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Stretching muscles unused for forty years - he had long since stopped waking up each ten years; that was far too often for him - Lutz rose from the steel slab he had been lying on. So much to take care of, yet so little time! The third Esper leader opened a hatch in the cold-sleep-machine and withdrew a light, warm robe, bluish white with white fur trimming at the sleeves and neck, and pulled it over his head. The spell of warmth bonded in the cloth instantly activated itself, and he felt the chill of the air disappear.
Ignoring the ancient sword, Lutz stretched again to get rid of the stiffness in his body, then started climbing the stairs. The tune sounded somewhat disappointed when he left, but Lutz ignored it. He wasn't the one who was intended to wield the blade. Lutz himself never did that; he merely kept the blade safe for a thousand years, until the Protector needed it. Of course, if he kept waking up all the time, Lutz the Third knew that he himself would never see the next Protector. But the thought was of no concern: taking care of the Esper Mansion was more important to him than the prospect of meeting the possible saviour of Algo.
This Lutz, like the ones before him, was a straight-minded man. His duty was more important than anything else in the solar system; possibly more important than the entire world. Nothing was to threaten that duty, for no matter the cost, Lutz could take care of anything opposing him.
He didn't think about that, however, as he left his Inner Sanctum. His only aim was to protect Algo... although now, that aim seemed a bit different, for some reason - and so did Lutz, for that matter. No one would notice, of course, but the change was there, and spreading fast. And, as generations untold before him had discovered, Lutz was going to find that not everything is what it seems so be. Not even things that one might take for granted, such as one's own powers or abilities.
"We are here," the cyborg informed his bewildered passengers. "Dezoris, the third - or, rather, second - and last planet in the Algo solar system. The problem which I mentioned is located several miles to our right... that is, east."
"Then why didn't you put us down closer to the place?" Dark Gray asked, and stopped looking through the window, as the only thing showing was a swirling whiteness. The hunter, who had never before seen snow, found it disturbing, to say the least.
"My circuits cannot operate to full effect in the disturbed area, nor can the ship's," Wren replied. "I did not want to crash."
"Thank you," the cyborg said, seemingly impervious to Dark's sarcasm. "More advanced electronics are completely shut down if they get too close, so, unfortunately, I cannot accompany you. A creature of some sort must be causing this, for I know of no machine capable of generating, and much less sustaining, such energy fields."
"Is it a natural phenomenon?" professor Adrian Holt asked.
"Possibly. Yet I find it hard to believe - this started five days ago, very suddenly, without any warning. I lost several 'reckon' units in the area. I believe this place is inhabited by hostile beings, but even if this is not the case, I must know what is causing the abnormality."
"Couldn't it be that someone has built a machine that is 'capable of generating such energy fields'?" asked Dark. "No offence, Wren, but you don't know everything. Do you know how much power it would take to effect such a big area with mind power?"
"I am fully aware of that," Wren replied, "but I am very familiar with machines. I have direct access to all essential information on machines built in the Algo solar system. This data tells me that I am the single most advanced machine ever built here, and I have no knowledge of such machinery. There is, of course, a chance that someone has made discoveries that would enable them to build such a machines, but without the Mother Brain's supporting databases and electrical tool management, I deem the chances for that actually occurring here on Dezo about... 2.0375 percent. Either way, I am grateful for your help. Without you, it would be extremely difficult for me to find the source - whatever it is."
"Aw, 't's nothing," Shane muttered while Dark was still trying to figure out exactly what Wren had said, her green eyes fixed on a window. "But if we venture into that storm wearing what we wear now, we'll freeze our collective butts off."
"That has been taken care of," Adrian assured her. "There are clothes in the back room - for all five of us."
"You're coming too?"
"Of course! I am Wren's human partner, after all. I am the one who has to tell him everything that happens - you'll just have to take care of the rest." He grinned. Dark grinned too, if somewhat less.
"Like... sand - no, probably snow in this climate - worms, giant toads, walking mushrooms, crazed robots, intelligent stones and..."
"Shut up, Dark!" Shane spat. "I don't wanna hear it... Wren, are there any snowworms on Dezoris?"
"That is quite likely," the android replied calmly. "Not like the big ones on Motavia, but smaller ones, yes. An adult snowworm is as big as a sandworm infant."
"Well, that's a relief," she sighed. "Well, perhaps we should get dressed..."
The clothes fitted the explorers excellently. Made from some kind of fur-covered leather, the garbs were insufferably warm inside the space ship and seemed guaranteed to take protect them from the cold. Transparent glasses would protect their eyes, and the gloves were made from some kind of synthetic material - thin and supple, allowing movement (such as wielding weapons, Dark thought), yet almost as warm as the leather.
Shrugging out of the jacket he had tried on, Jun the thief happened to look out through one of the windows, and could confirm Shane's fears: there were snowworms on Dezo. The creature passed too quickly for him to see it fully, but it seemed no bigger than an infant sandworm. Seconds later, a second worm passed them, and Jun made his way to the cockpit, where Wren was still seated.
"Wren, there are -" A third snowworm passed outside, close to the windows. It looked about the same as a sandworm, but white instead of brown. "That was it," the thief said as the creature passed. "Are they dangerous?"
"Not as long as we stay in here," Wren assured him. "The ship can withstand the attacks of any natural predator on Dezoris or Motavia, even a sandworm. Unless you go out, there will be no problems."
"Thank y- waitaminute. What if I do go out, then?"
"I advise against it," Wren replied. "You are not equipped to fight monsters. These worms are at least as strong as most beings of Mota."
"Yipes! Then I'll stay in here, hmm?"
The snowstorm subsided after a few hours, and Wren opened the hatch, allowing the hunters to peer outside. Dark poked his head out through the opening, looking around at the landscape that looked like a desert but was all white. Pulling on one of the overalls, he stepped out -
And found himself knee-deep in snow. This material certainly wasn't as firm as the sands of Mota. Considering the depth of this snow, Dark feared that any battles here would be difficult - he didn't know how to move effectively through this mess. Jun seemed to like it, though - from where he was standing. But the thief still hadn't left the craft.
"Also, here is a device that will help you, should it come to combat before you go so far into the area that the instrument no longer works." Producing a small metallic box from a large canvas sack, Wren handed the device to Adrian. "It is a 'sonic disrupter'," the huge android said, as if he expected everyone to understand what he was talking about. "In other terms," he added, "it emits sound waves with a very high frequency. These waves cause vibrations in solid materials, such as metal, ice or bone. Such waves are painful to most living creatures, but hardly dangerous. It may come in handy if you need to defend yourselves, but avoid bloodshed."
"It will, at least for me," Holt said, looking closely at the device. "My combat skills are... well, not very highly developed."
"Don't worry. We'll handle the fighting, in case we find anyone to fight," Shane assured him. "Wren... if all mechanics are shut down as we get close to the source of this... whateveritis, will this phenomenon affect my sword as well?"
"Most likely. I estimate the risks to seventy-nine point five percent," Wren replied matter-of-factly. "However, I have been able to lay my hands on a few articles made of an alloy called 'silver'. It is actually a kind of low-grade Laconium. Sadly, pure Laconia is very rare, so I haven't been able to find any."
"You're telling me that you've got another sword for me?" Shane guessed.
"Correct." Once again reaching into the canvas bag, Wren pulled out a sheathed longsword. He handed it to Shane, and she inspected it closely. The metal was almost white, with a very faint bluish sheen, and the sheath was made from some kind of white leather. Shane was surprised to find that the sword had a sharp edge - not as sharp as Dark's pure Laconian claw, but still sharp.
"Will this keep?" she wondered as she admired the balance and make of the fine weapon. "The edge, I mean."
"Quite well. I have analysed the metal and found it very durable, second only to pure Laconium. The edge will remain for quite some time, Shane."
"Good... good! Thank you, Wren! Speaking of technology, we won't be able to use Jun's communicator device either, will we?"
"No. It will most likely shut down before your sword - but do not worry. As soon as you leave the effected area, the technology will regain full operating capacity."
"I think he means 'the effects aren't permanent'," Dark said sarcastically.
"I think so too," Shane replied. "Does he? Wren?"
"You are correct," Wren said, still impervious to sarcasm, perhaps by choice. "I also have a suit of chain mail for you, Shane, and a pair of chestplates for Dark and Tirom. My memory banks tell me Jun does not wear armour, but I brought a light vest of chain for you as well."
The protective clothing was made from the same material as Shane's new sword. Dark, who usually wore no armour heavier than leather, accepted a chestplate once he had felt how light the material was, and Jun, knowing from past experience that it was a bit harder to get killed if one wore armour, pulled on the small vest. They wouldn't notice the protective gear much under the heavy clothing. Professor Holt didn't wear conventional armour, but a force-field generator built into a belt and bracelets. A defence as formidable as full plate mail, this shell would not last very long before the strange phenomenon cancelled it, but Holt was unaccustomed to wearing armour and wouldn't be able to move freely if he wore something heavier. For as long as it lasted, however, it would make him the most protected person in the group - defended by the force field against both solid weapons and semi-solid attacks such as techniques.
Finally, fully armed and armoured, they were ready to start their journey.
"Jun, stop it!" Shane ordered. For the sixth time in an hour. "Cut it out already! You're behaving like a six-years-old!"
"Ptbth!" Jun said, poking his tongue out. He had been busy throwing snowballs at Shane - Shane, because she was the only one who protested - for the past fifty minutes or so. It wasn't as if he would run out of snow, but Shane was near the point where she would run out of patience. Jun dropped the half-rolled snowball he'd been holding.
"And stay there!" Shane muttered.
"Hey, he's just a kid," Dark said calmly."
Easy for him to say, Shane thought. He's not the one who's been getting pelted with snow! And he isn't that young anymore! But she said, "Alright, I'll try and put up with it... for a while."
"Hey, enjoy the trip," Tirom suggested. "Look at all this... snow! Look how it sparkles! It's cool!"
"A person with words, isn't she?" Dark asked Shane conversationally.
"Okay, here's another: Freeze, guys!"
"Tirom, have you noticed something?" the huntress asked. "Not one of us is laughing."
"Alright, alright, sorry! I'm just trying to lighten things up a bit!"
"That's good! But do it someplace else, okay?"
"This substance is... rather fascinating," Adrian said as they stopped for the night. "Of course, I know about snow... but this is the first time I've been able to experience it firsthand. I wonder how any living being could survive in this environment."
"Probably by wearing stuff like what we're wearing," Dark guessed. "Or by burrowing deep within the snow - it ought to be warmer there. Maybe they live below the actual ground. Either way, there are living beings on Dezo. Why bother with the weather control systems if there weren't?"
"Good point. Do you really think Wren would go through all this trouble just to save a few species of vegetables?" Shane muttered. Unlike Jun and the professor, she did not like snow - not one bit. It was too... unfamiliar. She preferred Mota's deserts; at least, she knew what to expect from them. Somehow, although sheltered from it within her warm clothing, Shane believed that this frigid world might actually be more dangerous than Mota - and that thought, even though she was loath to admit it, scared her. What if there were creatures here that were stronger than the ones on Motavia? Shane and the others would be hard pressed to fight even monsterflies in this terrain; to face something with a sandworm's strength would finish them easily. Well, she corrected herself as she happened to look over at Dark, perhaps not easily, but our odds wouldn't be very good. I'd still be betting on the 'worm. But maybe she underestimated their abilities, especially with the new gear Wren had brought them. Well, underestimating them would be a whole lot better than the opposite. While the latter might get them killed, underestimating themselves would only make them more careful. Neither was good, of course, especially if the opinions and the truth were too different.
After pulling straws for the watch shifts, they set up the special dome-shaped tents Wren had sent with them and crawled inside to catch some sleep.
Morning came. It was a morning unlike most other mornings they had experienced. As the sun rose, the snow and ice sparkled in a myriad of colours, painfully bright to look upon, and more snow had fallen during the night, causing the party to sink even deeper in the cold, white dust.
"This is disgusting!" exclaimed Dark, sounding disgusted indeed. "It's worthless! How the hell are we supposed to walk in this sh*t?"
"Check the packs," offered Holt. "There should be snowshoes there."
"Sorry - I didn't realise... a kind of shoes with very wide soles, that make it easier to walk on snow. It works like the large pads on a camelhorse's feet, see?"
"Really? In that case, what the %#@ are we waiting for?"
They found the snowshoes, which were nothing but large oval 'plates' with a few straps to tie them to normal footwear, strapped to their packs. No one had thought much of them as Wren handed them the bags - maybe as something to sit on, but definitely not to wear on their feet. The shoes worked surprisingly well, however, although they felt a bit clumsy. They must have looked quite ridiculous as they walked, unaccustomed to both snow and snowshoes, but after a few hours' practice they soon got better.
For another one day and a half, they kept going in the direction Wren had pointed them to, unaware that soon, something would happen that would change their entire perspective on the journey.
"What? What? Out here?" Shane asked, carefully peeking over the snowdrift. She gasped. "Well I'll be... Dark, he's right - it does look like a Palman."
"So what're we hiding for? One single Palman couldn't possibly pose a threat," said Tirom.
"But 'one single Palman' could tell others that we're here," Dark muttered. "And unless they are friendly, I'd rather not have them know."
"Whew, a bit paranoid, are we?" the half-Motavian asked. "Do you have to suspect everyone you meet of being an evil-minded bastard?"
"I don't," Dark replied calmly. "I didn't suspect you."
"Oh..." Tirom blinked and shook her head. "...oh."
"Nothing. What's he doing?"
"Shane," Dark said, "what's that guy up to?"
"He is just walking," Shane reported. "Not in a hurry, it seems, but determined."
"I wonder where he came from? Is there any Palman towns on Dezo? I thought the Palmans here would all die without the Mother Brain's help," said Dark.
"There are a few," Adrian replied. "Skure was abandoned a short while before the Collapse, but I seem to remember seeing information about a town named... Tyler, I think. Also, there's supposedly a few Palmans living among the Dezorians."
"Dezorians!" Tirom exclaimed. "I'd certainly like to meet one!"
"I don't know... all I've heard about them is that they're rather religious people, have shrewd humour and lie a lot. I don't think they're worth the trouble," said Holt.
"Either way, we may run in to some, or we may not - there's no telling. But we aren't here for sightseeing," Dark reminded. "So let's move on."
"What about that Palman?" asked Shane. "Shouldn't we talk to him?"
"I'd rather not."
"No. I don't want to risk something... at least not yet." He turned away and started walking, and the others had little choice but to follow him.
It was two more days until they found the lost unit. It consisted of three small disc-shaped objects, half a meter across and a decimetre thick, and covered with lenses, antennas and other mysterious equipment. All three were, as far as the adventurers could see, undamaged.
"So that's a 'reckon unit'," Shane said and prodded one of the lifeless androids with the toe of her snowshoe. "It doesn't look very capable of doing anything at all to me."
"Do not let their appearances fool you," Adrian cautioned her. "Although these are intelligence-gathering only androids and carry no weapons, they can see almost everything around them with these cameras. And they report it all back to Wren."
"Unless someone does this to them, that is," Dark filled in. "What do you think it was?"
"I shall have to examine them first," Holt said. "I'll bring one along and do it as soon as we camp."
"Which will be pretty soon," Dark added, looking toward the horizon. The sun was setting, and it would be dark in a couple of hours at most.
The party kept walking for as long as they could. When it got too dark to continue without risks, they pitched the tents and made a small fire using some kind of coal-tabs provided by Wren - something that looked quite like normal coal, but burned very long, very hot. Ten or fifteen of these tabs were enough for a campfire large enough to cook over, and give enough light to see. Holt, meanwhile, produced a small case full of tools from a pocket in his pack, then started opening the android, all while muttering about working conditions and bad light. In spite of his muttering, however, he soon managed to open the 'body' of the 'droid and find the parts he was looking for. Whatever he found was bad, though - the professor swore and tossed something metallic into the fire.
"Problems?" Dark asked.
"No. Yes! I can't get it to work at all - it's as if there wasn't any electricity left whatsoever! But there is, and I am certain that I connected all the cables the right way. The droid has a piece of paper in it, too, and it's supposed to make certain marks on the paper, a kind of sign language, in case the data memory is erased. The paper is as empty as the memory banks seem to be. Whatever did this either did it before the android had a chance to do anything - which is hardly likely - or did it before the 'droid saw it, or, which seems the most likely, from a long way off, where he's undetectable to such droids. Dang! And I was hoping I could get something out of its memory!"
"Who cares?" wondered Tirom. "If the source of whatever killed these droids is located several miles away, I don't think they would be able to see it. By the way, Shane... your sword, does it still work?" Shane had been checking the plasma-sword every once in a while to see if it was getting affected, but so far, it had worked just as well as it did on Mota. It was a while since last, and Shane held the weapon up for everybody to see and pushed the switch. A ray of greenish light, about a meter long, emerged from the steel tube that was the weapon's hilt.
"Normal," the huntress said. "Hey, does that mean my sword is more advanced than one of them robots?"
"Either that, or that it's less susceptible to this phenomenon. Or - wait a minute! I seem to remember that this kind of weapon is powered by an anti-equilibrium power source -"
"And for those of us without subscriptions on 'Science Illustrated'?" Dark queried.
"I said what's an anti-equilibrium power source, professor."
"Oh, that. Well, you see, there're a lot of little wheels and weights in this cylinder. When Shane moves, these wheels move, too, because their equilibrium is upset. Each movement generates a little power, and it is stored in a battery. The androids, on the other hand, only power up when the sun shines - they have sun-cells to absorb light and turn it into electricity. That means that if, during the night, they are drained of all their power, the sun-cells are disabled too, because they require a small amount of electricity to be able to send electricity to the engines!"
"Professor? Are you deliberately trying to confuse us, or are you just talking to yourself?" asked Tirom.
"What?" Holt asked, "Who? Oh, I'm sorry - but I think I've found something! This phenomenon - I will call it a phenomenon until we know more exactly what it is - drains electricity from mechanics. Maybe - oh, I hope not - it can drain from living beings too... Anyway, these androids were emptied of electricity during the dark hours of the night, while the light was so dim that it did nothing to refill their energy supplies. Shane's sword, on the other hand, is recharged by movement, not light, and Shane carries it in her pocket. So, when she moves, the sword is powered up. Shane, try activating it tomorrow, before we move, and we'll see..."
"Not that I understood fifty percent of what he just told us," Shane said, "but I got that about the sword."
"Fine. Now, let's get some sleep. Who's got the first watch tonight?" Adrian asked.
"Don't try that with me," Dark said, grinning malevolently. "It's your turn."
"What?" Holt asked. "Shane, it's still dark! We don't have to get up yet and I was sleeping!"
"It's 'dark' because I'm standing between your tent and the sun," Shane informed, stepping aside. "It's morning."
"Oh. Alright then, I'm coming out."
True to his word, Holt soon appeared, and Shane carefully handed him her sword. Holt activated it, but the only thing that happened was that a pinpoint of green light appeared in the hole through which the 'blade' was normally emitted. The light faded in a few seconds.
"See? You were right!"
"That remains to be seen," Adrian said ponderously. Shutting the power off, he started shaking the cylinder.
"What's that supposed to be good for?" Shane asked.
"It's powered by movement, remember?" Holt stopped shaking the sword and reactivated the power. A thin, pale ray emitted from the hole. "Well, it seems I've proved my theories, hmm?"
"So I'll have to shake it every morning to get it going again?"
"Only if you want to use it in the morning," Adrian informed. "You already know that it'll recharge in a few hours' walking. However, if the phenomenon becomes stronger, it is possible that it will become so strong that it will no longer be possible to recharge it. It all depends on how fast the recharging is. The faster it is, the longer the blade will last."
"I see... I think," Shane said. "So I'll have to use the silver sword instead. Who cares about that anyway? It's probably almost as good."
"I'd say at least as good. Laconia, even low-grade Laconia, is incredibly strong. That's why it's called 'Laconia', by the way. It's almost impossible to affect it in any way."
"So howcome they can make armour and weapons out of it?" Shane asked. Holt shrugged.
"I haven't got the foggiest. What is Dark doing on that hill?"
"What?" Shane squinted to be able to see Dark, a silhouette against the rising sun. "Looking at something, it seems."
"Shane! Professor! Dark says to come and have a look!" Jun said in hushed tones. "Quietly."
It was the stranger again, or possibly another stranger - either way, a Palman-looking being was walking toward them. He - or she - was quite far from the party, but closing. Dark was certain that the stranger couldn't have spotted them through normal means. That left them with two options: either the stranger only happened to be walking in the right/wrong direction (depending on how you looked at it), or he had some kind of device or power that allowed him to find out where they were. He told Shane this as she carefully approached, while silently cursing himself for not bothering to hide their tracks.
"You're paranoid," his sister said dismissively. "We aren't followed! No one here knows about us, remember?"
"I know... but I don't see any point in being reckless. We ought to pack our gear, leave this place and cover our tracks."
"No we won't! I haven't had breakfast yet, nor has anyone else except for you maybe. I say we stay. After all, if he turns out to be a baddie, well..." She made a gesture indicating the rest of the party. Dark understood what she meant; they would be five against one if they had to fight.
"Okay," he gave in. "Let's stay then. Just remember that it was your idea!"
"If I don't you'll no doubt remind me."
"You are so correct. And no, I haven't had breakfast yet - so why don't we go get some?"
"Great idea," Shane agreed. "I'll see if Jun has got the fire running and-"
"Fire! You're out of your mind, sis! I won't make a fuss about staying here when we should really be going, but a fire you won't get! What do you think that guy will do if he sees the smoke? A pillar of smoke rising into the air from the middle of nowhere? There's no wind to scatter it."
"Alright, then!" Shane sighed. "But don't complain about the cold food!"
"Is this really necessary?" Adrian asked. "I understand that you're cautious, but this is ridiculous! Most of the food is frozen solid!"
"We have the rations in our packs - they're dry, so they won't freeze," Dark informed. "And as for water, eat snow - you said it's frozen water, right? It doesn't taste that bad."
"Bad? It makes my teeth feel like - something very cold," Jun complained. He suddenly realised that he'd never felt or heard of something that was cold enough to describe what he felt.
"You'll survive," Dark comforted him. "But if we make a fire, in the end we might not be that fortunate."
Jun was about to answer when they heard a distant sound. They all dropped whatever they were holding, some readying weapons, some preparing to do so, and looked around for the source of the sound. It hadn't been a bird's call - they had heard animal noises several times, but this was different. Suddenly, Jun waved to them from the low hill where Dark had spotted the Palman.
It turned out that Dark wasn't the only one who had spotted him. The Palman was closer now, and they could clearly make out his clothes, white-furred jacket and trousers like theirs and a scarf tied around his head to protect him from the snow. But he was not alone. It was rather obvious that he would have preferred to be.
He was under attack.
"What do we do?" Shane asked. "We know that he might turn out to be an enemy but-"
"I know, I know," Dark said. "We can't let some unidentified monsters kill off a potential friend either. If only we had known whose side he's on! Oh bugger it, come on." He waved his arms and, hoping that the stranger would understand what he said, shouted, "Do you need help?"
"I'd appreciate it!" the stranger shouted back. "Do your worst, friend - whoever you are!"
"That's it," Dark told his companions. "Tirom... transport us, please."
"Roger that. Hold on... RYUKA"
They materialised a short distance from the fight. The Palman(?) was up against six or seven streamlined shapes, which all seemed a bit longer than he was tall and a lot quicker. Clearly, unless they helped, the fight would be unfair - and short. Dark aimed a Nafoi 'tech at the closest shape - and Shane recoiled as a snowworm reared up and trashed about in the snow, badly wounded. The stranger pointed to the pain-crazed worms and uttered a word, "FLAELI!", casting a bolt of fire rather similar to Gifoi. The worm shuddered and lay still.
"One down!" Dark commented. "Let's kick these suckers' butts!"
As Dark had feared, it was a difficult battle, the snow preventing most movements except slashing and blocking with their weapons. Shane, using a heavier weapon, had little trouble standing still, but Dark and Tirom, depending much on movement for their combat techniques to be effective, were all but useless. Tirom used Ryuka for mildly successful attacks, and Dark cast battle techniques, finding Nafoi effective against the snow-dwelling worms. Professor Holt seemed to be faring well, using his sonic disrupter device to paralyse the ones that got too close to him, leaving the helpless worms for Jun to kill with his knife. Eventually, they were able to prevail against the hungry monsters, sending the single remaining worm fleeing. The stranger, who had been wielding a slasher and casting his strange 'Flaeli' 'tech while the weapon was flying, held out his hand to Dark.
"Thank you, stranger," he said. "The Light only knows what'd have happened if you hadn't been around to help me. Just let me know if there's something I can do for you in return, okay?"
"Well," Dark said as he took the stranger's hand and shook it, "you could tell us if there's a town somewhere near... we seem to have taken the wrong turn somewhere."
"Ah!" the stranger laughed, "how lucky! I was heading for that town myself - Zosa town is not too far from here. That is, if you can stand the Dezorian humour."
"It's alright. By the way, who are you?"
"I didn't say that? Where are my manners today - I'm called Crys, which is short for Crystal. What? Is there any problem?"
"Yeeaaah? Is there something wrong with that?"
"Neo..." Dark whispered.
"What!" Crys gasped. "What do you mean by that?"
In response, Dark reached out and pulled down the part of scarf that was wound over Crys' mouth and nose, revealing skin darker than Dark's own, a few strands of black hair and golden-brown eyes. Shane, Tirom and Jun all gasped.
"What - how-"
"Crystal..." Dark whispered, unable to believe what he had heard and seen. "How in the world did you of all people end up on Dezo?"
"I happen to live here, in case you haven't got anything against it - in which case I suggest you shove it," said Crys, her voice now recognisable as it was no longer obscured by the scarf. "Wha- no, wait..." She stepped closer and pulled Dark's hood open. "Dark Gray!"
"No, it's my evil twin. I don't believe this!"
"You think you're the only one who doesn't? Who are these people - Jun, Tirom, Shane... but then what?"
"The old man? He's Adrian Holt - a scientist. We're here on behalf of his... well, employer, Wren, the one who's in charge of the environmental control systems of Algo."
"Y-you work for an android?" Crys asked. "I didn't even - I never - Ooh, my head hurts!"
"That ain't nothing compared to mine! How the hell did you manage to get here? Do you have a spacecraft?"
"No, I do not have a spacecraft," Crys sighed. "Cain teleported me. He's a being from another dimension, and he uses a kind of magic that's different from ours."
"-ours- Are you saying you can use magic?!" Dark shouted. Crys put her hands over her ears.
"Yes!" she shouted back. "I do! I'm an Esper. I'm... sorry I didn't tell you, but..."
"You couldn't," Dark finished the sentence for her. "Now, how about leading us to that town of yours, and we'll talk there. Preferably at a warm inn."
"You got it. It isn't a day's walk from here"
Two or three hours before nightfall, as the party topped a hill, Zosa suddenly lay before them. It wasn't more than a hundred meters from them, and seemed to have appeared out of thin air.
"Is that real," Shane asked as she peered at the town. "It's no illusion or somesuch, is it?"
"No. It's Zosa town," Crystal reassured her. "Come on, it's just five minutes away. Your questions can wait that long, right? Good. Let's go.
Zosa was a medium-sized town, differing somewhat from Motavian towns - the roofs were wedge-shaped, for instance, probably to allow the snow to slide off. And the inhabitants... the Motavian denizens didn't quite know what to make of the Dezorians. Most were taller than Palmans, not only because their heads were longer. All Dezorians wore large hats, and didn't seem too bothered by the cold, or surprised to see Palmans in their town. Most ignored them as Crys led them to the inn.
Crys paid a terribly inflated price for six rooms, refusing any offer of economical assistance from the others. That done, they sat down in the common room to order some food - once the menu showed up, most of the food was totally unfamiliar to them - and talk.
In spite of the fact that their chances to run into Crys, of all people on Dezo, were about as big as, well, as them going to Dezo in the first place, no one seemed very surprised anymore. They had got quite used to strange things happening when they got together. "I'd suggest taking it from the beginning," Crys suggested. "Who's first?"
"I think you are," said Shane.
"I live here on Dezo; I was born here and I grew up here. Certain events made me an Esper - it's not necessary to say more about it, and anyway I can't tell you too much about the Espers; there are certain rules... Anyways, some while ago, Cain and Averon arrived. Cain was the first, but Averon was just a few weeks later. Naturally, being magical beings themselves, they were attracted by the magical fields surrounding the Esper Mansion - that's where most Espers live."
"Magical -" Dark interrupted. "Guys, are you thinking the same...?"
"I'm not sure what you're thinking, but then I've never been that," said Shane. "What's on your mind, brother?"
"Wren said it wasn't a machine," Dark said ponderously. "And I told him that it would require a fat lot of power to do it in some other way... so maybe, if you've got an entire village full of magic-users-"
"It's just one house," Crys said, then, after some consideration, added, "although it's a rather big one."
"A house full of magic-users," Dark agreed, "then these magic-users may unwittingly disrupt the machines' energy sources..."
"It's possible," Crys said, "that mechanics could be affected by strong magic surges... but I don't think it'd cause an android to drop dead unless it was almost at the centre of the surge. Most AI:s, I believe, had strong resistance against disruptive elements. Even if it is magic, the android's defensive systems could probably shield it against the worst effects... but I'm talking about the old Palman androids. I didn't even think there were any androids left after the Collapse, until you mentioned the climate control systems."
"So it's possible that the 'source' Wren mentioned is indeed the Esper mansion?" asked Adrian.
"No," Crys protested, "that can't be possible! It's several miles from here! And besides, I haven't felt anything at all. I would," she added as the others eyed her suspiciously. "Espers are very sensitive to magical anomalies."
"What if it isn't an anomaly, then!" Dark asked. "What if it's something... more normal, like a sort of earthquake or volcanic eruption... you know, when the pressure gets too high, the volcano explodes! If magic has been accumulating there for fifteen hundred years or so..."
"How did you know?" Crys interrupted.
"I guessed. Now, imagine that only a certain amount of magic can be stored in one place... then, when it, er, floods, the magic is sent flying in all directions, like the lava from the volcano!"
"How did you know?" Crys repeated. "That's just a theory - but it's still advanced metamagical physics! I've met Espers who can't grasp that kind of science! But anyway, it wouldn't work... I'd feel it. I'd still feel the magic, even if it was a normal occurrence."
"But I ain't no Esper," Dark grinned, "and I live by my wits. I risk my life at least once every month - and that tends to sharpen one's mind. The reason for which being -" he tapped his nose "- if you don't, you won't have any mind left to sharpen."
"I imagine," Crys said, "that if you had been born on Dezo, you could have made an excellent Esper. Even if you aren't born with the gift of magic, you have the right kind of mind."
"Thanks - but you got it all wrong, Crys. If the Espers had been born on Mota, they would have made good hunters. You need that kind of mind there."
"As you do here," Crys protested, "but both here and on Motavia, it's far too rare."
"Meaning what? That people should be more paranoid?" asked Shane. "Dark isn't perfect, Crys."
"Exact-a-mundo," Dark muttered. "In fact, he's so not perfect that he's going to visit that pub I saw on the way in and have a drink or three. Or I don't think I'll ever be warm again."
"Bah! You can't even get a decent beer around here. I just ordered the heaviest stuff they got, but even that feels like it's made from mashed potatoes. I couldn't get drunk here if I tried."
"Uh oh. Dark, ehm, exactly what did you get and exactly how many have you had?" asked Crys, taking a seat opposite Dark. The hunter frowned.
"Two, why? I can't pronounce that name. It's in Dezorian, gust-ek or something like it. Strange, though... all the Dezorians speak Palman. I didn't even think they'd remember us."
"G'bus'dek?" asked Crys, ignoring the part about the language.
"Something like that. What?"
"Sorry to say this, but G'bus'dek contains about fifty percent pure alcohol, and the other fifty are some other substance similar to it. It's a sort of mix between Dezorian and Palman spirits, and it usually places you under the table after two drinks. And that's for those who are used to it."
"Bah." Dark stood up, then sat down again. "I can even stand. Pr'aps I'm used to alcohol. Bah, I say! I've never liked being drunk, but after this, I couldn't sleep unless I manage to get a bit foggy first... by the way, where are your companions?"
"Cain and Averon left a while ago... Cain continued his journey, and Averon - I haven't got a clue about him. They aren't travelling companions, at any rate. Silva's still in the Mansion - she's an Esper like me. By the way, she wasn't born with the gift of magic, either, but still makes a good Esper."
"Nares and Gisar is about as much healing power as anyone needs," Dark said absentmindedly. "You don't need magic to heal."
"It comes in handy, sometimes," protested Crys. "You wouldn't understand."
"Maybe I would," Dark said, focussing his gaze and looking straight into Crys' eyes. She blinked; there was no trace of 'fogginess' in that steady, grey gaze; there were no traces of drunkenness. "And maybe I wouldn't," he said. "Fact is, you can't know. Neither can I. Come on, have a drink. It's on me."
Later that night, when the pub closed, Dark and Crys made their way back towards the inn. As they were both walking unsteadily, using each other for support, it wasn't going very fast.
"I reckon... like I reckon we might just'a got bit drunker than we expected," Crys said as they fell and landed in the snow for the fifth time.
"Yeeaahh. A bit. Two-bit. It wasn't cheap, getting drunker here."
"Whazza complaininging about? 'Thought you wanned to get drunk." She tried to get up, but only managed to trip Dark, who was trying to do the same. "You think we'll get back b'fore it getz dark?"
"I'd swear it was dark," Dark muttered. "Don't ya mean light, huh?"
"Meant next time it gets dark," Crys replied. "What... what d'ya thin we should do now?"
"Nothing. 'Jus wish I could Ryuka too."
"Y'know, we could cure it, we could."
"Forget it. I wouldn't be able to sleep. And I need that."
"Ya cannae sleep here either. Le's face it Dark we gotta get up."
"I'd rather stay rrright here, but I see what'cha mean. Only reason why our clothes aren't frozen solid's because we're in them."
"Y'know... you know what's getting me, what's really getting me?" Crys asked, slowly sitting up. "I'm not sure whether I'm cold or not."
"Never happened if th' place had been serving beer," Dark agreed. Suddenly not seeming very drunk anymore, he added, "We got to get up. We'll get frost-bitten out here."
"So what? We'll just wave our hands and mutter a few words and it's fixed."
"But I'd rather not have to."
"So we'd better get up."
"Can you stand?"
"I'll certainly try."
Somehow, by walking, crawling and stumbling through the snowdrifts, they managed to reach the inn. The stairs was an obstacle almost too great to overcome, requiring several tries and almost fifteen minutes to get up. Whatever the reason, Dark had recovered quite a bit from the effects of the alcohol; if he hadn't, they would never have reached the top.
"Dark... am I just imagining somfink, or are you walking steadily?" Crys wondered.
"You're imagining," he replied.
"Come in with me for a while?" she asked.
"Don't think so." Dark shook his head, then had to lean against the wall while the world stopped spinning. "Bad idea."
"I'd hate myself in the morning. So would you. Fo'get it."
"It'd be my fault. I could live with hating myself for it."
"No, that's not what I meant," Dark muttered, then grinned wolfishly and added: "I meant you'd hate me. And I'm going to travel with you for a while, so I don't want that. Ask me again when you're sober... if you haven't recovered some sense by then. Good night, raven." Dark turned away, but Crys could hear him muttering to himself, "And I sincerely hope that you'll have forgotten all about this tomorrow."
"Say, Crys," Shane asked, "you look a bit pale - you're not going to catch a cold are you?"
"I believe," Dark said, "that she's quite busy hating herself for having that last drink. It spells h-e-a-d-a-c-h-e, in case you're wondering."
"Oh. Why don't you do something about it, Crys?"
"Haven't got the stomach for spellcasting with a hangover," Crys muttered.
"Allow me," Dark grinned. "ANTI... RES. That ought to do it." Crys managed a weak smile.
"Thanks... but how come you're not feeling anything?"
"Who said I'm not? I had a headache too, but it's almost gone now. I got rid of it as soon as I woke up. Now, are you hungry?"
"No. Sorry, but I don't think I could... no. You were right."
"What do you know?" Jun asked, ever curious.
"Oh, nothing in particular," Dark said. "We were just debating whom Crys would hate the most today, herself or me. It seems," he added, "that I'll be quite safe..."
"Because, she's so busy hating herself that she doesn't have time to even dislike me. That's why."
"I'd suggest going through both Meese and Jut," Crystal said when they had eaten (she had managed to eat some corn bread and drink a cup of tea; she felt a little better now, the nausea calmed down as Dark's technique cleansed the residing alcohol from her system). "It will take some time, but the road is safer than the wilderness - a little, anyway - and also, we'll never be very far from civilised areas, if we need cover from a storm or monsters. Believe me; you don't want to be caught in the middle of a Dezorian blizzard. And you don't want to face some of the most dangerous creatures on Dezo without someplace safe to rest and heal up afterwards. It'll be a trip of, ehm... about three more days to Meese, with good weather, and perhaps six days from there to Jut. After that, getting to the Mansion is easy - it might take three days or so. What do you think?"
"Hey," Shane said, "you're the only one who knows anything about Dezoris... except for professor, but he's never actually been here before. I won't say anything against your suggestions."
"We'll have to trust you, raven," Dark filled in. Crys made a face.
"Yeah, thank you. And if this goes wrong, I'll be the only one to blame... why the heck are you calling me 'raven' by the way?"
"Do I? Sorry. It just jumped out. Guess it's got to have something to do with your hair..."
"Heh heh... isn't it?"
Since Meese was so close, they decided to stay with their current storage of food and other necessities, buying what they needed in the Palman town. They still had enough for about a week, the field rations given to them by Wren being very compact and lightweight, enough to last even if they were delayed by storms or battles. Besides, few of them were unaccustomed to hunting; together, Shane, Dark, Tirom and Crys would certainly be able to catch something if they ran out of food. A cold, at the very least.
"I asked the Weather-seer about the skies," Crys confided the others as they met in the common room at the inn. "Dezorian Weather-seers can usually tell if there's a storm coming a good two, three days before it breaks loose. He told me there's little chance for atmospheric disturbances for as long as he could see, so we should make it to Meese before anything has a chance to happen."
"That seer guy... wouldn't be some kind of magician too?" Dark asked.
"Not really. But they have a kind of sense similar to what Espers possess - as we can sense the presence of magic and know what the energy signatures mean, so can they sense the weather. There's nothing magical with it, in fact - anyone can learn it, if they train long and hard enough."
"I mean very long, Dark, and very hard. Most Espers arrive at the Mansion before ten years of age - ten of Mota or Palma's years, that is, the Dezorian year is one and a half Palman. And I'm still training."
"Just how old are you, anyway?" Dark asked curiously. Crys glared at him.
"Haven't your mother taught you that it's impolite to ask a lady's age?"
Dark smirked. "Frankly," he said, "no. She died before she could do that."
Crys recoiled as if he had struck her. Shane lowered her head and closed her eyes. The memories were still painful to her; at least as painful as they were to Dark, although Shane would wager that she, being the one who had been closest to Ashara, missed her more than Dark did.
"Oh - I'm so sorry... I never meant - never knew - I'm sorry, Dark, Shane..."
"Don't make a fuss about it, raven. What is, it is, and there's no way of changing it." He grinned sheepishly. "By the way, I think you'd have liked her. Ash was a lot like you, in some ways..."
"Dark, please. Don't."
"Sorry Shane. Sometimes I just let my mouth go on without following it up with my brains. Bad habit, I guess."
"Not just bad," Shane said, "it's downright disgusting." But she smiled as she said it. Dark grinned back and patted her shoulder.
"That's a good girl, little sister."
The 'road', Crystal had called it, but in reality, it was little more than a trail of slightly more well packed snow. As snow fell often, any real road would have been covered in no time - this was as good a road as it came on Dezo. There weren't many travellers on the snowy planet. Most Palmans preferred to stay as close to home as they could, fearful of the dangerous creatures and blizzards, and Dezorians were essentially laid back. That didn't keep the 'roads', such as they were, in any particularly good shape, and as often as not, the party was forced to climb through snowdrifts blocking the way, or waste a lot of time walking around them. Dark tried melting his way with Foi spells, but gave it up when he only managed to make the snow that acted as 'ground' soaking wet and impassable. Getting wet would be dangerous, given the circumstances, and force them to waste several hours drying the wet clothes before they could continue.
If it hadn't been such a serious situation, what with the assignment from Wren, it could have been a rather pleasant trip. With all the snow, he and Crys had several good opportunities to laugh at themselves, recalling the night in Zosa, much to the others' vexation as they refused to say what it was that made them laugh.
After three days without any interference from weather or Dezorian denizens, they reached Meese, where they checked in at the inn for the 'low' price of 150 Meseta per room, for a total of nine hundred Meseta - just a few bucks below the cost of a titanium plate mail. They could afford it, but still, the thought made Dark's teeth itch. In comparison, on Mota, the most expensive inn he had seen charged thirty Meseta per room.
Not suffering from hangover this time, Dark and Crys both had breakfast together with the others (luckily, the price for the rooms included food). When they had eaten their fill, they ventured out into the town to try and find a store that sold dried or otherwise preserved food. Jun, always observant, was the first to spot it, and they bought enough rations to fill everybody's packs. This certainly made said packs a bit heavier, but it was comforting to know that they would last a while even if they got stuck in a cave somewhere to wait out a storm. It had been some time since Jun last stole something - excluding Shane's hair ribbons - but as they left Meese, the thief proudly displayed a short clasp-knife made from a 'silver' alloy. It having been one of many such tools in the store, it was unlikely that the owner would miss it, and Dark, knowing that it had been some time since last time, didn't do more than cast a disapproving look at Jun. The thief, of course, couldn't care less. Dark knew that - but he had been trying to get Jun to stop stealing for kicks; it had been alright when Jun was a street rat fighting for his survival, but nowadays, with Dark having 'adopted' him, Jun had no reason to make use of his old skills. However, if you don't sharpen your skills, as Dark's father had said, you will certainly have use of them shortly. Dark hoped that Jun wouldn't have to, but, just in case, he wouldn't complain, as long as it didn't happen too often.
The weather was fine, and even though the Palmans had no Weather-seers to tell them about the future, the party had no fear of disasters as they set out on the next part of their journey.
They went through the first of the three passes with little or no trouble. The weather remained good, without much wind and no snowfall, and since this particular pass was narrow and had a kind of natural roof that protected it from most of the snow coming from above, there were few snowdrifts to hinder their passage. Most of the snow in here had been blown in last time there was a storm, and even though the pass was long, there was a thin layer of snow covering almost everything. This spoke greatly of the strength of the winds, which would have to contain so much power that even the Nazan technique must seem a mere gust in comparison, not to mention how big the area affected by the storm would be. No one missed the pass when they, after half a day of continuos walking, got out on the other side.
The second pass, while not as narrow and protected as the first, wasn't as long, but, as if to make up for this, it was full of snow. They were knee-deep most of the time, the snow being too loosely packed for them to benefit from the snowshoes. It took almost as long to pass through it as it had taken to pass through the first. The third and last pass, Crys warned them, would be the longest, but it would be some time before they reached it - they had to get through a large bowl-shaped valley in the middle of the mountains. While not very different from the rest of the planet as the party had seen it, the valley contained three strange trees, standing at the lowest point, the centre, of the 'bowl', surrounded by small Dezo pines, a tree that could grow almost anywhere, even on snow and ice. The pines had long roots that could burrow through solid ice to reach the soil beneath it. Here, however, they didn't need to. Near the three trees in the middle, the layer of snow and ice thinned. The trio was standing on bare earth, the first they had seen on the planet.
"Laurematrees," Crys said. "Both Dezorians and Palmans hold them as holy... though I do not know why. There is something about them, though..."
"Nuts," Dark said. "Why think of something as holy if you haven't got a clue about why?"
"No idea. But look at them... don't they look... like something a bit... more? And they're big and healthy, not like the other trees on Dezo. These trees can grow anywhere, and they radiate a kind of warmth - that's why the snow around them has melted. No one can plant a Laurematree - the nuts dry and shrivel once they are separated from the tree. But somehow, the species have managed to survive for thousands of years..."
"You're right about the heat," Tirom said, her hands pressed to the trunk of one tree. "It's warm!"
"That warm?" Jun asked, pulling off his gloves and touching the tree. "Yeah, that warm! Wow!"
One after another, all six members of the party pulled off their gloves and reached out to touch the strange trees. On Mota, if a tree felt this warm, someone touching it would assume that the sun had been shining on it for quite some time - but on Dezoris the sun was far away, and its light was insufficient to warm anything that much, even if it had been visible; the sky was dark with clouds now, and had been for a few hours.
"Strange..." Adrian Holt muttered, putting words to everybody's thoughts. "I wonder what's causing it..."
"Magic, no doubt," Dark commented. "You know what I think?"
"You'll 'no doubt' tell us," Shane said pointedly.
"Indeed no. I thought I'd keep you waiting a while longer."
"It doesn't really radiate heat. It's magic - positive magic. What we feel is a mild healing effect; it's as if the tree is radiating healing power."
"You're dreaming," Shane snorted. "As if a tree could cast spells!"
"Why couldn't it? I mean, Crys can do it-"
A snowball cut him off in mid-sentence, and Dark, caught totally off-guard, stumbled and fell, sitting down in a snowdrift. "Watch who you're calling a vegetable!" Crys admonished.
"I didn't call you a vegetable! But I am calling you a vengeful witch!"
"Witch! Why you...! I've never-"
Dark was about as good at aiming as Crystal herself, so, not very surprisingly, his missile struck as planned. Crys had to spit out a mouthful of snow before she could continue, but Dark held up his hands in surrender.
"It doesn't matter. We should move along, guys."
"No fun all work, or what?"
"That's right, raven. Now move your butts."
"Hey, you're not the right person to say that, brother," Shane grinned, "it's your butt that's placed in the snow!"
"Thanks, Crys," Dark muttered.
"You're welcome," the Esper smiled.
"Well I- huh? What's this...?" Dark pulled something out of the snow. It was a long, straight-grown branch. "It's warm to the touch... Lauremawood, hmm?" He stood up. "Excellent! I managed to leave my staff at home..." He took a good hold of the branch with both hands and tried to break it. It bent very slightly. "It'll do for now," he decided. "Maybe I should thank you, Crys."
"Yeah yeah. Move your butt, Dark, or we'll leave both it and its owner behind."
One hour after they entered the last pass, a storm broke loose. It was unexpected, even with the dark clouds overhead, and now that they were in a pass, it was very dangerous.
"Any suggestions?" Shane shouted, straining her voice to make it heard over the whistling wind. "Can we make it back to the valley? Crys?"
"No!" the Esper shouted back. "That valley is a death-trap! It's round, see, so the wind will spin around its edges - if we're unlucky it may cause a whirlwind! We'd be thrown around like ragdolls!"
"So we'd better seek cover somewhere!" Dark concluded. "Put up the tents here, or go further in?"
"Go on!" Crys recommended. "The least exposed place in a pass is the middle! We can't get that far, but it should be easier to find cover farther in!"
"Run!" Dark commanded. "As far as we can!"
They ran. All around them, the wind picked up speed and power. It would soon become too strong for them to stand up in, and once that point had been passed, it wouldn't be too long before the winds were strong enough to throw them into the rock walls. It was looking bad indeed. And it was getting worse.
Shane had been very confused when she understood that Dark intended to adopt Jun. However, he had proven a valuable addition to their party - in fact, if it wasn't for him, the Grays and Tirom would probably have been dead. And now, once more, the little thief revealed his uncanny ability to get out of trouble. Suddenly, he shouted for the others to stop, pointing to a dark spot on the cliff wall. He was the only one who had spotted it, or at least the only one to realise that it was, in fact, a deep crack in the stone, and not a shadow. Figuring anything better than freezing to death or getting smashed to a pulp against the rocks, the thief crawled in through the crack, pulling his pack after him. Put to the choice of being killed by a blizzard or venturing into a possibly dangerous but potentially safe cave, the others didn't need much encouragement to follow him into the unknown darkness.
They kept crawling for what felt like hours, then, suddenly, the crack widened and the floor started sloping down. Jun was the first to notice it, and, being quite short, he could stand up if he kept his head down a little.
"Hey, guys," he said, "it's getting bigger..."
"How big?" came the muffled reply from somewhere within the crack. "We aren't as fast as you, in case you haven't noticed."
"I can stand up here, but I sometimes hit my head on the roof," Jun reported. "And it seems as if it's going to become a proper cave... I'm waiting a bit further in, okay? Does anyone have a light?"
"We'll see about that," Dark replied. "We'll be with you in a minute or five."
"I'm waiting," the thief said. "It isn't as if I've got a lot of other things to do, y'know?"
Several times, Dark had considered leaving his Lauremawood staff behind. It bumped into the walls or turned and got stuck - generally making a pain of itself. However, he managed to pull it through, and he felt rather proud of himself when he had done it.
The light question was solved by skewering a coal tab on Jun's stolen knife and lighting it with a Foi 'tech. The thief then took the lead, and they continued on through the widening crack, which more and more started to behave like a real cave. In the distance, they heard water dripping, and the air was warm, compared to the cold outside. Soon, they all removed their bulky and warm leather suits.
"Where could this cave lead?" Shane asked in awe as they passed a single stalactite/stalagmite that stretched from floor to roof, the stalagmite and stalactite long ago having met and grown together into an impressive pillar.
"To the centre of the planet," Holt said. "Another step and we'll probably be dumped into the molten core of the planet... although we'd probably fall for hours before reaching it."
"Professor, I appreciate you trying to tell a joke for once," Tirom said, "but could you please talk about something else? I don't find the prospect of falling to my death for several hours very entertaining."
"Oh, the heat would probably kill us before we got half-way," Adrian comforted her. Tirom shivered. "Oh, forgive me. I didn't mean to scare anyone... actually, I don't think it's very likely that this cave will go very deep. If there was some volcanic activity, we'd feel it - the air would smell of sulphur and gasses, and there would probably be tremors. As far as I know, Dezo is a very stable planet - there is little seismic activity. You don't have to worry."
"It's my Motavian heritage," Tirom said, smiling weakly. "All Motavians dislike earthquakes and such." She just couldn't get Dark's words out of her head: when the pressure gets too high, the volcano explodes... Tirom really wished that he had used something else to illustrate his theories. Then again, he had said what is, it is, and there's no way of changing it, too, later, and Tirom knew that all too well. Better not to think of it.
To keep from worrying, Tirom started to try and remember the correct procedure in baking Palman shortcake. It made her feel more at ease, but also, unfortunately, made her feel hungry. Why couldn't anything ever just be simple?
After a few minutes, there was no doubting that the cave was, indeed, just that - a cave. The roof was now high enough to allow everybody to stand without hitting their heads, and the walls were several meters apart. Still, the floor sloped, and still, the space between the walls was growing bigger. Soon, it would be impossible to see both walls in the shine from the single coal tab.
"Do you know where we're heading?" Dark whispered to Crystal. "I wouldn't want to make the others worried... but do you think we could get into some dangerous situation here? Are there, for example, any dangerous mountain-living creatures on Dezo? I wouldn't want to get into a fight here."
Crys slowed down a little, so that they were walking a few meters behind the others. "I don't think there's anything in particular in here," she said. "There's no smell of animals... no sounds... I don't think it's very dangerous. Why, are you scared?"
"No way. I've been practising blindfolded fighting lately, so I could probably hold my own... especially since my weapons are small and light, so they are easy to handle in confined spaces. I'm worrying about Shane - she's got a weapon that requires space, and there's not much here." He reached up and tapped the roof with his knuckles. "Moreover, she isn't very used to fighting in utter darkness."
"Bah," Crys muttered, "she'll make it. So you aren't scared, huh?"
"Not one bit. How 'bout you?"
"Half to death."
"Me too. Come on, let's catch up with the others."
They started walking faster again. Suddenly, something soft touched Dark's left leg. Thinking that he had accidentally bumped into Crys, he didn't say anything. A few seconds later, however, something bumped into him again - from his right.
Dark jumped. "What -!"
The soft thing bumped into his leg again.
Then it went "Meow?"
"What the - a cat? In here?" Dark asked.
"What was that?" Crys wondered. "What did you say?"
"Didn't you hear -"
"Yipes! A - a cat?"
"That's pretty much what I said," Dark said. "What's a cat doing here...?" He knelt and looked around. Something yellow was moving around some two or three meters away. It was pretty dark where they were; Dark and Crystal could barely see each other, but the cat seemed to have no trouble seeing them. It meowed again and carefully came closer.
"What are you doing down here?" Dark asked it conversationally. "Got lost?"
"Guess not. Hungry?"
"Is that so..." He reached into a pocket and withdrew a few strips of dried meat. "This is all we've got at the moment," he said, holding the meat out to the cat.
"Do you really understand what it's saying?" Crys asked.
"Of course not. I don't speak Cat. But I think he's hungry." The cat pulled one strip of meat from his hand and started chewing in a somewhat comical way. "Hmh. I'll leave the rest of the meat here," Dark said. "We'd better catch up with the others before they get too far or start worrying."
"Yeah." They started moving.
"Hey!" Shane called. "You two! What are you doing?"
"You'd never believe it," Dark said. "Stay where you are, we'll catch up. You know," he said to Crys, "that cat... it seemed a bit familiar, somehow..."
"What took you so long?" Shane complained. "If you're doing what I think you're doing, you can do it when we camp, okay?"
"Not that I know what you think we're doing," Dark lied, "but I can assure you that whatever you think, we were almost certainly doing something else."
"I really hate it when he talks like that," Shane confided the roof. "What?"
"We - hold on to something -" Dark looked around "- because you won't believe what you are hearing!"
"Daaaark! Cut it out!" Shane commanded.
"We've been... feeding a cat!" Dark looked at his companions expectedly. The blank looks almost made him laugh. "Seriously!"
"Dark Gray, if you think I-" Shane started, then blinked. Dark slowly turned around.
"Meow?" said the cat.
"That's about the same question as I asked," Dark said. "He seemed hungry, so I gave him some dried meat. Guess it wasn't enough..."
The cat came closer, finally stepping into the circle of light cast by the burning coal tab. Larger than a normal cat, it had golden fur, large, green eyes, and a tail so wild-grown it seemed little more than a mass of long, curly hair. It was the tail that finally made Dark understand where he had seen such a cat before.
"The statue in Termi!" he gasped. "Don't you remember? The cat..."
"A musk cat," Crys said. "I never thought I'd see one - or that one would willingly come this close to humans."
"Well, either way, the cat's hungry," Dark said. "It's quote obvious." He opened his pack and produced a shallow bowl and some more meat, then poured water in the bowl from his canteen. "Here you go, cat."
"Mew. Meaowow," the cat said. Dark looked at it quizzically.
"Did you say something?"
"Hmm." He straightened his back. "I wonder if he knows the way out of here...?"
"Even if he did, I don't think you could convince him to take you there," Shane said. "You see, cats don't speak Palman."
"He didn't like that remark," Dark said. "Say what you want, but I like this cat!"
"And that goes for you to," Jun said. Everybody looked at him. "Just in case it was an insult," the thief defended himself.
"Meow... you... strange! Meaow."
"What did you just say?" Dark asked. The cat looked at him.
"Meow," it said. Dark blinked.
"Did you hear what I think I heard?" he asked.
"Yeah..." Shane muttered. "I think."
"Didn't you know?" Crys asked. "Musk cats can talk."
"Why didn't you say so?" wondered Dark.
"I thought you knew..."
"Never mind... hey, you, cat - can you show us the way out of here?"
"Meow. More food, meow." The cat's voice was bright, too bright for any adult Palman, but still, it did not seem to belong to a child.
"Looks like you'll have to bribe him," Crys laughed. "Oh, dear..."
"We could use some food ourselves," Dark said, opening his pack again. "We'll rest here for a while, have something to eat, and then we'll see."
"Other never comes here," the musk cat said. "You first I see."
"We're the first... like us?" Dark asked. "Or the first of any kind?"
"You kind. Other... bugs, other."
"Listen, eh... what are you called? Have you a name?"
"I'm sorry," the hunter said, "but we can't understand what you are saying."
"Meow. Name Meow. Want out."
"You want to get out of here?" Crystal asked. "You don't know how to get out?"
"Came through crack-in-wall. Snowed in. Meao."
"You came through a crack in the wall. The same that we came through?"
"Only crack there."
"Meao! Musk cats here. Go there!"
"What -?" Crys asked, dumbfounded. "Are there more musk cats here? Where?"
"From Myst Vale. Warm there. Through long tunnel, dark, narrow. Tunnel fell in. Many dead. We trapped here."
"I'm starting to dislike this planet...!" Dark growled. "Show us where they are, alright?"
"Meao, will do." The cat trotted off into the darkness. Dark grabbed Jun's improvised torch and followed. The others followed Dark.
The cat led them through several caverns and narrow passages. While they walked, it also told them a bit more about how it had ended up in the caverns. Apparently, Meow - a cat's meowing sound; no one could pronounce it correctly - and a few other musk cats had found a tunnel leading from the musk cats' home, the 'Myst Vale'. They had examined it, and it turned out that it led into the caves they were now in. When they were about to return to their home, something had caused a cave-in in the tunnel, trapping them on this side and killing, as the Palmans could understand, two or three - Meow was unused to speaking Palman, and his words didn't always make sense.
Once the cats realised that they were trapped, they started searching for other ways out. Meow had thought he found one, but then the snowstorm came, blocking that entrance as well. No one could tell how long the snow would block the entrance, but Crys said that it was unlikely that they could get out there for at least another two weeks. They also learned that the musk cats were low on food, although they had been able to survive by eating insects and other small animals, such as rats, if they could find any. The cats didn't think of it like that, but Crys pointed out that since there was breathable air in the cave, and animals inhabiting it, there should be some other way out, too. The little crack they had come through wasn't enough to supply everything in the caverns with oxygen, especially if every blizzard that passed would shut it up. Of course, that other exit could be several small holes, each too small for anything larger than a rat to pass.
It took them almost an hour to reach Meow's companions. In a small cave, five golden cats were huddled in a corner. Meow seemed to explain to the other cats what had happened, mostly by using body language. Cats seldom spoke to each other with 'words'. Once it was clear that the Palmans and Tirom meant them no harm, the musk cats carefully looked them over, then returned to their corner. Most of them were in bad conditions, wounded and weak from hunger. The six travellers shared their food with the cats, and those with healing techniques did their best to mend their wounds, Crys using a spell simply called 'Heal'. They were all tired, so once they had done all they could do for the musk cats, they rolled out their blankets and sleeping bags on the rough stone floor and went to sleep. All around them, green eyes gleamed in the faint light of a burning coal tab.
The first one to rise was Dark. Normally, he could sleep an entire day away, but when he was on a mission - or an 'adventure', which was just about the same as an assignment but without the payment - he always woke early. Which, for once, was unfortunate for him. Dark hit his head on the roof, and spent several seconds trying to shake off the dizziness. His soft cursing caused Shane to wake up, too.
"What's - ow!"
"That's what it's about," Dark said. "I happened to hit my head..."
"Why didn't you warn me?" Shane snapped. Someone close by meowed sourly.
"Uhm... what's happening - ow!"
"Don't tell me you-" Dark begun, but didn't continue; it was pretty obvious that Tirom had done the same thing. "Sorry, we would have warned you if we knew you were awake."
"I wonder," the half-Motavian muttered, "how many of us are going to find out the hard way that there's a low roof here?"
"I hope they don't have to," Shane said, pulling a few coal tabs from her pack. "If anyone can kindly light one of these?"
"Give me that." Dark took the tab. "Close your eyes - there will be a flash... FOI. There you go." He placed the burning tab on the ground.
"What was that sound -"
"Holt, watch the-"
...roof," Dark finished. "It's low."
"So I noticed," Adrian said, rubbing his head. He looked to the others. "I see you discovered it the same way, too."
"We did, yes," Shane said, casting a baleful look at her brother. Dark scratched his chin.
"I wonder," he said, "if Jun will find out too..."
"Brother! You aren't thinking -"
"Of being too slow to warn him? No, not really. Just kidding."
Just as he said that, someone yawned. Four voices called out, "Stay down!"
"Why?" asked Crystal. "Huh? What's so funny?"
"Well," Shane said, rubbing her head, "it's the roof, you see. It's just a wee bit too low for us..."
"Oh. You hadn't needed to tell me that - I found out last night. What's for breakfast?"
"How about dried meat with even dryer bread, or possibly dry bread with dried meat, or any combination thereof," Dark said. "Darn, I'd really like some fresh fruit. How much water have we got?"
"Enough," Shane said. "If we run out, we'll just have to go back to the place where we came in and get some more snow."
"Yeah, that's right."
"Morning guys... or is it night?" Jun asked sleepily. Dark and Shane exchanged glances. "Are you alright?" the thief asked.
The others turned to look at him. Sitting up, Jun had at least a decimetre to go before he reached the roof.
"What's the blank looks?" Jun asked. "And is that breakfast you're making?
"Oh well, you can't get lucky every time," Dark sighed. "And yes, that's breakfast we're making. What would you like, bread or meat, bread with meat, or bread with meat? Or meat with bread, that's a possibility too."
"I'll settle for the bread with meat," Jun said with a grin.
"Meow, do you know a way out of here? I mean, any kind of hole that would be large enough for us to pass through?" Dark asked. Meow cast him a strange look.
"Meao is not here," he said. "Meao in Myst Vale."
"Sorry. It's almost impossible for us Palmans to pronounce your name, you know that?"
"Do you know any such place?"
"Meao! Not yes. But too high up for reach."
"Could you show me...?"
"Go now?" the cat wondered.
"Anytime you're ready."
"Now," Meow decided. "Follow me, meaow."
As Meow had said, the hole was too high up for anyone to reach - not even if he stood on someone's shoulders would Dark be able to reach more than halfway. There was little doubt that the hole led out, though - there was a draft of fresh air from it, and Dark thought he saw light further in.
"Meow, could you climb up there?"
"No, meao." Dark knew that the cats couldn't climb that wall - if they could, they would have done so much earlier - but still had to ask.
"Meow," he said slowly, "Can you go and get Tirom?"
"Meao." Meow disappeared into the darkness. Dark put his knife down and placed a new coal tab on the blade, letting the fading glow from the first one ignite the second. Then he waited.
His wait was not long, for Meow returned in a few minutes, with Tirom in tow. Dark could hear the half-Motavian talking to the cat:
"What's the matter with you? What do you want me here for?"
"The Dark One says come," Meow replied. A few seconds later, the soft glow of another coal tab lit the cave where Dark was standing.
"Dark! What are you doing? Shane's worried, and-"
"There's a hole in this wall," Dark interrupted. "It's too high up for me to reach it, or anyone else for that matter. Now, I don't want to disappoint the others - in case it's a dead end, they had better not know about it. I want to know if you can get up there with your Ryuka."
Tirom studied the wall. Dark waited impatiently for her to reply. "No," she said finally, "I can't. It's too dark, too unfamiliar. I could end up inside the stone."
"If we get some light, then? I can light it up momentarily," Dark offered. If you can see what it looks like, then... maybe?"
"Do it," Tirom commanded. "But I'm not promising anything."
"Fine! Now, Meow... I'm going to cast a fire technique - it'll be a lot of light. You'd better turn away."
"Meow! Mea, eaowow!"
"I think he means no," Tirom smiled. "Go ahead, Dark."
"Rrright! Here goes: FOI!"
The flames scorched the rocks and lit the entire cave. A large hole some fifteen meters above was clearly visible in the light.
"Do it again!" Tirom commanded. "I think I can do it! It's a big hole - if I aim for the middle of it - go ahead!"
"I'm on it - GIFOI!"
This time, they felt the air turn warm as Gifoi exploded in the confined space of the cave. Tirom's eyes glittered.
"Got it!" she said. "I'll do it!"
"Wait a few minutes," Dark advised. "It's warm up there."
"No! I have to do it now, while I still remember it... wish me luck! No, don't bother... RYUKA!"
Tirom seemed to turn into green light, then fade away into nothing. Dark knew that the technique was instantaneous, the light only a minor effect - Tirom teleported at the very instant she finished casting. Meow hissed and growled in surprise.
"Dark!" Tirom said from somewhere high above. "It's done! I'm here! Can you toss me a knife with a light?"
"Duck," Dark commanded, then threw his knife. Lighting up the cave in its vicinity, the blade spun slowly...
The light disappeared, and Dark heard steel strike stone. "I've got it," Tirom informed, holding it up for him to see. "I'll see where this leads!"
"Be careful," Dark replied. "I'll be here if you need me."
"I'll be back soon," she promised. Dark saw the light from the burning tab fade, and sat down to wait again.
"I've got ropes," Dark said. "But isn't it easier just teleporting us up?"
"No room - it's too dangerous. You'll have to use ropes. I know you'll make it. Now, the ropes, please!"
Dark tossed the ropes to her, which took a while since it was rather difficult hitting the hole with a large, clumsy rope, but he finally managed to do it.
"Now," he said, turning to Meow. "Go tell the others to come here - your friends too. We're outta here!"
The six musk cats watched in silence while Shane, Adrian and Jun climbed up the ropes. Dark, meanwhile, stayed below to help the cats up. Lacking human hands, they could not make use of the ropes, but had to be hauled up. Dark made a kind of platform using tent poles and blankets, then tied it to a rope. Meow was the first to climb onto the platform, and was slowly pulled up to the opening. Shane lifted the cat onto safe ground, and Tirom lowered the rope. The procedure was repeated six times, once for each cat, and finally, Dark climbed up and they recovered the ropes. Tirom took the lead, walking with a knife-and-coal-tab- torch. It wasn't five minutes before they saw light - sunlight - and felt the cool Dezo air merge with the comparative warmth of the caves. Only a few minutes later, they emerged from the caves, blinking in the strong light.
They were still in the mountains, of course, but on a low spot - it wouldn't take a day to reach the plains. In the distance, several thin pillars of smoke rose into the air.
"That should be Jut," Crys said finally. "We're close."
"All thanks to Meow," Dark said. "He found the way out."
"Meow, not without help," Meow protested. "We are grateful. You saved our lives!"
"We saved each other," Dark smiled. "Good luck, Meow."
"You see? Not so hard saying it!"
"No," the hunter laughed, "it wasn't so difficult after all."
"Meow. We have long way to go. Make way over mountains. We remember, Dark One."
"We'll remember you too, Meow of the musk cats. Fare well... and thank you!"
The mountain was not too steep, so the six travellers could climb down with relative ease. They strapped the snowshoes into place and started walking. It wasn't long, however, before they reached a mysterious strip of bare earth - about ten meters wide and too long for them to see where it started or ended.
"So it did create a whirlwind," Crys whispered. "We're lucky we found that crack!"
"Why is that?" Dark wondered. "It had been better if we hadn't gone into that pass at all, but waited among the trees - they would have provided excellent cover. Although if we had," he added, "we hadn't found the musk cats. Yeah, okay, it was lucky."
"If we had stayed," Crys explained patiently, "we would probably have died. On Dezo, all the wind needs to become a tornado is a round formation like that valley - we would have been crushed."
"Is that normal behaviour for weather, professor?" asked Shane. Adrian shook his head.
"No. Normally, whirlwinds are caused by warm air meeting cold air, and... one might say, they come to conflict. I'd say there has been some malfunction in the Dezorian weather control systems. Wren did not say what he wanted to do here, but I got the impression that some system or other is behaving strange. Most likely, it's the weather control."
"Sure. Like we'd understand how a computer can control the weather. Anyway, do we follow this path that the whirlwind so kindly created for us, or is it heading in the wrong direction?"
"I think we can follow it for a while," Crys said, "but after those hills, over there, we have to leave it. Jut is more to the right of them."
The hills were three hours away, but it was an easy walk, what with all the snow and ice blown away. Walls of ice and snow rose to both sides of the 'path', almost three meters high in most places. It felt strange, walking in a straight line with that whiteness on both sides. When they reached the hills and climbed out of the ditch, they still couldn't see the end of it. What they could see was a large town - perhaps so large that it should be called a city rather than a town. The buildings were similar to the ones in Meese and Zosa, but most were a bit larger. In the middle of the city, there was a large building, possibly a church or temple. Compared to the building some two kilometres north of the city, however, even the temple/church/whatever seemed dwarfed.
"That's the Gumbius temple," Crys said, pointing to the large building. "The centre of Dezorian worship - I don't know how old it is, but we're talking hundreds of years. It's not very likely that we'd be allowed in, but it's a magnificent building, isn't it?"
"Yeeaah..." muttered Jun. Dark glared at him.
"No you're not. At all. Forget it."
"I was only looking," the thief protested. "They shouldn't have placed those columns next to the windows, Dark. Someone could climb up and-"
"I said forget it! I'm not going to have you climbing around and stealing holy relics from the Dezorians! They may have built a thief-friendly building, but that's probably because they trust each other. If I find out that you've done something... I'll turn you in myself, get it?"
"Alright, alright! You damn spoilsport!"
"Breaking into that temple wouldn't be a very good idea, Jun," Crys said. "All the priest are tech-users."
"Yikes! Then I'll definitely stay out!"
"Nicely done, Crys," Dark commented when Jun left to scout ahead. "I wouldn't have thought of that myself."
"Yeah," Crys said, "it was a good idea. Many Dezorian priests are mystics - they use a kind of magic. But they are priests of a benevolent deity - the same as the Espers' Great Light actually, but with another name. They use their gifts to heal and help, not to harm. I doubt as if they would do more than throw him out if they caught him. Then again, them might not take kindly to someone trying to steal from them... he's better off not trying anything."
"I know," Dark said ruefully. "Oh, I know... I really know."
The inn in Jut was even more expensive than the one in Meese - charging a hundred and seventy-five Meseta per person and room. Although they could afford it - even if Wren's Dezorian coins ran out, they still had their Motavian money, which was as useful as the local currency. However, over a thousand Meseta per night was a bit much. In spite of this, they decided to stay for two nights so that they would have time to buy supplies - they were almost out of food by now, having shared it with the hungry musk cats. Also, they took the opportunity to buy a few Trimates at low prices - the Dezorians seemed skilled in creating medical supplies. At dawn after spending the second night at the inn, they were all fully restored and eager to leave. A light breakfast later, they were off towards the Esper Mansion.
Getting there had been easy. However, getting in would be an other matter entirely.
For what they saw as the Mansion, a large, square building made from red bricks, came into view, was a full siege.
"This is impossible!" Crys gasped. "I - I haven't felt a thing! They would call for me, surely - what has happened?"
"That's what we're here to find out," Dark said quietly. There was something about this scene that made his skin itch. "Crys, do you feel anything - anything at all from that place?"
Crys didn't seem to hear him, though. She was just staring at the huge building, the Mansion itself, and the temporary wooden shacks and tents placed all around it. Dark grabbed her arm and shook her. "Snap out of it Esper! We need you here! You are the only one amongst us who knows anything about this place, the only one with the senses that detect magic. You have to get a grip on yourself!"
"You seem to manage that pretty well yourself," she commented. Dark let go of her arm.
"Good! Now tell me: do you get anything from that place - the house, the tents, the ones in them, anything at all?"
"That... that's part of what shocks me. I - I can't feel a thing! It's as if there's a shield over everything! All I can tell you is that there's something unnatural down there, something that feels like a full-body itch. That isn't a magic sense, it's just a... kind of instinct. I guess the shield can't block instincts, but all my Esper senses are... useless!" She pounded her fist on a small pine. The tree didn't seem to care.
"Have you got any suggestions about how we're going to get in?" Dark wondered.
"I don't think so... if I could Ryuka, I would have been able to take us inside, but I doubt that this shield thing would allow such passage. Otherwise, there are Espers with teleportation abilities - they would have gone for help. Oh, Light...!"
"I know, I know. Stay cool. It's not that easy, Dark!"
"I know. But you've got to try. Professor!"
"What is it?" Holt asked.
"How's your equipment? The force-field generator and that sound thing, I mean."
"They don't work anymore... wait a minute..." He rummaged about in his pack for a few seconds, then produced the sonic disrupter. He handed it to Dark. "Look for yourself. That red button, there..."
Dark turned the device in his hands, then pressed the button. He immediately dropped the box again.
"It works," he said, rubbing his arm. "Ouch... that hurt. Hmm. Strange... can I try that force-field of yours? I was thinking of throwing a small fireball - a Foi tech - to see if it's blocked. If the Mansion is radiating the disruption, and it's shielded, maybe our stuff will work for as long as the shield is in place."
"Go ahead... but excuse me if I have a Trimate ready in case it fails," Holt said. He held the bottle behind his back to protect it from the fire. "Now."
Dark had been right. The fire struck an invisible barrier a few centimetres from its target. "Gotcha!" the hunter exclaimed. "Now we're back in business... If we help the Espers fight off these creatures, we can get inside, find the trouble and fix it, and then we can find out what's causing machines to 'die', and then we can take a vacation. How about it, gang?"
"Sounds perfectly fine to me," Shane said. "On a beach."
Not knowing how long they would be staying, they pitched the tents and covered them with snow to camouflage them. Tirom suggested Ryuka-ing back to Jut and ask for reinforcement, but Dark disagreed.
"We haven't got any idea about what we're up against. When we know that, and if we find that it's too dangerous for us to handle, we'll call for help. Maybe the Espers can take care of this themselves."
"And maybe not," Crys said. "I have a feeling that if they thought they could, they would try and do something."
"Wait a minute!" Shane said suddenly. "How do we know that these people are enemies anyway? They haven't done anything, have they?"
Crys sighed. "If they were guests, we could house them inside the Mansion. Besides, they wouldn't shield the entire area unless there was something fishy going on."
"Forget it. What are we going to do-"
"Guys!" Jun, not caring for the discussion, had volunteered to keep watch on the Mansion. He opened the tent and waved for the others to come out, then pointed to the house. "Something's happening!" he whispered.
Jun had been right about something happening - but whatever it was that was happening, it was either too far away or not active enough to be seen clearly. Whatever it was, it seemed that several humanoid figures were running around one of the largest sheds, although it was impossible to tell whether the running figures were Palman, Dezorian or even Motavian.
"What are they up to?" Crys asked irately. "I can't see a thing from here!"
"But moving closer wouldn't be a good idea," Shane said. "There's little cover to be had out there."
"She has a point though," Tirom added. "Unless we know what we're up against, it'll be hard to decide what to do."
"Yeah, but if we get too close to them trying to find out, it's quite likely that they'll find out what they are up against too. Our strength lies not in numbers but in secrecy - if these guys have some way of blocking all communication with the Esper Mansion, they won't be expecting someone to sneak up from behind. All their attention will be focussed on the trapped Espers. We have to make use of this, somehow... the only question is how."
"I've got another question," Dark said. "When. And while we're at it, I think Crys is right; we have to get a look at them. A siege can take months if the defenders have enough food and water to hold out, and the attackers have a way of getting supplies. The best idea might be to go and get help..."
"Where?" Crys asked. "I know we need it, but who would believe us? That someone is besieging the Esper Mansion! And that such a siege would ever be even marginally successful... the most powerful magic-users in the world are gathered in there!"
"Even powerful beings must fall some time," Dark said, "and if you can do something unexpected... Crys, you remember Yangour, don't you? He was probably the most powerful tech-user on Mota. That madman hit him with something he could never have foreseen - a fourth level Foi technique. Yangour was surprised, and he died, even though he was certainly the most powerful of them. Now, if these people have done similarly unexpected, even the Espers may fall. Crys... in which town are the people most likely to believe us - and help the Espers?"
"I - I don't know... maybe Jut. It's closest, so they have the most contact with us. But-"
"Tirom, do you remember enough of Jut to Ryuka there?"
"Why, yes, I think so... yes, I do. Should I -?"
"Not just yet. Crys! That temple... did you say they had mages there?"
"Yes, but you can't hope for them to help us! The Dezorian church dislike Espers... and besides, they don't use combat magic. It's a waste of time."
"I think it's still worth a try. A quick one, anyway. Knock on the door, tell the priests that the Esper Mansion is under siege, and ask if they'll help. But go to the town first, see if you can get anyone to listen. With the townspeople on your side, it might be easier to persuade the priests to help. Remember, Crys, if it comes to combat, healers will be necessary. To - what?"
"Guys..." Jun sounded so depressed that everybody turned in confusion. "I think you should have a look at this..."
There was no movement anymore, but three figures were standing in front of the large shed. All three seemed to be robed, and something told the party that they were rather larger than normal Palmans or Dezorians. The trio stood absolutely still, but all around them, the air was shimmering.
"More magic-users!" Dark said in disgust. "Where will this end?"
"I don't know..." Crys muttered. "I can't see what they're doing... and, which is much more disturbing, I can't sense any kind of power around them. All magic radiates a kind of energy that other mages can sense - but this..." She trailed off and shook her head. "Blast it!"
"I wonder whether we should do something now or wait and see..." Shane muttered. "It feels wrong just sitting around and looking at them casting their magic... if they're doing something terrible and we don't try to stop them..."
"Three men?" Adrian said. "Shane, if the Mansion is full of Espers, three people won't be able to do much."
"I know what three men did to Yangour," Shane replied. "But you weren't there, of course." A shower of sparks exploded around the spellcasting trio, causing five of the six friends to instinctively grasp their weapons. Adrian, not being a warrior, just gasped.
"What was that?"
"Magical discharge," Crys said grimly. "A phenomenon indicating huge amounts of magical power in a small area. Much like Dark's theory - only so much magic can be packed into a certain space before it overflows. That's how it looks when a spell is overcharging that area around it with magic. Damn, but those mages are good - really good!"
"Just wait 'til you see the results," Dark muttered. "If I'm not mistaken, they will be spectacular."
"What do you know -?"
"Nothing. I'm guessing - but look, a spell that powerful has to have some great, powerful effect. Otherwise, every single Foi technique would sparkle like that."
"You're right. Only I... have a very bad feeling about this..."
Before the last syllable had faded, the three figures raised their arms and sent dark blue fire lancing towards the shed, where it disappeared, as if the wood had absorbed the fire. Then there was a faint cackle of laughter, and the shed's walls started bulging.
The building exploded.
"We can't leave you alone with-"
"Go! And unless you find reinforcements, don't come back! Don't waste your lives!"
As Tirom reluctantly grabbed Jun and uttered the words that would take them far away from the Mansion, a pair of great golden wings started to emerge from the smoke and fire. Ribbed like those on a bat, each wing was wider than the shed had been. Whatever the creature the trio had summoned was, it was huge.
As she saw the golden wings, Crys went pale, visibly so even with her Motavian suntan.
"What is it...?" asked Shane, the only one who happened to look at Crys, not at the slowly unfolding wings.
"Light help us if that creature is what I think it is!" the Esper whispered. "We don't stand a chance!"
Shane considered saying something, but Crys was near the state of panic and wouldn't listen. So, Shane did the only thing she could think of: she slapped Crystal's face as hard as she could, sending the Esper tumbling in the snow. She immediately got up again, hands raised. Small flames danced over her fingers.
"SEAL!" thundered Dark. Crys' magical fire was snuffed like candle flames in a blizzard. "If you are going to fight each other," he roared, "you could at least have the decency to wait until this battle is over!"
"Be quiet for the sake of Algo!" Holt whispered. "They'll hear us!"
"What is the reason for this?!" Dark demanded, his voice now low and controlled. "Answer me!"
"She slapped me in the face!" Crys growled, touching her left cheek gingerly. There was a large, red mark under her fingers.
"NARES! Happy now? And Shane, why? No excuses!"
Shane hesitated to speak. Only two or three times before had she seen Dark this angry, and each time his rage flared like this it had meant an enemy's death. She trusted that Dark wouldn't lose control and attack them, but this rage frightened her nevertheless.
"I.. I am sorry... I thought... It seemed as if you were going to panic, and I... sorry."
"You hadn't needed to knock her teeth out," Dark snapped. "And as for you, Esper..." He stopped speaking and shook his head. "If you two ever do anything like that again, I'll personally beat the hell out of you both! You endanger the entire group! And if this creature is indeed that powerful...!" He turned his back on them and looked to the golden wings. Almost unfolded now, they were at least twenty-five meters across.
"Sorry Crys," muttered Shane. "I thought you were going to flip out."
"Yeah. I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have lost control like that." Crys wiggled her fingers and tried to summon a small flame. "Dark... that tech-seal, how long will it last?"
"Only for as long as I concentrate on it," came the reply, "and as long as you can't break my power. It's gone." Crys tried again. A small flame ignited, and she let it disappear again. "In case you have all calmed down now," Dark said coolly, "it is moving."
The fire was somehow kept alive, even though it should have run out of fuel by now, hiding whatever creature it had summoned. But now the creature was moving, and soon, more than the wings would be visible outside the unnatural barrier of flame and smoke. Slowly, an angular, reptilian head emerged... Crys went pale again.
"It can't be true! Dragons..."
"Dragon!" Dark whispered, as if the word was unfamiliar to him. In a way, of course, it was - for dragons were only fairytales, something to amuse children. As this dragon emerged from the raging flames, however, it appeared that amusing was the last thing it would be. Its golden scales sparkled like diamonds in the sun.
"That's a golden dragon!" Crys gasped. "I - I -"
"I can see that it's a golden dragon," Dark commented sourly. "The question is, what do we do about it?"
"No, you don't understand!" the Esper said. "That dragon... fifteen hundred years ago, it is said, Noah Lutz, the founder of the Esper community, fought a golden dragon on Palma. From what little I know about Noah, that was one of the most dangerous enemies he ever faced! And he only beat it with the help of Alis..."
"Landale?!" Dark gasped.
"Yes... that is how we know of her, as Noah's companion. It is said that they managed to defeat the dragon by using magic and enchanted weapons..."
"You have magic." Dark drew his sword. "We'll provide the weapons."
"It's useless! We cannot hope to penetrate the dragon's armour. My magic... is just an image of the powerful spells known back then, and a poor one at that. We can't hope to win!"
"Not if we tell ourselves that it's impossible," Dark said with a sudden smile. "Chin up, Esper! Surprise, remember?"
At this point, the dragon's shoulders and waist had passed through the fire. Ten meters of dragon, and the hind legs and tail were yet to appear. Dark shivered as he looked at the magnificent creature. Maybe, he thought, it is crazy hoping to defeat that thing... but if we don't... Yes, if they didn't? What would happen then? "We'll hit it with our most powerful spells, techniques and whatever. Professor, how close do you have to be in order to use your sonic disrupt thing?"
"I believe... ten or fifteen meters," Holt said. "Do you really think it could work against that... thing?"
"Why not? Look, if those scales are solid, like bone, the vibrations will affect them. It won't feel comfortable, trust me."
"Well, it's worth a try," he agreed.
At this point, the only thing hidden by the flames was the dragon's tail. Once the creature had fully emerged, it would be over twenty meters long. How can a creature that big ever fly? Dark wondered. "Crys, do you know anything... at all that can help us? Do dragons have any weak spots?"
"No I don't! That's a creature from over fifteen hundred years ago! I don't even know if it can be killed, if it survived the battle with Lutz!"
"We'll have to try, anyway. Now, the dragon will be here before the ones who summoned it. We kill it quickly, then deal with the others when they come - or if. Crys, if you find a way, get the other Espers out here - we'll need them. Shane - distance attacks first. Holt - on my signal, fire the device. Crys, would a Firestorm do us any good? No, I didn't think so... dragons breathe fire, right? So we need any kind of defence we can get. Let me see... DEBAN... but that alone won't give us much protection against dragon's fire. Crys?"
"I don't have any useful defensive spells," the Esper confessed. "But I doubt that our magic would help us against an enemy that powerful. Guys, in case we don't make it... it's been fun travelling with you."
"Don't bet against us just yet," Dark said, "but you're right. It has been fun."
"Yeah," Shane said. Adrian nodded.
"Be careful, okay?"
"We're always careful," Dark pointed out.
"I never noticed," Holt said.
Dark had expected to launch a surprise attack, but he had not counted on the dragon's supernatural senses. Turning its head this way and that, the great golden reptile easily spotted their heads over the snowdrift they were hiding behind, heard their voices, smelt their fear, tasted their power. Lashing its tail irately, the dragon gracefully leapt into the air. Enormous golden wings beat, doing what seemed impossible. The dragon was flying.
"Here it comes!" Shane warned. The dragon was taking its time, but when it was halfway to its targets, it opened its mouth and roared, spitting a blinding ray of white fire towards them. The fire evaporated the snow and ice where it struck, but the dragon had not been aiming for its enemies - it merely sought to demonstrate its strength. As intelligent as any being of Algo, carrying in its heart an evil equal to the Darkness itself, the great dragon knew how to strike fear into its victims - victims, for the dragon never considered anyone worthy of any other description. It roared again, and the four Palmans involuntarily dropped to their knees and put their hands over their ears to shut out a sound that tore at their minds.
"Shane... now!" Dark commanded.
"I - don't know if I can..."
"But I do! You've done it before and you will do it again so do it!"
Shane slowly stood up and readied her sword. Gripping the hilt tightly, she swung the weapon a couple of times, trying it. Knowing that she could never be more ready, she raised the sword and whipped it around in a semicircle, the blade moving so fast it was all but invisible. There was a crack, like a miniature thunderclap, and what appeared to be a spear of solid air flew towards the dragon's chest.
By studying Dark's mystic powers, Shane had been able to create a weapon of her own. Much like Dark did to force power into his sword, Shane focussed her will into her sword arm, momentarily forcing her blade to move at supernatural speed - or, rather, more accurately, supersonic speed. By breaking through the sound barrier, Shane created a small pocket of vacuum and sent it flying like a lance. Incredibly fragile, the 'bubble' of nothingness would implode upon contact, causing a huge atmospheric explosion as the air rushed in to fill the vacuum. The force generated was sufficient to split a great rock or turn a five-meter tree into five million toothpicks. Not surprisingly, any creature unfortunate enough to be caught in the explosion would suffer the same fate.
The huntress had dubbed it a 'sonic spear'.
Neither Shane nor her brother believed that the 'spear' would kill the dragon, but it did serve to knock it off-balance. They could see golden scales and droplets of blood fly in all directions as the air itself seemed to burst into explosions around the dragon's neck and chest. The creature roared again, in pain, this time, not in anger, and descended, causing the ground to tremble as it landed. Dark stood up quickly and pointed to the wide but shallow wound Shane had caused and released a power of his own.
"NEOFOI!" As bright as the dragon's fire, shining with a brilliance to rival the sun, a slim white beam shot from the hunter's raised hand. Like Shane's sonic spear, it was an incredibly powerful attack - but where the explosion would crush rock and shatter wood, Neofoi melted rock and totally incinerated anything flammable. It would melt flesh and turn bone into ashes; Dark had felt its effects himself - but as it struck the dragon, the ray shattered into dozens of little white sparks that burned out in a few seconds. Its scales blackened by soot but not damaged, the dragon took a step forward, then another one. The cold glow in its eyes seemed to promise a slow, painful death.
"Please!" Tirom pleaded, "You have to believe me! They are preparing to attack even as we speak!"
"And the Espers are just sitting on their butts and waiting for someone to attack them?" the Dezorian elder said. "We know little of the Espers, girl, but understand that they are not like any other Palmans. They would act if they felt threatened."
"But they are under siege!" the half-Motavian persisted. "For all I know they might have tried to break out several times! But Crystal, who's an Esper too, says there's some kind of barrier around the Mansion so that they can't communicate with people outside. Please, we need help!"
"No can do. We can't just leave our homes and go to fight someone else's battle, even if such a battle will indeed commence. We have had no news of military activities. I am not calling you a liar, but it seems very odd that anyone could move a force large and powerful enough to threaten the Espers without us finding out. If indeed this is what you have seen, it was probably an illusion, a mirage, a trick. Whatever name you give it, it could not be real."
"But it is!" Tirom protested. "Jun saw it too! And four others, one of them an Esper! I can't believe you would not help your neighbours!"
"The Espers are powerful. If this supposed army outmatches them - do you really think a few Dezorians could make any difference?"
"Any help could," Tirom said. "My friends are there now. But if this is your choice... Jun, come on. Let's go." Jun took her hand, and Tirom cast Ryuka, teleporting them just outside of Jut. The old Dezorian shook his head slowly.
"Do you suppose he might have been telling the truth?" another Dezorian, who had been quiet until now, asked dubiously.
"I don't know," the elder sighed. "But if he was..."
"We should alert Gumbius."
"I leave that to you, my friend. Please, quickly. We do not know what is happening... but with the help of the Bishop, maybe we can find out."
The dragon calmly observed the slashers' approach. As they came close enough, the great reptile simply opened its mouth and snapped it shut over the blades. However, the wound in its chest slowed it down a little, so instead of catching both weapons, the dragon only got one. The other spiralled around its head once, striking several times but never wounding, then returned to the place where Crys had been when she threw it. Spitting the other slasher out, the dragon paused for a moment to breathe a stream of fire on it, liquefying the metal. Sorcery or no sorcery, the strongest material in the universe was of little concern for a being whose power rivalled that of Darkfalz itself. Unlike Lassic, the golden dragon had never feared the 'light' power contained in the metal Laconia. Unlike him, the dragon served Darkness because it wanted to, and in so doing, shared few of the Darkness' weaknesses.
"Shit!" swore Crystal as she scrambled to get her slasher. "Why did I ever agree to this?!"
"Because the Espers are your friends," Dark said, retrieving and handing her the weapon. "Let's try what we did at the tower!"
"Yes, but hurry! And I've only got three weapons left, and I can't lose all o them."
"If we're lucky, you'll only need to lose one..." He channelled his Darkblade power into the Laconian weapon, marvelling at how well this material took the energy. "Now, throw!"
Crys threw. The dragon, sensing that something was happening, spat a ray of fire, narrowly missing the Esper, but spoiling her aim. The twice-enchanted blades struck its shoulder at an angle, wedging between two scales and drawing blood. A swipe with one massive paw tore the weapon lose, but also widened the wound. Furious, the dragon once more exhaled fire. Crys kicked Dark aside, using the momentum to leap back, thereby saving them both from the flames. The dragon was now only thirty meters away - and the closer it came, the lesser their chances to avoid its fiery breath. However, the dragon would have problems avoiding their attacks as well - so in spite of their fears, the four companions stayed where they were, while the dragon slowly advanced.
"Twenty meters, Holt! Will it work yet?" hissed Dark.
"No! It's too far!"
"Hell! Wait... let's try this: at my signal, fire it! No, just do as I say! At three: One. Two. Three! GIZAN!"
Holt, failing to understand the hunter's plan, fired the disrupter. Dark's technique created a narrow corridor of air for the sound waves to travel through, leading them farther than they would normally reach. It was improbable that any Zan technique would be powerful enough to harm this being, but as waves of sound crashed into the dragon, it was obvious that it felt some pain. It lowered its head and growled, taking a few steps back. A few seconds passed while it fought the disruptions, but the fight was short. Raising its head again, the dragon roared - a sound that, to those in front of it, seemed to be cutting into their heads. Sound met sound. Power met power. For an instant, Dark's technique picked up speed, but then dissolved like a summer breeze, taking Adrian's sound waves with it. Dark focussed his will again, casting Deban. As the shield took effect, the sound of the dragon's roaring abated, and the dragon soon realised that it was futile to keep it up. It resumed its slow advancing.
"So much for that idea," dark muttered. "Get ready! We'll have to strike hard and fast once it gets here... if we can..."
"Open up!" Tirom rapped her knuckles on the huge, heavy double doors to the Gumbius Temple. "Let us in! We need to speak with you!"
The doors, however, remained shut. As hard as Tirom knocked, someone on the inside would hear little. The doors were two decimetres thick, wood and metal, and pretty much soundproof.
"It's no use," Jun said sourly. "Damn it! They could at least listen to what we have to say! Look Tirom, I'm going to climb in. Don't look at me like that! I'm just going to talk to them. I won't steal anything, promise!"
"Oh, Jun, I... don't think that would be a good idea. What if they-"
"Tirom, the others are in danger! I've got to help them somehow!" The thief ran his hands over one massive pillar, then pulled off his gloves and struggled out of the heavy overall. "If I'm not back in an hour, assume I've been captured and locked up... or so. I don't care what Dark says. Look, if I can't get help, you go back there and teleport them so far away that they can never get back in time to see the end of that siege! Okay?"
"You've chosen a great time for growing up, Jun," Tirom sighed. "Alright, I will. Take care in there."
"I always do," the thief grinned. Then he grabbed the ornate pillar and started climbing.
It was an easy climb, but in some places there was snow and ice, which made climbing in those areas impossible. Jun had to sick-sack back and forth to get up to the windows.
Of course, the window was not only closed, but locked as well. Jun had no wish to break a window, as he intended to befriend the priests, not make them demand payment for destroyed property. He climbed another floor, deciding to break in anyway if this window was locked - he couldn't climb around forever, having left his warm clothes behind and being in quite a hurry to find help. Luckily, it was not. The thief waved at Tirom, then pushed the window open and slipped in.
For a few seconds, Jun could only stare. The ornate walls made his head spin, the equally ornate decorative pillars made it want to fall off. The patterns were so strange, so unfamiliar, that he could make no sense of them at all. At first, he only thought that they were meaningless figures, but soon realised that it was a kind of pictures - they depicted real things, mostly plants, but there were some animals as well. And in the room where he was, the walls were covered with these symbols! Jun couldn't imagine how long it had taken to sculpt the amazing symbols, but it would have to be a long time. A lot more than he had, certainly... He shook off the dizziness and headed for the door, hoping that it would be unlocked.
It was. He opened it and scurried out.
It seemed like an eternity before he found something more than just corridors with far too many doors. It was a somewhat larger door, framed by stone flowers - roses, as far as Jun could see. He tried the handle... the door opened, slowly and silently. He peeked in.
Inside, there was a large room, devoid of all furniture. Several impressive pillars were placed throughout the room; Jun couldn't tell if they were merely decorations or necessary reinforcements. There was no one in the room, but on an altar in the far end, a bluish light shone, unnaturally strong. Jun thought he could feel the heat where he was standing, but it had to be imagination. Or was it...? He quickly retreated out and pulled the door shut behind him. He'd better not get involved with this mystic fire - it was people he was trying to find.
He kept walking for awhile, soon reaching a staircase. Having found nothing on the second floor, Jun climbed down to the first.
What was he doing? Tirom wrapped her jacket tighter around her body and positioned herself behind one of the pillars. The wind was freezing cold, and she was worried. She had tried knocking on the door again, but to no avail. Where was Jun? The half-Motavian was starting to feel like she might actually freeze to death where she was standing. Being part Motavian, Tirom shared some of the Motavians' weaknesses. Fear of caves and earthquakes was one; an other, less obvious, one, was a dislike for cold. Sure, Motavian nights were cold - but not this cold, and not this long.
He could hear hushed voices from beyond a door a few meters further along the corridor. Jun stopped to listen, but the speech was in a foreign language - Dezorian, probably. Jun decided to knock on the door, and did so. The conversation inside immediately died down. Someone turned the handle and opened -
"Gya Hbaudiuk!" the Dezorian exclaimed as he saw Jun.
"A Palman?" someone asked. "Here? How did he get in?"
"I came to ask for help," Jun explained. "May I come in?"
"How dare he!" someone said angrily. "Violate the sanctity of -"
"Let the boy speak," a fourth voice commanded. This voice seemed to belong to an elderly male. The Dezorian in the door stepped aside, allowing Jun in.
There were seven Dezorians in the room, one of whom Jun recognised as one of the ones he and Tirom had spoken to in Jut. Seated cross-legged on a low table-like piece of furniture, probably a chair, a very old Dezorian looked carefully at the little thief.
"Let me hear your story," he asked.
Jun told about the situation at the Esper Mansion, as quickly as he could since it now felt rather urgent. "Please," he begged, "let me know your decision quickly! I'm afraid our friends can't hold out much longer..."
"There is only one way to find out," the elderly Dezorian said. "J!mbeka! The main hall, please - all of us." One of the other Dezorians nodded.
"Hold hands everybody." The Dezorians did as they were told, Jun holding the old man's hand in both his own. "Ready? HINAS!"
The room spun and blurred, went black for a moment, then reappeared... only it was another room now. They were standing near the altar in the room where Jun had seen the blue light.
"This is the Eclipse Torch," the old Dezorian informed. "Only those pure of heart can pass through its fire unharmed. Now, little Palman, I ask you to put your hand in the fire. If the flames accept you, then we will believe your story. I can understand if you refuse."
Jun looked at the bluish fire and shivered. He could definitely feel the heat now...
"My friends' lives are at stake! I have to..."
"I see. Then - touch the flames!"
Jun slowly stepped closer. Strangely, the heat never got uncomfortable - it was warm, but not unpleasantly so.
Trembling, eyes closed in anticipation of the searing pain, the thief slowly put his hand in the sacred light, expecting terrible pain to flow up his arm at any moment.
It never came. He gasped and opened his eyes - he hadn't made any mistake. His hand was in the middle of the blue fire - but he felt no pain!
"D- did I pass?" he asked. He thought he should withdraw his hand from the torch, but the sensation was so pleasant that he held it still.
"Well," the old man said, "you must be speaking the truth. No liar would risk his hand like that. It would never have burned you, boy, but we had to be sure about your determination. I am sorry to have fooled you, but now that I know that you speak the truth, we will help you. Now, let us prepare! J!mbeka, Tum, Kanel, Suhar and Parom - you four come with me. Take whatever you need, meet me at the gates! Hurry! We are going to the Espers' aid!"
"I warned you!" Crys said. "I told you we shouldn't fight it!"
"I meant to defeat it!" Dark snarled, trying Gishar only to see the jagged bolt of silver-and-black lightning fork and hit the ground to the left and right of the dragon, vaporising snow but missing its target entirely. "Crys! I want to try something... I haven't been able to try it out but we have no choice but try anything we can think of... I don't know if it'll work, but cast your fire magic after three!"
"Alright... but I don't think a Firestorm would-"
"We have to try! Now! On one - two - three - now!"
Please, let this work! Dark prayed as he cast his spell. "WIND!"
Wide-eyed, Crys watched as three conical bursts of shimmering air shot from Dark's outstretched hand, merging their power with her single-blast Flaeli to become red-hot spikes of flame. The dragon countered the first one, dispelling it with a word, but the second and third blasts were too close after to be dodged. The beast roared as their Firespike hit home, causing great flashes of light. The damage was small, insignificant, but the flashes somehow managed to blind the creature for a little while. The dragon shook its head and roared in anger, and Crystal stared at Dark.
"That was magic! M A G I C magic!! How - where - what in the world-!"
"Later! I'll explain later!" Dark gasped. "Fuck this fight! I hate this! I can't even hurt that thing!"
"Use Wind alone!" Crys said. "It - oh, Light! According to legend, Noah Lutz destroyed the dragon before with that very spell! LIGHT!"
"Can't... not strong enough..." Dark almost seemed about to cry from frustration. "Damn it all to the hells! Die you bastard!"
"Dark -! Look - behind us!" Shane shouted. Dark turned his head -
"The cavalry has arrived!" Holt cheered.
It had. In a rapidly fading green light, Tirom and Jun led six Dezorians in priest robes toward the fight.
"It's true!" one of the Dezorians, an old, wrinkled man, gasped. "Quickly! Form a circle!" He pulled something bluish-glowing from his robes and raised it over his head. The other Dezorians formed a five-pointed star, standing in a circle with their backs to the old man, hands out and touching at the fingertips. The blue light in the old one's hands immediately flared to life, its glow enveloping the priests. Tirom and Jun threw themselves down in the snow near their companions. Jun showed thumbs-up.
"Now he's gonna get it!"
"Let's hope so!" Dark muttered.
The Dezorians' light now formed a pillar of whitish blue light. Apparently, the leader considered the power enough, for he unleashed a blast of pure white fire against the dragon. The pillar of light shrank down to a faint glow in the old man's hands. An incredible force slammed into the golden monster, throwing it off its feet and several meters back, away from the priests. "Way to go!" Jun shouted. Dark grinned an unholy, terrible grin.
The Dezorians started recharging their weapon, but it seemed to be harder for them this time, as if they had spent much power in that first attack. The dragon, meanwhile, was rising to its feet and shaking its head groggily.
"They'll never kill it," Crys whispered. "We're doomed!"
"No we aren't!" Dark growled. Then he suddenly got a shocked look in his eyes and shouted, "Look! The Mansion!"
Everybody looked. As the hunter spoke, the large double doors opened, and out came over a dozen of Espers, all clad in robes of a bluish white rather similar to the light called by the Dezorian priests. A shimmering shell appeared over the blue-clad mages, deflecting a volley of arrows from the besiegers. The shell, however, did nothing to prevent techniques or spells thrown by the Espers. In one attack, the Esper force destroyed more enemies than twice their own number without any apparent losses.
"The Espers finally woke up!" Dark exclaimed. "Finally!"
"Let's help with the dragon!" Shane shouted. "Everybody! When they use their fire next time!"
"Roger that!" Adrian agreed. "Shane - aim your 'sonic spear' through the waves from my disrupter! Maybe we can accomplish something..."
The Dezorians had finally recovered their strength again, and were getting ready to fire their weapon. Shane, Dark, Crys, Adrian and even Jun prepared their own weapons. As the moment drew nearer, all sounds seemed to fade away...
The priests threw a blindingly bright ray of fire.
Adrian Holt pressed the button on his Sonic Disrupter.
Shane spun her sword around and launched a blast through the sound waves.
Dark pulled his own slasher from its rough-cut leather sheath and channelled Darkblade force into the Laconium, then threw it like a knife.
Crystal gathered her will to unleash another spell, Burst, causing fiery explosions to detonate around the dragon.
Jun cast his most powerful technique, fully mastered only a few weeks ago. His voice, commanding, "GITHU!" was almost lost in the sudden noise.
The dragon had no chance to avoid all six attacks at once, try as it might. Augmented by Shane's 'spear', the sound waves from the Disrupter gathered around the artificial vacuum, and they struck together like a battering ram. Jun's Githu was lost in the priests' holy fire, mixing with Crys' Burst spell as they met just in front of the great reptile, causing explosions that could be seen for miles around and threw all but one of the priests off their feet. And in the midst of this inferno of powers, small and unseen, Dark's slasher, unnoticed, spun lazily through the air and as easily cut through scales, flesh and bone. Slicing clean through skin, wind-pipe and spine, the blades finally stopped, the points barely visible between the shiny scales.
At the dragon's death, a wave of despair swept through the enemy lines. The Espers needed no help to disperse of the few who resisted. The majority either threw down their weapons or ran for their lives. Only a few got away.
"I knew," Dark gasped, hugging Crystal close, "I just knew that I'd find a use for that slasher... someday..."
Crys, exhausted, didn't even try to reply; she only hugged him back, weakly. Around them, the rest of the group were doing much the same. Some of the Dezorian priests brushed the snow from their robes; others sat down to rest. The oldest one put the blue light back inside his robe.
"So it's over, huh..."
No one but the one who said those words would ever know exactly who had said them. It could have been anyone; they all felt like that. And after the battle, the snow under them seemed as soft and comfortable as goose-feather mattresses.
"That isn't really necessary, y'know," Crys said as Dark started trying to get his slasher out from the dragon's neck. "There are spare weapons in the Mansion. You can get another slasher if you need one."
"Don't think I want to dig through this disgusting mess," the hunter replied. "But I kinda like this particular weapon. After all, it was a gift from a friend."
"Oh, come on, friend! I can give you another, Dark. Just - will you cut that out! It's disgusting!"
"You could turn away, you know," Dark said. He finally reached the weapon' hilt, but it was slippery with dragon's blood and he couldn't get a hold of it. "Hey, cutting it out was a good idea... Damn, I hate dragons."
"Tell me something else I already know," Crys muttered. "Dark, we'd better get inside. All the other Espers have returned. They'll want to thank you for your help."
"If they really want to thank us," Dark told her, "I think they can wait a few more minutes, hmm?"
"Yeah... only I'm a bit cold and I'd rather get inside now."
"Go ahead! I'll be along shortly... get the others in too, this might take some tim- ow! Damn I knew I shouldn't have sharpened that thing. Well, what'dyaknow, I got it!" He triumphantly held the razor-sharp blades up for her to see. The bluish Laconia metal was red with blood, some of which was Dark's. "Let's go, then," he said, then bent to wipe off the blood in the snow. "Yo, guys! Let's get inside."
"About blasted time too," Shane muttered as she followed her brother and the Esper. Adrian followed the huntress. Jun and Tirom stayed behind to bid the Dezorian priests farewell, then followed the others. The bishop of Gumbius stood still for a few seconds, watching them go, then motioned for J!mbeka to take them home.
There were two Espers positioned outside the Mansion as guards. As the party approached, the two guards held their hands out, creating a shimmering barrier over the stone gate.
"Hold it. Who goes there?"
"Bugger off," Crys said unceremonially. "It's me."
"Crystal! Welcome back. Who are these people...?"
"Friends of mine," Crys said pointedly. "They defeated the dragon for you."
"Really, I thought that was the priests... well, our rules forbid non-Espers to come in, but I think we can make an exception for you - after all, you are allies." The guards stepped down, allowing Crys to open the gates. As they passed, Jun noticed that these gates were carved with pictures as well - but only about half of one door. There were three pictures, actually - all describing Espers standing around one single, tall man. This man, Jun assumed, was a leader of some sort, and although the three pictures were rather similar, the three men looked somewhat different. It had to be three different men - possibly the Espers' most respected leaders or something.
"Home at last," Crystal said. She looked around and smiled to herself. "Still looks the same to me..."
"That's-" There was a statue near the gate, and Dark was staring at it. "Landale."
"Indeed. She's a heroine, after all."
"So that's how you knew..." Dark muttered. "Hmm... indeed..."
"Yeah. Now, we'd better find someplace for you to stay... I know there are some empty rooms... I'd better ask someone first, though... but first, let's go get something to eat. I'm starving."
"Most of us are," Shane said. "By the way, I wonder how my sword..." She pushed the switch to activate the plasma-sword. It didn't react. "No, nothing. Hey, that shield is gone!"
"It should be," Dark said. "We'd be inside it now, anyways." And that would have to mean that... well, time for that later.
"Oh. Yeah. I forgot." Shane actually managed to look a bit red-faced. "Were you talking about food, Crys?"
"Yeah," the Esper smiled, "I did. Come! This way."
Of course, the Esper couldn't keep from talking as well.
"Well, Dark - could you enlighten me now?"
"Don't play stupid, the part doesn't fit you. How the hells did you manage to learn magic?"
"Oh, that," Dark said dismissively. "What's the big deal anyway? You learned magic, I learned magic - what's so strange about that?"
"Wiseguy!" Crys spat. "Now tell me! I know there aren't any Espers left on Mota! There's no one to teach you! Sure, I learned to use my magic - few are born with the ability to utilise magic power. But you couldn't have!"
"Then maybe I'm born with the ability?" Dark said. "Nice stew, I really like it - my compliments to the cook."
"...please?" Crys begged. "I want to know!"
"Oh, well. First, by the way, I may be one of the ones born to magic-users. My 'Darkblade' is not a technique, and it does summon a kind of power that is... well, strange. It feels more like magic than anything else. Then, more likely... You remember the phase tower? Of course you do, silly question. I always remember places where I'm almost killed. Anyway, we were supposed to destroy the weird guy's library... only some of it happened to survive. By being in my pack at the time when the rest went up in flames, actually."
"You took some texts from the Ladea Tower?" Crys asked weakly.
"Weeell," Dark said with a sly grin, "you might say I did. After all, I didn't get any payment for the job, so I felt some compensation was in demand... or on the other hand, one might say that I was just plain curious. I got lucky."
"What do you mean by lucky?" Crys asked. She had the look of someone that had went to buy a new coat and returned home to find her children grown up and married. It was a rather comical look - to others.
"Well, you see... I found part of Yangour's journal for his first fifty years - a huge volume, very heavy - lots of pages. It detailed his advance in power, and allowed me to duplicate some of it. It appears Yangour once thought himself able to revive magic."
"Yes, but he could never realise his dream... he had missed some important parts. I managed to fill the blanks... so to speak. And I was able to complete, and actually cast a spell that he had begun outlining in his book.
"That was the spell of Wind. I also managed to create another spell from notes in his journal, although it took a lot of time. That spell was simply called Fire." Crys gasped as she heard the name. "The second book," Dark continued, "was a new one. It was the research notes for Neofoi. I saw the word Neo and grabbed the book. I might say I got very lucky. The Neo technique was created with Yangour's own magic notes as a base, one might say - that's why they shared elements of both magic and tech."
"ooh..." Crys rested her head in her hands. "Dark, I told you Mota wasn't ready for that kind of power again!"
"Well, you did, and I disagree. Some people may use it for 'evil' purposes, just as they may use steel - but some will use it for good. There is no telling what would happen if everybody got to use magic - but then, there will never be possible to tell! I kept the knowledge to myself, and when I had learned all I could from the books, I burned them. No one will ever know... but me. And I can handle it, Crys - you of all people should know that. I have respect for powers - be they natural or magical."
"I know..." The Esper sighed. "I just wished you had left them there... and burned them from the beginning..."
"I couldn't!" Dark put his hand on Crys' shoulder. "Don't you understand? What if you knew that ancient knowledge was at your fingertips - you said it yourself, your spells are pale images of the powers that the ancients commanded. What if you saw this power, and knew that you would only have to reach out to grab it? That you would only be given one chance, that it would never return - and that you could, if you regretted your decision, abandon the power later on? I could never pass down such an offer, Crys, and I believe you couldn't either. I heard the longing in you when you spoke of the old spells! Well I found them! And I would rather die than lose such an opportunity."
"I ...see. Yes, I see. I understand all too well, Dark, and I confess... I would probably have done the same."
"I knew it," Dark grinned. He tightened his grip on her shoulder for a second, then released. "Magic is just another tool. It's up to the wielder when to use it and not. And rest assured, Raven - I'll be as wise in using magic, as I am in using techniques. So far, I have never used them to further evil ends, and if I can help it, I never will."
"I think you can help it," Crys said. "You will be a good magician, Dark - and it's a pity that you weren't born here on Dezo. You would have been a fine Esper."
"No," Dark disagreed. "If I hadn't lived on Mota, I wouldn't have found the books, and then, I would never have learned magic to start with. Now, didn't you say something about a place to rest? And I'd really like to wash the dragon off my hands as well."
"You need it," Crys laughed.
Dark had washed and put on some clean clothes, as provided by the Espers - meaning the blue robe worn by novices. Similar to the garb of Espers in all but colour, the robe was comfortable, and although Dark preferred blue to white, he disliked the idea of dressing up as if he was inferior to the others in the mansion. If Crys' power level was somewhat typical for Espers, as far as Dark had seen, she wasn't that much stronger than him, and as for experience, he had years of practice in using techniques. Still, it was better to wear clean robes. All his other clothes were either dirty or wet - he had washed some, and intended to wear them as soon as they dried up.
He met the others outside, in the corridor where all their rooms were located. The others wore similar robes, and looked rather strange in them - all but Tirom; she usually wore Motavians' robes, which had some similarity to the Espers'. Jun, on the other hand, looked extremely funny, wearing a robe a few numbers too large. The thief looked disgusted - he always wore clothes with as little spare cloth as possible, so that it wouldn't get in the way of his movements. The robe did nothing but get in the way. It irritated him to no end, and it showed. For a while. But Jun could conceal his feelings, and after a few disgusted grunts, he did.
"All washed up?" Crys, the only one wearing white, asked.
"Yeah," said Shane. "Hey, Crys, why are they dressing us up like rookies?"
"It's not considered polite for non-Espers to wear Espers' robes," Crys said. "Actually, not all Espers use magic, so all of you should qualify as Espers... but you aren't. Sorry."
"Not your fault," Shane said, "and I kinda like this robe. It's comfortable. And light. Although after wearing armour and those leathers for days in a row, I almost feel naked in this..."
"...to the delight of male Espers everywhere," Dark muttered humorously. Shane glared and made a threatening gesture with her fist. Dark, of course, ignored it. "Hey, Crys, how about showing us around? We still have to figure out what's cancelling the machines' power."
"Sure thing," Crys agreed, "but I still doubt that it's really located here. I think I ought to feel something if it was from around here."
"Unless it's something that's so familiar that you don't notice it," Dark filled in for the who-knowsth time. And... there was the fact that everything mechanical had shut down again, as soon as the shield lifted...
First of all, Crys took them to see Silva. The younger Esper was overjoyed to see them, but at the moment, she was busy tending to the Espers wounded in the recent battle. Promising to come back later so that they could talk, Crys and the others left the sickbay and continued the sightseeing trip.
The Mansion was indeed a large building, and it took a while for them to see all of it. Even then, there were places where they couldn't go - such as the absolute centre of the Mansion. Two armed and armoured guards blocked the way and wouldn't let anyone pass, not even Crystal.
"That path leads to Lutz' own quarters," she said as they passed the guards. "No one is allowed there unless by Lutz' invitation."
"Hmm," Jun said, eyeing the guards suspiciously.
"No you won't," Dark and Shane said automatically, pulling the thief along with them. "You're not."
"I wasn't intending to!" Jun lied, but he didn't even try to make the lie convincing. "Hey don't you guys realise that if there's some weirdo thing going on it's probably in there - where the most powerful Esper lives?"
"You dream," Shane snorted. "Why would Lutz want to sabotage the maintenance androids? Wake up, Jun."
"Hmm..." muttered Jun.
"Hmm yourself," Shane said grimly. "If I have to tie you down..."
"Don't bother," the thief muttered sullenly. "I get the point, mother!"
There was a knock on the door. Dark, a light sleeper, was wakened by the first knock, and sat up in the comfortable bed to try and find out what had disturbed his sleep. He didn't have to wait long before there was another knock on the door.
"Huh... yeah, comeonin, but you'd better have a good reason to disturb, whoever you are."
The door opened. Whatever Dark had expected - although in fact he had not been expecting anything at all - what he saw was different. Three white-robed Espers were standing outside, two of which shuffling their feet as if nervous. The third was probably the one who had knocked; he looked more certain than the others.
"Dark Gray," he said, "come with us. The Master Lutz has decided for you to be tried..."
"Wait a minute, what'dya mean by 'tried'?" Dark asked warily. He had his sword close at hand, and almost any part of his own body could be used as a weapon as deadly as any steel blade. Dark now prepared to use all weapons he could get. "Does he think I'm some sort of criminal?" Something was wrong with this scene.
"It's not up to us to question him," the Esper said, his voice betraying some dislike of Dark's speech. "Now, will you come or will we have to get you?"
"Neither. Not until someone tells me what the hells is going on," Dark stated. "Now, please!"
"We weren't given that responsibility," the Esper said. Dark scowled.
"That means you don't know," he said. "You two back there! Have you got any ideas?"
"Ehm..." One of the Espers cleared his throat.
"I didn't think so. Well, tell Lutz I'm honoured that he wants to see me, but that if he expects me to come running in the middle of the night just because he feels like a chat, he'd better have something important to say. Close the door when you leave." He started to turn his attention back to his bed.
"I'm afraid I can't do that," the first Esper said in a silky tone of voice. "Our orders are to bring you to him... now."
"I..." one of the two who had been silent until now finally spoke up. "It feels wrong, but orders are orders... please understand. We cannot disobey a direct order from Lutz himself!"
"I see." Dark nodded. "You won't just go away, will you."
"I'm afraid not."
"Well then..." Dark didn't want to harm the two in the back, but the third one, that arrogant bastard, seemed to take some pleasure in what he was doing. Dark wouldn't mind beating him up. But...
"I warn you," the arrogant one said. "If you try anything funny... we've got your friends as well."
"Why you...!" Dark's muscles tensed by their own accord, and his body prepared to go for the Esper's throat. His mind, on the other hand, told him not to do it. Dark shrugged. "I'll come, then - but you can rest assured that I will not forget this, punk. I have killed for less... threatening my friends is just about the worst thing you can do. I will see that you pay - is it worth it? I may be your guest, but I'm not going to let you bully me around just because the roof belongs to you. Wait outside."
"Outside! Now!" Dark slammed the door in the Espers' faces, then pulled on his clothes - they were dry now, luckily; he'd rather walk naked than wear something that would make people think he was an Esper after this. Even if the Espers valued a novice Esper higher than a non-Esper, Dark would rather have them think of him as something not associated with Espers at all. This was, after all, closer to the truth.
The three Espers were waiting, but they weren't alone. There were five other groups, for a total of thirteen Espers in the corridor; Dark noted that he was the only one watched by three.
"Hey, get your hands off me!" Jun protested as two Espers dragged him out of his room. "I haven't stolen anything for days! Leggo of me! Bugger off!"
"Easy, Jun," Dark commanded. "They say Lutz wants to talk to us..."
"That's what they say," the thief said. "Release me! Or you'll be sorry!"
"Let him go," Dark commanded wearily, "or I'll make you. He won't run anywhere." The Espers reluctantly let go of the thief. Jun 'accidentally' stepped on one man's toes.
"Sorry. Keep your feet to yourself!"
Meanwhile, Shane, Tirom, Adrian and Crystal were led into the corridor. Crystal looked angry and frightened, genuine feelings that told anyone able to read faces that she was not a part of the situation. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "There will be consequences!"
"I daresay there will," another Esper said sarcastically, "but maybe not the kind you talk about. Shut up and follow us."
"You haven't seen the last of this yet!" the raven-haired Esper warned, but followed the others. Other than Dark, the other members of the party only wore various nightgowns and underwear. Their walk through the Mansion would normally have raised a few eyebrows, but strangely, no one was about to see it.
The two guards were gone, and they proceeded into a large garden, full of trees. In the middle of the garden, there was a dome-shaped stone building, its surface so smooth that it almost looked like metal. The party was ushered through a door, which was then closed behind them. They now stood in a dimly lit room - but they were not alone. On a throne-like chair in the far end of the room, a man in bluish white robes was sitting. He was tall and fair-skinned, and his hair was bright blue, only a few shades deeper than his robe.
"Reverent Lutz!" Crys gasped.
Lutz was not the only Esper in the building. A few others had followed the prisoners inside; the arrogant one that Dark had considered punching was one of them.
"You wonder why I had you brought to me..." Lutz stated. His voice was calm, cool, and full of power. Dark didn't like it.
"You bet we do!" he snapped. "With all due respect, Lutz - what the fuck is going on? I know we are guests in your house, but that doesn't give you the right to behave like..."
"Dark!" Crystal hissed. "Shh! Don't!"
"I want answers." The hunter folded his arms over his chest. "We deserve nothing less after this treatment."
"And answers you will have," Lutz promised. "However, I believe my business with you is more important. You see, I have reason to believe that something is wrong... with that battle outside the Mansion. A gold dragon should not be that easily defeated. So, we must see if you have some trace of, well, evil in you - in case this is a trick played by the forces of Darkness. I am sorry that we called you here at such an inconvenient time, but it is absolutely necessary." Dark noticed that the anger was gone from Crystal's features - only fear remained.
"Please!" she pleaded. "I know these people! They are nothing but honourable - I have fought alongside them before. And as for the dragon, we needed all our combined forces, together with the energy of a sextet of Dezorian priests wielding holy light! I wouldn't call it easy, Reverent."
"Still, I must be sure. Forgive me... The test I spoke of is a simple one. A spell will be cast over you, a spell that calls forth a light which harms anything linked with the Darkness - quite similar to the Dezorian priests' 'holy light', actually. Anything that is not allied with the Darkness will escape unscathed - but it may be slightly painful. If you refuse to be tested, you will be expelled from the Mansion, never to return. If you fail the test... we shall see. If you are pure, untainted, you will have my sincere apologies, and be granted free access to the entire Mansion. Will you take the test?"
Jun shook his head, but didn't speak. Dark growled. "We will," he said. "We need your 'free access'. Go ahead, then, and do your worst."
"Thank you. You may cast now, Ahmrin."
Ahmrin, apparently, was the arrogant Esper, for he started moving his hands in a complex pattern. Either, Dark thought, he isn't very good, or this spell is something else... All magic and techniques he knew were cast with a single word and a gesture - although really only the word was necessary. Finally, the command word came.
Blue light illuminated the chamber, casting ghostly shadows. Brighter light danced over the party. Five out of six rubbed their arms and shoulders as the light passed - it was an odd sensation, like being warm and freezing at the same time, but still not quite like that. Crys grimaced, but kept her hands under control.
However, the light didn't fade. The feeling became more like pain than anything else - not really painful, but not really anything else than painful, either. The ones most used to tech-casting were most affected; to them, the pain was really pain. Jun, Holt and Shane felt little, but to Dark, Tirom and Crys, the pain was worse.
Suddenly, Dark felt an intense heat around himself. His instincts told him to fight the heat, and he tried, unsuccessfully. He felt it burn... then it vanished. The hunter realised that he was kneeling on the floor, fists clenched, and stood up.
"What was that?" he asked. "What use is that spell anyway?"
"You felt the presence of Light," Lutz said, rising from his chair. "There is Darkness in you!" Suddenly, he looked different - Dark couldn't say how, but maybe the new expression was... confusion?
"The pain you felt was Light fighting the Darkness within you! But you felt only a little pain; you are not a creature of the Darkness itself..."
"Everybody does, Lutz," Dark said. "No one is perfect. I knew very well that I carried darkness inside me - but I never let it go its own way."
"I am not a servant of anything!" Dark said firmly. "I am my own man, and I would kill myself before I let anything, dark or light, control me. Now, we passed your test, did we not?"
"I - I am not sure..." Lutz sat down. "Remain here, Gray - the rest of you, wait outside."
"We're not leaving Dark!" Shane protested.
"Do it," Dark commanded. "Now."
Puzzled, his friends opened the door and went outside, followed by suspicious Espers. Dark closed the door after them.
"You 'aren't sure'," he said. "What's wrong - what is it that is actually happening here? This might fool the others, but... it's too stupid! You must have another reason."
"I... I need help," Lutz whispered. "Please... time is short, I have to speak now... listen, and try not to ask questions."
"I shall try," Dark promised. "Talk."
"For over three thousand years, Espers have watched over Algo - we are protecting it against the forces of a great evil: an evil known only as Dark Force. Its goal is to conquer all of Algo. The Esperin telemental power, known as 'magic', is one of our major weapons, and also our greatest defence. It shields our minds, and prevents the Darkness from taking possession of our souls and bodies.
"I was born over five hundred years ago. Yes, I seem young, but I have lived for hundreds of years. Almost exactly five hundred years ago, I... did something I believed was right. It was time for Dark Force to manifest again, as it does once every one thousand years. A man was given the ability to fight the Dark - as always, a courageous person is made 'Protector', in order to defeat Dark Force.
"The man succeeded, with my help. He travelled into space and banished the demon.
"However, it did not end there. Aboard the space ship where the battle took place, there was a great computer controlling all of Algo. Recently, it had started malfunctioning - the computer, in fact, was the reason why the man came here. After destroying the computer, the man prepared to return home.
"I stopped him. I sensed a great number of souls aboard the ship, and told the man to investigate. These beings called themselves 'earthmen'. A battle followed, and the man, the Protector, and his friends destroyed their enemies, but were in the end almost destroyed themselves. I could have brought them here at any moment, but I chose not to. I believed that I should keep the knowledge of Dark Force from the people of Algo - I believed that the knowledge would cause great panic. Unwittingly, I made a grave error. The Protectors were saved by another force, and saved from the ship, without my help - but my deeds had not helped anyone, but would instead have been of a great benefit to Darkness!
"Originally, I knew that I had done what I thought right. But as the time passed, I became overcome with guilt. They had suffered so much! I then realised that my duty would have been to bring them back as they destroyed the Mother Brain.
"While my errors were not enough to make me fall, my guilt was. Such feelings are what Dark Force feeds on - and they left me vulnerable.
"Now, as the first Esper ever, I have been infected with Darkness. As my words here are my own... but I feel my grasp slipping. Soon I will not be able to help myself, and become its tool again! I need your help, Gray, for I sense in you a great power of will. You mus...t... go... please! Help... me..." Lutz gasped. Suddenly, his face changed again, and Dark had no time to act. A wall rose around him, and the Esper lord commanded, "Bring them back to me!"
The doors instantly opened, allowing several Espers and Dark's friends inside. Shane tried to reach Dark, but the wall kept her from him. A gesture from Lutz, and she and the others found themselves immobilised by spell-bonds.
"I shall decide what to do with these trespassers shortly," Lutz stated. Dark struggled against his bonds, but the wall held. He saw Crystal mouth a word, then, to his astonishment, he heard her voice inside his head!
-Dark! What has he done to you?-
-No time- Dark thought back. -Is there any way for us - for me to challenge his authority? Quickly!-
-What - no, let me think...- there was a short silence. -Yes! There is a way! You need to call for a 'sacred trial'!-
-Light and Darkness both bless you, Raven!-
-Wait, Dark! It's almost impossible to win! I can tell you all I know--
Dark didn't wait. He pushed Crys' consciousness out of his head, hearing only a faint plea, -Please...!- before the connection was severed.
"Lutz!" he shouted. "I call for a sacred trial!"
"Then I'll be the first," Dark said simply. "I have the right."
"Yes..." another Esper said dubiously. "You do have the right to a sacred trial! Anyone can claim that right - I remember that now."
"We have to let him try, then," the first said. "Okay, you already know the rules, I guess... No weapons except your mind are allowed. You must reach the sword and talk to the spirits. Any questions?"
"No," Dark lied. "None at all. When do I start?"
"Right away," Lutz said coolly. "Down below."
Close to Lutz's chair, there was a staircase leading down. The Esper descended then stairs, followed by Dark, then the other Espers and the prisoners.
In the room below, the only piece of furniture was a kind of altar, upon which a gold ring rested. Over the ring, a softly glowing sphere hung suspended in empty air. Lutz passed the altar and strode up to the wall behind it. He did something to it, and a part of the stone wall slid in, revealing an opening like a door. Behind the opening, everything was dark...
"This is the site of the sacred trial," Lutz informed, somewhat unnecessarily. "Behind this gate lies the Sacred Sword Cave. We will monitor your progress by help of magic; we will know if you succeed. And if you don't..." He smiled evilly. "Then you don't. First of all, though... how did you find out about the sacred trial? Few Espers know about it!"
"Actually," Dark said calmly, "I asked Crys if there was some way to challenge your authority. There is."
"Ah... Crystal..." hissed the demon-possessed Esper. "You were never fit to be an Esper! It borders on treason to aid Darkness!"
"Shut up," Dark snapped. "If there's anyone worthy of the Esper robes, it's Crys! I won't take insults, punk, to my self or my friends."
"Let the trial begin!" the Esper lord growled. "Go ahead and die!" Other Espers gasped. "Move!"
"You're losing," Dark said softly. "I will see you again."
The cave was dark, but there was some light; Dark couldn't spot the source of it, though. As the hunter carefully started to walk, Lutz made a gesture, calling into being a silvery white screen in the air. A somewhat foggy picture faded in on the screen, allowing everyone in the room a vision of Dark, walking slowly and carefully. The surroundings were very dark, a mass of shadows, and impossible to make out. The only thing they were offered a clear view of was Dark.
"I have no doubt that he will fail," Lutz stated "However, we shall observe him. After all, we have to. But do not expect anything out of the ordinary. No one has ever reached the sword before." -Except for me, you demon!- the real Lutz shouted to the Darkness. -I will see you defeated yet!-
Unaware that he was being watched - Lutz had told him that they would keep track of his progress, but not how - Dark advanced. He had prepared casting a technique; it seemed stupid to take risks, especially if 'no one had ever survived a sacred trial'. Dark wished he had listened to Crys, maybe got a little more information about this 'trial'. He wouldn't mind knowing what he was getting in to... and he felt naked without his blades.
What's that? he wondered. There was a brighter spot ahead, like a flame. It can't be the goal, already... But then what? He tried to prepare himself for anything. He didn't succeed.
He reached the light.
He almost panicked as he saw what it was. A being that was eerily similar to three other creatures he had fought - one made of fire, and two ancient, purely evil demons, spawned by Dark Force itself. Made solely from bluish purple fire, it had arms like a man, but no legs, instead floating over the ground. Dark had almost died when he met the demons Saghi and Saghy; as well as when he fought the fire-being in Aiedo. He had no reason to believe that this creature would be less deadly, and he could well understand why no one had survived the trial before.
In his inner sanctum, Lutz/Dark Force smiled evilly. Meet your doom, Dark Gray!
Dark, despite his fear and hatred for the beings he had fought, did not attack. This creature made no hostile actions. How could he know...?
He did not have to think about it for very long. Suddenly, the being tired of waiting, and sent a fireball towards the hunter's head. Dark ducked and started advancing. He ducked another fireball, then reached the demon-thing and summoned a Deban shield in the middle of its body. Logically, non-corporeal creatures should be vulnerable to the mind-power/air screen; enemies with physical bodies wouldn't be affected at all, since the shield could not form inside physical matter. Unfortunately, this demon qualified as the latter. Dark's shield formed halfway, then shattered. A third fireball slammed into his shoulder, sending him sprawling on the rough floor. Dark sustained several small wounds as he rolled over sharp rocks, but nothing as serious as the burn on his shoulder. He countered the pain with Gires, but it took time, and he was almost hit again.
He rolled away. The rocks cut through his cloak and shirt and caused more wounds. Rising to his feet, Dark chose a technique to counter fire, and cast, "GIZAN." The demon was caught in the centre of the whirlwind, and its fiery body was extinguished. After a few seconds, when the wind subsided, no traces remained.
"That was one down, Lutz!" Dark said, knowing that the Esper wouldn't hear him. "Just you wait!"
"What's he saying?" Shane asked. Tirom shrugged.
"Don't know... I think 'wait' at the end, but I couldn't make out the rest. Damn, couldn't he have cast something that transmitted sound as well?"
Dark continued down a short staircase cut out from the rock itself. Another demon awaited him at the bottom of the stairs - or rather, a trio of demons. Dark didn't let it bother him. A simple Gizan technique later, two of the demons were gone, and he was preparing to get rid of the third one as well.
The demon stood perfectly still. As Dark opened his mouth to cast again, however, two large red lights flared in the demon's 'chest', almost like eyes. Dark froze. What -?
The glow intensified. Dark found it hard to move. Damn! He realised that the glow was somehow affecting him, but how...? He tried to close his eyes, but it was impossible. Then he tried to cast Zan. It didn't work; he couldn't move enough to cast. But maybe... yes! "S...seal."
It was such an easy technique to cast - the difficult part was to overcome the resistance. However, Dark targeted himself this time. Suddenly, he was able to move again, the tech-cancelling technique having broken the demon's semi-magical gaze attack. Dark wasted no time. As soon as the effects of the Seal tech wore off, he cast Gizan. The demon vanished in a shower of sparks.
Damn him! How can this be possible?
-I told you! I shall see you destroyed, impostor!-
You will be destroyed along with me, fool!
-I do not care. Finally, I understand that much! You won the battle, Dark Force, I give you that much - but I will win the war!-
There was another staircase. Dark descended... and found himself standing in a large chamber, dimly lit. There was a solid wall of demons in front of him, but behind them, something else...
"Demons!" Dark barked. "You know I can destroy you! Back down and I won't harm you... ah, like hell I won't. NAZAN!" Realising too late that casting that technique in such a confined space wasn't a very good idea, Dark had no time to stop. As soon as the wind started blowing, he flung himself flat on the floor, ignoring the sharp stones cutting his skin, and held on to a small stalagmite. An instant later, the wind was so strong that it threatened to suck the oxygen from his lungs as he breathed. Dark held his head down, pushed his forehead against the stones, but the technique seemed to have gone out of control. The wind was still increasing in power, long after the demons were gone. Dark held on with all his might - but that was of little help. By nature, stalagmites and stalagmites are soft, for stone, and Dark's weight soon became too much for the slim stone spire to support. It broke, and the hunter was thrown around like a ragdoll.
Suddenly, the wind stopped. Dark dropped to the ground at a bad angle, hitting his head on a sharp rock. Too dazed to cast anything and heal himself, Dark waited for the world to stop spinning. Once it had slowed down sufficiently, he sat up and rubbed his aching head. His hand came away red with blood. Dark muttered a few swearwords, then cast, "NARES..." The world immediately stabilised. "Ooh... damn..." He stood up, slowly. Despite his healing technique, Dark was feeling dizzy, and his entire body ached from the blows he had received. Well, it was nothing he could do about it. Dark looked around and once again spotted that...
He walked closer. There was a platform in the middle of the room, a short and narrow, ladder-like, staircase leading up. Slowly, Dark climbed it.
He had not been mistaken.
"What did he say?" Shane whispered. Tirom hesitated.
"I'm pretty sure..."
"Damn! If only we could see...!"
Suddenly, the screen went blank. Dark's image blinked and disappeared, leaving only the silvery whiteness. Lutz cursed, trying to restore his scrying device, but failed. As suddenly as if had gone blank, the screen shattered and vanished.
"Dark!" gasped Shane. "What happened?!"
"He must be dead," Lutz said. "He failed! And by doing so, he has lost his life. As you have lost yours..." He smiled again, a cold, evil smile that sent shivers up Shane's spine.
"You are lying!"
Shane didn't answer. It would do her no good. Now she could only pray... and hope.
"Obviously," Dark muttered to himself, "this is the goal. Now what?"
You do not know? It was a strange, echoing voice, and it sounded as if the speaker was very far away and very close at the same time.
"Who said that?" Dark looked around for a hidden speaker, but the room seemed empty.
I did. Dark spun and faced the statue. Yes...
"Al... Alis?" Dark whispered.
No... I am not Alis. The statue seemed to change... but then he realised that it was just a ghostly image fading in around the stone. The apparition was female, too, but rather different from the Heroine of Termi. Alis' spirit rests within this sword... as does the spirits of all Protectors of Algo. The image stepped forth, leaving the statue behind, and Dark stumbled away from it. As he saw the image solidify, however, he stopped and stared.
"What... are you?" he managed after a while.
The woman was not tall, but she wasn't short either. Her hair was long and silky, a purple hue such as might be seen in a sunset over the sea. Her eyes were large and luminescent, their colour the same as her hair but a few shades bluer. She was almost naked, and what little clothing she wore, like a veil of mist, did nothing to obscure the smooth curves, or the strength that lay hidden in her thin body. But Dark couldn't tear his gaze from her face. And her ears...
They were pointed, like those of a musk cat.
"I know who you are," he said.
Do you? she asked. How singular!
"No... but I know what you are. I am honoured." Dark bowed. The girl seemed amused by this, and smiled.
I am here to ask your help, she said. The smile vanished without a trace, and as she spoke again, her voice sounded like any Palman girl's. "It is important. Lutz..."
"I know," Dark said. "I am here because I hoped to help him somehow... although I can't imagine how I could do that."
"I am here to help you," she said. "You must destroy the demon... before it destroys the Espers. You see, Lutz did something... horrible."
"He told me."
"I... see..." She lowered her head. "So you know..."
"Yes..." Dark could feel emotions radiating from her, but it was impossible to understand them. One, however, was easy to spot: an incredible sadness. He wished he could comfort her somehow, but had no way of doing it. He reached out to touch her hand. "Please! Tell me what I can do."
She met his gaze again, and said, "The sword. Take the sword."
"This sword?" Dark asked.
"Yes." She turned and laid her hands on the hilt. The statue suddenly released its hold on the hilt, and the sword clinked on the ground. The purple-haired woman turned to Dark with the weapon in her hands. "Take this sword - the sacred sword of Algo. It has the power to banish Dark Force... and I pray that it still has the power, although it is still broken. Take it!"
Dark hesitantly took the sword in his hands. It was very light, clearly an excellent weapon, although a bit off-balance due to the broken blade.
"Thank you..." he said, "whoever you are."
"Do you wish to know my name?"
"Actually..." Dark grinned sheepishly. "No offence, but I'd rather know the name of the cat."
"The cat?" She seemed puzzled. Dark grinned again.
"Yeah. In Termi, I saw a statue depicting Alis - this woman. Also, there was a cat with her - a musk cat. Ever since I saw that statue, I have wondered what the cat was doing there - because no one can tell me!"
"Oh..." The girl giggled. "Oh, I see! Myau! Come to us!"
There was a moment of silence. Then, out of nowhere, a voice came:
"I am here..."
"Please," the girl said, "show yourself." There was another short moment of silence, then a golden mist faded into being over the statue of Alis. Swirling and solidifying, the mist suddenly formed the image of a huge musk cat - a musk cat with wings!
"I am Myau," the cat purred.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Dark said, bowing. "I must say, you look a lot different form the statue."
"The statue was made out of the stone mason's memory. At the time, I would have looked very much like any other musk cat to you. However, since I ate the nut of Laurema..."
"That is right. The Laurematrees' fruits are magical, and their power affects us Musk Cats in a special way. The nut gave me wings. And unlike my fellow Protector here, I speak to you not from the Void of the next world, but from Myst Vale. As the only Protector left alive today, I wish you luck..." Myau's image started to fade. Dark, speechless, bowed. As Myau vanished, he mumbled,
"And I thank you, Myau of the Musk Cats..."
"As Myau did, I shall give you my name." He looked up to see the girl smiling again. "I am Nei."
"The human who was not a human..."
"Yes! How did you know?"
"I have read it somewhere," Dark said. "I realise, if all humans were as inhuman as you... we would be a better race. You have not said much, but trust me in this, Nei: this meeting has taught me much."
"That makes me happy. Now, I must go - and so must you! Remember, we are with you... all of us! Call upon our memories, and we shall answer."
There was no afterimage, no fading effect, no green light as created by Ryuka. One second she was there, the next she was gone, leaving Dark staring into Alis' gentle face.
"I have decided," Lutz said, "to have you executed... all of you!"
The other Espers in the room all gasped, shocked.
"Yes!" another voice boomed. "Silence!" A light ignited deep within the Sacred Sword Cave. It came closer...
Someone whispered, "The Sword! The Sacred Sword!"
"Impossible!" Lutz snapped. "The Dark-possessed is dead!"
"Not yet," the strange voice said, "but he will be shortly!" The light came closer. It was now possible to make out a cross-shape that seemed to be radiating the light.
"No! I command you! Stay away! Go back!" Lutz raised both hands and sent darts of black force toward the light. The cross spun swiftly, coming up to counter the black darts.
"You lost the power to command long ago."
"No! Stay away!" In desperation, the Esper started casting a deathspell. A purplish black mist rolled through the air... and vanished, absorbed into the light.
"It is a pity, that it must end this way."
"Dark...?" gasped Shane. "It's him! It's got to be!"
"Indeed." The glowing cross-shape was close now, and they could make out a humanoid shape behind it. "Lutz!"
"No! Begone! LEGEON!"
"Pathetic little wizard!" Shane yelled, struggling against the magical bonds. "He won, you bastard! Leave him alone!"
Legeon caused the powers floating through the air to go wild. Explosions rocked the entire building, and the bright light within the cave dimmed and wavered, and suddenly the cross-shape fell to the floor.
"Dark! Get up, damn it!" Shane shouted.
"Was... was that... your best... shot?" The light rose again. Dark stepped out from the cave, battered and bleeding but very much alive. "In that case... I wonder how you could ever reach this position."
"Dark! Wh - how did you get that sword?" Shane stared at the broken blade in his hands. It was a longsword - certainly nothing that he could have smuggled in. He must have found it within...
"That's the Sacred Sword...!" whispered Crys. "I - I never thought he'd be able to bring it out here!"
"I didn't 'bring it out here'," Dark said. "It was given to me... by the one whose name it carried." He glared at Lutz. "You know who it was! She brought about your doom once before, and will do so again!"
"Never! I am Dark Force! I am death incarnate! No one can stand up against me! Your sword is broken! I shall never be defeated!"
"You know, I think I have heard that 'death incarnate' crap before. Wanna know how it went for the one that said it? He was eaten. Slowly. Starting from the feet and going up. Oh, no, that was power incarnate. How silly of me. However -" Dark's eyes glowed blue; his voice changed slightly as he spoke again. "- you have missed one little detail:" Dark looked around. Everyone was looking at him; even Dark Force was still, listening. "You have forgotten that since there is a balance of 'dark' and 'light', 'life' and 'death', 'good' and 'evil'... it is not possible for either side to summon a champion without the other side doing the same. A Protector has been appointed. The balance will not be destroyed that easily. You should know that..." Dark's eyes returned to normal; he rubbed them with his hand, as if he wasn't sure about what he was going to do - or what he had done. He made a magnificent recovery and levelled the sword at Dark Force's throat. "Espers," he whispered. "Your leader... Lutz... is dead. His body has been taken over by your hated enemy, Dark Force. I would suggest you strike now."
"We can't!" one Esper whispered back. "We... enemy or not, we cannot attack our leader!"
"I see." Dark brought the sword up in 'ready' position. "I shall do it myself!"
-But do what you are good at!- Nei's voice reverberated in his head. -This is not a duel! You are fighting for your life against a ruthless enemy that will kill you in any manner he can, as soon as you give him the chance!-
"Yes! Of course! Dark Force - - - NEOFOI!" Dark channelled the fire through the sword. Lutz raised his arms and crossed his wrists. Fire met flesh - and vanished.
"Very good...!" Lutz mocking voice said. "But not good enough!"
"Gaah! NEOSHAR!" This time, the entire Mansion shook, and chips of stone fell from the walls. High above, clouds gathered, sparkling, and sent a single bolt of lightning through the stone. The bolt melted its way through the roof over their heads, striking, with pinpoint precision, Dark Force. For an instant, the Esper's body was hidden behind a curtain of crackling silver light. The ancient demon, caught by surprise, was knocked down on the floor, and Dark swung the sword to separate Lutz' head from his body.
The sword met solid air with a force that once again almost knocked it from Dark's grasp.
"You are... too slow!" Lutz easily rose to his feet. "You lack, if you pardon the pun, Force. You were never a real Protector, boy!" He launched a Forceflash spell, and this time it was Dark who was thrown off his feet.
"I never claimed to be one!" he growled. "Alright - Handle this!" Darkblade power flooded the Sacred Sword...
Dark Force backed away, arms raised. Dark and his friends stared at the broken sword in amazement.
Waves of blue and black energy pulsed along the blade. For each wave, the blade was becoming longer - regenerating! As they watched, clouds of what appeared to be dust gathered at the weapon's tip, the specks of 'dust' adding themselves to the whole of the sword. The Darkblade power spent, Elsydeon glittered in the dim light. Dark Force was standing with its back to a wall, the red light of hatred glimmering in its eyes.
"You... shall... die!" it promised.
"No, but you will!" Dark tried again, and this time succeeded in summoning his ultimate weapon. He swung...
Dark Force moved to counter the attack. Holding its hands up, it spoke one word.
The weapon bounced off an invisible barrier.
Dark was shocked. What? He blocked my Darkblade! Impossible!
-He commands both the powers of Light and Darkness through Lutz and his own magic- Nei's voice warned him. -Even the Sacred Sword cannot penetrate that barrier! We must...-
"Nei! Speak to me, damn it!"
-You must use a greater power... one that is independent to the two powers!- It was another voice, a man's voice. -Dark... receive the power...-
Knowledge is power - power is knowledge. Knowledge flowed through him, and he realised what he must do.
He knew he could do it. It was so simple! Holding the sword in one hand, he summoned all his rage, anger, hatred, to finally destroy this enemy-
-NO!- It was both Nei and the nameless man speaking in unison. -Not in anger! You must never use Megid in anger! Or it will consume you!-
"No... anger?" The thought was so strange that Dark lowered his weapon in confusion. How was it possible? He had been given command over a technique that focussed emotions in destructive explosions - and was not to use anger? Then how?
Ah! The knowledge was his own, this time, but no less a great power than the gift of Megid. The opposite of hate... love? She must mean... But how can I love my enemy?
-You need not love the enemy!- Nei said. -Only use what love you have... for anything!-
Dark raised his sword again. Focussing, changing the anger and hate into reverence of life, and, in the end, love - a challenge more difficult than any other he had ever faced - he whispered the word.
When, five hundred years earlier, Megid had been used for the first time, the wielder of the power had been the only one not caught in the explosions' path. Now, as finally, the power was understood, not merely used, only two beings were affected.
Rainbow explosions lit the chamber with crimson light.
A second before they reached him, the red light disappeared from Lutz' eyes, and Dark thought he heard the Esper whisper, "Finally..."
There were no expressions but peace in his face when he was consumed by the multicoloured explosions, the hundreds-of-years old body totally eradicated.
The other being was Dark, who paid a high price in keeping the most dangerous magic in Algo under control. As the Esper Lord fell, so did the Hunter, not dead, but grievously wounded.
At the caster's death, the magical bonds around Dark's companions were dissolved. They rushed to the new Protector's aid, Crys and Shane pooling their healing powers to close his wounds. Meanwhile, the building was starting to shake - it would not stand for very long, having taken all the power it could. Dark's Megid had torn a hole through the wall behind Lutz, and there was no telling when the building would come falling down around them.
"We have to get out of here!" shouted Tirom. "Everybody! I'll-"
"No!" gasped Crys. "The powers are flooding - we could end up anywhere! Help me carry him."
They placed the Sacred Sword on Dark's chest and carefully carried him up the stairs. The hunter was recovering, and as they reached the upper chamber, he opened his eyes.
"What... the hell happened?"
"You won, Dark," Shane mumbled. "We have to get out of here before we're crushed! This place is falling apart!"
"Ah... damn. I... really messed this... up didn't I?"
"No, Dark. You saved us all. The Espers are forever in your debt." Crys smiled. "They might even make you their new leader!"
"Bugger'em all. Want nothing to do with'em."
"It wasn't their fault.."
"Could you two quit doing that and give me a hand?" snapped Shane. "The Espers must'a locked the door I can't get it to open!"
"Hey... hey! Put me down!" Dark ordered. "Thank you!" He sat down with his back to Lutz' throne. "Now try it."
The five adventurers put their shoulders to the door and pushed with all their might, to no avail. "It's... got to be... either locked or... blocked," Shane panted. "Can you... blow it up... Crys?"
"I can try. Move back, all of you..." They sat down behind the throne with Dark, and Crystal prepared her spell.
"FLAELI!" A Gifoi-like flame struck the door, which shuddered under the assault but did not give way. "Drat!" Crys muttered. "Alright then - BURST!"
This time, a small hole was blown through the door, but the explosions also caused the building to tremble violently.
"It can't take much more of that!" Dark warned. "It's critical already!"
"I know! But what else am I going to do? The hole isn't large enough! BURST!"
The spell, unexpectedly, fizzled. Crys bit back a yelp as a cloud of sparks exploded, stinging her skin. "Calm... calm!" she mumbled to herself. "Calm... calm..." Taking a deep breath she tried again.
Luckily, it worked. The hole had widened enough for them to climb through - but unfortunately, the roof started to break apart! "Run!"
They did run. The hole was small, so only one could step through at a time. Jun, the quickest, was first, followed by Shane, who was helping Adrian. Dark was about to climb after the professor when he heard a muffled groan of pain from Crystal. He turned his head to see that she was clutching at a wounded and bleeding shoulder, gritting teeth against the pain. Muttering a violent oath, the hunter returned to help her out.
"Don't!" gasped the Esper. "S-save yourself!"
"Crys! Don't be a damn fool!"
"I'm not but... you can never get me out of there if I can't climb myself. Go!"
"Never. I never abandon a friend. You saved my life down there... I always pay my debts. Now come on!"
"I'm sorry... Dark!" She placed her hand on his chest. "But sometimes, one is better than two! FLAELI!"
The fire wasn't very hot, but the physical force in the spell threw the hunter back, stumbling through the opening. Luckily for him, Shane was ready to catch him.
"Crys!" the huntress shouted. "What are you doing? Come on! Don't dawdle!"
"Shane, let go of me!" commanded Dark. "She's wounded! I have to help -"
"Don't let him!" shouted Crys. "He can't help me! There's not enough space for two to climb through...-ah!"
"I'm... okay..." The Esper fell through the narrow opening and collapsed on the ground. Dark batted Shane's hands aside and started casting.
"No... use..." muttered Crystal. "I can... feel it... it's too serious... for you to heal.... now that... with the... magical energies in this place... gone haywire..."
"Don't talk like that! REVER!"
"Don't... bother... I can't move or... feel anything... that... last rock... I think I broke... something important..."
"Forget it! I'm not letting you die. It's only thanks to you that I could win down there... so don't you damn give up on me now!"
"No... please, listen. I always... used to be... afraid to die..."
"You will not die. I will not allow it!"
"I... wish you'd stop... talking for once and... let me finish...! I said... always used to... be afraid to... to die, but Dark... I am not afraid... anymore."
"Don't say that! We'll heal you... stay with me! Crys! Stay with me! Talk to me, Esper! Don't you dare give up now!"
"Oh... Dark, if... if only I could... ... ..."
"Crys... Raven... Farewell..."
His words were almost drowned in the sound of Lutz' inner sanctum falling to pieces. But as Crys drew her last breath, nothing could have kept him from hearing it.
"Leave me. Now."
"I said now!"
"Come on, Jun." Shane took the thief's hand and pulled him away from Dark. "He's got enough to think about."
"But that was... tears!"
"Dark never cries. You imagined it."
The thief shook his head. "I didn't."
Shane looked back, but her brother had turned away and she could not see.
Summoning yet another memory from the Sacred Sword, Dark tucked it behind his belt, carefully lifted Crys' body in his arms, and cast Ryuka. An instant later, he was in sickbay.
"Dark! And... Crys?" It was Silva, still working as a nurse to the wounded Espers. "What happened?!"
"Nothing." Dark smoothened Crys' raven black hair. "Nothing at all..."
"Oh, Light... How? How?"
"Your 'Light' is dead. Maybe it never existed. Her death, so... useless! I want the Espers gathered. Here. Now. See to it."
Silva scrambled to do as she had been told. Dark laid Crystal on an empty bed, then settled in a chair to wait.
It was swiftly done. By now most Espers knew that Lutz had been possessed, the ones that fled having spread the news throughout the Mansion. It didn't take them five minutes to gather in the sickbay.
"What has happened?" someone asked. Dark made a negative gesture. There was silence.
"Lutz is dead by my hand. You either know why, or you will know it shortly. I will take over after him if you will have me as your leader. I am the most powerful among you, and today Dark Force earned my deepest hatred. I have little love for rules and ceremonies, but I will fight the Darkness with my last breath. I need an answer now; yes or no, and be quick about it. Now!" He drew the sword and thrust it into the floor. When Dark released his grip on the sword, it stood by itself, the blade four decimetres down in the stone.
"You wield the Sacred Sword," one Esper said in awe-struck tones. "I will follow you."
"Sacred Sword!" Dark sneered. "It has a name!"
"Enlighten us, Reverent Lutz," the Esper asked. Dark spat.
"I am no Esper! I am not Lutz. But the sword was named after the one whose sacrifice gave it power; it was named 'Neisword'. However, it has another name, also. In Motavian, Alis becomes 'Elys'. In Dezorian, sword is 'daeon'. To join two incompatible languages, the sword is named Elysdeon, Alis' Sword."
Lutz the Fourth had abandoned everything associated with 'Lutz' duty'. After the Espers' accepting of him as their leader, he had Ryuka-ed down into the Sacred Sword Cave. It was untouched by the disaster outside. He encountered no demons this time, as he walked through the cavern and finally reached Alis' statue. Her arms were still positioned as if she was holding the sword, but her hands open. After a second of thought, knowing full that he would never be able to remove it, he placed the weapon in the heroine's hands. Her fingers closed around the hilt.
"I wonder... did you, too, have to face such hardships? I hope that your life was easier than mine..."
-Alis lost her brother...-
"I am sorry."
-I know. My life was spent, but I gave the sword its power in dying...-
"I am sorry for you too, Nei. I only wish, no one would ever have to live through such events..."
-I know. Protector, if you will, bring your friend here. This is the place where fallen Protectors are laid to rest.-
"No. I will not. Crys would want a green valley, not a dark cavern. I thank you, Nei, but neither I nor Crys will be laid to rest here."
"I believe you do. Farewell."
The Sword gone, its memories had started to fade from him. Most knowledge would never return. Some would always remain, however. He didn't have to speak the words of Ryuka for the spell to take effect, but merely think them.
He reappeared in the sickbay. A few seconds later, he was gone again.
The soft fluttering of wings was all there was to alert him to a new presence. Dark looked up to see a great golden shape descend from the heavens.
"Myau," he acknowledged, then resumed digging. The earth was hard and full of roots, so it took time, but he would consider it insulting to use anything but his own arms and hands.
"I share your pain," came the great cat's soft voice. Dark felt the air move as his wings beat. "I came to share a gift, as well."
"I have received all the gifts I need. Let me be."
"It is the gift of memories, memories that are rightfully yours."
Dark looked up and into the large, green eyes of the musk cat. "I have remembered enough. I want to forget. But I will never be able to. Please, no more memories."
"These will bring you no pain."
"Go ahead then. As long as..."
The memories of over a thousand years, the memories of three generations of Esper leaders, flooded him, their weight forcing him down on his knees, and he gasped.
"No... pain...? There is nothing... but pain...!"
"Reach deep within your heart. You know the old ways. You never wanted to believe it. Yet it is true, Dark, and no one can take it from you. Consider it a small gift in return, for you have given me something, too. I will not tell you what. When you have matured enough, you will know... fare well, Dark, and we will meet again." Myau's wings started beating the air. With amazing speed, the musk cat disappeared into the clouds.
"Old ways... believe..." Dark whispered to himself. "Myau!"
-Believe...!- echoed the musk cat's voice in his head. -Believe, not in me, but in yourself!-
"I cannot!" Dark whispered, staring into the clouds where Myau had disappeared. "I have no faith left! I want nothing more than... peace! I should have died there too!"
"Have you so little love for life?" another soft voice asked angrily. "Can you not remember all the good you have done? All the joy you have brought to others' hearts? I remember, not a pathetic, whimpering wreck of a man, but a proud, powerful one, the Dark One, ready to take on the world and expect to win! Now you fall - for nothing! There is no pain in the memories of past - only endings and new beginnings! For each death, there must be life - and for each light, there must be darkness! You are a light, Dark Gray, and you have faced and conquered a darkness that once destroyed an entire world, because your light shone through it! Now look into the depths of your mind for what you know is there!"
"The memories... I know... for each light, a darkness... each life, a death... and for every Esper leader, the memories of the last are passed on... and from the first, Noah... a gift... of life!"
He felt no fear, no hope, as he turned back to the fallen Esper. He had wrapped her in his cloak; now he pulled the hood down and looked at her face. The only thing he could see was peace - no regret, nothing else. As the pain caused his eyes to become misted with tears, he closed them and bent to kiss her forehead gently.
"Please, Raven... return to me...! I have no power to force you... but I do have the power to give you the chance... if only you would take it!" He raised his Lauremawood staff and broke it effortlessly, laying the pieces on the Esper's chest, drawing upon the power in the wood to send his plea through the many-layered veil between the worlds.
There are times when life overcomes death - for when it comes down to a certain point, death is only the absence of life, and powerless against it. And when the will is strong enough, old memories can be called back - to life. Under his lips, Crystal's cold skin seemed to blaze into fire, so hot that it burned him, but Dark remained where he was, his eyes shut against the world around him. It was not until Crystal's arms came up and pulled him down that he opened them again.
"I know this is... not the right time," she said, her voice as low as a whisper, "but... Dark, you know... that night... in Zosa? Did you know... I meant... every word and... never changed my mind?"
Dark, in spite of himself, could do nothing but smile and hold her close. From above, two large, golden-furred and winged creatures observed them.
"Done... at last!" one said.
"Yes..." the other agreed. "And now?"
"That depends... that depends solely on him," Myau said. "But he will make the most of it, as must we all."
Much later, when they lay in each others' arms, wrapped in Dark's cloak, on the warm ground under the Laurematrees, a shadow passed over them. The two Espers followed it with their eyes, and as the shadow came closer, they could make out its shape. Seconds later, the winged musk cat landed in the snow, a few meters away.
"So it was your voice," Dark said softly. "Thank you, Meow."
"If it had not been for you, I would be dead," Meow said, his voice even softer than Dark's. "I owe you my life, Dark One."
"And I owe you mine. Your debt is repaid in full. If anything, I am in your debt now."
The cat shook its head dismissively. "No. You have given us more than we can ever repay you for, Dark Gray. But, the ones you now lead miss you. The Espers await you return."
"Let them," Dark murmured, stroking Crystal's hair. "I never promised to be at their beck and call."
"Yet your comrades are there," Meow pointed out, "and they worry about you. Come, friends! I will take you there."
"It cannot be!" another protested. "No! Never!"
"Then what is it?"
"I do not know! Keep ready for anything, everybody!"
There was a fearful silence for several minutes while the golden flyer slowly approached. As slowly, it descended, so that when the Espers finally saw what it was, it was only a few meters above ground.
"That is a - a musk cat?" someone asked. "With wings! And man, is it big! And it's coming this way!"
"It's carrying a passenger..."
"Look at them!" Dark said to Crys as Meow flew closer. "I'd bet they're feeling rather confused by now!"
"I hope they don't try and attack us..." Crys said warily. Dark smiled evilly.
"I don't think so. Besides, I now have fifteen hundred years worth of spellcasting experience - I don't think they can harm us. Meow, a little faster, if you please?"
"Meaow," said Meow, easily picking up speed. The Mansion rapidly came closer. A minute later, they landed right outside the main entrance.
"Reverent Lutz!" the Espers gasped as Dark dismounted. Then they went very pale as he held out a hand to help Crys down, which she ignored. Meow neatly folded his wings.
"I told you -" Dark said, then shook his head. "Very well, yes, it is the 'Reverent Lutz'. So open the doors!" The Espers hurriedly did as they had been told, and saluted as Dark and Crys passed. Meow lay down and curled up the way any normal cat might do when it lies down to rest. The Espers stared at him, but made no comments - after seeing a dead woman walking, not as a zombie, but as living as any one of them, a flying musk cat didn't seem too strange.
"We now know what caused the androids' destruction," Dark said. "It was Dark Force, or rather its minions - as I remember it, from the third Lutz' memories, it sent other minions to take the weather control systems out. These creatures also destroyed the droids, and sent out the oterworldly power that killed our mechanic tools as well. These powers aren't exactly magical, and thus invisible to magic-sensing Espers - but they are not technological, either, so the droids had no defences against them."
"Dark, couldn't it be dangerous... I mean, if you share the third Lutz' memories, and he was possessed...?" Shane asked. Dark grunted something rude.
"Bah! They aren't anything but memories, Shane. And memories can be painful at most. Anyway, your mission is completed - and you see that your own equipment is working just fine, too. It's time for you to go back..."
"What do you mean, 'our' mission?" Jun asked. "How about you?"
Dark smiled wryly. "No, my mission is far from over... I am now 'Lutz'. I will need to remain here and lead the Espers in their battle..."
"Then we'll stay too!" Jun protested. "Right?"
"Yes! Definitely," Shane stated.
"Well, I must get back to Wren," Adrian said apologetically. "I can not remain here."
"Nor can the rest of you," Dark filled in. "You would hate it here."
"I'd hate Mota without my brother," Shane countered.
"No. You won't. Trust me."
"I know... but you have to get back. People will wonder... and really, it's for the better. Tirom, do you think you could live here? Jun?"
"No..." the half-Motavian confessed, "I can't. It is too cold."
"I-" Jun said. "Damn!"
"Go back," Dark pleaded. "Please."
"Ah, oh... damn!" The thief stood up and kicked his chair all the way across the room. "Alright! I'll go!"
"Shane, he'll need you."
"Dark, I know what you're trying... to blackmail me! I hate to admit it, but... you are right..."
"I know. Tirom... you remember the space shuttle well enough?"
"Yes..." She cast Ryuka to transport them, and they ended up a few hundred meters from the ship. The walk was short.
"I had almost given up hope," Wren said. "I must confess I am relieved to see you all again."
"We fixed the problem," Dark said with a grin. "The weather control system should be back to normal shortly, and your droids will be able to move freely."
"That is well... but, my friends, I have grave news. During your journey, the shuttle sustained an attack by snowworms. I believed it would stand up to any attack, but I was wrong. They managed to destroy one of our fuel tanks. This means I have only enough fuel for one trip. So, I will not be able to return to Zelan."
"You mean... we can either go to Mota... or to Zelan?" Shane asked. The huge android confirmed her words with a nod. "Well, Dark! We'll have to stay anyway, hmm?"
"No you don't." Dark grinned impishly. "Professor! Will you go with Wren, or with the others?"
"With Wren," Adrian immediately replied. "I have much to learn."
"It's a one way trip," Dark warned.
"I know. But I must follow him, or I'll never forgive myself."
"I know," Dark repeated the professor's words. "Well, everybody, get off the shuttle - Wren, head for Zelan. I'll handle the rest."
"Are you certain?" the android asked. Dark grinned again.
"Very well. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dark... Shane, Jun, Tirom." Wren shook hands with each member of the party, and even said farewell to Crys, who was a stranger to him. Next, the professor said his farewells, and the five others climbed out of the shuttle. Wren shut the hatch, activated the engines, and made a perfect, vertical takeoff. Jun, Shane and Tirom waved until the ship was out of sight, then turned to Dark.
"And now what?" Shane asked.
"Oh, just hold on to me," Dark said. They did, and he cast a spell - "FLY!"
There was darkness.
"So I guess this is goodbye," Shane sighed. They were gathered in the living room of the Grays' house in Aiedo, seated around a table. Dark, the only one standing, nodded.
Shane, Jun and Tirom rose from their chairs to embrace the hunter-turned-Esper. He smiled, a smile rather similar to Alis' on the statue in Termi. When Jun came to say his farewell, however, Dark's eyes glittered, and he whispered something to the thief. Jun actually blushed, and, although only Dark saw it, looked at Tirom. Dark laughed.
"I expect she knows," he said, for no apparent reason at all. "I'll be leaving... Crys?" The Esper stood up and took his hand. Dark raised his other hand to cast, but Shane shouted,
Dark lowered his hand. "What?"
"Won't I ever see you again?"
Dark grinned, a grin that was definitely Dark, and seemed to be a mirror of his soul.
"Oh yes, you will!" he said, laughter glittering in his eyes and tinkling in his voice. "In ten years!"
Then, in a bright flash of bluish black light, he was gone, leaving only a faint sound of laughter lingering in the room.
T H E E N D
Regarding Dark Force: It's supposed to come back once every 1000 years. However, if we assume that there is a gate or somesuch, which opens once every 1000 years, rather than a Dark Force coming back a thousand years after it's been defeated... To me, at least, that seems pretty logical. This way, it would be possible for a Dark Force to exist 500 years after Rolf and friends destroyed the one on Spaceship Noah, if it came through the same gate as the one they fought (in PS IV, there are several Dark Forces, so why not here?). Of course, that's just what I think... and what I based the story on. Feel free to have other opinions!
This is the last part in the Hunters' Chronicles. When I wrote it, I thought it was the last story, too - but I don't think I can keep away... I've already started writing more PS 2.5 stuff. The question is, will I get it done, or will I move on to other projects? No one knows... heh heh. Anyway, if you'd like to see more "PS 2.5" stories, drop me a mail and tell me so... who knows, it might actually work!
(By the way, did anyone figure out why the chapters are named this way? Happy hunting if you're trying to find out! You can start looking right *here*...!) The names are all titles of songs playing in PS 2 and PS 4 ('the Black Blood', 'Pain', 'In the Cave', 'Requiem for Lutz', 'Her last breath' & 'Laughter' are from 4, the rest from 2). Rather clever, isn't it? By the way, you're pretty smart if you read this 'hidden message'! :) If, if you have any comments (which, hopefully, you do :), this is where to send them!
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