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Chapters 5 to 7

Chapter 5

Holding her hand to her aching stomach, Alys approached Rune. He had fallen and was still, but low, pained groans escaped his lips every few seconds. Whatever the black energy the man had used against Rune had been, it was gone - dissolved into a sticky, brackish slime.

As she walked towards the wizard, she experienced the same sense of nausea as she had on the Landale, only a hundred times worse. She staggered away from Rune and the sense vanished.

With a hiss, the still-shaking Landale lowered itself to the ground. The energy that had coalesced around it had dissolved as well. Wren and Demi emerged.

"Is he all right?" Demi sounded concerned.

"I don't know," Alys replied. "I can't get close to him." As if in proof of her statement, she doubled over and retched, pain convulsing her.

Tall, strong Wren scooped her up and carried her a short distance away. The nausea passed. "Stay here. I shall investigate further."

Alys nodded mutely.

"Demi," Wren said, approaching Rune, "I do not detect anything that would be affecting Alys in this fashion. The air here is perfectly pure. The only explanation I can think of would be the Black Energy Wave - but that is impossible."

"Not from what Rune told us," Demi replied, shaking her head. "If the Profound Darkness isn't really dead…Help me with him." Demi and Wren approached Rune.

Wren knelt and scooped up some of the slime. "I should retrieve a portion of this for scanning. Can you handle Rune for now, Demi?" Demi nodded. Cupping his hands, Wren scooped up more of the slime and vanished into the Landale.

Sitting up, Alys propped her back against a boulder. "What exactly is going on? Who was that man? Why did he try to kill my parents? Why…"

"Rune understands this better then I do," Demi said evasively. "Once he comes around, you can talk to him. Suffice it to say that that man, Shaedal, has just discovered he has a grudge against your parents. And a few others, as well."

"Uncle Hahn and Gryz?" Alys guessed. "Or Raja or Kyra? Please! Tell me what's going on!"

"It's true, Hahn and Gryz may be in some danger. That is why, once I arouse Rune, we will extricate your parents and see to them." Demi knelt beside Rune and touched her hand to his head. A soft whirring filled the air, and a subdued glow covered Rune's body. He groaned, and sat up.

"Be still, Rune," Demi commanded.

"Not on your life." Rune made a dismissive gesture with one hand and the slime dissolved. Rune stood unsteadily. "Thanks, Demi. Did Shaedal escape?"

Alys stepped in at this point. "Yeah, but I wounded him." Rune's look was surprised. "Hey, I can handle myself."

Demi whispered something to Rune before re-entering the Landale. Rune walked over to her and extended a hand. "No doubt you can. Your family continues to surprise me. Now, Shaedal may make another attempt on your family. We have to go to the farm house, but I understand you've been asking questions. I'll explain everything on the way there. Coming?"

* * *

"We were perhaps a bit hasty when we assumed we had destroyed the Profound Darkness," Rune said, looking at Alys gravely. "When it died, the force holding the portal it had created open vanished. The Profound Darkness spent the last seconds of it's life attempting to hold the portal open - if nothing else, to flood the world with the Black Energy Wave. Sort of a last revenge. It failed, but the result of the conflicting energies it created was a temporal anomaly - a hole in time.

"A single portion of the Profound Darkness was trapped within the anomaly, neither in this reality or out of it. When Elsydeon sealed the anomaly, we trapped it there - forever. We didn't realize it at the time, though.

"But recently, something happened. We're not exactly sure what, but I can guess, and it weakened the balance we had struggled to maintain. In that moment, what was left of the Profound Darkness reached out and created it's own weapon. The sword Shaedal was wielding, Netrdeon. The Profound Darkness made it hastily, and it's still flooding the sword with power, so Shaedal will steadily increase in strength until he is strong enough to reopen the portal and free the Profound Darkness - or what's left of it. "

"But how?" Alys' head was spinning. "Who is this Shaedal? And what happened to us back there?"

"As Netrdeon increases in power, Shaedal will become more and more dependent on it. Once it is fully charged, the Profound Darkness can force Shaedal to do anything - including open the portal. If he refuses, the Profound Darkness will withdraw the energy in Netrdeon. After Shaedal's gone through a few minutes of that, he'll agree to anything. Please understand, the Profound Darkness is still sealed - but the balance is so tattered and weak it can reach out and manipulate. As we understand, it's been man ipulating Shaedal for some time."

"But we were all too busy to notice," Demi interjected.

"Right," Rune agreed. "Demi and Wren might have discovered the re-emergence of the Profound Darkness, but they were too busy easing Algo off the Bio-Systems. I was so busy dealing the shockwaves from the change in the balance that resulted with what we thought was the death of the Darkness. You can't just snap the order of the universe around easily, you know. I ran around for about ten years after the battle making sure reality didn't collapse.

"As near as I can tell, Shaedal is the son of Zio. Apparently before becoming a disciple of Dark Force, Zio dallied with a highborn woman in Zema. When she became pregnant, Zio ran. She was ridiculed by her friends and her family, and moved to Mile to escape. She gave birth to Shaedal there. She never told him who his father was. About nine years after his birth, the weakening of the balance occurred. The Profound Darkness created Netrdeon and then began looking for someone to wield it. Because of the hold Dark Force had had over his father, the Profound Darkness found it easy to latch onto Shaedal. The Profound Darkness' hold over Shaedal isn't as total as it was over his father, but Shaedal is a basically evil person anyway. Shaedal hasn't had Netrdeon for very long, but he's already learned how to use it to focus the Black Energy Wave. You and I were reacting to it's presence when we fought Shaedal. You mother could detect it, and you seem to have much the same ability. You're not a Numan, though, so it could be a little difficult to handle.

"Now that Shaedal knows who he is, he's determined to avenge his father's murder. He attempted to kill Chaz and Rika, and he's liable to make attempts against Gryz and Hahn. When I finally discovered my error, I contacted Demi to make sure she was all right. We met at Zelan and came here. That's the story."

"But once Wren and Demi were finished removing the system, why didn't they discover the Profound Darkness?"

Wren shook his head. "At that point the Profound Darkness' influence on Shaedal was very subtle - not as obvious as the Black Energy Wave. And we were not looking for it either. Like the rest of Algo, we assumed the struggle was over."

"Also," Demi said, "we're not totally finished deactivating the systems that sustain Algo. We have to remove them very slowly, or we might have a repeat of the Great Collapse. Wren and I must be very careful."

"Our cause is simple," Rune said finally. "We must retrieve Netrdeon - even if it means killing Shaedal. We must not allow Shaedal to reach full power and open the portal. And there is only one way to beat Netrdeon, and that's another reason we were going to the farm.

"We must have Elsydeon."

Chapter 6

"And that's the story, Chaz," Rune said, sipping his tea. His gaze drifted from Rika to Chaz and back again. Both looked a little dazed. "Any natural weapon can't defeat the wielder of Netrdeon, that much I know. We need to know where you hid Elsydeon."

"But how," Rika interjected suddenly, "will you find this Shaedal, once you have Elsydeon?"

The group of them - Alys, Chaz, Rika, Rune, Wren and Demi, were seated in the farm house's kitchen.

"I've learned to identify the taint of the Profound Darkness," Rune replied. "If I pass within a certain distance of Shaedal, I'll know. The Elsydeon can enhance that range. That's one of the reasons I need Elsydeon."

"And the others?" Chaz asked.

"Call it a hunch - the same sort of thing that led me to you, Chaz, and brought me to Molcum to meet you and Alys. Do you believe in destiny?" He smiled wryly. "A lot of things are falling into place now, and I think it's more then just coincidence. Too many things are happening at once. I think we'll need Elsydeon, and that should be good enough for you, Chaz."

"Also," Wren said abruptly, "the Elsydeon projects an aura of power. It will render the Black Energy Wave harmless. Shaedal will not be able to affect the Landale weapons systems again."

"All right," Chaz said, nodding. "I'll go retrieve Elsydeon and then we can go deal with this Shaedal." He stood to go. "You can leave Alys with Hahn and Gryz. She'll be fine."


Rune shook his head. "I'm afraid it's the other way around, Chaz. Alys is coming with us. You and Rika are not."

Rika gasped. Chaz exploded. "What!" It was more of a statement of anger then a question. "You can't expect me to pit my own daughter against the ultimate evil, while I stay here and twiddle my thumbs! I'm the best swordsman on the planet - and you know Rika is matchless with her claws! But, Alys…Oh, God, Rune. I can't lose both of them."

"Chaz is right," Rika said hotly. "I won't let you take my daughter."

Alys practically held her breath. To fight the Profound Darkness! Of course, Rune obviously intended to give her Elsydeon when the time came…She wanted desperately to go. But, looking at her parents, she felt a lump rising in her throat.

"I'm sorry," Rune said slowly. He was choosing his words carefully. "But this isn't a matter of the parents making the choice. Alys may be your daughter, but she's also fated to fight with us. She, and the two of you, stepped into my realm long ago, and that makes it my call. But I swear to you, I will keep her safe."

"You didn't keep Alys Brangwin safe," Chaz muttered.

Rika gasped. "Chaz!" She exclaimed.

Rune flinched, his face filling with pain. Chaz paled. "Rune," he said. "I'm…"

"I tried, Chaz," Rune hissed. "Don't you think I tried? Did you think I just let it pass by? I will live for a while longer after you are gone, Chaz. But do you think a long life makes me aloof? Do you think that I can note the passage of friends, nod, and go on with my life? Every day of my life, Chaz, I go back to that little room in Krup and I die again!" His voice became cold. "I tried to be civil, Chaz, but if you will not give me Elsydeon I will tear this place apart to find it. I am taking you to Zelan with Hahn and Gryz and I don't have time to bandy words with you." Alys shivered a little at the steel in that voice, as if the all the power of Lutz had been concentrated into one command. "I am taking Alys Ashley with me, and if it is within my power, I will bring her back safe. Now, give me Elsydeon. "

Both Rika and Chaz flinched back from the awful voice. A moment later they left the room. As soon as they had gone, Rune collapsed into a chair. His eyes were filled with tears, and hurt, and pain that the passage of years could not dim. The same look Alys had seen so often on her father's face.

Alys began to reach out to him, to speak, a thousand words on her tongue. But none of the words seemed right. All of her statements of caring paled beside that awesome, gigantic guilt that Rune felt.

After several minutes Chaz and Rika re-entered the room, bearing a yellowed cloth bundle tied with cord. Wordlessly, Chaz dropped it on the table. It clanged.

"Elsydeon," Chaz said simply.

Reaching out with a kind of fearful anticipation, Rune pulled off the cord and tore away the cloth. Gripping Elsydeon by the blade, he tested it's balance.

It was a glorious blade, untarnished by the years or the blood it had spilled. The hilt was a golden crosspiece, it's ends arched like spread wings. The hilt was a bluish color, and off a material Alys couldn't readily identify, and the pommel was adorned with a golden sphere.

Rune drew the Elsydeon several times through the air, the enchanted metal of the sword singing as it cut emptiness.

Reaching outwards, Rune muttered a word and a simple leather sheath appeared in his hand. Alys waited expectantly to be handed the sheathed Elsydeon. It was her father's blade and her legacy, after all.

Thus, Alys was greatly disappointed when Run sheathed the blade and strapped it onto his own belt. He looked up, and the pain in his eyes had dimmed, but was not gone.

"We have to go," he said quietly.

* * *

The Landale slid silently up to Zelan, butting up against the docking bay, locking in place with a steely thud. The door hissed open. Alys watched silently as Hahn and Gryz bid farewell to the others. Their good-byes to her were brief and worried. Pana, Gryz's little sister, whom Alys had met several times, had also accompanied them, and she too bid Alys a brief goodbye. Then Rika approached her daughter.

"Be careful," she said gravely, all of the motherliness gone from her voice. "From one adventurer to the next. The Profound Darkness is very dangerous, and very powerful. You can trust Rune. Be sure to listen to what he and Demi and Wren say. If it does come to that, let Rune fight the Darkness - he has Elsydeon. Where that thing is concerned, don't do anything overly heroic. It would be wasted." Rika quickly embraced her daughter and kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Don't leave live enemies behind you," she murmured, shocking her daughter a little. Then Rika spoke again, a catch in her voice. "Be very, very careful. You are my life." Then she was gone.

For a brief moment, Alys was afraid her father wouldn't say goodbye to her, but after a moment, he approached her.

"Alys," he began after a moment of silence. "You are a fine warrior and I have every confidence in you. I just wish…"He let it hang.

"I know," Alys whispered, a lump in her throat.

He smiled wanly. "You would make your namesake proud."

"Does it always have to be her name, dad, and not mine?" Alys looked up into her father's eyes.

Chaz nodded slowly, once. "You're right. You make me proud. Keep the sword safe and in good condition. And the slasher - it belonged to Alys Brangwin, and it was the last slasher she ever used. The laser emitters don't work but the blades are good. Keep your weapons safe and your mind alert, and together they will bring you home. Remember, Alys," he reached out and pressed his hand to her cheek. "I love you more then you can imagine."

Alys nodded, not really understanding. "I love you, dad."

"Be careful," he murmured. Then he, too, was gone.

A brief moment of silence passed within the Landale when Chaz left. Rune cleared his throat loudly, then looked at Wren. "Shaedal might attack Zelan, and you know it's weapons best. I think it would be best if you…stayed behind."

Wren nodded. "That is the most logical course of action. Demi," he said briskly. "Be careful. There is a com-link to Zelan built into the Landale, and all the details of the battle with the Profound Darkness, as well as the events prior to and following the battle, are contained in the Landale's databanks. I believe you will find them most educational."

"I will try, Master."

"Master?" Alys whispered to Rune.

"Wren and Demi have a very complicated relationship - I don't really understand it myself," Rune whispered back.

"Be well, Demi."

"I shall try."

Turning, Wren vanished through the docking bay doors. A few moments later his visage appeared on the Landale's communications screen. Demi slid into the pilot's seat. Rune, who had a rudimentary knowledge of the Landale's controls, slid into the copilot seat and buckled in. "Sit down and buckle up, Alys," he ordered, pointing at one of several passenger's seats in the cockpit.

Alys complied, then turned to watch the fascinating procedure of the Landale's disengagement from Zelan.

"Disengage docking clamps," Wren was saying. Demi hit several buttons, and the movement of Wren's shoulders on the screen showed he as well was working the controls. There was a thud and the Landale shuddered.

"Docking clamps disengaged. All status nominal," Demi reported briskly. "Firing aft thruster array." The all-pervading hum of the Landale's engines once again filled the room. Stars moved slowly by as, like a butterfly taking off from a twig, the Landale moved away from Zelan and back towards Motavia.

* * *

At the center of the explosion of Rykros, a shockwave blossomed. Forces that had been painfully contained during the destruction of the planet were released along with the natural magical energy pervading the planet. The result was an outward moving band of force, growing in size and strength with every passing second, the most devastating force released since the Great Collapse.

Chapter 7

Alys looked out the window of the Landale, watching the Motavian landscape fly past. A strange melancholy had descended over her in the hours since they had left her parents at Zelan. Since she had met Rune, Demi and Wren, everything had started happening lightning fast, and she had felt as if she had been shunted into the background. She wondered why Rune even brought her along. However, one of the benefits of lightning fast occurrences was that they gave no time for doubts, and now that Alys had several hours with nothing to do, she believed that she had found a hole in their plan.

Rune was in back. He had claimed he needed to prepare himself to sense the Black Energy Wave, leaving Alys alone with Demi.

Alys eased herself into the copilot's seat. Demi looked at her for a moment, then went back to her work.

Demi was quite small, but she had a sort of perfectness in stature and appearance one often sees in the very small. Her green hair was arranged in a simple style, held by what appeared to be a tiara of some sort. Closer examination revealed that it was, in fact, fused to her forehead. Her eyes were large and pleasant, but were offset by the somewhat nightmarish metal protrusions poking through her hair. Her shoulders were surmounted by large, steel shoulder plates of some sort. Her clothes were brown and yellow, and a style from another time.

"Demi," Alys asked, forming the question slowly, "I know that with his magic, and Elsydeon, Rune can sense the Energy Wave, but only to a certain distance, right? So we just fly around until he feels something?"

Demi nodded. "Unfortunately, that's about all we can do. Until Shaedal uses Netrdeon, and he will, eventually, we're flying blind."

"But even if he does use Netrdeon, won't we have to be in the area to detect it? What I mean is, just how far out can Rune sense the Black Energy Wave with Elsydeon's help?"

Demi was silent for a long moment, her tiny, agile hands working the controls of the space shuttle with incredible precision. "He's not sure," she answered finally. "He's never actually touched Elsydeon - he just knew where it was, back on Dezolis, that is. He doesn't have any idea how the sacred sword will affect an Esper. You know," she said, changing the subject, "you're a lot like Alys Brangwin, in some ways."

Alys shook her head. "Why is it that whenever people look at me, they always see her? I'm sick of living in her shadow! I am my own person, Demi. Alys Brangwin is dead!"

Demi looked at her, her large eyes sad. "Alys Brangwin was a great warrior and a greater person. Without her, among others, I'd be dead - or worse, living in a world ruled by Zio and the Profound Darkness. She died…she died for her cause, the way, I think, she would have wanted it. You could do worse things in life, Alys, then to be like her." A tear rolled down her cheek.

Alys was a little bit shocked. "I didn't know you could…I mean…"

"You didn't know I could feel? Oh, yes, I can feel many things. I know," and then she laughed, "I know that Wren can be a little detached sometimes, but that doesn't mean he, or myself, lacks emotion. In every way that matters, I'm as human as you are."

"I'm sorry, Demi."

Demi laughed. Her laughter was clear and rang through the Landale. "Nothing to be sorry about, Alys. I'm not disabled, after all. But I am what I am."

Alys nodded. "So," she said briskly, "we have no idea where we're going? None at all?"

Demi shook her head. "Actually, we do. Take a look at this." Demi pressed a button next to her console and an image shimmered into view on the main viewscreen. It was a large section of a mountain range, and it spun to show all three dimensions clearly. "Rune detected an enormous surge of the Black Energy Wave in that area. We're heading there now, but it's unlikely we'll find anything."


"Shaedal, or more likely the Profound Darkness, knows that Rune can sense his powers. After such a large display, Shaedal would have left the area rather then risk a conflict with Rune. We might find a clue as to where Shaedal is now, though."

Silence descended on the cockpit. Beneath them, Motavia flew by.

* * *

Shaedal threw back his head, allowing the wind to caress his face and wreak havoc on his hair. He was perched on a rocky outcropping overlooking the tunnel which led to the chapel in which he had retrieved Netrdeon. Floating all around him were the host of demonic entities which had followed him since that fateful day.

They are coming, young one. I sense the perversion of nature that is their shuttlecraft, the thing they call Landale. As I believed, the Fifth Lutz detected the moment when you claimed Netrdeon. Are you ready?

"I am," Shaedal replied, resting his hand upon Netrdeon's hilt.

Excellent. I have prepared the web of spells you will need to trap them. You must merely focus the power as I will show you. That will lure them here. We, meanwhile shall make our way to the place I have decided will be our fortress.

"Please enlighten me, Master," Shaedal spoke meekly, but his voice dripped sarcasm.

This is how to set the trap. A confused welter of images flew through Shaedal's brain - when it was over, he knew exactly what to do. As to our fortress, I have chosen the most well-defended place on all Motavia, and also a place that we can bend to our will. The ancient installation called Vahal Fort.

Moments later, after Shaedal had completed the trap according to his master's specifications, he allowed the misty demons from the chapel to bear him up and away from the mountains, towards the Fortress.

* * *

The door to Rune's cabin slammed open and Rune, holding Elsydeon naked in one hand, rushed in. "Demi! I've detected an enormous discharge of the Black Energy Wave!"

Demi's chair swiveled around and she looked at Rune. "So soon? Where is it?"

"Right in our path," Rune exclaimed. He sheathed Elsydeon. "The caverns."

"Doesn't that bother you?" Demi regarded Rune gravely. "Shaedal may or may not be as dangerous or intelligent as you think he is, but the Profound Darkness definitely is. Is the Darkness clumsy enough to release that kind of power so early in the battle?"

Rune frowned and nodded. "It may be a trap. But Demi, it's the only lead we have, and we have to explore the caverns. Keep on course."

Demi nodded slowly. "If you say so, Rune."

Alys felt a knot forming in her stomach. Real combat! True, she had occasionally been forced to deal with wandering monsters entering the farm, once even a sandworm, though her parents had done most of the fighting. But Alys had never fought a real human opponent, much less a man who was the indirect recipient of the powers of a god.

"You all right, Alys?" Rune seated himself in one of the passenger's chairs. "You look a little - pale."

She smiled thinly. "It's just that I've never really fought a real battle. There are always monsters on the plains, and I fought mock battles with my mother and my father, but this is…for real."

"Don't worry about it," Rune grinned. Lately, the boyish quality of Rune Alys had found so attractive had been replaced by a grim determination, but with that statement the seemingly rakish attitude returned. "You look like you know how to use a sword. Besides, it's unlikely Shaedal will be at the cavern. This is probably a trap."

"What sort of thing should I expect?"

"We're not sure," Demi interjected. "Wren, Rune and I are still probing Netrdeon. It's actually very little like Elsydeon. Elsydeon has enormous physical power. He who can wield it competently is almost unstoppable - but beyond that it's powers are meager. Netrdeon's powers, on the other hand, are far less physical and much more subtle. Shaedal can focus, channel and project the Black Energy Wave, and accomplish some mundane magical effects through the Profound Darkness. Nothing exciting. But the souls of those who have served the Profound Darkness seem to be tied to Netrdeon, and they manifest themselves as a host of demonic powers. The trap is likely to include them. But not many, because there are only about two dozen to begin with."

"As for what to expect from us," Rune said, "don't get in our way. Don't try to help us, because are we won't need it. Demi and I can both throw around huge amounts of energy, and if you're caught in the blast, it'll kill you. We'll help you, but under no circumstances are you to get between us and what we're fighting."

Alys nodded. "I understand."

"We're approaching the range, Rune," Demi said, turning back to the controls of the Landale. "I don't suppose you can pinpoint the source of the Black Energy Wave?"

"I can, yes," Rune said. "A burst of that power leaves some residual energy, and I can pick it up with Elsydeon. Bring us down to a safe distance, Demi. I want to be able to see the mountains."

The Landale's braking thrusters fired, slowing the ship. With careful maneuvering of the spaceship's controls, Demi eased them down until the ship hung suspended amidst the mountains.

"Are you two sure this is safe?" Alys gripped the arms of her chair tightly.

"Perfectly," Demi said, at the same time Rune said, "No."

Alys' eyes widened.

"Ah - just kidding, Alys," Rune laughed. "Demi is the best pilot on Algo. Which isn't hard. There are only so many pilots on Algo. Let's see…" Rune raised his hands and began ticking off on his fingers. "Chaz, me, Wren, and Demi. That's all." He grinned. "An elite band."

"You're in an odd humor," Alys noted acidly.

"Hides the fact I'm nervous, Alys. I thought everyone knew that."

"You must be nervous a lot, Rune, considering all your bad jokes."

"Ha. Ha ha ha. Now that you've gotten that out of your system, can we be grown-ups for a while?"

"Certainly, Rune." Alys smiled in spite of herself. From the controls, Demi chuckled.

Suddenly, Rune became grave. "Stop, Demi," he commanded. "We're very close. Can you land us?"

"Possibly," Demi replied dubiously. "There is a plateau that might be able to sustain the Landale's weight. It'll be nervous, though."

"We can't leave the Landale in hover, then?"

"I'm afraid not, Rune. We have to land or we can't disembark. Our fuel supplies are already strained. We are going to have to refuel at Kadary eventually, you know."

"I understand. Give it a try, Demi. I have complete confidence in your abilities." Rune sat down and buckled in, then motioned for Alys to do the same. She discovered that her hands were shaking and a cold fear gripped her heart.

"Just how much danger are we in, Demi?" She asked, a quiver in her voice.

"My calculations show only a 47.3235 percent chance the plateau will fail to maintain our weight. Should it collapse, there is a 97.85 percent chance we would be killed in the drop to the ground. However, the chance of our falling to begin with is less then half."

"It'll only take about fifteen minutes to maneuver into place, Alys," Rune told her. There's nothing to worry about. Say, do you know why the ship is called Landale?"

* * *

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, an extremely relieved Alys leapt from the Landale's hatch. Crouching, she drew her sword.

The cave Rune had detected with Elsydeon sat in a gully near the plateau. Wind howled through the small canyon, filling the air with a constant shriek. From where she stood, Alys couldn't make out the cave.

"Rune," she yelled over the din, "which way?"

Rune, standing next to Demi, didn't respond. He pointed, instead, with the simple staff he carried. Then, leading the way, he set off.

It was a relief to slip from the gully into the slim cave entrance Rune had directed her too. Within the cave it was unnaturally quiet, as if the mouth was sealed somehow from the outside. The cave was dusty and a cloying, charnel-house smell assaulted Alys' nostrils from no apparent source.

As they entered the cave, one of Demi's metal shoulder plates slid open and a beam of light fell from it, illuminating the tunnel. Vermin and insects shied away from the light. Kneeling, Demi examined the ground.

"Footprints," she said clinically. "They're several days old, but they match the ones of Shaedal's you have on file aboard the Landale. He's been here."

"Is he here now?" Rune asked.

Demi shook her head. "Not as far as I can tell. There is a set of prints leaving the cavern, but those are as old as the prints going in. If he is inside, he was very careful to conceal himself."

Rune nodded. "Be careful, everyone. You especially, Alys. You're in the most danger here."

Alys nodded, the familiar pre-battle calm descending over her like a shroud. She drew her sword and followed Rune and Demi down the tunnel.

After a time it became steep, and Alys was forced to brace herself against the tunnel walls. Her mind was alert, her senses detected every sound and motion. Finally, the steep section ended and the tunnel leveled out, opening into a cavern.

The cavern was filled with rows of seats, much like in a church, but the very air rang with the cynical parody of a chapel. The seats were twisted and bent, made for inhumans rather then normal humans. At the front of the 'chapel' there was an indentation in the floor, butting against the wall. The dust there was lighter, as if something had recently occupied that spot.

"This is eerie," Alys commented, "but there's nothing here to go on."

"Only to the untrained eye," Rune grinned. "Observe." He and Demi started towards the front of the chapel, with Alys close behind. Not close enough.

There was a thud and Alys spun, just in time to see a glowing barrier form across the doorway to the outside. Immediately following, a wall of fire sprang up in the middle of the room. Alys hurled herself away, realizing as she fell that she was separated from her companions by the wall. Alys rolled to her feet, brandishing her sword.

A pale, ghostly figure, arms upraised, appeared, floating up from beneath the floor. It was vaguely human, in that it had two arms and legs, and was humanoid in form. But strange, bony protrusions sprouted from it's shoulders and legs. Though naked, it was seemingly sexless, and it's totally hairless skin was smooth and pale all over it's body, save it's chest, where an enormous, bloody gash split it's body from shoulder to opposite hip.

"Rune!" Alys screamed, backing away from the horrific apparition. Her cry was met by sounds of battle from the other side of the fire wall. Rune and Demi were obviously engaged - which meant that she was on her own. To her horror, the creature raised one arm and a gigantic, bony blade burst from it's forearm. It was a ragged weapon, and clumsy, but also wickedly barbed. Alys resolved not to get in it's way.

She moved forward warily, her sword held outwards in a defensive position, it's point weaving slow circles in the air. The creature, floating inches above the ground, gave an inhuman shriek and darted forward. The blade it had grown slashed outwards in a tremendously powerful blow. Alys easily ducked underneath the blade and slashed at her opponent's chest, bisecting the ugly wound it already bore. As she drew back her blade to strike again, it's chest burst open, and a gore covered bony ball shot from the cavity, striking Alys in the chest and knocking her backwards. She fell onto her back, the creature descending on her. She rolled to the side and up, and the creature turned, facing away from the fire wall. Alys saw her opening and sprung, sprinting forward, then using the agility she had inherited from her mother to spring into the air.

Alys drove one foot into the creature's face with an upwards arcing kick, snapping it's head to one side. She crouched, then thrust upwards with her entire body, driving her sword into the creature's ribs and slamming her full weight against it. She released the blade as the creature staggered back and fell into the fire.

It began to scream.

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