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Chapter 3

"Head Lain? Gaideen Tarm is here to see you."

If the woman at the doorway to the office had expected a response, she received none, save a small sigh of resignation from the woman at the desk. A moment of silence passed while the Head finished the paperwork on her desk and held it out. The woman entered the office and took it, then returned to the doorway.

"Head Lain? What about the mayor?"

Alys sighed again. "Send him in."

Gaideen Tarm was a short, fat man with thinning hair, though he groomed himself carefully to hide that fact. He had not won the office of mayor of Aiedo so much as bought it, and considered his wants to be the wants of the people. His policies were rather self-serving, and he had the upper class to support him and buy votes through bribes, so he had held the office for quite some time. He was arrogant and ignorant, and he and Alys, as the two administrative heads of the city, clashed often.

Alys thought the man was an idiot.

Tarm seated himself at Alys' desk, across from the Head. He glanced disdainfully about the office, his gaze resting on the cabinet in which Alys' weaponry was prominently displayed, surmounted by a well cared for, but old, slasher. He made a small noise of distaste.

"Head Lain," he began, "I assume you know why I'm here."

Alys nodded, slowly, waiting patiently for the string of demands that always accompanied Gaideen Tarm's visits. As Head, Alys controlled the people in Aiedo affiliated with Hunter's Guild - she had no control over the civilians. For Tarm, as the Mayor, it was the opposite. His authority ended where Alys' began, and vice versa. More often the not, the system ended up causing political deadlock. "The body of people moving towards Aiedo, Mayor, of course."

Tarm rose and rounded the desk, hands clasped at his back, to the large window on the far wall of Alys' office. He gestured expansively at the horizon. A twisting column of inky smoke rose into the air, and a dark stain was spreading outwards from it, towards Aiedo.

"Of course," Tarm responded. "I believe the force is hostile…"

Alys cut him off. "Of course they are, Mayor Tarm, if the reports are true."

"What reports?" Tarm retorted sharply, spinning to face Alys. He had paled.

Alys' brow furrowed in confusion. "The reports from my agents stationed in Nalya, Mayor. Haven't you received word from your garrison?"

The Mayor stiffened. "We have no garrison in Nalya, Head Lain. There is no need for one." He returned to his seat.

Alys went white in fury, and her hands clenched into fists on her desk. With difficulty, she regained her composure. "Mayor Tarm, Nalya is an Aiedo protectorate - they have been since the Redemption. According to the agreement, Nalya supplies us with a percentage of their produce in exchange for protection and aid. I believe, according to the written agreement, that one facet of that aid was both Hunter agents and Aiedo soldiers stationed in the city."

"As everyone knows, Head Lain, that agreement became unnecessary after the Rebirth. There were many talks about removing the state of protection - after your victory, Alys, the garrison was withdrawn. You should be aware of the effects of your own battles, of all people."

"But the protectorate was never nulled!" Alys' voice went icy cold. "Do not presume to tell me what I do and do not have a responsibility to know, Mayor Tarm. And you are not my better, you will not address me as 'Alys'. You will accord me the honor due to me by my station - Head Lain - an honor I have unfailingly accorded you. If you fail to comply with this protocol, I will have you thrown out of my office. Do you understand?" Tarm nodded mutely. "Fine. Since your incompetence has kept you in the dark about our situation, I will explain to you exactly what happened last night. I will only repeat this once - I do not have time to waste drilling that which you should know into your skull.

"Last night, Nalya was attacked by a large force of raiders who came out of the mountains west of the city. I haven't been able to get an accurate description of them, but they appear to employ some sort of power similar to Esper magic-"

"Those stinking Espers. I always knew it would…" Tarm fell silent as Alys' gaze became, if anything, more dangerous.

"Don't interrupt me, Mayor Tarm. This is my office. The energy weaponry they employ doesn't seem based on the mental powers of the Espers, but rather on an aspect of their armor. They seem to be using magic of some sort, but not any kind that I - or my agents - recognize."

"Were there any survivors?"

"None, save my agents. The force of attackers killed everyone, and now they seem to be moving on Aiedo. I'll be sending some scouts to judge their numbers and get an accurate identification of them. Naturally, I'll share all information I glean with you."

"There will be no need for that, Head Lain," Tarm replied stiffly. "My advisors and I have hit upon a course of action, and now that we know the force is hostile, we can put it into effect."

"What might that be?" Alys could hardly keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Tarm's council of advisors consisted exclusively of the elite upper class - quick to boast their strength, quicker still to take what they and their servants could carry and run.

"We will withdraw from Aiedo to a safer position - Kadary, through the valley."

Alys laughed. "That's not withdrawl! That's running from it. And what happens when they chase you? No, I'm afraid I can't allow that. My Hunters are already fortifying the Guild. There's room enough here for everyone in Aiedo. We can retreat to here and hold our own."

"You have no say in the matter, Head Lain," Tarm replied. "Shall we discuss once more the boundaries of our power?" Alys was silent. "I thought not. If you wish to stay and guard your home, that's your concern. I shall take my citizens and make a strategic retreat."

"You're crazed."

"Ah, so you have discarded your much vaunted protocols? I think it is you who are crazed, Head Lain. Farewell."

"Wait."

"What now?" Tarm half turned, his aloof expression telling louder then words that he didn't care how Alys felt. She silently cursed herself for her too-quick temper.

"I want you to make it clear that the citizens who don't want leave Aiedo are welcome to stand with my Hunters." She rose slowly from her desk and gazed at the Mayor.

Tarm nodded slowly, once, then sneered. "Of course I will."

Alys knew that many of the citizens would leave with Tarm on his fools mission - the Hunters were not well liked enough in Aiedo for people to want to stand with them. So she nodded acquiescence, and slowly sat back down, giving up.

When Tarm was gone, Alys rang the small bell on her desk. A moment later the door opened and her personal scribe entered. Alys ran a hand through her hair and tucked an errant strand behind her Numan ears, a habit she had possessed since childhood.

She sighed deeply. "Send word to Lars Garrate," she told the girl. "I want him here as soon as possible."

"Yes, Head Lain." A moment later the girl was gone.

Alys rose slowly and turned, looking out the window at Nalya, or where Nalya used to be. The point of origin for the column of smoke was painfully self-evident. She cursed Tarm and she cursed herself for not keeping an eye on him.

How many lives were lost, she asked herself, that I might have saved?

And the pillar of smoke continued to twist and writhe it's way into the sky.

Mocking her.

* * *

Kyra Tierney threw her head backwards, let the cold Dezolis wind caress her face. But more then that, she was probing the air around her, searching the very rocks for an imprint, a residue, anything that would lead her closer to her goal.

Kyra, Sixth Generation Lutz, Fifth Chosen, had grown into a strong, beautiful, powerful woman. Her wreath of blue hair framed her soft features chaotically, her beauty belying her inner might. Her seemingly endless youth was a result of the Lutz being a part of her.

Her blue Esper mantle flew out behind her, snapping in the breeze, and Dezolis spread out before her. Her view from atop the mountain was quite striking, and she normally would have taken time to appreciate it. But there was something more important that occupied her mind just then.

She combed through a thousand years and more's worth of memories, picking out clues and hints and veiled half-truths, anything about the item she sought. She had no idea how it had…escaped…from where it had been kept, but nonetheless it was gone. That was all that mattered.

Gasping suddenly, Kyra opened her eyes and dropped to one knee, her hand caressing the ground. She had followed the trail from the Mansion to here where it had simply stopped. Such a thing was impossible, of course, as an item of it's power left vibrations throughout the universe, making it's trail easily marked, and the object of her search was most definitely not nearby. Yet here the trail ended.

But what Kyra had found might have explained the discrepancy - a faint warping of reality about the mountaintop, as if the fabric of time was a little more frayed then usual. A rift, of some sort, had been opened here. And now that she knew what it was, it was easy enough to follow.

Quickly, she slipped through a hole in reality and pursued it.

Several moments later, Kyra emerged from the place between time and space into a clearing. She was more then a little taken aback by the sudden change of scenery. She had left Dezolis and traveled through the hole into a forest clearing on Motavia. Such a long distance Jump was theoretically impossible - even she, at the peak of her powers, could Jump, at best, halfway around Dezolis. If she hadn't had the existing rift or one of the Esper's Energy Bridges to come through, she wouldn't have been able to make the jump.

Whoever had made off with Elsydeon was enormously powerful.

The ground of the clearing was criss-crossed with deep ruts, and Kyra recognized them. Kneeling, she brushed her hand against the tread marks, and shivered.

"A Land Rover?" She rose and probed with her mind once more, immediately picking up the psychic imprint left by the sacred sword. "Now I've got two trails to follow." She grinned in spite of herself.

* * *

"It's getting dark," Lant noted from the passenger's seat behind Rika. "Where are we camping for the night?"

Rika gestured vaguely off to the east, more concerned with driving the Land Rover then listening to her brother. "Monsen," she replied.

"Rika misses her bed," Chaz taunted from beside her. Rika glared at him for a moment and he fell silent. Lant snickered. Chaz turned back to his brother. "What's Tamgren doing?"

"He's sleeping in the back," Lant replied. "Want me to go wake him?"

"Yeah," Rika interjected before Chaz could speak. "Hurry up, okay? We're almost there."

Lant unbuckled from the chair he was sitting in and rose, unsteady in the shaky vehicle. He walked around the row of passenger's seats - all empty, Rika and Chaz were seated at the very front, in the pilot's and co-pilot's seats - to the doorway in the back. The Land Rover had only two rooms - Tamgren often took advantage of the smaller one when he got tired. Lant was beginning to find Tamgren more then a little boring.

The door to the back room slid shut as Lant entered. In the darkness, he could see Tamgren sprawled on the small cot. He moved forward to shake him awake.

A sudden screeching filled the air and the Land Rover jerked erratically, throwing Lant off his feet onto Tamgren. The other boy gave a small cry at the rude awakening. Three more of the almost metallic screeching filled the air, each punctuated by a low boom. The Land Rover jerked three more times, one side rising higher and higher into the air, until, suddenly, it toppled.

Lant was lifted off the ground by the fall and hurled around like a doll within the empty room. Tamgren was yelling and Lant realized he was screaming as the Land Rover rolled onto it's roof.

When the only motion in the room was from Lant's dizziness, he sat up slowly and rubbed his forehead. His whole body ached, but he seemed otherwise uninjured - nothing seemed to have been broken in the crash. Belatedly, he realized he was sitting on the ceiling.

"What's going on?" he cried.

Tamgren groaned and sat up slowly rubbing his head. "I'd better be dreaming, Lant. Why is the Land Rover upside down?"

Before Lant could respond, there were another quick succession of blasts, each rocking the Land Rover more. Suddenly, Lant could hear sounds of combat in the main room.

* * *

Lant unbuckled from the chair he was sitting in and rose, unsteady in the shaky vehicle. He walked around the row of passenger's seats - all empty, Rika and Chaz were seated at the very front, in the pilot's and co-pilot's seats - to the doorway in the back. A moment later, Chaz heard the door slide shut.

"So, Rika, do you think that-"

The main window lit up as a bolt of light flashed into existence atop the hill ahead of them. Chaz threw his arms up across his face and neck and instinctively hurled himself to one side, out of the chair and onto the floor. He hoped Rika had done the same as the window erupted into a shower of razor sharp glass. His body was peppered with pieces of glass, but none pierced his clothes.

The blast had been accompanied by an ungodly screaming noise - Chaz heard this sound repeat three times, and barely had time to put his thoughts together and prepare for the attack. The Land Rover rocked as the blasts slammed into it's side, each one hammering into the same point. Slowly, the Land Rover was lifted until it teetered precariously on it's side. Then it fell.

Chaz barely had time to pitch himself forward, out of the destroyed main window, and despite his great speed, he felt glass tear into his foot and he screamed. He hit the sand and rolled, then twirled to look at the Land Rover. His hand dropped to his belt, only to realize he had left his sword on the Land Rover. He cursed, then gasped.

The Land Rover had fallen and now rested upside down in the sand, and the weight had crumpled the roof into a flat surface. Nothing was left of the main window save ragged shards of glass protruding from the flame. Within, dimly, he could see Rika moving about, searching for her sword.

There were creatures approaching the Land Rover - three of them, all human, and of varying proportions. Each appeared to be heavily armored - to someone unused to such sights. Chaz immediately recognized them for what they were.

Androids. As impossible as it seemed, they were being attacked by Androids.

One of the Androids turned to face Chaz and the boy saw a blaster in it's hand. He pitched himself to one side as the laser beam tore through the air where he had been moments ago.

"Rika!" he cried. "Look out!" Then he turned and limped off across the dunes, one of the Androids in hot pursuit.

* * *

Rika's hand had just closed upon her sword when she heard Chaz cry out, "Rika! Look out!" Her sword was in her hands and she tossed the scabbard away as the first figure appeared in the remains of the window.

In appearance, it was human, with metal protrusions and flashing lights embedded into it's skin. It's flesh was pasty and cold, it's dark hair limp. It held a blaster in one hand.

"Wren?"

Her shoulder ached. She wagered it a glance and wished she hadn't. A shard of glass was buried in her arm where it met her shoulder, and the cloth of her tunic was wet with blood. Her armor had stopped it from going in much deeper then just blood and an ache, but it still hurt.

Then the Android in the window sprang forward. A foolish move. With one hand, Rika grabbed it's blaster and twisted it down and away from her body. The shot the Wren had aimed at her chest went awry, scoring the floor (ceiling?) of the Land Rover with it's laser.

Rika riposted, pivoting on her heel and thrusting her sword at the Wren's chest. The Android attempted knock the sword away with one hand, but succeeded only in turning a killing blow into a mortally wounding blow. The blade slide cleanly into it's shoulder. Rika twisted the blade quickly, feeling the weapon sever conduits and wires within the metallic body. The Wren Android convulsed wildly for a moment, then went limp.

The door to the back room began to slide open. Rika spun on her heel and drove her foot into the control mechanism for the doorway. There was a sizzling noise and the door stopped moving. A moment later, she heard Tamgren and Lant pounding on it. She ignored them as the second Wren appeared in the window. It crouched at the opening, aimed it's blaster, and unleashed a rapid fire laser burst from it's gun. Rika dove to the side, feeling the blasts pass by a hairs-breadth from he body. She fell behind one of the chairs that had torn free from the ceiling (floor?) and fumbled for her dagger in her belt.

The Android was continuing it's barrage into the Land Rover, frying components and machinery into formless slag. "Get back!" Rika cried, seeing Lant's face pressed against the opening of the doorway. A moment later, the boy cried out and drew away as a blast fried the doorway near him.

Rika rose and her arm snapped forward fluidly, tossing a dagger end over end towards the Wren. She hadn't been able to see her target, so she didn't expect it to hit. The Wren, however, leaned instinctively to one side and Rika sprung, vaulting over the debris with her sword slashing at it's head. It leaned backwards, overbalanced, and fell into the sand. Rika leapt from the Land Rover and drove her sword towards it's chest.

The Wren rolled to the side and got to his knees before Rika was on him again, pressing her advantage. Somehow, the Wren darted within her guard and got a hold of her wrist, lifting her off the ground and hurling her away.

Rika landed hard, her sword slipping from her nerveless fingers. She rubbed her aching wrist and cast about for a weapon as the Wren approached. Quickly, she snatched up a shard of glass, feeling it dig into her hands as she got a firm grip then, with all the force she had, leapt forward and buried it in the Wren's chest.

It toppled, soundlessly, leaking oil and blood.

For a moment, Rika cast about the dunes. Her twin brother was nowhere in sight. "Lant?" Rika called. "Tamgren? Are you all right?"

* * *

His pursuer was nowhere in sight. Chaz dropped to a seated position, wincing at the pain in his foot. He pulled off his blood soaked, shredded shoe. He grimaced in pain and revulsion at the ugly wound.

His foot was shredded along one side - almost from his ankle to his toes and his entire foot was wet with blood. Quickly Chaz stripped off his shirt and began to tear it into strips to bandage the wound. Within a few moments he was absorbed in his task.

Just as he was finishing tying the last bandage, a shadow loomed over him. He gasped and tried to dart away, but he moved to slowly. A hand closed about his shoulder, lifting him into the air and then hurling him to the sand. He fell and cried out in pain. The Wren Android was approaching him, and Chaz was unarmed. Quickly, he grabbed a large rock and scrambled to his feet as fast as his wound would allow. The Android seemed unarmed, but it's body was massively strong and Chaz knew he would lose a hand to hand battle. Nonetheless, holding his rock, he limped forward.

He managed to duck beneath the Android's first hook punch, but it's other hand snapped downwards and grabbed him by the shoulder once more, lifting him into the air like he was a child. The grip on his shoulder was becoming tighter, almost to the breaking point, and Chaz strained against a sea of pain to stay conscious. Lights danced before his eyes and in desperation, he slammed his rock against the Android's face.

The rock exploded.

Chaz was hurled backwards to the sand once more, and lay for several seconds on the sand, whimpering in pain. The Android, through whatever had happened, had managed to retain it's grip on his shoulder. But the grip didn't tighten. Slowly, Chaz opened his tightly clenched eyes.

He cried out in terror and scrambled to his feet, yanking the arm free from his shoulder. The entire limb had been torn free of the Android at the elbow - the end of the arm was a mess of wires and flesh. Horrified, he hurled the arm away.

The Android itself had been tossed against a tree, it's face blown almost totally off. It wasn't moving, except to leak it's vital fluids. Chaz couldn't look at the body for long without feeling ill.

I did this?

He turned to walk away, but he was suddenly weak - he stumbled and fell to the sand. His hands came to his head - his entire skull was filled with an incredible pounding. The world echoed that organic beat, swirling around him. He gave a low moan and fell to the sand, unconscious.

* * *

Rika grunted as she planted her hands firmly on the doorway and the frame and pushed. Inch by inch the broken door slid open. Finally, gasping, Rika stepped backwards.

"Can you get through now?"

There was a pause, then Lant squirmed through the opening and into the Land Rover's main room - what was left of it. A moment later, Tamgren followed, the fit a little more snug, but he made it through. "Where's Chaz?"

Rika shook her head and made for the gaping hole at the front of the Land Rover. "I don't know," she told them. "He jumped clear of the Land Rover when it started to go over - I was a little slower to react. I hope he's okay." She vaulted out of the totaled machine and onto the sand. Her sword was drawn and at the ready.

"Should we go look for him?" Tamgren joined her outside.

"I didn't even see which way he went - he could be anywhere."

Tamgren knelt in the sand, then looked for a moment as if he was going to rise again. He dropped to a sitting position beside Rika. "What exactly happened?"

"I don't really know. Chaz and I sent Lant back to wake you, then something fired on us. It blew off the main windshield. Chaz and I barely got out of the way." She reached up and gingerly touched a light slash under her eyebrow, and the now bandaged wound on her shoulder. At least the first aid kit hadn't been wrecked. "Something else fired from another direction - they hit the Land Rover in such a way that it tipped over and fell. That's when Chaz got clear. He just jumped out the windshield. God," she shook her head. "Why is he so stupid? Anyway, when the Land Rover stopped moving, I got my sword and I fought off-"

"Wren!" Lant's voice came from within the Land Rover. "These guys look just like Wren!"

"They must be Wren-types," Tamgren called back. A moment later Lant appeared, peering down at them from the windshield.

"That can't be right," Lant said. "There isn't any place in Algo where you could make Wren Androids. Wren is the only one left." He jumped down. "Where's Chaz?"

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