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Chapter 17

Seed was mostly excavated – the potent abilities of the Dark Espers combined with the magnifying strength of t’santari made exhuming the giant mechanical tomb fairly easy work.

Since Morgan had become obsessed with some secret project Morovin had placed before her, Chaz had become nominal leader of the Zema colony, with Shar as his second-in-command. Now he walked through the halls of the centuries old computer, heading f or the recently reopened nerve center of the computer.

At last the hallways opened into the huge central room which housed the central processor for the devastated AI Seed. A group of Dark Espers stood guard around the main unit – he quickly ordered them off. They shot some curious glances at him as th ey went, but none were so foolish as to defy their General.

Alone in the massive room, he sat down at the computer. It seemed that most of the explosive charges that had destroyed Birth Valley had been set deep into the rock of the mountain, suggesting Seed had been most interested in sealing himself off, t hough heavy damage had been sustained to the computer’s production facilities. Seed itself had entered a state of deactivation and destroyed its own matrix. It was nothing more now then a large repository of data, without mind of power.

Before Chaz was the single operating screen – Shar had brought it up earlier. It seemed that she possessed extensive knowledge of the era she had been created in. Displayed across the screen in large letters were the words:

Final Directive Active

Storing Archives

Shutting Down

Activating Program A15

Wiping Matrix

After that there was nothing more then forty-eight years of dust and silence.

A15 was the program that had activated the thermal charges that had closed Birth Valley and destroyed the biological and mechanical production facilities of the AI. The final command had annihilated Seed’s primary matrix. Now the basic functions st ill remained, including – and this was what interested Chaz – the archives.

It took him only a few minutes to remember the things Demi had taught him about using the computers on Zelan, and only a few more to put them into practice and file the archive files. The last archive was the only one that remained – the one detail ing the last minutes of Seed’s life.

Chaz opened the file.

His grandfather, Chaz Ashley, looked a lot like him. They had the same sandy blonde hair, and the same eyes, but the shape of Chaz Lain’s face belonged to Maztim Lain, his father, and not his grandfather. The Numan Rika bore a startling resemblance to his twin, his mother, and was almost the identical twin of Shar. The same hair, face, eyes, and ears, coupled with the same careless grace of stance and poise, bespeaking a great deal of agility and strength belied by the somewhat slight build of Rika Ashley. That was the most distinctive difference between Rika Ashley and Rika Lain – Chaz’s sister was anything but slight.

But it was Alys Brangwin that Chaz watched, for reasons he didn’t really understand. She was beautiful, and stron, and in that respect reminded him of either of the women in his family, but there was no other resemblance at all. Chaz’s mother had o ften spoken of her father, and thence of Alys Brangwin, the life of whom she had taken an obsessive interest in after the Great Rebirth. It was eerie – she seemed vibrant and strong and beautiful and alive, and in a matter of days after this file was reco rded, she would be dead and buried.

She didn’t look as if she was going to die. For some reason, it surprised Chaz that she didn’t look as if she knew she was going to die. He supposed that he should know better then anyone what it was like to have everything abruptly change without warning – he’d never seen himself as an Esper.

But you aren’t an Esper anymore, are you, Chaz? He’d made that decision long ago.

But no matter whether or not he knew what it was like for everything to change, it was somehow surprising to notice that Alys Brangwin had no inkling that she would very soon give up her life nobly for the life of the boy she had raised as her own son.

None at all.

He didn’t understand why that unsettled him, but it did.

"Can I help you, General?’ Chaz twisted around to regard Shar silently. The Numan bowed deferentially to him, but her eyes held that eerie predatory gleam that was so absent from Rika Ashley on the screen before him. There was innocence in Rik a Ashley’s eyes, none in Shar’s.

Rika. Grace.

Shar. Death.

"I only interrupt, of course," Shar was telling him, a faint warning in her voice, "because of course the Disciple recently locked this area to everyone but myself, the Archlord, Morgan and the Disciple himself. Unless," her voi ce became a sibilant whisper, not trying to disguise her warning now, "those orders have been rescinded?"

Chaz flipped the terminal off. "No, they haven’t. I appreciate your swift enthusiasm in dealing with any breach of the Archlord’s will. You may go about your busness, child." Rising, he walked past her, deliberately brushing against her a s he went. Her felt her stiffen, and took very little pleasure in getting the last word.

* * *

For the sake of expediency, the powers that be in Aiedo unanimously decided to forego the appropriate paperwork necessary to appoint Beyn to the office of Guild Head for however long Rika Lain remained missing. With the city on constant alert and a hostile force of powerful Dark Espers camped outside the gates of Aiedo, the entire council was painfully aware that paperwork would very likely cease to become important in the foreseeable future.

"We can’t be so defeatist!" Narrel snapped, slamming his fist down on the council table. "I’m sure the Most Reverent has a reason for what she’s done..."

"It doesn’t change the fact of her irresponsibility," Gryz replied stoically in the face of Narrel’s anger. "Lutz – and whatever powers she might have brought to our battle – has abandoned us. Rika Lain – quite possibly among the gre atest swordsman on this planet – is gone with her, and with her whatever insights she might have brought to the coming battle. Even while they were here, we were in unimaginable peril. Now that they are gone – as I see it, our only chance is to defeat as many of them as possible"

Eldara, the only Esper Councilman to remain alive, leaned forward, knitting her hands on the table. "It’s possible that they were taken as part of a Dark Esper plot," she offered, not very hopefully. ‘They knew that of all of us, Rika and Lutz – Rune Walsh – would be the most shaken by Alys’ death. They may have seized the opportunity to rob us of our leaders."

Tamgren shook his head. "That seems really unlikely to me, Eldara," he replied quietly. "That might be viable – but Myrelle is gone too. It doesn’t make sense for the Dark Espers to snag him too on their way past, even if they were i n Tarm’s mansion to kidnap Lutz. If they were looking for a third hostage, there were much better ones in that building then Myrelle." He sighed. "As much as it bothers me, I can’t help but believe that Rika, Lutz and Myrelle have left Aiedo of their own volition.

"But unlike you, Uncle Gryz," he blushed when he realized the old childhood name had slipped out, "I don’t think that means we should start to give up hope. Rika’s sensible, and Lutz is...well...Lutz. I don’t think they’d leave unles s they had a really good reason for doing so. I think we should trust them for right now, and hope for the best."

"Not an option," Beyn said quietly from the head of the table. He unconsciously flinched when all the eyes at the table turned to him. Tamgren winced for him – he seemed very young and naive, even if he was tactically brilliant as the oth ers had suggested. Somehow, Beyn seemed unready to take on such a large burden. "The Dark Espers could strike at any time. It’s best to assume the worst – either that the three of them have run away and aren’t coming back, or that their counterstrike won’t arrive in time to save us."

"You’ll second my motion for immediate attack, then?"

"No." Beyn said flatly. "Simply because we should plan for the worst doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. I know we’re all disheartened by Alys’ death, and the loss of the others, maybe you more then the rest of us, Gryz, but-"

"Ridiculous," Gryz snapped in reply, his beak clacking shut with the vehemence of his words. "We may still be able to win, but if we huddle here and wait for the Dark Espers to eradicate us, then that’s cowardice. If we attack them r ight now, we may be able to catch them off guard."

Beyn seemed suddenly cold as he glared across the table at Gryz. "I’ll have to think about it. I propose we wait and prepare for a Dark Esper assault. I’ll expect your thoughts on this first thing tomorrow. For now, sleep on it. This meeting i s adjourned, I think."

* * *

Outside of the council chambers, Tamgren made for Eldara, but was intercepted by Demi. "Tamgren," she said. "I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I’ve been looking at the information we have on the original Rika project – Shar. Danielle and I may have hammered out a solution to that problem. Maybe I could get your thoughts on it tonight?"

"No problem, Demi," Tamgren replied. "I’ll drop by your room later on – I promised to have dinner with Grandma."

Demi smiled. "How is Saya?"

"That same. She worries about me. Wants me to settle down planetside, get married, leave Zelan."
Demi shrugged. "Maybe she’s right."

"Don’t you start. Anyway, I have to get going." He patted Demi absently on the shoulder and made for Eldara. "I’ll drop by tonight, probably late, okay?" The Android nodded.

Maybe she is right, Demi thought. Tamgren reminds me so much of Hahn at that age – so enthusiastic, so eager to learn something, anything. She remembered how painful it had been to get word of Hahn’s death, no matter how noble his sacrifice had been. When Tamgren’s parents had died, they had kind of...filled each other’s voids.

But he is a human being, Demi thought. She sighed. I’ll just have to talk to him about it, that’s all.

* * *

"Gryz," Beyn called, catching up to the hulking Motavian outside the council chambers as the others dispersed. "Walk with me for a moment, if you wouldn’t mind?" he asked quietly. Gryz glanced at him, his small red eyes narrowin g, but nodded briefly and fell in beside Beyn.

"Alys Ashley-Lain never assumed the office of mayor," Beyn said when they were a fair distance away from the chambers. "Lars Garrate appointed me to the office in the interim. I’m the Mayor of Aiedo. Additionally, Rika Lain appointed me officially to the office of Guild Second prior to her disappearance. In her absence, I am both the Mayor and the Guild Head."

"I don’t..." Gryz started, but Beyn jumped in.

"I’m actually not finished, if you don’t mind." Beyn said in his usal quiet, formal tone. "This time, can’t you wait until I’m finished?" He paused, and Gryz gave him a level, low look "Thanks.

"I’ll further point out, however cruel this might sound, that you failed to bring any sizable military force – most of your entourage was refugees. Furthermore, you didn’t bring any substantial weapons technology to the battle, like Wren, Demi and Danielle did."

Gryz turned to face Beyn fully, crossing his arms across his chest and staring down the young man, red eyes cold. Beyn strode boldly on regardless. "Taking all this into consideration, I’m afraid that I have to point out to you that you are a guest in my city, and included in these proceedings as a consideration of your legendary tactical skills. You can be removed from these proceedings at any time. Try to remember that officially I am the leader here, and worthy of equal if not greate r respect then any of the others." He paused and looked upwards at the hulking Motavian. "We understand each other, I think."

"I suppose so," Gryz grunted. "Will that be all?" Beyn nodded. Gryz turned and began walking off down the hallway.

"Gryz?" Beyn called. The Motavian glanced coldly over his shoulder. "You were Uncle Gryz to Alys too, weren’t you?" Gryz grunted. Beyn sighed. "You have my sympathy." Then Beyn turned and walked off towards his office, not looking back.

* * *

"That’s the farm down there," Rika told her companions, pointing down into the small valley. "I never lived here, but my mother brought Chaz, Lant and I up here a few times."

Rachel gave a small sigh and descended into the valley, into the remains of the farm. It had been uninhabited for many years, but she could still feel Chaz and Rika Ashley all around this place. Their life, their love, hung over it like a sh roud. Like a knife into her.

Passing into the actual remains of the house, with it's sagging walls and mostly gone roof, she could still here Chaz, Rika and Alys living their lives the way Chaz had always wanted – peacefully, alone. Lant might look like his father, but he's got some in common with Chaz. Being left alone would have been enough to make either of them happy.

I'm sorry that was never an option, Chaz.

Here was the kitchen. Rune had sat there, Demi there. Rika and Chaz across from them, with Alys. He could still see Wren standing impassively in the corner. He could still hear the last words he and Chaz had spoken as friends. Chaz had never re ally forgiven him for what he'd made Alys do – he knew that the end of their friendship had hurt them both deeply, but Chaz was always too hot-headed…

Like me.

Rachel grasped her forehead, averted her eyes from that table.

"No!" She had never been friends with Chaz Ashley, she had never been here before, she never betrayed his trust!

"Rachel?" she heard someone whisper, and turned to see Rika and Myrelle standing in the doorway. They would have followed her, of course.

"I'm…sorry." Rachel told them. "My memories." Rika gave her a sympathetic look but said nothing. "Myrelle, can you feel the Silver Fang?"
Myrelle nodded. "Really strongly, now. Over there." He pointed to the east with one paw. "It's underground, I think. The scent's more muted. Maybe there's a grotto or something."

"Or it's buried," Rika grunted. "I'd hoped we wouldn't have to rip up the countryside to find it."

"We all have these little crosses to bear," Rachel told her, affecting a happier tone. "Let's go. Lead the way, Myrelle."

She glanced backwards once before she left the house forever.

Why couldn't he forgive me?

* * *

"I'm not finding anything," Rika told Rachel, rising. Farther downstream, the Esper nodded, then sighed. They were both standing knee-deep in the river that ran near the outskirts of the farm, where both Myrelle and Rachel had pinpointed the locati on of the Silver Fang.

"It's here," Myrelle called helpfully from the bank. "I can smell it so strongly here. It's in this area. It's under the river."

Rika gave Rachel a helpless look and a shrug. "You can't just wave your hands and find it, I suppose?"

"Not really," Rachel replied. "I know Morovin's looking for the Fang, too – at least he was when he – " She paused, glanced over her shoulder at Myrelle, and coughed uncomfortably. "Anyway, using too much magic could be dangerous if Morovin's still looking – he might have troops in the area."

Rika sighed again and gamely thrust her head and arms into the cold water again. "Sorry I can't be more help," Myrelle called in the moment before Rachel did the same. This time she shifted a few steps to the right of her original area of searching – it was a haphazard method of searching at best, but all she could do if she wasn't going to risk her magic. She thrust her fingers into the muck and began to feel around for anything at all that might be the Fang.

After a few moments of fruitless searching, Rachel surfaced and saw Rika was still under. Just as she was about to go under again, Rika broke the surface explosively, holding a circular wooden plank in her hands. "There's something under it," she b reathed, handing the wooden plank to Rachel. "Hold this." A moment later, she vanished under the water again, coming up a split second later with an iron chest.

"It's magical," Rachel explained. "Definitely Rune's work – that's why it's not affected by the time or the water. Give it to me, it's warded against opening."
"You can open it?"

"I'm pretty sure." Rachel waded back to the shore with Rika behind her, trying to avoid the discomfort of her wet Journeyman gear. Rika, clad in somewhat more functional Hunter garb, didn't seem bothered.

She looks like Alys Brangwin.

Rachel paused to take a deep breath. Narrel had warned her, early on, that this would happen. Initially, the memories would have to adjust to being in a new body, but once that period was over, the slightest stimulus could set off a stream of memor ies. After a while it would settle down, but having these strange new thoughts imposed on her own was a distraction she couldn't afford.

Kneeling down on the grassy bank, Rachel set the chest on her lap and ran a hand through her soggy hair to keep it out of her eyes. Myrelle and Rika each took a side of her and sat down to watch. Gently, Rachel placed her hands on the lid of the ch est and opened her mind to it's magic. It was intricate, far more powerful then anything she would have imagined herself trying to control only a few weeks ago. It was dangerous, too, and would leave her very drained. On the other hand, it wasn't as if sh e had any choice.

I remember how I made this.

Good, at least you're finally serving some purpose.

The fire ward was fairly easy to dispel, but it was simply a decoy anyhow. Rachel ignored it and probed deeper into the trap, following the ties on the firetrap down to the much subtler enchantment it was tied to.

Why bother with fire when I can open the person's mind to me and then destroy it?

The trap was keyed to two people – Chaz Ashley and Rune Walsh. Rachel, thought she possessed a fragment of Rune within her, knew she wouldn't be able to bypass the mental attack. Nonetheless, the knowledge of Rune existed within her, making the whole thing fairly simple, but still draining, to unwind.

The chest popped open as if the lid was attached to a spring mechanism. Inside, untouched by the decades, was the Silver Fang.

Myau…Why couldn't I save you either, old friend?

Rachel gasped, trying to catch the breath that suddenly eluded her, and hurriedly shoved the chest into Rika's hands so she could crawl to the riverbank and be violently ill. Rika picked up the chest and followed Rachel to riverbank, with Myrel le in hot pursuit. Looking up, Rachel gestured away their concerned looks and motioned for Rika to take out the Silver Fang.

It was unique in design, harkening back to the days when Musk Cat fighting had had it's brief flare of popularity. Looking back, it seemed barbaric, but fortunes had been made betting on the half-starved, crazed felines. It had since been modified, to be a claw type weapon – Rune Walsh had done the modifications himself, to make it easier for Rika's grandmother and namesake to use, but it was still somewhat clumsy and cumbersome – at least it appeared to be. Rachel knew enough of the magic on it to know that it would be light and easy to use.

"It's beautiful," Myrelle whispered. "Just like in the stories."

I helped write those stories. Who will tell them now?

Suddenly, Rachel was crying. Startled, Rika put the Fang down and slipped one arm around her shoulder. "I can't do this," Rachel whispered woefully. "I can't! Did Kyra have to live with this all the time? It's impossible! She chos e wrong! I can't do this, Rika! I feel like I'm losing my mind. Where does Rachel start and Rune stop?"

Rika was silent – Rachel knew that the Hunter didn't know how to respond, that no one did. "It's going to be all right," Rika whispered awkwardly. "We'll do it together."

"Right," Myrelle offered, trying to be helpful. "We have the Fang, now."

"I know," Rachel whispered. "I just need…"

I just need Kyra.

Rachel gave a small laugh. "There. One of my very own." She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm okay. I'll be okay. Don't worry, Rika."

"You're okay?" Rika asked her, looking into her eyes. "I know the strain we're all under." She paused. "If you…if you want to go back…you can take Myrelle…there's no shame. I can do this alone."

Rachel shook her head. "No, you can't. That's the worst thing about all this. None of us can turn back. I can't fight Seth or Morovin by myself, and you can't get into Zema without my magic. Without Myrelle we never would have found the Fang. Don't worry about me, Rika. I'll be fine."

Rika gave a relieved sigh, and despite it all, Rachel felt better.

She needs me. A small smile split her lips. She needs us.

She almost imagined she could hear the others agreeing with her.

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