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The voice rang from a long way off, distant and strange. Oddly familiar, the face of the speaker flickered in and out of visibility, obscured there by mist, here by a patch of pure night.
You stupid child.
It roared like thunder, crashing throughout the cosmos, tearing everything in it's path to shreds. The power of the strangely familiar voice was one that destroyed.
"You stupid child."
Light and matter coalesced. She turned about helplessly, but the room she was in had no exits, and the walls were seamless, dark as obsidian.
Someone lay a hand on her shoulder. She spun and fell back, sobbing and screaming all at once.
"Oh, please no. Not this." Her words were hardly audible through her sobs.
Maztim took a step forward, his features dark and angry. "You abandoned me," he accused. "You let me die. Why did you do that, Rika?"
"What do you want me to do? There was nothing I could do, father I didn't know."
"That is your sin!" Maztim circled her, his body tight and moving like a whip, as if he was stalking her. "You didn't know enough. And worse, you almost killed Lant!"
"I couldn't hold on I tried "
"You didn't try hard enough, did you, Rika? You always need someone to come and rescue you, don't you? You needed Daughter to find Chaz, the Elsydeon to save Lant, Justin to save yourself. God, Rika, you can't even care for yourself! Who are you to try and lead them?" Rika's eyes tried to follow her father's movements, but his body was blurring, impossible to track, as if he was moving incredibly fast. She shook her head, and her tears ran down her face even faster. She mumbled meaningless pleas to the uncaring man. "And worse, Rika, far, far worse you couldn't save me. You couldn't save your mother. You can't help anyone. All you're doing here is hiding, like the coward you are!"
The room shook uncontrollably, and the walls cracked and fell away, revealing a barren wasteland stretching out forever in all directions.
"Run!" Maztim's voice tore into her like a knife. "Run like the coward you are, Rika! Run and hide and wait for someone to save you!"
She ran, and as she did horrible black things that weren't quite trees sprang up around her, and people she knew reached out from them, grasping at her clothing, begging to be helped. Lant, Tamgren, Chaz, Daughter, her mother, her father, even Tareela and Nevak.
Suddenly she was free of the forest and it was gone as if it had never been. Standing directly in her path was Justin, scaled and with huge reptilian wings sprouting from a human's body. He was beautiful and terrible at the same instant, a hellish angel.
"Coward," he spat.
Reality fell apart.
Rika sat up, gasping for air. She fumbled on the table next to her bed for the tinder and candle, and lit it. She rose from her bed, shaking off the vestiges of that horrible nightmare, and gazed out her window. The Motavian plains were panoramic this time of morning, and the sun rising set the cloud aflame.
"Rika " She turned. The shadows in the corner were stirring. "Rika," they murmured to her. "Hide. Hide." The shadows congealed and were given form, and her father stood in the corner, hunched over, his body sheathed in shadows. Then Rika saw why. His silhouetted body was mangled and torn, shredded in every visible place. He raised his face and smiled toothlessly at her, blood pouring from his mouth.
"Hang on, Rika," he spat, his voice a mocking lilt. "Don't let go!"
And then she was surrounded by the darkness of space. Lifeless
and cold, she floated, waiting for it all to end.
"Rika, come on, wake up. We have to go see Tareela."
Rika blinked and yawned, and rubbed her eyes. Sunlight fell through the window in her chambers, casting shadows across the otherwise dark room. She wondered, idly, how the ship managed to have day and night - it was, after all, an artificial environment.
"Chaz," she said, looking up at her brother. "How do you feel?"
Chaz gave her an odd look. "Fine. How else would I feel?" He turned and padded across the room. Rika noticed he had traded in his tattered travel clothes for something more appropriate - black doublet and hose. "They left you some clothes," he chuckled, picking up a bundle by the door. He tossed them at her. "Get dressed and meet us outside, okay?"
When Chaz was gone, Rika tossed the covers aside and rested her elbows on her knees. She had been dreaming, she remembered, but the details were already fading. Her father without realizing it, she was crying. Angrily, she dashed aside and the tears and picked up the bundle. A dress! And worse, a soft pink dress. Who did they think she was? Grumbling in anger, she tossed it aside and reached for yesterday's clothes.
Outside in the hall the others were waiting, with Justin. The glances she got were, for the most part, amused, save Justin, who looked disapproving. Lant was dressed similarly to Chaz, and so was Tamgren. Daughter had traded in her skintight black for a white dress. She positively glowed in it.
Justin nodded at her. "Come on then," he ordered. "We can't keep the Queen waiting."
"No," Rika put in. "We're not going unarmed." Lant was carrying the Sword, but he didn't look happy about it, and Rika had automatically buckled on her sword. No one else was armed. "You go get your weapons. I need to talk to Lant, anyway." Tamgren and Chaz headed for their rooms, ignoring Justin's glares. Daughter walked to a short distance away and contemplated a tapestry depicting some scene of chaos.
"This is highly unorthodox, Rika," Justin told her. "I can't allow you to-"
"Go away, Justin. We have nothing to say to each other." Was he reading her mind right now? Rika shivered. She felt so violated! Justin's face hardened and he retreated to the far corner of the hall.
"How are you feeling, Lant?"
Her brother chuckled. It was obviously forced. "I'm tired, Rika. And scared, I guess. I wish I knew what was going on "
Rika bent close to Lant's face to whisper. "I've been talking
to Tamgren. I know all about the Sword now, it's okay. But Daughter
seems to think that it's actually
the Elsydeon, Lant. It's
"The Elsy-" Lant quickly clamped his mouth shut, and Rika hazarded a glance at Justin. He was looking at them curiously. Then, in a whisper, "The Elsydeon? Wow." Seemingly involuntarily, his hand stirred and reached for the hilt of the sword.
"No time for that now, Lant. What we need now is for you to do your best to stay calm. Tareela's probably going to pull another stunt like last night again, but I'm going to do my best to stop it. Just let me and Tamgren do the talking. We understand a little better." She smiled reassuringly at him. He grinned wanly at her.
Rika half turned, then paused and looked back at her brother. "Lant," she began carefully, "I know how you feel about dad." The pain welled up again, filling her. She struggled with it, and managed to put it back where it belonged. Where it couldn't hurt her. "And I promise you, we'll deal with it. Together."
Lant smiled weakly. "Sure, Rika."
"Bearer!" Justin called across the hallway. "Danielle, Rika The queen is waiting."
"Hello, Jaln." Cullus tried to keep his voice strictly neutral. He hoped it didn't convey any of the guarded suspicion he felt.
Jaln started in surprise and turned to face Cullus. The hallway in the Esper Mansion was dark and empty, but not far from the Council Chambers, and they were always bustling. If Cullus needed it, there were people nearby. "Why, hello, Cullus. I thought you were on Motavia with the Speaker." His voice sounded a little guarded as well. "Is something wrong?"
"We're fighting as hard as we can, Jaln," Cullus replied. "But nothing's wrong. Speaker Narrel sent me to get the Eclipse Torch. Lutz did leave it, didn't she?"
"Oh, yes. It's in her Room, in the Courtyard. Would you like an escort?"
"No, I know the way." Cullus smiled thinly, trying to keep any suspicion out of his voice. He regarded Jaln carefully. Could he be trusted? There was only one way to know for sure. "Tarik is dead, Jaln."
Jaln's reaction was covered a bit to slowly. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened. Quickly, the other Esper replaced it by a mask of mere sadness. "What happened, Cullus?"
"He was killed by Wrens, sadly." A moment's more hesitation and then Cullus extended his magical senses towards Jaln. He had studied the symbol on Tarik's arm, and would recognize it if he sensed it again, or the residual enchantments Tarik had laid on his own mark. He kept talking, hoping to distract Jaln from the probe. "They shot him down early last night. There haven't been many-" He drew back his senses quickly, heart pounding. Jaln had sensed his probe a moment after he had discovered the other Esper's identifying mark. "-other casualties." Jaln's eyes hardened as the probe was withdrawn. He knew. "I'd best go, Jaln," Cullus said slowly. "Narrel is waiting on me. Would you care to come to the Courtyard with me?"
Jaln smiled tightly, his lips thinner then a stiletto's blade. As if on cue, two Espers rounded the corner and approached Jaln. The Esper's razor thin smile turned sickly. "Ah, Zaquard, Julian. I'm afraid I won't be able to accompany you, Cullus. Duty calls." Jaln's gaze turned dark. "I don't think I'll see you again before you leave. Be well, Cullus."
Cullus nodded quickly and turned, vanishing down the hallway to the courtyard. A moment later, Jaln gestured after him.
His only chance was to get the Eclipse Torch. Cullus entertained no doubt that the men Jaln had picked to defend the Mansion were Darkness worshippers and they were already on his tail. He had to move quickly. Perhaps he could Jump away from the Mansion to someplace safe with the Torch, or failing that, confront these traitors, using the power of the Torch to aid him. He'd die, doubtless, but he'd kill a good many first.
He opened the doors to the Courtyard and moved quickly towards the small, square building aptly called Lutz's Room, where the Eclipse Torch was. He could sense it, at this distance, pulsing at him, calling him.
The air was suddenly red all around, and a blast of molten air shot past his head. It slammed into the wall of the Mansion, melting it like ice. Cullus broke into a run.
Julian cut him down in the open space between the Courtyard doors and Lutz's Room, declining magic and simply tackling Cullus. Flailing out blindly, Cullus caught the man on the jaw, knocking his head to the side. Quickly, Cullus kicked free.
No sooner was he to his feet then Zaquard's magical bolt of force struck him in the back, tossing him through the air and slamming him into the wall of Lutz's Room. Stunned, he sank to the snow, gasping in pain and striving uselessly for his magic. The world spun around him, but he could perceive Jaln looming above him.
"I hope you're satisfied. You've all but blown my cover."
A flash of red, then everything was gone.
"Ah," Nevak extended his hand towards Lant, who took it hesitantly. "What a pleasure to meet you, Bearer. I am-"
"Nevak," Lant finished, nodding warily. "From the throne room last night. I remember." He said nothing else. After a moment, Nevak released him, frowning slightly. After a moment the Chancellor looked away. He nodded to Chaz, standing a little to one side. "Charles."
"Chaz," he corrected. "My name is Chaz."
Nevak chuckled. "I apologize." He seated himself and motioned for the others to do the same. Justin took up a post next to the doorway.
The sitting room to which they had been escorted was opulent, with thick red carpeting and high-backed chairs that were so carefully padded they seemed to grow around you. Really, it was quite comfortable.
"Where's Tareela?" Rika asked, cutting to the point. "I thought we were meeting with her."
"The Queen will be along presently. Until then, she has placed me at your disposal, to answer any questions you might have." Nevak sipped a cup of tea he had brought with him. He painted the perfect picture of a scholarly old man. "I assume you have many."
"Who is the Bearer?" Tamgren asked. "And no evasions this time. We want a straight answer."
Nevak sighed a little wistfully. "That is a dark tale. It was roughly a thousand years ago-a war of amazing proportions had wiped out all technology aboard the Alisa III. People had even ceased to remember that the Alisa III was a space ship, traveling among the stars. It was a man called Nial Landale, one of Tareela's ancestors, and his assorted companions who unearthed the secret of Alisa III and began to bring the technology back. His twin son and daughter, Adan, and Gwyn, were also involved in the salvation of Alisa III. Through a long series of events, Adan and Gwyn learned that an ancient evil known as Dark Force had resurfaced after a thousand years in imprisonment and was trying to destroy the Alisa III. They gathered together the legendary weapons with which to fight him. This they did, and they were victorious. But one of the legendary weapons, the Sword of Orakio, went missing." Nevak pointed at Lant. "He has brought it back to us, as was prophesied. It was said that the Bearer would bring the Sword back to the Alisa III, and change everything we had ever known."
"And you think I'm the Bearer?" Lant asked, sounding disbelieving.
"Think?" Justin laughed from the doorway. "You are, Lant." Rika chafed a little at that familiarity. "You not only carry the Sword of Orakio, you wielded it's powers against me."
"But I didn't do anything!" Lant protested. "It just happened. I didn't mean to."
"That's irrelevant," Nevak told him. "Whether or not you wish it, Lantamaral, you are the Bearer, and are destined for great things."
"What were the other legendary weapons?" Rika asked. "Where are they?"
"The other weapons are here, in the castle, Rika." Nevak replied. "We keep them on display in the east wing-something of a museum, you might say. There are several weapons - the Claw of Miun, the Slicer of Lune, the Shot of Siren, and the Bow of Laya. It's forbidden to touch them, of course. They're considered holy."
"That's all well and good," Chaz said, his voice cold, "but why, after returning to Algo, are you invading us?"
"Because you abandoned us to die," a chill voice answered from the far corner. Tareela stood in the doorway, looking for all the world like a statue. Her skin was pale and her stance cold, aloof. Her blue locks were swept back in a severe style, and she moved with an almost arrogant grace. "During the Dying, your people did nothing and watched while Palm was destroyed."
"The Great Collapse? That was over two thousand years ago!" Rika protested, disbelieving. "And there was nothing that could have been done. I've read all the stories."
"The Great Collapse occurred when the prison satellite called Gaira inexplicably altered it's course and slammed into Palm," Daughter put forth. "The only surveillance equipment of enough sophistication to detect the satellite was on Parma Palm. There was a period of approximately one and one half-hour between the shuttle beginning to alter it's course and velocity and the destruction of Palm. During this time, the Palmans scrambled the planet ships and many were able to escape. But none of the other planets governments detected the threat until it was to late. Nothing could have been done."
"You see curiously knowledgeable, Lady Danielle," Nevak said curiously. "How is it you know all of this?"
"She's a historian and an archeologist," Chaz cut in. "Danielle's spent her entire life learning about the Great Collapse."
"I am one of the world's leading experts, you might say." Danielle turned back to Tareela. "You are invading us because of an event which occurred two thousand years ago?"
"Precisely. Countless lives were lost during the Dying-what you call the Great Collapse." Tareela sneered. "Now Algo will live the horror of the Dying once again. I will destroy it. I will leave nothing alive. Even as we speak, resistance on your planet is crumbling, slowly. Algo will be damned, make no mistake about that."
"I believe you are mentally unbalanced," Danielle told her. "Perhaps you would consider psychological treatment?"
Justin's eyes widened in horror and Nevak's face went bone white. For a moment, Tareela's face flashed pure anger and hatred, and expression so intense the everyone in the room unconsciously flinched away. Then it was gone, replaced by that serene, aloof mask. "That is very amusing, Lady Danielle. You have quite a wit, indeed. But now I am curious. How did you come aboard the Alisa III?"
There was a moment of silence in the room that stretched on uncomfortably.
"I brought us aboard." All eyes turned to Lant, who flinched a little, then straightened. "I used the Sword of Orakio to bring us here."
"Amazing," Tareela exclaimed. "How did you use
"It was it was an act of will. I am the Sword's master."
"The master?" Tareela laughed. "The master? You, boy?" Her gaze turned icy on Lant. "Do not overestimate your importance. You are the Bearer, and that means you may carry the Sword, for now. But a knife in your ribs will still kill you, boy."
In a flash, Rika and Chaz were on their feet, stepping between Tareela and Lant.
"Don't threaten him," Rika snarled. "You can die just as easily."
"And you're far more expendable," Chaz said. His voice sounded strangely level. "All you are is a crazed megalomaniac. Nothing more."
"Stop." Justin's voice sounded angry. "Step away from Tareela, Rika, Chaz. Do it now." Rika looked over her shoulder and saw the tip of Justin's blade hovering before Chaz's throat. "Do it, or I'll kill you both."
Chaz moved like lightning, spinning and lashing out with the back of one hand, knocking Justin's blade aside skillfully. Rika darted below his guard and slammed her full body into him, slamming him against the wall. She heard a clatter as the sword he had drawn hit the ground.
There was a sudden eruption of force all around her and she was pitched backwards, hitting one of the chairs and knocking it over. She heard Tamgren yelling and the room was filled with a dull thudding sound suddenly. Lant had drawn the Sword.
As Rika got to her feet she saw Justin rise and meet a lunge from Chaz, skillfully disarming him and lifting him as if he was a child-with one hand! He tossed Chaz away and Rika saw his body begin to ripple. He was shapeshifting again-that must have given him the extra strength. His clothing was absorbed once more, revealing bronze colored scales beneath and wings sprouted from his back. Snarling, the winged lizard leapt across the room to land before Tareela, growling at everyone else.
"Young Justin has certain abilities," Tareela said, smiling and stroking the Justin-beast as if it was a dog. "Among them, he is the Dragon-Knight. You would be wise not to challenge him." At the word 'Dragon', the creature flared it's wings and snarled. "Throw down your weapons."
"You okay, Chaz?" Tamgren asked, helping his friend up.
Chaz grimaced in pain. "Nothing's broken, except my dignity. I'll be bruised in the morning. He's so strong!"
"An aspect of the shapeshift, I think," Tamgren whispered. "If we can touch him with the Sword of Orakio, we might be able to negate it again. It's too late now." He gestured to Lant. "Put the Sword away, Lant."
Lant gulped and gingerly removed his hands from the Sword hilt. His eyes were wild as he returned it to it's sheath.
"I believe that will be enough for today," Tareela said, smiling a cloying smile. "I will meet with you again tomorrow, or perhaps later today. Unarmed, of course. For the moment, I cannot allow you into the town, which I'm sure you can understand, but you may have free run of the castle, naturally. Make sure you are at my disposal." A moment later, she turned and departed.
Almost instantly, Nevak was on his feet, then kneeling next to the lizard-the Dragon. "Justin," he murmured softly. "Justin. Justin. Justin. Come back."
The Dragon shuddered, then cried out and began to ripple once more, scales dissolving into soft flesh, then clothing seemed to grow from the air around him. The talons gripping the carpeting became hands, clutched into fists so tightly that his knuckles were white. The head twisted and warped until at last, it was the face of Justin. The Dragon's cry became a painful gasp for air.
"I shouldn't shouldn't have tried to shapeshift so soon after I used my magic," Justin gasped. "I almost lost control. Did I ?"
Nevak shook his head. "No, Justin, you didn't. But you have to be more careful. Next time you might not be able to beat it. Are you all right? Up for duty?"
"Yes. Yes, I'll be fine. Thank you, father."
"Good." Nevak patted his son on the shoulder and quickly helped him to his feet. For a moment, Justin seemed unsteady, but quickly regained his balance. "As Tareela said, you are to have free run of the castle. Justin will be keeping an eye on you."
"So now what to we do?" Lars asked, sitting down across from Alys. His arm was bound in a cast and his lower jaw was still swollen, but he had been declared ready for light duty. There were more important, critical cases that need the infirmary beds.
Alys rose and looked out of the hole in her wall at the remains of Aiedo. "There's not much to salvage here, Lars. Aiedo has been destroyed. How many other towns have suffered exactly the same fate? We should take a lesson from the Espers, I think."
"What do you intend to do, Alys?"
"Call a meeting. Would you be so kind as to gather everyone fit for duty in the courtyard? I have an announcement to make."
"Aiedo has been destroyed," Alys said. Her voice echoed across the courtyard, filled with her Hunters. Lars stood at her side. "And her citizens have fled. We risked our lives fighting to save a dead thing. We had lost before we started, but even so, we persevered. You have all shown me the best side of your skills, and your character. But the invasion is not over yet. People out there are still dying, and the only force standing between them and absolute destruction are the Espers. None of us really understand what's going on, except that this is wrong. We must fight to save Algo, Hunters! If we won't, who else will?
"I say we join the Espers in their cause. Tomorrow we will march to join them and add our numbers to theirs.
"We are Hunters, friends, and now we will hunt!"
"You brought the Torch. Good work, Cullus." Narrel smiled as he took the Eclipse Torch from the other Esper. It's crystal surface was perfectly smooth, like still water, and was cool to the touch, despite the flame dancing at it's center. "I don't suppose you had a chance to check out Jaln or the others for ?"
Cullus shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Speaker, but Jaln certainly seems trustworthy. Nothing in his actions seemed suspicious to me, at least."
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