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Professional Inquiry
by Oswego del Fuego

AW 1046

The village of Eppi was rustic, quaint--a throwback to another era. Its sole export was natural wood used in construction and furniture manufacture. Of course, only the wealthier classes could afford natural wood, so the market, though lucrative, was small. It may have been this fact, Bram Lindsay thought, which kept Eppi from growing as the cities around it developed. For example, Camineet, capital of the empire, had grown exponentially on a consistent basis for centuries, eventually absorbing Parolit and its other suburbs, and, by the eleventh century AW, covering a full fifth of the southeastern quadrant of Palm. Then there was Scion, the port city, which flourished by means of sea travel and trade. Iala had its iron and copper mines. Naula was a tourist magnet, the self-proclaimed Culinary Capital of Algo, famous for its shortcake and other delicacies. As the great cities grew, Eppi seemed to shrink. Surrounded for tens of miles by dense forest, having neither a spaceport nor an aeroport, connected to the outside world by only a two-lane highway, public broadcasts, and online contacts, it was an island unto itself, and its local culture evolved correspondingly.

Bram Lindsay was a historian, and even he had never heard of Eppi prior to being summoned there by his colleague, Dr. Meems Colchoy. To call Dr. Colchoy a colleague was probably presumptuous. Dr. Colchoy was, in fact, Vice Principal of the Kueri campus of the Luveno Institute for Scientific Research, which made him one of Bram's superiors. Bram was just a junior professor, lacking tenure and taking orders from pretty much anybody who had it. Even so, he was rising quickly through the ranks, and most agreed that when old Fentius Addica finally resigned from his post as History Department Chair, Bram Lindsay was likely to take over. Only twenty-seven years old, he stood to be the youngest person ever to attain such a high station at LISR Kueri.

What Bram really wanted to do was continue his research into the social structure and interaction of the Native tribes of Mota prior to their first contact with Palm people. The Natives, despite having developed a written language millennia ago, kept few written records, instead relying on their much-loved tradition of oral history. Under normal circumstances, Bram would have likely remained at Kueri despite Dr. Colchoy's summons, and despite the potential blow to his career such an action might engender. His research was everything to him, and since he had no spouse or children, he was free to indulge himself and take risks.

But these were not ordinary circumstances.

Vice Principal Colchoy left Mota three months earlier, in the company of his own superior, Amson Lialzar, the Principal. At the time, Bram and the rest of the faculty and students thought the trip a mere sabbatical. At most, a working vacation. It was only when Dr. Lialzar began to go mad, then vanished entirely, that mousy Dr. Colchoy found the nerve to admit the truth. Even when he did, he told only Bram, his long-time friend and protégé, the one person he thought capable of solving the mystery.

For Bram, it was quite a trip. Kueri was located in the Territories, a region of Mota left untouched by Mother Brain and populated primarily by Native tribes. Located on the coast of Mota's humble ocean, Kueri was in fact the only Palm city in all the Territories. Travel by land from Kueri to the Palm-controlled areas was inadvisable. The desert was harsh, the conditions treacherous, and the Natives not always friendly or cooperative. So, Bram took a hydro-liner from Kueri to Uzo, where there was a spaceport. >From Uzo he flew to Camineet, where he caught public transportation to Scion. At Scion he rented a private car and drove more than ten hours to Eppi. It was a most tiring experience, and highly expensive, as well. Bram was glad that the school was paying for it. Indeed, it would have been impossible for him to pay for it himself.

What struck him first about Eppi was the forest. Though born on Palm, Bram had spent most of his life on Mota, where even the lushest, most productive land could never have supported a forest as dense and expansive as Eppi's. It seemed to stretch on forever. There was no horizon and no open sky, just trees and more trees with a narrow strip of cracked pavement winding crazily through, almost seeming lost. There was a refueling station and rest area at the forest's edge. After that, Bram saw no sign of civilization other than the road itself, as well as occasional signs, popping up every ten kilometers or so, reporting how much farther it was to Eppi.

It was early evening when he pulled into town. The sun was low in the sky, but it was still light enough for Bram to get a good look at his surroundings. The streets were paved but narrow and mostly empty, despite the fact that there was still daylight. The buildings were of decidedly old-fashioned construction--mostly single-story, square, with domed ceilings and arched windows. Yards were generous and verdant. Homes were not packed tightly together like in the larger towns. At Eppi's center was a square, and here Bram found some human activity. People walked between little shops and privately-owned businesses. There was a park with a fountain. He noticed there were few cars in the parking stalls. Most people seemed to get about on foot. The square was dominated by an inn at its far end. The building's outward decoration was lavish. Each of the inn's three floors was painted a different color--one pink, one yellow-green, one sky blue. There was also white trim and shutters, done in a different style on each floor. The roof was crenellated like a castle's. The inn appeared to be the only structure of its size and ostentation in all of Eppi, save for the possible exception of a church whose spire rose in the distance, just above the tops of the trees.

Bram parked in an empty space in front of the inn. He hoped its external extravagance was a good sign, and would translate into equal attention paid to the quality of the lodging available. For this is where Bram would be staying, in a room adjoining that of Dr. Meems Colchoy.

* * * * *

The inn didn't disappoint. The rooms were small and simple but impeccably clean and neat. All of the furniture was made from wood, an aristocratic luxury that surprised Bram at first. Then, remembering the millions of trees outside, it made more sense. Old-fashioned curtains hung across the paned windows, but there was also a light-sensitive sliding shade and glass that adjusted its tint to the time of day, just as one would find in any middle-class city dwelling. Likewise, there were the standard news and entertainment feeds and online access. Each room also had a bathroom and a kitchenette to supplement the meals served downstairs.

Bram had just set down the few items he'd brought with him when there was a knock at the door connecting his room to Dr. Colchoy's.

"Come in," he said. He heard the door slide and open and, smiling, he turned to face his mentor.

His smile vanished as soon as he saw Dr. Colchoy. The man was getting on, Bram knew. He was already in his seventies. He had always been thin, as well, and his hair was receding. Even so, Dr. Colchoy looked terrible. His skin was pale and blotchy, his eyes wide and red-rimmed. His clothing--he was wearing the black jumper that was typically worn under the school's white, high-collared uniform--was disheveled and looked dirty, like he'd worn it for days on end without washing. His hair was a mess and he also smelled very bad.

"Dr. Colchoy!" Bram said. "Sir, are you all right?"

"No I'm not!" the doctor spat. He sounded near tears. "But thank goodness you're finally here, Bram. I'm so glad to see you."

* * * * *

They got right to business. Dr. Colchoy led Bram into his room, which was in no better shape than the man himself. The tables, the floor, even the bed was covered in papers. He led Bram over to a writing desk under a large window overlooking the square. He pushed some of the papers into a folder and took some others out of a drawer. Finally he pulled a chair over from another table and motioned for Bram to sit. Dr. Colchoy then retrieved a flask from the nightstand beside his bed, took a swig, and joined Bram at the desk.

"First of all," he said, "I must apologize for my condition. The fact is that I haven't had much time to worry about personal grooming these last few days. I must look a little crazed, but I promise you, I'm not. I'm simply frantic trying to figure out what's become of poor Dr. Lialzar."

Bram nodded and lightly squeezed the old man's shoulder. "I understand, sir," he said. "You needn't worry about that. Just tell me what's happened."

The first file on the desk, Bram saw, was a brief biography of Dr. Lialzar. He imagined Dr. Colchoy had printed this off the data-net for Bram's benefit, but Bram suspected he already knew whatever was in any publicly accessible files.

Dr. Lialzar was Principal of Bram's school and a lifelong friend of Dr. Colchoy, but he was also a great deal more than that. Like Bram, his academic expertise lay in the field of history, and he was regarded as one of the foremost experts on extinct Palm societies. In addition, he was a top consultant to Techna RD, the agency within the government that studied psionic phenomena, developed new techniques, and researched new areas into which technique ability could be channeled. Dr. Lialzar had held this position for more than a quarter of a century and was an important part of the team that developed new techs. Fanbi was the doctor's favorite. He said he liked to use it on mosquitoes.

Dr. Colchoy saw Bram looking at the bio and said, "You already know about Dr. Lialzar's position at Techna RD, yes?"

Bram nodded. "I'm familiar with it."

"Well. . . ." Dr. Colchoy sighed and wiped at an eye with a shaky hand. "That's where this whole saga began." He reached into one of his folders and pulled out a color photograph of an adolescent girl. She wore a gingham dress that may have looked at home on a Mota farm dome, but would have been openly laughed at in any of the Fun Centers frequented by urbane city kids. The girl was fair-skinned with icy, light blue hair. Her frame was small. In fact, she looked sickly. Her lips were colorless. Bram let out a small gasp when he realized her eyes were, too. They were almost perfectly white throughout.

"This is Gwynedd LeCille," Dr. Colchoy said. "She is fourteen years old, deaf and blind, and mildly mentally retarded. She lives with her family on a farm for small livestock here in Eppi. Gwyn, as her family calls her, came to the attention of Techna at about this time last year."

Bram looked up from the photo. "Why was this girl brought to Techna?"

"It was her family's wish," Dr. Colchoy said. "It was their last stop on a long tour of various doctors and experts who, sadly, had no explanation." He looked out the window. "Gwyn's parents knew from the time she was born that she wasn't mentally normal. The girl is able to function, but at a toddler's level. She's very sweet, though. I had the pleasure of meeting her myself, when Dr. Lialzar brought me in to assist him. That Gwyn. You just want to hug her." He cleared his throat. "Anyway, the child displayed a knack for tech from the time she was very small. In fact, her mother told a story about how, when Gwyn was a baby, she cried when it was time to go to bed. They thought maybe she was hungry, or wet, or sick, but that wasn't the case. They couldn't figure out what was wrong with her, and the child got more and more agitated. Finally she threw a fit, kicking and screaming, and suddenly all the lights in the house came on." He smiled. "Including an unlit candle. Apparently, little Gwyn was afraid of the dark."

"But that's impossible!" Bram said. "Technique proficiency is definitely a natural talent, just like painting or singing. Everyone can do it to a degree, but if you don't have the talent, you just don't have the talent. That said, much of one's ability comes from years of practice and study. I simply can't believe that a baby would be able to perform techniques without any understanding of the principles involved." He set the picture down. "It's impossible, Dr. Colchoy. Schooling is at least as important as natural talent. At least!"

Dr. Colchoy smiled and shook a finger at Bram. "Of course--normally," he said. "But this child isn't normal. We observed her, Bram, for more than six months. When put in a situation of mild stress, such as being cold and not having a blanket, the child would perform what we dubbed a 'psionic maneuver' and provide herself with the comfort she needed. Like heat."

"But how," Bram asked, "can one perform, say, Foi, if one has not studied the mental exercises that are required in order to produce the heat and trajectory which constitute the technique? One has to first understand the elements involved before the effect can be produced."

"This was, of course, the very question we asked ourselves. Try as we might, we could find no solution. Tech prodigies are known, of course, but never ones like this. We'd never seen anybody who could operate on a purely, well, intuitive level."

"Did the child seem dangerous in any way?" asked Bram. "If she was acting subconsciously, and if her understanding was limited, she might pose a threat, if an unintentional one."

"We never saw anything remotely threatening," Dr. Colchoy said with a stern shake of his head. "The child has no capacity for malice, and her demonstrations, startling though they were, seemed almost to possess a built-in failsafe. How that can happen, I don't know, but it was the case, or at least appeared to be."

"So what happened?" asked Bram. "What did you do?"

Dr. Colchoy shrugged and gave a little smile. "Nothing," he said. "Once we had exhausted every avenue we could think of, we sent the child and her family home. We all regretted it terribly. We were fascinated by Gwyn and would have loved to spend more time with her, and we also felt bad for the family who left without answers. But, there was nothing we could do."

"That was a year ago," Bram said. "Why did you and Dr. Lialzar come to Eppi now? To see Gwyn? Did Dr. Lialzar have some new idea?"

"You're getting ahead of me," Dr. Colchoy said, "but you're on the right track. What happened was, even after Gwyn went home, and the other researchers and I went back to our usual projects, Dr. Lialzar couldn't let it go. He spent his free time exploring any possibilities he could come up with. He would tell me about a great new idea, only to inform me later that he had ultimately rejected it. This went on for weeks and weeks. Then, about six months ago, he started doing research on the Espers."

Bram's eyebrows went up at this. He knew about the Espers, of course. They were a source of much controversy and intense debate for historical scholars everywhere. This was because the Espers belonged equally to two disciplines that, as often as not, were mutually exclusive: history and folklore. According to folklore, the Espers were a race of wizards who commanded "true magic," a force similar to techniques but far more potent and grand in its scope. A force that sounded remarkably similar to the subconscious psionics of Gwynedd LeCille. It was also claimed that the Espers knew the secret of immortality, and that the greatest of their number were true telepaths--or telementals, as they were called.

History, on the other hand, said nothing of magic or miracles. Instead, it claimed that the Espers were a religious sect whose primary tenant was returning to a simpler, more agrarian, more introspective life. They were not divorced from the traditional Palm church, but, in fact, were often its leaders and most devout believers. The Espers, at least in the distant past, had also enjoyed a close relationship with the Landale monarchs. They were trusted advisors even after the times of Alis, well into the modern era.

The story of the Espers was controversial because no one could agree where fact and fantasy met. It was commonly thought that the Espers may have been the first to develop techniques. In fact, one of the legends surrounding the Espers was that Noah, a great Esper leader and teacher, discovered them himself. However, even this, if proved true, fell far short of proving that the Espers wielded actual magic. Likewise, stories of their seeming immortality might be linked to their role in the church, which promised eternal life to the faithful. Or, it may be linked to the Esper role in the monarchical system, and the way in which they were an everlasting presence at court.

That said, history and legend did agree on one point--the Espers, as a people, died out sometime between the eighth and ninth centuries AW, around the time of the Conjunction and Mother Brain's arrival. The details were hazy; apparently, few chroniclers of the day were concerned with their decline. By that point, some said, the Espers may have already lost, as a group, their cultural relevance, and if that did happen, it would only have been a matter of time before they faded away.

The point was that stories about the Espers were legion, and for each story there were at least a dozen variations based on era, location, or both. Bram knew many of the stories in detail, and he was at least cognizant of most of the rest.

"Why did Dr. Lialzar turn to the Esper stories?" he asked, afraid he already knew the answer. "Please don't tell me he thought Gwynedd LeCille might be an Esper."

Dr. Colchoy smiled. It was a sad smile. He said, "At first, it was just a wild theory. Then, he started to think there might be a kernel, just a kernel, of truth to it, and he planned to peel back the layers of myth so he could isolate that truth. But, the farther he went, the more he began to believe the legends, or some of them, at least. And the more obsessed he became."

Bram shook his head. "This is very hard to believe," he said. "I've known Dr. Lialzar for almost ten years. He is the most sober, most serious scholar I know. He's always been fascinated by fairy stories, true, but he never believed in them. Did he?"

"Of course not," Dr. Colchoy said. "Not in their totality, anyway. But, Bram, I think I might be giving you an unfair presentation. It's not as if Dr. Lialzar just let his fancy run wild and color his interpretation of events. He found--or at least he believed he found--concrete evidence that illustrated what became of the Espers after they vanished from the pages of history. Specifically, he tried to isolate the reason that they vanished. Was it a gradual decline or a sudden extinction? What made it happen? Most intriguing of all, did they ever disappear to begin with?"

"And what conclusions did he reach?" Bram asked.

Dr. Colchoy brought out another folder stuffed so full of papers that its spine was splitting. He set it down in front of Bram and brought out maps of Palm, Mota, and Dezoris. Bram could see at once that the map of Mota was historic, for it showed a dry, desert world, not the mixed landscape of desert, garden, and open sea which existed today. He looked next to the other two maps, and saw they were labeled as showing the state of the planets from about AW 800 through AW 900. There were lines drawn all over the maps. Bram guessed these were travel routes. There were also myriad circles and X's drawn here and there.

"These are his notes on Esper migration," Dr. Colchoy said. "As you can see, prior to the Conjunction, the primary concentrations of Espers were on Palm and, to a lesser degree, Mota. After the Conjunction, however, their settlements began to disappear. Gradually. Quoted Esper populations dropped precipitously."

"You have numbers on that?" Bram asked.

"Well, not precise ones," Dr. Colchoy said regretfully. "It appears that 'Esper' was never offered as an option on census or survey forms of the time. The evidence we have is circumstantial, anecdotal, coming from popular tales, urban legends, and second-hand reports of the day. The sheer volume of evidence, however, was enough to convince Dr. Lialzar that there was something, at least, to it." He pointed to the Dezoris map. "Anyhow, in the years following the Conjunction, the Esper population on Dezoris grew. This is evidenced, in part, by a rapidly increasing awareness of the Espers in the culture of Palm people living on Dezoris. And then, about a hundred and twenty years ago, it all just stopped."

"What do you mean?" asked Bram.

"With the exception of historical works, and some children's stories about Waizz and Alis, there are no more mentions of Espers in any new material produced after about AW 920. It's as if the Espers were just forgotten. Like they were there one day, and the next day, everyone suddenly thought they hadn't existed for ages." He stammered, trying to put a thought in words, then gave up. "Do you understand what I mean by that?"

"I think so," Bram said, nodding slowly. "So, Dr. Lialzar thinks that many of the Espers moved to Dezoris, and eventually either died out there, or integrated themselves into the larger Palm culture?"

"Something like that."

"But why did they go to Dezoris in the first place?" Bram thought about it for a moment, then said, "Dezoris is remote and, until recent times, was pretty much sealed off. Could they have been hiding from something?"

Dr. Colchoy smiled. "You remind me so much of him," he said. "That's precisely what Dr. Lialzar suspected." He produced yet another folder. "Another thing," he said. "Are you familiar with the story of the Undying Master?"

Bram's eyes narrowed and he said, "Refresh me on that one."

"The story goes that the Undying Master was one of the great Espers of all time, a man who destroyed many evils. There are tangential legends associated with him, involving Alis and others, but the main story is what we're concerned with here. Supposedly, the Undying Master discovered a way to make himself immortal. Once immortal, he sealed himself away in a faraway land where he sleeps for years at a time, only awakening when his people are threatened. Now, what's interesting about this is that the nature of the legend changes markedly around the time of the Esper migration. This latter version of the story states that the Undying Master is not just hibernating, if you will, but in fact hiding from a dark power which wishes to destroy him. Unlike before, it is now said that he will awaken just once, to destroy the root of all evil in a climactic battle at the end of time."

"Okay, but what does that have to do with Gwynedd LeCille?"

Dr. Colchoy nodded, understanding the younger man's confusion. "This latter version of the story is significant for a few reasons," he said, "but the primary reason is this. The story of the Undying Master was one of the most important in the Esper mythos. For it to change so drastically in such a short time span, just a few generations, and for the Esper people to abandon the places which had been their homes for centuries, and for all mention of them to vanish entirely from history itself--! Well, Dr. Lialzar's conclusion was that some force was actively trying to destroy the Espers, and the only recourse the Espers had was to go into hiding. Not just temporary hiding, either, but hiding forever."

"Until the Undying Master returns to save them," Bram said humorlessly.

"Precisely," said Dr. Colchoy. "The Undying Master, previously a historic figure, a legendary figure, a hero of the past, became a messianic force. A future force. And why do people invent saviors? Out of desperati on, and fear." He smiled. "And hope, as well, I suppose."

Bram felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at this. The issue of saviors was a tricky one for him. As a boy, Bram had been, like his parents before him, a devout believer in the teachings of the traditional Palm church. As he grew older, however, and pursued his academic ambitions, exploding the lies of history, he found that many of the beliefs made little sense to him. The period of his life from his fifteenth birthday to his twenty-fifth was a decade that, while certainly not wasted, was filled with an amount of despair and inner turmoil which was vastly disproportionate. What made it harder was the fact that so many of the people in Bram's life found his metamorphosis utterly baffling. They still held their beliefs, so, they asked, why couldn't Bram? Well, the answer was that he just couldn't. Sure, in moments of weakness he sometimes found himself flailing for his favored crutch of old, the desperate hope that final justice awaited everyone, for better or worse. Yet, even when he did reach for it, he didn't find it. In time, he supposed, he would stop reaching.

Dr. Colchoy, oblivious to Bram's musings, continued. "This brings us to Gwynedd LeCille, and to Eppi," he said. "Now, Dr. Lialzar believed that the bulk of the Esper population fled to Dezoris long ago. I'm sure he considered going there and searching for them, just as he did here on Palm, but let's be honest. Dezoris is a vast, vast world, much of its territory not easily accessed, and the native people are often standoffish. It would be a difficult, possibly even hopeless expedition."

Bram smiled. "But he didn't have to go to Dezoris, because he already knew where to find an Esper."

Dr. Colchoy returned his smile. "Exactly. By this point in his research, Dr. Lialzar was convinced that Gwyn was, if not a true Esper, then certainly an Esper descendant. He knew, from viewing Gwyn's records and talking to her parents, that her ancestors had lived in Eppi for several generations. He did a little research into their farm and found that the land was purchased by Rathburn LeCille in AW 851."

"Right around the time of the migration," Bram said.

"Yes, and what's more, there were several other large-scale land purchases within a few years of that one, many of which were made by families closely related to the LeCille clan. From this, Dr. Lialzar deduced that Eppi, for whatever reason, was a second, smaller hub of Esper relocation."

"Maybe it was for those who just couldn't tolerate the cold of Dezoris," Bram said, so caught up in Dr. Lialzar's theory that he failed to realize he was now arguing for it himself. "No, wait, that doesn't make sense. If the Espers were truly afraid of something, and most of them were hiding away on Dezoris, I don't think they'd settle for a second-rate hiding place just so they could avoid the inclement weather."

"That's the same thing Dr. Lialzar said," Dr. Colchoy told him. "His theory is that the Espers who immigrated to Eppi were like Gwyn. That is, they were not fully-formed Espers. They didn't have magic ability on the same level as the others, and could, if they were careful, blend in with the rest of Palm society."

"Then wouldn't living all in one place increase their risk of being found out?" Bram asked. "It might look suspicious to an outsider."

"But it would also give them a greater ability to look out for one another," said Dr. Colchoy. "Think about it. One Esper on a street filled with normal people might attract attention, but if everyone in the entire town is an Esper, then there won't be anyone around to become suspicious in the first place. And I'm sure you noticed, Bram, that Eppi is very isolated. The town does good business with other districts, and there is of course the usual electronic communication, but visitors to Eppi are few and far between. In my opinion, it's one of the best places in Algo for a group of people to hide." He began putting the folders away. "There's one other reason to come to Eppi. When we first got here, Dr. Lialzar damn near buried himself in the books at the town library. He came across an old local story which claims that Noah, the Esper advisor and friend to Alis, who we know for a fact did exist, came from this town."

Bram nodded. "All right," he said. "I'm pretty sure I follow all of this so far, but where does that leave us? What happened to Dr. Lialzar?"

"I'm getting to that," Dr. Colchoy told him. "Trust me, son, I'm as anxious to find him as you are. At least. But you need to let me get through the entire story first."

"Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Anyway, although the library was Dr. Lialzar's first stop, he ended up spending most of his time in the old church."

Bram looked up. "Is that the church you can see from the road?" he asked. "The one in the trees?"

Dr. Colchoy nodded. "Yes," he said. "It's not the only church in the town but it's certainly the oldest. In fact, we aren't quite sure how old, although there are church records going back to the ninth century BW. Almost two thousand years, Bram."

Bram asked, "Other than its age, obviously, is there anything special about the church?"

"It's like any other traditionalist church, but for two things. First, most of the ceremonies are performed in the old tongue, a practice that died out in most places centuries ago. Secondly, there is a shrine to Alis within the church, and a special ceremony is held for her on the last day of each week."

"That's the kind of thing usual done by a local government," Bram said. "And of course Alis Day is a national holiday."

"Yes, but none of those are religious events. These are."

Bram's eyes widened. "Are you saying they actually worship Alis?" he asked.

Dr. Colchoy hesitated, then said, "No, but they certainly revere her. The chapel is full of statues. It's quite a sight. And this links the church to the Espers because the Espers, it is said, were completely devoted to preserving the memory of Alis, who they apparently regarded as their benefactress."

"I get the feeling Dr. Lialzar discovered something important at this church," said Bram.

"Did he ever! He made no bones about his curiosity regarding the church's history. He came right out and asked the clergymen about it. Imagine his excitement when they told him that, yes, they were in fact aware of their church's connection to the Espers. They said the church was rebuilt and revitalized by Noah, who began the tradition of honoring Alis. >From that time onward, great Esper leaders were laid to rest in the catacombs beneath the church. This tradition continued for centuries."

"Let me guess," said Bram. "It ended right around the time of the Esper migration."

Dr. Colchoy smiled and snapped his fingers. "Yes, Bram, exactly! According to the clergymen, the last person interred in the vault was a non-Esper, a very beautiful woman of noble birth."

"A royal?"

"Something like that. The clergymen weren't entirely clear on who she was. They refer to her as the Forgotten Queen. You know, it's interesting. The story of the Forgotten Queen uses a lot of the same symbols you find in the story of the Undying Master, as well as the story of Alis." He shrugged. "The latter, at least, is probably due to the Alisian influence over Esper culture. Some bleed-through was probably inevitable, due to the outward similarities of the two stories."

Bram said, "Well, it seems pretty clear that Eppi has some connection to the Espers, whoever they really were."

Dr. Colchoy nodded. "Yes, I agree. There's more, but I've already told you the best of it. The remainder is quite sketchy, honestly, such as the fact that most people in Eppi have either light blonde or fair blue hair, as did most Espers." He sighed. "Now let us address the matter of poor Dr. Lialzar's fate. He made several quick trips to the church's catacombs over the last few days he was with me. Always he was accompanied by a clergyman who acted as a guide. On the last day, the folks at the church trusted Dr. Lialzar to go down alone. That night, when he came back, he showed me something. It was a book. He told me he'd taken it from a crypt."

Bram gaped. The idea that the Principal of the Luveno Institute for Scientific Research at Kueri could violate the ethics of scholarship by stealing a historic treasure was simply unthinkable. Sadly, it was apparently the truth, for Dr. Colchoy reached into another drawer of his desk and pulled out a yellow tome covered with writing that Bram recognized as the most archaic known form of the old Palm language.

"He poured over this book for hours," Dr. Colchoy said. "I can't read it. That's why I called you."

Bram took the book from the old man's shaking hands. "Do you know what it is?" he asked, scanning the cover. Sadly, while Bram knew the letters, he didn't know if he could read what they spelled. Dead languages were not his specialty. He hoped he was wrong. He didn't want to disappoint Dr. Colchoy after all the trouble he'd gone to.

"Dr. Lialzar said it was a chronicle of the death of the Espers," Dr. Colchoy said. "I presume he was going to tell me all about it, but he rushed out as soon as he finished the book." He shook his head. "It's so strange, Bram. He ran out the door and into the street. I went to the window and looked after him. He was headed for the church. I know he was, because there's nothing else of interest that way. He didn't take the car. Nobody saw him leave town. Nobody saw him at all. But he never came back, just the same."

Bram sighed. "Is that all?" he asked.

"One last thing. He left this." Dr. Colchoy handed a small notebook to Bram. "This one I have read," he said. "It's Dr. Lialzar's notes from our trip. I've already told you everything in it that I think is important. But, take a look at the last page."

Bram opened the book. "What am I looking for?" he asked.

"Dr. Lialzar always signed each section of notes, almost like he was ending a letter. He did this because he often tore out sections of notes and sent them back to his office at the school. But the signature of the last entry, the one about the book, is odd. You'll see what I mean when you get to it."

And now Bran did see, for the missing doctor had not signed off as Amson Lialzar at all. Instead, he had modified his name using a cipher Bram almost didn't recognize. It was a code system invented centuries before by a sub-sect of Espers who went on to become teachers.

Dr. Lialzar had signed his name as Larzimal.

Frowning, Bram handed the diary back to Dr. Colchoy. "That's rather disturbing," he said. Hefting the older book in his hands, he added, "Though perhaps not as much as this."

"I'm so worried," Dr. Colchoy said, his voice cracking as he held the journal in his hands. "Could they have done something to him? The people at the church, I mean." He shuddered. "I'm afraid it doesn't bode well for us if they did. Oh, Bram. I'm so sorry to have dragged you into this."

He went on and on, but Bram was hardly listening. Bram was too busy trying to make out the title of the ancient book. Then it came to him, all at once, and he felt a tingle down his spine as the words coalesced before him.

Devil's Trap.

* * * * *

Bram went to the church, the book tucked under his arm. He stared up at the building for a long time before going inside, despite the rain, now a downpour, which began while he was en route from the inn. The church reminded him of the one he had attended as a young man, only it was. . . more, somehow. The Gothic style was the same, the stained-glass windows were the same, the iconic depictions of the God of Palm were the same. Despite this, the church had a primitiveness, a pureness to it that modern churches just didn't possess. It was as if the temple's age made it somehow more in sync with the God of fable, just as it placed its construction so near the time of Palm's messiah.

Bram didn't think that the priests had harmed Dr. Lialzar, especially if they really were Espers. All accounts agreed that the Espers lived by a strict moral code, the cornerstone of which were mercy and nonviolence. No, what Bram suspected was that Dr. Lialzar, feeling guilty over his theft of the book after the clerics had trusted him, snuck back into the crypt to replace the tome before it was missed. He would not have been accompanied by a guide, this being a clandestine mission, and so he had gotten lost. Perhaps his flash had burned out when he was in some sub-basement and escape became impossible. Bram knew that, in such an event, Dr. Lialzar was most likely dead. Even more important than recovering him alive, however, was solving the mystery, for Dr. Colchoy's sake if nothing else, and ensuring the reputation of LISR Kueri was not blemished.

Bram didn't make much of all the mysticism attached to the Espers. Okay, so they were masters of psionics. Fine. As for the story about them hiding themselves after the drastic social changes of the Conjunction period, that was all fine, too. However, Bram absolutely did not believe that these Espers possessed true magic or any other "spiritual" power. There was a time when he probably would have believed it, but those days were over. His oft-stated philosophy now was, Try to see as much as possible, because what you see is all you can believe in. Well, aside from what can be proved mathematically, anyway. It was this line of reasoning that he now applied to the Esper business. The Espers were an x-factor, certainly, but they weren't magical and they didn't scare him.

The sun had set. If the church was traditionalist, Bram knew that the evening prayer would have just ended. Hopefully, the clerics would still be present but the parishioners gone. Evening prayer? How about Esper Vespers? Ha ha. He took a deep breath, marched up the steps, and threw open the wooden doors, which smacked against the stone masonry with a creak and a thud.

It was dark inside. The only light was provided by one candle burning on the altar, which seemed very far away. His eyes quickly adjusted, however, and he saw that the church's interior was not that unusual. The walls were wooden planks. The floor was stone and very cold; Bram could feel it even through his shoes. There were two rows of pews, also made of wood, extending all the way to the far end of the room. Between the pews stretched an open aisle. Statues of saints and heroes lined the walls. Beyond the altar was a tapestry bearing a classical depiction of the prophet, as well as a statue of Alis raising her sword before her.

And there was a man. He was kneeling before the statue, his head bowed in a prayerful manner. He was bald and wore a flowing white robe. The man stood up as Bram approached. When he turned, his gaunt, wrinkled face, lit from below by the single candle, looked a thousand years old.

Bram opened his mouth to address the man, but as he did so, he realized they were not alone. Three more robed figures had emerged from the shadows behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see two men, one young and one older, and a teenage girl. All had crystal blue hair. He noted the mantles they wore, with their red embroidery and golden collars dotted with jewels. They looked like garments one might see in a melodrama or a historical program about the medieval era, or maybe--maybe--one might see a church leader in such formal dress on a major religious holiday. However, to see four clerics, two of them obviously juniors, dressed in such a manner on an ordinary day was unheard of, and spoke to the peculiar, ultra-traditional vibe of the place.

Bram turned back to the first old man and, not knowing what else to do, held out the book and said, "I wanted to return this to you. It was--"

"I know," he said. His voice was surprisingly even and smooth, almost like the voice of a young man. "I thank you for returning it." He took the book gingerly in his thin, white hands and pressed it tightly between them protectively. Reverently. There was a pause, then he asked, "Do you require anything further, sir?"

"Yes," Bram said, chancing a glance at the three silent clerics behind him. They didn't look threatening, at least. The young man had a friendly smile on his face. The elder man, if anything, looked afraid. Only the girl's face was blank, and this gave Bram a bit of a chill. He cleared his throat. "I wanted to inquire about a Dr. Lialzar who--"

"Ah, yes," said the first old man. "The fellow we leant the book to."

Bram blinked. "You gave it to him?" he asked.

"Of course." The old man smiled. "Were you under the impression he stole it?"

"Well. . . yes," said Bram. "I'm afraid I was. I'm glad to hear that's not the case." Again he felt the eyes of the other three boring into him, but he resisted the urge to stare back. "I don't suppose you know where Dr. Lialzar is now, do you?"

Now it was the old man who looked to the other three. He nodded to them, almost imperceptibly, but Bram caught it. The old man said, "Our business with the good doctor is completed. You won't find him here."

Bram shifted his weight and crossed his arms. "He hasn't been seen for several days. His colleague, Dr. Colchoy, is very worried. There's also the matter of Dr. Lialzar's position at our academy. He was expected to be back by now to resume his duties. We must know his status for the good of the school."

The old man began to speak. "Sir, I--"

Bram pressed on. "Dr. Lialzar was last seen on his way here. Dr. Colchoy suspected he wanted to investigate your catacombs one last time before returning to Mota. Yes, I know all about the catacombs. Dr. Lialzar kept Dr. Colchoy informed of his research, and Dr. Colchoy, in turn, has informed me."

The old man placed his hands on the altar and looked down at them for a moment. Then he said, "Very well. I had hoped the academy people would leave us alone, but it is not our way to deceive. I will tell you what you want to know."

"But, Your Excellency--!" said the girl. Her voice was high but raspy. The old man silenced her with a look.

"Dr. Lialzar did visit us that night," the elder priest said. "He had several questions he wanted me to answer--and I was prepared to answer. I told Dr. Lialzar what he wanted to know. But he wanted even more, unfortunately, so he went into the catacombs to investigate, despite my warnings that, if he ventured too deep, he might not be able to return. And he has not."

"What do you mean, he might not be able to return? You mean he might get lost?"

"No, we sent a guide down with him. There was little chance of him losing his way."

"Well, what happened to the guide?" Bram asked. "Did he come back?"

"Of course," said the girl, and Bram faced her again. "I was his guide. I went as far as I was able to go. At that point, I told Dr. Lialzar we must turn back. He refused. I did my best to dissuade him, but I made no effort to forcibly restrain him."

Bram gaped. "Are you telling me that you knew this whole time where he was, and you knew he might be lost or hurt down there, yet you told no one and did nothing to help him?"

The old man said, "As I was telling you, the risk posed by the catacombs is not of a physical nature. There are no traps down there, no monsters, and the passages are not difficult to navigate."

"Then what's the risk, for crying out loud?" Bram half-shouted. His face was red and hot. He was beginning to sweat.

"The secret of magic, and the truth of its disappearance from this world," the old man said. "Unfortunately, magic was the lifeblood of another time, the time when my people could live freely without fear of persecution. Those days are over. If a man of this age learns the secrets buried beneath our town, he may find it impossible to reclaim his previous life."

Bram shook his head. "That makes no sense."

The old man shrugged. "I would not expect a non-Esper to understand."

"Then you are Espers?" Bram asked. "Not just their descendants, but real Espers?"

"Virtually everyone in Eppi is descended from Espers," the old man said. "Most of these are not true Espers. Some, however, have Esper ancestors recent enough that they retain some Esper talent."

"With magic, you mean?" Bram asked.

"Yes. Most of our people, sad to say, have virtually no ability at all. It has been bred out of them by centuries of intermarriage with normal people, as well as a lack of training. However, there are some families in which the Esper power remains strong. The LeCilles, as Dr. Lialzar discovered, are among these. Like most residents of Eppi, they know nothing of our past, our magical heritage. That is why they went to the technique experts, when we were the ones who could answer their questions."

"Why didn't you go to them, if you knew all this?" Bram asked.

"We dared not, for as you likely also know, we, as a population, are in hiding. We prefer Algo to think that we vanished long ago. Only in this way can we ensure our safety."

"Safety from who?" Bram asked

"From the Devil's Trap," said the girl.

"We of this church are true Espers," the old man went on. "We are the only ones who know the full truth of our history. Even we, however, are weak compared to the most gifted of our kind."

"The ones who fled to Dezoris," Bram said.

"Yes. We were allowed to stay on Palm because, unlike our telemental brethren, we were able to blend in with the rest of the populous. The telementals, having such an intimate connection to all minds they encounter, are not like you, or even us. At least, not until they mature and learn to control their gift, and compensate for it when need be. They would have drawn too much attention to themselves, try as they might to avoid it. As for us, it was our wish to remain on our home planet, to preserve the life we had known as best we could. Many sacrifices had to be made, but I believe we succeeded in our mission."

"So Dr. Lialzar was correct in his theories," Bram said. "He must have been pleased to hear it."

"He was, yet he was not satisfied. That is why he went to the catacombs."

Bram asked, "But what's in the catacombs? What's down there, really?"

"We know only so much about it, to be honest. When the Master of the Espers left for Dezoris, he told us that we were not to disturb the catacombs, for in its bowels lies a secret that would expose us, destroy us, if it came to light. We are free to explore the upper levels, where the Esper leaders of old lay in their crypts. However, to go deeper than that is to invite ruin. To learn the secret is to be unable to return to the surface world."

"You realize," Bram said, "that I can't just accept what you say and leave. There's a possibility, though slim, that Dr. Lialzar is still alive down there. If so, he might be hurt or confused. Dr. Colchoy tells me that his mental state deteriorated rapidly during their time here on Palm. I have to try to save him. I have to go to the catacombs."

"You have no faith," the girl said. "I could feel it as soon as you walked through that door. Why should we allow you to trespass against our holiest place?"

"You can evaluate my faith?" Bram asked, not turning to face her. "I thought you weren't telementals."

"We aren't," the old Esper said. "Not true ones, anyway. But we didn't achieve our high position for being ungifted, either. In any case, what Rianna says is true. Not only do you lack faith, you detest it. Something terrible happened to you, I think, to kill your sense of wonder so completely. You think we are honest, but also delusional. Superstitious beyond measure. Fools to trust in that which we cannot see. Your attitude offends me as gravely as it does Rianna, I promise you that. Even so, the difference between she and I is that I am very old, and therefore have the benefit of experience. While I do not share your cynicism, Bram Lindsay, I can understand and sympathize with it."

Bram's skin went cold and his eyes bulged. "I never told you my name," he said.

The old Esper smiled. "Perhaps now you believe, at least a little. Rianna!" He looked past Bram to the young girl. "You will guide this man as deep as you are allowed. If he insists on pressing farther, you shall leave him and return to us."

"I don't think that'll be a problem," Bram said, trying to suppress a shudder and failing. "I just. . . have to see for myself. Risk or no risk."

The old Esper nodded. "Very well. Do you accept, Rianna?"

Rianna bowed. "Of course, Your Excellency," she said quietly.

"Then you should go at once, for the hour is already late." The old Esper waved his hand and a pew in the front row slid back, revealing a winding staircase leading down.

Magic, Bram thought. He hated the thought even as it came, but he couldn't deny it. Something in his gut told him that this was no parlor trick.

"May God be with you," the old Esper said. With that, Bram and Rianna descended.

* * * * *

Bram was unnerved by the catacombs. It was very dark down there. There were torches set into the rough-hewn stone walls, but none of them were lit. This was not surprising, for Bram guessed few modern day Espers bothered, or dared, to come down here. It was also incredibly wet. Brackish water ran from the countless cracks in the passage walls and dripped from crevices in the ceiling. Some of these crevices were small. Others were large, and giant spiders crawled out of them whenever the light from Rianna's flash passed over. The passages themselves were just tunnels carved into the bedrock. Bram ran his hands along their sides as he stepped quickly behind Rianna, and the jagged rocks scraped at his hands. The archways they passed under were low and Bram often had to duck. There were many, many rats, and there was one beetle, horrifying large and bloated-looking, that tried to crawl into his sock.

Rianna walked with her head high and her shoulders squared, but Bram didn't need telemental powers to feel the waves of unease pouring off of her. It was easy to understand why. Bram didn't believe for one moment in the horrible whatever-it-was dwelling in the depths of the catacombs, but Rianna definitely did. No doubt about that.

There was also the matter of the corpses.

All along the walls, head to foot and stacked six or seven high, were the desiccated bodies of long-dead Espers. They were set into niches in the wall just large enough to hold them. They were skeletons for the most part, robbed of flesh and yellowed by age, but once in a while, Bram noticed one still draped in the ruins of its ceremonial robes, or one whose face was obscured by a few stubborn wisps of blue-white hair, or one which had mummified, perhaps being originally buried in a drier place, staring from its cubbyhole open-mouthed and slit-eyed, awful for how recognizable it was. Bram had never considered himself a squeamish person, nor did he think himself a coward, but he tried very hard not to look at these last. There was something accusing, desperate, about their open mouths and dark, empty eyes.

Rianna and Bram descended level by level, but the path was straightforward and not confusing in the least. Even so, Bram eventually lost track of how far down they had gone. Ten levels? Fifteen or twenty? When they all looked alike it was hard to say.

At last they came to a staircase that ended in a tiny empty chamber. Bram stood next to Rianna and asked her to shine her flash around the room. She did so. Aside from spider webs, there was nothing to be seen.

"What now?" Bram asked.

"This is the point beyond which I cannot go," Rianna said. "I tell you now as I told Dr. Lialzar. If you wish to proceed, you shall do so alone."

"Proceed where?" he asked, looking around again. "To the tomb of the Forgotten Queen? Where is it?"

Rianna frowned. "So you know of that as well, do you?" she said. "Observe." She raised her free hand and waved it. A blue glow coalesced in her palm and moved slowly toward the blank wall they faced. As the light touched the stone, parts of the wall simply vanished, and a further passage was revealed. This time, when Bram's mind turned to thoughts of magic, he didn't bother trying to deny it.

"Amazing," was all he could bring himself to say.

Rianna said, "I know you will not turn back. You have the same spirit as Larzimal."

"Did you give him that name?" Bram asked with a humorless smirk.

"He gave it to himself," Rianna said. "But I approved."

"You're right, of course," Bram said. "I can't go back without knowing what happened to him. I owe him, and Dr. Colchoy, that much." He took a breath, steadied himself, then said, "Rianna, may I ask you one thing?"

"Yes," she said simply.

"There's something I still don't get. Why did the Espers go into hiding to begin with?"

"My people have a history of oppression," she said with a sigh. "Tyrants have a habit of blaming us for the ills of society."

"You mean like Lassic."

She nodded. "Yes, but Lassic was not the only one. After the Conjunction, the people of Algo blamed their leaders for not realizing the danger. There was a great social upheaval. You know this. What you do not know is that the Espers were one of the favorite targets of the mobs. There were lynchings. Perhaps the troubles would have passed, in time, but they were not allowed to."

"Not allowed by whom?" Bram asked.

"The new order, personified by Mother Brain," she said. "It did nothing to prevent the insurgency, preferring the people's hostility be directed at the Espers rather than itself. Many believe it was Mother Brain that fostered the anti-Esper sentiment."

"You can't really believe that!" Bram said.

Rianna just stared at him with that same blank expression. She asked, "Why should I not? Regardless, it became clear to the Espers that seclusion was their only hope for survival. Consider; our greatest ally throughout the ages was the Landale dynasty. During the Conjunction, however, the direct descendant of Alis was killed, and the crown was passed to a distant relative. The new king, fearing for his own life, dared not step in to protect the Espers. It was at this point that our people decided they could tolerate no more. The migration to Dezoris came soon thereafter, as well as our isolation in this town. So shall it remain for all time."

"Or at least until the Undying Master returns, right?" Bram asked dryly.

Rianna froze for just a second. Then she said, "Indeed. We cannot reveal ourselves a moment before, lest the murder begin again."

"Do you really think that would happen?"

Rianna nodded. "I do," she said. "The people know nothing of us but what they have read in stories. I suspect they would be afraid, should we make our presence known. It wouldn't take much to nudge that fear into paranoia, then to hatred. It happened before."

"That's pretty sad," Bram said, and he meant it.

Rianna didn't answer that. Instead she handed him her flash and said, "You may keep this. You'll need it where you're going."

"And you won't?" he asked. "To get back, I mean."

Rianna snapped her fingers and the same blue glow appeared. This time, however, it seemed to gather itself around her hand, creating a light subtler yet just as piercing as the light from the flash. Her eyes were lost in the new shadow cast by her forehead. Rianna asked, "You can find your way back, if you change your mind?"

"Yes, I think so," he told her.

She nodded. "Good. And I hope that you do change your mind. It isn't too late, yet. But if you go much farther, it will be."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Good luck to you," she said.

With that, he was alone in the tunnels.

* * * * *

The construction of the catacombs changed drastically after the secret door, switching from irregular caverns that almost looked natural to corridors made of smooth, polished-looking brick. The transition was staggering. Bram could hardly imagine what a chore it must have been to construct something like this so far underground. What a will those Espers must have had.

The path wound around concentrically, and Bram realized he was slowly descending. This went on for some time. How far down must I be? he asked himself. It felt like miles, and the farther he went, the more he worried about his flash burning out. While the way back was straightforward, it was also full of obstructions. There were countless places to trip or bump one's head, and if that happened, it would be easy to get turned around. Bram sighed with relief when he saw the flash's energy level was nearly at maximum. It must have been fully charged when they set out from the church. It was more than enough to get him back safely.

Finally he came to a wooden door. Carved into it was a sword with a crown around its blade. The tomb of the Forgotten Queen, no doubt. The door opened without him touching it.

Beyond was a chapel-like room made of the same brick. Bram turned in a circle, shining the flash into every corner of the room. Columns lined the walls, creating a wide aisle leading to another door at the top of a small staircase on the far side of the room. The ceiling was very high; when Bram shined his flash straight up he was unable to see it. Cobwebs hung down from the darkness, as well as the moldering remains of banners or curtains of some kind. Dog-eared and drained of color by centuries amidst the damp and the insects, they felt like moss under Bram's fingertips. There were candelabras, too, standing between the columns. All were rusted and many had collapsed, their candles burnt down to stumps. A pile of dead rats rested against one wall. The opposite wall sported a bench. A dead man was sitting on it.

Bram made a strangled cry. He was certain he'd found Dr. Lialzar. Stepping closer, however, he saw this was not the case. The dead man was dressed like a soldier. He wore heavy iron armor, also rusted, and a crested helmet with a glass visor that covered his eyes. His skin looked leathery and loose. A sword, a shield, and a breastplate rested on a ceremonial stand beside the soldier. These, however, were not rusted. Bram ran his finger along the blade of the sword. It was dry and free of dust. It sparkled even in minimal light. Laconia.

The dead man stirred, and Bram screamed. He couldn't help it. The figure rose slowly as if in pain. No, that was wrong. He was merely stiff, like he'd been asleep for a very long time. Once he righted himself, a dull violet glow came from his eyes. He looked to Bram. His expression was grave but didn't seem menacing. This was little comfort to Bram, however, who had backed up against the far wall, oblivious to the rat bodies being squashed under his feet.

"Hold," the soldier said, raising one placating hand. His voice was oddly empty, like an echo. It seemed to come from far away. "I mean you no harm. I am a robot in the service of the Queen."

"A robot?" Bram asked. How could that be? This creature had the appearance of a man. The idea of a machine that could pass as a human had never occurred to Bram. He knew of the new androids the government was producing, but even the best of these had only the rudest approximation of human features. They'd come a long way since the robotcops, certainly, but that was only saying so much.

And which Queen did he serve? The young one recently crowned in Camineet? Or one who'd been dead for ages?

"I welcome you," the robot said. "I am Didalos."

This, too, made Bram shudder. The name Didalos was mythological. In the time before Waizz, the people of the north had worshipped many deities. One of these was Didalos, who embraced the dead and carried them to the hereafter.

"What are you doing here?" Bram asked. It wasn't exactly what he wanted to say, but it was the only thing his reeling mind could get hold of.

"I am here to protect the Queen," said Didalos. "I have been here for centuries. My vigil must continue until the Queen awakens. At that time, I shall act as her servant while she reclaims her people."

Bram shook his head. "When she awakens?" he asked. "I don't understand. She's dead, isn't she?"

Didalos cocked his head to one side, a too-quick and obviously mechanical movement that produced a loud crunch somewhere deep in his neck. "She may be dead to the world, but she is not truly dead," he said. "She is asleep, and will rise at the appointed hour."

"Like a princess in a fairy tale," Bram said. Finally he realized what he was standing in and he jumped way in disgust. He shined his light on Didalos, seeing now that it was diodes and gears exposed beneath the flesh, not rotten tissue. He sighed, relieved. The robot didn't seem antagonistic. And robots weren't designed to hurt people, anyway. Most of the time, at least. He asked, "Who is this queen? Have I heard of her?"

"I do not know," Didalos said. "Have you?" He paused, clearly waiting for a response. When Bram could think of nothing to say, Didalos continued. "The queen interred here lived a very long time ago. Her sole purpose was to bring freedom and justice to all who were oppressed, regardless of the cost to herself. She shared this mission with the Undying Master of the Espers, hence their centuries of friendship."

"So she was close to the Espers," Bram muttered. "No wonder she's down here."

Didalos said ,"One day, the Queen had a vision of an unknown world, a distant planet tormented by a monster who had escaped the death of his own star system. The Queen and a friend traveled to this place, known as Copto, and sealed the monster away. The friend returned to Algo, but the Queen remained as Copto's protector. She entered cryogenic sleep so that she might live to fight for peace again. She used her magic to create a copy of herself to act in her stead during her long absence. When she felt the Devil's Trap rising up in Algo, she returned to her home worlds. This was painful for her, as it meant she must leave her daughter-clone behind. That was in AW 813, more than two centuries ago. She has been in stasis ever since, protected by me, by the Espers, and by the strict commandment that none shall disturb this place and return to tell what they have seen."

"Then will you kill me for seeing this?" Bram asked.

"Of course not," Didalos said. "My mission is to protect the Queen and her beloved Algo. I will not kill you. I will send you on to the next and have him do with you what he will."

"The next?"

Didalos pointed to the door at the far end of the room. "Ascend through that door. You cannot go back anyway."

Bram's blood went cold. "Why not?" he asked, trying to sound defiant, but only succeeding in sounding terrified.

"You will not because you do not want to," Didalos said. "You want to see what is beyond the door. You want to know the truth."

"A telemental robot?" Bram asked.

"I am not an Esper," Didalos said, "but I am a product of magic as much as technology. I know what I know."

Bram said, "Well what I want to know is, who is this queen, really?"

Didalos turned to the wall behind him and pointed at a tapestry hanging there. Like everything else in the caves, it was racked with mold and decay. Even so, it was obvious to Bram that the woman in the portrait, clad in armor with a silver sword raised toward a rising sun, was Alis Landale. Her hair was too dark, her eyes almost preternaturally bright, but it was Alis just the same.

"That's impossible!" Bram spat. "Alis Landale was Queen, yes, but she never went to another star system and she never had a daughter, let alone a clone. She had one son, Nero I, who succeeded her as monarch. She died in her sleep at the Camineet palace at the age of eighty-four. She was laid to rest at the Heroine's Tomb in the center of the royal city." Bram waved his hand dismissively at Didalos but it was a desperate gesture, like batting away a sandworm. "Your entire story is preposterous!"

"I do not contest any part of what you say about Alis," Didalos said calmly. "What you do not know--could not know, for your history is ignorant of it--is that Alis created a clone of herself not once, but twice. It was the first copy of herself, which also identified itself as Queen Alis Landale, that produced the second daughter-clone, which was named Minima and lived a more independent life."

"But you cannot clone yourself," Bram insisted. "Such technology does not exist. Neither does real cryogenics, for that matter."

"These wonders do exist," Didalos said. "The Powers that Be have withheld this knowledge from the people of Algo. Beyond which, it was not the science of cloning that Alis used to duplicate herself, but rather the magic thereof."

"And it's this second Alis that's dreaming away on the other side of that door?"

"Yes," said Didalos. "You do not believe?"

"Of course I don't!" Bram cried. "I don't believe anything! I spent my life swallowing lies like this, lies like those spread by those wizard-priests upstairs! It's impossible to live forever, Didalos, magic or not. It's impossible to just 'copy' yourself. And Queen Alis never left Algo, plain and simple. If any of these things really happened as you say, then history would report it. Somewhere, even if only in some truly arcane, apocryphal source. No, if history doesn't report it at all, and you can't produce anything concrete to show otherwise, then it did not happen!" Bram was panting by this point. His hands were shaking. He didn't want to cover this ground. Not again. It had been painful enough the first time, when his old way of thinking fell apart around him. When--

"If that is what you believe," Didalos said, "then I cannot help you. Proceed into the tomb. You will find your answers there. Perhaps, if he tells you, you will believe."

"If who tells me?" Bram asked, but Didalos paid him no heed. The robot walked back to his bench, powered down, and went back to sleep. There would be no more talking to him.

Bram groaned with frustration and turned to the awaiting door.

* * * * *

The room beyond was small compared to the last. It was little more than a closet of the previous room, and it was intensely cold inside. Here, the dripping water had formed icicles. Everything was covered by a thin layer of frost, making the ornamental rug at Bram's feet crunch under his soggy shoes. He could even see his breath in front of him. Looking around, he saw he was flanked on either side by a statue of Alis, but he didn't care to investigate these. Just ahead was a dais, and on the dais rested a coffin-like device. It was a machine, Bram could tell, complete with a keypad and several knobs, as well as blinking red lights on its corners and along the seam where its cover met its base. He knew at once it must be a cryogenic chamber. What else could be producing the unbearable cold?

Bram realized that this room was brighter than the last, and the difference was great enough that it couldn't be attributed to the little lights on the cold-sleep chamber. Curious, he switched off his flash. The source of the light became obvious at once. On the far side of the cold-sleep chamber was a little stand, and atop this stand, protected by a glass case, was a golden amulet with a white stone inlaid. It was this amulet that produced the light. Bram immediately recalled the story of the Pendant of Light, also called the Magic Lamp, which Alis was said to have possessed. It could light up the darkest cavern, the stories said, but it was lost at some point.

"When the second Alis went to Copto, perhaps?"

Bram whirled around, expecting to see Didalos, or maybe even Dr. Lialzar. Instead what he saw a wispy, semi-transparent apparition of a man in a flowing white mantle. He wore a raised hood which obscured his eyes from view. Bram could only see the man's chin and sardonic smile. The rest of him, even his hands, was concealed by his robes. The vision was an odd blue-white color, similar to the magic Rianna had summoned. The man, like the Light Pendant, emitted a faint but unmistakable glow. The glow, however, produced no warmth.

"I know you," Bram said quietly.

"I am the Undying Master of the Espers," said the man. "You know me from legends and stories you read as a child. You now stand in the room in which I rested, before the Devil's Trap appeared and I was forced to hide myself on Dezoris."

"Then, the woman inside this coffin really is Alis?" Bram asked, no longer so amazed by sudden appearances and ghostly visitors. "Or her doppelganger, as it were."

"Oh, yes," the man said.

"But how can this be?" Bram asked pleadingly. "I don't understand. How can one woman live two lives? Or three, or however many it was."

"There can be many lives and many deaths," said the Undying Master. "I myself died once, as I tried to save King Landale and his family from the threat of the Conjunction. Even as I died, however, I was born anew. The combined power of my magic and the determination I felt at the time were sufficient to create a second me--the individual who stands before you now. In this way, I am Master Noah, yet at the same time, I am also a different man with a different destiny, called by a different name. I travel the worlds in my dreams as my body sleeps through the decades. This, too, is the fate of the woman who rests within that chamber--but to look upon her is to lose the life you have known until now. The world above will not accept you once you realize certain truths."

"But why?" Bram demanded. "Why?"

"For one, the evil side could use you to find us out, should you provide it with certain information, and I cannot allow that."

Remembering something Didalos said, Bram asked, "Then you would murder me, to keep me quiet? Is that it?"

"No," said the man. His smile broadened, as if he was amused by the foolishness of a child. "There are subtler ways of keeping you silent. I could, for example, erase all memory of you coming here. Or, you could take the path desired by Larzimal, which is to join us in our sanctuary. You would never be able to return, but nor would you want to. You, Bram, like Larzimal, have a scholar's heart. You ache for truth, hence your passion for history and your rejection of what you perceive as the non-rational." He paused. "And there are other ways. You might lose your mind. You might kill yourself. In any event, I would not harm you. I give you my word."

"It all comes back to this Devil's Trap everyone keeps talking about, doesn't it?" Bram asked. He pointed at the sleep chamber. "That's why she came to Algo, from this Copto place. She, whoever the hell she is, sensed the Devil's Trap and came to warn us."

The man nodded. "You guess correctly," he said. "Sadly, she came too late. The wheels of the Conjunction were already in motion by the time she arrived, and could not be stopped. She despaired, yet saw that she would have a second opportunity. Some day, this world will see its end. I know neither the day nor the hour, and I will fight against it with all that I am, but even so, I sense its inevitability. It is at that point that Alis will awaken, to warn her people and lead them to a new a life on a kinder planet."

"How, on a bunch of giant spaceships?" Bram asked. "And where will they go, this Copto place?"

The Undying Master shrugged. "Perhaps. Or maybe Copto isn't far enough. That is for the Queen to decide."

Bram looked at the cold-sleep chamber for a long moment. Then he turned back to the man and said, "I have one more question."

"Then ask it."

"What is the Devil's Trap?"

The man opened his mouth, but hesitated. "That is the last of all secrets, the most terrible knowledge. If I tell you, not only can you never return, you will not dare to."

"You could purge my memories."

"Yes, but you would not want that. Not once you know the truth. The thought of returning to Mother Brain's world, in ignorance of its evil, would be abhorrent to you."

Bram thought about this for a while. He felt much like he had when his faith died. When he realized there was no justice, final or otherwise. It devastated him, nearly killed him. He attempted suicide, twice.

But now, maybe, he had another chance. He could change his view again, couldn't he? If he did, and everything collapsed around him, he would survive it, right? Survive and rebuild?

Yes! He could question anything he wanted to! He'd done it before. When he found truth, or thought he had. When he put belief away. How could the question before him now, or any other question that ever came along, possibly compare with the decision he had already made?

"Should you look upon her," the Undying Master said, "you will believe what you see. You will trust me. Once you trust me, you can accept the truth of the Devil's Trap, awful as it is. So, make your choice, Bram. Ignorance, or truth."

Bram Lindsay took a deep, icy breath and approached the cold-sleep chamber. He stood over it. A window covered the spot where the face of the interred should be. It was frosted over. When Bram looked inside, all he could see was a faint silhouette of a human form.

Yes, he told himself. I can do this. Sure, I'm invested in my skepticism, but when the chips are down, I can gamble with the best of them. I might not be a Dr. Lialzar, or Larzimal if you prefer, but I'm no Dr. Colchoy, either. I'm not afraid to ask the question, take the chance. Not anymore.

And maybe Dr. Colchoy would follow them someday. Bram liked the thought of that.

He closed his eyes and took another breath. He prepared himself.

Bram Lindsay brushed the frost away. He looked inside and risked it all.

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