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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Ten


Kyra Tierney paced back and forth across Esper Mansion's main hall. It had been nearly a week since the storms began and they gave no sign of abatement. Many Espers began to approach their Leader for advice, but she had none to give. Ever since the day she collapsed in the Council chamber, she felt a disturbance in Dezoris' electromagnetic field, one that felt familiar to her, yet more like a distant memory. She could not pinpoint it, but she had faith that she eventually would.

The Esper Leader had not seen hide nor hair of her Council Members in three days' time and was beginning to wonder if they were present at all. As it turned out, Lian and the others were busy on errands, rushing to send words of comfort to their distressed people. These storms were reminiscent of days past when Darkness held Dezoris in its icy palm, but Kyra knew better than to think that.

As she walked down Esper Mansion's halls, Kyra watched her people quickly hurrying from one point to another. Over fifteen feet of snow fell since it began; the Espers were forced to keep certain weak points of the Mansion from caving in. Of course, the Esper Leader was beginning to worry about Dezoris' other inhabitants for with all this snow they would be cut off from each other with no means of receiving supplies. Kyra's people could end up being the only link between the towns.

Espers rushed by Kyra, some stopping to pay their respects, but most were preoccupied with other things. She enjoyed seeing them work together as a single force. It was too bad that circumstances weren't different, she thought. It would be nice to see them work so diligently together on a regular basis.

Kyra was startled to see Council Member Balor approach without passing her up. Instead, he looked right into her eyes, his expression grave. "Leader Kyra!" he called to her. The Esper Leader held her hands out to prevent him from running her over. "The valley! Snow and ice from the overlying plateaus has covered the valley leading to Esper Mansion!"

"What!" came Kyra's surprised response. "That's impossible! The barriers we erected should have prevented such a catastrophe!"

Reacting almost instinctively, the Esper Leader threw out her arms and called upon her powers to reach into her surroundings, retrieving information from everything natural, everything supernatural. Besides Rune, she was the only Esper capable of performing such an act, separating her talents from those of common Espers. For a moment, she became a part of Dezoris, and Dezoris became a part of her. Every fiber of her being reached out, merging with knowledge, incorporating it into herself. Images formed in Kyra's mind and she began to see the magical barriers which she helped erect, but something was not right.

The magic was fading!

"Impossible!" Kyra reiterated.

Maintaining her link with Dezoris, the Esper Leader concentrated all of her Telemental powers in an attempt to reinforce the barriers and prevent any more damage. Balor watched in fascination and envy as his Leader radiated an Elysian blue aura, summoning the magic to come to her aid. Kyra projected her Telemental prowess onto the barrier, hoping to restore it. There was something else there, however.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, a law of physics Kyra became immediately familiar with. The more she pushed, something else pushed back, but with twice the strength. Whatever it was, it was capable of reaching into the Espers' domain of power and manipulate it in the same manner they did, but with more astounding results. Kyra felt it reach into her, hold her in thrall. She was unable to move, unable to breathe. The world began to close in on her and her head felt like it would explode. Luckily for the Esper Leader, Balor sensed her distress, moving to aid her. He stepped inside the aura, dispersing it like a child might pop a bubble. Kyra fell to her knees, exhausted.

"Leader! Leader!" Balor chanted in concern. "Are you all right?" His Leader cringed, fought to regain her breath, but eventually came around.

"Yes, Balor," she replied. "Thank you for your assistance."

"What happened? What was it?"

"That same power, you know, the one I experienced during the last council meeting. Something's not right, here. Our avalanche barriers were sabotaged in some way . . . it was like the magic was literally sucked away. I know it sounds absurd."

"I believe you, Leader. Furthermore, I trust you implicitly." Balor leaned closer to her, lowering his speaking voice barely above a whisper. "It's the others that do not." Kyra raised an eyebrow in interest.

"What are you saying?" she asked, lowering her voice as well. Balor took a nervous glance over his shoulder. Kyra recognized his expression as one of distrust and fear, but fear of what?

"Kyra," he spoke silently, using her first name which signified that what he was about to say was of extreme importance, perhaps even a matter of life and death, "Lian is rallying the renegade Espers in some sort of coup. Metash, Octavian, Perla, and Francis have joined them, as have many of the other Espers. I'm afraid their planning to run you out!"

"No! What of Ephemera and Jakob?"

"They supported your position, and was met with extreme opposition. I think they've either fled Esper Mansion, or were disposed of." The Esper Leader could not believe her ears. Never in their history had a Leader been taken from his or her position, but then again, only a few besides Lutz's scions have led. She knew her time in his position might be short-lived, but never did she imagine that it would come to such a violent end. Kyra shook her head in disbelief. "You must leave, before they find you!"

"What of you? Won't they discover you betrayed them?" This time it was Balor's turn to shake his head.

"No," he explained, "I secretly pretended to be in agreement with them. You see, I knew what Lian was planning. The other night I walked past his quarters and heard him discussing them with Octavian and Francis. I was going to tell you then, but I think he heard me so I rushed off. When he approached me with his plans, I joined him, hoping to find out if he was really going to carry out his plans. Apparently, as I have seen, he is. I hope you can forgive me for not coming to you sooner."

Kyra placed a comforting hand on Balor's shoulder. "You did the right thing, Balor, coming to me with this. I would never have believed that Lian was capable of such treachery. I have sensed a certain amount of enmity from him though I thought it was because he was uncertain of what to do with me in a commanding position. I guess I know otherwise now." Quickly, Kyra reached into her pocket and brought forth a small communication device. "Take this -- it's a comm link to the Icedigger we have stored in the lower levels of Esper Mansion. I'm going to take it, but I don't want you to be totally separated from me. Try to find Francis and Ephemera's whereabouts if you can. If you get in a tight spot and need to leave in a hurry," Kyra winked, a brief smile flashing across her face, "contact me and I'll come and get you. Try to keep a low profile. Now, go, quickly! Before they find you here!" Balor nodded and turned to leave. "Wait!" Kyra halted him. She stood before her fellow Esper, reaching her arms around him in a warm embrace. "Thank you, Balor, for everything."

"May the Light watch over you and speed you on your journey, Kyra. By the way, where will you go?"

"It's better you not know, just in case someone discovers you. I will say that I'm going to visit an old friend." Balor nodded again, fully understanding Kyra's decision. Espers, even lesser Espers, were all capable of extracting information from a person, and sometimes the methods were not very pleasant. In fact, some of them bordered on the verge of torture. Needless to say, Balor did not want to have anything to do with them.

Kyra travelled through the halls of Esper Mansion determined to reach her destination without incident, not bothering to stop and grab a few personal items. To do so might put Balor in danger because they would surmise that she had been warned and begin questioning people. She gently chanted beneath her breath a spell which would confuse the Espers walking within ten feet of her, tricking their minds into believing they were seeing a common, nondescript brother or sister. She did not use this spell often, only when getting away from everyone became a necessary to her state of mind. It was something she taught herself to do, not wanting to share the secret. As Esper Leader, it was her prerogative.

Upon reaching the lowest level of Esper Mansion which existed beneath the surface, Kyra activated several magical lamps hanging from the surrounding walls. Their illumination filled the room with light, revealing to her the only mechanical device within Esper Mansion -- the Icedigger. She had an opportunity to drive it before, so at least she would not be totally at a loss. Her biggest problem now was whether or not, after storage in extremely cold conditions for a few years, it still worked.

Not having any time or patience to complete a diagnostic of its systems, Kyra literally leapt into the vehicle's porthole, pulling it close behind her. Flipping a few switches, she activated a few choice systems, waiting for their circuitry to warm up. When she felt enough time had elapsed, the Esper Leader pressed the ignition button and listened in distress when its engine did not start.

Climbing back out of the porthole, Kyra disembarked and went to check the Icedigger's engine. At first glance she did not see anything wrong, guessing that maybe it was just cold and needed to heat up. Placing a hand on it, she called upon her Esper magic and cast Flaeli, a spell which discharged a bolt of fire into a target, causing massive damage. This time, however, the Esper Leader used her spell in a healing sort of way, instantly warming the Icedigger's engine. Without hesitation, she climbed back in and pushed the ignition button again. The engine roared strongly like it had been started only hours before. She took hold of its controls and was on her way to the wall of ice separating Esper Mansion from the rest of Dezoris.

Relief.

Kyra was on the run, an experience familiar to her although this time she was not running from Darkness, but from her own people. She took a moment to examine her vehicle to make sure everything was in working order.

A cursory evaluation revealed that its interior was fine, left just the way it was when she placed it in storage. It's inside was covered by a carpet-like fabric, preventing unnecessary loss of heat to the outside. The Icedigger was large enough to seat eight passengers despite that it never held a full complement. It was not built for comfort; as a result, the seats were spaced closely together, barely giving anyone enough room to move much less stretch. The hull consisted of two ten-inch thick panes of steel separated by a wall of insulating material, which made it extremely heavy, lumbering slowly from place to place. Its nosecone was solid steel, tipped and coated with Laconia so that no amount of ice could stop it. Tracks replaced conventional wheels because of the simple fact that they provided a larger surface area in which to travel. Numerous lights and buttons illuminated the controls, some of which Kyra did not know their functions. The ones she did know, however, were functioning perfectly.

Suddenly, an explosion rocked the Esper Leader's vehicle, knocking her into a wall. She quickly activated the aft monitor and witnessed fire and various other forms of energy raining down on her. Kyra recognized Flaeli almost immediately since it was a spell most Espers were familiar with, along with numerous Techniques. Other spells, such as Hewn which created a powerful effect similar to the Zan Techniques, had to have been cast by members of the Council. They lacked battle experience, however, and were unable to combine their efforts for a more devastating effect.

Kyra shifted gears while gently lifting on the steering column and the Icedigger dove nose-first into snow and ice. Its forward view window was useless in this subterranean world so she merely closed the blast shield. Not only did it protect her vehicle from a frontal assault, but also from large objects which lurked underground. Also, while travelling underground had advantages such as stealth, it was more difficult to navigate and she would have to surface frequently to determine her location. Her destination was certain, but she was not sure if she would be welcome there or not.

* * * * *

As he frequently did, Archbishop Raja sat alone at the alter in Shaakrum Hall. In his hands he fingered his Holy Mrtsh which had been soiled when he experienced a mental episode which left him cowering on the floor. Not experiencing the disturbance for themselves, his Bishops shrugged it off, not thinking much of it, but Raja knew what he felt was real. Garuberk was something more than just a simple structure, it was a living entity -- and a manifestation of Charak'khan was its heart.

But Charak'khan was not responsible for Garuberk's reappearance, at least not that Raja's ecclesiastical prowess could discern. He became aware of the fact that perhaps there was something else, something so puissant it could evade even his scrutiny. The thought was sobering and Raja did not wish to dwell on it. If there was another source, perhaps masking its identity to resemble Garuberk, then he had to find it. Problem was, his Bishops would not allow him to leave Gumbian for fear of Tak'khan abandoning them. They also pointed out that Dezorian citizens would not look kindly upon his act.

Raja did not care for the most part, though. He was so fed up of being trapped within Gumbian's walls that he thought he would go insane. If worse came to worse, he would have to sneak out under night's cover and begin his investigation on his own, despite the severe snow storms raging outside.

Ever since the storms began, Dezorians poured in from all parts of the planet, fearing that the Apocalypse had begun anew. It was common knowledge what Garuberk did to Meese's citizens and no one wanted to be its next victims. They felt that Gumbian's holy light would protect them, but Raja was not even sure it would protect him, since he was one of its victims last time.

Jaerli approached her loved one from an open door leading inside Shaakrum Hall. "Raja," she spoke softly, "how are you doing? Will you be joining us soon? The people are getting restless."

"I don't care!" Raja snapped back. He realized his anger was misdirected, turning to face Jaerli with warm eyes. "You believe me, don't you? I mean, what I felt."

"Of course I do! It's Nyr who doesn't, and you know if he doesn't, Ovis and Chele don't either."

"Well, Nyr wouldn't know the truth if it was standing right in front of him sucking his brains out from between his eyes."

"Now there's the joking Dezorian I fell in love with!" Jaerli looked around nervously as if searching for something. "Is it -- I mean, do you still feel it?"

"Yes, but not as well as my first encounter with it. I was just thinking how familiar the sensation is to when Garuberk first appeared. Do you think I reacted too quickly in assuming that it was?" Jaerli shook her head negatively.

"Of course not, Raja. You acted in the best interest of our people." What Jaerli said was true; he had always kept the Dezorians foremost in his mind. He was beyond emotions, beyond compassion, and though he never considered himself a leader, many Dezorians considered him just that.

When the blizzards began, Raja ordered his Bishops to bring as many of the people they could from outlying towns, areas which would be cut off from civilization. Some came without argument, but there were a few who refused to leave their possessions, hoping that the storms were just a temporary thing. Some Dezorians were stubborn that way, personal items containing a great amount of family history and emotion. There was no way that everyone could bring all of his possessions to Gumbian -- there was just no room. Raja would have allowed it in an instant if room was available because he knew that emotional attachment to an item could be very strong. In fact, he experienced such an emotion with his Nares Staff. He feared, however, that those left behind to ride out the storm would never be seen alive again.

The Archbishop looked out over Shaakrum Hall. How empty it had become, he thought. For some reason, people were too frightened or tired to make it to his ceremonial mass, leaving Shaakrum as barren as Dezoris' tundra. While his Bishops took care of Gumbian's injured guests, Raja was left alone to ponder everything from how many more people could he take in to how he was going to feed them all. Nyr would not allow him to leave Shaakrum because he said it was too dangerous for him to be walking around like a commoner. He would have preferred doing just that, perhaps lifting their spirits with his humor. Like Jaerli said, Raja always had his people's best interest in mind, but this time he was afraid that his decision may inadvertently be their demise.

A sudden, inexplicable rumble shook Shaakrum Hall and all of Gumbian. Raja and Jaerli exchanged puzzled glances. The Priestess looked to her Archbishop for an explanation, but he merely shrugged his shoulders indicating that he did not sense anything out of the ordinary. "Must have been a small tremor," he said. "No big deal, we've had them before." Jaerli nodded, shrugged her shoulders as Raja did before her, and walked out of Shaakrum.

Raja placed the Holy Mrtsh on his head, deciding to inspect the aisles upon aisles of pews that seated hundreds of the Dezorian congregation during masses -- masses that Raja gave infrequently. He felt that people did not necessarily need to participate in a religious ceremony to show their love and devotion to Tak'khan, nor did he feel that the truly devoted needed guidance. As Archbishop, he was dedicated to being a direct link to Tak'khan for those who asked or required it. The devoted were responsible enough to say their prayers and thanks, so his masses were given only on special occasions and on request.

What Raja found upon completion of his inspection was just as he expected. Everything was immaculate and succinct; not even dust was visible. Ovis and Chele were nothing less than spectacular when it came to cleaning Shaakrum Hall, a job, the only job, they excelled at. It was often Raja, not Nyr, who congratulated them on such fine work. Nyr, a perfectionist, did not feel he needed to do so because their jobs were routine. The Archbishop's words of encouragement, however, meant the world to them.

An opening door drew Raja's attention toward a lone figure approaching him from Shaakrum's entrance. "Archbishop," Nyr called out, "we have a guest." The Archbishop raised his brow in interest.

"Really? Who is he? And why do you address someone who has come to take refuge in Gumbian with such a disrespectful tone?"

"She," Nyr sneered, "is an Esper."

"What?"

"Yes, I was surprised as well -- surprised and disgusted. I ordered Ovis and Chele not to let her enter Gumbian, but those weak-minded fools were influenced by her infernal mental powers. She requests your audience, Archbishop, saying that you know her personally. She claims to be the Leader of the Espers, but any fool knows that Lutz's scions leads them and she is not one of his generation. This Esper also claims there is a civil unrest and upheaval at Esper Mansion. It would serve them right if they all died."

"Now, Nyr," Raja said compassionately, "remember that the sins of the father will not be revisited on his children. Yes, it is true that Noah, an Esper who brought great shame to our people, destroyed Skure and an entire Dezorian army, but he did it out of rage. It was our army who murdered Skure's residents first. What Noah did was not justified in the eyes of our people, but any of us would have done the same if our positions were reversed. The Espers whom we share our planet with now are a noble people with kind and pure hearts, and Tak'khan itself would bless such qualities. We have no qualms with them. In fact, I owe my life to one, as does all of Dezoris. Please, escort her here so that I may speak with her."

Nyr bowed gracefully in compliance, exiting Shaakrum Hall to retrieve their guest. Raja was left wondering who this Esper was and why she came to Gumbian in search of him. He had a feeling he knew who she was, but Nyr did mention that she was the Esper's Leader. In his last encounter with them, he learned that Rune was the Fifth Generation Lutz, and he was their Leader. Could the upheaval Nyr spoke of involve Rune, an Esper he respected and revered, in some way?

Raja grew more and more impatient as the minutes ticked by, anxiously awaiting Nyr's return with their mystery guest. He began pacing, swinging the Nares Staff dangerously every time he switched directions. Footsteps echoed throughout Shaakrum Hall which made the Archbishop even more anxious even though they were his own. Finally, he decided to return to the altar and wait for them there.

A few minutes later, Nyr and the Esper entered Shaakrum, accompanied by several Priests and Priestesses. Apparently, Nyr did not want to take a chance at the Esper attempting deceit, so several of his clergy went along. "Raja?" the Esper inquired.

"You will address his Holiness as Archbishop!" Nyr snapped, speaking rather ungraciously in the Palman tongue, "is that understood?" Raja barely recognized her voice, but found familiarity within it. He stepped down from the altar, not able to discern her identity due to the distance separating them, walking hurriedly to see who she was. Already he could see some of her features, her bluish hair most recognizable. She wore a white cape and a body suit with epaulets which broadened her shoulders, giving an impression that she was larger than she actually was. When Raja finally reached them, he gasped in pleasant surprise.

"Kyra!"

"Hello, Raja!" Kyra pushed past her escorts and ran to him, colliding with the tall Dezorian Archbishop in a warm embrace. Nyr and his clergy gasped in horror.

"How dare you come in contact with his Holiness, you filthy Esper!" Nyr exclaimed. Nods and words of agreement reverberated through his clergy.

"Nyr," Raja returned, "shut up. Now, go away. Go on! Shoo! Leave us alone!" The Bishop was aghast at the condescending tone his Archbishop took with him, standing in the doorway with his mouth agape. "You won't catch any flies in here with your mouth hanging open like that. I promise I'll be fine. I'll call for you if I need anything." Nyr turned on his heel, not bothering to acknowledge Raja's words, storming out of Shaakrum with his clergy in tow. The doors slammed and they were gone.

"I don't know why he even bothered speaking the Palman language," Kyra commented. "My Telemental abilities are perfectly capable of translation."

"He knows that," Raja replied, leading her to a bench so that they may sit and converse. "Nyr can be a little overzealous at times. He did it both in protest to your presence here and to show disrespect to your abilities. Don't let it worry you, though. What I say goes. Now, what honor do I owe to your visit to Gumbian?"

"First, let me say that your temple is magnificent! A worthy successor to Gumbious, I assure you!" Raja smiled, a little embarrassed at her praise. Kyra had been one of the only Espers to ever set foot inside Gumbious, the first to do so in nearly two centuries and the last who ever did. "Raja, my Council tried to usurp me. I had to flee Esper Mansion."

"Wait, wait, wait -- what do you mean your Council? What happened to Lutz, I mean Rune, I mean -- you know what I mean."

"That's right, you don't know what happened," Kyra pondered thoughtfully. "Raja, Rune is gone."

"You're joking, right?"

"I'm afraid not. After the Profound Darkness was defeated and we came back to Dezoris, he never came back. We waited and waited, but still he didn't show up. Months passed and it was decided that we should open his Sleep Chamber to check if he was there. Upon opening it, we found nothing."

"Nothing!"

"It was empty."

"But that was three years ago!" Raja did not need to remind her of how long it had been since she was elected to take his place, shoes she could never hope to possibly fill. There were a couple of members of the Council who protested her ascension, namely Lian, but he held influence over the other members, influence that she desperately needed. Raja understood a little of the Esper's hierarchical structure, knowledge he gained from his travels with Kyra. It did not take him much to figure out that without Rune or even Kyra's presence, they would be thrown into anarchy.

"I'm so sorry, Kyra. I had no idea. You should have come to me when it happened. My Bishops and I could have --"

"No, you know as well as I do that none of your people could have helped. Besides, there is much distrust between the Palman Espers and Dezorians. If it wasn't for you being in your position, I would have been attacked at Gumbian's doors and probably killed."

"Yeah, you would have."

"Thanks."

"Do you know Rune's whereabouts?"

"As far as any of us can discern, he's nowhere in Algo. But then again, Rune is capable of many things and could be hiding himself." Raja became silent, thoughtful. "Raja?"

"Kyra, I was just wondering something. It might be nothing, but I was hoping that maybe your unique Telemental abilities --"

"Raja, what are you asking?"

"Well, a couple days ago, I experienced something unusual. I was struck by a shockwave of intense pain, a debilitating pain I've never experienced before. My head throbbed and I collapsed, screaming. Then, it stopped, and I began to feel a strange sensation, one that my Bishops could not detect."

"As a matter of fact," Kyra interjected, "something rather peculiar happened to me the other day as well. We, that is, the Council and I, had just completed one of our meetings when I encountered a ripple in space, one that felt as if it was twisting my insides. I can't quite describe it effectively enough for you to understand, but I can say that I watched a wave literally come toward me, pass through me, and move on, just like waves of water passes through a person's reflection. Strange thing is, none of the Council felt it." Raja suddenly became ecstatic.

"Then I didn't imagine it!" he exclaimed. "Kyra, what I am about to tell you is the impossible, but you must believe me." The Esper Leader sat in quiescence, fully prepared to accept or reject what her friend was about to relay to her. The Archbishop, however, seemed nervous, swallowing a lump that developed in his throat. "Have you ever experienced this 'ripple' before? Now, before you answer, think carefully. Was there a time in your life when you maybe felt it, even to a lesser degree?" Kyra searched her memories carefully, sifting through the tangles that developed over the past three years. Ever since she returned from battling Darkness and was appointed Leader, she had been under tremendous stress, everything becoming all a jumble. She did not have time to sort through her thoughts and sort them appropriately. But as she began to sort them in the few brief seconds she had they become more organized, and memories that were buried deep within the farthest recesses of her mind resurfaced.

"Yes," came her answer, "I do remember one time before when I felt the 'ripple,' but to a much lesser extent. I had just began to discover my Telemental powers; I was told that they were the strongest seen in many generations. One night, when I was asleep, I dreamt of a disturbance travelling through Dezoris' electromagnetic field, one which seemed to seek me out like I was a wounded animal. I woke up screaming, but I dismissed it as a bad nightmare and never again thought of it until now. It was a few days later when we learned of Meese's citizens mysterious illness and I requested to leave Esper Mansion to assist them. Not long afterward, I discovered the source of -- no! That can't be! Is it possible --"

"I felt the same thing three years ago," Raja inserted his thoughts, "and about the same time Garuberk Tower appeared. While your Esper powers can detect changes in Dezoris' electromagnetic field, my mysticism alerts me to ethereal changes, things on a more ecclesiastical level. Those strange feelings I experienced, feelings of death, darkness, anger, and hatred were all there before, when it first appeared. Now, I feel them again."

"But when you fell ill, we destroyed it! We saw it fall, Chaz, Rika, Wren, Rune, and I! You can't possibly believe --"

"I told you, Kyra, that I was going to speak the impossible. You must have faith in me as your friend that I would not deceive you. I am almost certain that Garuberk has been reborn. How -- I'm not exactly sure."

"But the Darkness . . . Dark Force!"

"No, it's not the same as when Dark Force inhabited it. I do sense an impression of Charak'khan, but it is either too weak to register, or strong enough to evade my detection."

"What of . . . ." Kyra trailed off, her words cut in the middle of her thoughts. "Raja, we're not alone." The Archbishop stood up from the pew, immediately searching for anyone else in their presence. He knew none of his clergy would dare enter Shaakrum without his consent and he did not give it to any of them. A cold draft blew through the Hall, a draft carrying remnants of Darkness in its wake. Kyra drew her cape around, chill biting deeply into her bones.

"Yes," said Raja, "someone, or something, is here, but I cannot see anything. It must not be visible to our eyes. Quickly! Let's join hands! Perhaps our combined powers can flush it out of hiding!" Kyra did as she was told, letting the Archbishop take her hand into his. He helped her up and together they walked all through Shaakrum Hall in search of whatever had invaded it. Kyra listened intently, her senses heightened by an adrenalin rush. Raja, on the other hand, chanted words of holiness beneath his breath which caused his friend's Esper powers to intermingle with his. She felt the bioelectric field surrounding her begin to change, alter in some way. The contrast of light within Shaakrum Hall began to change, dark areas becoming light, lighter areas darkening.

Then, from out of one of the previously dark corners, came a figure of a man. He said nothing, but instead walked slowly up to the altar. Raja and Kyra released their grip on each other, cautiously approaching the altar as well. The man was about six feet tall with jet-black hair. He wore a black body suit with a matching black cape. Upon nearing him, the Esper Leader noticed that his eyes were completely lacked pupils, or whites for that matter. They were completely blacked out, and they could not tell if he was looking in their direction or not.

Had either Raja or Kyra ever lived on Motavia, even for a short time, they would have immediately recognized this man as Zio, who served as a disciple of Darkness. Although he beared an unmistakable resemblance to him, he was, in fact, a facsimile conjured up by the powers of Darkness to serve some evil purpose. Both of them had heard Chaz and Rune's tales of Zio, but they were ignorant of what they were facing. The Dark Disciple approached Raja's altar and stopped, seemingly staring out into space, but neither could be certain on account of his ebony eyes.

Raja cautiously approached his unexpected guest, arms extended in reckless abandon. "Raja!" Kyra whispered fiercely. "What are you doing? Get away from it!"

"Perhaps if we don't threaten," he began, "we can learn why it's here."

"Don't be stupid, Raja! We both know why it's here!" The Archbishop paid no attention to his friend, however, and continued on his deadly trek. Kyra shook her fists in anger, fighting an urge to scream in frustration. She could not believe how stubborn he was being. As certain as she knew that she was an Esper, she knew that this being was not here to offer friendship to them. If anything, Kyra was positive that it was evil, and nothing evil had good intentions.

As Raja neared the altar, Kyra watched Zio raise his hands toward the heavens, then bring them back down to a point just below his stomach. A dark globe formed above his head, but was soon replaced by the ghastly countenance that belonged to a demon. The Esper felt fear bite into her very soul, holding it in thrall. She became unable to move, unable to prevent her friend from walking into the demon's gaping maw. At one point, she wondered if Raja could see it, but then he stopped like he had walked into a solid all and turned to face her. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" he asked fearfully. Kyra wanted desperately to answer, still unable to move. "Kyra?" Her Dezorian friend broke off his investigation of the strange being, returning to see what was wrong with her.

In that instant, Kyra saw the demonic entity shoot black streamers from its eyes into Zio, filling him with a strange, unknown power. Zio, in turn, aimed both hands at the Archbishop's back, preparing to fire. Finding strength in fear, Kyra called upon her Telemental abilities to brake the spell which paralyzed her. "Raja!" she shrieked, "down on the floor!" Implicitly trusting his friend, Raja did as he was told, falling to Shaakrum's floor at virtually the same time she did. In the next instant Zio fired a black stream of power similar to that which his demonic counterpart infused into him, barely missing them. Kyra concentrated intensely and used her Nafoi Technique. A brief, fiery spark exploded from her hand, then Zio became engulfed in a column of fire which flared up from beneath his feet. Any normal life form would have been damaged severely or even incinerated, but Zio only fell back a few steps, seemingly unharmed.

A wave of nausea suddenly overcame Kyra, causing her to dry heave. She looked to Raja for help, but he was incapacitated as well. Her eyes instinctively turned to Zio who had fully recovered from her attack. He stepped down from the altar, approaching them with a grim purpose in mind. Kyra crawled over to her fallen friend, laying a hand upon his back while fighting an urge to regurgitate her last meal. "Lie still," she said weakly, "I will use Medice to purge the poison from us." The Esper did as she said, summoning nature's healing powers to come to her aid. Unlike the Res healing Techniques, Medice was purely a Telemental Skill which essentially used nature to activate the body's own restorative abilities, stepping-up detoxification, replenishment, and reducing fatigue. Within a few seconds they recovered and Kyra leapt to her feet.

Reaching into a hidden pouch located on belt fastened to her hip, the Esper brought forth her weapon, a Moon Slasher which she liberated from Garuberk on her last visit. Unlike a conventional slasher which consisted of two collapsible blades fastened on a central axis, forming a V-shape, the Moon Slasher's blades were rounded into a crescent shape, like that of a crescent moon, hence its name. Forged by Garuberk's dark magic, it was originally intended to be wielded by King Saber, one of the Tower's guardians. It imbued the weapon with a cutting-edge which could easy render through flesh and metal, capable of regenerating itself if damaged. Also, as an added feature, the blades became even more finely honed after each use, further increasing its deadliness. Weapons of distance, slashers returned to their owners much like a boomerang did or could be used like a dagger at short distances.

Kyra brought the weapon across her chest and flung it, sending it spinning on an elliptical, counterclockwise orbit. The Moon Slasher whizzed and whirred as it sliced through air, reflected light creating an orange hue. Zio turned to face the threat, crossing his arms before his face to protect it. Kyra's weapon struck with deadly accuracy, severing both of Zio's hands at the wrist, then returned to her. The Esper caught it like the motion was second nature.

Black light shone out of Zio's wrists, but he made no sound, no indication that he was suffering. Kyra watched in horror as she witnessed new hands sprout forth like buds from a plant. Again, the Esper used her Telemental Skills, this time casting Hewn. Swirling wind currents surrounded her foe in a powerful vacuum, but he stood fast, not even phased by her attack.

Raja stepped forward and threw his arms up, speaking a single word. Though seemingly harmless, his Holyword Skill was spoken in the Dezorian language and could kill instantly. Dezorians had a single term for both life and death; how it was spoken determined its context. Holyword, however, used both contexts at once -- by speaking a word of life Raja could cause death by cleansing the soul with holy Light. It would only work on those who possessed unclean souls.

Zio grasped at his chest appearing to be in some pain. A ring of Light encircled his feet, then projected itself upward into a conic shape, its apex just above his head. Raja marveled at his accomplishment, thinking his foe defeated. The Dark Disciple doubled over and fell head-over-heals down the stairway leading to Shaakrum's altar, seemingly lifeless. Zio's demonic counterpart floated over to its other half, again firing black streamers into his body. In an instant, he was on his feet, his eerie, ebony eyes searching.

Kyra and Raja got down on their hands and knees, crawling beneath a pew to conceal themselves. "What is it?" Kyra whispered to her friend. "And what are those damnable energy streamers he keeps firing at us?"

"Can't you sense it?" inquired Raja. "It's the Black Energy Wave! This man is the embodiment of Darkness, and that demon keeps feeding him with it. He is not alive, but a resurrection of someone who may have been living at one time."

An explosion caught their attention as several rows of pews briefly went up in flames and then died down. "He's using a Foi Technique!" exclaimed Kyra. "That means you may be able to temporary seal off his magic!"

"Agreed."

"We have to get out of here before he makes short work of us, though. When I give the word, seal off his magic and I'll try to slow him down, too."

Zio's head turned in Raja and Kyra's direction as they stood up from their hiding place. The Archbishop's arms went up and the Dark Disciple felt some unknown force suppressing his magical powers. He tried to fire the Black Energy Wave at them, but nothing happened. Kyra's arms moved around rhythmically, then with palms turned out toward her foe, she cast Bindwa, an Esper Skill which paralyzed an organism briefly, allowing an easy retreat. Zio was unable to move or attack; subsequently, Archbishop and Esper made a break for the exit.

Instantly, Zio's demon was above him, infusing its strength into its partner. Once freed from his restraints, the Dark Disciple took aim at his fleeing enemies. At about the same time, Raja took a brief glance over his shoulder and saw a ball of fire speeding toward them. With barely enough time to react, he pulled Kyra back down into Shaakrum's pews and Zio's fire ball flew by. It impacted the doors, leaving heavy black singe marks. Raja listened in distress as he heard the doors open and someone enter.

"Raja?" came a female voice.

"Jaerli, no!" the Archbishop exclaimed beneath his breath. Kyra knew not who this Jaerli was, but saw that Raja in some way cared for her. Through his unique psi link with the Priestess, he tried to convey to her that she was in imminent danger, but his emotions were all a jumble and could not. If he yelled to her or stood up, Zio would surely incinerate both of them, and he could not jeopardize Kyra's life like that.

Jaerli saw the strange figure standing just below Shaakrum's altar. "Who are you?" she asked patiently. "Can I help you with something?" Then her eyes scanned upward, and she saw a demonic countenance hovering above it. The Priestess screamed in terror, impulsively turning to flee, but did not. "Raja?" she called out again. "What have you done with Raja!"

"No, Jaerli!" the Archbishop whispered fiercely. "Get away!"

In her concern for Raja, Jaerli forgot her fear and ran toward the figure and its demon. Kyra peered over her protective pew, saw the demon filling Zio with its strange power, saw the Black Energy Wave fire from his fingertips, imagined Jaerli dying before her eyes.

"NO!" Kyra screamed, appearing from her refuge just as Jaerli ran by and somehow managed to push her out of the way, barely avoiding the Black Energy Wave. The Esper did not escaped unscathed, however, her arm caught in its path. She fell backward, gently cradling the arm which felt like it was on fire. Eyes closed tightly, Kyra cast Medice to help alleviate some of the pain, but it did not help. Upon opening her eyes, she watched, terror-stricken, as the flesh began to rot, eating away at both flesh and muscle. It started at her fingertips, but then slowly began to work its way downward, first to her knuckles then to her wrist, leaving only bones and cartilage. The Esper screamed in excruciating pain, unable to stop the decay.

Zio laughed, and his demon laughed with him.

From his hiding place, Raja witnessed everything unfold before him like it had been written in a novel. He was touched that Jaerli cared enough about him to run blindly to her destruction, but at the same time shocked that she actually did it. He saw Kyra leap from behind the pews to save a Dezorian she did not even know and her current predicament as well. What kind of dark sorcery is that evil being using? he asked himself. I can't sit idly by; I have to do something! I really don't have any offensive methods I can use, but I have to do what I can! What can I do? What can I do? What can I --

"I got it!" Raja exclaimed while revealing himself to Zio and to attack. "First, we need a Blessing!" The Archbishop threw his arms out before him, using his Blessing Skill to create a mystical defensive shield which would protect him from Zio's onslaught for a short time. He braced himself when the Dark Disciple did attack, but his shield offered effective protection. Kneeling next to his fallen friend, Raja seized her arm just below the rot and raised his Nares Staff toward the heavens. "Oh, Great Tak'khan!" he spoke in the Dezorian tongue, "fill me with your power so that I might purge Charak'khan from this Esper's body and cause Regeneration!"

Numerous orbs of white light descended from above, swirling all around Shaakrum Hall. Zio and his demonic partner seemed to fear the Light, backing up to the altar. The orbs continued to swirl, eventually finding Raja's Nares Staff at which point they entered it. Raja's hand began to glow softly around Kyra's arm and suddenly her pain was gone. She watched in astonishment as his Regeneration Technique took effect, gradually replacing all of her rotted skin with a new layer of epidermal tissue. Everything from capillaries to nerves and nerve endings was regenerated, much to the Esper's content.

Raja felt his spell weakening under Zio's constant bombardment, its strength faltering with the each blow. Suddenly, it shattered, its magic dispelled, leaving Raja and Kyra vulnerable. The Esper saw a window of opportunity and took it, utilizing her Nagra Technique which attacked with an incredibly powerful gravitational field. Zio's body became distorted under the extreme duress, leaving him sprawled out on the floor. Like always, he was revived by his demon.

Esper and Archbishop dove for cover just before their foe began a relentless bombardment of fireballs, setting everything aflame. Huddling close to Jaerli, they looked to each other for options. "He's a juggernaut!" Raja exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like him, nor have I ever felt such evil, next to Charak'khan! Even your Telemental powers aren't having an effect, Kyra!"

"I know, I know!" Kyra returned. "Everything we throw at him he just seems to throw back in our faces! It's that damn demon of his -- brings him back faster than we can take him out!" She shook her head in disbelief, not wanting to face defeat, but there it was nonetheless. Looking to Raja for some kind of answer, she only saw her despair reflected in his eyes.

"Might I make a suggestion?" Jaerli spoke eloquently in Palman. Raja and Kyra's attention turned solely to her. "Have you tried attacking the demon?" Like a bag filled with lead bricks, the obvious struck them across their heads, knocking some sense into them. "I was just observing how you were going about all this in the short time I've been here and noticed that you've been ignoring it. It seems to me that if that demon keeps bringing him back to life, maybe you should concentrate your efforts on it first."

"Good thinking, Jaerli!" said Kyra, laying a congratulatory hand on her shoulder. "But now, we need a plan." The Esper thought for a moment while fiery explosions continued to rain down all around them. "I think I have the beginnings of a plan. First, we have to get that man away from his demon. Then, we're going to have to combine our strengths to destroy it."

"How are you planning to accomplish the first part?" Raja inquired.

"I'm going to attempt something that has never been done before, at least to my knowledge." Archbishop and Priestess waited anxiously for her to finish her explanation. "I'm going to simultaneously use a Technique with one of my Telemental Skills."

"You can't do that, Kyra!" Raja protested, shocked that she would even suggest such a thing. "The energy drain could kill you!"

"If you have a better idea, you'd better tell me within the next five seconds or we could all end up as burnt, blackened little figurines." Frantic, Raja mulled over endless possibilities, none of which suited their situation. He did not approve of what she offered to do, completely aware that she could die while doing it. Kyra was stubborn that way, always willing to sacrifice her life if only to save her friends' lives.

The brave were always the first to die.

Raja took Kyra's hands into his, holding them firmly. Together they exchanged emotions that only those who had been through what they had could ever possibly fathom. Confrontation with Darkness was not a small matter. Many lose their lives in the struggle, some in valiant efforts, others innocent victims. Never in his life did Raja ever imagine that he might lose someone so close to it. "Good luck, my friend," the Archbishop said solemnly. "May Tak'khan watch over and protect you. I will do what I can as well." Kyra nodded, then leapt into action.

The Esper Leader faced Zio and his demonic counterpart in what looked like a showdown. Legs spread apart, she set a base on which she could properly brace herself. Throwing her arms out, she concentrated on the task before her. She felt her mind begin to intermingle with her innate ability to control the natural magical forces which was a part of everything, living or nonliving. Warmth radiated outward from her and soon she was enveloped in a reddish light. Fire exploded upward from beneath Zio's feet while at the same time Kyra cast Hewn. Raging, fiery columns swirled and twisted around her enemies, catching both in what was known as a Fire Storm.

The writhing tempests effectively subdued Zio, flinging his flaming, charred body this way and that. Like some demented tornado it seemed to derive a perverse pleasure in doing so. The demon, however, seemed unaffected by it. Convective currents spawned by heat generated a hot wind that was almost suffocating. All the while, Kyra felt her life force rapidly draining from her body.

Raja felt it too, but could see it even better. He watched as her stance faltered and she began to sway. Then, without warning, she fell to one knee, managing in some way to keep her spell going. It eventually began to fade and threatened to die altogether, and Raja feared that when it did, she would also. "You've got to do something, Raja!" Jaerli pleaded helplessly.

"I don't know if I can," came his morose response. Jaerli shook her head in disbelief, not wanting to accept that the Esper who just saved her life was about to die while trying to save her again. The Archbishop was sullen, filled with guilt for not being able to help his friend.

"I guess only a miracle can save her now."

"Miracle?" Raja raised his brow in interest. "That's it! You're a genius!"

"I -- I am?"

"I might be a little bit rusty, but I think I can manage." The Archbishop did not have much time for his friend was fading fast. His Miracle Skill replenished not only lost energy, but renewed the soul's vigor as well. With a flip of the wrist he sent numerous shimmering spheroids from his fingertips speeding toward Kyra. Each of them exploded on impact, releasing sparkling starbursts which enveloped her in an aura. The starbursts entered her body just as the Fire Storm ended, filling her with their power. She fell backward, stunned, fully expecting to be dead, but finding otherwise.

"We must end this, Kyra --" Raja called her attention, "now! Join me -- our minds must be in sync." Kyra rushed over, taking up a position just behind him, their right sides facing the demon. Joining their left hands, they felt their minds come into contact with each other, sharing thoughts, intermingling, coming into sync. Like synchronized dancers, they moved their arms gracefully in a bewitching incantation, filling the air with magic and mysticism. Sparks flew -- Kyra cast Tandle, a Telemental Skill using the raw power of lightning, and Raja cast Saint Fire which utilized magic from the Eclipse Torch, Dezoris' most sacred possession -- and Zio's demon erupted in a blaze of Holy Thunder.

Electricity sizzled as it amalgamated with celestial flames, an attack on both the physical and the spiritual, purging all remnants of Darkness from Shaakrum Hall. For the first time since their battle began, Raja and Kyra saw Zio's counterpart show signs of weakening. First, its face contorted and no longer resembled its former, grotesque self. Then, the image began to scintillate, brief pulses of light causing the degradation of its hold on their dimension. Finally, it disappeared altogether, taking with it Zio's charred remains.

The Archbishop and Esper disengaged their double-fisted attack, still in denial that they actually emerged as victors. Jaerli eventually broke their trance, calling out to see if they were uninjured. "We're all right!" Raja yelled to her, then turned to face Kyra. "We did it!"

"I thought I was dead," she said, "but you saved me more than once. Thank you, Raja. I owe you my life." Kyra wrapped her arms around him in a warm embrace, but Raja seemed a little embarrassed by her action, modesty showing through his tough exterior.

"Hey, now!" Jaerli offered jokingly. "Save some of him for me!" The Priestess rushed over to her love and did the same as Kyra.

"Ladies, ladies, ladies!" Raja laughed. "There's plenty of me to go around!"

"Don't delude yourself, Raja," the Esper joked.

"Besides, I owe you for saving Jaerli."

"We both do," Jaerli added. "I know that my people have been extremely intolerant of the Espers in the past, but as far as I'm concerned, you are an honorable people with admirable qualities. I am certain Tak'khan will look kindly upon someone with such a pure heart, as will I. You will always be welcome in Gumbian's halls."

"You don't know how much that means to me, Jaerli. I'm afraid, however, that my people aren't as 'honorable' as you may think. In fact, I came here seeking asylum from them. You see, our leader, Lutz, is nowhere to be found. I was elected to take his place in his absence, but there are many who think that he is not going to return. I was unable to keep peace and most of the Esper Council sought to usurp me. As luck would have it, my friend, Balor, a Council Member, tipped me off to their treachery and I was able to escape. Raja was the only person on Dezoris I knew I could count on."

"Well, now you can count on two," Jaerli proclaimed, taking Kyra's hands into hers. "Our Archbishop may be jovial and jocular at times, but he's very specific about who he can or cannot trust. I know he trusts you implicitly, so for me to do any less would be insulting. As part of a Dezorian tradition, I pledge my trust and my friendship to you, to come to your aid whenever I can, and to mention you frequently in my prayers to Tak'khan."

"I'm not familiar with that tradition."

"I'm not surprised -- I decided to be first to start it." Jaerli's smile was met by Kyra's own. The Esper went to Gumbian seeking a friend, but never did she imagine that she would be making one as well. Every event in the past few days had a profound influence on her life; she would have to sort them accordingly. Only once before did she experience Darkness with such poignancy. Now, here it was again. Something had to be done.

Raja led Kyra through Gumbian's halls to some unknown destination. The Esper requested that her friend take her back outside so she could do something, but he did not know what it was. She was often elusive and mysterious, a trait she may have picked up from Rune, but her motivation was not without purpose. Darkness had reared its ugly head into their dimension once again and could be lurking anywhere. Raja surmised this was the reason for Kyra's secrecy.

Priests and Priestesses bowed slightly when Raja walked by, but then turned and cast weary glances at his companion. A slight nervousness settled on Kyra because she knew they did not trust her. They would do little to upset their Archbishop which protected her from even more scrutiny.

Kyra remembered the first time she entered Gumbious Temple, when she, Chaz, and their friends had gone in search of the Eclipse Torch. Chaz did not know what to expect when they entered, but she knew all too well the kind of reception they would receive. Without Raja in their presence, they risked their lives by setting foot inside. Many of the younger Priests and Priestesses had never seen Palmans before. As for the Bishops -- they could recognize a Palman from three hundred feet away. It was a miracle that they were even able to get far enough into Gumbious to request an audience with the Archbishop, which was Dereth at the time. Fate intervened, however, and the Eclipse Torch was stolen and taken to King Lassic who had been resurrected by Darkness. Kyra and her companions were able to retrieve it, but that was in a different part of her life. Fortunately, she did not have to relive that nightmare.

At long last, she and Raja reached Gumbian's entrance. Already they could hear Dezoris' storms raging outside, incessant, powerful. Kyra cringed at having to journey back out there again. "So what now?" Raja inquired. The Esper peered outside and was almost thrown backward when a gust of wind blew against her.

"I have to get to my Icedigger," she announced.

"Oh!" Raja exclaimed, suddenly remembering the tremors which rocked Gumbian. "Is that what I felt earlier?"

"Probably."

"Well, I'm not going to let you go out there alone, despite what my Bishops might say." Kyra nodded and was somewhat relieved she did not have to go alone. Instructing Raja to follow close behind, she wrapped her cape around her body and most of her face while he did the same with his robes. Opening Gumbian's doors, they ventured outside. Immediately afterward, some Priests emerged and shut them, unknowingly locking out their Archbishop.

Raja and Kyra fought valiantly against cold, snow, and howling winds. Kyra suddenly realized that her Icedigger may have already been covered over in which case they were in deep, deep trouble. Not only was the cold cumbersome, but it was painful as well. Kyra could feet it bite into her skin like a laser and even Raja, whose skin was thicker, was not totally immune to its effects. Wind chilled her lungs making it difficult to breathe and she thought her ears would freeze off. "It can't be much farther!" she assured her companion, not sure if it was or not.

Eventually they reached a large hump that snow drifted over. Hoping and praying that it was her Icedigger, Kyra cast Flaeli to melt the snow. Raja gasped in remembrance as her Icedigger came into view, memories of travelling within it still fresh in his mind. The Esper entered a combination on a keypad and the doors swung open. Without further ado, they climbed inside, leaving Dezoris' storms behind.

Shaking what felt like layers of snow off, Kyra started the Icedigger and cranked up its heaters. Raja shook off his robes, stiffened as they were, nearly having to pry them off of his body. "Wow!" Kyra exclaimed, rubbing her hands over a heater vent. "It's a little cold out there!"

"Really?" Raja commented sarcastically. "You don't say . . . ." Straightening his Holy Mrtsh, the Archbishop retired himself lazily onto a seat. "When last I sat in this seat," he reminisced, "we were on our way to Meese. I believe that was right before Chaz and the others went looking for you."

"Yes," Kyra replied. "Like a fool, I went to Garuberk alone hoping to investigate its origin. Instead, I ended up caught in that forest of carnivorous trees like a fly in a spider's web. If they hadn't came when they did, I would have been devoured." She felt a brief chill in her bones when she thought of what nearly happened to her. The memory was all too real, like it occurred only days before. She never fully recovered from it, not really. Those carnivorous trees still haunted her dreams, not allowing her to forget.

After warming herself sufficiently, Kyra went to the comm system and activated it. Static blasted out of its speakers but adjusted quickly. When Raja inquired what she was planning to do, she replied, "I have to contact Wren and Demi and let them know what's going on down here, that's if they don't already know. I suspect they can see the storms from space, but I'm doubtful they know what kind of predicament we're currently facing." Kyra made some adjustments to the frequency, searching for one in particular. Raja listened in interest, but heard absolutely nothing but a bunch of static. Then, all static noises stopped and there was silence. "I think this is the one." Depressing a switch, Kyra spoke into a microphone located in the dash. "Wren, Demi? Come in. This is Kyra calling. We have a little situation down here."

Nothing.

"Wren?"

"Maybe it's broken," Raja offered.

"I don't think so. Wren installed some extra signal-boosting circuitry so I could contact him at Zelan if I ever needed something. Boy, do we ever need him now! He has to be there!" The Esper took a deep breath, uncertain on how to proceed. "Wren!" she cried. "Wren, come in! We need your help, Raja and I! Come in, please!" Kyra's cries went unanswered, though. Little did she know that she was calling out to a dead satellite, its crew of two abandoning it days before. She was terrified beyond words, even more so than when she fought Zio because for her it felt like they were abandoned on Dezoris, a dying planet. Refusing to believe they were alone, the Esper continued to send her pleas streaming out into space, an endless monotony which no one could hear.

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