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Chapter Ten

Lassic sat in his throne, examining Paseo carefully.

The city wasn't much bigger than the head of a pin, of course, even with the small pocket telescope he held up to his right eye. However, the magnification device did provide him a better view than simply staring out of his window. "I'm anxious to see what you've done with the place, Sirus," Lassic muttered under his breath. "And consider yourself forewarned, for I will be there soon. Somehow, I will leave this castle and set foot in Paseo. And I'll want an audience with you, honorable Governor.

"But, of course," he continued, sliding the telescope together and dropping it back into his pocket, "I'll bring presents for the head of the 'Paseo Council,' won't I, Neithird?"

Her legs folded in a crouch on the second-highest stair of his dais, Neithird spun her head around upon hearing her name, locking her black eyes on her master. "I think I'll bring Sirus two presents, to be precise. I'll bring some shortcake, of course, for the fat fool, but I'll also bring you along, Neithird."

The creature grinned widely at Lassic, hissed out an almost-laugh. Lassic had no idea whether or not she understood what he was saying, and he didn't much care, either. "What do you say, my pet? You could give Sirus a shave, but there'd be no need to put away your claws even after his beard was gone, would there, Neithird?"

Before she could give him any kind of response, her tall ears shot straight up into the air, and her head spun back around to face the center of the room. Lassic stood from his dais. He had noticed, in the short time she had been alive, that Neithird had an uncanny ability to tell when one of the Xe-A-Thouls' teleportals was about to open, perhaps as a result of the months of telepathic training the Xe-A-Thouls had provided her with. No matter, the whys were really of no concern to Lassic. The results were all he cared about.

Sure enough, wind swept through the throne room, and a moment later, a swirling, black teleportal appeared. Xerik stepped through first, holding a long, slender, shiny, silver cannon high in one of his bony hands. "Your majesty," he called out to Lassic, "the mission is a success."

As he stepped away from the gateway, Xanon followed his brother into the throne room, but the first Xe-A-Thoul was not alone. He had one of Xarxas's arms thrown around his shoulder, and he was half helping Xarxas to walk, and half carrying him into the throne room. The teleportal closed behind them a second later. Neithird dropped to all fours and ran/pounced down the dais to meet them.

"What the hell happened?" was Lassic's grumble of a greeting.

"A Palman -- one of Rolf's friends," Xanon started, the contempt clearly audible in his voice, "injured Xarxas."

"It is nothing, your majesty," Xarxas growled to Lassic, his head turning towards Xanon with an obvious glare under his mask. "It is a scratch. I'll be fine."

Lassic kept his eyes focused on Xarxas for a moment, then glanced down at the floor underneath him, saw the small puddle of dripping black blood. Turning towards Xerik, Lassic commanded, "Take the EX-17 to the lab and study it to insure it is powerful enough to crack the Espers' shield."

With a nod, Xerik turned away to do so, excusing himself from the throne room and exiting down the hallway outside. In the meantime, Lassic slowly descended his dais, stepping towards the place where Xarxas remained on his feet solely through the aid of his brother Xanon.

As he reached the Xe-A-Thouls' position, the king glanced at Neithird, who was running her index finger through the sticky pile of black goo on the floor beneath Xarxas. As she brought the finger towards her mouth, Lassic placed his hand on the back of her head and tilted her neck back gently. "Neithird," he quietly said to her, "I appreciate your efforts to keep my throne room tidy, but please do not eat Xarxas's blood." She emitted a low growl from deep in her throat, no doubt in disappointment, but she nevertheless obeyed the king, and she turned and ran away on all fours.

Now standing before Xarxas, Lassic reached his hands out towards the Xe-A-Thoul's robe. "Let me see your wound."

"It is... a scratch," Xarxas (unconvincingly) repeated. Lassic pulled the red/purple fabric of the robe -- blood-stained black surrounding the wound -- aside to reveal Xarxas's wound: an inch wide gaping hole just off of the center of his chest, oozing black tar blood and festering with pus.

Then, holding the robe open with his left hand, Lassic brought the head of his scepter sharply forward, driving its tip straight into Xarxas's wound as the Xe-A-Thoul threw his head back and screamed in agony.

Next to Xarxas, Xanon shifted position as not just most, but now all of Xarxas's weight fell onto him to support. Lassic glanced at him, and he could tell that underneath his mask, the first Xe-A-Thoul was blinking in incredulity, but soon, as Xarxas continued to scream, awareness came through as waves of blackness started to emanate from Xarxas's wound. Slowly, the Xe-A-Thoul's screaming stopped, and a moment later, when Lassic carefully withdrew his scepter, blackness waved before the wound only a second longer before it disappeared, revealing healthy (or at least, healthy by Xe-A-Thoul standards) skin underneath.

Xanon let go of his brother, who immediately fell towards the ground but managed to stop his face from smacking to the floor, instead finding himself in a one-kneed crouch before Lassic. Still panting for air, Xarxas bowed to the king. "Thank you, your majesty."

"You were successful in your mission," Lassic explained. "That is why I used heal rather than thunder. But I am King of the Algol Star System, Xarxas, not your personal physician. Do not make me make a habit of this."

"I will not, your majesty."

"Your majesty," called Xerik, who had returned to the throne room, the EX-17 still in his hand. "I have completed my studies of the energy disrupter."

Xerik's tone was all the confirmation Lassic needed. "And you have found it inadequate," Lassic sighed in impatience, "for the task of destroying the Espers' energy shield."

A terse nod from the Xe-A-Thoul. "That is correct, your majesty."

The king sighed again. Xerik might be the "quiet one" of his Xe-A-Thoul family, but Lassic would give him this: when he did speak, he got right to the point, and didn't prevaricate or sidestep the issue at hand. "As I somewhat expected," Lassic reminded the Xe-A-Thouls, climbing back up his dais towards his throne. "I suspected that even the wonders of the Earth rats' technology would not be enough to counter the magic of the ignominious Noah. As far as I can tell, there are only two items in all of Algo magical enough to break the shield." Having reached his throne, Lassic turned around and dropped himself into it. "And considering they've made the sword into their own private retirement home, we're going to need the axe."

The Xe-A-Thouls exchanged a glance with one another. Then, Xarxas cleared his throat. "I assume you mean the Laconian Axe, Lord Lassic?"

"Do I have to spell it out for you?" Lassic shot back. "Of course I mean the axe. The Laconian Axe that the big oaf companion of Landale's used to"

(Pplunnnk!)

"to hurt me, a thousand years ago. Find it."

The Xe-A-Thouls obeyed, and all three of them immediately dropped their heads in silent concentration as they began using their powers to search Algo. Lassic folded his left leg over his right knee, getting comfortable in his throne. Algo was still quite large, even without Palma, and it could take them quite some time to--

"I've found it," Xerik suddenly called out. He raised his right hand and before him, the air shimmered and twisted until a vision gate had been opened, revealing the salty brown walls of some kind of cave. "Despite what you might think based on what you see here," Xerik narrated, "the axe is located in a cave on Dezoris. It would appear this cave is the home to a tribe of--"

Lassic interrupted as a small, yellow-furred animal casually stepped across the view on the vision gate. "Musk Cats," the king finished with a sneer, resting an elbow on the arm of his throne and then placing his left cheek in his hand.

"Indeed," Xerik nodded. His vision gate continued to pan across the cave, revealing, as Xerik had said, a tribe of Musk Cats. The utter look of disdain on Lassic's wrinkled face did not disappear as the view revealed two more Musk Cats wrestling with one another; an elder cat licking the fur of an infant; an incredibly large cat, over five times bigger than the others, with white wings folded against its body, watching over the whole scene; and finally, the vision gate focused on an indentation in the wall near the large cat, where the glittering metal of the Laconian Axe took up the full view.

"I do not sense any kind of defenses, be them magical or technological, on the part of the Musk Cats," Xerik reported. "As far as I can sense--"

"Pan back," Lassic interrupted him, sitting up out of his slouch.

Xerik merely blinked, glanced towards Xanon. Xanon started to shrug, turned towards Lassic--

Who slammed his scepter down on the floor next to his throne. Lightning shot down from the ceiling of the castle and connected with the scepter, crackling around the staff and projecting a glow that lit Lassic's creased face and made its anger considerably lucid. "Don't look at him," Lassic ordered Xerik, "you look at me, you bow to me, and I ordered you to pan back!"

Before Lassic could turn the lightning which circled his staff into a blast of thunder, Xerik panned the view of the vision gate backwards, until the form of the winged Musk Cat took up the entire gate. "Stop!" Lassic commanded, and then he leaned forward in his chair and examined the giant feline, the Xe-A-Thouls breathing a sigh of relief as the lighting around his scepter dissipated.

"Master?" Xanon carefully asked after several moments of silence. "Master, what is--"

"Myau..." Lassic said, his voice barely higher than a whisper, as his free hand rubbed across the long scar on his right cheek.

Obviously stunned by the words, the Xe-A-Thouls shared another glance between themselves, then looked back towards their master.

Lassic nearly jumped from his chair. "Myau!" he roared. "Landale's Musk Cat lives!"

If Lassic hadn't been distracted by his unwavering focus on the vision gate, he would have seen Xarxas take a step forward, an obvious smile underneath his mask. "But... I thought Neithird killed Myau for you, your majesty?"

"An obvious error," Lassic grumbled, "on both the part of her and the three of you, for that" -- he pointed at the vision gate -- "is Myau. I can see his hatred for me in his eyes even now, but there is something new there, as well. It's laughter. He's now laughing behind those eyes, laughing at me, for he thinks he defeated me. Can't you see it?"

Again, the Xe-A-Thouls exchanged glances between one another, but said nothing.

Lassic was staring into the vision of the Cat's green eyes again, his own eyes wide. "Myau is alive, though I swear on my entire kingdom, he won't be for long." The king continued to stare at the vision gate, breathing heavilly. Abruptly, then, he screamed, "Get him out of my sight!"

With a wave of his hand, Xerik made the vision gate disappear as Lassic descended his dais. "Xanon, Xerik, the two of you will travel to this cave on Dezoris and retrieve for me both the axe and Myau."

Xarxas blinked. "What about myself, your majesty?"

"You are to stay here and heal," Lassic told Xarxas flatly, cutting off any argument the Xe-A-Thoul could make.

"Of course," Xarxas bowed, the tone of his voice as well as his body language indicating to Lassic he was anything but pleased with the decision. But he obeyed it, and that was all Lassic cared about.

"What of Neithird?" Xanon asked.

"She, too, will remain here," Lassic told him. Half of Neithird's genetic code came from a Musk Cat. To be perfectly honest with himself, Lassic wasn't sure if he could trust her to attack Musk Cats; he knew the Xe-A-Thouls' programming had been intense and thorough, but what if some kind of species loyalty remained, buried deep in her genetic code, only to emerge out of pure instinct? No, Neithird would indeed be one of his primary weapons against Myau, but her assault on him would come here, in his throne room, where he could keep an eye on her, and where he could kill her himself if Myau in any way caused her to turn on him. Lassic grinned, a stray memory occurring to him. "I had thought Doctor Mad was a scourge to the Musk Cat plague. But he is to Neithird as a swarm is to a marauder."

"Yes, your majesty," Xanon replied. Lassic could tell Xanon didn't understand what he was talking about, but that, like so many other things, simply did not matter to him. Right now, all that truly concerned Lassic was the fact that Myau would soon find himself back in his castle's throne room.

And this time, there would be no wailing twit, no vile Esper, and no axe-wielding oaf to save him.

- - - - - - - - - -

Deep within the control center of the artificial satellite Zelan, Wren sat at one of the seemingly one-hundred consoles used to maintain the station and the systems under its supervision. With his back absolutely straight to the point of it being perpendicular to the floor, the android focused his optical sensors on a screen high on the control center wall (thanks to his eyes' zoom features, however, it was as if he were a mere three centimeters away) and traced the path of the probe he had just launched.

About an hour earlier, he had detected another two pairs of energy anomalies. Of course, half of the disturbances had occurred deep within the Palman Asteroid Field, while the others had occurred at the Machine Center. After receiving word of the Machine Center's attack by a group of monsters in red-purple robes, Wren decided that logic now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, dictated that the monsters responsible for the burglary at Rolf's house, and now the attack on the Machine Center, were most definitely based in the Palman Asteroid Field. Now, he decided, it was time to determine exactly what kind of fortress these creatures in the asteroid belt were using, in preparation for informing the Central Tower of the base and planning an assault with them.

So, watching his screen, Wren traced the path of the probe he had launched from Zelan as it cut its way across Algo towards the orbit Palm had once occupied. Armed with lightdrive rockets, it made the trip quickly, however, as he watched the probe's path, Wren's mind moved even faster, in an attempt to calculate just what kind of base he would find.

The odds seemed to be against any kind of spacecraft. If they had been using a spacecraft, Wren theorized, there were much better places to hide it; places much closer to both Dezo and Mota than the asteroid field was. Dezo's moon, for one, came to mind as a possibility. Of course, Dezo's moon is something Wren, at Zelan, could easily scan, especially with an uplink to Kuran's sensors, which were even closer than Zelan's, and perhaps the monsters knew this, and so perhaps that is why they based their spacecraft in the Palman Asteroid Field.

However, Wren decided the odds against a spacecraft were still slim for one very big reason: all of Algo's spacecraft were accounted for. The Paseo was currently docked on the Central Tower's roof; Zelan's emergency shuttle was safely docked in its bay; the Landale, of course, was out of the question; and the shuttles on board both the world ships Camineet II and Gaiden had been rendered useless by the same built-in (but hidden) system Mother Brain had made sure crippled the ships when they had attempted to land on Dezo and Mota, respectively, two years earlier. Likewise, the Camineet II and the Gaiden themselves still sat dead in their silent orbits over Dezo and Mota.

Besides, Wren knew, based on the fact that the anomalies in the Palman Asteroid Field always occurred at roughly the exact same coordinates, that the monsters' base was stationary, and so, with all of this evidence, he considered the likelihood of a docked spacecraft as the monsters' base extremely unlikely.

What was most likely, in his mind, was that the monsters were based -- somehow -- on one of the asteroids. Where they obtained materials for such a project, however, Wren could not decide--

Suddenly, a low-level sub-routine offered forth a possible explanation for the type of base his probe might find. What if it is a spaceship? Wren asked himself silently. All of the ships in Algo are accounted for, but then, Tyler obtained his ship from outside of Algo.

Wren replayed memory files from the first days after Tyler had rescued he and the Palman colonists from the Camineet II. He and Tyler, as well as Rudo, Anna, Shir, Kain, and L-479, had helped the Palman refugees set up their new village before they had all returned to Mota. During that time, Wren remembered asking Tyler about the origins of his space craft, which had gotten Tyler and L-479 started on a seemingly endless stream of stories about the inhabited systems beyond Algo. At one point, Rudo had asked, "Why haven't any of these cultures come here to Algo, Tyler?"

Tyler's reply was that, more or less, the outsiders were afraid of Algo -- or more correctly, of Mother Brain. No alien, apparently, was quite willing to make the distant journey to Algo just to find themselves in a system run by a totalitarian computer.

But now, Mother Brain was gone. She had been gone now, in fact, for two years. The roadblock Tyler mentioned to alien visitors to Algo has been removed, Wren thought to himself. What if these unidentified monsters are actually alien invaders?

Before Wren could give the idea much consideration, the time for speculation ended as the probe powered down its lightdrive rockets and entered the Palman Asteroid Field. Wren had equipped it with a remote control, in case he himself had to take control of the probe's steering in order to keep it from colliding with asteroids. According to his plans, however, this feature should be more or less irrelevant, for he had also programmed the probe with an advanced guidance system designed to detect approaching asteroids and dodge around them. The emotionless android watched the screen with what could almost have been called pride; the probe could make over seventy-trillion calculations per second.

Wren watched the probe, and the guidance program he'd designed, in action, while the probe's sensors recorded data for as long a range as possible, and while its rockets took it on a course towards the source of the energy anomalies -- the theoretical base of the unidentified (aliens?) monsters.

On his sensor screen, Wren saw a particularly large asteroid zoom through the field on nearly a direct course for his probe. With a glance towards the screen which monitored the output of his probe's program, Wren saw the advanced guidance system come to life as the probe detected the massive asteroid, plotted its projected course, and steered clear of it.

When Wren glanced back at the display of the asteroid field, however, he saw the massive asteroid also change course, putting itself back on a collision course with the probe.

The android's metal back straightened even more. Perhaps the monsters did have a ship, and they had detected his probe, and they were out to destroy it. If the odds of the monsters having a ship were slim, they were at least better than the odds of an intelligent asteroid which could change its own course to intercept a target. Wren placed one hand near the probe's remote controller as he watched the probe again change course away from the massive asteroid... then, he switched the probe to manual control as the asteroid again moved to intercept.

With one eye monitoring the probe's movement through the field and the other watching the surrounding asteroids, Wren spotted the type of formation he was looking for. (If his probe was a fast thinker at seventy-trillion calculations per second, he was even faster at eight-hundred seventy-eight trillion calculations per second.) Diving the probe into a course that put it onto another asteroid's tail, Wren watched with satisfaction as the massive asteroid fell into course behind him.

In approximately seven-point-three-four-one seconds, according to Wren's calculations, the natural courses of the asteroids in the field would result in the probe and the asteroid it followed nearly avoiding a collision with a much larger asteroid. The "massive asteroid" -- which could now almost certainly be considered a spacecraft -- would either be not so lucky, or else it would be forced to break off pursuit of Wren's probe. By the time it had regained its position in its chase, Wren calculated his probe will have already reached a close enough range to the monsters' base to perform a full sensor scan. At that point, the aliens or monsters or whoever they were could smash his probe to smithereens; it would make not a bit of difference to Wren.

Of course, all of this was dependent on one thing Wren had failed to calculate: the absence of projectile weapons on the pursuing spacecraft.

As the pursuer fell into position behind the probe, alarm klaxons went off all over the probe's status boards. Entire sensor arrays were reading as useless or non-existent, the probe's guidance thrusters were overheating at an alarming rate, and, worst of all, the transmitter antennae was showing critical malfunctions.

Almost on impulse alone, Wren switched to an infrared readout. At first, he thought he was too late; that the malfunctions had occurred too quickly for him to get a heat reading. Then, he realized that the pure white screen he saw before him was a completely functional infrared display. Somehow, in the cold vacuum of space, the "air" around the probe had been heated to somewhere around two-thousand degrees.

Mere moments after that, all probe readouts went dead. It didn't take Wren's skills of deductive reasoning to conclude that his probe had been destroyed, well before it could reach the monsters' base. But by what?

Wren spent a good half-hour reviewing all sensor data he had received prior to the probe's destruction, and when he was through with it, he had come to a reasonable conclusion. The aliens did indeed have some kind of spacecraft. Obviously, a mere asteroid does not possess the intelligence necessary for changing course in pursuit, and the projectile weapon used, in the end, to destroy his probe effectively proved that his probe's pursuer was not merely some kind of remote controlled asteroid.

The weapon used to destroy his probe was undoubtedly some kind of high-energy, wide-beamed laser. At first, it had seemed to Wren that the energy which had destroyed the probe was nothing more than fire, but the simplest of logic, combined with the basic knowledge that fire required oxygen to burn, which was absent in space, proved this to be an impossibility. Unable to pinpoint the exact type of weapon used, Wren was only given further evidence that he was dealing with some kind of alien technology.

Pushing back his chair, Wren decided he was now armed with enough knowledge to make a preliminary report to the Central Tower. After a quick, final review of the contents of the data the probe had transmitted back to him--

Wren stopped short, returned his chair to his console. He sat there for a second, his back as straight as always, his eyes focused on the contents report of the sensor data the probe had collected. There, he saw something he hadn't even bothered to check for, deciding not to waste time looking for the impossible. Yet there it was, right on his screen.

The probe's sound buffer had, prior to its destruction, recorded data. In space, where there wasn't supposed to be any sound.

Keying the data to play over Zelan's control room speakers, Wren checked the time index. The data was recorded just after the spacecraft had come into position behind Wren's probe and the asteroid the probe had tailed onto. Activating the playback, Wren listened as an incredibly loud roar echoed through Zelan's control room.

If Palmans had been present, they would have covered their ears at the sudden, massive volume of the sound. Wren simply listened in absolute stupefaction. The roar was not the roar of spaceship engines, which shouldn't even be heard outside of atmosphere in the first place; the roar was the scream of some kind of beast. It was a chilling cry, a clamor which was undeniably deadly. However, it, like the sound of spaceship engines, had absolutely no business existing in a vacuum. Yet there it had been.

Wren listened to the roar continue as the file's time index showed the weapon that had destroyed the probe was about to be fired. As impossible as it was, this sound, too, echoed through Zelan, recorded by the probe. After another of the inhuman roars, the weapon launched with a swift whoosh sound, and then, all the probe's sensors recorded was a loud crackling and popping sound, as the whoosh continued.

The closest sound in Wren's memory to the sound coming from his speakers was a sound he had heard during the time he and the others had helped establish the village of Tyler on Dezo. Anytime anyone lit a fire, be it in a fireplace or a massive bonfire lit outside, someone would produce a long, thin metal tube from their pocket and pull and hold back the switch on its end. At that moment, a thin fire would shoot forth from the end of the flamer, accompanied by a distinct sound -- a combination of the fire burning and the propellant of said fire from the metal device.

Impossible. That is all that this new data, as well as the so-called "conclusions" Wren was coming up with based on it could be. Impossible. Irrational. Illogical.

After mere moments of hesitation, Wren turned to a different control panel and routed power to his emergency shuttle's docking bay. The only way to get answers now would be to go to the Palman Asteroid Field and find for himself the... thing that had destroyed the probe.

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf pulled back the acceleration lever on his Ice Digger, bringing the massive vehicle to a slow stop. Directly ahead, he could see the terrain angled steeply down into a valley. Immediately, Rolf knew the Ice Digger would have been thoroughly unable to handle the incline, so starting from that point, Rolf set out on foot.

He popped the vehicle's top hatch and immediately was reminded that he had previously thrown back the hood of his thick snow gear when a sharp, blisteringly cold wind slapped him across the cheek. Quickly, Rolf wrapped the lower half of his face with a scarf, then threw his hood over his head, securing it tightly at the neck. Leaving the Ice Digger behind, Rolf then carefully made his way to the edge of the decent down into the valley.

Deciding it was much to steep to even risk walking, Rolf wrapped one hand around the Neisword's scabbard, which hung from his belt, and floated an inch off the ground. He had reached the valley within moments, and just as quickly had spotted the cave entrance that Lutz had told him to look for. It looks exactly as I'd pictured it would, Rolf realized as he crunched across the snow towards the cave, and he knew too much about his distant Esper heritage to simply discount that as coincidence. Lutz had no doubt placed the image in Rolf's mind, which meant, Rolf recognized, that Lutz had somehow seen the cave before. Yet he swore he'd never disturbed this place, Rolf reminded himself, and with a shrug, he tossed the information to the back of his mind. Standing just a step before the cave's entrance, Rolf threw a quick mental probe into the cave. With no danger apparent, at least as far as he could tell, he stepped inside.

Almost immediately, the steps he'd taken to bundle up upon leaving the Ice Digger had to be reversed. With awe, Rolf glanced around him to discover the cave walls were lacking any snow or ice of any kind. Obviously, the interior of the cave would see little snowfall, but when Rolf removed one thick mitten and placed his hand against the rock of the cave, he found that while it was not warm, or even room temperature, it was not savagely cold, either -- instead, it was merely comfortably cool.

As was the general cave temperature. Rolf removed his other mitten and shoved both of them into a pocket of his coat. His hood was untied, thrown back, and his scarf was removed and tossed around his shoulders and he stepped out of the narrow entrance passageway and into a much wider, open cavern.

The former Agent received a further surprise when, off in a corner of this cavern, he noticed the ground of the cave broke away to reveal a small body of water. It was nothing more than a small pool, really, but it was still remarkable for the fact that it was unfrozen. I've obviously come to the right place, Rolf told himself. Someone has made this cave home, for it is definitely no longer in its natur--

At that moment, almost too late, Rolf realized he was not alone.

He spun on his heels and reached for the Neisword just in time to see a screeching ball of yellow fur pounce out from hiding on a precipice above the entryway he'd walked through. One look at the long ears and green eyes told him it was a Musk Cat; one look at the long, curved blade it held between its teeth as it dived straight for him told him it meant business.

Sidestepping the attack (barely), Rolf watched as the Musk Cat whizzed by his head to land (on its feet, of course) on the ground just behind where he had been, turning to face him again, hissing between its teeth, the fur on its back arching up.

It was only a brief flicker of the Cat's eyes that warned Rolf of the second Cat which leaped at him from behind. This one was armed not with a blade, like the first, but only with its natural claws -- which made it just a hair less dangerous than its counterpart.

With one hand wrapped around the Neisword's hilt, Rolf instinctually threw up a telekinetic wall between he and the second Cat, which the attacking feline slammed into and then bounced off of, shaking its head and no doubt wondering what had happened. Keeping the wall up, Rolf turned back to the first Cat, intending to repeat his trick with this one. It had already leaped, however, and it was now too close to sidestep. Throwing one arm across his face, Rolf ducked as much as possible. The Cat's mouth-blade caught his coat as it flew past him, ripping open the fabric down the length of almost the entire sleeve, but the coat was thick enough that it did not reach his flesh.

Before the first Cat could attack again, Rolf, still in a crouch, twisted his body around and focused himself on his attacker. His hand still rested on the Neisword, but he had no intentions of drawing it, or of hurting the Cats in any way. All he wanted to do was talk, but that wasn't going to happen while they were jumping at him with claws and blades at the ready. Therefore, some form of restraint was in order.

Reaching out with telekinesis, Rolf imagined a box being slammed down around the Musk Cat, then he repeated the gesture towards his second attacker. Both were preparing new attacks, but neither got very far before slamming into the wall of Rolf's telekinetic bubbles.

If Rolf thought they had been vicious before, he was unprepared for the absolute ferocity they displayed upon realizing they were trapped. They hissed and screeched at the invader of their home, the fur on their backs standing almost straight up, as they clawed, thrashed, and, in the case of the first Cat, swung its mouth-blade at their invisible restraints.

"I'm not here to hurt you," Rolf called out to them, hoping that all Musk Cats understood the Palman tongue.

The good news was, they understood. The bad news was, they didn't care. "Invaders to our home do not leave alive!" the first Cat screeched back in manic, but understandable, Palman.

"I'm not an invader, I'm a friend," Rolf continued undeterred. "I was sent by Lutz."

"Who is Lutz?" the first Cat shot back, equally as unprecluded. "The forces of evil have no place in Myst Vale!"

"I, nor Lutz, represent the forces of evil," Rolf continued, by this point feeling frustrated and a little silly. "My name is Rolf. I am Lutz's student, and he was the student of the master Esper Noah, a guardian of--"

Suddenly, as if flipping a switch, the Musk Cats stopped fighting. The fur on their backs flattened, and their ears perked up to attention. They exchanged glances with one another. Then, tilting his head and looking upon Rolf with large, green eyes, the first Cat dropped his mouth-blade and said, "Did you say 'Noah'?"

Jackpot! Rolf silently triumphed. "Yes, I did," he nodded. "You have heard of him?"

"That is a name," the second Musk Cat spoke for the first time, "from the Old Man's stories! Senril, perhaps we should take him to see the Old Man."

The first Cat -- Senril, apparently, was his name -- eyed Rolf suspiciously, his big green eyes narrowing just slightly as he did so. Then, with a nod, "Perhaps we should." Lowering his neck to the ground, Senril picked up his mouth-blade. "Follow us," he told the former Agent, and then he turned away towards a further passage at the rear of the cavern...

Smacking right into Rolf's telekinetic bubble.

"Sorry," Rolf grinned, immediately lowering the bubbles. Climbing back to his feet and retrieving his mouth-blade, Senril shot Rolf a narrow-eyed glance that could only have been a Musk Cat glare. Rolf responded with an apologetic smile. With a low half-purr half-growl, Senril then raised his bushy tail into the air and trotted off towards the passage leading deeper into the cave.

"Come on, meow," the second Cat replied, walking slower than Senril so as not to lose Rolf, who, still smiling, followed.

The caverns continued -- some narrow, some open and broad -- but regardless of the size of the caverns, Rolf noticed that as they went deeper in the cave, the temperature was increasingly less chilled and increasingly more comfortable. Concentrating on his hearing, Rolf tried to listen ahead for any kind of hot springs which were perhaps heating the caverns, but he heard nothing except distant purrs and meows. Undoubtedly, Senril and his companion were taking him to the rest of their tribe.

It didn't take long before they were there. The cave narrowed to the point where the group would have had to walk single-file, if they hadn't already been doing so, and then the passage widened into a large, tall chamber, definitely the warmest point yet in the caverns. Here, Rolf found a group of Musk Cats numbering close to twenty. Some stretched themselves across rocks, lazily sleeping, opening their eyes but a crack at the arrival of the newcomer; others licked their tongues across their bodies in bath. In one corner, an adult cat, and obviously a mother, nursed a kitten, while nearby, two others chased one anothers' tails.

But all of these things were mere secondary details, things one only noticed later, for upon first arrival, the only Cat one noticed in the room was the big one -- over ten times larger than any others, more a horse than a cat -- with elegant white feathered wings wrapped around its body, who sat curled up at the end of the chamber, long Musk Cat ears high in the air, eyeing the arriving party with beautiful green eyes which conveyed both welcome and skepticism.

Rolf immediately knew, without a doubt, that it was Myau.

At first, he just stood there, a good three-fourths of the way across the cavern, watching on as Senril approached Myau and spoke in the Musk Cats' own mewing language, though Rolf did clearly hear the names "Lutz" and "Noah." When Senril was complete, Myau responded to him with a sort-of purring sound from deep in his throat, a sound which caused Senril's body to stiffen with obvious pride. Then, the guardian cat turned, looked to Rolf, and walked away.

"Welcome to Myst Vale," Myau then said aloud, and Rolf found himself awestruck all over again. Myau spoke the Palman language better than some Palmans he knew, and he did it with a loud, refined voice that reminded Rolf, for some reason, of royalty. "Please, come closer and allow me to introduce myself. I am Myau."

Rolf did as Myau asked, stepping towards Myau's raised platform as the Musk Cat leader stood up on all fours to greet him. "I know," Rolf nodded. "And I'm honored. My name is Rolf."

As the Protector reached Myau, the Musk Cat, in an undeniably Palman gesture, extended his right front paw out to him. With a chuckle, Rolf took it and "shook hands." The sides of Myau's mouth turned in what could only be the Musk Cat equivalent of a smile at Rolf's reaction. "An old friend taught me this once," Myau confessed as they dropped hands, or paws, as the case may be. "Take off your coat and make yourself comfortable, Rolf. Tell me, what do you think of Myst Vale."

"It's kind of a recurring theme as I walk through here," Rolf admitted as he dumped his coat in a corner of the cavern, where all three of the kittens he'd seen earlier carefully gave it an intense scan with their noses, then, deciding it was all right, began exploring its sleeves, "but I'm awestruck. It's like I walked through some kind of teleportation field back to Mota when I came in here -- like we're not even on Dezo."

Myau now sat up on his front legs. "Our coats are strong, but even to us, the harsh climate of Dezoris gets unbearable after very long. We've managed to find just the right temperature for our home."

"I was wondering about that, too," Rolf nodded. "How do you manage to heat this place?"

In response, Myau sat up a little bit taller and emitted a low cry from deep in his throat. Instantly, every Cat in the cavern -- excluding the three kittens -- had his undivided attention. Those who had been sleeping instantly awakened; those who had been grooming found their bath time over. Rolf glanced around him, and though he was looking at felines and not humanoids, Rolf saw something very familiar in all of them: unwavering devotion and loyalty to their leader.

It only took a single word from Myau -- "Heat!" -- and every Musk Cat in the cavern raised a paw and summoned forth flame. Rolf ducked under the unexpected display of magic, but he quickly realized all of the Cats were aiming their fire at the walls of the cavern, which started to glow first a dull orange and then brighter, as the flame seemed to be absorbed into the rock.

After each Musk Cat had fired about three fireballs each, Myau made another cat sound and the display ended. All of the Cats returned to their prior activities, with the room's temperature now at least two degrees warmer.

"Incredible," Rolf breathed, and he meant it. "How do you find food?"

"Elsewhere in the caverns," Myau motioned with his head in another undeniably Palman gesture, "we've planted a small garden from which we harvest fruits and vegetables year-round. I eat those" -- he cocked his head towards a small cache of a strange kind of nut in the corner of his platform -- "and of course, we have our hunters. I'm sure you were able to tell, upon meeting Senril and Meolw out front, that they are experienced warriors."

"No argument there," Rolf nodded.

"They train by venturing out into the valley, where they find meat for the village in the form of small rodents and birds. Occasionally, one of our best hunters, like Chief Guardsman Senril, will manage to take down a Snow Mole.

Rolf shook his head in admiration, taking another glance around the cavern. "You've created an entire society here. You must be very proud."

"I am," Myau nodded.

Crunching a rock underneath his boot, Rolf took a deep breath and looked Myau in the eye. "I must admit, though, that it wasn't mere curiosity that brought me here."

Again, Rolf saw the small Musk Cat smile come across Myau's face. "I suspected as much."

"I'm actually here at the request of Lutz," Rolf told him. "He believes Esper Mansion is about to come under attack, and in order to prepare for it--"

"He wants the axe," Myau interrupted. The smile was now gone.

Looking past the Musk Cat leader, Rolf saw the weapon in an indentation to the side of Myau's platform. The light of the cavern's glowing rock walls reflected in the axe's double-sided laconian blade, making it look as if the axe itself were on fire. It was an absolutely monstrous weapon; it almost seemed to Rolf that Nei herself wasn't much bigger. Without even touching it, Rolf could feel its power as strongly as he could feel the heat radiating out from the cavern walls.

He instantly knew why Lutz wanted it for the mansion's protection.

Out of his peripheral vision, Rolf could see Myau, too, turn his head around to stare at the weapon. "It's been in my care for a long time," he told Rolf quietly. "Sometimes, at night, when all of my people are asleep, I look into its metal, and it's as if Odin and I are again back in the meadows of Palma, running off in search of adventure..."

For a moment, Rolf wondered if Myau knew that Palm was gone, or if his seclusion here on Dezo prevented him from knowing of such things as Gaira, the Myntax power facility, and a horrible Mother Brain-orchestrated collision. But then his mind returned to the task at hand, and he took his eyes off of the axe to gaze at Myau.

The Musk Cat leader's eyes remained focused on the axe for a moment longer. Then, his ears tilted straight up, and his head spun around to look across the cavern. Rolf followed his line of sight, trying (unsuccessfully) to figure out just what it was Myau was staring at, and noticing that Myau was starting to emit a low growl.

Then, with a flash, a circle of darkness appeared in the center of the cavern. The circle spread and grew and started to blow out winds until a full-fledged portal had appeared.

It was at that time that the two red-robed demons stepped out into the cave.

"Well isn't this a surprise!" the first called out. "Greetings to you both -- we certainly didn't expect you here, Rolf. But we trust you won't get in our way. We've come for two things: the axe, and Myau!"

Myau's wings unfolded sharply, spreading out along either side of his body. The site would have been absolutely beautiful were it not marred by the fur on Myau's back standing straight up, and the teeth he exposed in a vicious hiss.

Rolf pulled the Neisword from its scabbard as Myau growled out something in the Musk Cat tongue. A moment later, Myau pounced off the ground, flapping his wings as he propelled himself through the air and straight towards the first demon. Barreling into him with all his weight, Myau tackled the demon to the floor, where he sat on top of him, growling into his masked face.

Turning his head momentarily, Myau spotted Senril across the cavern. More importantly, however, Senril spotted Myau. Twisting his head back and then leaping into the air for force, Senril tossed his mouth-blade through the air towards Myau, who caught it in his teeth in ready position. He then put his face back into the demon's, this time with a vicious blade held between his teeth.

Rolf, meanwhile, ran towards the second demon, who for the moment, stood near the front of the portal, holding his hands up before him, palms inward, with the fingers bent into claws. At first, the former Agent thought the demon was preparing some kind of attack. He soon learned he was, indeed, right, though not as he had expected. At the demon's summoning, portions of the blackness of the portal started to break away from the portal itself and move, apparently of their own free will, into the cavern.

Five shadow monsters total moved into the cavern, and all five of them were quickly swarmed upon by Musk Cats eager to defend their home. The portal closed after the last shadow entered the cave and then, when the second demon looked up from his summoning, he found Rolf right on top of him, ready with an attack.

Rolf swung the Neisword in a high arc down towards the demon's shoulder, but the demon raised one of its bony hands into the path of the blade, and the sword bounced harmlessly away with a spark-flash of energy when it was still an inch from the demon's hand. Swinging again, this time towards the demon's midsection, Rolf found himself similarly parried. Again, and again Rolf swung in with the same attack, then, in an attempt to throw off the demon, Rolf faked a high swing to the demon's left, then threw all his force into a swing at the right side of the demon's head.

He was again blocked, but this time only barely, and the demon reached its free hand out towards Rolf's unblocked midsection and fired forth a blast of energy. Rolf was knocked off his feet and to the side, and with the former Agent no longer in his path, the demon immediately charged towards the axe.

While on the floor, Rolf saw that the first demon had somehow knocked Myau off of him and was now back on his feet, firing blasts of his own at the Musk Cat leader. Myau blocked them with magic of his own while attacking by leaning up on his hind two legs and swinging both his front claws and his mouth-blade at the demon. The other Musk Cats, too, seemed to be holding their own against the shadows. Rolf took all of this in as he climbed back to his feet and charged after the second demon.

Aiming the Neisword straight forward, Rolf lunged at the demon. He managed to get his arms around the demon's torso and knock him flat to the ground, right on Myau's platform, and with the Neisword underneath the demon, Rolf was presented with an easy attack. As he got back to his feet, he simply pulled his blade out from under the demon, slicing his adversary from shoulder to waist. The demon howled in agony, still flat on its chest, as Rolf, standing behind it, raised his sword high for the killing blow.

"Xerik!" a hollow voice called from the other end of the room, and before Rolf could strike, he was knocked off his feet by an energy blast he took in the back. Glancing in the direction of the attack, Rolf saw that it was the first demon that had struck him, and that Myau had took advantage of the demon's temporary distraction to advance his own attack. While Rolf stood up, Myau managed to push the first demon against the cavern wall, where the demon had an increasingly hard time defending against Myau's mouth-blade and claws.

When Rolf turned to face his own adversary, however, he saw that the demon was now armed... with the Laconian Axe. Part of Rolf hoped that the demon's seizing of the weapon would cause it to become less powerful (somehow), but though the axe was indeed imbued with magical power, it was by no means sentient, and as the demon started swinging towards Rolf, he was suddenly faced with the prospect of being on the business end of that awe-inspiring power.

Rolf raised a teke shield to block the first swing of the axe, but he also jumped back from the attack. He didn't know whether it was instinct or fate that made him dodge, but he was certainly glad for it when the axe cut through the air where his telekinetic shield was... or rather, where it was supposed to be. Again, when the demon -- was 'Xerik' its name? -- swung the axe towards him, Rolf dodged and raised a shield, but again, the axe cut through the shield as if it weren't there.

He didn't realize it, but he'd reached the edge of Myau's slightly raised platform. Taking a step backwards, Rolf found it to be a much bigger step than he'd realized, and he almost lost his balance as he found his two legs standing on separate heights. The demon Xerik used the moment of disorientation on Rolf's part to swing the Laconian Axe in high towards the former Agent's head, and all Rolf could do to defend was raise the Neisword to parry.

Glancing at his sword, Rolf saw it did indeed block the blow, however, the Laconian Axe had taken a chip out of the Neisword's purple blade.

The distracted party was now the demon, who momentarily just stood and stared at Rolf, shocked that his sword had not crumbled under the Laconian Axe. Rolf used the distraction, as well as his near loss of footing a moment before, to put both feet down off the raised platform, after which he adjusted his hold on the Neisword, gripped the demon's torso as best he could, and threw the demon off the platform and over the back of his head.

When "Xerik" crashed onto his back, he dropped the Laconian Axe.

"Xerik!" the first demon called again, and Rolf allowed himself a glance in which he saw Myau still had his opponent pinned against the wall. The demon's robes and mask were littered with slashes, and he clearly was growing desperate in fending off Myau. "Xerik," he called once more, "the portal!"

Not so soon, Rolf said to himself. He pointed the Neisword towards the axe and felt its power in his telekinetic grip; his other hand he raised towards the fallen second demon, preparing a magical attack of his own.

With his concentration torn between the two tasks, however, he left himself open to an unexpected attack, as the demon found the strength to sit up, point a bony arm at Rolf, and launch forth a powerful series of energy attacks. Rolf took at least three of them before he could raise his defenses, but by that time, he had been knocked backwards off of his feet, back onto the raised platform.

Before he could launch a counter-attack, Xerik turned towards where Myau still had the first demon pinned and struck Myau in the back with the same magical attacks. The Musk Cat leader fell to the floor and rolled away from the demon, giving the second one just enough time to open a portal and step into it, before the first scooped up the axe and then followed its brother inside. The portal closed behind them, and when it did, the various shadow monsters dissipated and vanished along with the demons.

Rolf cursed as he got back to his feet, but Myau had other concerns on his mind. "Senril!" he frantically called out. "Where are Cetim's young?"

A cat -- Meolw, Rolf thought -- growled off in the cavern's corner. Myau looked towards him, and with his teeth, the Cat dragged Rolf's coat a few inches from where it had been resting. The three kittens tried to move along with their hiding place, running back into the coat's sleeves, but when mother called out a stern meow, the three quickly ran to her side.

Senril now stood at Myau's feet, looking up at his leader. "No injuries, meow," he reported. "We found it difficult to attack the shadows, meow, but that also meant it was hard for them to hit us."

"Well done," Myau nodded. His words conveyed pride, but the tone he spoke them with offered nothing but sadness. He pushed his mouth-claw across the ground towards Senril, who took it between his teeth and continued his assessment of the village.

"Those were the reason I came for the axe," Rolf said soberly as he stepped towards Myau. "This is the third time they've attacked, possibly the fourth, if they had anything to do with a robbery at my house, which I susp--"

Rolf's words were stopped short when Myau turned to look at him, his green eyes narrow, all trace of his smile gone from his face. "Get out."

At first, Rolf only blinked.

"I said get out!" Myau roared into his astonishment. "Leave this place, and never return."

"I don't understand," Rolf said honestly. It was all he could think of to say.

"For one... thousand... years this village has been an undisturbed sanctuary for Musk Cats," Myau told him, slowly stepping across the cavern towards him. It took everything Rolf had not to move out of the great Musk Cat's way. "Until today."

"I did not lead those monsters here!" Rolf replied defensively.

"Of course you didn't," Myau shot back, his tone making it apparent that he felt Rolf was stating the obvious, "but today's events have served as a grave reminder of why I brought my people into seclusion, and why I do not want our refuge disturbed. So I will repeat myself one last time: leave."

Now standing face-to-face with the great Musk Cat warrior, Rolf stared into Myau's green eyes for just a moment before nodding and stepping over to his coat. He put it on in silence, all the while feeling Myau's green eyes drilling into his back. Slowly, he stepped towards the narrow passage he'd come in through, pausing before going through it. "I'm sorry," he said without turning around. "I sincerely did not mean to disturb your sanctuary."

Behind him, Rolf heard Myau emit a low hiss, but it wasn't an angry sound; in fact, it reminded Rolf more of a Palman sigh than anything else. Slightly startled by the sound, Rolf turned his head to see Myau slowly stepping back onto his raised platform. "I know you didn't," he said as he settled himself back down, staring at the ground before him, an obvious... sadness?... in his eyes. "You were just trying to protect your people. I can certainly understand that."

Cautiously, Rolf turned all the way around to face the Musk Cat. "If they hadn't taken the axe," Rolf asked carefully, "would you have given it to me?"

Myau looked up, straight into Rolf's eyes, and said, "For the descendant of Alis Landale, I would have done anything."

With that, Myau stood up and turned around towards his cache of nuts, leaving Rolf staring open-mouthed an his back. I never told him..., he realized. Rolf's astonished stare quickly turned into an admiring smile. He gave a brief salute to the Protector's back, and then he turned around and left the Musk Cat village.

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