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The Council chamber was a large, white room, lit by magical torches set along the walls. In the center was a horse-shoe shaped table, at which the Council sat.
"Lutz!" This from the Speaker and head of the Council, an Esper called Tarik. "You've returned! Where is Elsydeon?"
Shut up, Tarik. Kyra projected her thought as loudly as she could at the Speaker. He flinched.
"Yes, most Reverent."
"Elsydeon has been stolen," Kyra declared, ignoring the sudden, frightened murmur that rippled through the Council. "I was pursuing the thief when I became aware that an alien craft has entered Algo. I returned to find that the Espers are mobilizing to defend the Mansion from possible attack."
"You may address me now, Tarik."
"Oh, yes." A pause. "Most Reverent Lutz, the preparations for defense of the Mansion are progressing well We-"
"Against possible attack. Possible attack. Is this why we became Espers, so that we might use our powers to defend mortar and wood and glass from possible attack? The Mansion is so covered with dormant magical shields that it would take a Circe level Esper to find it when they're active." Kyra shook her head. "Yet here we are. You shame your names, Espers." She gestured, and a shimmering picture appeared in the center of the Council chambers.
"This," she told them, "is Torinco. What do you see?"
"Ruins, Reverent One?"
"Yes, Tarik, ruins. While we sit here, comfortable and safe in our Mansion, waiting for possible," the word dripped scorn, "possible attack, these people were ruthlessly murdered."
"We have a responsibility to the Mansion, Lutz."
"We have a responsibility to Algo, Tarik! Think of Lutz, and what he wanted for our Order when he unlocked the secrets of magic! Think of all the Espers to become Lutz - think of Noah, or Rune, or Arelle and then look at yourselves! Possible attack."
"What would you have us do, Most Reverent?" A younger Councilman, quietly, from a corner or the room.
"Ah, finally. Some reception. Your name is Narrel, correct?" When the man nodded, Kyra smiled gently at him. "You are now Speaker, Narrel. Tarik, I am officially removing you from your post for incompetence."
Tarik gaped at her. She ignored him. "Now, Speaker Narrel, here is what I would have you do. Choose ten of your best Espers. They will remain and maintain the enchantments on the Mansion - making sure it remains invisible to magic, technology and the naked eye. Then send the rest of your Espers across Motavia. They are to be equipped with what magical items we have available in the Arcanium, and their duty is to defend the towns under attack from the hostile force."
"What about Dezolis, Reverent One?"
"That is my responsibility. Concern yourself with your own. You are dismissed. You know your duty, Narrel." She paused. "And, Tarik. I can think up much worse things about your mother, and most of them are likely true. If you're going to insult me, insult me out of Thought-range. Jaln, remain here."
When the Council had departed, Kyra leaned backwards against the table and sighed. "I hate that." She looked up. "Jaln, good. I want you to go to the Arcanium and fetch me the Psycho-Wand. I'll be departing for Gumbious shortly. Have the Wand sent to my quarters. Go!"
Archbishop Tachel Re Par knelt down before the altar, murmuring prayers to himself, barely audible. Before him, set upon a golden, fluted stand, lay a crystal sphere, at the center of which danced a warm blue flame that never died. The Eclipse Torch, That Which Will Never Die, the symbol of Dezolis faith. His prayers, even to his own ears, were hollow and empty that night.
They did not blot out the screams of the dying, nor take the cloying smell of death from the air.
Gumbious Temple was not far from Jut, and Jut was burning. It had been attacked, suddenly and unsuspectedly, earlier that day. The village had held out till nightfall, but know all that was left was for the invaders to slay the remaining defenders.
Their purpose was obvious to any priest - they had come to take the Eclipse Torch. But though the situation was grim, even hopeless, the priests and the Magi - Espers who lived in the temple and guarded it - would defend the torch with their very lives.
"They're not interested in your torch, Archbishop."
Tachel's head snapped up, and he beheld a Parmanian woman standing on the altar of the Eclipse Torch, her hand resting on the crystal sphere. "Blasphemy!" he hissed. "Guards! Espers!"
Almost immediately, the guards on duty and the Esper who led them, Loren Marrit, rushed into the chambers. Just as quickly, Loren fell onto her knees. In confusion, the guards slowed to a stop.
"Most Reverent!" Loren cried from her prostrated position. The woman on the altar sighed.
"Oh, get up, Loren. I told the Council to stop making people do that to me." The woman sighed, exasperated, and shifted her grip on the long, slender staff she carried. A large gem, set into the staff's golden head, was glowing green and emitting a low buzz that had begun when Loren entered.
"Forgive me, Reverent Lutz," Loren said, blushing and rising from the ground.
"Lutz!" Tachel's gaze dropped it's wary, angered look and became warm. "Kyra! It's been so long - I didn't recognize you. Have you come to defend the temple?"
Kyra shook her head. "No, but if all goes well, I won't need to." She made a casual gesture and the staff's buzzing stopped.
"What's going on?"
"To be honest," Kyra sighed, "we're not entirely sure. As near as we Espers can tell, a craft of some sort has entered Algo and transported an invasion force to the surfaces of both Motavia and Dezolis. Their goal seems to be to purge all human life from the planets, and many towns have been destroyed. Like Jut is being destroyed, right now. We're doing our best to destroy the forces, but we need your help."
"Anything, Kyra. You know that." Tachel's green skin glistened in the pale light of the Torch.
"Thank you, Tachel. We need the Eclipse Torch. It's power, combined with that of the Psycho-Wand," she gestured at her staff, "should give me enough strength to repel the invasion force on Dezolis."
Tachel hesitated, torn. The Eclipse Torch had only left the Temple once before, and the more conservative priests had been up in arms over it for years after, despite the beneficial effects the Eclipse Torch had had on the conflict. A sudden scream from the south, so loud it made even the Dezolisian's blood run cold, split the air. Horrified, Tachel nodded slowly, once.
"Take the Eclipse Torch, Kyra. Protect."
"Thank you, Tachel." Then Kyra and the Eclipse Torch were gone.
Moments later, Kyra shimmered into existence on the main street of Jut, inches from a Wren Android. The Wren turned to face her and she gave it a contemptuous slap, channeling an enormous electrical charge down her arm and into it's body, frying it's circuitry. The Wren collapsed, sizzling.
All about her, flames danced. There were few structures in Jut that were not aflame, and less that were empty. Hearing the screams of people trapped in burning houses made Kyra's blood boil. She raised the Eclipse Torch and focused her power on it.
"Rain!" she commanded. The Eclipse Torch flared and sent blue streamers of fire shooting up into the heavens. As Kyra watched, clouds appeared, then burst, bathing Jut in the most violent thirty second thunderstorm the world would ever know. Even thirty seconds of that deluge was enough to extinguish all the fires.
Then she saw the Wrens, gathering at the far end of the street, raising their blasters. Kyra raised the Psycho-Wand and gazed into it's gem, then found herself within the Wand, in that strange place between worlds. She drew her mind through that place, making her one with the staff, then invoked her power.
A faint red light encompassed the Wrens for a moment, then erupted, that light becoming a pillar of flame that surrounded the invaders. In a moment, nothing was left but ash.
The pool of her energy barely dropped throughout her magical exertions, and Kyra knew that while she didn't have the strength to do this forever, she could last for sometime more. Spinning on her heel, she strode off into Jut.
They had abandoned the outer city almost immediately - the wall of Aiedo proper was not very strong, and the Wren's laser tore it apart like paper. The Hunters had known they would not be able to defend all of Aiedo. They could save the Guild.
Alys and Lars lead the group of Hunters that held off the Wrens pursuing them into the Guild while the other Hunters escaped. Alys had been right - the Wrens did outnumber them three-to-one, but the Hunters were better trained. On their side, the Wrens had technology and their fearful appearance. But blasters are useless once your opponent enters hand to hand combat, and Hunters are not easily frightened.
Alys ducked under an Android's wild punch, then rose and with all her might drove a knife into the Wren's chin, burying the point in it's brain. She had learned early on that this was the most effective way to strike - possibly that was where the matrix of the Android was contained. As the Wren dropped, Alys drew back slightly. The whole troop was giving ground, slowly backing towards the Guild. Lars appeared next to her, waving one of the Wren's blasters.
Lars grinned and unleashed a crimson blast of light into the ranks of the Wrens. One collapsed into a heap, a hole smoking in it's chest.
Alys grinned. "Good idea!" She grabbed another Wren's blaster and began unleashing lasers into the ranks. Lars laughed and opened fire again.
Alys ignored him and continued firing. Suddenly, "Lars, look out!"
A Wren rose up beside the Guild Second as Lars spun. The Wren lashed out with a fist, catching Lars on the shoulder and staggering him. The next punch snapped Lars' head back, and he collapsed in a heap. Before the Wren could do any more, Alys had riddled it with her blaster.
"Damn it," she cursed, grabbing Lars and checking his pulse. He was still alive. She picked up the limp man and slung him over her shoulder. Holding the blaster one handed, she opened fire on the advancing Wrens. One got too close and she tossed the blaster at it before darting away. She slid through the ranks of Hunters quickly and ran towards the Guild.
Within the Guild, Alys handed Lars to one of the few dozen citizens who had stayed behind. "Take him to the infirmary," she commanded. "Tell them it's Guild Second Lars." Then, to one of the Hunters stationed on the wall just above the gate. "Give the signal!"
The Hunter waved and set light to the fuse of a firecracker. A moment later it shot into the air, trailing green smoke behind it, before exploding with a crack like thunder. Immediately the Hunters turned and sprinted for the gates of the Guild. The Wrens, momentarily baffled by the change of tactics, planted their feet and began unleashing a volley of blasts into the retreating ranks. Those who were hit and not slain were trampled by those behind them. It was cold, but it was the Hunter's way. Before the group made it into the Guild and the Drawbridge was raised, more then a quarter of their total number had been lost.
Alys darted up the stairway to the tower set in a corner. She snatched up a bow and darted out onto the turrets. "Here they come," she muttered, setting light to another firecracker. Now they really got started.
"We're not hurting it at all," Demi said, unleashing another volley from Zelan's weapon systems. "It's shields are too powerful."
"I am bringing the Positron Bolt unit on-line," Wren said after a moment. "Perhaps a fifty second burst will lower their shielding sufficiently."
With full power to their shields, Zelan was more then holding it's own defensively. Channeling shield power to Kuran had been draining them steadily, but at full shields the space fortress was practically impregnable. Unfortunately, so was the Alisa III. The huge planet ship had moved beyond Zelan and was almost out of weapons range, but Demi and Wren continued to persevere.
"Fifty seconds?" Demi exclaimed in disbelief. "That'll burn out the unit!"
"We have nothing left to lose," Wren gave her a pointed glance. "You seem to stress stopping them. That is what I am doing. Or have your priorities changed since you destroyed Kuran?" Wren turned back to the console. "Initializing firing sequence," he reported. "Firing."
Pale green light flashed from Zelan's weapons turret and slammed into the Alisa III. The ship lurched at the force of the awesome weapon's impact, and Zelan shuddered under Demi's feet.
"Forty-five," Wren reported. "Fifty." The beam sizzled, made a halfhearted attempt to continue the barrage, then vanished. "Positron Bolt unit is no longer functional. Status report, Demi?"
"No change," Demi shook her head. "We just can't hurt them, Wren."
"Then there is only one option - we must board the Alisa III."
"To what end?" Demi turned from the viewscreen. "And how, Wren?"
"The experiments I have been conducting on warp-field technology include the possibility of traveling in a space craft at a speed faster then one quarter light speed. Though I have yet to break that barrier, I have developed a simulation. I believe I can construct or modify a shuttlecraft engine to emit a brief, .5 second burst of warp energy, moving the shuttle at one quarter light speed. We can use this engine to enter within range of the Alisa III. We may then teleport inside one of the biodomes."
"Excellent work, Master. Once within the Alisa III we may find and deactivate the computer giving the orders to the Wrens."
"Yes. Or, failing that, the destruction of the Alisa III would be the only other alternative. We shall seal Zelan before leaving so that the aliens in control of the Alisa III will not be able to gain entry."
"What about Daughter?"
"She will have to fend for herself." Wren rose. "She is but one. Our duty is to all Algo. Demi, you will be responsible for rigging up a teleportation system in one of the shuttles. I shall construct the warp engine. When you complete the unit, join me in central block 2."
"Yes, Wren." Demi turned to go.
"Demi, wait." The Control Android half-turned towards Wren. "I I cannot agree with your actions. For me, the destruction of Kuran is But, you did save us. I would like to think we can put this all behind us."
Demi smiled softly. "Thank you, Wren. But now isn't that time for apologies. Now is the time to survive."
Wren smiled. "Then let us begin."
Several hours later, a shuttle drifted away from Zelan and slipped in behind the Alisa III. On board, Wren worked the controls while Demi primed the engine.
Demi looked up from the control panel. "It's as good as it's going to get, Wren. I've attached the teleportation system to the new engines. The minute we drop out of sub-light, the transporter will prime for a teleport. All we need to do is enter the distance to teleport and we'll be there."
"Give me a moment to calculate that distance, Demi," Wren told her.
"I took the liberty, Wren. The distance is 54.6 kilometers. Be ready." Demi turned back to the sub-light engine. "Priming engines." A low humming filled the shuttle. "Jump to sub-light speed in twenty five seconds." She moved to the copilot's seat and sat down, buckling herself in. "Here we go."
The engines kicked in, throwing the shuttle into sub-light speed. For a moment, reality blurred, then suddenly it was over. For a second, Demi saw the bulk of the Alisa III looming before her, then the transporter activated and she was shifted through space to a point a fifty kilometers distant, within the planet ship.
"My queen, " the man at the door said, saluting. "News from the Main Tower."
Tareela smiled a smile that did not reach her eyes. She rose from the chair in her room and strode across to the guardsman, her robe brushing along the floor. "Excellent," she purred. "Report."
"We are being opposed on several fronts, milady," the officer told her. "The large city to the west of the crater is still opposing the Wrens. Also, it appears there is a Layan, or the Algo equivalent, moving through Dezo and halting attacks on cities. A group of these Layans are moving across Mota and doing the same."
Tareela frowned. "I had not counted on there being Layans among the defenders. I shall have to consult my advisors on how best to proceed. For now, gather the Layans. They will transport to the surface and oppose these Algo Layans. Is there any other news?"
"Our defense net fired on a small craft that seemed to have sub-light capabilities. It seemed to have no life signs, and no shielding. It was immediately destroyed."
Tareela frowned once more. "I did not suspect that these primitives would have sub-light speed technology available to them. What is the status of the space fortress?"
"No change. It's shields are holding. It has ceased returning fire, after that cannon blast."
"Excellent. All things wear out in time. Tell Main Tower to continue that attack. Have my advisors sent to my chambers in an hour. Go."
"Well," she said when the guardsman was gone, "what do you think of that, Nevak?"
The Chancellor rose from the chair across from where Tareela had been sitting. The fire in the heart accentuated his features and cast them in a ruddy glow. "We have discussed my feelings at great length, Highness. I do not believe there is anything left to be said on the matter."
"I do, Chancellor." Tareela smiled venomously at the man. "Have a seat, Nevak, and we will discuss them for a while more."
Rika's head was pounding. She had never been drunk, she reflected bitterly, so why in the light did she have a hangover? Sitting up slowly, she rubbed her head and groaned. Her vision cleared, and she looked around.
There were three small cots spaced about the tiny room she was in. She occupied one, Tamgren another, and Lant, the last. Both seemed to be asleep peacefully. The room was otherwise bare, and there was a sliding door similar to the ones on the Land Rover and Landale set into the wall.
Someone had taken her weapons. She cast about for them, desperately trying to remember what had happened prior to her blackout. Then she did recall.
"Daughter," she hissed.
"Huh?" Lant groaned and shook slightly from side to side.
"Lant!" Rika whispered sharply in his ear. The boy's eyes fluttered, then opened. He started, seeing Rika so close to him, and rolled of the cot. He gave a cry of confusion and pain as he hit the ground.
Sitting up, Lant blinked furiously at Rika. "What're you doing?" His voice was indignant, and slightly slurred. Must be still addled from the gas, Rika decided.
Tamgren, on the far side of the room, sat up a little more slowly. "Rika? What happened?" His eyes widened. "Daughter!"
"Yes?" The doors hissed open, and the woman who claimed to be the AI called Daughter stood framed there. Behind her, Rika could see the Motavian landscape flying past.
"Daughter?" Lant asked slowly. "What's going on?"
Lant was cut off as, with a cry, Rika hurled herself against the much smaller woman. "You left him! You left him to die!" Arms outstretched, Rika grabbed for the woman's throat.
The woman easily ducked under Rika's attack, snatched her by the wrists, and shoved her harshly backwards. Rika stumbled and fell onto the cot Lant had occupied moments ago.
"Please try to maintain calm," the woman told them. "Your brother is fine and in the front of the shuttle with me. He'd like very much to see you."
Rika's eyes narrowed. "I don't believe you. This is some kind of trap."
Tamgren leaned over to whisper softly in Rika's ear. "If it is a trap, we might as well go along and spring it. It's a lot more productive then sitting here."
Lant, leaning on one of the cots, lurched slowly to his feet. "Chaz is here?" His eyes were a little clearer and he sounded less slurred. He narrowed his eyes and peered at the woman. "You are Daughter aren't you? Your voice is the same. You look a little like Demi."
Daughter nodded. "The frame which currently houses my matrix is based on existing Demi-type schematics. Though I have modified these specifications, the forms are still quite similar. Please come with me. You have no reason to distrust me." She stepped aside and beckoned into the main room.
Lant walked out first, his gaze drifting around the room. He quickly saw Chaz, sitting on a padded bench set along one wall. His shirt was in tatters, and his leg was up on the bench, and the pant leg had been cut away just below the knee. His foot was slid into a circular machine.
"Hi," Chaz grinned thinly at his brother. Chaz looked much the worse for wear - he was pale and seemed to be shivering, despite the warmth of wherever they were.
"Chaz!" Lant darted forward and embraced his brother quickly. He stepped back and looked Chaz over. "You're so cold what happened to your foot?"
"Chaz, you're all right!" Rika stepped between Lant and Chaz and quickly hugged her twin. "Where did you go? You can be so stupid! Why why "
Chaz looked over Rika's shoulder at Tamgren. He nodded and grinned at his friend. "I jumped out of the Land Rover when we were attacked, but my foot got torn open. Daughter's patching it up now." He indicated the machine surrounding his foot. "One of the attackers followed me and I dealt with it." His eyes darkened. It was obvious he didn't want to talk about it. Lant was ready to pursue the subject regardless, but Daughter beat him to it.
"Your brother is not only suffering from loss of blood, but also from extreme physical weariness. It's as if he's been exerting himself to maximum capacity until his body is no longer capable of handling it, but he's extremely fit. I see no reason for his state. He was almost comatose when I found him, but he revived quickly." Daughter seated herself at the controls at the front of the roughly teardrop shaped room.
"Where are we?" Rika turned to look at the Daughter. That Chaz trusted her had to be good enough - they had nothing else to go on.
"This is a modified strike probe that I developed during my time on Kuran. They are lightly armed and not heavily shielded, but do have small transporters built into them, and are easy to create quickly."
"Where are you taking us? Who sent you?"
"I shall outline my parameters for you. Recently, Demi, Wren and myself detected a gaseous anomaly on the outer edge of the solar system. Since none of us were free to investigate, we called upon Maztim Lain."
"That we know," Tamgren pointed out.
"I merely intended that there be no confusion," Daughter replied, glancing over her shoulder at Tamgren. "Maztim took the Landale and investigated the cloud. He entered within visual range of the cloud, and we lost contact with the Landale and Maztim. Wren had retrieved a portion of the Landale's sensor logs, and we observed that the gas cloud was not, in fact, a gas cloud, but a modified Parmanian colony ship, designation Alisa III. The ship fired upon the Landale and destroyed it."
Rika gasped, one hand flying to her mouth. She slid to a seated position, an awful pain welling in her stomach. Lant's eyes widened in shock and horror, his eyes filling with tears. His jaw dropped and he began to wail in the most profound loss. He fell onto his knees next to Rika.
Chaz's whole body tightened, his face contorting into the most horrifying expression of anger Rika had ever seen. His entire formed seemed to shudder at the intensity of his rage. He seemed, literally, paralyzed with rage.
Rika's arms wrapped around Lant and drew her brother close, each hoping to draw warmth and life from the other. Their bodies shuddered in the convulsions of pain.
Tamgren stood a short distance apart, glaring down the Daughter, who was looking about in confusion. "Why?" he hissed at her. "Why did you tell them like that? Why are you so cold?"
"I did not realize that the revelation would have such a profound effect on them," Daughter told him clinically. "I shall remember for future reference."
"Future reference?" Tamgren's fists clenched at his sides. "Future reference? What in the name of God are you?"
Daughter's face showed only deeper confusion. "I am a Daughter Android prototype, based on existing Demi-type Android schematics. My designation is "
"I don't understand you," Tamgren said. He turned from Daughter and his eyes fell on Chaz, his entire body shaking with rage. "Chaz " he said.
"I'll kill them," Chaz whispered, for Tamgren's ears alone. "I'll kill them all." His eyes turned to Tamgren, glassy and crazed. Tamgren shivered. "I did it," he whispered. "I remember. It's so simple. I can do it again. You'll help me, won't you, Tamgren?"
Tamgren hesitated, his blood running cold. "Yeah, Chaz. Sure. Whatever you want."
Chaz smiled. The edge of his mouth twitched erratically. "Thank you, Tamgren," he murmured, his eyes shutting, slowly. "You've always been a true friend " Within moments, his chest rose and fell in the steady pattern of a sleeper.
And Tamgren stood in that room, with a horrible fear gnawing at the pit of his stomach.
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