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Who Wants To Live Forever?
by Gray Brangwin

At last, he had his revenge. The smell of charred meat filled the stale, dry air, rising from the mana-scorched corpses of his foes. The hulking mass in the corner still periodically sparked, sending flashes of light that pierce the perpetual veil of darkness that hung about the room. His gaze travelled past the two still forms propped against a wall to rest on the taller of the two remaining bodies.

"The one that challenged me is long dead... but this remnant of her band is finally destroyed." The figure closed his eyes briefly. "I am avenged.. but why do I feel so empty?.."

A rustling sound roused the figure from his reverie. He opened his dessicated, withered eyes to watch the work of the necromantic aura that pervaded the very stones and mortar of this castle, his Air Castle. As he watched, the bodies twitched, then stiffened with the advent of horrified realization, before jerkily rising on limbs that held a different strength than that they had held in life.

Staring at his hands, Rune Walsh whispered softly. "You bastard. You really did it."

One of the newly-undead gaped unbelievingly at herself, before sobbing and running out, another of their number tottering unsteadily after her. The figure turned away, offering only a short reply. "When you fell within these walls, it started. Even had I not wished it so, I could not have stopped it."

"You can't leave, can you?" This from the other white-robed figure. "And now we can't either."

"No, little esper. We can't. All we can do is watch. Watch, from this viewpoint," Lashiec announced, with an almost sorrowful look in his long-dead eye, "The end of Algo."

*     *     *     *     *

"I assume you destroyed the Xe-a-thouls?"

The throne room was empty of all but Lashiec and Rune, whose once-pristine white cloak was now splotched with char marks and spotted with Rune's own blood. Chaz was still trying to coax Rika out of the traumatized, semi-conscious state she'd put herself in, a difficult enough task on it's own, made all the more difficult by the fact that Chaz himself was still trying to come to terms with his new undead status. Wren was still attempting repairs on himself, an impossibility due to the incredible amount of damage sustained, but the only thing even the advanced android could think of doing. It was more than likely that he had suffered some damage to his mental circuits as well, but he apparently either didn't care or was trying not to care.

Kyra was... somewhere. Although she had seemed to handle it well at first, it was becoming increasingly clear that her unlife was slowly beginning to unhinge her mentally, especially when she began wandering the halls of the Air Castle with a horrific, insane grin and a slasher. The inhuman screams that echoed through the halls in the sleepless nights were slowly becoming a regular occurrence.

"Look around. Have you seen them around lately? Of course we killed them." Rune's reply was harsh and bitter. Every move he made spoke of a vast reservoir of anger and poisonous hate, not just directed at Lashiec, but also at himself. Perhaps that was the reason that his old comrades avoided him, and none but Lashiec would approach him voluntarily.

"Good." Lashiec studied Rune's wary face. "I assume that you are surprised at my statement."

Rune gave a short, bitter laugh. "Not exactly everyday you hear an undead tyrant tell you he's glad you killed his lieutenants. If I didn't know better, I say you were lying... oh, wait, I don't know you better, do I?"

"Maybe not, but I assure you, I was perfectly sincere." Lashiec turned away slightly. "Because, though my servants in some ways, in more ways they were the puppetmasters."

Rune eyed the black-robed figure skeptically. "You don't expect me to believe that, do you? There's no way in hell you'll be able to blame your misdeeds on others."

The short, derisive laugh that erupted from Lashiec's dessicated throat was, like all things about him, dark and tainted with the poison of hatred and the stench of centuries. "Hah! What I did, I did of my own free will, and none others." The red, glowing spots that passed for his eyes flashed. "None others.." He turned away. "If only I could continue believing that.."

"Guilt, friend? A foreign emotion to you, to be sure."

"Not guilt." A bitter grin upon his lips, Lashiec turned back to his sardonic fellow lich. "Guilt is an emotion where you regret what you've done. This is where I despise what I did it for."

Rune stared at Lashiec uncertainly for a moment before understanding. "The Darkness."

"Precisely." The millenia-old lich closed his eyes, the dry, papery sound of his eyelids meeting clearly audible. After a moment, he spoke. "You don't know the whole story yet, do you?"

Rune cocked his head curiously, his curiousity winning out over his hatred. "What do you mean? I assumed you were under a Dark Force's indirect control then, as you are now."

Lashiec laughed harshly. "If only! No, no, Lutz, a Dakfaus, or Dark Force as you all so mangle the name, for all its power, is no more than a pawn. Or maybe a rook, but still no more than a piece to be sacrificed in some gambit, expendable and subject to the player's whim." His eyes opened, gleaming with an odd light. "And the power of the chesspiece is nothing compared to that of the chess player."

"And who is this.. player? Some other godly being you pay homage to, like that fool Zio paid futile homage to Dark Force?"

"I pay no homage to that being! As always, I live for myself, and no other! I do no service to any wretched master, whether it be in heaven, hell, or any of the realms between!" Lashiec raged. Realizing the esper's successful attempt at getting a reaction from him, he calmed down, and continued, "But to answer your question, I have to tell a tale I learned from the Xe-a-thoul themselves, that day when they first enticed me to the Darkness, two thousand years ago.."

"In the beginning, there were two forces; we would term them today Order and Chaos. The antithesis of each other, they could not even remain in close proximity without destroying each other; and so all that existed was these two raw forces, which met and died and met and died and met and died. For countless aeons upon aeons, it was thus.

"Then, at some timeless juncture, for time had no meaning then, order and chaos met... and mixed.

"From this impossible mixture was born two beings of immense power, each with the power to shape and control both order and chaos, as well as to touch the other realms, beyond this one; like the one you link with when you cast your Efess spell. Having no control over the other planes and the other realms, however, beyond the universal ability to call mana from the aether, they chose, instead, to remain in their birthplace, and reshape their world.

"And from them, and their shaping of what once was Order and Chaos, was born this world.

"Algol's sun was one of their first creations, but the planets of Algol came only much later, near the end. They sped through their infinite plane, shaping and reworking Order and Chaos, fusing them to create new worlds, new substances, new life. And for aeons, they did this, delighting in their ability to do so, creating infinite universes that spanned the planescape.

"Although I used the word, 'infinite', it was not truly so. After a time, the amount of Order and Chaos decreased; and, oddly, the two beings found that their abilities were slightly lessened as well. One of the two beings, less caring of thought than the other, shrugged it off, and perceiving that it could still create, did so. The other followed its companion, but was constantly plagued by the mystery of their loss of power.

"It was many millenia (mere months to these beings) later that the second being puzzled out the cause, and in the interim, their powers had decreased once more, though not so severely as to affect them in any way. The being realized that, as they created, they took away from the repository of Order and Chaos in their plane; and it was that Order and Chaos that fed them their power, gave them their abilities. Their acts of creation would eventually lead to their destruction.

"Unfortunately, being rather elemental beings, the second was, despite its reasoning skills, just as simplistic as the other. Knowing no language but power, no communication but action, the other entity attempted to stop it's fellow's mindless creation the only way it knew how; by destruction.

"By doing this, of course, it merely weakened both of them more. But it was successful in its goal; the other turned from its single-minded task, angered and betrayed. And the two fought.

"At last, the one that created prevailed. It sealed its twin into a prison woven of pure Chaos, and sealed the prison with Algo's sun, and a pattern of three planets it created around it. On these planets it created life that held an amazing amount of intrinsic power, with the ability to draw on the ether, the elements, and themselves, and set them to guard this seal. And on a fourth planet of otherworldly crystal, it created elementals of mana that would serve to keep the races below at their task of guarding the seal. This planet it set on an elliptical orbit, for its mere presence, due to the elemental power within, weakened the seal, the energy within it being closer to Order and Chaos than most. It would return every thousand years, coinciding with the time when the planet's alignment would allow the seal to open slightly, so as to remind the guardians of their duty. This planet was also invisible, and could only be revealed by magical means, and by one with much power at that. Therefore, it served its purpose little.

"And then it left, creating once more, still not realizing that it killed itself with every creation. As for the other, surrounded by pure Chaos, it could survive untouched; but rage has clouded its mind and vengeance burns in its soul, such as it is. It has itself shaped many creatures from the Chaos around it; without the influence of the opposing force, Order, they were twisted and barely sane, for the most part unable to survive on their own for long. Later shapings grew in independence, but retained their insane, sadistic nature. And these are the Dakfaus, the Xe-a-thouls, the D-Elm-Lars and the Marauders. The elite of the Edge.

"And that being who resides in that prison, waiting for a chance at escape, is what the Xe-a-thoul termed 'The Profound Darkness'." Lashiec finished.

Rune sneered derisively, though not with his previous conviction. "Nice story, and I don't doubt that at least some of it is true, but evil always seeks to justify itself. I doubt it happened quite that way."

Lashiec shrugged, the slight motion evident under his heavy cloak. "Believe what you will."


They turned to face Chaz. The young hunter had, so far, been fairly successful in accepting his new status, though his "acceptance" seemed to come mostly in the form of ignoring anything weird, like the fact that he breathed but exhaled only dry, stale air, or that he felt no hunger or thirst. Indeed, carrying the idiom, "Ignorance is bliss" much further than it should ever have been carried. At present, though, it was working.

"It's not helping. I need help, Rune. Rika isn't coming out of it, and I can't find Wren." Chaz turned his head slightly, muttering, "Not that he'd be of much help right now..."

Lashiec stood, leaning slightly on his staff. "Since you obviously have other matters to take care of, I shall leave you to them. I have a sudden wish to see the stars." Ignoring Rune's quizzical look, he teleported himself to the Air Castle's main balcony.

*     *     *     *     *

However, there was someone already there.

Lashiec joined the android at the balcony, staring out into space. "The stars are beautiful tonight, are they not?"

The android spoke in a monotone. "Logically speaking, they can never be beautiful for a temporary time; therefore they are either beautiful all the time, or not at all." His voiced dropped some, gaining a sad quality. "But yes, they are beautiful tonight."

Lashiec sighed, the sound rattling strangely in his withered throat. "You have lived nearly a millenia, the others tell me."


Lashiec looked inquiringly at the android.

"No," Wren repeated. "I have not lived nearly a millenia, merely existed."

The lich nodded in understanding, once more looking out towards the stars. After a moment, he spoke.

"How does it feel, this.. existence?"

The android did not immediately reply, but instead looked out towards the star-scattered void. When he spoke, it was with a depth of emotion that none of the Protectors had heard before.

"2 years after the destruction of Mother Brain.. 998 years since. I was one of the last projects of the dying world; Zelan, once a weapons satellite for Mother Brain's use, had become a pseudo-replacement for Mother Brain, capable of managing the main facilities of both remaining planets. Unfortunately, without the more advanced AI technology that had died with the Terrans, all attempts to build a control AI fully integrated with the system had failed. The last prototype was abandoned where it was built, on an island in the middle of Lake Trestos on Motavia.

"Then the meteor struck. The land bridge to the island was destroyed, as was Paseo; the new Biosystems Lab was buried under a mountain, with an entire wing destroyed. 673 years later, a tunnel would be dug, linking to the entryway; but, unable to open the door, the prospectors would abandon it. And with Paseo destroyed, Vahal Fort isolated with no sea conveyance available, and Biosystems Lab buried under tons of rock, Zelan was effectively cut off from all communication.

"With no transportation and no communication, the scientists on Zelan were stuck there. They had to solve their problems themselves."

"So they mucked it up again. They made me." Wren hissed in an angry tone. It was the closest thing to emotion he had ever shown.

After a moment, the android continued. "Fifty years later, they were all dead. And I was alone." Wren closed his eyes.

The lich took a deep breath, and stared out towards the distant nebulae. "Isolation.. such a horrible feeling... for ages, I have been here, doomed to stay eternally; decades, centuries, sesquicentennials, all have become just one long, endless river, sweeping me up and never releasing me. I watched my home destroyed, and I could do nothing, not even weep." He rested a hand on the railing. "And the stars have been my only comfort, my only respite from hatred."

Wren was silent. Then, he spoke, in a wooden, dead tone.

"Comfort? They offered no comfort for me. All they did was mock me; mock the machine with no flesh of its own, the one that dared think it was human, the one trapped in its birthplace by chains of purpose. Purpose," he said, "Never duty. No loyalty to those who made me, only the singular purpose of my existence drove me on. Without it, there was no meaning. And every day, looking at the display panels and the stars, they both seemed so distant, so, so far away..

"When Biosystems Lab was first unearthed, I managed to send an order through Seed to Nurvus to get a shuttle to Zelan. Yet I could not leave Zelan; perhaps because I knew, somewhere, that no one would accept me, a relic of the forgotten past. A year later, though, I used it; but I wasn't on it.

"I had built another android, from leftover data on my own construction. It had taken much time, but I had thought that it was worth it. Strange that androids can also have human misconceptions..." he whispered.

"It still isn't easy, remembering that failure. Though I had programmed her to be as a Palman in every way, it was a mistake. When I awakened her, she smiled her Palman smile and looked at me with those too-bright eyes, understanding nothing, and I knew I had failed. I'd created a Palman clone, every bit as artificial as those sprung from the Biosystems Lab. And you know what? I was right.

"I sent her to Nurvus three days later. And the stars mocked me all the way, telling me that I wasn't what I wanted to be, wasn't even myself.

"And you know what?" the android repeated, holding up his charred, broken hands. "They were right. At least now they are."

Lashiec could say nothing.

*     *     *     *     *


She heard, but she did not reply. She could not reply. She was dead dead dead. How could she reply?


A different voice, no matter. She could not hear, she could not speak. The voice was an illusion, it must be, she was dead, wasn't she? The corpse-breath on her arms as she continued to breathe (the breath was an illusion, it must be), the cool flesh of her legs (touch is false, sensation a phantom), the empty feeling within her (the soul is gone, gone, gone) all said she was dead, dead, dead. So she couldn't hear.


She'd learned allll about death in the Bio Lab. Things suffered damage, or else they aged, and then they slowed down and fell down and didn't move any more, and that was death. No hearing, no sight, no feeling, no speech, no smell. Nothing. Nothing.


Still the fading ghosts of words appeared, transient, fleeting. She did not care to hold on to them; they wished to drag her back to things unknown, life that wasn't, unnatural, uncaring. She was dead, and she'd say that way.


The flickering light that intruded upon her non-existent senses, the hands that shook her again and again, the voice that shouted in her elongated ear, all shadows, phantoms of what was, mere illusions--


The numan stared into nothingness, curled in a foetal position, ignoring the world and herself.

*     *     *     *     *

Three days later, Gumbious Temple exploded.

Kyra stood on the balcony, watching the expanding pillar of fire as it slowly became visible above the cloud layer. With silent fury, it vented its last anger into space, before dying down, vanishing as if it had never been. Just as Gumbious had.

Then, as Kyra watched, a second pillar of fire followed the first, it's fury echoing the first. Elsewhere, a third pillar of fire consumed another place of power. On Dezolis, a mountain with a warm cave and a grand, marble mansion ceased to exist.

And Kyra could not cry.

*     *     *     *     *

Chaz found himself out in the Air Castle's courtyard, accompanied only by practice dummies.

He had no idea where Lashiec had gotten the dummies from, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. But they were here, and they were available to him. That was enough.

Lifting his sword, he fell into a guard stance. Concentrating, he studied the twenty dummies before him intently, memorizing their positions. Then, he struck.

Charging, he decapitated a dummy with a single stroke. Flowing into a different form, he gouged a deep line into a dummy's chest before spinning around and quartering another with a Crosscut. Parrying an imaginary blow, he sped forward, rolling under another dummy while striking upwards, cutting the dummy in two. Coming to his feet, he made three quick slashes, cutting three parallel gouges in a dummy's head, then dodged an imaginary blow, springing at another dummy. Landing in front of the fifth dummy, he slashed downward, then brought the sword up in another slash that ripped through the dummy's stomach, then twisted the blade into another downward slash perpendicular to the first two, swiftly bringing the blade down to his side and thrusting, impaling the dummy. Kicking the dummy off the blade, he spun to face a sixth imaginary enemy.

He liked swordwork. When he worked through the sword forms, he felt a sense of belonging he never felt anywhere else. The thrust, the parry, the riposte; the basic moves, flowing into the intricate, deadly dances of the blade; the cut and the slash and the strike, all one with the blade, one with himself. Here, he found peace, and he found the feral joy of the deathblow; a mad contradiction that he wanted, needed. The peace, and the pleasure.

He continued to dance his deadly dance, dodging and weaving amidst the still, wooden figures. His blade lashed out, destroying yet another phantom foe, shattering the wooden head while a second blow severed an arm. Slowly, the figures of foes battled in the past began to superimpose themselves on the dummies, as Chaz began to lose himself in the dance of blades. A Monsterfly was smashed out of the air, as a dummy's head exploded in a shower of wood chips, and another dummy fell back as a Locusta's eye was skewered. A massive Centaur loomed before him, and he decapitated it with a single stroke, the head of the dummy spinning off to clatter against the wall of the courtyard. Two Tech Users and a Speard fell to an Airslash, the top halves of the dummies sliding clear of the lower halves. His sword slid almost tenderly along the throat of a Carrion Crawler, before whipping around to eviscerate a D-Elm-Lars. A floating Protectobit was crushed beneath his blade, the shattered dummy crashing to the floor of the courtyard.

The figures grew more distinct, more personal. Chaz's next blow took Juza in the heart, before whipping across the dummy's face, wiping the insane smirk from the cultist's face. The young hunter's blade spun twice, gouging huge chunks from the Gy-Laguiah's chest, before the ending stroke nearly cut it in two. Zio raised his hands to summon the Black Energy Wave that had claimed his mentor's life, but could not halt the Rayblade that tore into his chest, igniting the dummy and tossing the torn, burning figure against a wall. Spinning, Chaz turned to face the last dummy--

--and saw himself. His blade plunged into his own chest before he knew what was happening, and he stood, stunned, looking into his own dying eyes before the bloodlust faded, and he stood staring at a faceless, wooden dummy.

Removing his sword from the dummy's heart, Chaz plunged the blade into the ground. He sank down beside it, and laid his head against the hilt. He suddenly felt very, very tired.

*     *     *     *     *

A week later, Rika was still dead. Being dead, she was still ignoring anything that said she might not be dead. In short, she was doing a really good impression of a motionless corpse, if not for the short breaths she was taking and the occasional flick of an ear.

Kyra wandered in, looking a tad tipsy, though how an undead esper got drunk was a mystery. Noticing the still numan by the wall, she settled down beside her, blinking owlishly into Rika's purposefully unseeing eyes.

After a moment, Kyra concluded that Rika was perfect company.

"Well, well... you look stoned today.. even more so'n me." Kyra peered at the numan's unmoving face. "Fact is, ya look kinda dead." The undead esper hit herself viciously on the side of the head with an alarming cracking sound. "Damn... I almost f'rgot.. we are dead..."

Rika didn't move, and Kyra laughed bitterly. "What a ride, I thought... going along with Lutz and all.. I mean, nothing could happen, right? After all, Lutz was with us, no matter that he was an obnoxious, overcritical sonuvabitch, right?" She chuckled softly. "If only.. if only... must be the two words I say most often.."

Kyra, her eyes unnaturally bright, held a wrist up to the numan's face. "See this thin line over here? I heard of it before, y'see, on a trip to Meese. Seems people can kill themselves this way, by cutting their wrists and just letting the blood flow.. never learned that at Esper Mansion. Wonder why.. guess they didn't want all their new espers bleedin' over the new carpets..." She paused, the maniacal, unbalanced grin still on her face. "But it doesn't work, y'see. Kind of like all those 'lessons of life' you hear at the Mansion; you go on believing in them till one day, when you get stabbed in the back and you realize that everything you believed was a lie after all. Kind of like Lutz, too."

Rika's ear flicked slightly.

Encouraged by the involuntary movement, Kyra continued, her voice slowly losing the drunken tone. "Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah... how nothing works. Well, yesterday I tried it; cutting my wrists, I meant. So I took out this slasher and r-e-a-l carefully cut into the flesh of the wrists.. felt real funny, too, the metal sliding in and out. Then I just sat there and watched." She leaned back against the wall. "Thing is, nothing happened. all I saw was this thin line of black blood oozing out, then it just stayed there and nothing else happened. Here, I'll show you--"

The undead esper pulled a slasher from her belt, and, holding her wrist up to Rika's face, made a slow, careful gash in the flesh of her arm, giggling slightly. "Oo, that tickles.." She waited, watching the thin thread of black, fouled blood ooze out, then cover the wound. Wiping her arm with the flat of the slasher, Kyra addressed Rika again. "That's what I did, and that's what happened; the exact same thing. Shoulda known it wouldn't work.. after all--"

She poked her head right in front of the still numan's, the girlish grin on her face belying the unshed tears she would have had had her tear glands still been functioning. "--we're dead, aren't we?"

Rising unsteadily to her feet, she wandered out of the room. Behind her, the numan drew a deep, shuddering breath, ignoring the smell of musty decay as she expelled it.

*     *     *     *     *

The next morning, Chaz met Lashiec in the courtyard.

"Well, this is a surprise.. I hadn't expected you to be interested in swordwork." There was no mocking in the young hunter's words. To tell the truth, Chaz wasn't really sure how he felt about Lashiec; sure, the guy had killed them and everything, but.. there was something about him, almost like an aura of regality, something that made you like him; faint, almost like a distant echo of what once was, but it was there. And, frankly, without the bitter hatred Rune held, Chaz found little to hate in the lich. Madness, he often told himself, to trust this lich over his companions, but there it was; he did.

Then again, being dead yourself tended to give you a very different perspective on things.

"I have no interest in sword forms; rather, I came to see you." the lich replied.

"Really? And why would you do that?" Chaz asked purposefully casually, slipping smoothly into an opening sword form. He had not used the dummies since the last week's incident.

"Because you seem to be taking undeath reasonably well, considering your comrades' reactions. I was just curious." came the soft reply from the tall form by the archway.

Chaz gave vent to a short laugh, swiftly bringing his sword up into a defensive position, then flowing in the same movement into a straight thrust. "Considering their reactions, if I were to start gibbering insanely I'd stil be taking it better than them." An unfamiliar bitterness welled up inside him for a moment, before he pushed it back down again.

A short, dry chuckle. "True."

Chaz practiced in silence for a while, the red dots that served Lashiec as eyes following his swift strikes and parries. Chaz finally addressed the lich, still working through his sword forms.

"Actually, if anyone here is acting calm--" Slash. Parry. Strike. "--it'd be you."


"Yes, you. For a millenia-old evil mage, you--" Hack, strike, guard. "--seem rather nice. You're--" Strike strike strike DODGE. "--probably the most stable guy around here."

"Nice?" If it was possible, it would have been said that the lich looked decidedly bemused. "I don't believe anyone's called me that before. And as for stability.." Lashiec's eyes would have glinted had they still existed, and not been too desiccated to shine. "Tell me, what do you know of physics? Of balance?"

The hunter managed a shrug before starting another sequence. "Physics? Never did understand that stuff. Hahn tried to--" Guard, parry, parry, thrust. "--teach me some of it once, but he got overly technical and I didn't understand a thing. Balance.." He settled into a starting position, sword raised parallel to his chest, both hands on the hilt and his whole weight on one leg. "All swordsmen know balance." Alys had known balance. So had Reulan, Trystan, and Eron. Not that it had helped them any.

"Then you know that to upset an equilibrium, something must be present. A stone, a sword; a weight, an imbalance." the lich continued, pausing expectantly.

"And just where are you going with this?" Chaz queried. Pas four, parry, riposte, reverse strike. There had been times back then when Trystan had gotten the same way; went on and on and took forever to get to the point. It had infuriated him no end.

"Simple." The fallen king's voice was now deadly serious. "It's easy to be balanced when there's nothing inside."

Chaz paused, then lowered his sword. Turning to Lashiec with a carefully expressionless mask over his face, he asked, "What do you mean?"

"For two thousand years, I have lived a mere puppet; even before my death, I was nothing more than a front for the Xe-a-thoul. And after my death, I was aware of this, but could no longer change it. And so the only thing I had left was hate." The lich closed what passed for his eyes, the dry, papery skin of his eyelids rustling slightly, and an odd, mocking smile on his lips. "And now that hate is gone."

Lashiec turned away, the soft whisper of his robes somehow deafening in the silence. "Life takes something away, and death takes the rest. No, young hunter; if any here are at peace, it definitely isn't me." And then he was gone.

Chaz unconsciously gripped his sword tighter. Yet another facade undone; something else he thought he knew was wrong. Peace.. peace was not here. It wasn't anywhere. Unbidden, the bitterness rose; in his mind's eye, he saw Reulan's note, and Trystan's old knife that had been his father's, and Eron's shattered corpse. And another, more recent memory, that of a middle-aged woman who still retained her youthful beauty gasping out her last breaths like a dying fish on her deathbed. They'd all left him, all been taken from him. And he had been helpless. Bitterness and regrets were all that were left to him, both as old as he was.

He spun on his heel, heading for the armoury. He felt a sudden urge to hit something solid.

*     *     *     *     *

A night two days later (what use time when doomed for eternity?) found Rune stretched out on an old, mouldering bed, unable to sleep. Quite literally so, in fact. The undead had no need for sleep.

It was odd, really. Two weeks had gone by, fourteen nights spent aimlessly in the eternal darkness of the starry void, and only this night had it occurred to him to try to sleep. It was odd, and it was frightening to one who had been in complete control of everything he said or did since the age of seven.

Sighing softly, he reached for the Psycho-wand, grasping it to his bare chest. It felt.. odd, to not have his robes of office on. He'd been unable to stand the insidious odour his own blood had imparted to them, and so had doffed them some hours ago. Still, he missed the weight of them on his shoulders, the cool, blue-white fabric, soft as silk yet durable as steel. He'd worn them since his ascension as Lutz, and quite often went to bed still wearing them. They'd been as much a part of him as any other, perhaps more. And that, Lashiec had taken away from him.

Lashiec.. how the name had changed. Memories that were not his told him how Lashiec was once Lassic, and was once Rezik, and once Reshik, and once Rasich. So many names, for one person... so many lifetimes, for one person. Immortality in a legend, and forever in a lie.

Idly, he ran his fingers along the length of the Psycho-wand, feeling its cold metal under his equally cold fingers. He was mildly surprised that Lashiec had not taken it in the aftermath of the battle, or tried to claim it since then. The raw magical power it held would have been enough to tempt even the most disciplined esper, had they known of its existence. It held a power that seemed at once like and unlike their own, the same but somehow different. Passed down from the first Lutz, who had apparently bought it off a shopkeeper who had thought it an ordinary, albeit intricate staff, it was perhaps the only thing in the world he had ever truly lusted after. The years it had spent in the Ladea Tower were also the years where, without it's presence, he could not stand to stay in Esper Mansion for long, and so had gone on travels on both Motavia and Dezolis. He'd met Alys on one of those trips--

Night. A misnomer, here in the vast emptiness of space; the only way any of them knew of nightfall was by the antique timepiece of unknown origin tucked away in a corner of the Air Castle. Lashiec called it a "clock", but wouldn't say where he'd gotten it from. Secrets which they all jealously kept, even past the grave.

Sighing, he tightened his grip around the Psycho-wand. Tomorrow he would ask the lich if he could get a new set of robes for him; they would never bear the same weight they once did, would never again be what they once were, but it was the best he could hope for.

He gathered the shreds of what once was around him like a blanket, but still his eyes were open, unable to rest. The only light in the room was the cold, dim twilight reflected off the Psycho-wand.

*     *     *     *     *

Time? Time is all, some say. Time to live, time to love, time to laugh, time to die. The brief flicker you have that is a mere drop in the vastness of the ocean is gone before you know it -- treasure it, they say. And some try, some succeed, many fail. There are those with their path long set before them, and few are they who choose to forge their own. Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes fact, all blurring into one, regardless of substance -- such is time.

Time! The tormentor of souls who care too much, or too little. Lives that pass without love or hate, untouched by time, are devoured at the last by their own facade. When one is all that is left, it is better off gone, for it is a torment as well. And pity those who become timeless, because they see nothing and everything. Who wants to live forever?

Time? Time is immaterial. Ask anyone.

*     *     *     *     *

The clock in Lashiec's hall rang out the seventh hour when Motavia began its death.

Wren was the first to notice. He hadn't moved from the balcony for... for.. he wasn't sure how long, exactly; his time data circuits had been next to completely destroyed; but he hadn't moved since his conversation with Lashiec. Not that it mattered how long ago that was. Eternity was a very long time... but he'd gotten used to it. It was to have been his lot anyway.

In any case, that day, it was he who first noticed Motavia beginning to collapse upon itself. A huge hole in Motavia's face was expanding, eating up ground and leaving nothing. It was physically impossible, of course, but then what wasn't anymore? And so he watched, not caring to notify his fellow inmates of Motavia's slow collapse.

Surprisingly, it was Rika who next noticed. Two days before, she had finally moved from her spot, but only shambled around like a zombie. So her only reaction to the expanding emptiness was to shamble onto the balcony and collapse bonelessly against the wall. Silent, the two watched on.

Rune arrived next. He strode out onto the balcony, new white cloak swirling around him, a reminder of his former glory. He gripped the Psycho-wand as tightly as a man holds on to a board to keep from drowning, or a woman to her only child, and he did not raise his head to watch, instead bowing his head, his eyes shrouded in the shadow that caressed them all. Leaning against the staff, he did not move, just as transfixed by the event as the others.

Lashiec appeared then, fading into existence with a more controlled version of the Fly spell. Without saying a word, he gazed, not at the dying planet, but at the stars. His eyes long gone, they were unreadable, but his expression showed an absence of something -- what it was, no one could say, or care. Black cloak flapping around Rune's white robe in the thin breath of the Air Castle's atmosphere, they watched, one at nothing, the other at nothing.

Chaz shuffled through the archway, holding his sword in one hand and a whetstone in the other. Without acknowledging the others, he took up a precarious position on the balcony's railing. Momentarily struck by how similar his position was to one Alys had once taken, he stopped, then shook his head angrily. Raising his head, he stared out through the passing asteroids to the slow unravelling of what had been his home. Absently, he began to sharpen his sword.

And Kyra completed their gathering two minutes later, stumbling out with the gait of the drunk or the directionless. Making her way to the railing, she laid her arms on the railing and her head in her arms, blank eyes that were too, too full watching Motavia's disintegration. And she, too, was silent.

Some time later, the dark, yawning abyss ceased its expansion. There was silence, and then that odd rushing feeling people get right before the storm's facade is cast off and it unleashes its full fury upon them--

And then a dark angel burst from the abyss.

It was darkness of a million shades, a thing of jet and obsidian and ebony and onyx, a thing that shone no light but its own illuminating darkness. It possessed a beauty that was terrible yet enticing, one that no words could describe, and no mind encompass. It was beauty, it was death.

And it was angry.

With a soundless cry of millenia-old rage, it turned to the first of the two remaining seals holding it in Algo. With a gesture, the yawning abyss the dark angel had emerged from began expanding again, shreds of ground disintegrating into nothing.

Half the planet was already gone when bursts of light surged from the planet's surface to strike the dark angel. Several more blasts struck the dark angel as it turned, cold fury radiating from it, and, with another soundless cry, released a maelstrom of fire and light at the planet surface. When it died away, no more blasts came. The Hunter's Guild was gone, and Chaz knew it.

Lancing beams of light then burned into the dark angel's side, ripping through a leathery wing. Silently roaring its pain, the dark angel flung out an arm and hurled a globe of dark energy at the source of the lasers. A soundless explosion consumed Zelan a moment after it struck, and Wren felt nothing. Nothing for the death of his birthplace, nothing at all. Perhaps a small twinge of pride for Demi's futile act, but that, too, was soon gone.

Within moments, Motavia was gone, and with it the lives of friends, and the fading past. Hahn, Gryz, and Demi; Holt, Dorin, and that foolish, foolish ranch owner. All turned to nothing.

When the dark angel turned to Dezolis, Kyra suddenly gave vent to a sobbing cry of rage, and flung three roaring spheres of fire at the dark angel. All petered out moments after leaving the Air Castle's atmosphere, but Kyra did not see, instead collapsing to the ground in a shuddering, sobbing heap. Chaz went to her side, but did not help her; he could sense that there was nothing he could do.

As they watched, a green planet suddenly appeared where once there had been empty space. A huge column of light tore from it, washing over the dark angel, who faltered slightly. The column of light was quickly followed by a wave of blue fire from Dezolis' surface, where the last remaining priests of the Flame sent their defiance into the void. For a moment, the dark angel was pushed back slightly, and Rune almost thought that the dark angel would be destroyed--

The dark angel screamed its defiance, and released a burst of darkness that drove both attacks back. A huge cloud of swirling energy formed around it as the two groups of attackers recovered from the backlash of their assault, and by the time they did, it was too late. The energy shot from the dark angel in a wide, blue beam that cored Rykros like an apple, sending blue streaks of energy through the shell that remained. When the power of Destruction was at last spent, the shell that had once been Rykros spun lazily in space, devoid of life.

Another wave of blue fire burst from Dezolis' surface, but this one was much weaker than the first, and the dark angel shrugged it off as if it were nothing. Moving through the void, it placed a gigantic hand on Dezolis' surface. A moment later, Dezolis exploded into a million fragments, icy asteroids that would eventually take up orbit around Algo's sun, just as the remnants of Palma had.

There was silence on the balcony of the Air Castle, broken only by Kyra's occasional sob. After a while, Chaz spoke.

"It's going to just leave us here, isn't it?" It was more of a statement than a question.

Neither Rune nor Lashiec would answer, but Wren did it for them.


Rune shivered involuntarily. He was past cold, but not past fear, or terror. "Eternity.." he whispered through clenched teeth.

Wren smiled, a thin, bitter smile. "Affirmative." He stared at the remains of Rykros. "I've faced it before, and now I face it again. I would call it irony, had I the necessary Palman wit."

The young hunter raised his sword and stared at his reflection in the blade. "And there's nothing we can do about it. Figures."

Lashiec moved slightly, a whispering sigh accompanying his movement. "Actually, there is." From his cloak, he withdrew an object. "There is this."

Rune's eyes widened slightly. "The Eclipse Torch.."

Wren laughed shortly, the harsh noise rattling in voice synthesizers unused to such a sound. "We came here to get it, and we forgot you had it. How typical."

Rune looked at Lashiec. "You propose to use its power?"

"Yes." Nothing else was said; there was only one thing they could want of the Eclipse Torch now.

Rune still had his survival instincts, despite his undeath. Perhaps it had something to do with the other four idiots screaming in his head. Still, his conditioned mind frantically searched for some reason to not take this way out. And it found none.

Reluctantly, clutching the Psycho-wand even tighter, the fifth Lutz of the now non-existent Esper Mansion said, "Do what you will." Perhaps he could find freedom, of a sort.

From the railing, Wren's voice came to them. "It matters not to me. My directive was to protect Algo, and it is gone. Not that it ever mattered anyway, either." And the android fell silent, brooding at the distant stars.

Chaz said nothing, instead moving his gaze to the crumpled, blank-eyed form of Rika and the sobbing wreck that was Kyra. For a long moment, he said no word. Then, turning, he hurled the whetstone out into the emptiness of space, eyes following its elliptical path as it left the Air Castle's atmosphere.

Lashiec sighed, closing his eyes, the papery skin of his eyelids rustling softly as they always did. Raising the Eclipse Torch, he whispered, "So be it."


Turning, Lashiec regarded the young hunter curiously. Chaz, not taking his eyes off Kyra, replied to the lich's unvoiced question.

"Let me do it."

Lashiec regarded Chaz evenly for a moment, before he wordlessly handed the Eclipse Torch over to the hunter. Backing away, he turned his head to the void, seeking the empty comfort of the stars.

Chaz took his eyes from Kyra to gaze at the still brightly shining Eclipse Torch. "A fire to light the darkness, to warm our hearts and minds and cleanse all that is unclean.." He closed his eyes momentarily, his other hand gripping his sword tightly. "Then let us be cleansed. Let us all be cleansed."

"I've always felt like a pawn of destiny. Do this, do that, fate's little toy that it tossed from life to life, loss to loss. For once, just this once--" he raised the shining orb over his head, "I'm the master of my own destiny."

He threw the orb down onto the ground, bringing his sword down onto it. The glass orb shattered easily, and the burning radiance of the Eclipse Torch surged forth, pouring over them, burning, unmaking. And cleansing.

In a brief flash of blue light, the Air Castle was no more. And in the midst of the ruins of the Algo system, the Profound Darkness unfurled its massive wings and set off at phonomenal speeds for its own final confrontation.

*     *     *     *     *

Stars. Like men, like beasts, they live, they die, they create and destroy. And when they die, it is with a brief, final flare, and then nothing. C'est la vie.

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