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Chapter 18

"There are a couple of ways to go at Seed," Rachel told Rika and Myrelle in the afternoon of the next day. Walking, it had taken them time to reach the bridge, but now they neared the city. The three companions had set up a makeshift camp a saf e distance away from the conquered city of Zema. "Obviously, Morovin will have excavated the main entrance, and I’m pretty sure that he will have made it larger to accommodate the traffic. It’ll be guarded, and without the Elsydeon I’m not confident enoug h about my shield to brave that entrance."

"So how do we get in?" Rika asked.

Rachel gave a thin smile. "Mother Brain maintained a massive power grid all over Motavia that gave the appropriate amount of power to each AI, but Seed was constructed after Mother Brain was defeated, after the crash of the power grid , so obviously they needed an alternative power source. Seed itself, as in the central core, was powered by a miniature nuclear reactor, but the computer was built with it’s own power generation plant inside the mountain, that generated all of it’s power through a form of energy called ‘hydro-electricity’. Basically, Seed used the ocean to the north to generate electrical power on-site. Which means that somewhere to the north there’ll be a waterway we can use to gain access."

"We’ll need a boat, then?" Myrelle said after a moment. "Where do you suppose we get that?"

"And how are we supposed to find this waterway, Rachel?" Rika asked. "All we have to go on is that it’ll be north of Zema."

"As to a boat…I’m not sure about that. There might be some kind of access tunnel to the waterway, for the purposes of maintenance." Rachel flashed a sudden, unexpected smile. "They’re coming easier, now. I think I’m learning to block out the white noise. The memories, I mean." The smile was once again replaced with her serious demeanor. "And I’m betting that the Dark Espers will be watching the waterway, in case we try exactly what we’re going to do."

"So we’ll have to fight them."

"Right, which limits the amount of time we’ll have to accomplish our objectives – kill Seth, kill Morovin, and kill Morgan if the opportunity arrives. Plus, I still want to try to bring Chaz, Lars and Shar out with us. Once the Dark Espers realize that the waterway’s been compromised, they’ll try to lock Seed down and start searching for us magically, so if possible we’ll want to be away from Zema before that happens."

"That doesn’t sound very plausible," Myrelle told her, chewing on his bottom lip.

"You knew what you were getting into," Rika replied gently. "You can still back out, wait here for us to come back."

"If you do come back," Myrelle pointed out. ‘No, I’m in. I’m in."

Rachel nodded, Rika shrugged. "If you’re sure that’s what you want," the Hunter told him. "So we’ll head north and find this waterway of yours. I think we should make our strike at night. Maybe the Dark Espers will be slower to react if Morovin’s g ot to drag them out of bed first.

"Maybe."

* * *

There were only two sentries, not really expecting any kind of assault, much less the quick, brutal attack they received. Rachel and Myrelle launched a two-pronged magical attack in the form of a mental stab and a brilliant explosion of light. Whil e the two Dark Espers were still reeling, Rika dropped from the rocks around them into their midst, Silver Fang in one hand, laconium sword in the other. The Silver Fang slashed through their black armour with an ease that not even the razor-sharp silver blade could match. Before they could even raise a cry, the sentries were dead.

Wiping her blade and the Fang on one of the black cloaks, Rika looked up as Myrelle and Rachel picked their way down to the gaping blackness of the waterway. "You masked the magic?"

Rachel nodded. "Nobody’ll find anything unless they’re seriously looking for magic residue."

"More reason to get out quickly," Myrelle reasoned.

Rika looked around. A natural grotto had been formed by centuries of erosion and exploited by the long dead designers of the supercomputer. Water swirled downwards through the natural channel into the grotto, and in turn into the huge black tunnel leading away into the mountains. About fifty feet into the tunnel, Rika could see that some kind of lighting was used to illuminate the tunnel. Waves crashed against the rocks, filling the air with mists and rainbows. The noise was considerable.

"There’s a walkway," Myrelle told her. "Running along the side of the tunnel. I guess you were right about that access tunnel, Lutz."

Rika and Rachel looked at each other. "No reason to delay, really," Rika offered. I might never come out of that tunnel. She didn’t bother to say it.

"One, maybe," Myrelle said quietly. He turned away from the tunnel and looked up. "I told someone, not very long ago, that the sky didn’t mean anything to me anymore. Funny how all that changes when you might never see it again, isn’t it?"

There was as close to silence in the grotto as there could be. Rika almost told him that he didn’t have to come anymore, but she realized she would just make him unhappier. He was ready to die, as much as it hurt her to admit it was possible. She s upposed she ought to be used to doing what had to be done, but…Then Myrelle turned back to them, brushed a paw across his eyes. "Okay. I’m set."

* * *

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the access tunnel opened into a wide room, so far into the mountain that the roar of the surf was muted. Rachel had engaged the necessary shield when they reached the area of light. They ought to be invisible and soundless so long as she and Myrelle remained close to Rachel herself, and as long as Myrelle didn’t Weave.

The access tunnel widened into a kind of balcony over the racing black water. The water swirled into the center of the room and downwards into a tunnel leading almost straight down, unlit. A single, arched doorway lead into the brightly lit compute r, almost painfully bright after the darkness of the night and the dimness of the tunnel.

"Okay," Rachel said. "First things first. I’m going to try to find out where they’re keeping the Elsydeon and the Psycho-Wand, if they’re even still on Motavia. After that, I’ll try to find out where they’re keeping Lars and we can break him out. T hen, we find Seth and we kill him. Then Morovin. If Morgan shows up, we’ll deal with her too, but we won’t go out of our way. Then we find Chaz, subdue him, and Shar, and then we get out."

"Is that all?" Myrelle whispered.

"You don’t need to whisper," Rachel told him, then grinned at him. "If you wanted, we could try to bring down the whole regime and collapse the siege on Aiedo from here, too." Myrelle gave a nervous laugh. "Okay," Rachel said. "I’m going to try to acquire the Psycho-Wand or the Elsydeon. Give me a second or two." Rachel’s hand became a fist at her side, and her eyes became hollow. "I’ve found them, both of them, and some of the treasures from the Esper Mansion," she told them after a moment. "They’ re not far from where we are. Follow me."

* * *

"General Lain?" Chaz’s eyes slowly opened, and he rubbed at his eyes. In the darkness, he could see his new aide – a young Chosen named Mark – trying to shake him awake. He didn’t really like Mark; the boy was something of a yes-man, not as open or approachable as Carlam had been. On the other hand, his sensible half replied, Carlam had certainly seemed to have Esper-sympathies, which was unacceptable. In retrospect, he probably should have put Carlam on report…in the long run, it was best that Car lam had been reordered quickly. "General Lain, Lady Morgan sent me. Someone killed the guards at the waterway."

"We’ve been compromised?" Chaz whispered, throwing his feet off the side of his bed and reaching for his robes. He glanced across the room to Lant’s slumbering form. He’d still refused a bed, the arrogant little child. "But who would know about the waterway?" He paused. "Rachel. It must be Lutz. Get my armor and my staff, Mark. Quickly." Rising, Chaz picked up his belt and strapped it on. Mark helped him into his armour and slipped his staff into his hand, a full-metal battle-staff like those favor ed by the Magi, with a small t’santari crystal embedded into it.

As Mark clasped Chaz’s heavy shoulder-plates and cloak on over his chest, Lant stirred. "Chaz?" he asked groggily as the general and his aide made for the doorway. "What’s going on?"

"Lutz is here," Chaz told his brother curtly as he stepped through the doorway. "Go back to sleep."

"Chaz! Wait!" Scrambling to his feet, Lant hurled himself forward, but Chaz adroitly slammed it in his face, and quickly secured the lock. Lant pounded on the doorway briefly, then fell silent. Chaz gave a small sigh, and gestured with the tip of h is staff. "Lead on, Mark. Morgan is waiting."

* * *

"Any luck?" Myrelle asked bleakly. Rachel wiped away the sweat beading on her brow, and shook her head.

"Not really," she replied, looking at the doorway. "The weapons are just on the other side of this doorway, but whoever laid these enchantments was good – damned good. Give me another second…" She gasped. "I think that’s got it." Tentatively , she pushed the doorway open. "Yeah. Come on."

The room inside was obviously one of Seed’s storage rooms, and it was piled high with assorted magical artifacts – mostly purloined from the Esper Mansion. Even to Rika’s non-magical perceptions, the aura of sorcery in the room was so thick it was palpable. The Psycho-Wand was carelessly tossed on top of a large chest right next to the door. Rachel gave it a hungry look, then her eyes went blank. "The room’s mostly clear. There’s something near the back that’s trapped, but the Wand’s okay." Quickly , she grabbed it up. "That’s better," Rachel said to no one in particular, passing it from hand to hand with a faint smile on her face. "Now…" Without waiting for the others, Rachel made for the back of the room, where a black cloth was tossed over some k ind of pedestal. "The cloth is safe," Rachel told Rika and Myrelle, "but what’s under it isn’t." Using the golden head of the Psycho-Wand, Rachel flicked the black cloth aside.

The Elsydeon lay lengthwise across a low stone table, clad in the same plain leather sheath that Alys had worn when she faced Seth. The surface of the table was smooth and flat, and the only other thing on the table was an irregular black cube with strange protrusions jutting out all over it’s surface. Rika reached for it.

"Don’t!" Rachel hissed. "It’s trapped. Well trapped. It might be…beyond me." There was despair in her voice. "I’ll try with the Psycho-Wand. It’ll take a few minutes, all right?" She paused, then pointed with the Psycho-Wand at a pair of chests. "I n one of those you’ll find a lot of little hammers. I’m going to want a handful. The other will probably contain three red balls, about the size of my palm. Bring me all three. We’ll need them for later."

"Anything else?" Rika asked.

"Mostly make sure nobody attacks me while I’m trying to undo these." Rachel knelt beside the table and then touched the head of the Psycho-Wand to the blade of the Elsydeon. There was a faint play of light at the point of contact, then silence.

Rika and Myrelle exchanged a brief, hopeful look. "Those chests?" the Musk Cat asked after a moment, pointing.

"I guess so. We might as well go get the stuff."

* * *

Morgan and Shar were already waiting at the nerve center when Chaz arrived. "Shar still doesn’t have the surveillance systems set up, General," Morgan informed him brusquely. "So we can’t perform reconnaissance from here. Thoughts?"

"It’s got to be Lutz," Chaz told her. "Or someone sent by her," he amended after a moment’s thought. "Only she might have knowledge of the waterway."

"Demi or Wren might," Morgan pointed out.

Shar gave a derisive scoff. "Unlikely. Demi was the Control Android for Nurvus, not Seed. She would never have been involved with this AI. Seed’s AI outranks the Wren Android’s AI, so the Android wouldn’t have had access to the schematics."

"Either way," Chaz cut in, "they’re involved with Rachel. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Rachel’s come in person. Odds are she’s brought Rika and Narrel with her as well, maybe even more people – one of the Androids, maybe. But she wouldn ’t have risked straining her wards with too many people."

"I concur," Morgan replied. "General, I want you to organize systematic sweeps of Seed, both physical and magical. See to it personally. Shar, I want you to lock-down the system and activate the protocols to lock down the whole complex. If they sta rt doing anything cataclysmic, lock the whole thing down. I’ll contact the Disciple and the Archlord. General, what’s your opinion of the locks on the treasury?"

"Impenetrable," Chaz replied with confidence. "Even if Rachel could get in the door, she’d never break the seals on the Elsydeon and the Chaos-lens. The Archlord and I set them up ourselves. I know Lutz’s limits, Morgan."

"All right. Station some more guards on our good sir Garrate. Nothing goes wrong, do you understand? We will not compromise the Darkness’s last stab at this universe."

* * *

Rachel gave an explosive sigh, collapsing away from the table. "Light! It’s beyond me. I can’t free the Elsydeon. The wards have Chaz and another person written all over them. They’re…too strong."

Rika sighed. "So what now?" She felt crushed. If they could have secured the Elsydeon, their victory would have been that much closer to being assured. Beside her, she could sense the same devastated hope from Myrelle.

Giving a hopeless shrug, Rachel pushed herself up. "We move on with our objectives. We find Lars. I should be able to…" She paused. "What’s wrong, Myrelle?"

Rika glanced aside at the Musk Cat, and saw that he had risen, his tail bristling in the most primal display of emotion she had ever seen from him. She felt a brief flash of fear. "That…thing. On the table. I can feel it now. What is it?"

Looking up at Rachel, Rika could see the same confusion in her eyes that she herself felt. Rachel turned and looked at the table, specifically at the small black cube. "I don’t know," she admitted. "I weakened the shields as much as I could…maybe y ou’re picking up some residual energy."

"It’s evil."

"Maybe you should…" Rika waved her fingers at the cube.

"We ought to spare the time, I suppose," Rachel replied. "I guess I’ll take a look." Her eyes briefly went blank, then very quickly regained their emotion and flew wide. "I can’t believe they’d really do it! That Morovin has so much gall! That’s…in credible!"

"What?" Rika and Myrelle asked together.

"I don’t have time to explain it to you now. This one’s a prototype of something awful…it changes everything."

"Rachel!" Rika snapped. "Calm down. What are you talking about?"

"We’re going to get Lars and get out of here, Morovin and Seth be damned," Rachel told her sharply. "We have to get back to Aiedo. Hurry." She turned and headed for the doorway. Rika grabbed her arm.

"I don’t work well in the dark, Lutz."

Rachel fixed Rika with an look so intense and angry that Rika flinched. "That’s a weapon, Rika, a weapon that’s in all likelihood going to be turned against Aiedo in the foreseeable future. I promised myself that nobody else was going to die in my name – and if I don’t stop Seth from using that, it will mean the end for everyone in Aiedo. Now will you please come with me and stop wasting time!"

* * *

Morovin rose from his bow and fixed the Disciple with his gaze. "That is my report, Disciple," he reported, then waited expectantly.

Seth shifted on his throne, his energy-form casting weird, shifting shadows on the wall. He gave Morovin a long minute of silence before responding. "Tell Morgan that everything must go according to plan. Tell her to step up her plans. The lens mus t be ready for use as soon as possible. General Lain must crush Lutz and her allies before they can wreak havoc in Seed."

"That is all?"
"That is."

Morovin blinked. "With all due respect, Archlord, I had hoped to return to Motavia to assist Morgan."

Seth shook his head. "No. I need you to locate Carlam Nara’lak for me instead. He seems to have slipped through my surveillance. Have the Elsydeon sent to me. I need to…study it."

No mention, Morovin thought bitterly, of how his studies had failed to bend the Elsydeon to his will so far. The Disciple’s obsession with the sacred sword was becoming as dangerous as it was inexplicable. Seth’s actions deserved closer observation . Perhaps it was time for Morovin to take matters back into his own hands.

Right where they belonged.

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