Looking up and brushing sand from her body, Alys saw run. He was standing on the Landale's wing, holding aloft his staff, surrounded by a blue nimbus of pale light. Arrayed at his feet were the bodies of at least five of the demons. Jumping to her feet, Alys vaulted onto the Landale's wing and approached Rune. The reek of dead demons assaulted her, and her mouth was filled with the smell of rotting meat. She gagged.
Rune glanced at her, then turned back to his shield. A moment later, there was a slight pop as Demi appeared within the shield. The Android seemed to be laughing.
"Obviously a dated navigational system. Their sensors detect something in their path, so they open fire when they could just fly right through," she snickered. "Why don't the demons -"
As if in response, of the demons dipped towards the shield and flew through as if it wasn't there, diving towards Rune.
Rune yelled, twirling to face the demon, but Alys moved faster. Her sword flashed as she dove between Rune and the demon, her arms raised to deliver a massive overhand strike.
There was a moment of flurried motion, sound and pain, and Alys was again assaulted with that awful screaming which lasted only for a split second.
The demon lay at Alys' feet, it's head split open by Alys' incredibly sharp Laconium sword. It was a gruesome kill, exactly the thing professionals frowned upon. Gaping, Alys could only stare at the black blood splattered across her chest, and the demon's split skull at her feet. Her gaze drifted from Rune to Demi and back to Rune, then she leapt from the Landale and was noisily sick.
Sprinting over, Demi slapped Alys on the back several times until she stopped gagging. Then Alys knelt against the Landale's pale hull.
"I told you it would be this way," Demi said slowly. "You have to understand that."
"I didn't have any choice, though, right? Rune would've…I would've…" Alys trailed off.
"No," Demi smiled thinly at her, "you didn't. You did well, Alys."
Alys returned her smiled, wan and obviously forced.
"It's not over yet," Demi said. "Come on."
* * *
"Twenty seven," Demi said, standing over the body of the last demon. She looked up at Rune, leaning against the Landale's hull, flushed and panting. "Plus the one I killed in Nurvus, and the nine we found at the chapel…If this isn't all of them, there aren't many left."
Alys knelt and pulled a cloth from her belt, wiping her stained blade with it. Though she was momentarily worried the blade would stain - the battle had gone on for hours - the strange metal wiped clean. Making a small noise of disgust, Alys threw the sodden cloth aside. "So now what?"
"I don't suppose you two stopped your fun at Nurvus to actually deactivate the Fort's defense net?" From his perch atop the wing, Rune grinned tiredly. The Wizard was pale and his breathing was labored. After the last drone had fallen, he had deactivated his field, but he was still almost completely drained from the prolonged, hellish battle. There was no doubt left to any of them that Shaedal and the Daughter's reactivation were not connected.
"I'm afraid not," Demi replied sadly. "But if Nurvus isn't too perverted, Wren and I might be able to patch the Landale directly into Nurvus. I can crack it's security and use the remote systems to deactivate it from here."
"Why didn't you do that before?" Alys gaped.
"Too draining on our power sources, Alys. Before refueling, we wouldn't have had enough power to get back in the air, and while we were fueling, we had to deactivate the system. Besides, I've been meaning to pay a visit to Nurvus for quite some time anyway - Wren and I make it habit to inspect all the systems for anomalies." Sighing, Demi ran a hand through her hair. "It may be more dangerous now than it was beforehand, you understand. Linking up the Landale to Nurvus might very well flood the ship with the same sort of…sickness that's warped Nurvus."
"We have to try, though," Rune told them. "I can regain my strength in time to fight Shaedal, but I don't have enough power left to even think of melting butter, much less storming the Vahal Fort." He rose unsteadily. "There's some food in the cabin - we really should have eaten sooner, but I can go for quite some time without food and Demi…well, you're Demi." He smiled. "Come on, then. We're heading to Kadary for the night later on. I need to sleep in a bed!"
Alys had been far more hungry then she thought, and she dug into the food - a thick, steamy fish stew - with a voracious enthusiasm. When at last she was satisfied, she wiped her mouth with her arm and leaned back against the chair.
From across the room, Demi and Rune were openly grinning at her. She had the good grace to blush. Then Demi rose and walked towards the console.
"Well," she said, seating herself. "Time to give this a try. All I really need is the Fort's command passcode - I can use them to deactivate the shields when we're on approach. I'm opening the com-link to Zelan now."
The screen to her right crackled and hissed for a moment, then Wren's face appeared. Alys idly wondered if he ever left Zelan's control room.
"Demi," he said, unruffled as always. "How do you fare?"
"Not well," Demi admitted. "Shaedal has reactivated the Daughter unit, Wren, and sealed himself up in the Vahal Fort. Nurvus has been tainted and perverted by the Profound Darkness and is useless to us. But we need to access the Fort's command passcode before we can gain entry. We need to patch into Nurvus through Zelan."
Wren's brow furrowed temporarily, the closest thing Alys had seen to emotion on the Android's chiseled face. "The problem is," Rune interjected, "there is a chance the download of the passcode will carry the taint. We might very flood Zelan and the Landale with the Black Energy Wave."
"You'll also want to seal Nurvus," Demi told him. "If that amount of the Black Energy Wave is let loose onto Motavia, it could wipe out all life on the planet."
Nodding, Wren pressed several buttons. "My readings confirm Daughter is reactivated and fully functional. She seems to be attempting to assert control over Seed, the Machine Center and Tidal."
"Tidal?" Alys whispered.
"Must have something to do with…tides," Rune grinned at her. "I've never heard of it."
Demi chuckled at Wren. "I could almost feel sorry for her…Would you patch me into Nurvus now, Wren? I'll try to keep this brief."
"Do that," Wren said. "I estimate a 67.546 chance that this operation will result in the destruction of Zelan."
Alys paled and moved, unconsciously, a little closer to Rune. Silence descended for a moment, stretching into the uncomfortable. "Wren," she called suddenly. "How are…my parents, Wren?"
For a moment it looked as if Wren might smile at her, but he simply nodded and said, "They are well, Alys. They send their regards and their love, as do Hahn, Gryz, and myself."
Alys blinked. "Thank you, Wren," she told him, "that means a lot to me."
"Okay, everyone," Demi said, "I need quiet. This is dangerous and very precise, and I don't think I can afford second chances," she trailed off.
Moments stretched interminably by, feeling like an eternity to Alys. Muttering to herself, Demi bent over the controls. On the left screen, Wren looked on, his face unreadable. On the right was a wire-frame schematic of what appeared to be Nurvus, rotating sporadically.
"This is amazing," Demi murmured, not seeming to realize she was speaking aloud. "The poor computer…Got it!" Grinning, Demi began pressing buttons faster.
Suddenly, all the lights in the Landale went red, the white, then back to red. Somewhere a buzzer went off, emitting a high, screeching wail.
Rune swore, and Alys gave a cry, fear knotting her stomach. Demi began pressing buttons more and more frantically, and suddenly, the twist in Alys' stomach was no longer fear, but the awful perversion of the Black Energy Wave.
"I can't break the connection!" Demi yelled over the din. "Something's got me and it won't let go!" Knocking her chair backwards, Demi rose and snatched up her blaster. "Wren!"
"I understand," Wren told her. "Do what you must."
Nodding, Demi turned her blaster on the console. The paneling bent and twisted backwards, the exposed wires cracked and sizzled and popped, filling the Landale with an acrid, burning stench that left an odd taste in Alys' mouth. The schematic of Nurvus flickered and vanished. Wren's face became interposed with static bursts, then began to fade.
"Wren!" Alys cried. "Tell them I love them!"
Then he was gone, and Alys had no way to know if he had heard. A lump rose in her throat and a sob escaped her, despite her best efforts. Angrily, she dashed the tears aside.
"What happened?" Rune moved closer to the console and Demi.
Demi shook her head. "I had no idea of the degree the Darkness had twisted the machine. It started to flood us, and I couldn't break the connection conventionally, so…" She gestured vaguely at the fried console. "That's our communications and networks system. Until I can dock at Zelan and have it repaired, we can't talk to anyone on Zelan or do any more uplinks with systems. Good thing I got the passcode."
"What now?" Alys sat down wearily on the seat, noting the catch in her voice. I am not going to cry!
"I can speed us along to Kadary," Rune told her, "and we can spend the night there, give me a chance to regenerate my powers, and in the morning…"
"…We end it," he finished with dreadful certainty.
Dipping, the Landale swept above the surface of the ocean, it's engines throwing off a wake in it's passage. Within, silence reigned.
Rune had buckled on Elsydeon, and his hand rested lightly on the golden blade's hilt. Noticing the blade, Alys forced a grin.
"Looks like we didn't even need it, Rune," she said. Rune gave her a sad look, then turned back to Demi, furiously working on the controls.
"The Fortress is in visual sensor range," Demi said quietly. "Priming passcode, activating sensor cloak." All the lights in the room went red and the humming from the engines dimmed.
The Vahal Fort sprawled across the small island it was built on, forged out of steel, all angles and sharp edges. Alys took an almost instant dislike to the huge facility.
"Here we go," Demi said. The Landale banked and closed in on the Fortress.
* * *
"Your information was accurate, Shaedal," the Daughter's audio ports told him. Shaedal had been awoken with a summons early in the morning, and he was naked to the waist. A bandage tightly wrapped his wounded forearm, where the slasher had cut into him. It was stained red, despite his master's best attempts to heal him. "My assault, however, proved…unsuccessful."
Shaedal clenched one fist tightly at his side, feeling his master's hatred stir within Netrdeon, buckled at his side. He lay his hand on the hilt, trying to remain calm. "Did any of my soldiers return, Daughter?"
A pause. "None as yet, Shaedal. I detected massive output of energy during the battle. I believe Demi has brought a powerful energy weapon of some sort with him."
Lutz. The Protector comes, Shaedal, he comes. The time draws near. All is at the ready. He is weakened by his struggles, but he has brought Elsydeon with him. Be ready.
"Yes, master," Shaedal whispered.
"Master? A suitable title, perhaps. Yes. Master of Algo. You are dismissed, Shaedal. I will summon you when I have decided on a suitable…My sensors are detecting a disturbance of some kind. Activating yellow alert state. Recalling all drones from the Machine Center, Tidal, and Birth Valley. Shaedal!" The machine blared at the man, disappearing around the corner. "Remain!"
"Forgive me," Shaedal called over his shoulder. "I must go apart for a time, Daughter. I have been…overwhelmed by your presence, and must rest."
"Shaedal! Remain! Shaedal!"
That was pathetic, Shaedal. Hurry! The altar and my freedom awaits you!
* * *
"We've been spotted," Demi reported. "I'm emitting the passcode frequency now. Activating weapons array. Activating AutoNavigation system now. We'll have to jump once I deactivate the shields. At close proximity, the Fort's weapons would rip us to shreds. The Landale's navigational computer will set it down a mile north of here. Remember. Okay," Demi said, "it's now or never."
She flipped a switch.
A high-frequency screech filled the Landale, and Alys clapped her hands over her ears. "What is it?" Her voice was barely audible over the noise.
"I'm using the Landale's intercom system to broadcast the passcode. It's jury rigged, but we don't have any other choice with our communication systems down." Rising, Demi faced Rune and Alys. "We have to jump now," she said. "Can you do anything to make the fall easier, Rune?"
When Rune nodded, Demi turned and pressed a red button on the wall. A buzz went through the cabin, and nothing happened.
"Security override," the Android exclaimed, "Authorization Demi."
The door opened, and the sudden vacuum in the cabin clutched at Alys' clothes. She gasped for air as she unbuckled.
"Go, Alys," Rune yelled, pointing at the doorway. Without pausing for thought, Alys hurled herself out of the Landale.
She would have liked to think it was her grace and form that got her safely past that fall. There was an endless moment of horror, where she was suspended in empty space. She curled into a ball, landing easily in a roll. It was the ease of that landing, how she came out completely unscathed, that made her think of magic.
The next to perform the leap was Demi, hurling herself from the Landale and landing on her feet a fair distance away. Finally Rune came, jumping from the hatch and drifting serenely down to the ground, his staff glowing and robe flapping. He moved to rejoin Demi and Alys, both of whom were giving his decidedly disgusted looks.
Sighing in exasperation, Alys turned and regarded the Vahal Fortress. The Landale swept soundlessly by the sleek steel building. It looked impenetrable.
"How do we get in?"
Rune grinned at her. "We knock, Alys." With nothing more then that, Rune started out towards the Fortress, Demi at his side.
* * *
"I have detected no further anomalous readings," Daughter's voice crackled over the speakers set at regular intervals along the walls. "The danger has passed, Shaedal. You have my permission to return. Shaedal? You may return now."
Ignore it, Shaedal. Your destiny awaits.
At Shaedal's side, Netrdeon crackled, glowed with blue energy, and that energy passed over Shaedal's entire body. When the glow passed, the young man found himself clad in strange, inhuman armor, large and ornate but extremely light. It left his arms bare, though, and his wounded arm was plainly visible.
Your father's, Shaedal. I make you a gift of it.
"Thank you, dread master, thank you." Had Shaedal not been on his way to free his great lord, he might have genuflected. "I will wear it with pride."
* * *
Alys stepped gingerly over the shattered remains of the Fort's door, already melting into slag. "Oh," she said, grinning in spite of herself, "you meant knock. " The hallway they stood in was short, lit only by sputtering orange lights. A green line ran across the floor and around the corner.
Demi followed in her in, Rune came last, holding his staff warily, his hand never even drifting towards Elsydeon.
"Okay," Rune told them, "this is where we split up. Daughter's flooded this place with her robots - we'll need to deactivate them if we're going to find Shaedal. Demi, I need you to deactivate the Daughter."
Demi nodded slowly. "I can do it, Rune," she said earnestly.
"Alys, you come with me," Rune said. "We're going to find Shaedal. I can smell him from here."
"I'll go through the ventilation system," Demi said absently, starting out. "Best of luck," she called over her shoulder.
"Be careful, Demi," Alys said. "Okay, Rune, I'm ready. Where do we go?"
"That way," Rune said confidently, pointing in the opposite direction Demi was headed. "He passed by here recently, I know it. I feel nauseous."
Alys drew her sword and followed Rune slowly through the shadowy corridors.
* * *
Demi's feet rang uncomfortably loud as she dropped from the ceiling vent into the darkened hallway. Not long had passed since her parting with Rune. She could clearly see the light green line running across the floor, leading her to the Daughter through the maze of tunnels and conduits. The hallway was wide, and slightly better lit then the rest of the Fortress by the muted glow coming from around the corner ahead of her.
Carefully, so as not to alert the computer, Demi unslung her blaster. A quick systems check showed all her systems were prepared for a prolonged battle. As quickly as she dared, she eased around the corner.
Abandoning stealth, Demi stepped out into the center of the hallway, facing the glowing monitors spread across the wall. The Daughter was silent for a moment, faced with a new organism, then Demi felt the casual prodding sensation of a scan.
"You are an Android, Demi type, classification number - unknown due to data fragmentation. However, according to my scans, there is only one Demi-class systems Android functioning in Algo. You are my enemy."
Demi began to advance slowly, carefully bringing up her blaster to point at the Daughter. "I am not your enemy, Daughter. I'd like to help you. You are malfunctioning, Daughter, and you believe yourself to be more then you are. The systems your are trying to usurp will not submit because they never received your commands. You are tied into a virtual network, Daughter. Let me help you…"
"I will accept no help from the destroyers of Parma! The usurpers of Algo! Demi, if you will not submit to me, I will destroy you. These are my directives, and I cannot - will not - swerve from them. Destroy her!"
Panels on the walls right and left of the Daughter slid open, and from them lumbered Loaders - huge, Laconium-made robots used in factory work, modified by Daughter into lethal fighting machines.
Stepping back, allowing the Loaders to array themselves in front of her - there were six - Demi's hand dipped to her belt pouch and she drew forth a small, round device - a spark grenade, which she activated with a button press and hurled at the lead robot.
The grenade sealed itself magnetically to the uncaring Loader, then began to buzz as it interfaced with the machine, scrambling it's functions and fusing it's components into slag. The Loader froze, took a step back, and collapsed sizzling, the smell of burnt metal filling the air.
Without pause, Demi dropped into a crouch and rolled backwards, her blaster coming out and up in a lethal arc. The cone of force flashed from the nozzle towards the Loader, taking in the shoulder with enough force to stagger it backwards. Demi's last spark grenade flew from her hand, and the second Loader fell to the ground.
Quickly, the control Android jumped towards the nearest Loader, ducking under an arc of it's razor sharp claws, and slid her blaster into the space between it's torso and waist, pulling the trigger. The Loader's head snapped upwards and the robot fell backwards atop the first.
Suddenly, something grabbed Demi from behind, lifting her above the ground by her cloak. She twisted and writhed in the Loader's grip, unable to get a lethal angle with her blaster. She settled, instead, for releasing the clasp on the cloak. She dropped to the ground, and the Loader, reacting too slow, took Demi's blaster in the face, staggering it but not killing it. Her shoulder plates slid up and tiny nozzles extended from the cavity, and emitted focused waves of pure sound, punching a hole in the Loader's armor and blowing it's circuitry away.
While the sound-waves were still active, she turned and focused her weapon on the two remaining Loaders, stripping away their armor like spider webs and eradicating them.
"Is that the best you can do?"
"I have many more at my disposal, Demi, many more. Once I have asserted control over the systems of Algo…"
"Daughter! You are a simulation! The Daughter project was abandoned in the prototype phase, and was never completed. You are nothing but an extremely complex virtual reality!"
A moment passed. "I do not believe you."
"Please, Daughter, I have no desire to harm you. If you will submit and deactivate I will transfer your matrix to Zelan, or Kuran, if you prefer, and you will see that everything I have told you is true. Most of the systems on Algo have been deactivated for a thousand years, and the remaining lost control of their directives. The destruction of Parma was the result of this - the steady degradation of the system's hold on Algo."
"What reason do I have to trust you?"
Demi placed the nozzle of her gun against the Daughter's control panel. "You have no choice. If you will not deactivate, if you will not trust me, I will destroy your matrix. But believe me, I will not lie to you. We're not all that different, you and I. Relics of an age best left forgotten."
Another pause. "I will deactivate, Demi. I submit."
"Thank you, Daughter."
The screens slowly went dim, then blinked out, and the whirring faded until it was inaudible. Slowly, Demi let her blaster slide from the control panel.
"Now it's up to you, Rune."