With Rolf in the lead, Anna behind him, Kain in the rear, and Tyler, helping to support Kip, in the middle, they started back the way they had come in, returning to the Landale. They were only at the bottom of the short staircase leading to the king's chamber when they felt the first tremble.
Rolf drew the Neisword quickly. "What was that?" he asked as they all stopped.
"Another one of those Horsemen?" Kain asked. The floor shook again, harder this time.
"Feels like an aftershock from a groundshake," Kip observed. Plaster dust fell from the ceiling above as the shaking started again and continued, getting more violent with each passing second.
"Go," Rolf said, sliding the Neisword back into its scabbard. "Go!"
Anna stepped alongside Kip and threw his other arm over her shoulder. With the wounded warrior between her and Tyler, they scrambled after Rolf, following him as fast as they could. Kain watched their flank with both his and Kip's laser rifle, while Rolf ran ahead, checking side passages for monsters, clearing the road, but either they had cleared out Lassic's army on their way to his throne room, or else the army had vanished when Lassic had died.
And that's not the only thing that's about to vanish..., Rolf thought grimly. He grabbed his comlink and turned it on. "Hugh!" he called.
"I'm here, Rolf," the biologist answered.
"Lassic is dead," Rolf reported flatly. "And now it feels like this whole castle is about to come down. What's going on outside?"
"I can definitely see the castle shaking. It looks like a groundshake! We're also three minutes away from entering Mota's atmosphere."
"It's still moving?" Rolf demanded, cursing violently in his mind. He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure the others were still behind him. Tyler and Anna were holding out fine carrying Kip.
"Yes," Hugh replied. "Its speed and course have remained const--"
The shaking suddenly increased, and from somewhere else inside the castle, the entire group heard a tremendous crash. They had to stop and grab the walls to keep from being thrown off of their feet. Slowly, they managed to move forward, but it was another forty seconds before the noise died down enough for them to talk again.
"Rolf, come in!" came Hugh's voice over the comlink. The former agent got his team back up to full speed again.
"I'm here!" he shouted back. "What was that?"
"That was the castle's south tower collapsing to the ground," Hugh informed. "You all need to get out of there, now."
"Agreed," Rolf said, stopping and turning to face the group. "Time is not on our side right now." He raised his hand and cast the Hinas technique, and the entire group was transported to the castle's entrance. They ran up the gangplank Hugh had already dropped and after leaving Kip and Kain in the ship's cargo area, Rolf, Anna, and Tyler ran for the cockpit.
Hugh moved out of the pilot's chair to let Tyler in. "Great work, Hugh," Rolf clapped the biologist on the shoulder. "You have more mental strength left than any of us. Kip was wounded; can you see what you can do for him?"
"Of course," Hugh nodded. He departed from the cockpit with the help of his cane as Rolf settled into the co-pilot's chair.
Tyler had already activated the ship's thrusters, and they were hovering above the asteroid the castle sat on as another of the castle's towers gave in, this one falling down onto the castle underneath it, smashing through the roof. Rolf looked over the ship's readouts and confirmed what Hugh had told them. Though Lassic was dead, the asteroid was still moving towards Motavia. It was obvious that magic had moved it in the first place. Rolf had no idea if this spell was going to move the asteroid to a certain place and then stop, or if -- worst of all -- with Lassic no longer around to stop it, would the asteroid just continue through Mota's atmosphere, stopping only when it hit the planet itself?
The former agent wasn't about to find out. "Tyler," he asked, "is there any way we can fire that Positron Bolt unit again?"
"Like Kain said," Tyler began, "we're not getting any readings from it anymore. I think the wires between us and it were shorted out."
"What about your regular weapons package?" he asked urgently. "Do you have enough power to blow that asteroid apart?"
"Maybe," Tyler shook his head, "but it would take a long time, Rolf. That rock is huge."
"Can you Megid it from right here aboard the ship, Rolf?" Anna asked.
"I could try, but--" Rolf began.
"Rolf, you're thinking the wrong way," Tyler cut him off. "We can't destroy it now. It's too close to the planet. Look!"
Tyler put a rearview on the monitor. The bubble of atmosphere that surrounded the Dark Castle's asteroid was now glowing red. "That's friction," Tyler informed them. "It's in the atmosphere. If we blow it up now... I don't even want to think of the destruction we would cause!"
"Tractor beam," Rolf switched gears. "Can we pull it off its course?"
"I'm trying now," Tyler said, and indeed, the Landale was circling around and under the asteroid. "There's no way we can put the brakes on it," the space pirate explained, "but if I can get a grip on it and at least nudge it just slightly off its course, I can pull it across the planet from southern hemisphere to north, and then let it just drift away into space."
Rolf nodded at Tyler's words but said nothing. The Landale zoomed past the asteroid, and as they passed it, they could all now see how violently it was shaking. Pebbles seemed to break off from the rock and drift off. Then, as they watched, a boulder-sized chunk broke off and started plunging towards Mota.
"Tyler," Rolf said, swallowing hard. "Tyler, hurry. It's breaking up!"
As the Landale shot by the asteroid, its tractor beam shot out and grabbed a hold of it. The ship's engines strained under the added weight, and as if in some kind of symbiosis with his ship, Tyler gritted his teeth and grunted as the ship tried desperately to budge the rock even partially off its course.
Suddenly, the ship lurched forward. Checking the rearview, they saw that the piece of rock the tractor beam had made contact with had simply broken off from the main asteroid.
Tyler cursed and slammed his fist against his control panel. Anna's eyes widened in shock. Rolf took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and reached out with his mind. Just like he had slowed down the Gold Dragon once before, he attempted to put up a wall between the castle and the planet. He focused his mind, breathed deeply, gripped the Elsydeon at his side.
I'm the Protector of Algo, he told himself. This has to work. It has to. I can't fail! Too many lives depend on me...
He grinded his own teeth together as the castle came closer to his mental wall. It crashed into the barrier, and the barrier shattered underneath the onslaught. Rolf released the breath he didn't realize he was holding, his eyes opening wide. He cried out, then blinked.
It was bright outside.
It was blue outside.
They were in the atmosphere.
He glanced at the rearview. Beyond the highest clouds, he could make out the asteroid, with the remains of the castle high above it. He looked at Tyler. A mask of emotion was plastered on the pirate's face. "Rolf," he said softly, "tell me whatever magic you just tried worked. I'm all out of ideas so please tell me what you just tried worked."
Rolf's blue eyes drifted to the rearview.
High above Motavia, Lassic's Dark Castle and the asteroid it sat on exploded.
The next several minutes passed in front of Rolf's eyes as if in slow motion. Fiery chunks of the asteroid spread out all across the sky in front of them. It was as if they were in the middle of a blast of fireworks that had just gone off, except these pretty red streams of fire would not die out harmlessly before hitting the ground or landing in water. These rays of death would strike the ground with furious force, destroying anything unfortunate enough to be underneath them, causing the earth to quake for miles around them, and if they hit the water, chances were a nice tidal wave would sweep across the ocean and devour any city that happened to get in its way.
Rolf blinked. His eyelids closed down, then raised back up. He could make out the landscape of the planet from here. He watched the first fragment of the exploding chunk of Palma hit in the countryside. Then he saw three more land in the north ocean.
His eyelids closed down, then raised back up. He tracked a chunk of the planet as it swirled around the sky, finally crashing to the ground just miles outside of Piata.
His eyelids closed down, then raised back up. A large chunk, burning red, seemed to be headed directly for Paseo. Rolf wondered if, somehow, Lassic's spirit was in this fragment, laughing, mocking him even in death. The former agent grimaced. Failure.
His eyelids closed down, then raised back up. The landscape ahead of him had noticeably changed. There was now a hole in the middle of Paseo.
His eyelids closed down. With everything still in slow motion, the words he heard from Tyler seemed long, drawn-out. "Hoooolllldd onnnnnnn!"
His eyelids raised up. He blinked away tears and watched the rearview. A chunk of the asteroid was heading directly for the ship. He grabbed the Elsydeon at his side. I'm so sorry...
The Landale started spinning end-over-end, falling rapidly towards the ground below. Everything still moved in slow motion, and for a moment, Rolf was no longer aboard the Landale but aboard the Outworlder, the ship he had been on with his parents when he was ten years old... the ship that had been destined to leave Algo. It, too, had collided with something far above a planet. Then, also, the ship had crashed to the ground.
But Lutz wasn't around to save him this time.
Tyler yelled for everyone to buckle in. He used the term "crash landing."
As the ship spun round and round, Rolf saw more fragments slam into the planet. His eyelids closed down, and did not raise back up. Lassic won, he cursed himself. Lassic won.
At Paseo's Central Tower, Agents Peter and Gwen ran to the roof of the capital building. Scanners had detected some kind of anomaly in the upper atmosphere of the planet. Each of them lifted a pair of enhanced electronic binoculars to their eyes and looked to the sky.
"What the--" Peter started, unable to say more. "It's an asteroid!"
"What is that on top of it?" Gwen asked.
"I can't tell," Peter said. "But that rock is dropping fast." He grabbed his comlink. "Agent Peter to Telco. We have a Class 1 Emergency. This is not a drill, this is a real Class 1 Emergency, do you copy?"
"Copy," a voice came from the comlink. "Class 1 Emergency."
"Break in on every newsbeam, telebeam, and audiobeam on the planet immediately. Everyone should proceed to emergency stations."
"Agent Peter," the voice on the other end started, "if we send this out, do you realize what kind of panic--" Peter did not let the man finish.
"If you don't send it out do you realize how many dead people we'll have?" the agent screamed in reply. "There is a rock about to drop on this planet, and until we know exactly where it's going to hit--"
He stopped short. Next to him, Gwen gasped. Peter looked to the sky without his binoculars and immediately found he didn't need them.
The asteroid had just exploded.
"Get that emergency message out now!" Peter roared, grabbing Gwen by the arm and ushering her with him back towards the roof door. They entered the stairway leading back down into the building and he switched to an agency frequency. "Class 1 Emergency! Class 1 Emergency! An asteroid just exploded in the air. All agents get to emergency stations and brace for impact."
The ground shook violently under their feet as nearby, the first fragments of the asteroid started to hit the planet. Both agents were knocked down, tripping down a few stairs and landing in a heap. They were both, for the most part, okay, but neither dared continue down the stairs any further as the shaking continued. They huddled in the corner of the stairway landing, embracing one another, each wishing they were with their families rather than with a co-worker, but each also thankful they at least weren't alone.
They both heard a terrible sound unlike any they'd heard before.
Moments later, the middle of Paseo was a crater.
Three Motavians who worked inside the Roron trash complex ran as fast as they could towards the surface of the facility. The groundshake underneath them did not seem to be ceasing, and they knew they had to escape from the lowest levels of the facility in the event that the building collapsed.
"This way! This way!" the one in the lead shouted. The sight of sunlight before them was the greatest sight they had ever seen. They ran for the doorway, running for the light. Panting, all three of them made it outside. They held one another in celebration, sinking to the still-shaking ground together. They had no idea what was going on.
Looking to the sky, they saw that all around them, fiery rocks were dropping from the sky and pulverizing the planet beneath them. "It's the end of the world!" one of them shouted.
They were perhaps more right than they realized.
Roron waved and buckled but stood standing under the continued quaking. They watched it and the surrounding sky in horror, until the roar behind them was too large to ignore any longer.
They turned around in time to see a tidal wave coming in from the ocean, a wave larger than most of the buildings they had seen in their lifetimes. Even the shoreline did not stop the force of the wave; it simply crashed into the shore, washing it aside. The Motavians stood to run. The wind was knocked out of them as the wave hit them from behind and engulfed them. Their empty lungs reached out for air, but were instead filled by salt water. Roron crumpled underneath them as the tidal wave continued its path of destruction across the land.
Elsewhere, another fragment of rock circled through the sky, heading straight for the mountain temple the Motavian Desans had once called their home. This fragment slammed right into the side of the mountain, and as the peak fell, the entire mountain crumbled underneath. The destructive wave of the asteroid, however, did not stop, and it slammed into the planet's surface and impacted, creating a deep crater.
Dust and rock exploded everywhere. It was as if the mountain had become a volcano, but one that spewed granite rather than lava. The fragment responsible for this destruction had been a particularly small one, but still, it had been enough to bring down the mountain.
Or at least, most of the mountain. For when the dust cleared, though the mountain had sustained a direct impact, a plateau of rock stood in the very center of the crater the asteroid had created. And on top of that plateau, no longer hidden from the world, sat the Desan temple, completely unscathed.
Rolf's eyelids raised back up. His arm felt a little sore, but he was alive.
He glanced around the ship's cockpit. The majority of the control panels and readouts had dimmed completely, and Tyler had a cut across his forehead, but everyone seemed to be okay. Scanning the ship with his mind, he found that everyone was stirring; they had all survived the crash.
Turning his head, Rolf looked out the cockpit's side viewport. They were in an open field, apparently somewhere in the countryside. There was freshly raised dirt all around them; Tyler no doubt created a new ditch that perhaps spanned for a mile to bring them to a stop, but he had done it. They had survived the crash.
"The asteroids seem to have stopped falling," the space pirate said as he stirred next to Rolf. "It's over."
"It's far from over," Rolf replied softly, standing from his chair and helping Anna to her feet. "Were you able to get any readings as to the extent of the damage?"
"Even if I did," Tyler motioned to his dead readouts, "I wouldn't be able to retrieve it now. This ship very well may never fly again."
Rolf's comlink burst with static, then came alive with an electronic voice. "Byren to anyone. Does anyone read me?" The call came in on their private channel.
"I'm here, Byren," Rolf replied. "What's your status at Nurvus?"
"Anything that's self-contained within the facility is fine," Byren reported. "But I have absolutely no link to the outside world. Every sensor line I try is gone. What happened?"
"First things first, turn off power to all cities temporarily," Rolf told him. "There's been a tremendous disaster. An extremely large chunk of the Palman Asteroid Field exploded in the air above Mota. I'm sure power lines are ruptured all over the place. Repeat, Byren, switch to a planetary-wide emergency power program, immediately."
They waited a long minute as the android made the necessary adjustments, and then, the android actually gasped. The "shock" routine of his emotion program seemed to be working just fine. "What..." he started to ask. "What's the damage estimate?"
"We were hoping you could tell us," Rolf answered as the door to the cockpit was manually pulled open, and a battered, bruised, but alive Kain, Kip, and Hugh joined the others in the cockpit. "You said your systems at Nurvus are fine. Can you get a satellite patch to Zelan, and use the station's scanners?"
"I'm doing so now," Byren reported back. "I... No, I'm sorry, Rolf, there must be some error."
Each of them exchanged looks. "Byren," Tyler said. "You... you can't establish a link?"
"I... I can establish a link fine," Byren replied. Something was clearly wrong. The android seemed unable to speak. "I checked the life readings... just a basic life sign count... but it can't be right. It can't be." A pause. "It can't be!" the android screamed.
"Byren, hold it together, pal," Tyler called out to his former co-pilot, standing from his chair. "Byren, what does your reading say?"
"At least one million are dead," Byren said at last. Kip, Anna, and Hugh all covered their mouths. Kain cursed. Rolf's eyes widened. "The computer projects... based on damage readings... that... that... ninety percent of the population will not... not survive... not survive..."
"Byren?" Tyler called out. "Byren, shut off your emotional subroutines. Shut them down."
"Can't..." Byren replied. "I can't take it. All those people..."
The comm line went dead.
"We have to get to the cities," Anna said, her voice shaking. "We have to do what we can."
"Right," Rolf nodded. "But first we need to get the others from the temple. We can't fly there, so I'll Ryuka myself to them. Tyler, see if you can get me a fix on our location, even if it's approximate. I'll rendezvous with the others, and we'll drive the Land Rovers here to get the rest of you."
Rolf closed his eyes, opened his mind to search across Mota for his friends. It was painful -- the sheer emotional agony that came from all over the planet was almost overwhelming. He concentrated on his friends: Rudo, Shir, Amy... searched for their minds.
"Oh God," he whispered at last.
"Did you find them?" Hugh asked.
The former agent turned and looked at Anna. He held out his hand. "Anna. Anna, you need to come with me."
"Is Rudo okay?" she asked hesitantly. She got all the answer she needed when Rolf did not say a word.
Rolf took her hand and they both vanished from the cockpit. The four remaining men simply sat stunned in the cockpit after they left. Slowly, they got up and walked outside the ship to take a look around. They estimated they were somewhere in the northeast corner of the main continent. That would place the major cities such as Paseo, Zema, and Oputa off to the southwest... where huge clouds of smoke rose from the land.
Each one of them wanted to cry, but they were simply too stunned to weep.
Rolf and Anna materialized in front of the temple. Smoke and dust rose from the crater that surrounded them. Biting his lip, Rolf realized the mountain this temple was supposed to be within must have sustained a direct hit, and yet the temple stood unscathed.
As they stepped inside, they found Shir, Sawa, and Amy huddled together, crouching near the floor. Lance sat down against a wall on the other side of the temple, holding a bandage to his forehead.. Kyle lay next to him in a bundle of blankets. The look of shock on their faces quickly turned to relief, and then again to sadness, as Sawa and Shir both stood to greet them.
It was difficult for Sawa to speak; his beak had been cracked and was swollen. But one look from Rolf told the Motavian agent that he didn't have to say a word. He simply patted Rolf's back and moved aside. Rolf and Anna now got their first good look at Rudo. Anna gasped and immediately dropped to her knees, cradling her husband's head in her lap.
Rolf knelt next to the big hunter, and glanced at Amy who sat on his other side. Amy answered Rolf's unspoken question with a simple shake of her head. Beyond the doctor, Rolf saw Neithird's body. The black burns around her mouth and throat and the empty canister of plasma near the body told Rolf the whole story.
"I did it," the Commander of Mota whispered. Rolf looked down to see the big man smiling up at him. "The prism and Kyle are safe."
"Yes," Rolf nodded, grasping one of Rudo's hands in both of his own. "You're a hero, my friend. You always have been."
Rudo's eyes closed and he exhaled. "I'm..." he started. He swallowed, coughed. "I'm just a simple soldier. I'm just glad I could help. Algo. Kyle. You." He smiled slightly. "My friend."
Rolf squeezed Rudo's hands, took a deep breath of his own. The commander's eyes drifted up to Anna. Standing, Rolf motioned for Amy to do the same. They took a few steps away from Rudo to give him a moment with his wife. "He just lost too much blood," Amy told him, shaking her head. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen, Rolf. She was so vicious, so unmerciful... We couldn't do anything but watch as she... she..."
She was whispering, and Anna's thoughts were elsewhere, but she didn't want to take the chance that Anna would hear another word. She stopped talking, covered her mouth. The tears started to well up in her eyes. Rolf took her gently into his arms. She buried her face against his chest and wept. Honestly, Rolf knew exactly how she felt. He, too, had been powerless, unable to do anything as destruction rained down on the planet.
"What happened outside?" she asked him softly. "It was so loud, and the dust..."
"Not now," he told her. They would be dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy for the rest of their lives. For now, he just wanted one simple moment of human comfort. "Not now," he repeated. He lowered his own head down onto Amy's, and gently wept into her hair.
Anna, meanwhile, could not bring herself to say a word. Where do you start when you have more to say than you ever could? She just kept running her hand across his face, wiping away the blood as more and more gently flowed from his wounds, mouthing the words, "I love you" over and over.
"I..." he whispered to her. "I never thought I would... know happiness... again... after I lost my family." She smiled at him. "Until I met you."
"I've lost so much," Anna cried to him. "I can't lose you, too. Don't leave me. Please, no, please don't leave me..."
"I love you," Rudo told her.
"I love you so much," she replied. His torn, bloody mouth smiled at the words, and then she saw his eyes start to haze over.
"Do you... hear that?" he asked her. "Anna, that's... that's my little girl... My little Jennifer!" His smile widened.
She told him goodbye. "I'll always love you so much," she said.
He did not respond with words, but he did squeeze her hand one last time. "My little poyola pie," he said, looking up at the ceiling. "Daddy's home. Daddy's home!"
Shortly after that his eyes drifted shut. But the smile did not fade from his face.
I am Dark Force, master of Death!
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