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Chapter 13

"How are you feeling this morning, Narrel?"

Narrel's head flickered up from where it had rested against his chest. The cell was small and stuffy, and body was bathed in sweat. He hadn't slept.

Morgan stood in the doorway of the cell, her slender figure framed by the wan light cast by the magical fire globes. She looked slightly demonic in her black dress. She wore a lighter variation on the traitor's armor - the shoulder plates were lower, but longer, and her cloak appeared lighter. Her eyes were laughing as they took in Narrel's form.

He was huddled against the cell wall midway down it's length with his knees drawn up to his chest. He had sat like that almost since he had been confined there - his whole body stung from Morovin's tender mercies, and he wanted to make himself as small as possible. He was presented to Morgan in profile.

Receiving no response, Morgan smiled thinly and made a brief gesture with her right hand. The glowing cell door flickered out of existence, dispelled by the guards that maintained it at Morgan's command.

The only decoration Morgan wore except for her heavy silver belt was an amulet on a silver chain, dangling between her breasts. The amulet itself was a simple crystal sphere of the same kind of crystal the other traitors all seemed to possess in one form or another. She was also holding the Psycho-Wand.

"Come here, Narrel," she beckoned with the staff. "Morovin is waiting. He and you have much to discuss."

Narrel's blood ran cold at the thought of another meeting with Morovin, but he sighed and rose, wishing for the hundredth time that the shield holding his magic in check wasn't there. He felt doubly naked when deprived of his magic.

"Pass me the shield," Morgan ordered. She began the complex incantation as the guards prepared to drop the spell. Narrel tensed, probing the shield that surrounded him with his weakened, but not destroyed, magical perceptions.

There! For just a moment, when Morgan took over the shielding herself, it had faltered, and Narrel had been able to touch his magic for just a second. Then it was gone, as Morgan completed the spell, but that had been enough.

Strangely, Morgan seemed to be directing the shielding spell through the crystal, the same way Morovin had done when he had destroyed the Esper defenses. In the moment of contact with his magic, Narrel was immediately struck by a sense of overwhelming power emanating from Morgan - or perhaps from the crystal!

Morgan gestured, wordlessly, and Narrel followed her back through the hallways, empty and silent. Even his bare feet echoed their footfalls in this dead building. He was already formulating a plan.

All he needed was another chance…

* * *

"You have considered my offer?" Tareela's voice was as silky as always, but Rika always felt that she was hiding a dagger in the silk - she just didn't trust the woman. "Think of the benefits you would reap."

Rika sat back, feeling Tareela's eyes bore into her. Justin sat just next to his queen, looking vaguely worried. Nevak was standing nearby, inspecting the goings on with interest. "We have," she replied after a moment. "We spent much of the night debating the results of any actions we might take. But," she paused, dragging out the moment, "that is all irrelevant. At least how it relates to me."

Tareela blinked at her, momentarily surprised. "You will not be giving me your decision this morning?"

"I won't." Chaz said slowly.

"Nor I."

"No."

Rika shrugged, looking at Tamgren, Daughter, and Chaz. Her gaze returned to Tareela. "I will not speak for my brother. Lant is the Bearer, and I'm not going to try and rule him. It's his choice to make, Tareela, not mine." Her gaze hardened. "I trust my brother, Tareela, I trust him explicitly. Whatever decision he makes, both I and my sword stands behind."
Justin stiffened at the obvious threat, but Tareela made no move to head Rika off on it. Instead, Tareela was focused fully on Lant.

"Then, Lantamaral," she said in a voice that could have been made of honey, "you've made your decision?"

Lant squirmed a little as all the eyes in the room turned on him. He nodded. "Yes. Yes, I've decided."

* * *

"Tell me, Narrel, if you please," Morovin leaned forward. "What is Lutz?"

Forced onto his knees before Morovin, Narrel craned his neck upwards to look at the other Esper. The guards, clad in that abominable black armor, held his shoulders fast. "The Most Reverent is the physical incarnation of the memories and the skills of the first Esper - Lutz. The Most Reverent is at the heart and soul of every Esper - without Lutz, we would wander, lost in the night, forever. Lutz is the light which guides us." He quoted the Book of Lutz, which had been written by a particularly devout Esper several hundred years before Narrel's time. It was required reading for all Espers.

Morovin shook his head. Pain surged briefly into Narrel's mind - he flinched and almost screamed, but it passed quickly. "No, Narrel.

"Lutz is a parasite, Speaker. A creature that feeds on the living, which travels from body to body and when it is finished with one soul, it goes on to the next. Lutz fears death - Narrel, Lutz is a coward. Lutz hides behind a facade of holiness and power, but really he is nothing." Morovin's voice, as he denounced everything the Espers believed, was perfectly level and absolutely cold. "Isn't that right, Narrel?"

"No." A moment later, Narrel began to scream, thrashing in the guard's grip until they released him and he fell backwards, convulsing helplessly and howling in agony. The moments of intense pain stretched interminably, becoming three lifetimes to Narrel's fevered perceptions. When it was gone, he lay still, gasping in pain. He could feel warm blood running down his lip where he had bitten hard into it.

"Perhaps later, then? Shall we discuss the Eclipse Torch, Narrel?" Morovin gestured and the guards seized his arms, dragging him to his feet. Narrel looked at Morovin silently, his eyes hollow.

"Fine."

Morovin smiled. "Isn't that better, Narrel?" He picked up the Torch from where it lay on his desk and balanced the crystalline sphere on his fingertips. "Outline for me, in as much detail as you can, precisely how this device is used."

How much time do you intend to waste trying to break the boy's spirit, Archlord?

Morovin drew his attention away from Narrel and focused on Morgan's thought. We have a great deal of time, Morgan.

And better things to do with it, with all respect.

What have we to do? There is nothing we can do until Tamerus completes his work. Our actions must coincide with his - there is no point in acting prematurely. Otherwise all is lost.

Morgan's gaze flickered briefly to Narrel, who had stopped speaking and was watching Morovin intently. And what do you intend to do with him once you are finished?

Kill him, of course.

"Narrel," Morovin said suddenly, "there must be more then that."

"That's all I know." Narrel sighed and licked his lips.

"Thirsty, Narrel?" Morovin asked slyly, regarding the other man. "It has been a while since you've drunk anything, hasn't it?"

"Yes."

"Then perhaps you can think of something else about the Torch?"

* * *

"I can't give you the Sword, Tareela." Lant sounded fearful of what his announcement might cause. Tareela stiffened and sat back, folding her hands pristinely in her lap.

"I see. Why is that?"

"I…I don't trust you, Tareela." Lant fingered the Sword, resting across his knees. "None of this would have happened if not for you…You killed…" He paused. "You killed my father…maybe my mother…Demi, Wren…Innocent people!" He flared up. "What kind of fool do you take me for, Tareela?" Seemingly without thinking, he rose and drew out the Sword, it's black blade flickering dully in the light. The room was suddenly filled with strange thrumming. "I ought to kill you!"

Justin rose, sliding between Lant and Tareela with the skill of a professional swordsman. He drew his blade. Lant cried out incoherently and aimed an overhand strike at Justin, almost faster then Rika could follow. The thrumming intensified into a booming staccato as Justin parried, then riposted, driving his sword at Lant's chest.

Lant effortlessly curved the massive weapon around and intercepted Justin's thrust with ease, knocking the sword away from Justin's hand. It skittered across the floor. "Get out of my way!" he bellowed, raising the sword to finish him.

"Lant, please desist." A hand, strong as steel, clamped around Lant's wrist. He turned, eyes flashing, to see Daughter. He strained uselessly against her iron grip, but after a moment went limp. Reaching up, Daughter gently took the Sword from his hand and passed it to Tamgren. "Kindly hold this for a moment."

Moving slowly, Daughter turned Lant around. "Destructive behaviour is not in your nature, Lant. I am disappointed with you."

The situation was so ludicrous Rika might have laughed. Instead, she stood frozen where she had been when Daughter had reached Lant.

Sagging, Lant half collapsed. Daughter was all that kept him from falling. She gently guided him over to the couch and seated him. She held out a hand towards Tamgren. "I will take possession of the Sword now. Thank you." Quickly, Daughter sheathed the blade and lay it next to Lant.

Justin moved quickly over to the other end of the room where his sword had fallen, trying to act like Tareela, as if nothing had happened. Just as he took hold of the hilt, someone stepped on the blade, pinning it. Justin looked up at Chaz.

"Don't draw a sword on my brother ever again." Chaz's voice was ice, which seemed to be characteristic of him these days.

"My first duty is to the queen," Justin replied just as coldly. "The minute weapons are bared, I will defend her."

Chaz knelt so that their eyes were on a level. "I don't care about your personal tragedies, Justin, or your convoluted sense of honor. Make no mistake about that. All I care about is Lant, and his well-being. If you ever draw a sword on him again…" Chaz touched the bruise on his chin, "I'll be more then happy to repay you for this." He released Justin's blade. "Keep that in mind."

Rika crossed the room quickly and seated herself next to Lant. His eyes were wide and he was shaking uncontrollably. "I don't know what happened…" he stammered. "There was just this…it was like…I wanted to kill her, Rika…"

"I don't believe there's anything else to say here," Nevak's voice cut across the room. "My Lady?" He had opened the door and was obviously holding it for Tareela.

"Yes. Well then, until another time." A moment later, Rika heard the door shut.

A few moments passed in silence, and gradually Lant's shaking subsided. He rose, silently, and picked up the Sword, cradling it in his hands. Then, with a scream of rage, he hurled it across the room. It struck the wall and fell heavily. Lant slid down to his knees, gasping in horror.

"Rika…what's happening to me?"

* * *

The pain ended so abruptly Narrel wondered if it had ever been there. Through a haze, he saw Morovin rise. The tower shook uncontrollably.

"Damn!" Morovin was shouting. "The Wrens! They've found us! Morgan," he pointed at her, "take Narrel back to his cell and seal him up. Have Althea and Thane watch him. When you've done that, take the Psycho-Wand down to the cavern and see the other Espers don't try to escape."

* * *

"That's odd," Alys said. "There are people down there." She pointed with her binoculars to the ruins in the valley below them. "Right in front of the Wrens!"

Lars cursed, watching the Wrens' blasts tear the already crumbling ruins apart. "We have to do something!"

The Hunters had been tracking the Wrens since they'd found evidence of the sizable group, a few hours after they had left Aiedo. The course of the Wrens had been erratic, and the Hunters had been steadily gaining on them since they had picked up the trail. The Wrens had eventually stumbled on these ruins in the mountains and attacked it. Now it appeared they were attacking a settlement…of sorts.

"Right…hey!" Alys blinked as flashes of light began to erupt from the ruins themselves, obliterating the Wrens. "The Espers are down there!" She laughed. "We've found them! Okay, Lars. Let's go." Alys leapt into her saddle, then gestured to the Hunters poised farther down the hill. "Charge! Make for the cover in the central tower - the Espers are there. Once we've joined them, we'll regroup and attack the Wrens."

Then the Hunters charged, streaming down the hill towards the ruined city.

* * *

"Hunters?" Morovin gaped incredulously at the sentry. "How did they find us? Narrel…he must have gotten word to them somehow. Damn it, this is the last thing I need. Divide your forces - kill as many Hunters as you can before they reach us. Go!"

* * *

Morgan gestured and the glowing field of light flickered across the cell door. She addressed the guards. "Keep an eye on him. I have more important matters to attend to. Hurry, I'm giving you the shield."

Narrel sat straight up, looking directly at Morgan. Now was his chance!

There it was, the shield flicker. He reached for his magic and felt it flow through him, then he directed his power straight at the crystal necklace Morgan wore.

Power, like he had never known before, flowed through him from the crystal, stronger then he had ever been capable of before. With the ecstasy of power still upon him, he hurled his mind against the force field around the doorway.

It exploded as the enormous force of magic Narrel commanded struck it fully. Morgan cried out once as the magical backlash hurled her across the room. She struck the wall and lay still.

Rising, and panting, Narrel approached the fallen woman. The other two guards were dead, lying where the explosion of power had hurled them. Reaching down, Narrel retrieved the Psycho-Wand and, almost as an afterthought, tore the necklace off of Morgan's throat, wrapping the broken the chain around his wrist.

A crystal that magnified magical energy…what an amazing discovery, and one that certainly deserved further thought. It explained a lot, such as Morgan being able to maintain the shield single-handedly that two Espers without the crystal had to work together on, or the ease with which Morovin had destroyed their defenses.

Narrel knelt and grabbed Morgan by the collar, dragging her to her feet. "Come on, Morgan," he snarled. "We have a lot to discuss."

* * *

Alys' horse reared dangerously as a bolt of lightning collided into the ground nearby her, and she heard a Hunter scream in agony. She turned and saw the man's horse and body strike the ground, charred beyond all recognition. As she watched, bolts of magic began flying from the tower - straight towards them! More Hunters fell in the sudden attack.

Layans! It was the only possible explanation. Alys drew her slasher and reared her horse. "Hunters! Strike fast! Kill everything that moves! For Algo!"

She charged.

* * *

The Hunter's reached the base of the tower quickly, just as the Wrens breached the wall on the other side. There had been heavy losses by the Hunters on the mad rush down, but at close range Esper magic was difficult and unwieldy to use.

The black armored magic users - Layans, Alys decided - were crouched behind the remains of a small house's wall, hurling their spells. Angling her horse to run parallel to the wall, Alys tossed her slasher then lunged from the saddle, tackling one of the Layans. A bolt of some kind, whether Wren or Layan, hummed past dangerously close to her head.

The Layan was strong, and he tossed Alys away quickly, but the Hunter was on her feet fast and drawing a long bladed knife. Other Hunters had breached the wall at other places and the battle was rapidly becoming a bloody skirmish.

Alys lunged beneath a swing of the Layan's heavy sword and buried her knife in his chest. Drawing it out, she stabbed again, and he fell.

Within moments, the Layans at the wall had been exterminated. Lars, who hadn't dismounted, approached her on his horse, cradling a scavenged Wren blaster one handed. Most of the Hunters frowned on the use of the strange weaponry, and Alys agreed with them. She had never been truly fond of the old world's technology - the few flights she had taken in the Landale had been harrowing experiences.

"Alys," he warned, "there are Wrens circling the tower to come around from behind - but whether they're flanking us or the Espers I don't know. They'll be sandwiched between us. We can carve a path straight through to the tower."

"These aren't Espers," Alys panted. "They're Layans - they must be."

"But why would they be fighting their own Androids?"

* * *

"Tamgren," Rika whispered, "keep an eye on Lant for me, will you?" After his outburst, Lant had retrieved the Sword, and now he was seated in a chair in the corner by the window, not speaking.

When Tamgren nodded, Rika rose and crossed the room to sit next to Daughter.

"I'd…like to thank you, Danielle," she offered, extending her hand. "For Lant. I think I underestimated you." She smiled. "You're a surprising person."

Daughter blinked. "Thank you, Rika. Your opinion means a great deal to me."

"But…last night Tareela mentioned Cyborgs. Do you have any idea what she's talking about?" When Daughter made no move to take Rika's hand, she withdrew it.

"Cyborgs…yes, I recall the reference now. Cyborgs were an experimental form of Android derivative that was designed a few years prior to the Great Collapse. Cyborgs were formed in a process similar to the way Androids were, save that Cyborgs are 'programmed' to perform certain tasks. They are incapable of adapting, applying new knowledge, or expanding their horizons beyond the parameters laid out by their creators. As far as I know, Cyborgs were never implemented in day-to-day life, but were used at the upper levels of the Parman government."

"But Tareela says that the invaders are Cyborgs…"

"That would be logical. Cyborgs can be produced substantially faster then Androids, and they never have second thoughts about their orders. A Cyborg army does not eat, sleep or rest-they simply kill."

* * *

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Lant looked up momentarily at the sound of Tamgren's voice, but then returned to his contemplation of Landen's skyline. "Not especially."

Sighing, Tamgren lowered himself into the chair next to Lant, watching the skyline as well. Several moments of silence passed. "Lant," he said after a moment, "I'm your friend."

"Yeah."

"I want to help you, Lant, we all do. We-"

"The twins don't," Lant's voice was bitter. "Rika won't even talk about dad, and Chaz…I don't know about Chaz, anymore. He's so quiet and whenever he does talk, there's just no emotion in his voice…"

Tamgren pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Rika's always had trouble facing her feelings, Lant. She prefers to pretend they aren't there, most of the time anyway. And she's doing her best to bring us through this crisis…when the time is right, then she'll mourn, and you just have to wait for her on the other side. She'll come around, she always does.

"Chaz…" Tamgren glanced over his shoulder at his old friend, who was reclining in a chair and staring hollowly off into space. "I don't know what's wrong with Chaz. It could be because of your father, Lant. He's going through the same thing you are…all of use are. We're doing our best to see it through."

"You're not," Lant's voice was throaty. "Your father isn't dead."
"I don't know that," Tamgren told him. "I don't know about my family…you're an Ashley, Lant, no matter what your surname is, and Ashley means warrior. But we Aiederns…that's something else entirely. My family wouldn't survive a Wren attack…I just wish…" He trailed off.

"I know, Tamgren."

"Are you sure you don't want to talk about it, Lant?"

Sighing, Lant reached down and lightly ran his finger across the hilt of the Sword, as if tracing some pattern only he could see. "It was like I had turned into rage," he said after a moment. "Just pure hate, and all I wanted to do was…kill Tareela. I'd never wanted anything so much as I did right then." His voice was low, but emotionless, like reciting a part in a play. "I remember thinking about fire, and the next thing I knew, I had attacked Justin…but then Daughter took the Sword away and it all…vanished. It went away like it had never been there.

"I was strong, Tamgren, I was so strong. I disarmed Justin as if he was you…no offense."
"None taken."

"It was the Sword, Tamgren, the Sword did it to me. I don't know why, or how, but when it happened, nothing could have stopped me." Lant's head fell back and he looked up at the ceiling. "I don't want it to ever happen again. It was the worst experience of my life."

* * *

Alys watched as the Wren's pincer attack struck at the Layan's flank, managing to surprise the magic user and inflict heavy losses before they were eradicated. Nearby her stood Lars, cradling the Wren blaster one handed and occasionally throwing a blast into the fray, though whether at Wrens or Layans seemed to be based purely on whimsy. Luckily, the Layans were to busy dealing with the Wrens to worry about the Hunters.

"We need to time the attack precisely," Alys warned, taking a heavy bone horn from where it hung at her belt. "We don't want to have to worry about the Wrens, but we don't want to occupy the Layan's full attention, either."

Lars fired again, idly picking off a Wren that wandered to close to the Hunters, arranged in the ruins of what appeared to be a sizable manor house. His face was lit by the red light of the laser, and he was grinning. He looked devilish and dangerous, despite the cast that was still on his free arm. "Use your judgment, Alys," he told her. "Never steered us wrong before."

A column of air formed at the center of the Wren's formation and began moving through their ranks erratically. Twisted, broken Android forms were tossed high into the air, landing painfully all about. Alys waited several minutes for the column to subside, then blew a single clear note on the horn.

"Charge!"

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