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"Hunters!" Morovin sprinted forward and leapt atop a pile of rumble, brandishing the Eclipse Torch like a sword. Dark clouds gathered above them and he prepared to call on the storm to destroy his foes.
"Lars! He's got some kind of weapon! Take it out!"
At Alys' command, Lars released the reins, guiding the horse with his knees and legs. His blaster came up and he carefully set his sights on the crystal sphere in the black-armored man's hand.
Faster then light, the bolt of energy erupted from the nozzle of the blaster and struck the sphere. There was a flash of light at the point of contact, and a sudden rumble of thunder. The man in black cried out as the crystal sphere was knocked skittering across the rubble, and again when a second blast from Lars knocked him tumbling.
Then Lars was forced to sling his blaster over his shoulder and draw his sword as they approached the tower. What few Wrens remained in the field were milling about, trying to divide their forces between the two small armies converging on them. Caught between the two forces, they were quickly destroyed.
Alys cut her way through the Layans' ranks for a short distance, but then was forced to drop from the saddle as the Layans in back began tossing magical bolts around. On her feet she was a far better swordsman anyway.
Cursing, Morovin dragged himself to his feet, casting about desperately for the Eclipse Torch. He had been knocked completely for a loop by the blast and hadn't been able to follow the weapon's progress.
Then he saw it, a glimmer of light between two rocks, still a fair distance from the outer edge of the conflict. He wagered a glance at the battle. The Hunters were holding their own, and had the advantage of surprise - why had he taken their defeat for granted? - but his Chosen Espers had the advantage of magic.
Struggling through the rubble, Morovin grabbed at the Torch.
A sudden bolt of light struck the rock nearest to the Eclipse Torch, and the crystal sphere was sent flying into the air, to fall and roll across the rubble. Morovin swore and turned to face his new opponent.
Narrel was framed in the doorway to the tower, and a little behind him was the unconscious form of Morgan. The Psycho-Wand was held in the Speaker's hands, pulsing with an eerie green glow.
"The Most Reverent," Narrel said slowly, "is not a parasite." A column of fire erupted from the Wand's tip and missed Morovin barely, exploding a rock just behind Morovin's head, spraying him with shards. Morovin flinched as several sharp stones pricked his back where he wasn't protected by his armor. He returned fire, a sphere of ice the spat from his palm. It deflected harmlessly off Narrel's defenses.
Morovin cursed again, dipping his hand into his pouch and feeling the smooth, hollow circle of t'santari crystal the he most often wore atop his staff. He propelled his power through the crystal, feeling it magnify and intensify his powers. He hurled the new strength against Narrel's mind, hoping to incapacitate the Speaker as he had done before.
Instead, he struck a shield of equal, if not greater, magical strength.
Narrel smiled thinly and raised one arm. Morovin could see the necklace - Morgan's necklace - with it's t'santari gemstone, wrapped around Narrel's wrist. Morovin snarled, increased the flow of power into the crystal, and hurled himself against Narrel once more.
The two stood frozen at the center of the ruined tower with the battle raging around them, their faces knot in the most intense concentration. Morovin struck Narrel's shield again and again, and could barely bring his own shield up in time to meet Narrel's own mental assaults, which were coming with increasing frequency.
Narrel was stronger then he, and knew it, and with a t'santari of the kind of purity as the one he now wore on his wrist, he was much stronger. Morovin's only option was to increase the power to his crystal once again. He felt the t'santari begin to shiver in his fist, but he felt Narrel's shield fluctuate under the intensified assault. Just one more increase
The crystal in Morovin's fist exploded.
The Esper screamed as he felt his hand torn to the bone by the exploding t'santari, stumbling backwards and grasping at his wrist. Magical backlash from the crystal poured into his hand, and it began to shrivel on his wrist. He fell backwards, screaming in agony, and saw the Torch, just off to his left. As his good hand groped for it, he called to mind a Jump spell, any Jump, to anywhere, but he had to get away. He thought for a moment of Morgan, but it wasn't worth it - he was the Archlord, and more important. His hand brushed the crystal globe, and he activated his spell he could feel his consciousness slipping away
Narrel cried out in fury as Morovin and the Eclipse Torch winked out of existence. A moment later, to his disbelief, the other traitors embroiled in the battle began Jumping away too. The Jumps occurred in such rapid succession that it was difficult to track the destination of just one then it was over. He had no idea where they had gone. He glanced over his shoulder, but Morgan was still there, unconscious.
Narrel turned and saw Alys approaching him, wiping her sword off. He suddenly realized how he must look-naked and cursing to himself and waving around the Psycho-Wand. He decided to put the best face possible on it. He approached Alys, blushing a little, but solemn nonetheless. "Head Lain, if I could speak to you in private?"
"Yes, of course," Alys replied. "Algernon, Daielli, set up my private tent on that rise." She turned back to Narrel. "Will you be wanting some clothes, Speaker?" Her voice was amused. Narrel felt his blush heighten, but nodded. "Quryith, find Speaker Narrel some clothes that would fit him I presume there's a reason for all this?"
"Yes," Narrel replied, "there is Oh, Light! The Espers!" Quickly, he turned and raced off towards the tower. He heard two people fall in behind him, and glanced over his shoulder. Alys was behind him, and another man he didn't recognize with his arm in a cast and carrying a Wren's weapon.
Within several moments, Narrel had descended into the cavern where the Espers were being held. The guards, stalwart to the last, fled at the sight of Narrel with the Psycho-Wand, Jumping away almost in unison. From there it was a simple matter for the Espers to dispel the shielding holding them captive.
"It seems," Alys said thoughtfully, stroking her chin, "that we have a very great deal to discuss."
The Layan's Sword was a single roomed building that butted up against the city wall of Landen. It was of adequate size, with few windows, and was almost perpetually smoky (though just where the smoke originated from was a mystery to Rika). It was loud, boisterous, and crude, to say the least.
She loved it.
Justin, on the other hand, was regarding the building with sound distaste. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to see the library, Rika? Landen has the most recent collection of historical archives-"
"All censored by Tareela, no doubt," Tamgren put in.
"That is sound politics," Daughter confirmed, nodding.
"Anyway," Rika said, "no matter what your archives
may say, there's not a doubt in my mind that the people who have
to live here are far more recent."
One of Justin's men chuckled, but the Dragon-Knight silenced him with a venomous look. "Very well."
"Tareela was a fair enough queen," the man said, sipping his drink, "and she picked up the Plan right where her parents left off."
"The Plan?" Rika asked.
The man gave her a strange look. "Yeah, the Plan. To return to Algo."
"Oh, the Plan. So why did you-we-wander for so many years?"
"You been living under a rock, girl?"
"You could say that." Rika smiled.
The man shrugged and turned to contemplation of his empty glass, silent. Rika grinned and waved a waitress over, drawing a few coins from the pouch she'd slipped off of Justin on the way in. The man grinned crookedly.
"Anyway," he said as the woman scurried off, "we did have a destination when we set out-according to legend, the Palman government had a planet cited as a possible sight for a colony. We were fleeing to there - everyone was pretty much convinced Algo was doomed. There was some crisis going on-computers and demons, and a group of outlaws that they never did catch. The records are sketchy." The man sighed in contentment as a drink was placed before him. "But then the Devastation War broke out and everyone but the Aerone Pilots forgot about technology, Palm, even the Alisa III. When the technology came back we were already arriving at the planet.
"The Pilots recorded everything carefully, their sensor records and everything like that, but the planet we had come to was dead, just devoid of life. They traced the false sensor readings to a computer error that had occurred during the Devastation War, that just kept feeding the computer the old information." He sighed. "There was no place else for the Alisa III to go but back to Algo-and we didn't even know if Algo still existed."
"How long ago was that?"
"'Bout a thousand years, give or take." He took a long draw on his ale.
"So the king of the time - Adan? - instituted the plan?"
"Uh-huh." The man nodded vigorously. "And everything went fine until Tareela's parents died and she took the throne."
"What happened?" Again the man gave her that odd look. She was being to obvious about it. Luckily he didn't pursue the matter. He'd already had three drinks.
"And she just discarded the Plan?" Tamgren asked.
"Yeah," the woman seated at the bar replied. "She started to resent Algo for letting Palm be destroyed during the Dying. She decided to teach them a lesson. There was a lot - I mean a lot! - of turmoil following the proclamation of war. Nobody liked her decision, nobody wanted to go to war."
"It seems to me," Daughter offered, "that such an illogical, unprecedented decision could very well result in extreme political tumult."
"Why didn't you rebel?" Tamgren translated.
"We did." Luckily the woman was more then a little drunk - Daughter had been able to point her out by her stance and movements - drunk enough to not consider things very much, but still coherent. "Except for the zealots."
"Fanatic Tareela supporters. When the people marched on Landen, the zealots started sacking and burning villages in the name of peace. As the villages were destroyed, people started deserting heading home to see to their families. The rebellion basically collapsed and never started again."
"Were the zealots ever tracked down? Did the government make any effort to find them?"
"No and no. The odd thing is, the zealots had access to all sorts of weaponry that only the government has available. Common opinion at the time was that Tareela was funding the zealots to keep the peace. Damned vicious if you ask me."
"Just do it, Matt," Morovin snarled through clenched teeth. "That's an order!"
"But, my lord," the young man holding the knife protested, "There must be another way "
The cancer that had resulted from the destruction of Morovin's t'santari was rapidly spreading from his now shriveled, useless hand. The flesh of his arm, almost up to his elbow, had blackened, then browned, then shriveled away, and the progress of the magical backlash was spreading.
"Doubtless there is," Morovin hissed through the pain, "but we not the luxury of time to seek it. Do it now, or I'll find someone else to do it, and see you killed. Now!"
The knife in Matt's hand dropped, the point pricking Morovin's skin just above his elbow. The Esper chanted a spell and Morovin could feel the blade heating up until it was red hot. The knife rose, then fell.
"Did you manage to find out anything useful?" Rika sat down heavily in the chair, peeling off a shoe.
Lant shook his head, but Chaz, as usual, was silent. "Nope. We couldn't get in to see Tareela or Nevak all day, and he," Lant cocked his thumb at the man assigned to watch them during Justin's absence, "doesn't have all that much to say." Lant grinned. The man scowled.
"What did you find out?" Chaz's voice was quiet, almost a whisper. He sat in a chair with one leg cocked over the arm, gazing out the window. He didn't move a muscle.
"It appears that Tareela's funding a group of political insurgents who "
"That's slander!" Justin snarled suddenly. Rika fell silent with a start. "My father and his staff oversee all the accounting that goes on in Landen and keep impeccable records. If Tareela was shaving money out of the treasury to pay those outlaws then he would know."
"Your father has a staff?" Tamgren said quietly. Something in his voice made Rika look at him oddly, but he ignored her. "I haven't seen any indication "
"His staff," Justin said coldly, "is placed almost exclusively in the Central Tower in Aridia at the moment. They communicate through the communication system linking the Turrets."
"Turrets?" Daughter asked.
Justin sighed. "The towers rising out of the biodomes set around Aridia are called Turrets, and there are six of them. They control the ship's heading, direction, weapon systems, and also houses the Cyborg command controls, which is the only place they can be shut down. The main one, in Aridia, is sort of the master tower-the Central Tower, it's called. It's in Aridia because it creates a great deal of radiation bleed off from the engines, excess energy from the weapons, stuff like that, that makes the air unbreathable. All travel in Aridia has to be done by Land Rover, but since Aridia was basically uninhabitable anyway "
"But the Cyborgs can be deactivated from any of those Turrets?" Rika asked.
Justin suddenly went stiff. "I can't say." He saw Rika's eyes go hard. "Rika, I'm sorry "
"Yeah," Rika hissed. "Your honor. I know."
Chaz felt a hand clamp down on his mouth. His eyes opened and he grabbed the wrist of his attacker. He relaxed, seeing Rika.
Moonlight streamed in through the window, and not for the first time did Chaz wonder where the moonlight came from, and what created night and day in this strange environment. He brushed the thought aside, and sat up.
Rika was dressed in the same clothes she'd been wearing since they'd arrived-as yet, Tareela had made no complaint, but with the volatile nature of the Queen's temper, who knew
"What's going on?" he asked.
"I'm going to the library in Landen to see what I can learn. Maybe there's something there we can pick up."
"You're sneaking out? I'm coming with you."
Rika shook her head. "No. I need you here to try and cover for me until I get back. I'm taking Daughter with me."
"You really think you can sneak out?"
"I know I can."
Darkness shrouded the city of Landen and there were few people about on the streets when Daughter and Rika slipped over the palace wall and dropped into the street. The massive Turret rising up through the dome cast a deeper darkness along the street.
Rika had seen the library on the way to the Layan's Sword, and indeed Justin had made a special point of showing it to them - probably in the hopes they'd change their minds about the bar.
A little later, after Daughter had skillfully torn the lock off the door, she and Rika were inside the massive building. Daughter had crossed quickly to the archives and began flipping rapidly through the files, while Rika explored the room for anyone who might care to spy on them.
"Aerone." Daughter said suddenly. "Aerone is the key to all of this. They were the keepers of the technology following an event referred to as the 'Devastation War'. The Devastation War seemed to have been sparked by a quarrel between the two rulers of the time, Laya and Orakio Landale, a pair of siblings who were ruling jointly." Daughter flipped back and forth rapidly.
"There is no record of the nature of this dispute it was apparently caused by Dark Force reaching into this reality and manipulating them."
Rika started. "Dark Force! Do you think he could be behind this too?"
Daughter cocked her head. "Unlikely. Your mother destroyed the Profound Darkness, and, according to everything we have been able to unearth concerning Dark Force, the Dark Force entity was itself an extension of the Darkness. It ceased to exist when it's master did.
"In any case, the Devastation War lead to both their deaths and the bitter divisions of the Alisian people. They formed two separate societies - the Orakians, and the Layans. The Layans, according to the records, treat magic as a way of life - indeed, it seems to be an inborn trait. The Orakians refuse to use magic, seeing it as a tool of the Layans. Even though the divisions between the societies are weakened, these ancient prejudices still hold true."
"But what does this Aerone have to do with it?"
"As I said, they 'kept' the technology that remained after the war safe until such time as a descendant of Orakio and Laya came to claim it. He was Nial, Adan's father. It seems that since Adan lost the Sword of Orakio, the technology the Aeronians guarded has been used to make the modifications to the Alisa III we see here - the Turrets and the Towers."
Daughter paused. "It would appear the weapons were not implemented until after Tareela took the throne."
"I knew it was too good to be true," Rika murmured.
"That woman back there-don't look! That woman is following us. She's been following us since we left the library."
Daughter glanced over her shoulder. The woman in question was farther down the street, and on the other side, cloaked and swathed in blue. "You are certain?"
"Oh, yes. Listen, Daughter, I want you to go back to the castle. Wait for me at the gates. I'm going to go see to this woman."
Daughter grasped Rika's forearm. "Would you not appreciate backup?"
"I'll be fine. Go."
Rika did a quick about-face and walked straight towards the woman, who paused, then turned and started off in the other direction. Rika quickened her pace.
The woman-her face still invisible at this distance-glanced over her shoulder, saw Rika approaching faster, and began running, darting around a corner and into an alleyway.
Swearing and loosening her sword in her scabbard, Rika broke into a run as well, and entered the alley seconds after the woman.
It was a cul-de-sac, empty except for a few barrels of trash. Rika quickly scanned the alley, stepping farther in to get a better view. Nothing. She gave a cursory examination to each of the barrels, but there was nothing in them but rats.
There was a sudden fluttering and a steely click, and Rika spun, raising her sword. A moment later, she sighed and dropped it.
There was a snowy white owl perched on one of the trash cans, regarding her with that odd cocked head all owls seemed to have. Rika cursed, and left the alley.
A moment after Rika left, there was a flash of light, and a woman perched primly on the trash can where the owl had been seconds before.
So, perhaps Rika's role in this wasn't as clearly defined as she had originally thought no traitor goes sneaking around behind his ally's back. The plot thickens.
A snowy white owl took wing a second later, and flew up and out of the alley, giving one resonant cry before striking out in the opposite direction from the castle.
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