A Heart As Cold As Stone
The wine was brilliant crimson, the color of the flame that burned in a ruby's inner heart. The crystal goblet glinted and sparkled in the seeing chamber's starlight. Walls, ceiling, and floor alike were hewn from blocks of obsidian quarried from the lava fields south of Bortavo, and in their jetty depths shone gleaming pinpoints, the stars of the Andromeda galaxy and the three planets of the Algo solar system.
The hand holding the goblet was slender, with long, tapering fingers. The arm was clothed in midnight silk, the sleeve of an elegant gown that draped a slim, exquisite form. Soft violet hair flowed like a rippling wave down the woman's shoulders and back, and eyes as silver as laconia gleamed in a face that possessed the alabaster beauty of a statue. She was utterly expressionless, not serene but merely cold, no, more...detached. Worn at her waist, slung from a cloth-of-silver baldric set with rubies and amethysts, was an incongruous element, a heavy, double-bitted axe whose blade cast back the starlight like a mirror. Laconia, without a doubt, the powerful weapon was a jarring note of brutality against its bearer's elegance and delicacy. Yet she bore it without effort; her movements seemed completely unaffected by the axe's weight or bulk.
The woman was an Esper wizard, perhaps the paramount Esper of all history. She was a legend, but not the kind told in bardic songs or read as an exciting tale. It was a legend whispered in shadowy corners, one told to unruly children to make them behave. The wizardess was over fifteen hundred years old. A thousand years ago, she had helped fight against the One Who Comes with the Millennium, destroying it for another ten centuries. The Palmans had hailed her as a protector and champion, but not to the extent of giving up their petty political allegiances to follow her when she commanded.
She had made mistakes too, she freely admitted. The wizardess had been preoccupied with transforming herself into a new order of life, a new height of magic, to rule well. She had been remote and distant, intervening only when something caught her attention, handling the problem with lethal directness, as efficiently as possible so that she could return to her studies. Efficiency was not a coin that bought Palman hearts or forged allegiances. Nor was the savagery of her underlings, who were too often greedy and power-drunk, with their mistress too inattentive to rein them in.
She'd won her ascension, her transfiguration into an immortal creature of magic, more than Palman, more even than Esper. Won it just in time to see her other dream smashed, her armies scattered, her creatures slain, as the defenders of Palma's kingdoms assailed the very tower she now inhabited. Her hand rested lightly on the laconian axe as she remembered its blade shining in the moonglow of that long-ago night. In the hands of Troy Ardastine, it had cleaved the bodies of her generals just as it had struck down the sorcerers and marauders who'd fought for Dark Force.
Medusa hoped that Troy's shade was resting peacefully. His death was one of the few she felt sufficient empathy for to regret. She sipped at her wine, letting the rare and exquisite vintage slide past her lips, but its night-jeweled flavor failed to capture her attention. Very little did, less and less as she aged.
She'd let them think her dead, that she'd perished in the final combat with her enemies' champions. It was easier that way; her political dreams were past and she wanted to experience the world anew. Unfortunately, Medusa had found no amusement, no challenge, not even diversion. A flaw in her character, perhaps, she mused as she swirled the wine in its glass. She was satisfied only by things on a grand scale. Immortality, to Medusa, was merely an eternity of ennui.
Undoubtedly that was why this millennium she had decided to ally herself with the shadowspawn and become the viceroy of its puppet King, why she used her arts to create monsters to infest the planet and drive the cowed citizenry to the residential areas where they hid behind the "protection" of Lassic's machines. Should Dark Force succeed in its aims, all life in Algo would be snuffed out, including her own. Should it fail it would be, to use a trite expression, over her dead body. Either way, the endless tedium of her existence would be over.
Either way, it would be grand.
"Now?" Tomas asked.
Rogan shook his head.
"Not yet," said the leader of the resistance. "Wait for it..."
The van rumbled along the winding road that wove its way through the forest hills.
"If I don't pull it now, it'll be—"
Rogan laid his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"If you pull it too soon, it won't do any good. Wait...wait..."
The van rounded another curve.
Tomas yanked the rope, jerking the support stakes out from underneath the piled debris. Rocks and dirt went sliding, tumbling down the hillside and into the road, nearly striking the van. Stones bounced off the armored sides, and the vehicle crunched to a stop.
Myau observed the results, the Musk Cat's tail twitching.
"This trick is so old it's got cobwebs hanging off it."
The burly, broad-shouldered warrior next to him ran a hand through crewcut blond hair the same color as the Musk Cat's fur.
"It doesn't have to be new, Myau. It just has to work."
"It's a matter of style, meow."
One of the van's front doors swung open and a uniformed soldier got out, a common trooper in the tyrant Lassic's army. The soldier looked at the landslide and cursed foully.
"The front wheels are buried," he barked. "Come on, Gort. Let's get a couple shovels and get to work."
The driver got out as well and flipped open a corrugated steel tool box, pulling out two utility shovels. He handed one to the other trooper and went around to the other side of the van.
"That's our cue!" Myau said. "Let's go, Odin!"
Odin drew the heavy, short-handled iron axe from his belt. He waved to the others waiting on the ridge on the other side of the road and then charged down the slope with Myau at his heels.
Timing was everything. The troopers were equipped with heat guns, small but powerful weapons capable of inflicting hideous damage on flesh and bone. The resistance didn't have pistols; they needed to get the troopers out and vulnerable to have any chance of capturing the van. Odin and Myau moved quickly and were on the soldier before he had a chance to reach for his gun.
"What the—" he gasped. He barely got his shovel up in time to block Odin's axe-swing, the powerful blow nearly jarring the tool from his hands. He had no time to prepare a counterstrike because Myau was on him, scratching and clawing, razor-sharp nails cutting through the uniform and the flesh beneath. The soldier howled, swatting at the cat, but it made no difference as the axe hammered down, killing him.
On the other side of the van Odin hoped a similar scene was taking place as Cyan and Albert took out the other soldier. Myau was already a step ahead, scampering around the back of the van to lend a hand if need be. It wasn't, though; the blue-haired girl and the wiry ex-street thief were grinning.
"Got the keys," Cyan announced, spinning them on her finger.
"Well, let's make sure we got the right truck," Myau noted. "It would be a shame if this turned out to be construction supplies for Triada Prison or something."
Cyan slipped a key into the back door lock and turned it.
Suddenly the doors exploded outward. Cyan was hit and knocked sprawling. Framed inside the open portal was a robotcop, one of the mechanical enforcers Lassic had inflicted on the people of Algo. It was one of the helmeted police models rather than the less Palman-looking, more powerful military units, but it was still lethal. It jumped down from the van and the three resistance fighters sprang at it.
The robotcop's left hand flashed out, catching Albert's shortsword by the blade and ripping it out of his hand. Its right arm snapped up, blocking Odin's axe. Its foot lashed off the ground and connected with the hurtling Myau in midair; the Musk Cat tumbled and came up hissing angrily.
Pivoting jerkily but quickly, the robotcop spun towards Odin and hammered its steel fists into his body, knocking the big warrior down with a straight right. With no opponents in front of it in hand to hand range, it snapped its needler rifle off its back and sprayed clusters of tiny darts at its foes. Cyan took several hits, while Myau sprang aside just in time. Albert wasn't so lucky; his torso was penetrated by dozens of flechettes, killing him at once.
It was bad enough with just its fists, Odin thought. Now that it had its gun...gun. That was it! Rolling to his feet, Odin scrambled around the van to the soldier he'd killed. He heard the hiss of the needlegun and grunts and howls of pain, urging him on. Thankfully the trooper wasn't laying on his weapon; it was easy to unstrap the holster and yank out the pistol. Odin ran back to the fight and started pulling the trigger again and again, sending lethal heat beams sizzling into the robotcop's body. Even after it fell, he continued to fire, until the technological monster was no more than a pile of slagged metal.
"Nice thinking, Odin," Myau congratulated him.
"How is everybody?"
"I'm fine," the Musk Cat said, flicking his tail. "Cyan's leg was hit badly, but she should be all right with first aid. Albert..." There was no need for him to say more; they both had seen what the needler had done to the young man.
Then, Tomas and Rogan were there, the bearded leader clapping his hands once to get everyone's attention.
"Come on, people, we've got to move. Tomas, see to Cyan's leg. Odin, grab a shovel. We've got to get the van out of our trap before any more traffic comes by. The way things are now, it's ten to one anything traveling between towns is going to be a military vehicle. Let's get it in gear!"
Hours later, the surviving team members returned to the underground complex the resistance used as its base. They'd shored up the twisted network of natural tunnels called Medusa's Cave in places with stone walls and with timbers and crossbeams, but for the most part it was left as Nature had created it.
"I'll supervise the unloading," Rogan told the others. "You four go get some R&R.; You deserve it."
Odin nodded and headed for the mess hall. The four of them managed to secure a corner table and a six-pack. While Myau curled up in a chair, Tomas looked hesitantly at the beer. Odin didn't respond at first; fourteen was a little young. Then he shrugged and handed the kid a bottle, because he figured it was pretty hypocritical to say Tomas was old enough to go on a field mission where soldiers and robotcops might shoot him dead but not old enough to have a drink. Tomas took a pull on the bottle and made a face.
"How do you people drink this stuff?"
"It's an acquired taste."
Myau flicked his long ears dismissively.
"Which makes me wonder why you spend the time to acquire it, meow."
Odin didn't answer. No one said anything for a while, until Cyan spoke up.
"Any of you going to miss him?"
Odin didn't respond, only watched the flickering, dimly orange light from the nearly exhausted flashes the resistance used for interior illumination play across her face. It cast odd shadows, similar to and yet different from candlelight.
"I mean, he was just a sneak thief. Used to break into houses and shops, steal what he could. The kind of guy you'd want to see in prison if the law wasn't run by Lassic. I know that, but I—" She choked off, a tear running from each eye.
"He was a comrade," Odin said. "Doesn't matter what he was before that." He took a long swig of his beer, a cheap commercial brand from his hometown, Scion, but still better than most of the stuff they got. "He had the guts to go down fighting a robotcop. That's enough for me."
"I just wish it was easier."
"Death is never easy," Myau said with grim accuracy, "unless you're someone like Lassic."
Another long silence followed before Tomas, with the resiliency of youth, piped up.
"So what's going to happen to all that stuff we stole?"
"Well," Odin explained, "first off, a couple of crates are going to go to the black marketeer in Scion who tipped us off about the shipment. Then we'll be keeping about half of what's left for ourselves, food, medical supplies, batteries, flashes, radio equipment. We'll also keep the heat guns and the needlegun since we need all the weapons we can get. The rest we'll send to Eppi."
"Eppi? How come?"
"They're having a rough time of it. The monsters have made the countryside too dangerous for easy travel and Lassic is using it as an excuse to herd the people into the cities. The outlying villages are almost completely cut off and can't get key supplies other than what they produce themselves. Eppi doesn't even have electric power; they ran out of fuel for the district plant. If Lassic keeps this up, most of Palma will wind up with the same level of technology as in medieval times."
"Light, that's awful. I'm glad we're helping."
"Me, too. I wish it didn't all seem so futile, though. We spend one life in exchange for a van, three guns, and some supplies, destroying a robotcop and killing two soldiers. At that rate, Lassic and Medusa won't have to hunt us down. We'll all be dead long before we get a chance to do any real damage."
"It's not just Lassic, either," contributed Cyan. "Remember Adon just yesterday morning? They say three green slimes just oozed out of a crack in the wall and were on him before he could do anything."
Odin slammed his empty bottle down on the table.
"I'd thought we wiped out their breeding pit last month!"
"You know those things. They slip through even the tiniest fissures. There's probably a couple of pits buried deep in the rock. At least the Wing Eyes usually stick to their nests and avoid large groups of people."
Odin shook his head.
"Light, how are we supposed to rid all Algo of a monster if we can't even get rid of the ones in our own base?"
He pushed back from the table.
"I'm goin' for a walk. If I keep sitting around here I'll just wind up thinking."
"No chance of that, meow," the Musk Cat teased, but his heart wasn't in it.
"It's time for you to go," the sorcerer hissed, his voice strange and alien from behind his mask.
Medusa's gaze drifted languidly towards him, but there was nothing weak or listless in her laconia-silver eyes when they fastened upon Dark Force's minion.
"Do not presume to command me."
"I speak the words of our master!" the red-cloaked spellcaster claimed boldly.
"Your master," Medusa corrected. "I have agreed to serve Dark Force's interests because it suits me to do so. He understands this, while you clearly do not."
"All serve the master!"
Medusa raised her hand in a graceful, fluid motion, then leveled it at the magician of chaos.
"Hewn," she whispered almost gently. A slashing spiral of wind drilled into the withered body beneath the sorcerer's robes, ripping it apart. The corpse struck the ground with a sickening thud. It was no particular loss; through the power of the black blood of the Darkness the sorcerer would undoubtedly be resurrected to serve again. Most likely it had already occurred many times in the past.
The thought was a chilling one for the undying wizardess. The idea that death might only be a transitory release was a horror she could not bear to face.
Unfortunately, Medusa had to admit that the sorcerer had been right. He'd been presumptuous to command her, but it was time for her monthly tour of Palma's outlying regions. Lassic kept order in the cities by means of his robotcops, but in the villages which more and more were coming to resemble those of a millennium ago she was the symbol of their king's "justice." It gave them a different face to fear.
Medusa descended her throne and emerged from the seeing chamber. Waiting outside was one of her servants, a young lieutenant in Lassic's army who'd displayed a remarkable loyalty to her. Perhaps he was struck by her beauty, perhaps it was something else, but the expression on her face as she came out was one of...relief.
"My lady, you are...all right?"
"I am," she replied.
"I've never seen one of the alien priests before, my lady. I was worried that, perhaps..."
She waved his concern aside, saving him the trouble of finding the words.
"He is not something you need to fear, for now. Now, go and have my hovercraft prepared. It seems that I have a journey ahead of me."