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Chapter 1

"Wait!" Alys yelled. "What signal?"

"You'll know," the woman said with a trace of amusement in her voice. "You'll know." And then she vanished into darkness and was gone.

A sudden, awful presence filled the room, a presence forged of all that was dark and evil in the world. On the ground, Rune groaned and thrashed from side to side.

"Rune! Hang on," Alys said. "I have a feeling it's going to get a lot worse."

Do not do this.

Alys gasped.

I can give you whatever you want…anything…money…power…wealth. Free me!

"Never," Alys hissed.

I can erase her. I can destroy her memories. The name will be yours, and yours alone, Alys Ashley. You need never live in her shadow again.

"I could do worse things in life," Alys said, grinning in spite of herself.

You shall burn forever in my fires, impudent child!

"Shut up!"

A faint, yellow light blossomed on the wall in front of the altar, then erupted outwards into a swirling mass of energy, assailing her with evil and darkness. Behind her, Rune screamed. From a long way off, Alys heard a strange, booming sound, growing closer and louder with every passing moment, until it roared in Alys' ears. Slowly, she drew back Elsydeon.

The shockwave struck.

Alys swung.

Alys sat up, gasping for air, her body soaked with sweat. She clutched at the soft white coverlet, waiting for the horror of the nightmare to subside. The room was dark, but Alys could still see the empty space on the bed next to her. Maztim's place.

She threw her legs off the bed, rested her elbows on them, her head in her hands. Her breathing was heavy. She rose, pacing slowly.

"It's gone," she murmured to her self, trying to feel reassured. "It's over." She hugged herself, rubbing her arms.

Alys Ashley-Lain walked over to the window, looking out across the Aiedo skyline. There were twinkling lights visible in some of the houses - candles set against a dark blue canvas. Much of the Hunter's City was dark.

Elsydeon is gone, she told herself. Rune took it - it's gone, it's over. "Then why won't it end!" She wailed. Years! Years it had been, and still the nightmares haunted her, making sleep a torture. She couldn't remember her last good night's sleep.

It had come out all right in the end, of course - exactly as the woman in red had said it would. When Netrdeon had been destroyed, the Profound Darkness had died with it - it's ultimate destruction heralded by a shockwave that torn into the two planets of Algo. The seismic tumult that had resulted from that shockwave had lasted for more then a decade. It was over, though. Finally over.

She picked up her robe from where she had tossed it over the chair at her desk and shrugged into it, leaving the bedroom. She glanced into the bedrooms of her children as she passed them - all empty. She was alone.

She entered the kitchen and slowly, mechanically, she set about making herself something - anything, to make her stop thinking of the past. But she was too good at what she was doing, and she knew her home too well. Her hands were busy, but her mind was unoccupied.

She could see him, his dying face always behind her eyelids. His features had been firm and chiseled - handsome, in a way, save for the cold, haughty twist to them. His soul, she liked to think, was not all evil - that some integral part of Shaedal's soul rebelled against the hold the Darkness had had upon his body. But when she thought of him, all she saw was that weary, dying face, and a sword…

With a cry, Alys hurled the mug she was clutching against the wall. It shattered, sprinkling the floor with shards. Sobbing, she sank to the floor.

* * *

"Thanks for coming up on such short notice, Maztim," Demi said as the shuttle door hissed open. Maztim Lain made a dismissive gesture with one hand as he emerged.

"It's nothing, Demi," he told the Android. "You know that."

"How's Alys?"

"She's fine - never better, really. She had administrative work to do back in Aiedo, or she would have been up here twice as fast as me. She's head of the Hunter's Guild now. Where's Wren?"

"He's at Kuran with Daughter," the Control Android responded, leading the way down one of Zelan's many corridors. "Since we deactivated the systems, there have been a lot less demands on our time - we've all taken up hobbies." She laughed. "Wren doesn't like it if you call them 'hobbies', though. He prefers 'scientific exploration'. Naturally, he's the one experimenting with warp field mechanics. Daughter's dabbling in cybernetics and robotics - she wants to create a mobile frame for her matrix."

"A body?" Maztim interjected. Demi nodded.

"Exactly so," she confirmed. "I'm studying psychology. You really are fascinating beings, Maztim, did you know that?"

"Of course," Maztim laughed. "We're just…amazing."

"And modest, too," Demi replied dryly. "How are the children?"

Maztim beamed proudly. "They're camping. The twins took Lant and they're headed to Krup to pick up Tamgren."

"Hahn's grandson? That's nice."

"Yes. They're going to the Machine Center to pick up the Land Rover, then they're going down to the peninsula by the Ladea Tower for a week, or thereabouts."

Demi stopped dead. "They do know how to drive the Land Rover, don't they, Maztim?"

"Alys has given them all a crash course, yes."

Demi's expression was rapidly becoming pained. "'Crash course?' You let them drive the last Land Rover in Algo on the strength of a 'crash course'?"

"They'll be fine, Demi."

"It's not them I'm worried about, Maztim."

Maztim smiled and ran a hand through his red hair, deciding to change the subject. "What do you need me to do up here, Demi?"

"Oh, yes," Demi said, starting walking again. "You'll need to stay the night, and in the morning you have to take the shuttle to Kuran and pick up the Landale. Wren and Daughter have had it stocked with provisions for a three day journey."

"Where exactly am I going?"

"We've discovered an anomaly of some sort on the outer edge of the solar system. It's probably just a sensor error - but it may be something else, or something less then benign. We'd like you to investigate."

"When you say 'less then benign', you mean it could be dangerous, don't you?" Maztim looked gravely at the tiny Android.

"Oh, no, of course not. Not to you - you'll be in the Landale and it's got heat shields, poison shields," Demi ticked them off on her fingers. "Ionization shields, radiation shields…The anomaly itself looks like a gaseous cloud of some sort - the others and I haven't ever seen molecular composition like it before. We need to study it, see if we should contain it. If it drifts into the atmosphere of one of the planets, or gets into Zelan or Kuran somehow…We just want you to get a sample for us to study. No danger. Promise. Will you do it?"

Maztim chuckled. "Sure, I'll do it," he told Demi. "I trust you."

* * *

Tareela's eyes danced across the window, the starry sky spread before her, panoramic, unbroken. The faint light suffusing the room gave an eerie cast to her features, pale and classically beautiful. She heard the hiss of a door opening and closing behind her, but did not move.

"Nevak," she said, by way of greeting.

"My liege," Nevak responded, artfully bowing at the waist without disturbing the two drinks he bore. He rose and placed the warm cup in Tareela's hand.

"It is beautiful, isn't it Nevak?" Tareela made a sweeping gesture with her free hand, indicating the view from the window. "It is, I think, the most lovely thing I have ever see. Will ever see again. I am home, Nevak."

"It is lovely, milady," Nevak responded carefully. "But I would like once more to voice my opposition to your plan. I feel that…"

"You have not failed to make your feelings known, Chancellor," Tareela cut him off with her words and an imperious gesture. "To me, and in many other quarters." The last was added with an ominous overtone. "I am the queen," she said assertively.

"And I her loyal servant," Nevak responded. He sighed, and for a while they stood in silence, watching the stars swirling and dancing. After a moment, Nevak finished the last of his own drink. He bowed once more and made to leave the room.

"Nevak," Tareela said suddenly. Nevak paused, but did not turn. "That is a lovely ring you are wearing, Nevak. I do not believe I have seen it before. One wonders where it is you acquired it?"

A moment later, Tareela heard Nevak depart, ignoring her question. Tareela waited a moment, then began to laugh.

* * *

Darkness stifled the dusty, empty hallway. The lights set into the ceiling had given out ages ago - though all the important facilities of the installation remained intact. The doors at the end off the hall opened, and a sliver of light fell across the floor, becoming a beam, and then a flood as the doorway was flung wide open with a jarring screech. The figure standing in the doorway, framed by the light behind him, could not be seen. The figure slipped inside, activating and raising an electric lantern.

"Here we are," Chaz grinned, swinging the lantern, a gift from Demi, grandly. "Nice place, huh?"

"Depends," Lantamaral, his younger brother, told him. The smaller, lithe boy slipped past his brother into the corridor, staying within the sphere of light cast by the lantern. "On whether you live in a cave and enjoy hanging upside down," he finished. He brushed a strand of his red hair, contrasting sharply with the blonde of his brother and sister, and glanced around.

"Don't be such a coward," Rika chided gently, looking around. As always, she moved with a kind of casual grace, her slender body well muscled and firm. The lantern illuminated her profile, accenting her long, pointed ears. In the female side of the family, the Ashley blood didn't fail to breed true.

"I'm only kidding," Lant retorted defensively.

"Oh," Tamgren, behind the other three, sounded disappointed. "I agreed with you." The other boy, slightly younger then the twins, wore light armor and carried a sword, but he wore the weapon clumsily, the way someone with little skill in arms would wear a blade. What he lacked in physical prowess he made up for in sheer ingenuity - he had a quick, analytical mind and shared his family's love of history, geography and anthropology. "This place is a dump." He gently thumped one of the walls with the back of his hand, raising a cloud of dust.

Chaz started off down the hall, not waiting on the others. The light of the lantern bobbed wildly in his hand as he set of towards the main room of the Machine Center. Rika joined him first, and for a moment, silhouetted, the movements of the twins coincided perfectly. As always, despite their physical differences, the resemblance between the twins was uncanny.

"Not you, too," Rika called over her shoulder, laughing. Tamgren smiled at her and followed, Lant bringing up the rear.

"Don't worry," Lant whispered to Tamgren. "Demi says the Land Rover's in great shape."

The main room of the Krup Machine Center was a wide, circular room, the floor deeply set into the ground. A small balcony jutted out over the room, and set on it was the main control panel for the Machine Center. Lights flickered and danced on it, showing that it was still functional.

From the center of the circle, a large pillar rose, connected to the domed ceiling. Spreading from the pillar across the circle to the walls were wide partitions, each numbered in red above them. Only one, A3, had anything in it.

"My turn," Tamgren said, cracking his knuckles. He approached the control panel. "Okay," his fingers leapt across the keypad, filling the air with the beeps of buttons being pressed. A rumbling started somewhere deep within the Machine Center, then the Central Pillar began to rotate. There was a loud thumping noise as each niche clicked into place in front of the docking bay doors below the balcony. The pillar would pause for a second, but when Tamgren didn't order to stop the rotation, it went on to the next niche. When A3 thudded into place below them, Tamgren pressed a button. There was a whirring sound, followed by a low dragging.

"That's got it," Tamgren said. "I've unloaded the Land Rover and it's outside. Let's go."

* * *

Jaln paced up and down the long hallway outside his rooms, wringing his hands in worry and fear. The hallway was empty - the only rooms in this section of the Mansion belonged to Jaln, and he entertained few enough guests that the corridors were usually empty.

Jaln looked up as a blue-robed Esper novitiate rounded the corner at a run, then, seeing his superior, stumbled to a halt and bowed respectfully.

"Come forward," the aging man told the young novitiate. Though obviously expecting a tongue-lashing for running within the Esper Mansion, the boy approached, unable to disobey one who wore the blue mantle of a Master. "Is there news?"

"We have scoured the Mansion, Lord," the boy said. "And the High Council has bent all it's efforts to finding her - always before she has left some notice and declared her Stead to act in her absence. But she is not in the Mansion, Lord, and she has appointed no Stead. And, worse-"

"Have you searched the Chamber of Elsydeon? Lutz is fond of visiting that room, and it is sealed from our power." Jaln interjected, resisting the urge to resume wringing his hands - a nervous habit, unbecoming for an Esper of his status.

"Yes, my Lord," the boy continued. The lad suddenly became even more uncomfortable. "And, Lord, the…the Sacred Sword is gone."

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