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Alys had absolute faith in him and his skills. His advice was always concise, clear, and well thought out. He, too, recognized Alys' skills and respected her authority. It was one of Alys' more pleasant business relationships.
Lars entered the office and, at a gesture from Alys, seated himself. His serious face had deepened, becoming quite grave.
"I understand Tarm had apoplexy after leaving your office today, Alys." He smiled at her. They had been on a first name basis for quite some time. "I hear you did, too."
"Tarm is an idiot," Alys stated bluntly. "I have people keeping track of his actions and how many people leave Aiedo with him. I'm afraid we may be defending Aiedo on our own, Lars."
"Why is that? You know public feeling towards Tarm. The only reason he still has that office is because he buys it every year." Lars leaned forward, resting his arms on Alys' desk.
"Yes, but no one in Aiedo trusts us, Lars. Odds are half of them think the invasion is just some Hunter scheme. I wish there was something I could do "
"I wouldn't worry about it. Anyone fool enough to take Tarm seriously doesn't deserve your help. What we do have to do is concentrate on what we can do."
Alys sighed. "You're right, Lars. I just have this awful feeling." She sighed again, then moved on briskly. "How's the fortification of the Guild coming?"
"Well enough, I suppose," Lars responded. "Better we didn't have to fortify at all, but The houses we own in Aiedo have been cleared of all their food and weapons caches and moved to the storerooms in the basement and the vault. They're all packed. With the supplies we have we can sustain a siege lasting -" he consulted a clipboard is his hands. "Three months. We also have people sealing off the wells so they can't poison our water." He looked up, then continued. "The Hunter's Guild was made to withstand a siege. We have the inner courtyard with the gateway and the moat around the Guild proper, so we can withdraw into the actual Guild and surrender the courtyard if need be."
"Good. I want runners sent to Piata and Mile through the valley. The stream of Aiedo refugees will have Kadary fortified, but Mile might not be aware of the situation. Oh, and Zema."
Lars made some quick notes. "Do you want me to send a scouting party to check on the enemy?"
"No," Alys replied carefully. "I'll go alone, Lars. It's too dangerous for a large group, and I'm the best." Alys wasn't boasting - she was stating a fact.
Lars' head snapped up. "I can't allow that, Alys. I'll go. You're to important."
"Don't contradict me, Guild Second." Lars flinched. She had referred to him by his title - something they rarely did. She wasn't going to budge on this issue. He simply nodded acquiescence.
"As you wish, Head Lain." Alys blinked at him. Her gaze went cold. "I'm sorry," they both said at once. "Yeah," Lars told her. "I understand." He rose to leave the office when Alys gestured vaguely at the exit. He paused in the doorway, then half-turned to face Alys. "You want me to send some people to look for your kids?"
Alys considered it for a moment, and Lars saw her eyes go sad. "No," she said after a while. "We can't spare anyone if we don't know what we're up against. They're good kids, Lars, and they do have the Land Rover. They'll be fine." She was trying to convince herself, Lars knew.
"Okay," Lars replied, nodding. "You sure about this, Alys?" When the Head nodded, Lars turned and left.
Alys shook her head in disbelief then inched her way slowly down the side of the dune, out of sight of the approaching force. She slowly lowered her binoculars. The force was large - they outnumbered Alys' five hundred Hunters three-to-one. The Hunters had the advantage of position, staying powers and - Alys had hoped - better skills.
But this wasn't an army of raiders or some enterprising noble. Every one of the attackers was the splitting image of Wren. Alys didn't know how it was possible, except that somewhere, someone was manufacturing Wren type Androids. But there was no way that the Androids could be manufactured in Algo - Demi and Wren had deactivated all the systems, and disassembled all the weapons and Android producing facilities.
It simply wasn't possible.
A slight rustling behind her and an almost inaudible swishing were the only warnings Alys got - but they were enough. She rolled to one side as a large, metal plated fist buried itself in the ground where her skull had been moments before. She was on her feet in a moment, drawing in one hand her short-bladed sword, in the other a slasher. Within seconds the slasher was in the air.
The Wren stumbled back as the slasher's razor sharp blades sliced a deep tear in it's chest. The throwing weapon returned to Alys' hand, but before she could throw it again, the Android was upon her.
It was a lot like fighting a friend. Alys tossed the slasher to one side, then ducked back and away as the Wren swung a huge fist at her. She made a quick stab with her light sword, her other hand dipping to her belt sheath for a long, curved knife. Her sword was light enough to wielded one-handed.
The Wren sidestepped her blow, grabbing her wrist and the front of her tunic, then lifted her into the air and cast her down onto the sand. Alys' knife, free of it's sheath, fell out of her hand and away.
Alys danced quickly to her feet, ignoring the knife but taking her slasher from where it had fallen. Snapping the blades together to form a makeshift dagger, she approached the Wren.
Feinting, Alys darted forward and stabbed with her sword, at the same time burying the slasher in the Wren's side. The Wren seized up for a moment as Alys' weapon punctured it's flesh, and the sword slid neatly into it's chest. The Wren toppled like a felled tree.
For a moment, Alys lay still, looking at the Android, then stepped forward and drew her sword and slasher from it's body, wiping the dark stain of it's blood off her weaponry. It looked like Wren - but it was not Wren. None of them were. There was had been no life in it's eyes while they had fought, and it's skin was pasty and cold. It had no mind, no sentience.
Alys slid her weapons back into her belt. She gave the Wren a final look before she began running back to where she had left her horse.
"I found it!" Lant's call echoed uncomfortably loud across the dunes. He glanced around sheepishly, then gestured at the ground at his feet.
Rika and Tamgren both looked up from where they had been scouring the ground about the Land Rover, and jogged across the sand towards Lant.
"Here's where he hit the ground," Lant told them, pointing. "And that's the way he went." He pointed at Chaz's tracks, clearly imprinted in the sand.
"He was followed," Tamgren noted. Another set of tracks, deeper in the sand, ran parallel to his. "Probably by another Wren. We'd better go find him."
"Okay." Rika looked around. "The Land Rover's trashed - we'll leave it here. Get your stuff, and hurry."
Lant was first to the Land Rover - he ran into the back room and snatched up his pack, then grabbed the sword, still wrapped in it's yellowed cloth. He tied it to his pack with all his other supplies and hoped Rika wouldn't notice it. He ran to meet Rika and Tamgren outside.
Within a few moments, the site of the battle was abandoned.
Drained beyond his abilities, Chaz hovered on the edge of wakefulness and unconsciousness, his mind sluggishly noting events around him, but paying them no heed. He was vaguely aware of strong hands lifting him, that the sun was no longer on him, that the air was cool. That he was lying on something soft - not sand. A bed. A rumble all around him, and a vague sense of lifting, then moving forward.
Consciousness drifted away.
Kyra extended her mind out along the path Elsydeon had taken, preparing herself for a Jump to follow it faster. How did the thief get a Land Rover? There was only one, as far as she knew.
Making a careful gesture and speaking a word, Kyra drew her body along the path of her mind, taking a step forward and sliding along Elsydeon's trail to the farthest point she could reach. Her step carried her miles in a second, and her foot did not touch ground in the forest clearing.
"Well, well, well," she said. She had found the Land Rover. The vehicle had been the nexus for some sort of battle, and Kyra could vaguely see some corpses on the opposite side of the car. The Land Rover itself was flipped over onto it's roof, it's tread pointing at the sky. It had obviously rolled a fair distance, too, judging by the marks on the sand around it.
The trail, however, continued on, meaning whoever had Elsydeon was still alive.
Or that one of the attackers had it.
The trail did come to a rest in the Land Rover, and the magical energy in the area it had lain was pooled, showing the sword had been there for some time. Judging by the amount of dormant power, the thief had jumped from the Esper Mansion straight to the Land Rover, when it had taken Kyra several jumps to accomplish the same feat. Her mind reeled at the amount of power the thief had at his command.
Rounding the Land Rover, Kyra gasped. The corpses littering the ground were Wrens - exact duplicates of her old friend. But that wasn't possible. Her gaze drifted from the Wrens along the path of Elsydeon - over a dune and heading north. There was obviously something going on she didn't understand. If there was one thing Kyra hated, it was a dilemma. She swore and made a brief gesture with one hand, sliding back along the trail and preparing to return to the Mansion. Maybe the Espers had more information.
She could sure use it.
"That's disgusting," Lant said, drawing away from the body in revulsion. "How did Chaz pull that one off?
"Maybe it wasn't Chaz," Rika replied dubiously, peering at the dead Wren.
"What would it be?"
"Hey, Rika!" Tamgren called. "The trail stops here!"
Rika spun and ran over to Tamgren. "Take a look," he told her.
Chaz's footprints moved away from the tree, then there were clear signs he had fallen. A short distance away, the sand had been blasted, as if by a great wind, into a slightly depressed crater. Footprints moved from the crater to the place where Chaz had fallen, then back to the crater. There were no further tracks.
Rika cursed as the implication struck her. "They got him," she moaned. "They got him! Gods, why didn't I pay more attention!"
"It isn't your fault, Rika," Lant told her slowly. "You did your best."
Tamgren rose from where he was kneeling. "We can't worry about that now." Rika gave him a look part horror and part dread. Lant glared at him in anger. "I'm sorry, Rika, but we can't. If the Wrens are still in the area, we're not safe. The best thing to do is go back to the Land Rover, get our supplies, and strike out for Monsen. We can tell them what we've seen, and as soon as it's safe, we'll make for Krup. My parents and Alys will know what to do."
Rika paused. "You're right," she whispered. "Fine. Let's go." She started off towards the Land Rover, the leader once again.
There was a woman at the Land Rover's wreckage when they returned. She was of medium height, neither tall nor short, and had blonde hair held in place by a tiara. She wore tight-fitting black clothes. Her back was to them.
"Who are you?" Rika called out. The woman stiffened, then turned. She held a small laser weapon in her hand, which she lowered when she saw them.
"Oh, it is you," she said, turning back to the Land Rover. "This unit is no longer functional. How exactly did you do this?"
Rika's brows furrowed in confusion. "Who are you?" she repeated.
"The weapon systems have been systematically destroyed by laser blasts, and the pattern of the scoring indications a laser sweep by an ion cannon. Have you already been involved in the conflict?"
"Daughter?" Lant started in disbelief. "Is that you?"
"Yes," the woman replied, looking at Lant. She turned back to the Land Rover. "I am afraid this system is beyond repair. It is a good thing I have transportation available. Are you ready to leave?"
"It is Daughter," Tamgren whispered to Rika. "I recognize the voice." Then, to the woman, "What conflict? What's going on?"
"I will explain the situation when we are no longer within enemy territory. I am afraid I must insist we depart."
"We can't leave without Chaz," Rika said stubbornly. "Insistence or not."
"Chaz has already been removed from danger, and I have stabilized his condition. He is resting aboard my shuttle craft." Daughter began walking towards them. "I have been sent to make sure you are safely extricated from the conflict. If you will come with me "
"I don't believe you," Rika said, drawing her sword. "Daughter's a computer."
"I am afraid I do not possess the leisure of arguing with you." The woman's hand dipped to a pouch at her belt and she drew out a small capsule. "The situation is highly dangerous. I will bring you with me, willing or not."
The woman drew back her arm and hurled the capsule. It shattered as it struck the sand near Rika, Tamgren and Lant. Noxious green fumes billowed from it, surrounding them in an instant. Rika swooned and collapsed to the sand, her body going limp and numb. Her sword slipped from a hand unable to maintain it's grip.
The last thing she heard before slipping into unconsciousness was the woman.
"I assure you, this gas is totally harmless."
The Esper Master started once, then spun. "Most Reverent Lutz!" he cried. "You have returned! Where is Elsydeon?"
"It was stolen - but I've abandoned it's pursuit for the moment," Kyra told the older man, walking down the hall towards him. "It won't be hard to track - but it seems something else is happening. What's going on, Jaln? The Espers are mobilizing."
Jaln knelt on the ground before Kyra and began to give his report.
"Oh, get up, Jaln! I hate that. I told the Council to make sure people stop bowing to me."
Jaln rose quickly, hanging his head in shame. "Please forgive me, Reverent One."
"Ah, yes!" Kyra began to walk down the hall towards the Council chambers. "Recently, our scrying detected an an object of unknown nature entering Algo. It appears to have some kind of magical shielding about it as well as a more advanced cloak, but not long after entering the system it began to transport a sizable invasion force onto this planet and Motavia."
"Wren type Androids."
"Pardon, Reverent One?"
"Nothing," Kyra waved the comment aside. "Go on."
"They have been laying torch to many villages, towns and cities all over the countryside of Algo. Their purpose does not seem to be invasion - simply the destruction of all human life. The craft recently entered a pitched battle with Kuran and Zelan. Zelan is still functional, though not able to do anything to harm the craft, even with it's considerable offensive power."
"Kuran was destroyed, Most Reverent."
"Wren," Demi looked up from the control panel at Zelan. A huge viewscreen showed the section of space through which the Alisa III was traveling. It's shields were still up, but Demi was constantly modulating their sensor frequency, so every so often the cloak would dissolve, revealing the planet-ship, when their sensors and the frequency of the cloak matched. Across from Demi at another control panel, Wren looked up.
"I've been monitoring the ship's velocity since it entered the system. It seems to be steadily de-accelerating."
"Yes," Wren confirmed. "It's engines are very large and powerful, but the Alisa III does not possess sufficient resources to keep those engines running for the entire trip. The Alisa III, and all other Parmanian ships of that kind, function on a principal of 'hard thrust'. The engines emit one extremely powerful burst at the beginning of the journey, the strength of which is calculated by the computer based on the distance of the final destination. The ship then slows down until it reaches the end of the journey, at the exact moment the momentum dies."
Demi nodded slowly. "So," she mused, "based on it's current rate of de-acceleration, I might be able to project it's destination." Demi quickly fed figures into the computer. After a moment, she shook her head. "Wren, it's the asteroid belt. They're headed for the center of - Wren, it's cloak is dropping!"
Wren nodded. "It appears to be powering it's weapon systems. Raising shields. Transferring partial shield power to Kuran. Raising Kuran's shields."
The lights dimmed and a hum went through the space fortress as Wren activated Zelan's defense net. Kuran, displayed on another screen, became suffused with a pale green glow. A split second later, the Alisa III opened fire.
Red flashes filled the darkness of space as the Alisa III unleashed it's firepower. Zelan rocked under the blows. Demi rose quickly and moved to another panel. "Gravity has been lost in eastern block 3. Hull breech in central block 17. Sealing it off. Our shields are dropping fast - we don't have enough power to maintain them under this barrage." Silence. "Aft weapons array destroyed. Starboard shields dropping power fast. Life support on central blocks 15-26 nonfunctional. Emergency power activated on eastern block 9. Fires in eastern block 12, western blocks 13, 15, and 20, and in central block 4. We can't keep this up!"
"We have no choice."
Demi paused, then turned to face Wren. The space fortress shuddered, and red lights flashed on the control panel. Her gaze flickered to the viewscreen. "Yes, we do, Wren. We can't stop them if we're dead." Demi stepped to up to the defense net control panel, and before Wren could react, withdrew all power from Kuran's shields and transferred it to Zelan's.
Kuran was rocked out of orbit as the laser blasts from the Alisa III tore it to shreds. Each separate attack punctured it's hull and ripped holes in the satellite. The oak trees that had given Daughter so much pleasure were ripped apart and sucked into the airless reaches of space by the sudden vacuum. The birdsong sputtered and died. It gave a final attempt at continuing it's song, then it, like Kuran, ended, leaving nothing but a cloud of debris slowly descending from it's orbit towards Dezolis.
"I've saved us. Shields at full power, holding steady. Returning fire."
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