|"In the library they had prepared her a small cloister in one of the alcoves..."|
The next morning, Renata awoke near dawn to find Laurel already dressed and sitting cross-legged on her bed, with her sword across her lap. Her friend sat with her eyes closed, and when she heaved a sigh, Renata heard the shakiness of her breath.
"Laurel?" Renata asked quietly.
Laurel did not answer; she muttered to herself.
"It's going to work; it has to work! No, no—I don't want to succumb, don't want to put myself in that situation again! Will I be more vulnerable, because I've been exposed before? Perhaps on a different planet, in a different situation, the wyrts will be different as well. There's no other way! There has to be some other way! This is the only way to take down the network; they've tried other ways and failed. I must not fail! I cannot fail! If I fail, we might as well be dead!"
Renata shivered at the ominous musings. She grabbed her bathrobe and slipped out of bed to find Deej. The Ewok was certainly a comfort to be around, and he seemed to share Renata's love of peace and good food.
Laurel, meanwhile, sat immobilized by the horrific nightmares of her past. The thought that she would be willingly putting herself through that same nightmare all over again made her heart beat wildly in her chest. Why could wyrts not just be killed outright? Laurel rolled her eyes, knowing that every minute they delayed, the mother-mind formed another wyrt out of her body, like a polyp, and it crawled away out of the cavern to wherever she sent it. Where was the cavern? Could they not just get straight to her and take it down that way?
But Laurel knew that even if the mother-mind was easy to get to, killing her outright would send all the wyrt-hosts into neural shock because the network was so deeply entrenched here. Furthermore, she did not doubt that it would not be easy to get to in the least; surely the cunning Elitinati would be on their guard against anyone equally as cunning.
At last Laurel allowed herself a small smile. They wouldn't see this one coming; at least, not until it was too late to do anything about it.
Carsius rapped softly on the door.
"We're ready for you downstairs, Laurel," he announced soberly.
The Elf nodded and followed him.
In the library they had prepared her a small cloister in one of the alcoves, so that just in case the wyrt tapped in far enough to use her eyes, the Elitinati Mentor controlling it would not see anyone else with her, nor be able to discover her precise location.
Gorrmunsa approached with a syringe in his hand containing a vial of althraxine. He also had another device in his other hand, one that looked like a small stylus with a carpule of analthraxine.
"I'll administer the althraxine," he explained, "and when the wyrts sense it in your system, they will begin crawling toward you, and what you see will become visible to them for a moment. This injector-stylus," he placed the device in her hand, "is the fail-safe. If at any time you feel that you are in danger or risking too much, you must puncture your arm with the tip just inside your elbow and it will release the analthraxine and instantly neutralize the althraxine."
Laurel nodded. Augustus came forward, eyes alight with determination.
"Good luck, Laurel," he said genuinely. "You'd be the bravest person I know for doing this."
"Thank you," Laurel said, on the inside wishing she were miles away from this dangerous situation.
Renata ran forward and threw her arms around her friend.
"Be safe, okay?" she begged. "Don't forget to come back to us when you're done."
Laurel bent her head and kissed the springy red curls. "I'll come back, Ren," she promised, "Just for you."
She turned to Deej, "Ardanaf," she said, "Thank you."
Deej nodded, "You won't be gone forever," he said. "I will ask the spirits to guide you."
Finally, Laurel looked at Gorrmunsa. "I am ready," she declared.
He inserted the syringe into her right arm—the hand that held the stylus—and depressed the plunger.
Laurel winced as the liquid coursed through her system. Finally, the Kytarr removed the needle. Laurel felt a small rush, and a slight flush, but nothing more.
"How long does it take to affect the wyrts?" she asked.
Gorrmunsa pointed to the furry mass already congregated at her feet. Others came down the walls toward her.
"Not long," he stated simply. Laurel's friends closed the curtain of the cloister and retreated from the room as the first wyrt laid a foot-pad on Laurel's head.
Instantly—far faster than the wyrts in that cave under Mt. Horbaroth—Laurel's eyes flew open as she was plunged into a kaleidoscope world of shimmering images. The library came to life before her, but all she could think about were the furnishings the room did not hold, books she did not have. Was the room always this sparse? She moved around within it. Advertisements for bookstores and furniture floated before her eyes. She saw a vase and immediately desired to fill it with flowers. Why were all the drapes closed? Surely it would be midday by now!
The minute her hands brushed the fabric, Laurel remembered who she was and what she needed to do. She sat in a chair and closed her eyes, focusing on the source of the barrage of stimulus, trying to find what or where it was. She thought about...
She needed a new dress. Her jerkin was beginning to look faded. Besides, it wasn't fashionable. She should get something for supper as well. Some nice wine, a leg of mutton, or a ham, perhaps. And of course a new gown meant new shoes, new stockings—was she even wearing a corset? Honorable Lady Ventimeer would be having a party tonight. Was she on good enough terms with the lady to make an appearance?
Laurel clenched her eyes tighter, willing her more vulnerable consciousness further away from the prying influence. She pushed back, fighting for some strand that would lead her to the Scholarship pillar, knowing that the minute she gave into any of the bombarding thoughts the wyrts would have a way in and there would be no escaping them. They pressed closer in—there was something she needed to do, some sort of escape she had in just this kind of situation. What was it? Laurel felt completely lost in her mind, detached from her body.
In one swirling explosion, the whole psychedelic vision evaporated. Laurel's eyes snapped open, and she returned to the present. Her clothes and hair were dripping with sweat. She lay on the floor of the library, near the door into the hallway, curled in the fetal position. The stylus—
Where was the stylus? Laurel finally lifted her head. Her body felt stiff and sore. She turned her body—and froze. Above her in an easy chair, a dark figure sat. Pale hair, pale skin, dark clothing, and in the shadowy library, all that Laurel could see were the piercing silver eyes. The intruder stared down at her, fiddling with the empty stylus in his hand—her hand? Laurel could not tell if the person was male or female; she glanced at the hands: small, nimble fingers—female, then. The woman blinked at her under a long forelock of white-blond hair that was cut short boy-fashion at the nape of the neck.
Laurel wanted to move away from this stranger, to defend herself from the threat of attack. However, the psychic shock had left little strength in her limbs. She moved to sit up, to drag her body over to the wall, but she could barely manage an inch.
Instantly, the stranger was at her side—the opposite side, Laurel's left—aiding her with strong, gentle hands. With the stranger's help, Laurel was soon sitting up against the wall. She closed her eyes briefly, relaxing and trying to build up her strength. A lock of hair fell into her eyes, and she did not have the strength to brush it away. Laurel opened her eyes again, just in time to see the stranger—now squatting at her left side, opposite where she had been only moments before—reach up and brush the hair from Laurel's forehead, tucking it behind her ear with deft fingers.
Laurel felt her voice returning, though she was still incredibly weak. She moved her lips to the word, "Who?" but the stranger raised a delicate finger to her lips. The stranger tucked the stylus into Laurel's left hand, whispering a single word as she did so.
At the sound of the voice, Laurel felt her world fade to unconscious darkness.....