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Seth lead Morgan deeper and deeper into the bowels of Nurvus, guiding her with the speed and efficiency of someone who had passed this way many times before, which he very well might have done. The Black Energy, a thick, oozing slime that coated th e floors, was cold and clammy to the touch and had an unpleasant consistency, but lacked any of the awesome power it had been said to command during the Redemption and even the Great Rebirth.
The Disciple, his body glowing with the eerie yellow light of the focussed soul energy of which he was composed, walked purposefully forward through the honeycombing passageways of which the supercomputer was composed. His hand, as always, rested o n the black wooden hilt of the Soulflame. The weapon was more a talisman then anything else, lacking the raw evil power that its precursor, the Netrdeon, had possessed in abundance.
At length the passageways widened, and then Morgan found herself at the midpoint of a huge shaft, stretching several hundred feet upwards to a point a good distance below the desert surface, and below into darkness. A catwalk extended outwards into the center of the shaft, and supported the computer’s nucleus, a massive wall of steel and lights that was coated with Black Energy even more so then anywhere else. Black Energy dripped off the edges of the catwalk, small black droplets falling down into deeper blackness.
While Morgan looked about herself in awe, Seth strode towards the mainframe. "Nurvus?" the Disciple prompted in his resonant voice, echoing from somewhere within his body. There was silence. "Nurvus, are you active?" More silenc e. Seth approached the console set at the center of the bottom of the computer and wiped black slime off it. More began to ooze out from the edges, but Seth ignored it, working at the keyboard.
"The AI itself was deactivated by Demi," Seth told Morgan, "but the primary systems are still active, and Zelan has isolated Nurvus from itself to avoid corruption. We may proceed undetected." Nonetheless, Seth drew his rust-col ored blade and set it upon the console within easy reach.
Morgan started forward, but as she passed onto the catwalk, she saw a strange, inhuman shape body on the ground, mostly covered by the slime. Bending at the waist, she wiped away the slime from the face of the body. A moment later she screamed and fell back at the sight of the inhuman face that greeted her. Seth spun, raising the Soulflame.
"Disciple!" Morgan pointed in horror at the body.
The streaks covering Seth’s body darkened to a stormy black hue. "Oh yes," the Disciple told her, approaching. "Those…things. You have no cause for alarm, child. It cannot hurt you." With a motion born solely of disgust, Seth nudged the creature over the edge of the catwalk with one foot. It plunged downwards into the darkness. Morgan did not here it strike. "Get up, Morgan."
"What was it?"
"A creature born of darkness. Nothing to fear now."
Morgan rose from the ground, the slime, pooling thickly on the catwalk, sucking at her clothes as she rose up. A simple spell dried her body and clothing, and she approached Seth as he returned to the console.
"Pardon my audacity, Master, but why have we come her at all?" Morgan asked. She had not been privy to the cause of the Disciple’s summons so soon after her rescue, and had been so overwhelmed by his presence that she had not asked earlie r.
"One cannot plan for the future without knowing the past," Seth replied cryptically. "I need a history of Algo not as…colored…as those housed in the Stronghold library."
"Religious texts, and of little real use to me now. I must know everything, and the only thing which can provide me with the information that I need is this dead machine." He tapped at the keys, futilely. Then he sighed. "Ther e is something wrong. Some kind of top priority program is running, and the directives of the program have drawn all of Nurvus’ attention to logging it. I cannot unearth the nature of the program."
"What will you do?"
"Try to access the logs, of course. I may be able to deactivate the program from there, or at least ascertain how to go about it."
Several moments of silence passed. Morgan shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, for the first time in her life serious discomfited. True, she worshipped and revered the Darkness, spoke the prayers and the oaths, but this…
"Interesting. Tell me, Morgan, do the works Rika or Numan mean anything to you?"
Morgan looked at Seth askance. "One does, of course, Master Seth. Rika Ashley was the wife of Chaz Ashley, a creature who was genetically engineered by the computer known as Seed. Rika Lain is the granddaughter of the Ashley woman, and was responsible in part for the downfall of our plans on the Alisa III. I don’t know who Numan is."
"Not who, child, but what. Numan is a code name for a project dating back to two years prior to the Great Collapse. The records on it are sketchy, but it appears there was an aborted project around that time known only as Numan. It appeared to deal with some kind of genetic manipulation… The term comes up again, twice, once earlier in Nurvus’ databanks, and later in Seeds.
"It would appear," Seth said, tapping the screen, then rubbing at the black energy oozing down it, "that Nurvus undertook a project similar to the one mentioned earlier in the files. The project was entitled Rika, meaning Grace, and involved the creation of a fully functional biomatrix."
"A hypothetical genetic construct which contains all the information of a complete human life form, that develops in a form similar to humanoid infants on a much faster scale. It appears that Nurvus was attempting to generate one of these. The project was aborted because the biomatrix contained severe chemical imbalances which put too much uncertainty into the experiment for Nurvus to cope with. The biomatrix was placed into cryofreeze. Later, Seed took over the project with the intention to e liminate the imbalances in the biomatrix."
Morgan thought she was beginning to catch on. "Then that biomatrix became Rika Ashley?"
"No. Seed found the original biomatrix too corrupt to be of any use, and it was shelved, so to speak. The original biomatrix is still frozen here…but…Fascinating! Someone reactivated the biomatrix while it was still in cryofreeze. The original Rika biomatrix has matured in hibernation! It’s still here!" Seth was tapping excitedly at the keys now, pausing every few seconds to mull over something. Morgan found herself leaning forward tensely, trying to comprehend what the Disciple was doing .
"Yes!" Seth exulted suddenly, and at the same instant part of the computer sank back into itself, then slid to one side. A large cylindrical tube, attached to machinery at both top and bottom, slid forward to replace it. Seth picked up So ulflame and approached it, staring into its opaque surface. He rubbed at the surface to clear away the dust and condensation and then suddenly drew back.
A human face stared back at him.
Morgan gasped. She had seen pictures of Rika Ashley, and here was an almost exact duplicate of her. Where Rika’s hair had been a soft pinkish hue, this creature’s hair was a dark purple. The face was the same, and Morgan could see some kind of body suit, black in color, clothing the creature’s form.
Seth stepped forward, rubbing at the rest of the cylinder, which frosted back over quickly. His rubbing hands lingered the most over the Numan’s perfect face. He leaned forward, almost pressing his face against the tube.
"Yes," he whispered exultantly. "Yes."
* * *
"Where is the Vale, Myrelle?"
The Musk Cat started in surprise and glanced up at Tamgren. "Just north of one of your cities…Jut, I think it was called. Aren’t you the one driving the shuttle?"
"Danielle took over for the landing procedure," Tamgren replied. Myrelle was sitting on one of the shuttle’s chairs towards the back, away from the cockpit. Alys, Rika and Danielle were towards the front. Outside the window nearby Myrelle , the landscape of Dezolis shot past.
"Oh," Myrelle replied.
Tamgren sat down next to the Musk Cat, looking over Myrelle’s head and out the window. "You don’t have to stay with us, you know. Rika and Alys don’t need corroboration. If they say the Dark Espers are on the move again, Kyra and Narrel would believe them. You can go back to the Myst Vale and…find out." Tamgren wasn’t exactly sure why he said what he said. It was true, about Kyra and Narrel, but…He felt an odd kind of compassion for the Musk Cat. Myrelle’s plight somehow struck a cord wit hin him. There had been a time he had lost everything, too. "I’d go with you."
Myrelle started and looked at Tamgren in surprise, startled by the proposition from an almost complete stranger. "Do you think they would have left anyone alive?" Tamgren hesitated and glanced away. "Please."
Tamgren opened his mouth once, then shut it again. "I don’t…No. I doubt it."
Myrelle nodded slowly. "Thank you. For being honest with me." He shook his head. "I’ll stay. As long as you plan to make the Dark Espers pay for what they’ve done, I’ll stay."
Tamgren sighed. "I see."
Rika suddenly poked her head out of the door to the shuttle’s cockpit. "Tamgren, Myrelle, you’d better come up here. Something’s wrong."
Tamgren looked up from the shuttle’s sensor reading, shaking his head. "I can’t make any sense out of it, but it’s not natural."
"What is it?" Alys asked, peering over his shoulder at the readings.
"An energy flux of some kind," Danielle replied. "It completely surrounds the Mansion. The sensors just barely picked it up—and we’ve learned that Old World sensors have a weakness when it comes to detecting magic. Most times they mi ss it completely. It is not a natural field, and it is not a technological field, in my opinion, therefore it is likely magical."
"If you got me closer, I could find out." Myrelle offered. They all looked at him. "If it’s magical."
Myrelle shook his head. "I don’t know how it’s done…but any Musk Cat learning their first Weave learns how to identify them too. It’s really pretty simple."
"All right. We’ll set down a fair distance away from the Mansion, and Myrelle and I will go identify the field. We can also do a little basic reconnaissance." The sensor readings faded, to be replaced with a map of the area around the Man sion. Alys pointed to a spot just west of the Mansion. "Can you set us down there?"
"Course input." Danielle replied quickly. "Go and buckle in."
* * *
There they were. Right in front of his eyes as he crouched behind the hilltop. The light reflecting off the snow, blinding to a Palman, was perfectly adapted for Myrelle, and he could see them clearly when Alys was squinting, black armor gleaming i n the sunlight.
Fire leaping from their fingertips, pain, death, screaming…
Myrelle shook himself. He felt his lips drawing back from his teeth in a half snarl. "It’s magical," he replied. They were standing at the door of the Mansion, two of them, arrogant, proud, murderers.
"I think we’ve already answered that question," Alys whispered back. She began to work her way back down the hill towards the others. After a moment, Myrelle followed her.
Searing flash of pain…
* * *
After being outside on Dezolis’ crisp, fresh air, the interior of the shuttle smelled sterile and dull by comparison. As they entered, Alys quickly walked to the cockpit of the shuttle. Myrelle followed.
"The Espers have fallen. The field was created by the Dark Espers, and they’re there, now." Alys spat it out in a quick, businesslike fashion.
Tamgren swore, and flinched visibly, as if he’d been struck. Danielle’s impassive, as yet Android gaze, didn’t flicker at all. Instead, she nodded. "Alternatives?" It was something about her Tamgren had noticed from time to time—during th e occasional mechanical crises that arose on Zelan, Danielle lapsed back into a more Android mindset.
Rika shrugged sadly, once. She looked defeated. "Go back to Aiedo and wait for alternatives to arise. At the moment, I can’t really see that we can do anything feasible."
"Attack," Myrelle said quietly. Alys cocked an eyebrow at him and frowned thoughtfully. "We have no alternatives." He looked at Rika. "You can go back to Aiedo, but they’ll follow you there, you know they will. They’ll atta ck your city and they’ll crush it and they’ll do to you like they did to…" The Musk Cat trailed off. "But they don’t know we’re here, or we’d be dead already. We have a chance, Rika. We can hurt them, make them pay. But not if we h ide. Not then."
"Myrelle has a point," Alys said, shifting her weight as she thought it over. "The Dark Espers don’t seem to care about human lives—they threw them away like they didn’t mean anything when we were fighting them and the Wrens in Paseo . They’ve already neutralized the Espers, so it’s only a matter of time before they move on the other force that crushed their Algo offensive during the Alisian Wars. They’re going to keep going until we’re dead."
Danielle cocked her head at Alys thoughtfully. "Perhaps…But we would likely be walking into a veritable deathtrap."
"Better then waiting for the deathtrap to come to us," Alys replied. "I say we go for it. We might not be able to win the war—odds are we’re all dead anyway, so I’d rather go out waging my own little war with Lan’Tearin." She pa used, and looked around. "All in favor?"
* * *
Rika loosened her sword in her scabbard, crouching just out of sight of the Dark Esper guards, standing at attention nearby the gates to the Mansion. She glanced over her shoulder at Tamgren and Danielle, and saw Alys and Myrelle creeping up behin d them. "Four at the door," she reported. Her mother nodded.
"We didn’t find any others on patrol nearby. They seem to be the only ones nearby." Alys drew her sword slowly to hide the sound. "You all armed?" Tamgren and Danielle both hefted Old World laser rifles they’d placed on board th e shuttle in case of an emergency. Myrelle alone was unarmed. "When the fighting starts, Myrelle, you stay back." The Musk Cat scowled and bit back a reply. Alys’ face softened. "I’m sorry, Myrelle. I understand, but I’m not going to let yo u throw away your life. Ready?" Alys waited a moment while Tamgren and Danielle disengaged the safeties on their rifles. "Go!"
Alys and Rika leapt to their feet and charged across the brief distance between them and the Mansion doorway. The guards looked momentarily surprised, then shocked when Danielle and Tamgren rose from their places of concealment and unleashed a rail of laser blasts over the heads of the two charging Hunters. One of the guards was down before Rika and Alys had closed the gap, another falling. The two remaining guards, to startled to raise a cry, placed their backs to the door and defended themselves admirably right up to the fight’s inevitable conclusion.
Alys was cleaning her blade when Tamgren, Danielle and Myrelle arrived at the scene of the battle. "What are we going to do about the bodies?" Tamgren asked, nudging the one he had blasted with his foot.
Alys looked around. "No real cover to hide them, no way to burn them." She shrugged. "Leave them, I suppose." She approached the door.
"Don’t!" Myrelle hissed suddenly, backing away from the doorway. Alys stopped in surprise, hand outstretched to push it open. "There’s something wrong. I can feel the magic here, it’s even stronger now. It’s like ice."
"Ice?" Danielle repeated, blinking. "I don’t detect anything."
"Will we be all right if we go in?" Alys asked.
Myrelle paused, then approached the door slowly, pausing a short distance from it. "Yes," he said after a moment, "I think so. It’s passive."
Alys and Rika exchanged a long look, then Rika took three steps forward and, drawing her sword with a quick, fluid motion, pushed open the door.
There was a sound like the shattering of glass.
An Esper stood just inside the door, his face twisted and bent in a hideous cry of fear and pain. His body was frozen, and the sudden rush of cold Dezolis air racing into the Mansion didn’t disturb his robes at all.
His left arm, shoulder, and half of his chest was missing.
The wound had a look to match the sound—as if someone had turned his body into glass and shattered it with a hammer. As they watched, horrified, more and more of his body began to crumble away, small shards of the Esper falling end over end to the ground, where they too fractured and went spinning across the ground.
Rika had paled, and slowly extended a hand to touch the frozen Esper. "What happened…" She was cut off by a small yelp of surprise and Danielle fixed an iron grip on her.
"Don’t touch them!" the Android warned. "It’s a stasis field."
Tamgren gaped. "That’s not possible!"
Danielle looked at him, releasing Rika’s wrist. "Not as far as scientific principles are concerned…but if magic was employed?"
Stepping between the two of them, Alys looked at Danielle, then at Tamgren, then at the Esper. Now that her eyes were adjusting to the changing light, she could see more Espers, similarly unmoving, spaced out along the hall. All of them looked quit e alarmed. "Danielle, Tamgren, what is a stasis field?"
"Bent time." Tamgren shook his head. "I can’t believe it’s possible. A stasis field is rather like cryogenic stasis, but instead of freezing to preserve, it—theoretically—generates an area where time moves at a much slower rate. The Espers aren’t frozen, they’re just…slow."
"That’s why he shattered, I presume," Danielle jumped in. "I don’t know the ratio of stasis to normal time, but the door struck him, in his frozen state, at the speed it was travelling in as it passed through normal time…"
"…which was much, much faster once it entered the area of influence of the stasis field!" Tamgren’s eyes were sparkling. "Anything not acted on by the field could destroy them!" The Esper was almost completely crumbled away now.
"That’s awful!" Rika gasped. Alys shuddered, then quickly pushed the door shut. "Why aren’t we affected?"
"Presumably the field has an area of influence which permanently warps a moment in time, nothing else. Anything not in the area of influence at that moment would be unharmed. Technically, the stasis field doesn’t exist at this moment, you unde rstand, but at the moment in which it was activated. The Espers are trapped in that moment, probably not even aware of what’s happening, in or out of the field. It’s really quite fascinating from a technical standpoint."
"Can you stop it?"
Danielle and Tamgren both shook their heads. "The field was only possible theoretically, Alys," Tamgren told her. "There was never anything designed to generate one, much less deactivate it. Besides, we have nothing to work wi th here, without some technical basis for it all. I don’t think we could put together anything ourselves."
Almost without thinking, Alys looked at Myrelle. The Musk Cat shook his head sadly. "It’s so large, Alys. Maybe the Old One could do it, or someone stronger then me, but…No. I’m sorry."
Danielle looked around. "Options?" she prompted. There was silence.
Tamgren looked up. "There are none."[an error occurred while processing this directive]