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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Seventeen


The journey to Esper Mansion was turning out to be pretty uneventful as far as Kyra was concerned. A massive snow storm raged outside the Icedigger, but no one was concerned for the vehicle had been through many a storm without incident. The Esper Leader steered it with ease, boring through huge drifts and new ice fields which had formed since this unrelenting storm began. Wren sat at the copilot's seat, but he did nothing. Kyra enjoyed driving and he was not going to rob her of that enjoyment.

Gryz moped at the back, bored with being inactive for so long. They had been en route to Esper Mansion for almost six hours now and he was beginning to feel a little cramped. Rika tried to talk to him, but he was not in the mood for conversation. Throwing her arms up in despair, she sat apart from him. Not long after, she fell asleep.

Gryz was bored, but he still felt sorrow for Rika. He had watched her cry after they dropped off her husband and the others. She loved him so much it tore at her to watch him go, watch him return to a place which had nearly taken his life before. She knew very well the dangers that lingered within, the obstacles he must face to find the answers they were seeking. Rika was there to save him last time, but she would not be able to this time is something were to happen. Not that she did not trust her other friends, it was just that she would feel better if she was there to protect him.

The big Motavian walked over to where Rika slept and sat next to her. He often wondered what it would be like to share a love so strong with someone else, for in his short lifetime he had not experienced it. Sure, he had loved before, but it was a love that was never returned. At twenty-two, he was at mid-life, and was in the prime of his reproductive years. But, as the ridiculed have found out through the ages, there is no rest for the different-looking. Because of his height, which was unusual for Motavians, Gryz was shunned, an outcast even in his own society. Only Palmans, those who were tolerant of Motavians, accepted him. After he returned to Tonoe when the Profound Darkness was defeated, he was hailed as a hero by the town's citizens. However, once enough time had passed, his deeds were forgotten, and he was once again ridiculed by those he had fought so hard to gain acceptance with.

Gryz suddenly became tired, perhaps from watching Rika sleep so peacefully. His small Motavian eyes became laden with lead, and they drooped, finally closing. He drifted off to sleep, to a world where he was the same as everyone else, where he was not an outcast. This was a place he liked to frequent, an escape from his own personal hell. Others had done this as well, for the world of dreams was a potent obsession in which a fictional world becomes very real to the person who dreams of it. He did not let it rule his life, however, and he knew when enough was enough.

Kyra looked over her shoulder and saw that her friends had fallen asleep. She, too, was becoming fatigued, but she was not yet ready to give up control of her vehicle. They were still another five to six hours away from Esper Mansion, and the closer they got, the more anxious she became. "Kyra," Wren spoke softly so as not to disturb the others, "why not let me take control for the duration of our journey. We will need your strength when we arrive." Knowing it was pointless to argue with him, she reluctantly relinquished control.

Now that she did not have to worry about controlling the vehicle, Kyra reclined her seat and relaxed. Her thoughts drifted to events of the future, to what they would have to do when they reached their destination. If she possessed the power to see into the future, she definitely would have used that power now. She was returning to her home a stranger, someone who was once as familiar as a relative, but now someone who had a price on her head, a traitor, some might accuse. It was a sobering thought to her -- she, so fiercely devoted to her people, branded a traitor, a deserter. Kyra sacrificed much for the benefit of the Espers and she was prepared to sacrifice much more, despite their opinion of her.

"Much will be revealed once we enter Esper Mansion," Wren said just as she was drifting off to sleep. It was the first time he spoke since they dropped off Chaz and his party. He said it so suddenly that she nearly jumped out of her seat.

"Yes, much . . . ." was all she could manage.

"I often wondered what one must feel returning to a place so familiar, yet now so foreign. I have never experienced it myself."

"Well, it a little difficult to explain. There are conflicting emotions, ones that aren't usually associated with each other. Happiness and anger, fear and temerity -- emotions that are usually opposites become grouped together." Wren looked to her, trying to understand what she was saying. When last they travelled together, her bluish hair characteristic of Espers was trimmed short. It had grown in the past three years, so much so that it now hung past her shoulders. Her youthful visage had much beauty in it, but worry and many a trial aged it prematurely. "It's an extreme no one enjoys going through, like identical poles of two magnets repelling each other, except they are pulling you apart in the process."

"I imagine it is difficult, then."

"You imagine correctly, my friend. I don't know exactly how your or Demi's emotions work, but if they're anything like Palman emotions, then you'd know exactly what I'm talking about if it ever happened to you."

Wren did know what it was like, and he knew exactly what Kyra was feeling. They were different situations altogether, but the emotion was the same. When Demi left Zelan, Wren had to choose to stay with the satellite, or join Demi on her exodus to Motavia. He was torn between his devotion to his "parent," and his desire to continue exiting. For him, it was a matter of survival, a choice between life and death. Normally, the choice would have been an extremely easy one to make, but he was torn by it, just as happiness and anger were tearing at Kyra. Luckily, Demi was there to choose for him since he was incapable of doing it himself. Wren would be there to make a choice for Kyra, should the need arise.

"So," Wren continued, "what shall we do when we get there?"

"I really don't know, Wren. I do know that we need to discover the truth behind Lian's betrayal and win back the trust of my Esper companions. Never in my people's history has there ever been such a revolt, and it would not have come about without outside influence, that I'm sure of. Finding out what that influence is, well, that's going to be the hard part. It may turn out that Lian himself is responsible. I wouldn't put it past him, not after the way he's been acting the past few months."

"Who is this Lian?" Wren inquired politely.

"He's the senior member of the Esper Council. It's kind of ironic that the Esper who nominated me as Rune's successor would be the one who caused my exile. I believe he was jealous of the dominion I had over my people and began to covet it. It was common knowledge that he regretted putting me in a position of such power, but I have to admit that I don't think I did all that bad of job. I mean, sure, there were some incidents, but for the most part, I kept things under control." Her thoughts drifted to her friend, Balor, who facilitated her escape. What of him? Kyra gave him a communicator to get in touch with her should he also need to flee Esper Mansion, but she did not hear anything from him after that. She wondered if Lian discovered that he helped her, and what he did with him as a punishment. The Esper leader shuddered at the thought.

They fell into silence, and Kyra finally closed her heavy eyelids, welcoming sleep. She began to dream, but they were filled with uneasy images of her and her friends lying lifeless before the Esper Council, broken and defeated. Standing above their bodies were the silhouettes of five of the Council, Ephemera, Jakob, and Balor excluded. She dreamt of them hanging from shackles in the mansion's basement, their bodies as cold and lifeless as the Dezorian landscape. But the Council was not through with Kyra and her companions, not by a long shot. With only a spoken word, their souls were wrenched from their deceased bodies and held in the mortal plane, unable to pass on into the Great Light and find salvation. Their salvation was denied, their souls cursed to remain among the living for the duration of eternity, coveting the living and the energies which surrounded them.

It was a difficult dream, to say the least, but her sleep was undisturbed. If she struggled during it, Wren did not wake her. He knew that she needed it, needed to rest if she was going to be at full strength when they reached their destination. For a long while, the only sound was the Icedigger's engine softly purring as it moved them. Then, from out of nowhere, static cracked and a voice spoke through the communicator. "Hello?" it whispered. "Hello?" Kyra nearly jumped out of her skin. She quickly reached for the hand set.

"Hello?" she asked, anxious. "Who's this?"

"K -- Kyra? This is Balor."

"Balor!" Kyra became excited for this was the first she heard from anyone at the mansion for a long time. She noticed an uneasiness in his voice. "Is everything all right?"

"Not exactly. I need to get away from here, and I mean quickly. Lian's gone insane! Lately, he's been speaking of taking over all of Dezoris under the Esper name, even committing genocide against the Dezorians!" Kyra and Wren heard Balor's labored breathing. "I don't know what to do anymore. Wait! I hear something. Hold on . . . ." Silence followed, a silence which seemed to last several minutes. The Esper Leader became worried for her friend. "Kyra, I have to go. I think Lian has spies and they've been following me, especially. If you're heading this way, beware. And, if you can manage it, get me out of here!"

Balor closed the channel and went off to whatever fate would have him do. Kyra had been wondering how her friend was doing and was worried for a long time. Lian was no fool and she could not just believe that Balor's treachery had gone unnoticed. More likely, he knew of Balor's plan to contact her and summon the Esper Leader back to get him. Lian knew how fiercely devoted she was to her people and her friends, especially ones that help her escape death, and that she would not let him down. Kyra even wondered if he was the mastermind behind her ease of escaping, and probably behind her ease of return. Nothing seemed right and she was worried what kind of shape she and her companions would be in by the time they reached their destination. Twelve hours in the Icedigger can do a lot to one's physical condition. The Esper Leader was hoping for a bit of a respite when they got there, a couple hours to recover from their long journey, but it was beginning to look like they would have to get to work right away.

"We are going to have to work fast when we arrive at Esper Mansion," Wren said, interrupting Kyra's chain of thought. "Your friend, Balor, is most likely in grave peril. If this Lian is as powerful as you say he is and he has all of the Esper's on his side, then we have our work cut out for us. It does not matter how powerful we are; four individuals against an army of Esper wizards have no chance, or very little, at the most."

"You see," Kyra said, "I believe that's where our chance lies. Lian doesn't have an army at his command. Only about five percent of our population actually possess the Esper Magic. Most of my people are without powers, even though it is Esper blood which flows through their veins. Most of those who do have the Magic are either in the Council or in positions of authority over others."

"This greatly increases our chances of success."

"For all of our sakes, Wren, I hope you're right."

* * * * *

Kyra slept for the next several hours, letting Wren take the controls since he did not require sleep. Despite her anxiety, she slept relatively easily, not waking once through its duration. She was exhausted and needed it desperately. During her rest, her mind worked frantically at devising some sort of plan that would ensure their success. Had Wren been able to see a physical manifestation of her brain activity, he surely would have seen an immense electrical storm hovering over her head. He tried to put himself in her shoes and wondered if he would have done anything differently if he were her. Smiling quietly, he concluded that he would not have.

When Wren was within visual distance of Esper Mansion, he stopped and woke everyone. Kyra and the others could not see it though the storm, but Wren's enhanced android vision was able to see through all the snow and ice without much problem. "So," Rika spoke, "what's the plan. Do we park her and hoof it to the mansion, or do we just walk up and knock on the door?" Kyra laughed.

"No, no," she said. "I believe Lian will be expecting us. I can already sense his presence, and for some reason it seems as if his power has grown somehow. He undoubtedly can sense my presence as well. Our best course of action is to just take the Icedigger back into Esper Mansion's basement and disembark there. We're going to have to be on our guard at all times."

"Great!" Gryz said, ebullient. "Finally, some action!"

Kyra took control from Wren and skillfully drove her vehicle to Esper Mansion's secret basement entrance. Using telepathy, she commanded a massive door camouflaged as a boulder to move aside so they could gain entrance. Like an obedient animal, the boulder moved at her command, and she drove within the Mansion's walls. The door closed, sealing them within.

Wren was the first to stand from his seat. He went and opened the Icedigger's door and walked outside without a second thought. Rika, Gryz, and Kyra were a little slower to get up, yawning and stretching to relieve cramped muscles. While they did that, Wren made a cursory evaluation of their area. Even though everything was dark, he merely switched on a visual infrared mode and scanned every corner of the room. Darkness, coldness everywhere he looked, except in one corner of the basement, where he detected movement. Upon further study, he detected body heat, showing up as a red mass in his line of vision. "Rika, everyone," he called out, "we must make haste. We are not alone in this basement."

Instantly, Gryz flew out of the Icedigger and stood by Wren's side, his titanium axe held threateningly. "Where is it?" he demanded. "I'll show it a thing or two!"

"Calm yourself, my friend," Wren told him coolly. "I do not believe we are in any danger at present, but I fear our adversaries may have spies. We would do best by leaving as quickly as possible."

Rika gleefully bounded down the ramp, ecstatic that she was on her feet again. She leapt to Gryz side and wrapped her arm around his, ready to take on the world. Following her, a little more reserved and deep in thought, was Kyra. Like an undead corpse, she glided down, her feet seemingly motionless. A cool breeze swept through the basement and her hair swayed ever so slightly. Lifting her head, she looked around and although she could not see with her eyes, her very essence reached out into her surroundings and saw for her. The Esper Leader felt a familiar presence, one she longed to feel for a long time, a presence that was so near to her she wanted to reach out and take it into her arms. Whoever was in the room with her she had known him for many years and he was not a threat. "What is it, Kyra?" Rika asked.

"I'm not quite sure," she told her. "I know that whoever's out there is a friend and is no threat to us."

"Who is it?"

"I think it's -- Rune?" the last word was said doubtfully and not very convincingly.

"If you're referring to our estranged leader," a male voice stated, weak and frail, "then I'm afraid you've got the wrong person."

From out of the darkness, an Esper approached them. Kyra stated that she did not believe him to be a treat, but Gryz and Wren drew their weapons, nonetheless. Wren activated one of his lights and shone it upon the stranger. Kyra saw, much to her distress, a bloodied and disheveled Balor.

Balor was still dressed in his Council robes, and from the looks of it had been for many days. Even though he seemed composed when Kyra talked to him last, it was apparent that many events had occurred since then. The robes were torn and not becoming of an Esper wizard. He stumbled on them and fell, revealing to Kyra that his fine-blue Esper hair was caked with his own blood. Burn marks marred his arms and face, an indication that he fought a magical battle with one or several of his people. The shimmering aura of magical energy which normally surrounded all Espers was gone, faded away into nothingness.

Kyra rushed over to her friend, kneeling next to him. She closed her eyes and murmured a few words beneath her breath. Using her Medice Skill, she called upon the magical energies present in her surroundings to heal her friend. Balor's erratic breathing eased, and his body relaxed. "Wren," Kyra said as she looked up to her friend, "can you help me get him inside the Icedigger? I think we should wait until he regains consciousness so we can ask him what happened. No sense in rushing off into the unknown without some useful advice."

Wren moved quickly, picking Balor's limp body off of the cold ground and took him inside the vehicle. Taking him near the rear, he pressed a few buttons and a small metal platform emerged from a wall. The android laid him gently on it and took a few steps back. Kyra, Rika, and Gryz joined him. "How long will he be out," he asked Kyra.

"I don't know," she said. "It could be a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the extent of his injuries. My Medice Skill will eventually heal his physical and internal injuries entirely, but his aura has been injured as well, and I'm afraid that's going to take a lot more time to heal."

"His aura?" Rika asked inquisitively.

"Every Esper has a magical aura of energy detected only by other Espers. It is a unique signature, like a fingerprint, but much more complex. An Esper's aura allows him or her to be identified and sensed by others, just as I can sense Lian's right now. Balor's aura has been damaged so badly that I was not able to sense his presence, that is, until I specifically searched for another Esper among us."

"Will he recover?"

"Like I said, he will recover from his physical injuries. I sense some remnants of his aura still, so he may regain it as well. Otherwise, I really don't know."

For the next couple of hours, Kyra and her friends remained on a constant vigil. They watched Balor in shifts, two staying with him, the other two walking outside to keep watch for any unwanted visitors. Kyra was still firm on her belief that Lian would not make the first move, and that they were safe from attack while they remained beneath him. Regardless, she felt better to keep their guard up.

Gryz and Kyra took the first watch over Balor, seating themselves near enough to observe any changes in his condition, but far enough away so as not to disturb him. His wounds were cleaned and dressed, and the blood washed out of his hair at well. If not for his facial burns, one might have believed that he was just sleeping. Gryz and Kyra knew better, though.

After several minutes of silence, Gryz turned to the Esper Leader. "Kyra," he said, "I was just wondering something." Kyra looked at him thoughtfully. "I remember someone telling me that at one point in time, Espers were not just limited to the Palman race."

"That's true, Gryz," she said. "Many millennia ago, Espers inhabited all three planets of Algo, and their numbers ranked among all three races. Two thousand years ago, when King Lassic was in power, he drove all of them off of Palma and they fled here, to Dezoris. The Espers left on Motavia were cut off from the rest and perished there, all except Master Tajim and his pupil, the most revered Esper in all of our history and who established Esper Mansion -- Master Noah. It was believed that maybe there just wasn't enough Motavians or Dezorians to strengthen their bloodlines within Esper society, and that was the cause of their downfall. The Dezorian citizens, however, distrusted us and leaned heavily toward their religion and their belief of Tak'khan. Who knows, maybe it was their religious beliefs that kept our numbers strong here."

"I grew up believing that Motavians were incapable of using any kind of magic, that the ability has never been within us."

"That's not true. I remember reading in books as a child about some very powerful Motavian Espers. Zarah, for example, who once saved the town of Casba from a dragon who dwelled beneath its streets. She battled the beast and drove it back into the catacombs, but passed away soon afterward because she exhausted her strength. It was not until Alis, Myau, Odin, and Noah battled it that it was vanquished forever."

"I used to fear magic because of the way I've seen it used. But now -- now that I've seen you and others use it, I know the benefit of its use, and I envy those who use it. I was wondering, Kyra, is there any way that the magic can be taught to someone?"

"I'm afraid not, Gryz. Magic is for those who have it within themselves. It is not something given freely, although there are some who are truly deserving of such power, like you, for example. It's genetic, really. Those who are born with the talent learn at an early age how to cultivate it, and how to use it for the betterment of all. We are, after all, children of the Great Light, and protectors of what it stands for. I fear that Lian and some of the other Espers have lost sight of that fact and have turned to using their powers for personal gain rather than anything else. Believe me, Gryz, if I could teach the magic to anyone, you would be one of my first students."

Gryz smiled, or smiled as much as his beak-like mouth would allow him to. He always liked how kind Kyra was to him, not letting the species barrier which existed between them affect her opinion of him. There was much distrust between the species, but throughout history, a few individuals had crossed over that barrier to fight for a greater good. Gryz was a valuable member of the last ones to do that, and it meant more to him than anything else. He wanted to do more, wanted to help beyond what he was capable of. He loved life, all life, so much he was willing to sacrifice his own to see it continue on.

While Gryz and Kyra talked, Wren and Rika patrolled outside the Icedigger, searching for any of a number of anomalies that could be around. After an hour, though, it became apparent that their patrols were little more than superfluous. Rika shuttered at the cold which surrounded, but Wren was relatively unaffected. "Are you all right, Rika?" Wren asked, concerned.

"I'll be fine," Rika replied, her very breath seeming to freeze the moment it left her mouth, "just a little cold."

"We should switch shifts soon or I am afraid you will freeze to death." Rika nodded, a shiver in her motion. Truthfully, she would have killed for a nice thick fur to cover her body. Living on Motavia all of her life, she was not used to so much cold. She rubbed the tips of her ears to warm them. "Thinking about anything?"

"Just about how much I miss my husband," she said sadly.

"Do not despair, you will see him again." Rika smiled, but it was a sad smile. In her heart she knew that what Wren said was true, but she could not help the feeling of melancholy which overwhelmed her. It was not that she did not have confidence in how well he could defend himself. She wanted to be with him at all times, that was all.

Rika and Wren walked to every corner of the basement, their stride quick. Rika needed to keep moving or she feared that she would freeze to any spot she might have stopped at. She was tiring, though, and needed to get inside. "Wren," she spoke, "I think we should head inside. It's obvious that nothing is going to happen out here." Rika rubbed her arms to keep circulation flowing. "Wren, wouldn't be nice if you and Demi came to live with us? I mean, come live in Aiedo with me and Chaz. You've lived up there on Zelan for so long and now you have no where else to live, so why not near us, your friends?"

"I would like that very much and I am sure Demi would as well; however, Palmans are as distrusting and xenophobic with AI's as they are of Motavians and Dezorians."

"They just don't understand, that's all. People fear what they don't understand."

"This is true."

"I also have a more personal reason for asking. I would like to have you and Demi around for us, that is, for Chaz and myself." Wren stopped in his tracks, his interest piqued. "You see, Demi and I were having this conversation earlier about you staying on Motavia, to take care of us should we need it in our old age, and to make sure that our children grow to adulthood as well."

"Your children?"

"Yes, Wren. Chaz and I have decided to start a family once all this craziness is over and done with. It's something we've never even considered, but recent events have opened our eyes to what we have been missing in our marriage, in our lives. Our lives would seem less complete if we do not procreate, and having children is one way we can complete our love for each other."

"If that is what you and Chaz feel you must do, then I will support your decision."

"Oh, really, Wren!" Rika was ecstatic. "It'll be nice to have you around, since we never really got to spend quality time with one another last time. We've never had any truly good memories we could reminisce about. Everything we've been through has been nothing short of a nightmare and despite that, we remain close." What Rika spoke of was true, much to Wren's consternation. As close as he like to think he was to his friends, they never really went out and made memories, something solid to pass on to their posterity and look back upon fondly. Wren had many memories in his life, much more than any living creature, and he never forgot anything. He did not have many memories that he like to look back on, to reminisce about. In his millennium of life, he recalled very few enjoyable memories. His existence was to merely serve, and for hundreds of years, he did just that. It was not until he started improving on himself that he felt satisfaction for simply being. It was enough for him, and that was all that mattered.

But not now, not since these people who insisted on being these annoying pests called "friends" entered his life. He would have been content with just completing his journey with them, fulfill his obligations, and return to what he had been for many centuries. Chaz, Rika, and everyone else denied him that, not that he complained. He discovered a crucial element in all sentient being's lives, the element called friendship, and although he tried to deny it to himself, he yearned for it for the past three years. Wren never admitted it, but he was glad Demi decided to return to Zelan with him, because he would have been very lonely. Friendship was the one thing he was missing in his life, and now that he had friends, true friends, he began to feel a little more complete.

They heard Gryz and Kyra talking within their vehicle and wondered what they were discussing, bu were polite enough not to listen in. If they wanted to involve them, they surely would have invited them back in. Rika began walking slower and slower, stumbling at one point. It was then when Wren decided that they should get inside. The absence of wind did not make it any less to bear. Making one last pass, they finally headed inside. Wren opened the door and Rika rushed in to get warm. She brushed off her clothing which was just about stuck to her body. "Time to switch shifts," the Numan said. Wren took a seat next to Gryz. Kyra stood up from hers and beckoned the Motavian to follow.

"Well, a deal's a deal," she said. "Come on, Gryz, let's get moving." Gryz nodded, but did little to follow. For someone who lived all of his life beneath a burning sun, the thought of walking around in sub-zero temperatures was not a pleasing one. Before he could get up, though, a stirring and moaning drew their attention to Balor. Quickly, Kyra ran over to him and took his hand. "Balor! Balor! Come on, wake up!" Balor's eyelids fluttered.

"K -- Kyra?" he stuttered. The Esper tried to sit up.

"Just lie still, my friend," Kyra ordered, laying a restraining hand across his chest, "you're still weak and you need time to recover from your injuries, and for your aura to return."

"I -- it's gone, isn't it?" Balor's mood became sullen and it seemed that he would drift off into a deep sleep again.

"Balor! Stay with us! If we are to succeed, then we need your help!"

"What is it . . . that you need to know?"

"What happened?" Kyra was deeply concerned with the welfare of her people, but most of her concern lied with her friend who lay before her. He risked his life to remain among the Espers while she fled, knowing very well that his existence was in grave danger. She respected him ver much for what he did, and she was not going to let his actions pass into nothingness without making the best of them.

"Lian found me out," Balor explained, "how I had helped you escape. It was like he followed my every move, every last detail, even when I contacted you. If I had known you were on the way, I never would have broken radio silence." The Esper shuttered at remembering what happened afterward. "The moment I closed the channel with you, Lian's lackeys attacked me. I held them off for as long as I could, but their magic has been somehow strengthened!" Balor shuttered and shook his head in disbelief. "You don't know how powerful Lian is, Kyra! The others -- Metash, Perla, Octavian, and Francis -- have all fallen under his influence, but their powers has increased as well! They're not how you knew them, Kyra! They've changed, and it is an unnatural change, one you can't possibly comprehend!"

"Believe me," said Kyra, "I can comprehend a lot. What of Jakob and Ephemera?" Balor suddenly sat up under his own will, which displeased his leader. "Balor, you must lie still."

"No, I'll be fine. I must take you to them, so that you may see for yourself the kind of power Lian possesses."

Despite Kyra's protestations, Balor returned to his feet and led his leader out of the Icedigger to a spot near where he emerged a couple hours earlier. Curious, Wren, Gryz, and Rika followed after them, wondering just what was going on. Balor stumbled as he walked, but his gait was a proud one, not leading anyone to believe that he had been injured. Time seemed to pass slowly as he led them to a secret spot, a place that was far off from everything else, where he sought refuge after his former brothers and sisters had left him to die. "Here they are," he said, "just like when I found them."

Kyra shrieked.

There, conveniently placed in a corner to be conveniently forgotten, were Ephemera and Jakob, entombed in crystal sarcophaguses, their faces the very mask of fear. Like hieroglyphics left by an ancient civilization, their faces told all too well how they died -- in a terrible, debilitating fear which left scars on their lifeless countenances. Even in death, their eyes sought out Kyra's, begging, pleading for deliverance. Kyra burst into tears, unable to hold back her disgust and fear, all intermingled with an incredible sorrow.

Rika went to her friend and put a wrapped her arms around her friend. She was appalled by the scene, to see these one powerful Esper wizards now lifeless, their faces imprinted in the crystal like horrid paintings in which an observer can not escape their glare. Gryz, too, could not bear looking into their eyes, and Wren turned his back, placing himself between the horror and his friends. "Ephemera!" Kyra cried. "Jakob! What has he done?"

"Such was my reaction when I found them," Balor said, strangely composed, almost like he was immune to the sight now. "Now, you see what power Lian has obtained, and you know my fear. Something must be done or I fear all of Dezoris will fall to his might. It is my belief, and I say this respectfully, Leader," Kyra's head perked up, "that not even you have enough strength to defeat him." The Esper Leader stood up straight, wiped away her tears. She was very much aware that what Balor was saying was that he was concerned for her safety and would rather see her flee again than see her perish in the manner that Jakob and Ephemera did.

"Well," Kyra said, composure returning, "I guess it's a good thing that I brought along friends, now isn't it?" Balor nodded feebly, not wanting to admit that even with her friends, their chances of success was still slim.

* * * * *

Kyra brought her three original companions plus another out of the depths of Esper Mansion's basement. She did not know where to start looking for Lian and his followers, but she felt that he probably would be found in the Council chambers. They would have to keep their guard up at all time, for any slip in their attention could mean certain death for all of them. Kyra held her Moon Slasher, ready to send it flying at a moment's notice. Wren gripped his Photon Eraser firmly, a finger on its trigger. Rika walked with her titanium claws poised to strike, every nerve in her body frayed. Balor followed her, his hands opening and closing in nervous anticipation. Gryz, bringing up the rear, watched their backs for an attack from behind.

Not a single soul walked Esper Mansion's halls and a deathly silence surrounded them. Rika took comfort in it, knowing that if something was approaching them, they would definitely hear it. They walked on padded feet, being careful not to make any more noise than what was necessary. Only their rapid breaths and Wren's moving mechanisms was truly audible.

Kyra walked up to a pair of large doors and stopped. Placing an ear to it, she listened for any kind of sound. Hearing nothing, she signaled her friends to follow, and gently pushed the door open. Its squeaky hinges made enough noise to wake a thousand sleeping corpses, and Kyra grit her teeth against the sound. The Esper Leader cursed beneath her breath, saying something about telling them to lubricate the damn door hinges. Too late to try and sneak in, she entered without a second thought.

There, standing alone inside a large room, was Francis. Power swirled around her, through her, as she commanded the magical forces which was a part of everything. Kyra was stunned for she had never seen any of the Council use magic as Francis was. She could feel her command of it, felt it rival her own. A gust of wind caught them off guard and all five were blown up against the door, slamming it shut. Balor saw a sight so horrible to him, it made him cower into a corner of the room. Then, for the first time, Kyra saw the face of her enemy.

Darkness.

It was not Francis who stood before them, but the former Esper Francis who was possessed body and soul by evil. It consumed her, made her do whatever it bade her to do, and in exchange it gave her great power. Kyra suspected that Francis did not give herself over willingly because she knew that no Esper would. Lian probably had something to do with it, but she could not worry about that now. More urgent matters were aloft.

Rika and Gryz looked to one another and saw their thoughts reflected each other's eyes. The Numan rushed in, lithely avoiding an impressive array of energy bolts thrown at her. While Francis was distracted with her, Gryz raised his axe and charged. "Wait!" Kyra warned, "you don't know what you're getting into!" It was too late. They converged at a point right in front of their adversary and struck, but were immediately turned away by an invisible barrier. Two bodies were flung backward like rubber thrown against a wall, and they landed ungracefully.

Wren took careful aim with his weapon and fired, but it had little effect. "Francis commands the Esper spell, Warla," Kyra explained. "The only way we can break through it is with brute force." Wren nodded, indicating that he understood. He began to bombard the invisible barrier with relentless rounds fired from his weapon. Kyra flung her Moon Slasher, its blades biting deeply into it, weakening it. She caught her weapon, the raised her hand toward the heavens, using Tandle to rain bolts of lightning onto Francis' magical shield. Having recovered from their blunder, Rika and Gryz stood beside their friends while they worked, understanding what they were doing. Then, finally, the shield weakened to a point where it nearly disappeared, although Francis appeared mildly concerned. Kyra and Wren disengaged their attacks, and the Esper Leader turned to Rika. "Now, Rika!" she ordered. "Deliver the final blow!"

Like a cat, Rika leapt into the air, her claws shining brilliantly in the room's light. She landed a few feet in front of Francis' shield and executed her Double Slash Skill, an attack performed so quickly, the unfortunate recipient of it does not have a chance to retaliate. The barrier shimmered, then faded completely.

Gryz struck again, but Francis merely sidestepped and his attack missed. A large staff suddenly appeared in the Esper's hand and she struck her foe squarely across the back, sending him reeling. Kyra cocked her arm and sent her Moon Slasher whirling toward her. Her enemy crossed arms, to protect herself, but her Leader's weapon cut deep wounds. Rika gawked and pointed as her wounds healed almost instantly.

Magical arcs of intense cold began forming around the four companions and they felt the burning bite of Nawat as it consumed their bodies. Kyra was able to counter Francis' attack with that of Nafoi, using the Technique to wholly consume herself and her friends, breaking the cold without incinerating them. "Her Techniques are powerful," Wren said, "but an Energy Barrier will take some of the ferocity away from her attacks." A small cannon-like object emerged from a compartment in Wren's arm and fired. Like tiny iron filings drawn to a magnet, positive and negative ions present in the air, the walls, and even in themselves and their enemy began to converge in an area congruent to where Wren had fired, forming a formidable Energy Barrier to protect them from any non-physical attack.

"I can help, too!" Rika stated excitedly. She threw a hand forward and used Deban to further strengthen their defenses, making them less vulnerable to any physical attacks Francis might use. It was a good move as far as everyone was concerned because soon after that, the evil Esper hurled her staff at them, a staff which somehow transformed into a Slasher. The weapon grazed all four, but did little damage.

Rika decided it was time for another attack and launched herself bodily at Francis, her claws ready. Francis sidestepped like she did with Gryz and although her initial strike missed its target, the Numan's greater agility compensated and her second claw found its mark, slicing through flesh and sinew. Francis reeled backward from her, but Gryz was already there, assaulting her with the bite of his axe and brute force. She shrieked hideously and suddenly swirling winds began to rise up around her. Gryz and Rika were caught in Hewn's vortex and were thrown this way and that, screaming the entire way. Wren reached up and grabbed the big Motavian as he flew by, pulling him behind the Energy Barrier where he would be more safe. On Rika's next pass, he did the same for her.

Francis' Hewn spell died and once her defenses were lowered, Wren fired his weapon. Hitting her dead-on, the resulting explosion propelled Francis backward, nearly hitting a wall. Somehow, a spell was cast in enough time to keep her from colliding, instead, keeping her suspended in mid-air like an eerie specter. She spun like a top and emitted energy sparks which collided with Wren's Energy Barrier, shattering its defensive effect. Then, Francis landed on her feet and an intense burst of light exploded from her hands. Used at the right time, Force Flash could successfully blind an opponent for several minutes at a time by overloading the optic nerve, causing agonizing pain. Luckily for Gryz, Rika, and Kyra, Wren anticipated their enemy's move and put himself between them, his own optical relays better adapted to defend against such an attack.

Having not totally escaped injury, Wren took a step back and fell to one knee. Rika saw her friend fall and leapt into action. She stood before him and performed her Illusion Technique, sending out several lifelike copies of herself to confuse Francis and give Wren time to recover. The Esper struck out at them, but not one was the real Rika. In the meantime, Wren used Recover to repair any damage he may have sustained.

Kyra sensed a change in the magical energies and foresaw that Francis was about to use Warla again to protect herself from attack. "Oh, no you don't!" Kyra yelled. The Esper Leader used her own Hewn spell to toss Francis around a bit.

Crash!

Gryz threw himself bodily onto Francis' small frame, crushing her between himself and a wall. He quickly moved out of the way and Wren added his own attack again, firing round upon round of bursts from his weapon. Kyra was next, using her Nagra Technique. Immensely strong gravitational waves bombarded Francis, causing her body to bend and contort in ways not physically possible. Finally, Rika delivered the coup de gräce with another Double Slash.

Flesh ripped open, blood spurted, and soon Francis lay lifeless in a pool of her own blood. Kyra and her companions retreated in victory, a solemn victory. Never in written history had an Esper taken another's life. Kyra took no pleasure in completely destroying one of her former council members, but this creature was no longer an Esper, no longer a Palman. Whatever it was completely assimilated Francis' body, like a parasite that feeds off of its host, but ends up consuming it wholly. The thing was once Kyra's friend, but not now. They did Francis a favor by ridding her body of its possessor. Maybe now the Great Light could find her soul and lead her to peace.

* * * * *

Exhausted from their battle with Francis, Kyra, Gryz, Rika, and Wren sought refuge within the very room they slew her. Balor finished cowering in a corner and joined his saviors while they rested. He apologized for not being of any use to them in their battle, but they understood, especially after what he had been through. There were many unspoken words between them, but no one dared speak of any ills, especially after what they had been through. As if discovering Jakob and Ephemera was not bad enough, now they had to deal with the former Esper Council members and their reinforced strengths. If Francis was a hint of what was still to come, then they were in for the fight of their lives.

Time passed slowly, no one wanting to get up and proceed to where they needed to go. They feared what they might find, and feared even more what they might not find. Kyra and her friends travelled to Esper Mansion to discover the truth behind Lian's betrayal, but those few individuals of great power are sometimes hard to get a hold of. If they reached Lian, he might decide to run away and fight another day. The Esper Leader had no idea how many of her people were possessed with Darkness, but she hoped that they would not have to face all of them.

Finally, after only a couple hours of rest, Kyra, Rika, and the others decided that it was best that they move on. They needed to get so much accomplished and yet, there was so much left unfinished. They were moving backward with every step they took forward. Time was the only thing they did have on their side, for there was no allotted amount, no deadline for them to meet. If worse came to worse, they could find a spot in the mansion to hide until everything calmed down. There were many hidden rooms within its walls which Lian had no knowledge of, or at least Kyra hoped that was so. As Esper Leader, she was privileged to know of secrets that no other Esper knew of. Lian, however, with his newly-found abilities, may have infiltrated some of those secrets, in which case they were in big trouble.

Slowly, the party of four crept out from their sanctuary, carefully checking all around before moving into the line of fire. Just like before, everything was deathly silent. The silence was deafening at times, and more than one of them thought that she would scream out loud just to hear another sound. They were nearing the great meeting hall in which forums were held, meetings that were called into session whenever matters of importance required attention. As a matter of fact, there had not been anything requiring so much attention in over three years, since Kyra was voted as a surrogate Leader in Rune's absence. Now, the only thing that filled it was dust and stale air.

Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, Kyra gently pushed open the doors and was about to enter the hall when she felt a disturbance from within. She opened the doors wide, fully prepared to face whatever lingered inside. A flash, and suddenly three fireballs sped directly at her. Luckily for the Esper Leader, Rika's reflexes were keen and the Numan threw herself onto her friend, knocking her out of the line of fire. "Great," Gryz said, "here's welcoming committee number two."

Determined not to let any sudden spells or Techniques get the better of them, Wren set up another Energy Barrier. Behind their protection, the four companions rushed in to get a better look at exactly what they were facing. It was good that Wren took the precaution that he did because the instant they did, hundreds of jagged, dagger-like ice projectiles were hurled directly like them. A few penetrated Wren's barrier, but everyone was able to dodge them without much difficulty.

Kyra lifted her eyes to see just who they were going up against. She was shocked to find out that they faced not one of the rebellious Espers, but three -- Octavian, Metash, and Perla! The Esper Leader shook her head in despair, and as if things could not get worse, the floor suddenly opened up about twenty feet from them and three robotic mechanisms floated upward, the ground closing after them. "Since when to Espers depend on the services of artificial life forms?" She abruptly remembered what company she was in and corrected herself. "Sorry, Wren. No offense."

"None taken," the big android answered gruffly.

Needless to say, none of the group was a stranger to battling AI's. All of them knew that their metal hides were difficult to penetrate, and that only by destroying their internal CPU's could they be efficiently terminated. These three mechanisms were different, however, special in their own sinister way. Rika could not put a finger on why they were different, but she knew that the single Wiredine and dual Arthropods held a deadly secret. "Tin cans!" Gryz yelled. "I'll take care of them!" The big Motavian attacked with his axe, aiming for one of the smaller Arthropods.

It was then that Rika remembered the secret these AI's held. In her mind's eye, she saw Chaz striking down one of the Arthropods like Gryz was about to do. The mechanism fizzled and died away instantly, but its partners did not. "Gryz!" the Numan shrieked. "No!"

Rika's words were too little and too late. Gryz struck with all his strength and his enemy ceased to function almost instantly. A bolt of electricity caught him off guard and sent him reeling. Rika went to aid her friend, but just as she did, the remaining Arthropod and Wiredine underwent an amazing transformation. Parts of their bodies shifted, and the Arthropod launched into the air. Wiredine's parts continued to move until its counterpart came to rest on top of it, creating an entirely new and more powerful mechanism. Wren went and pulled his companions behind him defensively. "Life Deleter," he said grimly.

As a killer, Life Deleter had no equal; as a warrior its power was unmatched. Standing nearly five feet taller than Wren, its presence was an intimidating and threatening one. Wren, Kyra, Rika, and Rune fought many of its kind, but not without a profound risk to themselves. The battles were fought at a great expense of energy and one false move could have cost them their lives. It was good that luck and the Great Light was on their side then or they would never have survived. Now, they faced an even greater challenge, for they once again faced Life Deleter, and three renegade Espers to top it off.

Metash, Perla, and Octavian focused their energies into a single stream and imbued Life Deleter with incalculable strength. The massive AI took aim with its oversized weapon and fired, scattering its unfortunate recipients. Kyra let loose her Moon Slasher, following it up with a blast of Tandle for a double-fisted attack. Life Deleter reeled back, but was not damaged. Numerous small gun turrets emerged from various parts of its body and immediately began raining shots of plasma shells in their vicinity. Jumping and dodging, Rika made her way over to Gryz and used her Shift Technique, granting the Motavian with indomitable strength.

Feeling power surge through his body, he leapt forward, burying his axe deep into his foe's metal chassis. Life Deleter moved to counterattack, but Wren fired and prevented it from completing its blow. The Motavian struck again and this time sparks flew. His enemy drew back and with one swift move, felled its opponent. This time, however, no one could come to his rescue fast enough and it was about to end his existence when a mysterious energy force grabbed a hold of him and pulled him out of the line of fire.

Curious, Kyra looked behind her to see who effected Gryz's rescue and expected to see something spectacular, and saw just that. Balor, shedding his mask of fear stood proudly and used his Esper prowess to aid his battling companions. Using the same mysterious energy force he used to save the Motavian, Balor used it as a concussive battering ram and propelled Life Deleter backward into its summoners. Miniature bombs shot out from its fingertips and exploded on impact, damaging everything they came in contact with. One bomb struck Rika, and she was thrown into a wall. Life Deleter stood up and went to finish off his prey.

Instantly, Wren was there, putting himself between his foe and Rika. Like an immovable wall, the android stood before Life Deleter's menacing presence. Hopelessly, futilely, he cocked his arm and struck, but his much larger opponent merely brushed off his attack. Rika lay on her side, barely conscious, struggling to move away. Gryz and Kyra were a little far away to be of much help, but both ran at full speed to get to them. Kyra hurled her weapon, hoping that it would somehow make a difference, but even its sharp blades did little to affect it. Balor stumbled and fell, seeming to have reached the extent of his power in his weakened state. His aura still had not regained its full power and the use of his Esper abilities were limited. Life Deleter reached its targets and aimed to fire every last weapon on its body at them. Wren's shoulder mounted mortars opened up and he prepared to fire Burst Rockets. Just as he was about to do so, Kyra reached him and lay a restraining hand on him. "Wait," she said, "let me help."

Wren launched his Burst Rockets and at the same time, Kyra raised her hand and used Nafoi. Flares shot into the air and detonated every last one of Wren's bursts, creating a fiery inferno which rained onto Life Deleter, completing Shooting Star. Unable to withstand so much heat, parts of the massive AI exploded, but it's internal CPU survived. It immediately began effecting repairs, its broken pieces coming together like pieces of a puzzle. "Kyra," Wren spoke, "we must destroy its CPU. Prepare yourself."

The Esper nodded and concentrated on calling upon the power of the elements. Wren's hands underwent a transformation, changing into that of small radio transmitting dishes capable of emitting powerful frequencies which could disable any mechanism's offensive of defensive protocol. At the same time his Esper companion unleashed Tandle in all of its glory, he used Hyper-jammer.

Wren's Hyper-jammer effectively changed the frequency of light within Tandle's destructive force to match that of any frequency an AI's power system functioned on. Like a heat-seeking missile, Circuit Breaker homed in on its specific target and destroyed it instantly; subsequently, Life Deleter did not stand a chance. Its internal systems sizzled and fried as Circuit Breaker destroyed every trace of its programming, every bit of its power. Life Deleter fell, its metal body a lifeless husk.

Kyra made it a point to heal Rika's injuries and the Numan was on her feet almost immediately after. Angered at their servant's destruction, Metash, Perla, and Octavian resumed their attack on their Leader and her comrades. One attacked with fire, the other with ice, and one used magical wind. First, they were bombarded with steam which scalded and burnt at their lungs. Then, the Espers combined their powers and created a raging Blizzard. Ice and wind tore at skin already raw from the steam bath they just received.

Wren felt his android body begin to stiffen, and each step he took was more and more languished. Rika and Gryz huddled together, trying to survive through it. Kyra took a few steps toward Wren and fell. "W -- Wren!" she shivered. "We c -- can dissipate this storm. F -- fire your Burst Rockets!" Wren did as he was told, though it was as if he was loathe to do it. The rockets shot upward and Kyra used Nafoi like she did before. Shooting Star rained down not upon their enemies, but upon themselves. The intense heat was enough to dissipate the Espers' Blizzard, though cold still chilled their bones.

Metash and his allies shifted into reverse and used the opposite of ice to wear at their foes. Rika pried herself from Gryz's grasp and felt a hot wind blow against her cheek. Within seconds, flames surrounded them and swirled like a hellish nightmare. Caught in Fire Storm's fury, she pulled the big Motavian down with her and both hid beneath their capes. Wren's systems shut down completely, an automatic defense designed to prevent an major damage he might suffer during a battle. The Esper leader alone was left standing, not possessing any knowledge of the Wat Techniques and therefore not able to help them.

Kyra's eyes sought out Balor through the searing heat, for she knew that he did have knowledge of the Wat Techniques, although she was not sure he could manage to use them. He was crumpled up in a miserable heap, trying to escape being burned to a crisp. Like she did before, she fell, unable to withstand her subordinates' combined power. Crawling on all fours, Kyra made her way over to her friend and placed a hand. "Balor!" she nearly screamed, her lungs burning, her skin burning, "you must help me!"

"I -- I can't!" Balor cried. "My aura is gone, and with it my strength and my Esper abilities!" The distraught Esper shook his head emphatically, accepting defeat. He was dealt a bad hand, and he was ready to fold. Kyra was not so easily deterred.

"Damn you, Balor! Fight!" She placed her hand atop his. "Here! Take some of my strength!" Kyra concentrated all of her energy on transferring a small portion of her aura to Balor. The unsuspecting Esper perked almost immediately, feeling renewed vigor.

"I will do what I can," he said. Finding strength from each other, both managed to return to their feet. Balor's hand glowed blue as he used Nawat, its magical arcs of light surrounding the two and lowering the temperature around them. At a critical moment, Kyra called upon her Hewn Skill and the magic gathered up Balor's Technique and sent it spiraling, slowly at first, but growing in power. Soon, the Blizzard within the Firestorm began to grow, eventually engulfing Wren, Gryz, and Rika.

Rika felt relief from Fire Storm's heat and lifted her head. Seeing Kyra and Balor valiantly fighting back the storm, she used the Nasar Technique. Glimmering lights surrounded herself and her friends in a brilliant halo, imbuing each of them with refurbished strength. Thanks to her, Balor and Kyra was able to double their efforts and Blizzard raged forth, though it did not harm anyone caught within it. Wren's systems kicked back in and Recover was triggered automatically. Along with Gryz and Rika, he joined them at the two Espers' side.

Balor and Kyra discontinued their combination attack, having used it for a form of defense that time around. Switching gears, both used the Nagra Technique to trap their three enemies within a gravitational field so powerful it threatened to rip their very flesh from their bones. Perla screamed in pain and with one wave of her hand, dispelled their assault. Fireballs formed at her command and launched toward them. Gryz's axe met every one and split them into nothingness. Wren fired several Burst Rockets and Kyra, in turn, used Nafoi. Shooting Star rained upon its targets, wearing down their defenses. Rika saw an opening and slashed at Octavian with her claws.

Facing imminent defeat, Metash summoned some of his Esper comrades, but they did not answer his pleas. Panicked, fearful of his enemy's retaliation, the Esper wrapped his cape around himself and vanished, leaving Octavian and Perla to fend for themselves. Seeing that one of their number left, Rika leapt into action. She concentrated, then, using Disrupt, she created a body double of herself and used it to attack both Espers at the same time.

Kyra and Balor joined hands. They felt their Esper powers intermingle; Kyra cast Tandle, Balor used Nawat. Lightning poured down from the heavens and the very moment the electrical arcs struck the ground, Nawat's cold energy travelled up them.

The power of Conductive Thunder was the power of destruction, Tandle's current moving from sky to ground and Nawat's force originating from the ground, travelling upward. The movements of both was enough to rip and tear through an organism or mechanism's insides, just as a serrated blade cuts through wood. The blue-tinged electrical storm was a sight to behold, ice and electricity mingling to create a devastating effect. Octavian and Perla were not prepared for an assault of such magnitude and fell to their knees within seconds. Then, as fate would have it, they collapsed, lifeless.

Kyra and Balor aborted Conductive Thunder, victorious in their efforts. Balor once again used up all of his strength and collapsed as well. Rika was there instantly, using Nares to return to him some of his lost vigor. The Esper Leader helped him to his feet. "Thank you, Balor," she said. "We wouldn't have survived without you."

"For you, Kyra," he told her, "anything." Kyra looked into his green eyes and saw in them a fond admiration of her, a reverence that was not a result of her abilities as an Esper, but for being a Palman female. Balor was the second youngest Council member and although he was nearly ten years older than her, his youthful Esper countenance did not show it. She found herself looking over his handsome facial features and became suddenly aware that she was staring and averted her gaze, blushing. Rika saw this and came to the rescue.

"Uh," she began, "so where to now?" Kyra silently thanked her for the intervention and took a deep breath.

"To the Council chamber," she spoke solemnly, a frightening seriousness in her voice, "and to our greatest challenge yet. I don't know what kind of power Lian yields, but from what Balor has told us, it is something that should not be taken lightly. From here on, we must be on our guard at all times. If you see anything out-of-the-ordinary, tell someone else. Lian was formidable even before he gained this new power and he could set traps for us."

"What of Metash?" Gryz queried.

"I imagine he'll show up again eventually, but we'll be ready for him. Come on, let's get moving.

Kyra led her companions out of the room, leaving Octavian, Perla, and the memories of nearly perishing at their hands behind. The Council chamber was on the other side of the mansion from where they were and it would take awhile to reach it, since they would be travelling slowly to be on alert. Rika felt a sense of closure forthcoming and could not wait to return to her husband and their home on Motavia.

* * * * *

The Esper Council chambers were once a familiar sight to Kyra and Balor, but now it was a place as foreign to them as another planet. The large table and seats that once occupied this room were gone, replaced by an altar of some sort. Torches places in strategic locations cast eerie shadows and left some areas completely in darkness. Lian was there, Kyra was sure of that. It was as if his hovered over the entire place, so she could not pinpoint exactly where he was. Balor appeared nervous, his breathing labored. "Lian!" Kyra yelled, an echo reverberating through her companions, sending chills through their bodies.

"'Step into my parlor,' said the spider to the fly," Lian's voice rang out from nowhere. "One of you has been chosen to serve."

"Where are you, you coward!" Kyra yelled again.

"Ah, Balor. I see you survived your little ordeal. I expected to only have to deal with one traitor, but disposing of two will be of little significance to me."

A beam of energy shot out from a dark corner and tore Balor from Kyra's grasp, propelling the unsuspecting Esper against a wall, pinning him to it. Wren and Gryz moved to help him out from beneath it, but even their combined strengths could not budge him. Angered, Kyra gathered her robe about her and waved her hands, negating the energy beam.

"Very good, Kyra, but now it's your turn." Sensing impending danger, Kyra quickly cast Warla and Lian's beam was deflected away. "Your powers are great, my 'former' Leader," Lian spoke with a sneer, "but now I'm afraid that you're going to be usurped. It's no use, the other Espers already follow me."

"They follow you because you rule them with an iron fist," Balor spoke bravely, still unable to stand after Lian's attack on him. "Such is the fate of all who are frightened into submission."

"You fool! They follow me because I am the most qualified to lead them, not Kyra! Anyone who stands with her will die with her!" Energy beams fired from every conceivable corner of the chamber and struck all five of Lian's enemies. He then aimed his hands at Balor and struck him with all his power. Balor slid across the room and lay convulsing.

"Balor!" Kyra shrieked. She ran to aid her fallen friend, but was caught from behind by another one of Lian's attacks. Whatever spell he was using, Kyra had no knowledge of, and it paralyzed every muscle in her body. Gryz hurried to her, but she was unmovable. Seeing the panic in her eyes, he could barely read her lips when she mouthed, 'help him.' The Motavian understood and went to help Balor.

When Gryz reached Balor, his body was through convulsing and lay deathly still. At first, he thought that the Esper had already passed away, but the rising and falling of his chest from his labored inspirations told him otherwise. Gryz knelt next to him and prepared to lift his body, but Balor protested, even in his state. "You," Balor said, "you shall . . . be the first . . . in a long . . . time . . . ."

"Balor," Gryz replied, "I don't understand what you're saying. Just lie still and let me get you out of here."

"It's too late . . . for me . . . my friend . . . ." the Esper's voice trailed off for a second, "take this gift . . . and use it wisely . . . ." Balor reached up and took Gryz's hand into his. Puzzled, the Motavian allowed him to do this, for the desperation of a dying person is great, and he was not going to deny Balor of his final wish.

A sudden wave of dizziness passed over him as Balor's hand glowed a brilliant array of colors. Gryz tried to pull away, but it seemed as if they were momentarily bound together. Whatever spell he was casting, Gryz did not like it too much. The longer they were attached, the more frightened he became for he had never been touched in such a way by one so gifted in Esper magic. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Balor let go and then his body lay still.

Gryz reeled back, unsure of how he should react. His entire body tingled with unknown energies, but that was not his primary concern now. Glancing across the room at Kyra, he saw her mouth agape in a silent scream of sorrow, unable to move, unable to help her friend in his dying moments. He saw tears in her eyes, saw anger flash from deep within, but she could not vent it. Lian stopped his assault to watch his victims suffer, letting his guard down, leaving a window of opportunity for Rika and Wren, who were nowhere to be found.

Lian felt a burning at his back when Wren fired his Photon Eraser, though it had little effect. The Esper caught him in an energy beam and, lifting the heavy android completely into the air, he hurled him over to where Gryz still stood, dumbfounded. His attention turned from his current dilemma, the Motavian assisted Wren in returning to his feet.

From out of nowhere, Rika leapt at Lian, her claws aimed to kill. Lian expected her and caught her in mid-flight, using the same spell he used on Kyra to paralyze her. Wren and Gryz charged, but they were too late. Lian erected an unknown type of barrier more powerful than any of them had ever seen. At that moment, Kyra was released from her paralysis and she joined Wren and Gryz in their endeavor. Android and Motavian slammed their bodies against the barrier, hoping that it would fall, but they had no such luck. The Esper Leader instructed them to stand away from it and she let loose all of the destructive force of Tandle onto the barrier, but even that had no effect. Lian placed Rika's paralyzed body on the altar and began performing some kind of ceremony. All they could do was watch as their friend lay still and let him do with her as he will. They did not know what he had in store for her, but if one thing was for sure, it was that it was not good.

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