A Heart As Cold As Stone
"This is it," Odin unconsciously echoed Rogan, surveying his team. They were the best, he had to admit. There was Myau, of course; the two of them always worked together. The others, though, were the best warriors the Resistance had to offer: lean, deadly Asher with his titanium sword; powerful Merrick, who wielded an axe like Odin's, only his had a heavier head and a longer handle. There was Kyla, who used not only a knife but pellets of her own design that broke and released caustic chemicals over their target. Cyan had been equipped with one of the heat guns, with which she had demonstrated impressive skills. Scott was a lean, whiplike man who preferred to attack from stealth and was good at it, while the last member of the team, Georg, was primarily an archer.
"That speech was...short," Asher observed.
"I loved it, meow!"
"Oh, be quiet, fuzzball. We've got a chance to accomplish three major goals today. By defeating Medusa, we can remove one of Lassic's most powerful allies, prove to the people of Palma that the tyrant can be fought, and gain an incredible weapon to use in our fight. It's there for the taking, if we're up to the challenge."
"Darn straight!" Merrick exclaimed. "We'll give that witch a taste of her own medicine."
"Do we have a plan?" Kyla asked, tilting her head to one side.
Odin rubbed his chin.
"A small one. If we need to lure her into the cave with an attack, then Asher, Scott, and Georg will do it with arrow fire."
"Why not me?" Cyan protested. "My gun is much more powerful than their bows."
"Your leg won't let you shoot, then run quickly back into the cave," Odin told her. "The rest of us will wait at the second intersection and attack from ambush. Cyan and Kyla will attack first from long range, and we'll follow with hand-to-hand. At that point all shooters should grab a blade and dive in."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Asher said. "The key's probably going to be giving her multiple threats to contend with."
"How much longer do you think we'll have to wait?" wondered Scott. His question was answered by a roaring explosion of sound, like the crash of thunder from a lightning bolt striking very close by.
"Not very long at all, meow."
* * * * *
The force of the explosion was tremendous; the bomb buried in the dirt road had obviously been a first-rate job by Dean and Kyla. The hovercraft had been positioned slightly off the centerline of the road, so the force of the blast came up directly under its left strut, snapping it in two. The craft went spinning away, out of control, eventually crashing through several trees and coming to rest at a crazy angle. One of the trees it had smashed into fell over directly on it, slamming down onto the main deck, crushing the siderails and inflicting heavy damage on one of the androcops.
Rogan drew his laser gun.
"Let's go!" he ordered.
The two wings of the engagement team charged forward, gun and arrow fire spraying towards the downed hovercraft. Occasional shots from needlers or heat guns were fired back, but the vehicle was lying at a forty-five degree angle, making it difficult for the Palmans and nearly impossible for the robotcops to establish any kind of decent firing position. Just as Rogan had hoped, the enemy forces began to disembark. The four robotcops pursuing the sniper team, however, kept right on chasing them, the machines' limited intelligence keeping them from reacting to what was happening back on the road.
As the soldiers and robotcops got off the hovercraft, they were exposed and vulnerable, and more than one went down under concerted fire from the Resistance. Unfortunately, success bred confidence, and Jander led the right wing in a howling charge. Perhaps it was dreams of glory that inspired them, or they might just have gotten caught up in the heat of battle without having a cool head among them to rein in their enthusiasm. It might even have worked, had the soldiers and robotcops continued to descend to the ground in ones and twos, but they didn't. Instead, military training took over, and they started working in groups, providing covering fire from the hovercraft as each one disembarked. Rogan sprayed laser fire in the direction of the shooters while screaming the order to fall back, but it was too late. Every last one of the right wing lay cold and still on the ground by the time the black-clad wizardess slid down a rope from the wrecked hovercraft. She would have made a perfect target, but her troops pinned down the Resistance with a withering storm of shots.
"It's time," Rogan said. "Fall back to the cave."
"But...what about everyone else?" protested Dean, who was the closest one to the commander. "Jander...the whole right wing?"
"They're dead, Dean. All we can do for them now is try to win this so we can give them a decent burial."
* * * * *
"They're falling back," said Medusa's lieutenant, who was nominally in command of the remaining government troops. "We radioed a distress signal, so support should be on its way to pick us up. Shall we hold our position, my lady?"
Her gaze transfixed him like a rapier sliding through a man's heart.
"At best we have salvaged a stalemate from this day. The death of soldiers, the destruction of a hovercraft and several robotcops, and the insult to King Lassic's authority cannot be answered by anything less than the complete annihilation of our attackers. We will pursue them."
* * * * *
Lania grunted with pain as a spray of needler fire slashed into her legs and took her down. The robotcops had already killed Erik; now there was only her.
"You will drop your weapon and surrender," droned one of the four metal soldiers. They stood in a half-circle around the fallen sniper.
"Surrender? And become a toy for Lassic's torturers?" she whispered painfully.
"I repeat; surrender immediately."
She rolled over onto her back, swinging up the needlegun.
"Bite me," Lania growled defiantly, and emptied the entire clip into the nearest robot. Their demands for surrender rejected, the others quickly returned her fire, with lethal effect.
* * * * *
"I was wondering," Merrick spoke up. "Howcome we're gonna go to Eppi when this is all over?"
"It's the perfect place for us," Odin answered, only half listening. The sounds of battle were drawing nearer. "The forest is so dense that it's difficult to track through it. Without a compass, it's impossible to find your way through the winding paths. Plus, the mayor is a sympathizer. He can't do much, but he'll let us hide out for a few days, maybe even give us supplies."
He frowned as a sudden thought took him.
"You know, Merrick, that gives me an idea. I'm going to cache our compass here in the tunnels, so if we do get beaten, Lassic's goons won't be able to use it to hunt the others down."
"They've probably got their own compasses," Myau pointed out. "It's still a good idea, though. If they found it on you, they might be able to deduce where we were going."
"Where are you going to hide it?" Cyan asked.
"How about at the end of that long tunnel that runs out of the barracks? We never use it, anyway, so they wouldn't think to look there."
Cyan brushed her azure hair out of her eyes.
"Sounds good to me. Better go do it now, 'cause we're going to need you in fifteen minutes or so."
Myau went with Odin, just in case any monsters decided that they would make their presence felt, but thankfully they remained in hiding. Odin concealed the compass beneath a loose rock in the floor.
"There's one other thing, Myau. Rogan gave me this." He took out the bottle of Alsulin and explained what the medicine did. "If it becomes necessary...I want you ready to use it." He tied the bottle to a cord and slipped it over the Musk Cat's head. "Let's get back before they need us."
Odin set off down the passage at once, but Myau took a moment to look at the bottle. Its top was shaped like the crystal stopper of an antique perfume bottle, but actually screwed on and off to form a tight seal. The Musk Cat took a few experimental tries, then his eyes widened.
"Odin..." he called. "Hey, Odin!" He scampered off down the passage, trying to catch up with his partner, to get his attention. Odin, I can't get the top off this bottle!
* * * * *
The robotcop lifted its rifle and crashed the butt down onto Dean's back, hammering the chemist into the muddy ground. Again and again it struck, the noise sickening, until there was no mistaking that the rebel was dead. Rogan's arm throbbed painfully where a heat gun blast had seared his flesh. Another good man dead. How many would this operation cost before it was over?
"Where?" the lieutenant roared in his face. "Where are the rest of your backstabbing friends?"
He backhanded Rogan, knocking him over. The other three prisoners winced.
That will be enough, Lieutenant," Medusa said calmly. Rogan had been surprised at how beautiful the Esper was, but not by the unnatural grace of movement that made her seem almost inhuman.
"My lady, eleven good soldiers and crew are dead because of these scum!"
"Your questions are unnecessary. There are several people hiding in that cave." She pointed at the entrance. Usually the Resistance kept it camouflaged, but it was open and exposed today since they were hoping for visitors. "I can sense their presence."
Medusa pointed at the androcops, then two robotcops in turn.
"You two, you, and you will accompany me. Lieutenant, you and your men will guard the prisoners, together with the other two robotcops."
Rogan's heart leapt as the Esper turned and led the way into the cave. Suddenly, after all the failures, things were working perfectly. His hand twitched; they'd taken his weapons but hadn't conducted a proper search yet. One by one the figures disappeared into the cave mouth, then a spark of light came from inside as one of the robots activated an internal flash unit. Now, timing was everything. Had it been long enough? Had it been too long? He felt like Tomas had a few days ago, eager to strike, not knowing when was right.
The rebel leader grabbed for his boot and pulled out the slim, blue-cased radio detonator.
"He's got a weapon!" someone shouted.
His thumb closed over the button. A moment later a heavy boot crashed down on his wrist, pinning it to the ground and making him let go of the detonator, but it was too late. The howl of the explosion was already ringing in his ears, and when he turned his head Rogan saw that the entrance to Medusa's Cave was choked with rubble.
What did you do?" the lieutenant screamed, yanking the Resistance leader to his feet. "What did you do, you dung-eating sworm-kisser?" he shouted into Rogan's face.
Rogan smiled. It hurt--his lip had been cut by the officer's blow--but he managed. It was his last act of defiance. The lieutenant hurled him to the ground, drew his heat gun and fired a blast into Rogan's head.
* * * * *
The collapsing ceiling, Odin saw, had swallowed up the tail end of the line, all but the violet-haired wizardess and one androcop. "Now!" he ordered, wanting to take advantage of the moment of surprise. The glowing flash unit in the androcop's chest made a perfect target; Georg, Scott, Cyan, and Asher all fired and hit. Two of the arrows bounced off harmlessly while the third found a chink and stuck. The heat gun, though, inflicted the only noticeable damage.
Kyla went next, hurling one of her acid orbs with each hand. They shattered as they hit the androcop's armor, the chemicals inside beginning to eat into its metal body at once. Nonetheless, the robot stepped in front of Medusa to protect her, raised its right arm, and opened fire with its built-in laser. Georg was the first hit; Scott and Asher immediately dropped their bow guns, drew their swords, and charged. Cyan remained in her shooter's stance and pumped three more shots into the androcop.
In exchange, it put a laser beam through her heart.
The robot was almost down, though. Damaged by the earlier attacks, it moved jerkily and could not prevent Odin from crashing his axe down through its "neck," or Merrick from nearly severing it in two at the middle. The androcop fell, smashing into multiple pieces as it hit the cave floor. Behind it, Medusa was revealed, her face almost serene. Her laconia eyes seemed to glow in the sudden darkness, and her hand came up slowly, almost as if moving in water, yet no one could reach her before the sweeping gesture was made.
Jagged, crackling bolts of lightning exploded from the Esper's hand, slamming into the charging Resistance fighters. Odin and Merrick were knocked off their feet, while Asher seemed to freeze in place, muscles locked, before he crumpled. Scott was actually hurled against the stone wall by the spell's force. Only Kyla and Myau, being in the back ranks, were spared.
Angrily, the Musk Cat sprang at Medusa. Myau's sharp claws ripped and slashed at her beautiful face, and the wizardess shrieked in pain. With strength her slender body should not have possessed, she hurled the cat away from her. Medusa straightened, then thrust one hand upwards, summoning all her power. The Esper's voice rose in a wordless cry, and a pillar of varicolored light engulfed her. Odin dragged himself painfully to his feet, his entire body aching, waiting for whatever came next.
He wasn't prepared.
What emerged from the pillar of light was nothing like any of them had ever seen. Its torso was that of a Palman woman, still clad in black, still wearing the jeweled baldric that supported the laconian axe. Her face had the same serene visage, now cured of the injuries Myau had inflicted, with the same silver eyes. From the waist down, though, Medusa was no longer even remotely Palman. Her legs had been replaced by the sinuous body of a serpent, twenty feet long and as thick as her legs had been at the hip. Her hair had been changed to dozens of undulating, hissing, violet snakes, their tongues flickering and eyes glowing like dozens of scarlet pinpoints.
The question of whether she truly was the legendary monster, Medusa, had been emphatically answered.
"Run!" Odin ordered, grabbing at Merrick's arm. Kyla and Myau bolted, but Merrick didn't move fast enough. Still stunned by Medusa's thunder magic, he stumbled two steps, and then three snakes opened their mouths and shot streams of caustic venom at him. The big axeman went down, screaming horribly. Odin cursed, fleeing after the other two.
"What's the plan? Escape?" Kyla asked after they'd rounded two corners. Medusa was still coming after them, but they knew the dungeon and could make quick turns to shake off pursuit.
"I'm going to try taking her on," Odin said.
"Are you insane, meow?"
"This was the whole point of our plan, to get us in here to fight her. I won't give up."
"You'll get yourself killed, just like Merrick and Asher and Scott and Cyan and Georg and God knows how many others."
"I have to try," he insisted stubbornly.
"All right, but let's at least head towards the exit," Myau said. "That way if things go bad we can at least make a run for it."
"Just be ready with that Alsulin."
"Odin, about the Alsulin--"
"I know you want to help, but I need you to hang back and get ready to heal. If she turns you to stone then having the cure won't do any good."
The air shaft which had been wired as an escape route was at the end of a dead-end tunnel. Just before they reached the corner leading to it, Medusa emerged into the passage behind them. Myau, in the lead, darted around the bend. Odin was right on his heels.
Kyla wasn't so lucky. The chemist was struck by a fire spell, twin bolts of flame slamming into her back. She didn't even have time to scream.
"Can we retreat now, meow?"
"If I have to fight her alone, then I will!" As Odin pressed his back to the stone wall just around the corner, some part of him recognized that he wasn't acting rationally. It might have been misplaced responsibility, the desire to get revenge for the six friends he had seen cut down in moments, or even green for the mystic axe that Medusa carried, but it wasn't sane, whatever it was.
The instant the serpentine monster rounded the corner, Odin struck. He had the advantage of surprise, and his heavy axe slashed a gouge in Medusa's snakelike lower body. Blood seeped from the wound, a thick, ichorlike blood. With a cry of rage, her tail snapped around and crashed into him, knocking him flat on his back. Adrenaline surged through the warrior, driving him past the pain, and he leapt to his feet. Axe upraised, he charged her.
Medusa's eyes seemed to glow even more brilliantly, as if all the dim light was being drawn into them. Then, that light exploded outwards in twin beams that transfixed Odin. His charge never reached her; he was frozen in stone.
The monster turned her attention to Myau, the last of the Resistance team that had been sent to destroy her. The Musk Cat hissed, baring his fangs, the fur on his back raised, but he knew it was hopeless.
Then the point of a sword erupted from Medusa's belly.
Myau had no idea where Asher had found the strength to walk, let alone drive the weapon into the monster's back. He looked like a living corpse; in fact, he had already started to fall before Medusa spun to attack him, but for all that, he saved Myau's life. Even as Medusa was turning, the Musk Cat leapt for the air shaft. The detonator had been turned to stone along with all of Odin's other possessions, but Myau's body was just small and agile enough to get inside without blasting the shaft open. He had a couple of bad moments as tight spots scraped and tore at his skin, but finally he managed to get through.
Seeing what had happened to Rogan and the rest of his team was a much worse moment.
They're all dead,Myau realized. Everyone except me...
Odin was the one he had to worry about now. He needed to find someone to come back and rescue him, someone to get the top off the bottle. There were other Resistance fighters in Scion and Camineet, Myau knew; he'd start with them.
* * * * *
The last layer of rock finally gave way under the impact of repeated fire spells, and Medusa emerged from the cave entrance. She was weary with the effort of healing herself and her dress was torn, but she was alive. Surprisingly, the faces of the soldiers lit up when they saw her emerge.
"My lady! We were afraid the rebel scum had...had managed to...with that rockslide..."
She saw the bodies of the four erstwhile prisoners and frowned.
"So you chose to execute them out of anger despite your orders?"
The lieutenant hung his head.
"Yes, Lady Medusa," he admitted. He looked scared now, and he had good reason. Disobedience was treated harshly in the tyrant's army.
"That was foolish. This group has been crushed, but there are others who rebel against King Lassic whose nests have yet to be uncovered." She paused, then added, "I do, however, understand."
The man looked up, a sigh of relief filling him.
"Are you all right, Lady Medusa? Do you need anything?"
"I am well, Lieutenant. In fact," she said, a faint smile taking shape on her perfect lips, "I am...amused."