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Chapter Twenty-Three

"It doesn't look very seaworthy, Odin," Noah remarked. They were standing at the edge of the great Motavian lake, a bit beyond the gas cloud that enveloped Sopia. Odin was pushing a small raft-like object into the water. It had a motor attached in the rear, centered amongst the plastic "pilings" that formed its small surface. Nearby, the landrover sat idly.

"I'm sure it'll be enough to get us to the island and back... there won't be any turbulence in the water to deal with." The Motavian lake filled their view, an impossible anachronism on the harsh desert world. Spanning hundreds of square miles, it supplied most of the water used by the great Paseo complex. No one knew how a lake of such size could exist on Motavia; the best scientists in all the system had never been able to explain it. But it was there, and had been for as long as any Palman had been on the planet. Some theorized that it was the product of a huge underground network on water-tunnels, natural to the planet. Others believed it be have been magically created by unknown beings to allow life to develop on Motavia. Most gave little thought to it; as long they had water, they didn't care where it came from.

There was one and only one "island" in all the area covered by the lake. Just a mile offshore from the heroes position, it was nothing more than a sand bar a few meters in length. Despite its small size, it was always visible, and never ever sank beneath the surface of the water. It too was said to hold magical significance.

Noah held two shovels, along with his staff, as he stepped carefully onto the floating raft. Odin walked it out a few meters from the shore, then climbed aboard himself and started the motor. Sputtering at first, it soon let out an annoying hum, and the craft was on its way.

"It'll only take us a few minutes to reach the island at this speed..." Odin said. "With any luck, we'll be back at the ship in about an hour."

"There's been something I've been meaning to ask you," the Esper told him, "Why on Palma did you give that mayor four hundred meseta to find out where the shield was? They can' even use the money, trapped as they are... surely we could have bargained with him to take something of lesser value...?"

Odin smiled as he continued to steer the raft along. "They're not trapped... you saw their town, it certainly wasn't in the state of being completely cut off from the outside world. They all looked healthy, well fed... no, they must have a way of traveling to the other towns to get supplies and food... they've probably got some form of protection, like those gas shields you mentioned, that allow them get through the mist. After all, that mayor wasn't stupid; in asking for the money, you know that he'd have a way to use it. It's quite a good 'con' they've got going. They lull the few visitors into thinking that they're helpless, and then manage to... subsidize their town's income."

"If you knew that is was a con, why did you give them the money!?!" exclaimed Noah in disbelief.

"Because we needed to find the shield, because we've got plenty of meseta, and because we don't have time to fool around with things like that."

"You want to get back to Alis and Myau as soon as possible..."

"Exactly," the warrior replied. "I don't like the idea of us splitting up like this, and I have a bad feeling that those two aren't just going to be sitting around, waiting for us to return."

- - - - - - - - - -
The sight before them was amazing. Standing on the island north of Drasgow, Alis and Myau now faced a huge structure, a stone-carved tower rising five stories high. Its walls slanted inwards; its tapered form made the top level far smaller than the huge lower floor. One and only one entrance was visible: a large door at the base of the tower, with ominously sculpted moldings all around the frame. Dragons, beast heads, lightning strikes; the images did not fill them with hope.

"We can always turn back, Alis..." Myau told her as they both stared ahead.

"No, we have to do this. Maybe it won't be as tough as it looks... but regardless we have to try to get that sword. We'll need all the magical help we can get against Lassic. C'mon..." she said, stepping forward towards the entrance, Myau trailing behind.

"Assuming we live long enough to face him," the Cat muttered to himself.

The lock on the door would not open with the key Alis held. However, a few quick strikes with her light saber dismantled it completely. Lighting a flash, the two went inside.

There was silence. Stillness. They were alone, as two corridors branched in opposite directions before them. The stone walls, so similar to the ones in every cavern, were free of the mysterious carvings that had graced the door. That, at least, eased the tension, if only a bit.

"Which way?" Alis whispered.

Myau raised his head, nose and ears twitching slightly. "Right," he said flatly. "There's a very faint breeze coming down that path... perhaps it comes from a stairwell to an upper level."

"So if we follow the breezes, we should make it to the top level, where the man claimed the sword was?"

"Perhaps..." was the response. "If we're lucky..."

- - - - - - - - - -

"Well, start digging!" Odin laughed as he drove his shovel into the sand.

"Right..." said Noah. In moments, sand was flying everywhere, as the two were lost in a flurry of activity on the small dune. Holes and trenches began to fill the area; but still, nothing was found. The sun was high above, and the intense heat soon slowed their pace.

"I'm beginning to think that it was more of a con than you think, Odin. It doesn't seem that there's..." Noah's remark was broken by a small clank.

"There's something here," Odin stated as he bent down to the hole he was digging. "Something metallic." His hands raced along the object, wiping away sand and defining its edges. Noah immediately joined him.

"Lift it..." breathed the warrior as he struggled to free the object from its sandy confines. In seconds the two of them had. Odin continued to brush off the sand, as Noah watched. Slowly, a shining, reflective surface was revealed.

"The mirror shield," Noah whispered.

It was three feet high, two feet wide, and had metallic grips on its reverse side. The front was highly polished, despite the specks of sand that still littered its surface. As Odin turned it in his hands, the glaring light of the sun shone brightly from it, blindingly so. Noah took a piece of cloth from his sack and handed it to Odin, who wrapped it carefully around the shield.

The two men just looked at each, unable, or unwilling to express their thoughts. Only Odin's strong voice broke the silence.

"Let's go."

- - - - - - - - - -

Myau stood over the dead sphinx. The beast had the body of a lion, but leathery winds sprouted from its back, and its face was slightly humanoid in appearance. Its scorpion-like tail lay behind.

It had not been the first beast to fall at their hands. They had managed to travel up three stairways, and had met all manner of vicious monsters along the way. Despite suffering some minor injuries, the pair was still moving at a good pace; surely they were near the top of the tower by now.

Again, Myau took the lead, his sharp senses guiding them ever onward. He turn left around a corner, Alis right behind. They spoke little; full concentration was required from both of them to deal with the near-constant threat of monster attacks.

Rounding the next corner, they saw yet another stairway leading upward at the far end of the corridor. Casting one final glance behind them, Alis satisfied herself that they were alone and broke out in a jog, alongside the Musk Cat, towards the stairs.

The next level was more of the same. A long corridor stretched ahead, and at the edge of the flash's boundary a hall branched to the right. They moved on.

They continued along the sole hallway without incident. "There haven't been any beasts on this level, Myau."

"I know," the cat replied. "I can't sense any, either. Perhaps we've gained a respite..." They both knew that that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"I've lost the trail of the breeze... apparently, this deep inside, there is none. Which means we've probably made it to the top of the tower."

"It also means we don't know where we're going anymore. Let's hope that this path will lead us to the right place." Somehow, Alis didn't sound too convinced of her own words.

The hallway seemed to stretch for miles. Only the occasional left or right turn broke the monotony of the trip. And still, there were no beasts to bar their path.

Over ten minutes into the journey through the top level, they saw it: a small doorway, several feet ahead. It had no lock apparent.

"Wait... I can... feel something," Alis said quietly. "I don't know... there's something behind that door, something magical... I... it's something like what I felt when Noah was teaching me on Motavia..."

"Is it the sword?" Myau asked, never taking his eyes off the door.

"I don't know... I don't know how to interpret these things... all I know is that there's something in there, something powerful..."

After a moment of silence, Alis' concentration returned and she adjusted her armor. "Let's go inside."

They walked up to the door; Myau could hear nothing beyond it.

And then the flash died.

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