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To Hold A Shadow
by Ishmael


Rico crept along the corridor, sword in hand. The walls and ceiling pulsed with a purplish organic mass, and swirling mist crept by her ankles in pale streams. She hoped it was only her imagination telling her that the mist looked like fingers.

"COME TO ME." Came the voice that had haunted her since she entered the ruins.

"Dammit, shut the hell up!" Rico snarled as she knelt at a turning in the corridor.

"COME. FEED ME. LOVE ME. FEAR ME. YOU ARE MINE."

Rico swept the corridor with her handgun's targeting beam, knowing what came next. The air shimmered for a moment, then was replaced with hideous, glowing creatures. She fired a couple of shots, then flew into them, her sword a blur. Its laconian blade cleaved through the creatures' bodies, splattering purple and black fluid over the walls. Fire flicked from her fingers, and the battle was over an instant later.

"YOU ARE PERFECT. COME TO ME. I WANT YOU." Rico shuddered at the lust she heard in the voice. That must be it, she thought. That must be the demon imprisoned here. She had managed to translate the ancient, mangled Palman she found scattered throughout this place, and each new message she found frightened her more. And those three words that had convinced her to go on; MUTT, DITTS, POUMN. Five years ago, three years before the completion of Pioneer 2 and its two year journey, when she had taken the Oath of the Protector...

"I, Rico Jensen Tyrell, swear to protect the peoples of Algo. To uphold the law and guard the innocent. I swear to guard the seal of Algo, against the Darkness, beyond death." Rico stood proudly in the center of the crystalline room, surrounded by a dozen robed men and women. Mostly Espers, but a few priests and even Hunters. She slowly raised the ceremonial sword in front of her, blade held before her eyes. She spoke the last lines of the Oath, the carefully memorized ancient Palman seeming to come naturally. "Eccquay kallan Algian Muttya Diitsa Poumnasa, chasso Idola ki forra. Eccquay filla callia Idola." The circle around her bowed. She was a Protector of Algo.

"I will protect the seal of Algo, Motavia, Dezolis, Palma, from the Darkness, forever. I will hold the Darkness, with my life," she whispered that last part of her oath, once again. The Protectors had existed for thousands of years, and according to legend, had defended Algo from an ancient evil, until that evil was defeated. The Protectors had continued to exist, however, as an organization devoted to the good of Algo, mostly fighting an increasingly corrupt government and increasingly powerful corporations. But here, her oath took new meaning. The Protectors were no longer a shadowy political and scientific group. They would be warriors again. This thing that was sealed here, and now close to being free, was an evil that could and would threaten Algo, and it was her duty to stop it. It had already destroyed everyone on Pioneer 1. The explosion that had ripped across Ragol had been huge, and had killed every Palman except for her. She did not know why she had been spared. But she would stop it. She had to.

She stepped through the last doorway in the ruins. Before her was an ancient, huge teleport panel. She touched a button on her belt, and a pressure-injector gave her a dose of Trimate and Trifluid. She lifted her sword, a family heirloom, and touched her father's red ring for reassurance, then stepped onto the panel. A long moment passed, the teleport giving her that sightless, dizzy sensation. Then she reappeared...in a garden. She blinked, having expected hordes of creatures. The garden remained a garden, with brilliant flowers and colorful butterflies. There were a couple of gravestones off in the distance, and a huge pillar in the center, resting on a low, wide pedestal. Her mag hummed at her side, ready for battle. She walked to the center of the garden, wondering where she was. There was no place on Ragol like this. The flowers and plants were familiar. Some of them she had seen on Motavia, but most she had only read about. They had been found on Palma, before it was destroyed. She stepped onto the pedestal, peering at the column. And was astonished to see the Oath of the Protector written on it, in clear, modern Palman. And, below it, glowing letters, appearing almost handwritten,

"Hold the Darkness, Protector. It must not walk free." Rico reached up and touched the pillar. The garden disappeared, and darkness fell.

"SO, PERFECTION, YOU COME TO ME AT LAST. WELCOME." Rico stared at the terrible beast before her. It was ghostly, and lacked substance, but still looked beyond hideous. It swung a giant claw at her. She swung her sword at its wrist, and was astonished when it bounced off without leaving a scratch. She was flung several dozen feet. Impossible, she thought. Nothing can shrug off laconia like that!

"A LACONIAN SWORD, AND THE RING OF MOTAVIA? DO YOU THINK THAT THOSE WILL PROTECT YOU FROM ME? I AM THE STRONGEST DARK FALZ EVER CREATED, LITTLE GIRL, AND I HAVE HAD CENTURIES TO EVOLVE. YOUR RING MAY HAVE PROTECTED YOU EARLIER, BUT NO LONGER. YOU ARE MINE, NOW." Rico tried to stand, but she couldn't seem to control herself. The demon lifted her, and drew her to him. So, I am to be its host, she thought. She remembered the words on the column; Hold the Darkness, Protector. Yes, thought Rico, lifting her eyes to meet its glowing gaze. I will hold it! Shadow filled her vision, but she clung to her purpose. She could not kill the thing, but she could weaken it, make it less than it was. The last thing she heard before she lost all awareness was its cry of rage. She would hold the Darkness, beyond death.

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