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Chapter 16

There was a man standing outside Lant's room, Rika noticed as she rounded the corner. The next thing she heard was her brother crying out her name. The next thing she knew, a second man raced out of Lant's room, bearing Lant slung over one shoulder, and in his hand, he held the sheathed Sword of Orakio.

"Lant!" Rika screamed. The first man spun and, seeing her, drew a long knife. The man who was kidnapping her brother was racing down the hallway in the opposite direction. "Come back!" She was unarmed, but she charged the larger man without thinking.

The man deflected a kick Rika aimed at his throat and as she stumbled, off balance, he swept her other foot out from underneath her, knocking her to the ground. The man rose his knife.

Then Justin was there, sliding between the knife and it's target and artfully knocking it aside. "Go!" He yelled, tossing Rika a dagger from his belt. Rika grasped the weapon and darted past the duelists after her brother.

"Help me!" she screamed as she ran. Tears were brimming in her eyes, tears of fear, of shame, of anger. It was happening again! Why couldn't she keep him safe? "Help me, please!"

And then a very odd thing happened.

A snowy white owl appeared, flying beside her. There was a flash of light and the owl, which had seemingly appeared out of thin air, became a cloaked woman - one which Rika recognized from the night before.

"This way!" the woman cried, in an oddly familiar voice, gesturing down a side-passage. "They're making for the gates! Hurry, Rika, I'll meet you there!" There was a second flare of light, and the woman vanished.

Tunnels, passages, faces, all blurred as Rika raced through Landen castle, not aware of where she was going, really, only that she had to be outside. The gates. The gates.

This time, she would hold on.

She had to.

* * *

Justin saw Rika fall, and the next thing he knew he had stepped between her and her opponent, tossing her a dagger with one hand and parrying with the other. He could see Lant's abductor rushing off in the distance.

As soon as Rika was away from the battle, Justin gave ground, drawing back. His opponent followed slowly, drawing another long knife. Both were curved and wickedly serrated. Elysian make, if he knew weapons, and he did. Vicious, precise weaponry indeed. Dangerous, when you were using a slower weapon. He would have to be careful.

A second man emerged from the corridor farther down, but not the man who had taken Lant. This man was slender and whiplike, with a hooked nose that dominated his face. He had a bared shortsword in his hand, stained with blood. Seeing Justin, he snarled and joined his companion. The fanned out to encircle Justin.

Feinting towards the larger man, Justin crouched and sprang towards the new arrival, slamming his weight against his opponent and at the same time burying his sword up to the hilt in the man's chest. Almost immediately, fire tore through his shoulder and Justin slumped to the ground with the corpse, feeling the other man draw free his dagger to strike again.

Justin snarled an almost bestial growl, and his body began to expand.

* * *

The dim moonlight and the dampness of the air, threatening rain, hardly registered for Rika as she raced out into the courtyard. There was the man ahead of her, her brother's limp form slung over his shoulder. If he got into the city she would never find him!

"Lant!" she screamed. Tears were pouring down her cheeks. She was going to lose them…she was failing him again…

There was a flash of light to one side of the gate and the woman appeared, her hood down and blue hair chaotic in the wind. Her hands were glowing with blue fire and she raised them above her head.

For a moment, green light surrounded the man, and his actions slowed, appearing as if he was struggling through water. Then he cried something out, barely coherent, and the light flickered, then dissolved. He slammed full body into the woman, and she was hurled to the ground. Then Rika was past the fallen woman, following them into the darkened streets of Landen, screaming her brother's name.

The woman half rose, propping herself on her elbow. "Rika, no!" she cried out, but her call was ignored, and Rika was gone.

* * *

Light came, seeping that unknown way through the Alisa III, its light mirrored by the Algolian sun blazing through the clouds. There was a figure huddled against the gates, with her legs drawn up to her chest and her head lying on her knees. Her body shook with sobs.

"Are you all right, Rika?" The voice, dimly remembered, pierced Rika's sadness. "It's me, Kyra. Are you okay?" She heard the woman drop into a crouch beside her.

"I couldn't hold on," Rika murmured.

"You did your best, Rika, and that's all we can ask. I promise you, I'll make this right."

"It was my job. I should have been there."

"You can't. And you can't expect to be." There was a pause, and Rika felt an almost soothing touch upon her mind. "We'll find him, Rika, I swear it." Consciousness vanished beneath that touch, and Rika slept.

* * *

"I didn't realize that he was a Layan when I tried to stop him," the voice said. Rika slid along the outer edge of consciousness, not really awake. The voice, Kyra's voice, dimly registered in her mind. "You have to weave the spell differently to bind a Layan or an Esper then someone with no skill. He shook my spell off very easily and caught me off guard."

"Do you have any idea who did it?" Tamgren's voice. Rika stirred.

"No, I-Rika? Are you awake?"

Rika shook her head slowly and then opened her eyes. She was lying on her bed in her room in Landen, with Justin, Nevak, Tamgren, Chaz, Daughter, and Kyra sitting nearby. For a moment she almost asked where Lant was, then remembrance, bitter recollection, came to her.

"Did you…find him?" she whispered.

Kyra shook her head sadly. "No. There was someone helping to mask the Layan-someone very strong. I couldn't track the Layan, Lant, or the Elsydeon."

"The Sword," Nevak corrected. "I am curious, Lady Kyra, as to your identity? You have evaded the question until now, but I am afraid I must insist."

Rika noticed that Justin was looking rather pale and there was a bandage wrapped around his shoulder to match the one on his head. Had he not looked so wan, he might have appeared rather comical.

Kyra sighed. She was still clad in the nondescript brown and gray that she had been in the last time Rika had seen her - how long had she been following them? "I am Kyra Tierney, Most Reverent Fifth Chosen of the Espers. I have come aboard your ship with a twofold purpose. Firstly, I tracked the sacred sword, Elsydeon-"

"The Sword of Orakio," Nevak corrected.

"The Elsydeon," Kyra ignored him, "to your ship. I came to retrieve it. I also came to put a stop to your invasion force, by any means necessary." She raised an imperious hand to cut off Justin, who seemed about to speak. "I am aware of the situation on the ship, and also that Landen's communication system is currently non-functional as a result of Tareela's death. I am aware that the only place the Cyborgs can now be withdrawn from is what you call the Main Tower.

"Normally, I would take you, Chancellor Nevak, and magically Jump to the Tower, but since I have been aboard the Alisa III I have been in constant struggle with a magical power of some kind. Someone on board the Alisa III is aware of my presence, and is working to mask my powers. They appear to have some means to augment their magical abilities and are sufficiently stronger than I.

"Now it also appears that young Lant has become a target as well, and now my task becomes threefold. I must stop the invasion, rescue Lant, and safely transport the Elsydeon back to Esper Mansion."

Nevak blinked as if not sure the long speech had wound to a stop. "I have," he said after a moment, "heard tales of the being called Lutz. It is an honor to meet such a legendary figure. I understood, however, that Lutz was male."

Kyra chuckled. "That is the way of myths."

"I shall be honored," he continued, "to aid you in any way."

Rika shook her head again-it was finally starting to shake off Kyra's sleep spell. "Kyra, who took Lant?" She had only met Kyra a couple of times, as her mother and Lutz seemed to be on perpetually shaky ground. Kyra always seemed to be stepping on eggshells when Alys was nearby.

Justin coughed. "I believe I can answer that. We searched through the remains," he stressed 'remains', seemingly unintentionally, and shivered, "of the attackers and discovered that their weapons, though Elysian make, were government issue. It appears Lant-and the Sword-have been abducted by the political insurgents."

Tamgren blinked. "That's…strange. How did they get word of Tareela's death so fast?"

"Arcus," Nevak said. "He was a sympathizer, I have no doubt. He's dead, now, the insurgents killed him. But we found several letters in his own hand detailing palace happenings. According to what we could unearth, he'd been dropping these letters off to another agent within the castle, who transported them to wherever the rebels are."

"Chaz?" Kyra said suddenly. "Do you have anything to add?"

Chaz turned slowly to regard Kyra. "No," he replied flatly.

Kyra rose and crossed the room towards him, then lay her hand flat on his forehead, as if checking his temperature. Chaz reached for the hand on his forehead, then froze, and stiffened. A shudder convulsed his body and he gasped.

"How about now?" Kyra asked, withdrawing her hand.

"I…I think we should deactivate the Cyborgs first, and see if we can get in contact with Algo-in particular the Espers and my mother, Alys Lain. We can bring them aboard and help us track down the insurgents-and Lant and the Sword." His voice was slow, as if he was shaking off some deep lethargy, but for the first time in a while, there was life in it. His gaze, as he looked at Kyra, was slightly confused. "Yeah, that'd be best, I think."

Justin nodded. "That's sound. But wait, there's more." He sighed. "We found a paste, or gel, of some kind, congealing on Lant's food. We've identified it as a toxin, a weak one, made from the juice of a particular Terminus flower. It creates a temporary, but intense, sense of nausea."

"They must have used that on him!" Rika gasped. "To get him into his room!"

"Yes," Nevak nodded. "We're interrogating the kitchen staff and we've removed them all from duty." He shook his head wryly. "I'm to old for this." Chuckling, he sipped at cup of mulled wine cradled in his hand. Then he turned grave once more. "I can't leave Landen readily without arousing suspicions. The last thing we want is word of Tareela's death getting out-in the chaos, we'd never find Lant. Therefore, I propose this.

"Tomorrow, you all, and Lady Kyra, if you so choose, will travel by Land Rover to the Main Tower with Justin. I'll give Justin the control codes that will deactivate and withdraw the Cyborgs. Once you get there, you can recall the invasion force and then we'll search for Lant."

Kyra nodded curtly. "Excellent. Perhaps we should find a private area where you can give us the codes?"

"Yes, of course. My own copy of the codes are in my quarters-you may use those. Come."

* * *

Several minutes later the small party entered Nevak's large chambers, which adjoined Tareela's. In the sitting room was a desk, piled high and surrounded with scraps of paper, which Nevak immediately proceeded to gather up and throw out.

"Excuse the mess," he said, sounding a little embarrassed. "I rarely entertain."

As they seated themselves, Nevak unlocked and opened a drawer in his desk, drawing out a box carved with various runes. He touched his hand to the lid and it unlocked with a click. Opening it, he drew forth a piece of paper and handed it towards Justin.

"The codes," he stated simply. "Show them to my staff at the Tower and they'll see that the Cyborgs are recalled."

"Thanks, Nevak," Rika said. "I know how hard this time must be for you…"

Nevak's eyes became sad. "I think I knew that it was bound to happen, sooner or later. It's better this way, Rika. Tareela's demons are at peace, and now there can be peace with Algo. But…she was always such a sweet child. I just wish I knew what went wrong." He smiled wistfully. "But enough of that. You must prepare for your journeys, and I must draw up the necessary paperwork that will grant you access to Aridia. Go, go…Justin, find someone to show Lady Kyra to a room, please."

After they had all gone, Nevak lowered himself into a chair and sat gazing at a portrait of Tareela and her parents. Tareela was still just a child in the picture, without the dark cast to her face and soul.

He sat gazing at that painting for a very long time, not moving.

* * *

"Chaz?" Rika asked as they walked through the hallways towards their rooms. "How do you feel?"

Chaz looked at her, cocking his head in thought. His eyes had more life in them then she'd seen in a long while. "I feel…I don't know, odd. It's like Kyra just reached out and brushed away this fog all around me." He made a waving gesture across his face to emphasize his point. "Since…since the Land Rover was attacked, I guess, I've just felt so…detached, as if nothing mattered. I still don't understand what happened-is happening-to me."

"Kyra seems to understand," Tamgren offered. "We'll have to talk with her about it later."

They had arrived at their quarters. By common, unspoken consensus, they entered Rika's room. Kyra was seated on a chair, sipping tea, and Justin was seated nearby.

"Ah," Kyra spoke as if she was inviting guests in, "come in and sit down. Thank you Justin, that will be all."

Justin's eyes widened in shock at the preemptory command, but rose and walked out.

"Kyra, just how long have you been following us?" Rika asked as she sat. Her voice held more calm then she suspected she had.

"Since I realized you were aboard. I know what you're thinking, but I had to stay in hiding. The Layans would recognize me from an earlier slip on my part, and I couldn't risk an all-out conflict while I was still struggling with this alien power. The power being employed against me has reduced considerably since Tareela's death, but it's still there, blocking my Jumps and communication attempts. On several occasions my Espers have tried to get through to me, but they're being cut off as well. That Layan man," Kyra said, changing the subject, "what's his name-Nevak? He certainly seems intelligent enough. What sort of person is he?"

"The Chancellor?" Daughter asked. "I have begun compiling a psychological profile. Would you care to listen to my observations?"

"Just who are you, anyway?"

Tamgren stepped in. "Daughter, Kyra. It's Daughter in an Android body. We were keeping her identity secret-she's been calling herself 'Danielle Vahal'. I suppose there's no need for that now, right?"

"I think," Daughter said quickly, "that is would be best to maintain the deception…I…" she seemed a little harried suddenly. "I would not much like to endanger myself through carelessness."

"I can understand that," Kyra said. Her gaze turned suddenly to Chaz. "How do you feel?"

"Different," he said slowly. "Real different. It's like I had been in pain so long I'd forgotten the pain was there, and I only realized how much I had hurt when it was gone. What happened to me?"

"I think," Kyra replied, "that it is more important for me to keep that to myself for the moment. I think you'll understand my reasoning eventually."

"Kyra, how are we going to find Lant?" Rika asked suddenly. It was odd how quickly everyone had begun to defer to the Esper. Rika though wryly of Chaz's previous analogy - whatever leader she had been, the burden was gone now, and only now she realized how heavy it had been.

"Chaz's plan was probably the best. I have no doubt from the information I've gathered, that the power I've been fighting with is tied to the insurgents. If we find them, we find whoever is blocking my powers, and then we'll be able to bring the Espers and Hunters aboard. We can work with the Orakians and the Layans to restore peace and find your brother. I know you're worried, but it's more important now to stop the invasion."

Rika nodded numbly. She could understand that, but not…all that she could think about was that Lant was gone. She had failed him again.

"I have to go. I suppose that nice young man - Justin? - is still waiting for me." Kyra sighed. "I'm not all that fond of servants, but I'd hate to prevent him from doing his job." Kyra had swept out of the room before anyone had a chance to correct him.

For a moment, Rika thought about stopping her and telling her who Justin was, but then decided against. For whatever reason, there was a degree of fierce satisfaction behind imagining what sort of things Kyra would say.

* * *

"Tamgren and Daughter went into Landen?" Rika gaped at Chaz, then let her gaze move out the window of her brother's room, checking the position of the sun. Not quite noon. "But we're leaving for the Main Tower in less then an hour!"

"I know, but I only heard it from the new head butler an hour or so after they'd gone." Chaz sighed. "I can't believe he'd be so irresponsible!"

"Let's go get them," Rika sighed resignedly. "Get your coat - we don't want to be late."

* * *

Tamgren, as it turned out, had taken Daughter and gone to the library. When Rika and Chaz found him he was hunched at a table in the library's dim light, comparing a crumpled piece of paper to something in a book.

"Tamgren," Rika snapped, laying a hand on his shoulder. "What are you doing?"

Tamgren started in surprise and slammed the book shut, obscuring the cover with his hand. Rika wasn't concerned with that at the time, though. She could hear Chaz approaching with Daughter in tow. "Nothing, Rika," he stammered, shoving the paper into his pocket. "I just lost track of time - I wanted to get another look at the city is all. Sorry."

Rika smiled a little and clasped her friend's shoulder. "It's okay. If we hurry back to the castle, we can still be on time. Just come on!"

* * *

The Land Rover they were to take to Aridia was a considerably different machine then the one they had taken out of the machine center. It was built lower to the ground, and wider, like a tank, and lacking the tail fins. It's architecture was more blocky then the Algolian model, too.

Nevak had some parting words, mostly diplomatic fluff and a few words of concern to his son. Within a few moments, the oddly mismatched group of Rika, Chaz, Tamgren, Justin, and Kyra, was on their way to Aridia.

Desert world, uninhabitable, Main Tower-all this and more was flying through Rika's head as the Land Rover rumbled to life and sped off across the plains of Landen. And end to the war, and end to the fighting, and end to the deaths. They would find Lant, and they would go home.

The beginning of the end.

And almost anything seemed possible.

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