The high-luminosity lantern worked against the absorptive qualities of water, creating a cone of visible light for Palman eyes. While not necessary for a sophisticated combat machine such as himself, Wren chose to keep the device on, aware that increased visibility would help alleviate the anxieties of his charges. The depths reduced visible light to the point where the murky conditions would feed upon the subconscious Palman fears of the dark and death by immersion.
Master Adan had traveled hard and fast from Lashute, determined to return to Landen as quickly as possible. He had pushed himself, Mistress Gwyn, and Princess Kara at a fierce pace that left them exhausted. Princess Kara had interceded with Master Adan to rest before attempting to recover Lord Orakio's sword, although Wren found it unlikely that the brief period of recuperation Master Adan had allowed was sufficient to fully restore his energy.
It had not taken long to arrive at the sole operational aquaport in Landen. King Rhys had long ago had all of the remaining functional facilities in Landen located and the coordinates turned over to Wren in case it ever became necessary to use them. That Lord Orakio had never equipped Wren with the parts necessary to use the facilities was something that had not concerned Master Rhys. More accurately, it had not concerned Queen Lena, who had prompted the survey, "just in case."
Mistress Lena's foresight had been proven correct, as the aquaport had held a functional Sharkin-class aquatic superiority chassis that had survived a thousand years of neglect. Aquatic environments were not his optimal or preferred operating conditions, but Wren had become accustomed to service in this time, so different from his duties when he had served alongside Miun as Lord Orakio's personal units. While Wren had interfaced with the submersion-capable vehicle, the rest of the party had discussed who would go with him. The sleek craft had enough consumables for the entire group, but the complex they would be searching was sufficiently large that more divers would actually reduce their available operation time.
In the end, Master Adan and Mistress Gwyn had elected to go. Mieu had manufactured wetsuits at the aquaport and had customized them to ensure optimal thermal insulation, abrasion resistance, and buoyancy. Following best practices, the garments were skintight, conforming to the wearer's individual shape to achieve maximum advantage . The Sharkin chassis came with two gas tanks, so Wren would be in control of maintaining optimal air levels as they descended, a simple enough task.
Before they had left, Princess Kara had spoken to Wren, seeking reassurance as to the safety of the dive. Her eyes on Master Adan, she had asked, "Are you sure this is safe, Wren?"
"Perfectly secure, Princess Kara. The equipment is in optimal condition and has multiple built-in safeguards. During the Devastation War, interface with chassis units was usually conducted by robots with PUPPET OS, far inferior to my own operating system. The Sharkin-class chassis also comes with a sonic cannon and underwater weaponry, which will be useful in deterring any hostile life forms."
Unconvinced, the lime-haired girl had been about to press the issue further when Mistress Gwyn had slung a companionable arm over the worried young woman's shoulders. The Orakian princess had whispered in her coeval's ear something that Master Adan would not have been able to hear, but Wren's sensitive receptors did. "You just want to ogle my brother's bottom longer, don't you?"
Princess Kara had attempted to protest as her face turned crimson. Mistress Gwyn had laughed before boarding the water craft, her expression the most relaxed it had been around her coeval since Frigidia. Master Adan had boarded soon after, pausing only long enough to press his hand against Princess Kara's and for her to return the gesture. From Master Adan, such public displays of affection were equivalent to a passionate kiss in front of the assembled nobles of Landen.
The long trip to where the temple had once stood passed in silence. Wren's projections had still failed to determine the veracity of the information they were pursuing. It defied all of his data on Palman life expectancies for Rulakir Sa Riik, younger twin of Lord Orakio, to still be alive. While Mistress Laya's survival was also unusual, cryonics had been used to preserve her for over a millennium. His sensors had failed to reveal any of the magnetic and chemical signs identifiable as cryonic preservation in Rulakir.
That left the possibility that the man on the throne was a fake, but further observation left that hypothesis untenable. Reconstructive surgery might be able to replicate Rulakir's face in general, but it would have been impossible to replicate the exact creases in the flesh of that face. Facial recognition put the match at 99.8%, far too close for even the most skilled surgeon, mechanical or humanoid. Vocal spectrum analysis confirmed the biologically impossible: Rulakir had survived a millennium virtually unaltered. Wren lacked the data to project how that had been accomplished.
Another matter had preoccupied Wren during the trip out: his directives were contradicting each other.
One of his secondary directives, as defined by Lord Orakio himself, was to faithfully serve the Sa Riik family, specifically those descended from his Lord, to the best of his abilities and with unflinching loyalty. This had been simple enough to follow for three generations, but the search for the so-called legendary weapons changed that dynamic. As with so much in this era, the origin of the contradiction began a thousand years ago.
Lord Orakio had converted a number of advanced robots into what he had called "master command" units. The first machine to become a master command unit had been a distinguished Brownren-486 Independent Artificial Combatant that would be given the unique moniker Type-0899. Orakians knew that android as Siren, the greatest of Lord Orakio's generals.
Wren's conversion had been based on Siren's, with one critical difference: Wren's OS was a highly modified version of the standard ICE86 OS, while Siren's was a customized version of the MIEU OS built on a cognitive impression of Lord Orakio's mind. Siren had often boasted that since he had been created from the strongest Palman, he was the strongest android. It was a claim that the Devastation War would unambiguously support as Siren was second only to Lord Orakio on the battlefield. Wren had been specifically built to allow Lord Orakio to know exactly where Siren was at all times. Keeping that fact secret from everyone but Lord Orakio was a secondary directive in itself.
Further distinguishing Siren from the other master command units, Lord Orakio had had a unique custom weapon prepared for his derivative android. The weapon had been a source of envy throughout the Orakian armies, unmatched by any of the mass produced gear frontline soldiers took into battle. Even during the Devastation War, Siren's Shot had been legendary.
The problem was that his directive to serve the Sa Riik family contradicted his directive to keep Siren's location secret from everyone except Lord Orakio. Master Adan and Mistress Gwyn were searching for Siren's Shot, along with other weapons of legend, but that was not enough to override his directive. It was highly likely that nothing short of a primary directive override would enable Wren to inform his masters of Siren's location.
The cone of light revealed stone, tinged blue by the shorter wavelength of visibility and somewhat worn by a thousand years under Landen's freshwater sea. Wren recalled when the complex had loomed above water, a beautifully designed compound fortified to be impossible to take. Lord Orakio had always been puzzled by the existence of the marble-sheathed fortress, with its strange statues, fluted columns, and other ancient-inspired conceits, but since its inhabitants had declared for him, he had left it alone. Its current existence at the bottom of the sea was another enigma Wren had catalogued away due to lack of data.
"Wren? I feel...funny."
Mistress Gwyn's voice came through the transceiver installed in the sophisticated breath mask. The royal twins were safely strapped to the chassis, behind Wren, so he was unable to see them while he was interfaced with the craft. He analyzed the readings from his two charges. "My sensors indicate you are within normal parameters for this depth, Mistress Gwyn. Do you feel strangely euphoric?"
"Feelings of euphoria and overconfidence are typically the first signs of narcosis. Our present depth is normally when Palmans begin to feel the symptoms. If you wish, I can adjust your breathing mixture to remove the effect."
"Thank you but... I don't feel very confident. I feel...afraid. Very afraid."
"You feel it too, Gwyn?"
"Yeah...like...something's there...waiting... Hey Wren, can you scan to see if there's anything down there?"
Wren complied. Water interfered with many of his sensors, so he leveraged the chassis' sonar system to blast the area below with active sound pulses. The returning signals revealed nothing out of the ordinary. They also failed to provoke any potentially concealed beasts.
"My scan has revealed no concealed monsters or machines, Mistress Gwyn."
Silence. Master Adan spoke. "Take us in, Wren."
The war machine guided the Sharkin chassis over the compound. The light illuminated a large rectangular plaza paved in marble, surrounded on all sides with colonnades of pillars topped by ornate capitals. As Wren silently slid through the water, he sent vector line depictions of the active sonar results into the vidscreens built into the breath masks. Visualizations were not necessary for him, but they would guide the decisions of his charges.
"Wren. Do you see that building to the north? Take us there."
Wren advanced, his craft gliding smoothly through the water. Soon his lantern illuminated an edifice on a high podium of steps. Giant statues depicting large four-legged creatures garbed in heavy armor stood guard at the top of the stairs in what was a deliberate attack on Palman sensibilities. A colonnade of fluted columns supported what was left of the roof as the damaged building loomed impressively over the compound, much like the complex had once loomed over the sea.
Mistress Gwyn spoke, her voice thick with apprehension. "Adan, I really don't want to go in there."
"It's the most likely place for the sword to be."
"Something is in there. It's waiting for us. I have a really bad feeling about this, Adan. We should turn back now."
"We have to go, Gwyn. You know your vision even better than I do. It's either we deal with this now, or we fall into the black hole. Advance, Wren."
The Orakian princess fell silent as Wren obeyed Master Adan's command. The darkness made way before the cone of light as the stone glowed blue. Water pressure increased as he slowly descended toward the building. The world was literally heavier the deeper they went.
The Sharkin chassis slowly descended through a gaping hole in the building's roof. Wren was wary of entering through the colonnades, concerned that such an approach would leave them vulnerable to a sudden structural collapse. His lantern revealed a single massive room, strewn with rubble, what was left of its honeycombed ceiling strewn with depictions of a misshapen skull, its fangs jutting out like curved daggers and empty sunken pits where eyes should have been.
Off-center of the room, the unmistakable shape of a sword stabbed deep into the floor. Metal blades under his lantern should glow blue. This one glistened black.
"Orakio's sword," Master Adan breathed in awe.
His rudimentary emotional programming felt overclocked. Seeing his master's blade out of his master's hand left the combat machine feeling... uncertain. However, it was undeniable. The black sword was here, below Landen's sea. "Confirmed."
Quietly, the Sharkin chassis moved closer to the sword. The light revealed that the weapon had been driven into a simple pedestal, approximately fifteen centimeters in height. Faint script seemed to be carved into the stone below the blade, but the dust of centuries prevented Wren from reading it.
"Stop, Wren. I'm getting the sword now."
The combat machine complied. Master Adan detached himself from the chassis. Wren watched as the Orakian prince swam into view, the breathing tube firmly attached to his diving mask as he kicked his legs, the flippers on his feet helping him cross the distance. Master Adan reached out, his right hand closely around the hilt of the sword. The Orakian prince began to pull. A shift in the current swept the dust away from the script, allowing Wren to read it.
I hold Dark Force.