don't like this, Andi. It's too quiet. This is a forest, not a cemetery. There
should be animal noises! There's something wrong.” Matrix scanned the forest
with his bionic eye, searching for energy that would come from lurking sprites,
but this search, just like the half dozen before it, was unsuccessful. It only
served to make him more jittery.
‘Enzo, would you relax? No animals means no surprise attacks. We're fine, really. Just calm down.”
“I don't like it!” he growled, his right hand moving down to where his Gun was usually holstered, twitching slightly. “It's not normal. I prefer fighting something, not waiting for something to decide to fight me.”
AndrAIa simply shook her head and continued walking in silence. Sometimes it was just pointless to argue with him. Obstinate, hardheaded sprite. Finally she couldn't take his unnerving silence and rapid glances any longer.
‘Enzo, would you stop worrying? We're safe here and -- AHHH!”
AndrAIa was jerked into a nearby tree by a suddenly dropped vine and was immediately out of sight, only her scream left to linger in the air.
“AndrAIa!” Matrix unsheathed his sword and jumped into the tree in one smooth, fast movement, but was bounced out of the tree at the same speed he had entered it.
“What in the ‘Net?” He reached up to grab a low branch to pull himself into the tree ... and it moved out of his way. He scowled up at the tree, worry for AndrAIa making him frantic, and then he saw it. Midway up the tree, neatly concealed by leafy branches, was a maliciously smirking face. His bionic eye had registered nothing out of the ordinary, and he realized that the tree monster had escaped detection by simply being what it was: a tree. His eye had picked up the energy emitted by the tree, but he had disregarded it. He knew the trees were there; he had been looking for a threat concealed among them.
“Hey, mould for brains!” The tree paused, then looked down at him. He rested one hand on his hip and gestured with the other with an open handed. “Give me back my girlfriend!”
The tree gave him a silent laugh and waved the cocooned AndrAIa in an unmistakable “come get her, if you can” gesture. Matrix lunged at the tree, his sword raised. The tree dangled AndrAIa’s wrapped form until the last moment, then yanked her back into it's branches. The muffled yelp she made as the tree pulled her up roughly relieved Matrix’s worry that she was already dead.
Pulling back slightly he frowned thoughtfully. AndrAIa was usually the planner in these types of games -- he preferred fighting in a fly by the seat of your pants style he had learned from Bob as a young sprite. AndrAIa was unavailable at the moment though, so the planning was his responsibility. He thought for a few nanos, then looked up at the tree, which was still watching him curiously.
‘All right bark breath, let's make a deal. She's skinny and short, you won't get any nourishment out of her. I want you to exchange her for me.” The tree appeared to consider his proposal, then frowned at his sword. “You want me to drop my sword?” The tree nodded and Matrix knelt down and threw his blade forward. “Done. Now, release her and then you can take me. I won't move, you have my word as a ... Guardian.”
The tree eyed him, and then eyed the cocoon that was AndrAIa. Even packaged in several layers of confining vines it was obvious that AndrAIa was much smaller than the massive, muscular Matrix, and finally the tree's greed won out over its common sense. Unfurling the vines around AndrAIa’s petite form it dropped the gasping sprite to the ground. It immediately lunged for Matrix, but he lashed out with the knife he had palmed when he had bent down to throw his sword forward and cut off the vines the tree was trying to use to capture him. The tree shrieked, shocked and obviously never having been double-crossed before. It was enough time for Matrix to dash in and grab his sword before backing out of range to join AndrAIa, who had crawled out of reach of the deadly tree's vines.
“Never trust the word of a renegade, tree. I only keep it when it's not going to hurt myself or those I care about.” He wrapped one arm protectively around AndrAIa’s waist, but she frowned up at him.
“Skinny and short, am I? Humph. I was taking care of that problem myself, Matrix. I almost had it solved. You didn't have to try and be SuperMatrix.” She marched off, leaving a blinking Matrix to stare after her.
Sighing, he looked back at the tree, and then trotted after AndrAIa. “Andi, wait! I was just saying that to get the tree to drop you! I think you're perfect just as you are! Andiiiii!”
“This place gives me the jaggies,” AndrAIa remarked quietly as they stood looking up at the side of the foreboding mountain. It wasn't that the mountain was dark or ringed by evil-looking clouds -- it was actually a very ordinary looking mountain, even pretty, with small fields of wildflowers dotting it's slopes and white cloudpuffs zipping by in the high winds. What was making AndrAIa nervous was the heavy feeling in the air, the feeling of impending disaster. She knew that the User had crawled out of the lake and ran off as Dot had been talking to them, and she also knew from Dot's report that the User was able to go superhumanly fast was he needed speed to reach his goal. There was no doubt in her mind that he was nearly to the mountain.
“You accuse me of being nervous, Andi. I've never seen you fret this much. What's wrong? Do you see something on the mountain I don't?” Matrix’s concerned voice broke into her thoughts and shattered them, sending them flying away unfinished. She blinked and looked at him for a moment and he repeated his question.
“No ... no, I don't see anything. It's more of a feeling. Let's start up, and quickly. I can't help thinking that the User's coming.” Matrix nodded and they began climbing.
“Scanning...” Matrix looked at the rock-strewn slops around them, his bionic eye scanning for energy. “...nothing.” The glowing red stylised M of his eye turned onto it's side and slid upwards to be replaced by the regular golden M. “There's nothing on the mountain or near the forest. No sign of the User, Andi.”
AndrAIa sighed. “I can't help but feel he's close and it worries me, Matrix. Let's get this over with.”
“Yeah, good idea.” They started climbing the steps that they had found once they had reached the top of the mountain. The steps were cut into the rock of the mountain and were veined with sparkling white quartz, leading steeply upwards to a domed building that was also cut out of the grey rock of the mountain. At the pinnacle of the dome was a round, clear crystal orb, and AndrAIa frowned when she saw it.
‘Do you think Bob was wrong and that clear globe is actually the jewel? It looks important, set up on top of the dome as it is.” She gestured at the orb and Matrix squinted up at it.
“No, Bob's never wrong. That's not it; it's just a decoration. The jewel must be inside. Let's get in and get out so we can help Mouse and the Surfr.” He started into the temple, but AndrAIa hesitated, biting her lower lip uncertainly. This was wrong -- it was far too easy. She glanced down the side of the mountain at an angle to the place they had climbed up, and she saw him.
The User was a short ways down the mountain and climbing fast. Matrix’s eye had caught him because he had been hidden by a ridge that had disguised his movements. When Matrix had scanned again at the top the ridge had turned and lay running along the side of the mountain, forcing the User to follow the path it made and once again hiding him from view. Now he was in the clear and pouring on sped to reach the jewel ahead of them. As AndrAIa watched, shocked and horrified, he seemed to almost fly up several more yards of slope, gaining on them quickly. She turned and ran into the passage that led to the temple as fast as her strong legs could carry her.
“Move it, Matrix! We've got company and he's not taking the trip leisurely!” Matrix glanced back once and saw her barreling toward him before he began running, his massively built frame managing to move as quickly as her lithe, agile body. Despite their speed he could still hear the loud pounding of the User's feet as he ran up the stairs, but the stairs suddenly took a sharp right turn before opening into an immense room.
The gray walls of the room were bare and the only break in the monotonous circle were carved pillars set at regular distances along the wall that supported the dome. In the exact center of the room was an enormous quartz crystal, flat and smoothly polished on the top but otherwise rough and uncut. In a round indentation in the polished top of the crystal lay the jewel, sparkling in a beam of light transmitted by the round orb set in the top of the dome. At the entrance to the room an eagle, made out of gold, was inlaid in the polished floor.
“There it is!” Matrix charged toward the jewel but once again AndrAIa hesitated. Her game sprite instincts told her that this was too easy; there had to be something like the giant eel, a guardian except it would be one ... of ... wind ... AndrAIa glanced at the floor sharply. Matrix’s booted foot was just about to
tough the golden eagle inlaid on the floor, and warning bells went off in AndrAIa’s head.
“Matrix, no! Don't step on --” She swallowed her shouted warning as his foot landed on the eagle and a loud click echoed through the room. Matrix stumbled to a halt as the smooth curve of the wall opposite him began to swing open, fear showing plain on his rugged features, a rare occurrence.
“What is that?” he whispered in a choked voice as a massive, fiercely clawed foot emerged from the opening wall.
AndrAIa swallowed. “An eagle. A very big eagle. I think we're in trouble.”
Matrix jolted into action. “Get the jewel! I'll hold off the eagle!” He was halfway across the room, charging the emerging eagle before AndrAIa could remind him that they had the User, who was turning the corner and about to enter the room, to deal with as well. Suppressing a sigh she ran toward the jewel. Hardheaded, impulsive sprite.
The eagle had been concentrating on Matrix until AndrAIa ran for the jewel, then it's priorities changed as it's programming kicked in. Anyone who headed for the jewel must be stopped. With a sweep of one mammoth wing the bird sent Matrix crashing into the wall. It left him to slide to the floor unconscious and hopped toward AndrAIa with a screeching cry. She saw it heading toward her and tried to hurry her strides, but the grueling pace of the trip up the tall mountain had left her trying to disguise her tiredness and the eagle was almost on top of her before she took three steps. Knowing that further attempts to reach the jewel before the guardian reached her were futile she turned to face it, a knife in one hand and the fins on her other arm extended. She wouldn't go down easily.
Although Matrix had been knocked out by the eagle's wing, his ability to recover from any blow quickly had saved his life many times, most recently in his battle with Megabyte. Within nanoseconds he was awake and able to open his eyes, and what he saw brought him fully conscious and to his feet with a roar that echoed off the stone walls, magnified and duplicating until the temple was filled with sound. AndrAIa, fighting the very enemy he was supposed to protect her from with a small knife and her arm fin. AndrAIa ... the woman he loved, about to be deleted by his mistake. A scene from their voyage on the Saucy Mare filled his mind, AndrAIa crying out for his help as her code was stolen by a webcreature he could have protected her from had he been with her and not on the ship consumed with jealousy and anger. He had failed her then, but he was determined not to fail her now.
“Nooo!” Tossing his sword into the air he caught it by the blade, hilt facing the rear, and threw it javelin-style. Hi eyes followed the glittering piece of deadly steel in it's arc toward the eagle's heart and as he followed the blade his vision was captured by the sight of the User. He had arrived at the altar, unnoticed in the heat of battle, and was reaching for the jewel. Matrix knew they wouldn't be able to stop him from taking the jewel of wind -- now their only hope lay in Mouse and Ray reaching the volcano in time.
The blade reached it's target and sunk into the eagle's cheat at the same moment the User lifted the jewel from it's place on the pedestal. The eagle's death cry was echoed in the walls of the temple as spidery cracks ran up the sides and the entire building began shaking, groaning ominously.
"Matrix! The whole place is collapsing! We have to get out, now!” AndrAIa bolted for the entrance with Matrix right behind her and went down the stairs, tripping and stumbling, but not falling, in their haste. Massive pieces of stone fell around them and the door to the temple collapsed as the stairway began to crumble behind them and beneath their feet as they ran. The loud cracking sound the stairway made as it broke away and fell into the dark depths below them spurred them on, getting more speed out of their tired legs than they had thought possible.
A section of the vein of quartz dislodged itself from the stairwell's ceiling, falling onto Matrix’s shoulder with a loud crack. Matrix gasped but kept running, his left arm hanging limply at his side. He couldn't afford to pay attention to his pain, so he ran on behind AndrAIa, his steps gradually slowing as the throbbing pain of his injury weakened him. A light appeared ahead and he poured his remaining strength into reaching it before either he collapsed or the remainder of the stairway did.
AndrAIa stumbled and skidded into the light with a sigh of relief, only to hear the rumble of rocks collapsing raising a massive, all encompassing cloud of dust. She looked around, but Matrix wasn't with her. He hadn't made it out of the stairway.
“Matrix! No, you have to have made it! Where are you?” She ran toward the slowly settling dust cloud, only to see a dark figure appear inside it. Her heart leapt into her throat, hope and fear colliding and mingling -- she hadn't seen the User since he took the jewel and the figure could be him, but it could also be Matrix.
“Andi?” The weak question, barely audible and accompanied by a coughing fit, sent relief pummeling through her. It was Matrix, he had made it out before the stairs collapsed. She started playfully scolding him in mock anger, but her relief turned to concern when he stumbled and fell onto his knees, his eyes squeezed shut and his right hand holding his left shoulder gingerly.
“Matrix?” She started forward, one hand held out in concern and received only a pained groan in response. She knelt by his side and touched his uninjured shoulder. “What happened?”
“Rock fell on my shoulder.” The terse answer, spoken through clenched teeth, told her volumes about his pain. Mostly that there was a lot of it.
‘Here, let me see it.” She gently moved his unresisting hand away and studied his shoulder. A bruise was already forming, a large, black and very ugly bruise, but their were no cuts and he wasn't losing energy. “I think you might have dislocated it. From the placement of the bruise it was only a glancing blow, so it shouldn't be broken. Don't move it any and you'll be fine.” She unwrapped the binding from her hair and made a sling that hung around his neck to immobilize his arm. She gently set his wrist in the sling and tied it in place, trying to avoid hurting him, but even the gentle, slow movements brought a grimace to his face. Apologizing every time she hurt him AndrAIa secured his arm in the sling then sat back. It was crude, but it would work until they got his to a diagnostic program.
Once Matrix’s arm was tended to AndrAIa opened a pair of vidwindows to the other groups. Bob looked grim as she gave them the news. “This is bad, AndrAIa. Very bad. There's only one jewel left, and if we don't get it...” he trailed off, looking solemnly at Dot, “We leave with the game.” They all knew what that meant. Dot's duties as command.com couldn't wait until she got back, so the system would be mostly defenseless until they returned. Daemon could then attack any time she chose and Phong, while an excellent manager and well practiced as command.com, wouldn't be able to hold out against an attack from a virus of that magnitude. They were behind by four jewels against a User whose powers approached that of a demigod and the clock was ticking. All in all the situation was bleak.
“Well,” Bob began, the note of cheerfulness in his voice causing the others to turn to the vidwindow of his image in surprise, “There's nothing my good looks and charm can't get me through. This should be easy enough.” A few weak chuckles greeted his announcement, but the majority of the reactions to his attempt to lighten the brooding atmosphere was continued hopelessness. They had all fallen into the black pit of despair, fearing that they would never see Mainframe again without the influence of Daemon controlling it. Matrix was the worst. His eyelids were half closed and his fists were clenched tightly, with a muscle tic in his jaw moving spasmodically. He had lived this already -- the helplessness, the despair, the knowledge that they were going to lose this game no matter what they tried to do, since the point of no return had long since passed and they were on the wrong side of victory. The losing side. Little Enzo had died in such a game and had been reborn as Matrix, who had striven to be stronger, tougher, harder, and above all to never lose another game. But they were losing now and the rage was building up in Matrix, side by side with despair, and would resist further restraint before much longer.
AndrAIa recognized the signs of Matrix’s imminent temper explosion and laid a hand on his uninjured arm. When he looked up at her she smiled at him gently. “We've survived before and we'll make it through now. Something will come up, I'm sure of it.” Her low voice carried only to his ears, but the words were rife with emotion and sincerity. He nodded, his temper doused for the moment. He knew she was right. She usually was.
“All right sugah, me ‘n Ray’ll stop ‘im. Just stay frosty.” Mouse closed her vidwindow and Bob did the same, leaving Matrix and AndrAIa alone near the wreckage of the temple once again.
“Do you think you can walk, lover? If not, we can wait --”
“I'm fine,” he cut her off, slowly getting to his feet and waving her away when she moved to help. “If I can't even get to my feet with a hurt shoulder, what will I do when we meet up with Daemon? Let's go. The others will need our help.” She nodded and stood up next to him and they moved off down the mountain, heading for the volcano that housed the jewel of fire which was their last hope.
To be continued….