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   Chapter 8 Lydia

Maldene II: Mysteries Of Olde By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 80020

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:03


"Computer- report!"

The voice came hasty with just a trace of worry beneath the professional exterior. The sound of circuits shorting out filled the stale cabin air.

"All systems reporting at sixty percent damage, jump drive damaged but operational, all weapon systems off-line, all crew dead, " came the almost-mechanical voice from out of the air. "Orders, Commander Lydia?"

The small command cabin of the ship was crammed with computer consoles and control equipment of all types. A large metal beam lay fallen across the bulk of the small bridge while gasses streamed from scattered broken vents. At the front of the damaged cabin was a mostly-operational viewscreen, showing a snowy image of space with a nearby planet centered in the screen, a small moon orbiting it. Rays of destructive light rained down upon the planet from the moon and several specks of light seemed to be engaged in battle in the area of space around the planet. Standing in front of the console, frantically looking from one burned-out control panel to the next, was a woman.

Human was her obvious race, a bit over six feet in height with a well-built body that still showed its femininity within. Her long dark amber hair spilled out down her back as her green eyes searched around for any sign of life among the controls. Her face showed the light tan one would get from a light but constant exposure to the sun as part of one's daily work, her eyes an authority that was used to command decisions. She was dressed in a grey jumpsuit, its thick material sprouting tubes that would run along her legs for a length or across her chest, her sleeves having small flat panels with read-outs and buttons and an assortment of blinking lights and controls otherwise scattered across the top half of her suit. Around her waist she wore a belt, sporting all manner of portable electronic equipment, technological tools, sensors, and weapons. Beside her on the console was her helmet, a projected display of readouts lighting up the inside of the dark face-plate, several controls lining its interior. All signs of a distinctly technological background, such as a soldier in the middle of a space battle might need.

"How much of the fleet is left?" she asked as she finally found a few controls that still worked.

"The rebel fleet has been completely obliterated, Commander Lydia, " the computer voice came back.

She cursed under her breath and pounded her fist onto the console. Beside her a large furry head poked itself up under her arm and started nuzzling her.

"We're the last ones then, Kitty, " she said, stroking the head, "the Imperium has won. But how did they-"

That's not an Imperium ship, the furry head thought back at her.

The head belonged to a large brown-furred cat, four feet at the shoulder, thick sharp claws scraping along the metal floor, and a small curved horn in the center of its forehead. It was a quadruped, its long tail swishing about behind it. Around its shoulders and torso it wore large metal plates of armor, a small series of tubes atop its back with a more slender tube leading from these to a point beneath its fanged jaw. Its eyes were wide, round, and dark, shining with intelligence. It looked up at its humanoid companion.

Lydia looked up at the screen once more, her fingers touching upon a few controls. The image of the planet zoomed in, now showing clearly the moon firing down upon all surfaces of the planet. Furthermore, the moon was seen to be artificial, made of some darkly-glistening smooth material, the destructive beams of force appearing out of different parts of its featureless surface that appeared no different than the rest.

"You're right, Kitty, " Lydia noted, "it's destroying everything on the planet, not just our bases. Aliens then. But why?"

She pressed a stud on the panel before she next spoke, then continued to race her fingers across the panel as she did so.

"Computer: ship's log entry, " she moistened her lips once before starting her entry. "Commander Lydia on the frigate Rebel One. It's only been a few standard ticks, but already everything's gone. We were engaging the Imperial Fleet around Home World, all thirty worlds of the Imperium depending on our success. Suddenly our fleet was attacked and destroyed by unknown forces. I have since found my entire crew dead and have just discovered that not a ship of our fleet remains. I guess I was lucky enough to be caught at the edge of the fleet."

"Yeah, " she said softer, under her breath, "some luck."

"I have just found out, " she took a breath and continued while glancing at some readouts, "that the attacking force is not the Imperial Fleet. In fact, sensors can find nothing left of the Imperials at all. The aggressor is an alien ship, configured to the proportions of a medium-sized planetoid. It appears to be firing at the planet surface. Computer: what's that thing targeting?"

"Alien object is targeting all major population centers as well as select regions. Purpose does not appear to be total planetary destruction."

"Yeah, just the native inhabitants. Any idea of the purpose of the other targets?"

"Unable to formulate answer. Pattern of firing indicates a specific goal, but I am unable to extrapolate that goal."

Lydia thought for a bit, chewing on her lip, before continuing her log entry.

"Alien ship appears to want the planet intact but not any of its bothersome inhabitants. The reason for this attack and the goal of the aliens is unknown. Computer: send out a distress call; send it to Home Base and any other world in the Imperium that can listen. They've got to know; this goes beyond just Rebel versus Imperials."

"Working."

I suggest we get these jump engines working, Kitty thought out to her, I've got a really bad feeling about all this.

"It couldn't get any worse, " Lydia commented. "Continuing log. In the space of..."

She looked down at a chronometer before continuing. Her eyes widened as she choked down shock.

"...fifteen standard minutes both the rebel fleet and the Imperial Fleet have been destroyed along with the entire system's defenses, everyone on the planet, all-"

A choking sob rose up within her. She stopped her entry as she fought to keep it down. The full magnitude of what had happened was finally hitting her, trying to tear down her professional battle-hardened exterior.

"Incoming report, " the computer interrupted her sorrow. "No response from Home Base. Failed inquiry from other Imperium worlds as well."

She looked up, startled.

"No one?!"

"That is affirmative; negative response across all spectrums."

"Is that ship blocking communications?"

"Negative."

She bit her lip as she thought quickly.

"Engage long-range scanners, " she ordered, "start with the nearest systems first."

"Scanners damaged, results will only be forty percent of normal accuracy."

"As long as we get something; do it."

Her fingers then began to fly across the controls.

"I've got to get this tub moving, " she said, "before they start cleaning up leftovers like us."

It looks like they've finished over there, Kitty pointed out, the fighting's stopped.

Lydia glanced down at one of the display panels, seeing nothing but a series of straight lines. Her face fell as she controlled her emotions.

"No life signs anywhere on the planet, " she said. "Not even so much as a blade of grass; they killed everything."

They want something here, and they don't want any witnesses.

"But what could they want here? At the edge of the galaxy? We've never had any trouble with aliens before."

That's because we've only found two, and both of those civilizations aren't past concussion firearms.

"Out of all the signs of dead ancient civilizations that we find in space, with nary a sign of just one advanced one still around, when we do finally find one it wipes us out."

Maybe this is why we never found any, Kitty suggested.

Lydia thought this over for a bit, but just got more puzzled.

"But, why would any advanced culture want to destroy all the others? And what is it that it wants here?"

"Scanner report: no contact with other systems."

Lydia looked up slowly from her control panel.

"What do mean, no contact?"

"Designated worlds are no longer being scanned; negative scanner contact."

Lydia's eyes widened as she stood up to her full height.

"You mean they've been destroyed?"

"Conclusion affirmative."

Shock registered over her entire body; her eyes wide, her mind reeling. She sat down in her chair, landing with an uncaring plop. She stared straight ahead at the screen, though her eyes registered nothing. Kitty nudged her arm but got no response. Finally, as the screen showed the moon pulling away into a farther orbit, she spoke, her voice dead with shock.

"Ship's Log: Final entry. Every planet in the Imperium has been destroyed, no sign of the planets themselves even appearing on our long-rang scanners. Home World is the only intact planet, though there is now no life on it at all. The aliens appear to want Home World intact for some reason. I guess the rest just... got in their way."

She looked out at her dead world, thought of the asteroid rubble that was now the rest of the Imperium. She thought of friends and family, comrades in arms, and even the cruel tyrants of the Imperium. She just slowly shook her head.

"Even the Imperium was never this evil. I could very well be the last one of the entire Imperium left alive."

She reached a hand up to a button on the console, paused as she was about to press it.

"Footnote: now we know why we never found any other advanced civilizations. The Powers help anyone else that dares climb to the stars. Log ends."

"This is just extraordinary, " Sabu said, looking around as they walked through the knee-high grass. "Why, do you realize what type of magic it would take to maintain this climate in the middle of the Northern Wastelands?"

"I'll admit it, " Bronto said, looking around at the green rolling hills around them, "this place even impresses an old sword-hand like myself."

The green valley spread out before them, the ice-capped mountains circling around, a ring of impassible terrain that enclosed this small world from the frozen one outside. A warm breeze blew upon their faces, the climate being warm enough to shed a few layers of fur. They were walking across the valley, the light from the aurora overhead flicking across the land.

"I'd say that between the position of the sun and the aurora overhead that we don't have to worry about night coming, " Sabu said, then paused for emphasis, "ever."

"The Ancients made this?" Shong said, looking around.

"The Sage wasn't kidding about what he said they could do, " Eldar said, even the new Evolin blood within him looking about in wonder.

"The aurora, " Dwingale gazed wistfully up at the dancing display of lights, "sal?en. I wonder what keeps it going?"

"Shh, " Eldar cautioned, "if Sabu hears you he might explain."

"Actually, " Sabu said, "I would say that more than just the energy of the sun fuels its existence; perhaps another power sourced from within this very valley. Sindar, are you still feeling that psychic field?"

Sindar was walking along a few feet away, a hand lightly massaging his temples.

"Yes, " he answered, "it is a continual interference to my powers- and makes for quite a headache."

"Will you be okay with it?" Sabu asked.

"Oh, I think I can learn to work around it eventually, " Sindar responded. "It's just that in the meantime it's going to be quite a pain."

"It's more than just psychic, " Eldar said, as he and Dwingale walked closer over, "I can sense power of all types, from magic to raw energy."

"Can you pinpoint where it's coming from?" Sabu asked.

Eldar shook his head.

"Just in general, " the elf said, "it's coming from somewhere in the middle of this bodaln. Its force is too great for me to focus in on any more than that; it washes out the use of my sense."

Candol, meanwhile, was walking along beside Kilgar, strolling by a tall tree, its colorful flowers spreading out in a large plume.

"I would think, " the priest said, "that even Indra would be impressed by this place. The Ancients seemed to have indeed worked wonders."

"How do you know Indra wasn't one of the Ancients, " Kilgar suggested.

This stopped Candol in his tracks, as he cocked his head to one side, put a hand to his chin, and considered the possibility; a possibility that he hadn't considered before.

"You know..., " he began.

Kilgar just kept walking, grinning to himself as he left the priest to contemplate the possibility.

"A wonder of S?lva' to be the first to greet visitors upon their land, " Sheil-Bor(h) said as he strolled along with Mauklo and Lindel, calmly admiring their surroundings. "A melding of achievement and aesthetics. Surely a sign of the wisdom and knowing of the Ancients."

"If the Ancients were so wise, " Mauklo replied, "then why aren't they here to greet us now?"

Sheil-Bor(h) thought this over, Mauklo smiling when no immediate answer was given. Lindel, however, had his own answer.

"You just love to spoil paradise, don't you, " the golden haired elf said. "Isn't it enough to know that our forbearers upon our world were capable of such feats? It sort of fills you with awe and pride at the same time."

"I'll feel proud when I have mastered their secrets, " Mauklo answered.

"Slim chance of that, " Lindel shrugged.

Mauklo just smiled to himself.

As they strolled on towards the center of the valley, the aurora overhead began to take on new colorful swirls, growing slightly in intensity.

"Sabu, " Eldar pointed up, "is it my imagination, or does that aurora look like it's about to pop?"

Sabu looked up, studying the intertwining filaments of racing color.

"Hmm, it does appear that some of the strands are concentrating towards the center, " Sabu theorized. "It could be that this aurora is a direct result of the energy field that we've been sensing. A fluctuation in that field could affect the aurora."

"Then I just have one small question, " Eldar raised up a finger. "Considering what's probably causing that energy field, what's making it fluctuate?"

"Commander Lydia, " the computer voice slowly brought Lydia out of her reverie, "visual scanners confirm approaching vessels. Other scanners report nothing; vessels cloaked from further scans. Vessels targeting in upon our position."

Lydia glanced up at the view screen to see a growing speck of light coming from the region of the short-lived battle. She was still in shock, muttering 'they're all dead' over and over again. An insistent nudge from Kitty finally jolted her fully awake and alert.

"You're right Kitty, " she said, fingers suddenly flying over the controls, "if they want the last living member of the Imperium, they're going to have to fight for it. Computer: prepare for jump. As long as I'm alive there's hope for at least some vengeance for all this."

Is revenge such a good thing?

"That's all we have left, Kitty."

"Jump drives at forty percent operational capability; recommend to not use drives until repaired."

"Noted, " Lydia ordered, "now get those drives on-line."

"Working. Probability seventy three percent of a fatal mis-jump occurring."

"Noted, now just get us out of here! A possible mis-jump is still better than staying here as an easy target."

The speck loomed closer in the view-screen, almost coming within clear visual.

"And get me a closer view of that ship, " she ordered, "I want a good look at the ones that destroyed my civilization."

The view snapped to a closer view, now showing the speck clearly as a ship. A long black wedge, its surface a featureless black glass, like obsidian cut and polished to a mirror smoothness. No weapon ports and engines did it show, nor any sign that it was anything but a smooth pretty carving floating through space.

Except that it was coming towards them at faster than light speeds and clearly under an intelligent direction.

"That little scout ship they sent after us, " she said, glancing quickly at some readouts, "looks to be about four times our displacement tonnage; probably one of their heavy cruisers."

Or it could just be one of their scouts- considering the size of their mothership.

"Oh, you're just a bundle of optimism today. Computer, status of drives."

"Drives on-line and ready for jump."

"Good, then get us out of here."

"Destination?"

Lydia hesitated. There was no longer anywhere to go; all that she had known was dust and gone. There was nowhere.

"Plot a course towards the galactic core, " she decided, "with all the radiation fields and denser star clusters, let's see it follow us there."

We may not survive there, Kitty noted, even after the century or so it would take for us to actually get there.

"I'm open to any better ideas, Kitty, " she said as she started to strap herself in. "You'd better suit up Kitty, this could get beyond ever your ability to soak up radiation."

Lydia picked up her helmet and quickly fastened it on, her face now covered by a dark glassy plate. On the screen the sleek ship came closer.

"Sensors reporting spatial anomaly building up around the hull."

"Of what nature?"

"Sensors indicate an eighty percent probability that it is a twisting of space into a local pocket around the ship. Destruction of ship and all within this region of space is imminent."

"They got weapons that can twist space?!" Lydia shook her head. "This just keeps getting better all the time. Computer: jump NOW!"

"Jump field activated, " the computer responded as the bridge lit up with red light. "Warning, jump field interacting with spatial anomaly. Unpredictable results; failure of hull integrity imminent."

"It's too late now, " Lydia held back onto her seat as Kitty dug its claws firmly into the steel floor plating. "Hang on!"

The view on the screen twisted, becoming a swirling mass of colors as the ship launched itself into jump-space. At the same time, the space around their position collapsed completely, resulting in an explosion that the alien ship took for the destruction of Lydia's craft.

The assumption wasn't far off.

Lydia was thrown back into her seat, nearly crushed up against it as she gritted out an order to the computer.

"Computer, " she managed through clenched teeth, "status."

"Gravity nullifiers off line, " it began as Lydia tried to raise a suddenly-heavy hand towards the control panel.

"Tell me something I don't know!"

"Interaction of spatial anomaly with jump systems has precipitated unknown warp reaction. Jump drives in uncontrolled reaction."

Wonderful, we're going to become a grease stain up against the nearest star.

"Jump speed accelerating to point nine-five above normal, point nine-seven..."

"Well, " Lydia gritted out, "at least it gave us a tail-wind."

"Two point nine above norm, five point three, ten point one...."

"What?! That can't be right. Computer: confirm."

"Acceleration confirmed; now proceeding at a jump velocity ten times above design specs and still increasing."

From the back of the ship, she could hear the high-pitched whine of the straining engines, could hear them as they were forced beyond their limit.

"That's also way beyond the limits at which they'll explode. Computer: cut jump engines."

"Unable to comply. Engines locked in chain reaction."

"Then jettison them! I don't want to be the only survivor of my race just to be killed in a runaway ship. Emergency override: jettison jump engines immediately!"

"Complying."

Immediately the cabin rocked, as Lydia was tossed around in her chair by her restraints and Kitty nearly lost its grip upon the deck, its claws digging ever deeper into the floor's metal. Space seemed to bend around upon itself within the cabin, the view in the main screen suddenly going from swirling colors to a great blast of white. The force of acceleration that had been pressing Lydia against her seat suddenly disappeared. She jolted upright in her seat as she braced against a force that was no longer present; Kitty nearly launched itself across the deck.

The screen was still white, though with subtle flickers of color racing down along to the sides. Like a tunnel of white, the sides painting it with subtle pastel variations.

"What was that! We aren't in normal space."

"Error, jump engines exploded shortly after jettison. Resulting reaction has launched the ship into a spatial anomaly of unknown configuration."

Lydia scrambled to the controls and looked at the sensor read-outs.

"Well, " she said, studying the sensor readouts, "what's left of our sensors make this look like some sort of worm-hole, though like none I've ever seen. We're going at speeds I've never even heard of before."

Where's it taking us?

"Well, " Lydia smiled from within her helmet, "we were heading for the galactic core."

But that could take-

"Velocity projections put core arrival within sixty ticks."

That's impossible.

"No time to worry about impossible now, Kitty, " Lydia said as she looked around at her control board, "we've run into a lot of the impossible today. We just have to worry about- uh oh."

Kitty stood up on its paws, rising up fully onto all four feet as it got up right next to Lydia.

What 'uh oh'?

"The scanners, " Lydia swallowed hard, "there's some sort of energy source at the end of this wormhole."

How big?

Lydia shook her head.

"It's beyond any scale that we've ever dreamed of. I would say it could be a galactic core white hole, but at least that the sensors could read. This thing is just a mass of raw creation."

Kitty nodded its head over the edge of the control panel, looking at the controls for itself.

The energy readings are complex, but definitely in a regular pattern.

"Well, I imagine you'd know more about energy patterns that I, " Lydia said. "That is one of the things you were bred for, after all. But, regular? That would mean it's- artificial! But nothing of that scale could-"

"Collision with end of spatial anomaly imminent."

"Okay, save it for later, " she said, getting back into her seat. "Right now we've got to get out of this wormhole or we'll hit Creation with a bang. Computer: jettison emergency bridge evacuation module. Set course at one degree tangent to wormhole and engage emergency jump engines. If that thing has force, then it has gravity."

We can use it to swing around it and exit the wormhole.

"Right. Now, brace for impact. Computer: engage emergency auto-landing system when appropriate."

"Engaging emergency bridge capsule now."

The bridge jerked as it was ejected from the rest of the ship, a small set of engines blasting it away from the main ship as it fought to bring the capsule out from the main line of the wormhole. On the screen they could see an expanding white speck in the center. They watched as it started to move off-center. Behind them, sensors recorded the destruction of the main ship.

"Well, there goes my command, " Lydia sighed. "Let's just hope there's what I think there is at the end of this thing."

You're hoping for a planet?

"Hey, if that thing is artificial, then it had to come from somewhere. Now hold on."

The white ball was now off to the right side of the screen, coming up quickly as an expanding ball of creation, the wormhole trying to pull them into it.

"Computer: maximum acceleration- NOW!"

The ship lurched one more time, the screen suddenly exploding with a burst of white light. Half of what was left of Lydia's control panel shorted out as the capsule suddenly entered free fall.

"Computer: report."

There was a delay of several moments before the computer's voice finally came back

cked away as the baby Pugen curled protectively around Eldar's legs.

Lydia had to laugh, perhaps the first real laugh she'd had in a while.

"I thought you liked energy, bright boy, " Lydia teased her companion.

Hey, I wasn't ready for it, Kitty whined, I'll have you know it's got quite a little spark. I wouldn't want to tangle with it when it gets full grown- it told me how large its kind gets.

"It's telepathic?" Lydia asked, wondering how often she could be amazed in one day- or rather, rise, she now thought.

After a fashion, yes, Kitty answered.

"We'll use the kittens then, " Sabu interrupted the encounter. "Eldar go with Lydia, Dwingale with the rest of us, each with one kitten."

"I'll supplement with my suit scanners, " Lydia said as she switched them on and fiddled with one of the controls on her suit's belt. "I'll see how much of this power field I can tune out."

Thus it was that they broke into two groups and separated. They started both by going towards the center of the valley but in widely separated directions. Lydia used her scanners, Sindar his mental powers, Eldar his special sense, and Sabu his magic, while the two kittens would be noted as to how much they purred when in the presence of the field. Trial and error was the order of the rise, as they got new directions, refined their observations, and tried again. It was half a nev of such walking around in the valley before their two lines of triangulation finally crossed. They regrouped at the base of where the lines of interference met.

They were at the base of a hill.

"Doesn't look like much of a city, " Eldar quipped, looking up at the overgrown grassy hill.

"What did you expect, " Mauklo put in, "after so long a time. It is no doubt but the entrance to an underground complex of some sort."

"How long did you say it was since these Ancients died?" Lydia asked.

"About fifty thousand rels, " Sindar replied. "Or in your own world's time measure, about-"

"Longer than the Imperium's been around, " Lydia answered for him with slow wonder. "Home World was but a world of cavemen when this place was abandoned."

I take back any reference to the word 'primitive' that I've said about this place, came Kitty's apology.

"We need to find an entrance then, " Sabu said. "But in all that growth it will be difficult."

"For some of us it might, " Lindel said, walking up the hill.

They followed Lindel up the hill, keeping a distance between him and the others. Halfway up the hill, Lindel stopped, knelt down, and put a hand to the ground. He stayed that way for several moments.

"What's he doing?" Lydia asked.

"He's a wood elf, " Eldar answered, "a part of s?lva'. His feel for it goes beyond the use of magic, and thus can't be interfered with even by the power of this place."

"This place, " Dwingale said, shuddering a bit as she held a kitten in her arms, "it feels like a magical focal point, but like none I've ever felt before. It's frightening."

"Like none I have ever felt before either, " Sheil-Bor(h) agreed, "the magical focal point to end all focal points."

Lindel stood up, glancing out towards the top of the hill.

"There is something not of s?lva' about this hill, " he said, "something...

His voice trailed off, as he moved swiftly across the side of the hill, jumping over protruding roots and around bushes, his feet clinging to the steep edge of the hill, the one side of it always beside him like an angled grassy wall. The others followed as best they could, only Eldar and Dwingale having the natural aptitude to this type of terrain to keep up, the others trailing behind. Lindel finally stopped at one section, looked down at the wall of the hill, and began digging at the hill's side with his hands, pulling out roots and clods of dirt with his bare hands.

"We've got to clear this away, " Lindel said as the others caught up with him.

"Well, " Eldar volunteered, stretching out his hands, "I've got a small spell I've been wanting to try out. Let me take a crack at it."

Before Sabu could catch up enough to make his cry of "no" be heard, and before Sindar could send out his telepathic objection- not that Eldar would have listened anyway- Eldar put forth his hands, concentrated, and cast forth his magic.

"The brush, " he intoned, eyes closed, "clear away the brush..."

The dirt in front of them began to fly out, as roots, bushes, and grass began to remove themselves from the area in front of their feet and fly out in all directions through the air. Eldar looked up and smiled as his spell began to clear away the hill in front of them.

But his spell didn't stop there.

The first the others noticed that something had gone wrong was when the dirt beneath their feet began to ripple, the bushes and grasses begin to vibrate, their whole side of the hill to quiver and shake. Sindar stopped as he looked around them.

"Uh oh, " he managed to say.

The entire side of the hill exploded in a storm of dirt, bushes, grass, roots, branches, and small rocks; a blinding choking storm that fanned out and away from the hill. Not only sight, but footing was lost, as the ground on which they stood slid out from underneath. Feet toppled over heads, heads landed on other's stomachs, bodies rolled down the hill, an avalanche of dirt and old growth following along with them. The world was a dark mass of dust and leaves, twigs and rocks, feet and yelled curses. The roar of avalanche was all about them.

When finally the echo of the avalanche had died down, finished its travel through the valley's warm breeze, when finally the dust and debris had begun to clear from the air, then did one then another head poke up from the landslide at the base of the hill.

Eldar shook his head, to clear his silvery hair of the worst of the dirt as he looked around at his handiwork. As he struggled to free the rest of himself from the pile of dirt and odd leavings of Nature, Lindel's head poked up nearby.

"I think something powered up my kai a bit, " Eldar grinned, a trail of dirt sliding down his nose.

"A bit?" Lindel exclaimed.

Another voice came from underneath a strewn pile of branches.

"That's what we were trying to warn you about." It was Sindar's voice, though perhaps filled with a bit too much dirt.

"Could someone please do the honors and get this mess off of us?" Shong's voice came from somewhere else.

"After that last display, I think I'd be afraid to, " called out Sabu's reply.

"Maybe a bit more gently then, " Mauklo suggested from underneath a pile of dirt, "before I get angry."

Sabu's staff seemed to poke itself up from somewhere beneath the landslide, the hand that held it, nor any sign of its owner, remaining unseen. It glowed just ever so lightly and but briefly. In response, the dirt and debris began to slowly slide off, trickling away like water running off, as people and creatures began to clear themselves of what used to be the surface of the hill.

A dozen people, one large cat, and two small kittens, now stood where the landslide used to be, all covered head to toe in dirt, all looking more than a bit miffed in Eldar's direction.

"Hey, " Eldar said as he brushed himself off, "I didn't even think it would work. I guess that energy field can boost magic as well as interfere with it. New discovery, eh?"

A snap of Mauklo's fingers and the dirt on him flew off through the air- with the amazing coincidence that it just happened to all land straight in Eldar's face.

As Eldar cleared dirt from his eyes, and the others brushed themselves off, Lydia looked up at what had been revealed.

"Uh, guys?" she called out.

"Okay, so I'm sorry, " Eldar sputtered out, "it's just that."

"Guys, " Lydia said, more insistently, "I suggest you have a look at our hill."

"Maybe we should just leave our arguing for later and..., " Sabu started, and then looked up at the hill. "Well, what do you know. I guess we found the place after all."

The entire side of the hill facing them had been blown away, revealing an entirely different surface beneath what had apparently been but a few feet of topsoil and shallow-rooted brush. A smooth golden surface gleamed out at them in the auroral-lit sun, angling up and away towards the top of the hill. About two-thirds of the way up its surface was a dark line etched into the side of the surface, traveling parallel to the ground from one side to the other and on into the rest of the still brush-covered hillside.

"Judging from the angle of this wall, it looks like this whole thing could be pyramid shaped, " Lydia observed.

"I take it this is the place, " Bronto stated.

"Quickly, " Sabu said, his curiosity more than a bit aroused, "those etched lines might tell us something."

"Like where the entrance is?" Sindar asked as Sabu started to run up the hill.

"Perhaps, " Sabu called back over his shoulder, "or maybe- AAAAA!"

Sabu's feet slipped against the smooth surface, as he lost his footing, fell, and rolled back down to the base of the hill. He got to his feet, only his dignity bruised, as the others gathered about.

"Some wizard, " Mauklo said, "I could have told you that was going to happen."

"Just walk lightly and carefully, " Lindel said, starting slowly up the smooth golden hillside, "and use your hands against the side."

"Are you okay?" Dwingale asked as Sabu brushed himself off.

"Yes, " he answered, "only my dignity's bruised. Mauklo's right; we can't be too eager around here."

At first one at a time, and then finally the rest at once, they started slowly up the hill. Lydia, helmet down, aimed her suit scanners at the ground on which she walked, frowning at the readouts that she saw projected against her faceplate.

"Despite its appearance, " she said, through her suit's speaker, "this isn't gold we're walking on- or anything else that my scanners can make out."

"Hmm, " Sabu said thoughtfully, taking one careful step after another, "Eldar, what about your sense?"

Eldar just shook his head.

"If it wasn't for the fact that I'm walking on it, I couldn't even tell you that it was here."

"Most curious, " Sabu muttered.

The dark etched line, when they got to it, turned out to be three feet high and three feet deep, made of what appeared to be ordinary black granite, but for one small feature.

"I've worked stone before, " Bronto said, running a hand along the smooth black surface, "back when I was a kid. I don't see a single mark of carving or etching along this entire surface. It looks as if the whole thing is made of a single smooth cut."

"Another little mystery of the Ancients, then, " Eldar said, taking a seat inside the etching, his feet dangling over the edge. "What do you think it's for?"

"I suggest we follow it, " Sabu said. "It might reveal an entrance. Perhaps it marks a line to the entrance."

"Or entrances, " Sindar corrected. "There could be more than one. If this is indeed a pyramid, there could be an entrance for each side of the pyramid."

"Then there are three entrances, " Sheil-Bor(h) stated.

"And what brings you to that conclusion?" Sabu turned towards him and asked.

"The Sage, " Sheil-Bor(h) said. "He said that the number three was significant to the Ancients. It would stand to reason that they would thus use it in the greatest of their structures."

"Therefore three sides, " Sabu completed, "then this line might run through all three entrances."

"Then all we have to do is follow it in either direction and we'll get in, " Eldar said, getting up off his seat. "Come on."

They picked their way carefully along the edge of the smooth surface, coming finally to a portion of the hill that hadn't been blasted away, dirt and brush now offering firmer purchase. Though the deep etching was now covered by dirt and brush, now that they knew what to look for they were able to follow it along without any trouble. They walked along the side of the hill, keeping the deep etching within arm's reach, Eldar even tapping it with his sword every now and then. Tap, tap. Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

Thunk.

Eldar stopped and backed up a step or two.

"I think I found something, " he said, with more than a trace of excitement.

Eldar pushed at the wall of bushes with his sword once more as the others gathered about. He thrust his sword in, meeting no more resistance than the slicing through of branches and roots.

"It's a cave, " Shong said. "Our entrance?"

"Let's find out, " Bronto said, taking out his large sword. "Stand back everybody."

A few swift strokes from the big man reduced the clinging vegetation to fragments falling down the side of the hill. Revealed, was the cave; an entrance.

A golden archway, the wide edge of its arch etched about with numerous symbols of indecipherable nature. The archway shone brightly, revealed to sight for the first time in untold ages. Beyond it was only darkness, an entrance into a world unknown.

Lydia just stared up in awe.

"Those symbols at the top, " Sabu pointed, "they match the prominent symbols at the center of the map. This must be the place."

"Dobor!" Eldar exclaimed, eyes wide with excitement.

"That isn't the only thing they match, " Lydia said, finally finding her voice.

"You've seen them before?" Candol asked.

"On Home World, " Lydia explained, not lowering her gaze from the carved archway, "there's an old ruin. No one was ever able to date it, and it didn't match up to any other culture or ruin known. It was a single stone pyramid, completely solid as best as anyone could tell, smooth to the touch, with just a single set of markings carved into the base of one face."

She nodded up towards the symbols that Sabu had indicated.

"They matched those precisely, " she said, "on a planet clear over at the edge of the galaxy."

"The one that those aliens invaded, " Dwingale asked, "the only one of your Imperium to still be whole?"

Lydia nodded affirmative.

"Then that makes it even more imperative that we enter, " Sabu said, grabbing up his staff and stepping towards the entrance, "and quickly. That attack upon your th?rear was not an accident; they wanted access to an artifact there they we know now is connected with the Ancients and this very place. It was shka' that let you survive and come here to warn us."

"Warn you?" Lydia asked as the others started towards the archway. "I don't-"

"Lydia, " Sheil-Bor(h) explained, "it was not your world that those invaders are after- it is ours."

The implications and magnitude of events rising suddenly began to make themselves fully clear to all. Lydia now began to realize of what lay before her eyes. She thought back to all the vacant and dead worlds the Imperium had found, all the dead civilizations that her people had come across, but never any live ones, never any advanced cultures in the galaxy other than her own. Until this world.

Until Maldene.

"The other worlds, " she muttered, "if some of them had a structure like the one on Home World..."

"And I don't know how, " Sindar said to Lydia, his psychic intuition telling him more than mere knowledge and reasoning ever could, "but I just know that Miro is somehow tied up in all this. Your invaders, your dead worlds, this place- everything."

Lydia knew then that it was more than mere chance that had brought her here. Call it Fate, call it shka', call it whatever you wanted, but she had seen more strange things this rise to know that, somehow, her survival was not accidental. She knew now that she had to help these people, to see what secrets awaited inside, before whatever force that had destroyed her own culture moved against another. Before Miro finished whatever plans that he had in mind.

"Come on, " she motioned as she stepped in.

They walked on through the archway in silence, no further words necessary. They entered the cave.

They entered Dobor.

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