Very soon, the trio sat in the grand parlor of the late Sister Miligred. Laurel sat across from the man, eyeing him warily while absently massaging her scar. He wondered what sort of battle could warrant such a wound.
“Tell us your name, stranger,” she demanded brusquely.
“My name—“ the man hesitated, and finished, “I am called Carsius.”
Laurel stared at Carsius with those strange, multicolored eyes; he had never seen such eyes before: shades of lavender, dark blue, and green all reflected on top of each other, and overshadowed with flecks of brown. She stared at him so hard and long he wondered if she was one of those who could read minds and see into the souls of men.
“Well, Carsius,” Laurel finally responded dubiously, “I am called Laurel, and this is my friend Renata. What is your business here? Who are these Elitinati of which you speak? Are they the ones oppressing the people with these maddening, evil, pervasive, devious—starekidoreshu?” She spat a long, foreign epithet with particular venom.
Carsius glanced around at the blind, innocuous puffballs milling about the room, noticing as well the numerous pools of gore from dead wyrts (cleaned, of course, insofar as could be managed, after the fashion of female housekeepers who only happened to be warriors). He turned back to the Elf. “You speak of the wyrts as if you know of them,” he observed. “Part of my business here is to discover as much as I can about them so that my people can destroy them and free the people from their influence. We know only very little, only—“
“Only what?” Laurel cut in quickly, sitting down and fidgeting with the handle of the dagger hanging from her belt. She leaned forward with intensity, “How much do you know?”
Carsius sighed and recounted what the Black Hand had discovered about the althraxine. “My superiors surmise that the wyrts themselves might be able to be exploited, say by ‘hacking’ into their neural frequency via—“
It took all the training Carsius had received to keep from flinching as Laurel flung her dagger at a wyrt crawling between his legs. She scowled darkly.
“Pick it up,” she said, “Look; all that’s there is blood and neurons. They absorb energy through their foot-pads and excrete blood-waste there, too; that’s why they don’t have any other organs. The blood is there to feed the neural network. Besides, hacking won’t work. Once a wyrt is exploited, it dies and disconnects from the neural network. The minute you interrupt the flow of information from the wyrt to the mother, the connection is severed and the wyrt is a useless piece of brain tissue.” She sighed and her face cleared. “You say they use this althraxine drug to open the way for the wyrt to take over?”
Carsius nodded, extremely curious now. “Why do you ask? How did it work on your planet?”
Laurel’s eyes glazed over, and her face grew sad. “They just… took,” she murmured. “Maybe it was because Noelle—I mean, because a certain Elf on my planet found the mother and actually used dark magic (in my tongue we call it the Kidor-Nadjeroth) to somehow impart the knowledge and power of the wyrt-mother to herself and her daughter—“ Laurel’s voice caught and she pressed her lips mournfully. “I felt it—the power of the wyrts, I mean. They connect to the nervous system of their hosts and then the hosts become part of the neural network. The ones controlling the mother can see what the host sees, hear what he hears—there is nothing hidden!”
“And are your people still enslaved, that is why you are here to defeat these?” Carsius mused.
Laurel’s face expressed agony of the heart. “No,” she replied hollowly, “all the wyrts on my planet are dead. I wish to save these people from a similar fate.”
“It is possible to defeat them all, then?” Carsius leaned forward with a gleam in his eye. “How did it happen?”
Laurel closed her eyes, wishing fervently she did not have to relive the worst nightmare of her life, but seeing no other choice.
“Very well, Carsius, I will tell you,” she began.
“The Elf I spoke of—the one who became the mother-mind—was a jealous, dark-hearted mistress who desired power and riches however she could get it. My father, though the nephew of my people’s king, was made heir by the Elvenking at the request of his sister, my grandmother. He did not know—in fact, no one but the midwife who birthed him knew—that my father had a twin brother who was weaker than he, and was not expected to live long. Under the care of the midwife, the twin grew into a mature Elf, though always a weak, shriveled Elf, knowing nothing of his heritage until the midwife told him, as she breathed her last.
He married the mistress, who soon learned of his true identity and desired the king’s riches for herself. She went to the wyrt-mother and took her place, causing the wyrt-mother to die and all the knowledge to pass to the mistress, who found it too much for her. Her daughter, however, had been preparing herself for just such a moment, and when her mother was about to die from the neural overload, the daughter took the knowledge for herself and became the wyrt-mother over her own mother’s dead body.” Laurel paused in the chilling tale and smiled grimly, “Both Elves thought that the symbol of great authority would be a crown of some sort, but they never realized that the inheritance of the Elvenking to his heir would be a sword—this sword.” Laurel turned to the rack of tools standing next to the fireplace and picked up an old, beaten scabbard, from which the magnificent hilt of a sword protruded.
Carsius watched carefully as she undid the straps and unbound the leather cover, and he could not restrain a gasp as the material fell away to reveal a scabbard of such brilliance it fairly dazzled him to look upon it. Swirls and scrolls of gold and silver, speckled with sapphires and emeralds, coursed over a flaming-red background. Laurel drew the sword, and showed it to him. The mirror-bright steel bore an inscription in some strange language, perhaps Laurel’s native tongue. She saw him studying it and smiled,
“The inscription reads Oy Raenna-Anoy-Rethanandaru, which means ‘the heart of the Elvenking’ in my tongue,” she explained. “What the daughter—Gwynna, was her name—realized at last was that the key to getting what they thought would bring them the crown was my name, which the Elvenking had given as the password for the last haven of my people in Glastoskan.”
Carsius nearly asked her about this, but he sensed within that another story in and of itself, much longer than this one, so he remained silent. Besides, Laurel now grew angry again.
“She tried to get this name from my friends by overpowering them with the wyrts, but my friends did not know it. Then she tried to get it from me, but—“ Laurel stopped, and anger turned to confusion.
“What happened?” Carsius prompted her.
“For some reason,” Laurel continued slowly, “Instead of Gwynna taking over my mind, I suddenly found myself in hers, viewing her memories in my own head.”
Carsius blinked in surprise, “You can reverse the neural transmitting of the wyrts?” he burst out incredulously.
“Laurel,” Renata finally spoke up, after sitting silent for so long, “Is that what happened when Father went to rescue you? Andron and I found a lot of records on Noellewynn and her husband Thengoran, but nothing that talked about these things!” Renata winced at the memory, “I wondered why Father never wanted to talk about it.”
Laurel smiled and stroked her friend’s red curls, “Yes, young one, I’m afraid that’s what happened.” She turned back to Carsius, “I don’t know how I did it, but I was able to redirect the influence of the wyrts. I tried to use that influence to save her, because she was my cousin, but she was as full of hate as I was full of love, and when she killed herself to prevent the love from taking over—“ Laurel stopped and blinked as the realization occurred. She smiled and her eyes danced as she declared, “It was the conflict of fundamental ideologies that killed the wyrts!”
Carsius blinked, “Is it really that simple?” he asked with a frown. “One belief asserted against another will break down the influence of the wyrts?”
Laurel jumped up, her eyes aflame with the light of battle, “Quick! You must tell me where the mother-mind is, so that we can defeat these nefarious creatures once and for all!”
Carsius admired the enthusiasm of the Elvish maid, but he threw his hands up in the air, “I confess I only recently learned about the wyrts and the neural networking; besides, you realize that by trying to take down the wyrt-network you are going up against the Elitinati.”
Laurel frowned in frustration, “But who are the Elitinati? You speak as if they are supremely powerful beings.”
Carsius nodded, “And verily, they seem wiser than any other race in the universe, and as cunning as the Devil himself! They have been around for ages, assuming control of planets and destroying civilizations in just such a way as this! They are like this Noellewynn of whom you speak, greedy for riches and power.
"Eillumaeia was once a fertile land, one of peace and love and unity. Then a certain sect decided that they would rather have dominance over other species, and called themselves the Elitinati and set themselves over the other races here on Eillumaeia. It was their ideas, these ‘Six Pillars of Illuminus’ you’ve no doubt heard of—“
Laurel nodded, “I used it as a password to enter this city; I had no idea what it meant, only that the name of the Elitinati inspired reverential fear in the faces and actions of the people around me.”
Carsius stood and began pacing, thinking furiously. “These Six Pillars serve as the foundational principles of supreme authority for the Elitinati. If we could topple these pillars—“
Renata leaped to her feet, engaging in the conversation. “Down fall the Elitinati, and the people are free to live in community once more!” she cheered.
“So where is the mother-mind?” Laurel repeated her question. “If we are invisible to the wyrts, then we should have little trouble locating it without being discovered.”
“We are only invisible to the wyrts and their victims,” Carsius reminded her. “The Elitinati have the capacity to train their own operatives to resist and even manipulate the influence of the wyrts. We would not be so invisible to them. I would imagine that the mother-mind lay somewhere deep beneath the great Temple-University at the center of the city. To get there would be no problem—getting in, if I know anything about the Elitinati and their security systems, will be nearly impossible.”
Laurel flopped onto the chair again and immediately squirmed, reaching behind her back to retrieve a wyrt that had burrowed there. She looked at the creature in her hand, recalling the way she had been able to at least start influencing Gwynna’s thoughts—and thus the entire wyrt network—through one of these.
“I know of a way,” she told the others.
At that moment, a distant bell began ringing incessantly. The Elf and the young woman looked around in bewilderment, but Carsius identified the noise immediately. He ran out into the hall.
“Laurel,” he called over his shoulder, “bring your sword: an intruder has triggered the silent alarm!”