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Chapter 15

"What's Morovin going to do now, Morgan?" Narrel leaned forward to stare into the captive traitor's eyes. A short distance away, Alys and Lars stood, with a small group of Hunters arranged behind them, watching Morgan closely. Nearby three Espers stood as well, maintaining the shield cutting Morgan off from her powers.

Morgan sighed. "I know what you're thinking," she murmured almost inaudibly. "But he won't make for the Esper Mansion - not now. That's not his way. He'll retreat for a while, to lick his wounds and regain his strength." She smiled, catlike. "But he'll come back for me. If nothing else, for me. And when he does, you will pay for your sins!" Her gaze flickered to Alys. "You, especially, Alys Ashley, Protector." Morgan turned the word into an insult. "When Morovin comes, he will tear out your heart!"

Without thinking, Narrel slapped her, knocking her head to the side. When she turned back, her eyes were stormy. "And I will do the honor for you, Speaker Narrel." Again that infuriating cat-grin.

Narrel felt Alys' hand fall upon his shoulder, and he drew aside with her and Lars. "I don't trust her," Alys said bluntly. "I'm a soldier, and I know Morovin will make for the Esper Mansion. Once he has a foothold, he'll strike back." Lars nodded empathetically at that.

Narrel glanced over his shoulder to where Morgan sat, her hands folded primly on her lap, as if she were talking with friends rather than captors. "I'm…not so certain. I've been probing her," Light! but it felt good to have his magic back, "and I don't think she's lying. But she could be masking her emotions."

Lars' brows furrowed. "I thought you said she was sealed."

Narrel nodded. "She is, but mental control comes from within, not spells. I've sent twelve Espers to the Mansion. Once they activate the spells on it they'll become unassailable." He straightened. "And I am afraid this is where we part company."
"Where are you going?" Alys asked.

"New Gumbious, to speak with Tachel N'Par, the Archbishop." Narrel hung his head. "During the fighting, the Eclipse Torch was lost - Morovin escaped with it. I have to go speak with him about it. The Dezolians are deeply religious and a crisis of this sort, improperly handled, could result in a civil war."

"Will you be back?"

"I doubt it. I need to see to the Espers on Dezolis, and also if I can track down Morovin. I'm leaving my Espers in your care-they'll fight with you, for the time being." He extended his hand, shifting the Psycho-Wand to rest comfortably in the crook of his arm. "Good luck, Alys, Lars. The Light be behind you on your journeys."

"Be well, Narrel."

Narrel nodded briskly, turned, and dragged Morgan to her feet. The traitor gave a startled gasp, and, a moment later, the two winked out of existence.

* * *

"I still don't understand your fascination with this place," Justin told her as they entered the museum. "Even as a child, I always found it rather dull."

Rika shrugged, not looking at him. The others - Daughter, Tamgren, Lant, and Chaz - were already starting off down the hall, examining the various exhibits. As always, Lant wore the Sword of Orakio across his back. He seemed to be wearing it more casually now, if with less enthusiasm. "I didn't have as much chance to look around as I might have liked, that's all. Like that," she pointed at a case with a pair of black curtains drawn over it, "what is that?"
"That…that's of no interest." Justin had paled. "It's…"

"Justin?" Nevak's voice came from just behind them. They turned. The elderly Chancellor was standing in the hallway, peering at them. "Could I see you outside for a moment?"
Justin nodded and followed his father out of the room. Rika turned back, noticing the man in black - Arcus, she recalled his name - standing in a corner and observing a painting. Ignoring the major domo, Rika crossed to the display case with the black curtains and drew them aside.

She shrieked a little in shock. Suspended within the case were two perfectly preserved human bodies - a woman and a man. Wait, the man was a Wren - but not with the same dead, pasty appearance of the Cyborgs. This Wren was an Android if ever she knew one.

"Oh," Arcus' voice came from behind her, startling her out of her reverie. "I see you've found Mieu and Wren."

"Who and who?"

"They were Androids who assisted Prince Rhys, Prince Nial, and Prince Adan in their quests. They've been in the family for generations, each person caring for them and seeing them through to their children, on and on." Arcus nodded to himself absently.

"What happened to them?"

Arcus hung his head. "A tragedy, sadly. They rebelled against the queen…indeed, the rebellion of last year was supposedly their doing. The rebellion collapsed, as I'm sure you know, and Mieu and Wren were brought back to Landen in disgrace.

"Everyone expected Tareela to be gentle - as a child, she had adored Mieu and Wren, and they doted on her as they hadn't doted on anyone before - except possibly young Prince Adan, I'm told. But Tareela did quite the opposite. She had their matrices removed and destroyed."

Daughter shrieked. Rika swirled to see her standing nearby, eyes wide open, hands to her mouth. "That's…that's abominable!" Daughter gasped. "Horrifying!" Still stunned, she turned and lurched away.

Arcus' gaze was confused. "What an odd woman. They were, after all, only machines."

Daughter shrieked again, but the sound was drowned out by the doors slamming open. In the doorway, framed by the light cast from the hovering globes, was Tareela, clad in light, obviously ceremonial armor and holding a drawn rapier, which she held with some competence. Flanking her were three men Rika recognized as being from Justin's personal guardsmen, Nevak, and Justin himself. All but Nevak were armed and prepared for combat.

Justin's eyes were dark as he sprinted towards Rika, drawing his sword. Rika blinked at him in surprise, backing away. She heard Arcus running in the other direction.

"What're you doing, Justin?"

"I'm sorry." His first swing came down hard and his blade scraped across the glass of the display case as Rika darted to the side, drawing her own light, bastard sword.

"Justin, stop it!"

"Give Tareela the Sword and I can end this, Rika. If you give her the Sword she won't be interested in you anymore, I swear it. Please, Rika." He advanced, holding his sword in a wary guard.

Rika's eyes hardened. "I'll never give Tareela the Sword. I stand with my brother in all things."
"Then, as my honor commands me…"
"You know, I'm sick of hearing about your damned honor, Justin. Why don't you stop hiding behind honor and just admit that you're Tareela's toady?"
Justin scowled. "Fine. Then, Rika Lain, let us see how strong you really are!" He swung.

* * *

Chaz, standing at the other end of the room, wasn't surprised by the attack as Rika had been. The three men from Justin's guard approached him, Tamgren, and Daughter, fanning out to encircle them. Two drew swords, but one yanked a heavy wooden cudgel from his belt.

His sword sliding cleanly from his sheath, he stepped forward. Tamgren hung back for a moment, then drew his sword hastily. He wielded the weapon with some skill, and Chaz was relatively sure he could handle himself. It was the third man that worried him.

A moment later, a blast of energy slammed into the man's chest, originating from a point somewhere behind Chaz. He heard Daughter's voice. "I have three charges remaining in this weapon. I shall deal with this man hand-to-hand." A split second later, Daughter slipped past Chaz to approach the man who had just been toppled. Chaz saw a small firearm in her hand.

Chaz parried his opponent's thrust in quarte and upwards, deflecting the sword over his shoulder. Before he could do anything more, the guard swung, taking him in the jaw. He toppled, falling into a display showing a picture of Alis Landale the first. The display, and he, struck the ground as one. As Chaz dragged himself to his feet, he noticed he had put his elbow through Alis' head.

* * *

The attack caught Lant almost totally off guard, and the next thing he knew he had been cut off from Rika, Chaz and the others. He found himself isolated in the center of the room, and the next moment, he knew why.

Tareela swaggered in, baring her knitting-needle of a sword with the point extended towards Lant. Her clumsy posture left her exposed in a dozen places, and however great her other graces might be, swordsmanship was not counted amongst them.

"Give me the Sword, Lantamaral."

"No. No." Lant shook his head, backing away until his back was against the display. "I can't."

"I'll kill you."

Lant's hand went over his shoulder and he found the Sword's hilt. He drew it, and, as he spoke, his words seemed to come from a long way off. All he could here was that dull thudding again. "Then I shall defend myself, Tareela."

The Sword sealed to his hand.

* * *

Rika leaned backwards and Justin's blade whistled past her throat, for a moment tossing him off guard. Quickly, she stabbed at his chest, but Justin's return stroke knocked her blade aside.

He was good. He was very good. He was better then she was. And that two-handed job he was using moved with surprising speed for such a big sword.

Their battle and carried them in a circular pattern out into the center of the room, and Rika's back was to the door. Out of her peripheral she could see Nevak, waving his arms and trying to stop the fighting between Tamgren, Chaz, Daughter, and the guards. He wasn't having much luck.

Then she saw Lant.

Immediately her guard dropped and Justin pressed his advantage, forcing her backwards with a series of quick stabs to the chest, which Rika barely parried.

"Justin!" She snarled. "Where's your honor now, Justin? Your queen kills children!"

Justin paused, lowered his guard, then half-turned to see Tareela menacing Lant. "Lant…"

Rika stepped forward, raised her sword, and smacked the pommel smartly down on Justin's head. He stiffened, and his face, as he collapsed, unconscious to the ground, was confused. There was a red spot spreading in his hair where she had struck him. Rika briefly hoped she hadn't done any permanent damage.

Then she jumped over Justin's inert form and raced towards Lant.

* * *

As Chaz got to his feet the man stepped forward and kicked him in the chest, knocking back amongst the already torn display. His sword skittered away from him and, as he groped after it, his adversary raised his sword to strike.

Without thinking, Chaz raised his hand, as if he might ward of the blow. The sword descended and he felt the razor sharp edge touch his hand…

There was screech, like metal on metal, and he felt the blade turn aside off his palm as if it had been made of Laconium. His groping hand found the hilt of his sword and he thrust from his sprawled position, burying the blade in the man's chest as he staggered, off balance from his deflected attack.

Releasing the blade, Chaz watched the man fall. He struggled to his feet, but suddenly his legs wouldn't support him, and he fell amongst the display and didn't try to move until his strength had returned.

That painting was in really bad shape now.

* * *

Raising his sword, Tamgren barely managed to knock aside the skull-shattering blow from the cudgel, and the force of his enemy's swing sent tremors up his arm. He took several steps back.

The big man with the cudgel feinted artfully with the weapon, drawing Tamgren in, then rapped the boy on the shoulder, hard, knocking him to the ground. Reaching down, he grabbed Tamgren and hefted him to his feet, raising the cudgel again.

The man made a sudden noise of surprise as his feet left the ground. He dropped Tamgren and started yelling. The next thing Tamgren knew, the man was flying across the room. He slammed into the wall, slid to the ground, and lay there, stunned. There was a figure behind him.

"Thanks, Danielle," Tamgren said. "Nice toss."

"You would have done the same for me," Daughter responded, shrugging.

Tamgren grinned. "Maybe not the exact same…Thanks."

* * *

Crouching, Tareela made a quick stab which Lant artfully knocked aside. Time had seemed to move to a crawl, as if the Sword was somehow making him move faster, and all Tareela's attacks came in painfully slow. He could see Rika coming, but she wouldn't be there in time. His hands were no longer his own.

The Sword jerked in his fist, deflected the blade, and sent Tareela staggering. "Stop this, Tareela," he commanded. "I don't want to hurt you."

Tareela snarled and lunged once more. "I will have the Sword, boy! It is mine by right! And when I have it, I shall have Algo as well!" She was laughing as she swung.

Lant's arms jerked painfully and there was a shattering sound as the Sword sheared Tareela's blade in half. He felt the Sword draw back, and he tried to fight the inevitable but…

The Sword used it's own momentum to carry itself up over Lant's head. For a moment he stood poised, the Sword held above him, and then the blade descended.

Lant's heart seemed to erupt in his chest, it's staccato beating echoing the thunderous slamming noises emanating from the Sword. A strange, rapturous cry tore through Lant's mind and in his hands he could feel the Sword hungering for blood!

Sword touched flesh and Tareela screamed as it cut down through her shoulder, shearing bone with the same ease as air. Lant screamed, too, though he didn't realize it, a scream of utter fear. Blood fountained from the wound, and the Sword tore deeper into her body, cleaving down impossibly far into Tareela.

The thudding stopped.

He released the hilt.

Tareela Landale, Queen of Landen, lay sprawled on the floor at Lant's feet, in a growing pool of her own blood.

He hadn't meant too. It had been an accident…it was the Sword, not him…he hadn't meant to…

"I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to," he repeated it desperately, over and over again to himself, as a drowning made struggles to stay afloat. He whispered it to himself, as if that one phrase would bring life back into the broken form, close the wound, summon the soul back from wherever it rested to give Tareela life.

He looked down.

He was standing in her blood.

And then Rika was there, drawing him away from the corpse and the Sword, and he remembered very little after that.

He hadn't meant to…

* * *

"By Orakio…"

Rika looked up. Nevak was kneeling next to Tareela's body, stroking her hair and murmuring to himself. Tears were rolling down his cheeks.

He looked up, and his eyes found Rika's, where she was kneeling on the floor next to Lant, who was murmuring incoherently. "She was…she was a sweet child. She shouldn't have ended this way. I helped raise her from a baby…she was always good, generous, kind. What happened? What went wrong? She was like a daughter to me."

Rika swallowed hard. Her throat was dry. "I'm sorry for what you've lost, Nevak."
Nevak sighed, and ran a hand across his eyes. "It's for the best, I'm sure, else," he looked at the Sword and the tears started flowing again, "else Orakio would not have willed it." He rose to his feet. "The Queen is dead." His voice was sonorous now, as if he was making a proclamation. "The Queen is…dead. Until such time as a proper heir can be found, I, Nevak Hondaile, Chancellor of Landen, will rule the Alisa III. This, as custom demands, I do gladly."

"Nevak." Daughter had approached from across the room. "Perhaps now we should recall the Cyborgs?"
"By Laya! Of course! There isn't a moment to lose! Come quickly!" Nevak turned and made for the doorway. A moment later Tamgren, Chaz and Daughter followed.

"Come on, Lant," Rika whispered. "It's time to end it now, we have to go. Then we can go home."
"I didn't mean to," he whispered, looking up in her eyes. It sounded like a plea.

"I know that. I know. I forgive you. Come on." She helped Lant to his feet, and a moment later the museum was empty, except for the dead and the unconscious.

* * *

Tareela's rooms were lavishly decadent, the rich beauty of them offset only by the sizable computer terminal set against one wall, which Nevak approached, sliding into it and dancing his fingers across the keys.

"Tareela's trapped the terminal," he said. "I believe I can bypass it, though. Stay back, please."

"Perhaps I can help?" Daughter asked.

"No." Nevak said shortly. "Please, I need silence."

* * *

It was then that Chaz noticed the strange prickling running up and down his neck.

* * *

Nevak was hurled backwards onto the ground as the terminal exploded. He threw up his hands to guard his eyes as the keypad erupted.

The terminal hadn't been seriously damaged by the explosion, which had been quite small, but the smell of burning metal was hanging in the air. Standing, he tapped a key several times. Nothing happened.

"Damn," he murmured. "The terminal's useless-Tareela's trap is more cunning then I thought. I can't deactivate the invasion from here."

"What do you mean, you can't?" Rika asked, gaping. "There has to be a way…"

"There is," Nevak said grimly. "The master controls at the Central Tower hold the only other remote control for the Cyborgs that there is. We'll have to deactivate them from there."

Daughter sighed, a singularly human gesture that caught Rika off guard. "Perhaps we can communicate with them from here and have them deactivate the Cyborgs?"

"No. The trap Tareela lay also deactivated all communications in and out of Landen. We'll have to go by Land Rover." Nevak sighed and lowered himself into the chair again. A cut above his eye, the only wound he seemed to have sustained, was leaking blood into his eyebrow. He glanced out the window at the deepening night. "Tomorrow, though. We don't want the people to know Tareela is dead-not yet, and the Chancellor sneaking people out of the castle late at night would certainly arouse suspicions."

"What about Arcus?"

"Arcus? Oh, yes. I'll have to confine him to his quarters until it's safe to tell the people Tareela is dead. I don't want to have to worry about a crisis at Landen until the invasion of Algo is safely canceled." Nevak sighed. "Tomorrow, then."

Tomorrow. To Rika, it seemed an eternity away.


* * *

Dinner that night was a silent affair, with them all gathered about a table, eating silently. Justin was there too, sitting as far away from Rika as he could, with a bandage wrapped about his head. Various dignitaries and assembled nobles were there, but Nevak had pleaded off for Tareela, claiming she was ill. Rika found herself sitting between a pair of nobles, while Lant sat up at the head of the table, near Nevak.

About halfway through dinner, shortly after the second course had been served, Rika looked over to Nevak and saw that Lant was absent. She quickly excused herself and walked to the head of the table.

"What happened? Where's Lant?" she asked.

"Lantamaral excused himself several minutes ago. He wasn't feeling well. He's up in his room."

"I think I'll go see him."

* * *

Lant curled up in the chair, drawing his legs up to his stomach, looking out across Landen, pale in the half-light cast by the moon. The nausea he had experienced at dinner had passed quickly. It was probably just his day. He was doing his best not to dwell on it - or on the Sword, lying on a table across the room.

It was almost over. He sighed. What would happen? Not for the first time he wondered about his mother - was she even still alive? Where was she? What was she doing? He sighed. He had thought, that, when it was finally ending, he would be able to think about his father. But his mind reeled away from the task, and even considering it brought tears to his eyes.

Be strong, he told himself, for just a little while more. For Rika's sake.

Someone knocked on the door and Lant started, shivering. The room was cold he realized, and the window had blown open. He rose, crossed the room and slid the window shut, latching it. The knocking came again.

"Just a second," he called. "Who is it?" He got no response. Shrugging, he opened the door.

The man standing on the other side was big, really big, but that was all Lant could perceive in the seconds he had before the man drew back his fist and slammed it into Lant's face.

Lant cried out, stumbling backwards, then falling. As he tried to get to his feet, feeling blood trickle from his nose, the man crossed the room and kicked him in the ribs. Lant yelled in pain as he fell to the ground again.

The next thing he knew he was being dragged to his feet by a strong grip on his hair. He yelled again as he was almost dragged off the ground - as it was, he was on tiptoe. His back was pressed against his attacker's chest, and he could feel the man's breathing on the back of his neck.

"For Tareela," the man muttered, chuckling as if to some private joke. He slammed Lant's face against the wall, then again, and the last thing Lant remembered before darkness descended was crying out once, for Rika.

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