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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
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
"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
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."
"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
* * * * *
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
Bram blinked. "You gave it to him?" he asked.
"Of course." The old man smiled. "Were you under the impression he
"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 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
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
"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
Bram shook his head. "That makes no sense."
The old man shrugged. "I would not expect a non-Esper to
"Then you are Espers?" Bram asked. "Not just their descendants, but real
"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
Bram asked, "But what's in the catacombs? What's down there,
"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
"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
"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,"
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
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
"May God be with you," the old Esper said. With that, Bram and Rianna
* * * * *
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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."
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
"And it's this second Alis that's dreaming away on the other side of that
"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
"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
"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
"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
And maybe Dr. Colchoy would follow them someday. Bram liked the thought
He closed his eyes and took another breath. He prepared himself.
Bram Lindsay brushed the frost away. He looked inside and risked it