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Chapter Three

It had been many months since Alis had last traveled the open countryside. Often she and Nero would take trips to the coast, stopping in the port town Scion to see what new trinkets had come in from the towns and cities across the water. Alis still wore the faux-Laconian locket that Nero had bought her five years past. It was the only memento of her brother that meant anything at all to her, and it meant all the world.

That had all been before the land became a deathtrap, long before Lassic had turned his back on his people. When monsters first began to appear in isolated pockets of the forests, many believed that they would pass. There had, after all, been such creatures in times past. The more brash of the Palmans would actually set out in great "Bug Hunts", as they were called. Wagering on the warriors' successes soon became a popular past time. Large sums of money changed hands as the people reveled in this newfound interest.

But something soon became apparent. As more and more adventurers (some no more than mere thrill seekers, others in it solely for the monetary gain and fame that accompanied victorious quests) set out to destroy the beasts, less and less returned. Many who were leaving for a two or three day trip were not seen for weeks. Most were never seen again. Those that did return began to tell stories of a rapidly increasing monster population. They warned others to abandon this folly, but they were ignored (those who stayed home attributed this recantation to be an excuse to hide the sportsmen's losses.)

It was not until the tradesmen, those who made their living traversing the wilderness between settlements, began to disappear that the public understood the truth. Magical and hideous mutations overran the hills and forests. The hunting parties quit their endeavors, returning to their more mundane pursuits. No one visited other towns for recreational reasons. Tourism died as commerce declined.

As the problem worsened, the people demanded a response from their government. The magistrates, barons, and local militias were flooded with requests that the army wipe the monsters off the face of the planet. Unfortunately, the government took a decidedly different route. Non-essential travel between cities was outlawed. The shipping lanes were closed. Martial law was instituted. Robotcops began to openly patrol the towns. The spaceport was only open to those important enough (or wealthy enough) to warrant a passport. Yet even Motavia had been prone to recent infestations, providing no safe haven.

The word soon spread throughout the populace that something was amiss in the highest levels of rule. Lassic was dead, replaced by one of his chiefs; Lassic had left Palma to resettle on Motavia; Lassic himself was responsible for the monster attacks in some mad attempt to destroy his own people, driven by a dark religion from beyond the galaxy. Any of these rumors could have been true, but it didn't matter, really. Life on Palma had become hell, regardless of the cause.

All of these facts had been known to Alis for quite some time. Although she never actually participated in the resistance movement, her brother always kept her informed of developments. She had been as close to the problem as one could possibly be without crossing the line that separated "dutiful citizen" from "dangerous radical". And now, it seemed to her, she carried the future of Palma on her shoulders. If she failed, there would be no one to take up the cause. Perhaps her view was a bit egocentric, but such time as these inspired extremist thoughts in many.

The trip to Scion would take about two days at a brisk pace. That, assuming she had no interruptions. She had trained with Nero in swordfighting since a child (and could easily beat any boy in her education segment) but had never actually fought a monster. With luck, she would not have to test her skills any time soon.

Over thirty minutes into her journey, there had been no sign of anything threatening in nature. Far off in the distance, near the edge of the forest, she thought she had seen some movement, but she had been careful enough to keep far away from that area. Here, in the openess of the fields, she would have ample warning of approaching danger.

At least, that was the idea.

From out of nowhere, it seemed, there came a loud and droning buzzing sound, like that of a swarm of bees. Alis spun around, trying to place it, as she brandished her sword, but the sound seemed to come from all around her. Without warning, something very large and very quick swept by her, roughly swiping her shoulder. As she fell to the ground, she saw what appeared to be a huge, hideous fly that swooped in the air, arcing back towards her, intent on ramming her again. Stunned by its presence, she barely rolled to the side to avoid the monster's second attack.

Leaping to her feet, Alis readied her sword again, holding it near parallel to the ground, shoulder-height. The fly arced again, but this time Alis' instincts took over as she studied its movement. As it headed back to her, she rose to the balls of her feet, her grip tightening. Then, just as the fly dove at her, she quickly side-stepped the creature, simultaneously slashing her sword down, around, and back. The blow struck just below the neck, slicing off one of the fly's wings and leaving a deep gash in its torso. It crashed to the ground, left wing still flapping; it a moment, it stopped, motionless.

Frozen with disbelief, Alis stood for endless moments as she played back in her mind what had just happened. No story, no warrior's tale could have prepared her for this. Had she not reacted so quickly after the first blow, she surely would have been killed. This was no game, no school-yard joust. An intense fear mounted in her; how could she possibly hope to triumph against a planet full of these... things, let alone whatever caused them? Without thinking, her left hand reached up and she lightly grasped her locket. In a moment the fear was gone. It didn't matter how many there were; she had to triumph. She could accept nothing less.

Leaving the apparently dead (or dying) thing behind, she resumed her trek across the fields. She would be prepared for it, the next time. She would not be surprised again, at least by that particular beastie. That caustic buzzing sound would stay in her memory, ready to alarm her when heard again. It was her first victory in the enormous struggle that lay ahead, and she had earned it.

It was over an hour later that she had had her next encounter. Her senses had not been dimmed one minute of that time. It fact, it was her that surprised the monster this time.

As she strode into a small glade of trees (it had been impossible to go around) she noticed a disgusting creature that resembled a scorpion, much like those she used to see occasionally near the coast many years ago. Yet this scorpion-creature stood over ten feet in length, with a tail that arched a good five feet off the ground. Colored a deep blood-red, it was standing, or actually, pacing in front of some object that Alis couldn't make out. Before she could alter her route to put distance between her and the beast, it turned, saw her, and let out a low, guttural scream.

It moved slowly, and awkwardly, but Alis could see that its stinger tail was fast and no doubt deadly. It crawled towards her, fangs opening and closing, while she waited patiently. When it stood no more than four feet in front of her, Alis dove forward and to the left of the creature, rolling back to her feet, barely dodging a jab of its tail. As she spun around she brought her sword crashing down onto the point where the tail meshed with the monster's body. The tail dropped limp, though it was still attached with tendons and bone. The scorpion, emitting a horrible scream, wildly turned, its limp tail crashing into Alis' leg, knocking her to the ground. She rolled, easily avoiding its thrashings, and buried her sword into the creature's back. It let out one final, spastic yell, and collapsed, dead. Noticing the pain in her leg for the first time, Alis dropped to her knees, wincing at the pain. Even with armor there must have been a large bruise; the creature must have had immense strength.

It was then, on her knees, that she saw the object that the beast had been hovering around. It was a small chest, no different than that one might find in the back of an old antique shop. Cautiously, she rose, and walked over to the box. Reaching out her hand, she tried to lift the oaken lid, but it would not move. Noticing the lock, she placed the tip of her sword into the joining and thrust downward with the handle. The lock popped open, and she lifted the lid. What greeted her eyes astonished her.

Inside, glittering in the ample sunlight, were tens and tens of coins, of the kind commonly minted in the larger cities. Fortune shines down upon me today, she thought. She estimated at least two hundred meseta as she loaded the coins into her sack.

But there was something else. At the very bottom of the chest, there was a piece of worn paper, tattered at the edges, obviously many years old. She gently picked it up, and struggled to discern the fading writing on it.

Slowly, she began to recognize the archaic characters... it was written in an old, old language called Desan. In her young childhood, Nero had taught her this long-since-unused tongue. He had often told her that knowing the ways of the past could bring you wisdom in the future. Now, as she stood, those ancient lessons slowly returned. It seemed to be... some kind of technique, some kind of magical spell. Only mages of the highest order could perform magic in these modern days; though prevalent in the ancient times of Algo, it had lost its appeal long ago. Yet here was a paper detailing, exactly, how to use a spell. If she interpreted it correctly, this spell would allow the user cure ills of the body, to restore health, and strength. Truly, this find was far more valuable than any meseta; and, according to the writing, it did not look difficult to perform. One need only have fair knowledge of Desan to be able to master the skill.

Studying the paper intently, Alis absorbed all she could from the document. After a few minutes, satisfied that she understood it well enough, she rose. After scanning her surroundings to ensure that no monsters were near, she placed the paper and her sword on the ground. She then closed her eyes, and began to concentrate.

Alis stood as a statue, as she directly herself inward, swirling thoughts of the Desan manuscript around and around in her mind. She soon felt what could only be described as a soothing, wafting energy flow through her, beginning in her head, and making its way down to her injured leg. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.

Her eyes opened, and she looked around. Nothing seemed different in the wilds around her. Dropping her eyes to the ground, she realized that the pain in her leg was gone. It felt as well as it ever had. She quickly removed her left shin-plate, examining her leg. There was no bruise, no mark. Surely there had been one before, but there was no sign of one now. The spell had worked, and she now had a real weapon.

Recovering her armor, she placed the Desan paper into her sack, placed it over her shoulder, and grabbed her sword. She passed through the glade, continuing on towards distant Scion. This would be the smallest of the surprises that would await her.

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