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Chapter 18

"No," Justin murmured, stunned. "I can't believe that…"

Lant stirred a little and Rika felt his body shiver. If Nevak was funding the insurgents then…then he was responsible for Lant. For Lant. She shook her head. "I know how this must be for you, Justin…We'll round up the others and go back to Landen. We'll confront your father directly…"

"I do not think that would be entirely wise," a familiar voice interrupted from the doorway. Rika looked up and saw Daughter framed there, with the forms of Demi and Wren standing just behind her.

"The Chancellor Nevak is a Layan-and by all indications, he is extremely powerful."

* * *

"Chaz," Tamgren called, following his friend through the hallways. "Slow down! Where are we going?"

"The loading bay," Chaz responded without looking at Tamgren. "We're going to Landen. I'm going to kill Nevak." As if that statement alone wasn't chilling enough, it was accompanied by that strange, emotionless edge that Tamgren had thought gone.

"Shouldn't we wait for the others?"

"No."

Tamgren slowed to a stop in the middle of the hall, watching Chaz's retreating back. He shouldn't go-he shouldn't have let it come this far. But it was either that or let Chaz do…whatever he was going to do. He thought back to the mangled corpses that had littered the way to the control room, and the bodies scattered about Chaz as he stood there, and shuddered. Whatever was happening to Chaz, Tamgren didn't want to be on his bad side.

He couldn't just leave Chaz, not in his condition, but what about the others?

He hesitated only a moment. "Chaz, wait up!"

* * *

Demi's hands flew to her mouth as she saw Lant in Rika's arms. Pushing past Daughter, she crossed the room and gently disengaged the stunned Rika from Lant. She touched her hands to Lant's chest and a sudden whirring filled the air. A moment after it began, the whirring sputtered, then slowed to a halt.

"Blast it!" Demi yelled. "I can't make it work while these components are still inside me!"

"Demi?" Rika asked, dazed. "Wren? What are you doing here?"

"That would take too long to explain," Demi replied. She looked helplessly at Lant's body. "What's going on?"

"Chaz and Tamgren are missing," Rika began hurriedly. "Kyra teleported away and we haven't seen her since then and the Elsydeon is gone and…"

"Please try to remain calm," Wren said as he entered the small room behind Daughter. "You will not help the situation through a nervous breakdown, Rika. Daughter has explained much of the situation to us, including the duplicity of this Chancellor, Nevak."

Rika's eyes were wide open as she turned to look at Daughter. "You knew?"

Daughter nodded slowly. Her gaze turned to Justin and she produced her small gun from the holster built into her wrist. Slowly she trained the weapon on him. "Yes. Yes I did."

* * *

The lift activated the moment the doors to the Land Rover closed, but there was no indication anyone had activated it. Somehow Tamgren knew that Chaz had simply willed the lift to move. His friend was literally glowing with power, it hung about him like a miasma.

"Quickly, Tamgren," Chaz ordered, seating himself at the pilot's seat. "Explain why you think Nevak was behind it, quickly, quickly."

Just why Tamgren was to explain it quickly eluded him-it was at least four hour's journey through the tunnel, and another two hours to reach Landen.

"I'd been suspicious of Nevak for a long time," Tamgren told Chaz. "Just a gut instinct with no evidence to prove it. I started to think I was right after we visited the Layan's Sword. When we came back, Justin told us that his father's staff was in charge of overseeing the funds going in and out of the treasury, and that this was done primarily at the Main Tower, where his staff was. Tareela might not have been able to fund the insurgents without anyone realizing, but it would have been easy for Nevak."

He paused as the Land Rover roared to life and began moving down the tunnel. "And back at Landen, Kyra called Nevak a Layan. I didn't realize it at the time, but Nevak is an Orakian-I overheard Justin telling Rika that he was Layan only on his mother's side. That made me think that either Nevak was not who he claimed to be, or that Justin was lying to us. But Kyra knows magic and she wouldn't have made a mistake like that."

"Or both," Chaz interjected.

"Another hint that Nevak wasn't Orakian came when the console exploded. He came through basically unhurt, though none of us were concerned with that at the time. He might have been using magic to protect himself."

"Might?" Chaz scoffed. "You can't prove that Nevak was behind anything, only that he lied to us about his identity."

"There's more," Tamgren snapped. Fumbling at his pocket, he drew out a scrap of paper. "I stole this from Nevak's room when we were getting the command codes. He seemed awfully concerned with getting his papers out of the way, and I was already suspicious, so I took one." He unfolded the paper and spread it on the console before him. "Formulas, Chaz, formulas."

"So?"

"Chaz, you remember when Daughter and I went into Landen before we left for Aridia? We were researching these formulas. Look here." Tamgren pointed to a roughly scrawled symbol, which had been circled in another color. "This is the symbol for the Terminus flower that Justin told us about. The one they used on Lant. That pretty much confirmed my suspicions about Nevak. This formula here is the important one." He pointed to one that was circled. There were some notes scrawled in on the page in another's hand, presumably Tamgren's.

"This formula is incomplete, but if you add this toxin - that's what Daughter and I were researching," he pointed to his own scrawled notes, "it would become a rather interesting little mixture. Look," he pointed again, "this is the symbol for the compound right here. These formulas," he indicated several other variations on the other formula, "would produce an effect similar to what we think he wanted to achieve. But this toxin that Daughter and I found would produce a much more potent, long-lasting effect.

"According to my research, this formula would be poisonous if eaten or smelt in a gaseous form. But when it's added to a liquid, it makes the drinker highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion." Tamgren paused, as if waiting for a response. When none came, he spoke again. "He used it on Tareela, I'll bet anything. You know when we were in Landen, he was always bringing her tea? It must have been part of the suggestion!"

Chaz gave him a skeptical look. Tamgren plowed on despite. "I know it sounds really stupid, but it makes sense. If Nevak could control what Tareela was drinking, he could also control the dosage and exposure to his toxin.

"So what does this tell us about Nevak? Firstly, he's a Layan who doesn't want anybody to realize it. Second, he knows a fair bit about toxins-without Daughter's help, I wouldn't know what I know. Thirdly, he wants Algo destroyed, and he killed Tareela trying to do it. He was responsible for Tareela scrapping the Plan, he was responsible for the invasion-Chaz, since the beginning, it's always been him!"

"Why, Tamgren?"

Tamgren shook his head. "I don't know. But I'm right, Chaz, I'm sure of it. I've never been so sure of anything in my life."

Chaz nodded, and the Land Rover slowed to a stop. Tamgren gave him a quizzical look. The look Chaz returned was no longer hollow, but vicious. "Thank you, Tamgren," Chaz murmured softly, "that's all I needed to know."

* * *

"That is the story, Rika," Daughter said, still pointing her gun at Justin. "In it's entirety."

"Why didn't you tell us that before?" Rika gaped.

"It was never safe. There was always Justin or his men about, and we can't be sure of their loyalties."

Justin scowled. "My loyalties…If my father has betrayed Landen, I will help you to stop him, I swear it."

Rika rose to her feet. Demi was still kneeling on the ground with Lant, desperately trying to make her internal units function. So far, she was having little success. "Justin?" Rika asked slowly.

Justin's eyes turned to meet hers. "Rika," he whispered, almost inaudibly, "you have to believe me. Please, Rika. Please believe me."

Rika's eyes locked with Justin's for a long moment. "I…" she stumbled over her tongue, not knowing what she wanted to say. A moment later, she broke the contact, but as she turned away Justin's face betrayed such hurt and betrayal her heart almost burst. "Daughter, bring him with us. We're going to go shut down the Cyborgs."

* * *

Alys shook her head in despair. "It's the biggest group yet. Looks like the invaders got everything together for one last kick at Algo." Sprawled on her belly on a dune, she passed the binoculars to Lars, lying next to her.

To the north was a gigantic group of Wrens, traveling east slowly but implacably. Straight towards New Mile.

"Damn," Lars breathed. "Where are the Espers?"

Alys gestured towards a stand of trees a little northeast of the Wren group. "There," she said. "Last word I got from Reiko was that they were all ready for the fight. Ready, Lars?" She rose, drawing her sword.

Lars nodded, rose, then raised his blaster and fired three shots into the air. With warcrys that would have sent the blood of human enemies to curdling, the Hunters rose from their places of concealment and charged the Wrens, while Esper magic exploded in the air around them.

* * *

"There don't seem to be any sign of the insurgents," Demi noted as they made their way towards the control room, following Justin's directions.

"They've been routed," a voice replied out of nowhere. There was a flash of light and Kyra appeared, clutching the naked Sword of Orakio in her fist. She looked bedraggled and a little the worse for wear, but still seemed commanding and majestic. "I appeared to them with the Sword-when they saw they had lost whatever power it was supposed to grant them, they ran." She paused. "Most of them, anyway. We should still be careful. Demi, Wren," she greeted the two Androids warmly, sheathing the Sword at her belt. "It's been a long time."

Demi and Wren stepped forward, each clasping one of Kyra's shoulder. "Indeed," Wren replied. "You have greatly changed, Kyra, for the better."

"I've never heard of anyone who found being Lutz bad," Kyra replied, laughing. She impulsively embraced her old friends. "I'm sure there's a story behind this, but there's no time now. The main control room is just ahead. Let's go!"

* * *

Daughter gestured with her pistol towards the control panels. "There is the Cyborg controls, Justin. Please deactivate them now."

Justin's gaze had turned hollow enough to give Chaz's eyes a run for their money. He stoically avoided looking at Rika as he crossed the room to the console and began punching keys. Nearby Wren stood, carrying Lant. Lant had come to momentarily, but had slipped out again-a combination of weariness, pain, hunger and thirst.

Demi, on the other hand, was rummaging around the room, looking for something. A moment later she gave a cry of glee and straightened, swinging a metallic case above her head. "Tools!" she exclaimed, grinning. "Rika, would you take Lant? I'm going to remove the implants in Wren." She gestured for Wren to be seated. "This will only take a moment, Master."

Several minutes passed in silence before Rika spoke. "What are you doing, Justin?"

"I'm trying to break through my father's security locks," he said curtly. "He's sealed the system to me."

Stepping forward, Daughter pushed Justin to one side and lay her gun on the console. "Please watch him, Kyra." She began punching keys so fast her hands appeared to be in two places at the same time. There was a warning buzzer which quickly cut off and Daughter stepped away. "You will find I have deactivated all security protocols. Quickly, Justin, quickly."

"That's done it!" Demi spoke up. Cradled in the palm of her hand was a small round device with several prongs sticking out of it, no bigger then a thumbnail. Demi prodded it experimentally and laughed. "What a fascinating system!" she exclaimed. "I think I'll keep it." She slid the device into a pouch at her belt.

Demi rose and placed on foot on the table top, sliding her skirt up. She touched her leg and a panel popped open on her thigh. Chewing on her bottom lip, she began to work at the device.

"It is good to be free of that implant," Wren chuckled. He approached the console. "That is odd," he said suddenly. "About a half an hour ago, a Land Rover left the Tower through the tunnel."

"The insurgents?" Kyra asked. Demi stood up, drawing the circular implant out of her thigh, grinning.

"No. Chaz and Tamgren. I was able to access the security cameras in the loading bay. They are going to Landen."

"To fight Nevak…" Kyra murmured. "I knew I shouldn't have let him get so far from me! The barriers collapsed!" She swore. "Justin, how is that coming?"

"Almost finished…there!" Justin grinned in satisfaction.

* * *

The blow Alys had intended to shred the Wren's spine passed harmlessly through a shimmering curtain of light that was all the remained of her opponent. All around her, the Wrens were dissolving into thin air, leaving their stunned opponents behind.

A moment passed after the Wrens disappeared, and then someone began to cheer. Within moments, the yell of victory had spread to Hunters and Espers alike, stretching out across the desert.

It was over.

* * *

"That's done it," Justin exclaimed, still grinning. "The deactivation subroutine has been activated and all the Wrens have been transported to Aerone. Here, take a look." Justin tapped a few more keys and an image of a massive room appeared-a room that was slowly filling up with Wrens. A moment later, a voice crackled over the communications systems.

"Main Tower? Main Tower? What in Orakio's name is going on?"

Justin spoke into a microphone. "Nothing, Aerone. The invasion is over."

* * *

A few moments later the small group, with Daughter still watching Justin carefully, entered the loading bay.

"I believe we should tie Justin up and leave him here," Daughter suggested. "He is a liability until such time as we can determine his loyalties."

Justin looked downcast and shamed. "Danielle-or Daughter, whatever your name is…I serve Landen, now. Before, I thought I did…but I was hiding behind my honor, ignoring what I saw and what I knew was right. My father…whomever he is…is a menace to Landen. I will serve Landen, Danielle, even if that means killing my father. I'm not going to hide any more."

"What happened to your honor?" Rika asked sarcastically.

Justin looked up, green eyes sad. "You are my honor, Rika. I love you."

Rika sighed and a long moment passed in silence. Rika half expected Kyra, or Demi, or Wren, to step in and take charge. She didn't want to be the leader! Her eyes, of their own volition, found Justin's, and she remembered the passionate moment they had shared, the sincerity of his voice, the feel of his body against hers, his devotion to honor… "Get aboard the Land Rover, Justin."

A few minutes later, the lift lurched into place and Justin started the Land Rover off down the tunnel. Rika turned to Kyra. "Okay, Kyra, tell all. What happened to Chaz, and what's happening now?"

Kyra sighed and scrubbed her hand across her chin and through her hair, thinking. "Chaz…Your brother has enormous magical potential, Rika, stronger then I have ever seen. Most people with dormant magical power live their lives unaware of it, not knowing they could be something much larger. But Chaz is so incredibly strong his power has begun bubbling to the surface."

"Why?"

"To be frank, I think it's a combination of strong emotion and hormones. His power just bursts every now and then. But he's not equipped to handle his power and it's driving him insane. Now it seems he may have gone totally over the edge-I don't know what he'll do and, to he honest, I don't think I could survive a pitched battle with him long enough to subdue him."

Rika sighed. Demi was seated nearby, working her healing expertise on Lant-she had found a survival kit in the Land Rover and was force feeding him the water and rations therein. Lant had been sick once, but had come around several times since Demi began her ministrations. Wren and Justin were piloting the Land Rover-as yet Justin had refrained from asking about their new companions. "I've heard of a few isolated cases of wild magic like that," Demi told them. "Rune Walsh, for one…Lutz himself was said to have been wild. If it does turn into a battle…" she trailed off.

"You…you think it might come to that?"

Kyra began to shake her head, then sighed. "I don't know, Rika, I just don't know."

* * *

"There are no Wrens anywhere?" Alys gaped. Reiko, the Stead Narrel had appointed, shook her head.

"Not so far as we can tell. I've spread people all over Motavia and Dezolis both, but there's no sign that the invasion force was ever here. Whatever happened, it happened fast, and universally to all the Wrens in Algo." Reiko shrugged and shook her head. "I don't understand it, Head Lain. It's as if…" She paused. "I think the invasion is over, Head Lain."

* * *

"Hey…" Justin said a few minutes later, "what's that up ahead?"

A short distance in front of them the tunnel curved to the right, and lying in the bend, sprawled off to one side, was the familiar figure of Tamgren. He was lying spread eagled on the ground, but appeared unhurt as Rika leapt from the Land Rover to go to him. His eyes fluttered at her touch and he looked at her.

"Rika…" he whispered. "It was Chaz…he hit me with something…in my head, and I blacked out." Urgently, he grasped her forearm. "It's Nevak, Rika, Nevak! Be careful…Justin too…"

Kyra slipped past Rika and lay her hand on Tamgren's forehead much the same way she had done to Chaz. "Some mild mental shock," she noted clinically, "just enough to stun. What happened?"

"I told Chaz about Nevak, and the next thing I knew he had turned to me. He said something weird…I don't remember what, and then there was this awful pain in my head. I blacked out, and the next thing I knew, you two were here." He shook his head. "What's happening to Chaz?"

Kyra gently helped Tamgren to his feet. "Can you walk?" she asked. When Tamgren nodded, she began guiding him to the Land Rover with a gentle grip on his arm, quickly explaining what was going on.

* * *

A little while later, as they continued down the tunnel, Justin asked how much of a head start Chaz had on them.

"A good hour, I'd guess," Tamgren said, rubbing his forehead. "I don't know what's happened to him but…he's really dangerous. What's he capable of?"

"I don't know," Kyra replied. "Wild magic like Chaz has available to him isn't usually predictable-that he was able to focus it enough to perform even something as basic as a thought-whip says a lot about his power. We'll have to be careful, but we have no choice. We have to stop him, and stop Nevak."

* * *

They couldn't see him. They couldn't hear him. With the Power behind him, Chaz moved through Landen castle like a ghost. He wasn't really sure how he had accomplished that, but it was good. Nevak would die. Chaz would strangle him with invisible hands, until all the life was gone from his body. Chaz would enjoy that, oh yes, he would enjoy it very much.

There were Nevak's quarters ahead. Chaz wanted to laugh-he would repay in full everything that Nevak had done to Lant.

It made sense now. Tamgren had been right. His theories had caused all sorts of little pieces to fall into place. Of course Nevak had always been behind it. Nevak was cunning. But he was no match for the Power.

The doors slid open and Chaz stepped into Nevak's rooms, shedding the Power made cloak and becoming visible and audible again. The room seemed empty, but there was a tingle going up and down Chaz's spine.

"You show remarkable skill, Chaz Lain."

Nevak's figure shimmered into existence across the room from Chaz, he too shedding a cloak like the one Chaz had worn. His body seemed to glow with the Power, and for a moment Chaz felt real fear. It was eclipsed by the ecstasy of the Power, and vanished.

"Remarkable skill indeed, perhaps greater then I even though possible." Nevak chuckled.

Without thinking, Chaz flung out one palm and a ball of flame gathered in his fist, then erupted forward towards Nevak. Rising, Nevak batted at the fireball the way one might bat a fly. At Nevak's touch, the Power dissipated. Chaz reeled as his spell was crushed, collapsing to his knees.

"You are strong," Nevak told him with a trace of vague amusement. "Given a t'santari, you might have beaten me, or even Morovin. But you are no Esper, and I am." Nevak seized him by his shoulder and drew Chaz to his feet. Bringing Chaz's face close to his, Nevak hissed. "You will pay for your foolishness, boy."

A force of enormous power slammed into Chaz, hurling him across the room. Sensing him, the doors hissed open, but not fast enough. Chaz felt his shoulder slam into the doorway and heard bones snap. He slammed into the far wall just outside Nevak's room and lay still.

"Kyra is an imbecile," Nevak snarled, approaching Chaz. His appearance was altering now, running like wax. "She thought erecting barriers around your power would solve the problem. But she wasn't strong enough. Not to hold you. It's a pity that I must destroy such great power."

"Nevak, stop!"

* * *

"Nevak, stop!" Kyra cried out the command in a ringing voice as she and the others approached Chaz and Nevak. Chaz wasn't moving, though his body seemed to be straining. Nevak was holding him by magic, Rika realized.

Nevak turned towards them and Rika stifled a gasp. His features were changing even as he spoke, warping like clay into the features of a taller, stronger, younger man. The man ran a hand through his locks of raven hair, laughing as night black armor formed around his body. "Ah, Kyra. Such a pleasure to see you."

"Who are you?"

The man bowed with a cynical flourish, seemingly unconcerned that he might be attacked in his moment of vulnerability. Kyra didn't move. "I," the man declared grandly, "am Tamerus Covalle of the Chosen Espers. Second to Morovin Lan'Tearin, the Archlord himself, destroyer of Algo, and avenger of the Darkness itself." His wicked smile widened. "It will give me pleasure to destroy so many Protectors this day."

"I am afraid, Tamerus Covalle of the Dark Ones," Kyra snarled, "that we will not die easily." A moment later, a flare of white light enveloped Tamerus, and he vanished from view. Suddenly, Kyra cried out, clutching at her head, and the flare vanished. Tamerus stepped forward, toying with a ring on his finger.

"Do you see this?" Tamerus held up the hand upon which he wore his ring. "It is t'santari crystal, and it has the singular power of magnifying magical energy. As long as I wear it, I'm stronger then you, or any of your toadies, can ever hope to be, Kyra. You can't stop me," Tamerus laughed. "I'm going to-" For a moment his face was lit in absolute terror. A shadow passed over Rika and the next thing she knew, the Dragon had hurled itself upon the black armored man, burying it's teeth into his armor and shredding it like paper.

Tamerus screamed and there was a flash of fire nearby the Dragon that hurled it off of Tamerus' chest. In mid flight the Dragon shapeshifted, and Justin collapsed limply to the ground.

"The fool boy," Tamerus exalted. "Had he acted sooner, he might have stopped me. But now, I will kill you all." Blood was pouring from the wound Justin had torn in Tamerus' shoulder, flowing down across the black robes. Behind him, Chaz strained uselessly at the binding spell holding him.

"Wait!" Rika shouted. Tamerus halted in surprise, and his gaze fell upon her for the first time.

"Freak," he whispered, still smiling. "What do you want?" His fingers toyed with the ring at his finger idly, the way a cat toyed with string.

Or prey.

"I wanted to give you something," Rika said, trying to sound meek. "If you'll…spare my life." Her hand snaked out and seized the hilt of the Sword of Orakio, drawing it away from Kyra before the Esper could react.

The hilt of the weapon was chill to her fingertips, and heavy, with the texture of stone. The point dipped as she tried to raise it-how in the Light had Lant ever wielded the thing?

Kyra made a grab for the Sword, too stunned by Rika's sudden duplicity to try magic, but then Chaz screamed. Tamerus smiled a thin, sickly smile. "Let her be, Kyra, or I'll kill him." He extended his hand. "Give me the Sword, child."

"Rika," Tamgren cried out, "don't!"

Half-turning, Rika snarled at her old friends. "I'm tired of fighting! I'm going to end it here and now." She took the Sword carefully by it's black blade and extended the hilt towards Tamerus.

"Excellent," Tamerus cooed. He extended one hand and carefully wrapped his fist around the Sword's hilt. Yanking it away from Rika, he began to laugh in triumph. "Yes! Yes! Morovin, you fool-I'm going to hunt you down! I will be the Archlord! Me! Tamerus!"

The blow came so fast Tamerus never saw it coming. Rika's hand dipped to her side and drew forth her own sword, her Numan blood moving faster then any true human could. The blade was already striking as it was drawn-Rika brought it upwards and across in a vicious arc.

An arc that severed Tamerus' wrist at his moment of weakness. The blade-Laconium, and razor sharp-cut through Tamerus' arm like it wasn't there. His cry of triumph became a scream of pain as the hand that had both clutched the Sword and worn the t'santari ring struck the ground, gushing blood.

Drawing his severed limb in towards his chest, Tamerus doubled over, tears of pain pouring down his cheeks. Tossing her sword away, Rika dove to the side with a cry of "Now!"

Tamerus looked up a moment before Kyra's fireball struck.

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