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Chapter 7

Lant's entire body was sore. He groaned and turned onto his side, trying to get comfortable on his bed, banish his insomnia. A sweet, wet smell reached his nostrils, and he sniffed the air gently, eyes closed. Grass?

Lant opened his eyes and gasped in shock. He, Tamgren, Daughter, Rika and Chaz were lying in a grassy field scattered with shrapnel and shredded metal - the remains of the shuttle! Everyone else seemed to be asleep.

Then he remembered - they had been flying to Zelan and suddenly everyone had been yelling. There had been a flash of light, and then a terrible pressure all around him and he couldn't breath and…He shook himself free of the reverie, trembling in fear.

Suddenly, his thoughts went to the magnificent sword still attached to his pack. Giving the others - all asleep, still - a guilty look, he jogged over to where his pack lay, unharmed, in the ground. Quickly, he grasped the canvas wrapper and prepared to draw it free. He gasped. The wrapper was warm to the touch!

"Lant!" Rika cried suddenly, sitting bolt upright. "Lant!"

"Rika?" Lant called gently. Her head snapped towards him, her eyes wild.

"Oh, God! Lant!" She was on her feet and then she had crossed the field to him. She grasped him and pulled him close in a rough embrace. He realized that Rika was crying.

"What's happening?"

"Huh?"

"This is most strange…"

Rika exhaled sharply, released Lant, and angrily dashed her tears away with the back of her hand as the others began to speak.

"Rika?" Lant asked. "Are you all right?"

"Not now, Lant. Later." Her voice became suddenly distant. She turned to look at the others, all sitting up.

Daughter had risen and was patting herself down. "I appear to be fully functional in every respect. What exactly is going on? I recall that the Alisa III fired on us."

"It did fire on us!" Tamgren confirmed. "I remember the heat from the blast, seeing the shuttle getting split in half - I remember this feeling…I couldn't breath!"

"So why aren't we dead?" Chaz grinned bitterly. "Explain that." He gingerly pinched himself. He winced. "I'm alive."

"Where are we?" Lant asked.

Daughter's brow furrowed in concentration. "It is difficult for me to get an accurate reading, but according to my scans, we are roughly one thousand kilometers from our original location. We should be in deep space, which leaves only one possible alternative."

"We're aboard this ship," Tamgren said. "This Alisa III."

Daughter nodded. "Precisely. I lack schematics of the Alisa III, so it is impossible to narrow our location down any further then that. Unfortunately, Alisa III is quite large, consisting of seven biodomes linked in a circular pattern. It will be difficult to estimate our location."

"I saw it," Rika interjected, "right before it fired. It's massive!"

"They killed dad," Lant exclaimed brokenly.

"Not now, Lant!" Rika snapped at him furiously. "Not now!" Lant gave a startled gasp and forced himself into silence.

"Rika…" Tamgren said slowly. "It's okay…"

"I'm fine," she hissed. "Daughter, can you telescope your vision the way Demi can? It'd be nice to have a lay of the land available."

"That was one of the earliest forms of optional internal systems configured into my matrix housing, yes." Daughter's eyes went blank, then began to glow with a green light. She slowly turned a full circle. "I have no explanation as to how we might have come here. I do not suppose the rest of you have any thoughts?" When no one spoke up, Daughter shrugged. Then, "Wait. There appears to be a large city of some sort to the north of us. There also appears to be one of the large towers rising from it's center. Otherwise, this area of the biodome would appear to be rather sparse."

"Whatever it was that brought us here," Chaz put in suddenly, "it healed my foot." He raised up his one bare foot and leg, and showed nothing but tender pink skin where the wound had been. "Daughter said that machine wouldn't take it's full affect for several more hours."

"We don't know how long we were out," Rika pointed out. "We should head for that city. Any objections?"

"I have none. It is the logical course."

Tamgren nodded.

"Whatever you want, Rika. We don't have anything better to do, and no supplies."

Lant sighed. "Yes, Rika."

Rika's gaze lingered on Lant the longest. She opened her mouth to speak, to apologize, anything to make him feel better, but then she felt herself losing control. She forced her emotions aside. "Good. Daughter, you lead. I'll bring up the rear."

* * *

Rika watched Lant slide his pack gingerly up his shoulder, saw the others do the same. Her gaze fell once more upon her younger brother. She closed her eyes, and she could see him being drawn out of the shuttle, his backdrop the coldness of space. She shivered. The next time, she would not let go.

* * *

Tamgren watched Chaz as he fell in behind Daughter. His friend seemed to be as he had been - whatever had happened on the shuttle, it was over now. He decided to keep that to himself, for now. He didn't fully understand half of what was going on, and Tamgren disliked situations getting out of hand before he had a complete grasp of it. At least he could try to understand Chaz's part in this adventure before letting that get out of hand.

* * *

Kyra's senses reeled suddenly, and she was literally staggered by the force of the sudden magical pulse. As she regained her balance, she extended her magic outwards in every direction, probing for where the eruption of magic was strongest. It steadily gained in strength, passing upwards, out of Dezolis' atmosphere, reaching for…

She gasped.

It's source was easily recognizable to her now that her powers could touch it's point of origin. Elsydeon. And it was aboard the alien craft. Somehow, the thief was allied with the invaders. That suited her purpose nicely - she wanted nothing more then to retrieve the sacred sword, and with Espers now on Dezolis…

Narrel?

Stupid man…I mean, yes, Reverent One?

I have found Elsydeon. It is aboard the invader's craft.

Elsydeon! But how, Reverent Lutz?

I don't know, Narrel. But I can follow the burst of power it just emitted - the Psycho-Wand and the residual energy will help me make a Jump of the necessary length. I'm going aboard the ship, bringing Elsydeon back, and stopping the invasion if I can. I'll leave the Eclipse Torch in the Mansion. Good luck, Narrel.

And to you, Reverent One.

* * *

All around Narrel were the sounds of battle.

The long night had ended, and with the dawn had come Kyra's rather cryptic message. Now the sun had risen and hung above the horizon, the temperature rising to meet that of the day before.

The Espers had been ambushed as they passed through a forested grove on the way to lift the siege on Piata. Wrens seemed to materialize in the trees around, screaming battle cries as they opened fire upon the Espers.

A huge explosion rocked the ground next to the Esper leader as he desperately tried to rally the Espers around him. He cried out as he was flung through the air and slammed against a tree and the world turned red. As he slowly sat up, he felt the gentle probe of someone touching his mind.

You're alive. Good.

Narrel half nodded before realizing how silly that must look. Yes, Tarik, I'm fine. What's the condition?

I've spotted some of the Wrens closing in on our eastern flank to cut off our retreat. I'll rally Cullus and Orai and head to cut them off.

I'll join you there and help you.

Good. We'll hold for as long as we can, Speaker, but you, me, Cullus and Orai really won't be enough.

We can only do so much, Tarik.

Quickly, Narrel broke the contact with the former Speaker and rose, tightening his grip upon his long, slender staff. He found Tarik's mind and locked onto it, then Jumped to the other Esper's location.

The place Narrel jumped to was not where he had expected to land at all. He could hear the sounds of battle off to his left - but fairly distant as well. How far had Tarik and the others been when the battle started? Even stranger, none of the other three Espers were anywhere in sight - nor any Wrens.

Narrel quickly tried to regain contact with Tarik, but something was intentionally blocking his probe. Narrel's brow furrowed, then he tried to make contact with Cullus. A moment later, the older Esper's mind connected with Narrel's.

Speaker? What happened? First Tarik disappeared, then you. What's going on?

Tarik vanished?

Yes, Speaker. He was right next to me when he Jumped suddenly - outside of the battle. I'm not sure beyond that - he seemed to be trying to mask himself to probes.

He is. Maintain contact, Cullus. I'm looking for Tarik - something strange is going on. Be on guard. And in case something goes wrong…I need someone to inform the others. Tarik's been acting very strangely, lately.

Tarik is stronger then you, Speaker, should it come to that.

I certainly hope it doesn't come to that. Keep the contact passive for now - you'll need your wits about you.

Yes, Speaker.

A moment later, the gentle touch of a contact was reduced to the low buzzing that signified a linking - a sharing of awareness.

Narrel cast a simple spell - one to mask him from probes, possibly the same Tarik was using. He quickly wove some wards and shields about his body, just in case Tarik attacked him.

The attack came suddenly and without warning - the only indication was sudden prickling up and down the back of Narrel's neck. The spell Tarik hurled at him was a simple one, not designed to harm him but to gauge the strength of his defenses. The spell dissipated harmlessly before it became a threat to Narrel. Quickly, Narrel turned to face Tarik.

The former Speaker seemed to materialize out of the night before Narrel - and though it was obviously Tarik, the man was hard to recognize. He was clad head to foot in black, and wore a raven colored cloak held with an ornate clasp at the neck. A hood was pulled up over his face, partially obscuring his features, and at his side hung a sword. A sword! A weapon forbidden to Espers by their very religion.

"What are you doing, Tarik?" Narrel hissed.

Tarik slid forward on silent feet, not reaching for his blade. The sight of the sword made Narrel's skin crawl. He readied a spell, hoping Tarik wouldn't detect his magic until it was too late.

"You should not have spoken," Tarik said acidly, his voice so quiet it was almost a purr. "You signed your own death sentence, Narrel. Once you are dead, I can regain my grip on the Espers. Nothing will stop me."

"Stop you from what? Come with me, Tarik…We'll do everything we can to help you." Narrel was stalling for time, trying to extract information from the traitor so that Cullus could expose him. His spell was ready, but he held it in check for the moment. "But now isn't the time, Tarik. We have a war to win."

Tarik laughed. "Fool!" He snarled and thrust his hand forward. Lightning arced forward from his palm, wrapping about Narrel in a deadly embrace. The Speaker cried out as the tendrils of electricity bit him through his wards. Struggling, the Speaker called forth enough power to banish the attack, then released his own power.

A pillar of ice erupted around Tarik, engulfing the man and hiding him from view momentarily. Narrel focused all his might into maintaining the spell. Suddenly, a column fire shot forth from the ice pillar, smashing into Narrel and hurling him backwards into a tree. His Ice spell dissipated immediately.

Groggily, Narrel saw Tarik closing in on him, drawing that sword he wore. The blade glistened oddly in the light, and after a moment, Narrel saw why - it was made of crystal. Quickly, he dipped his hand towards a pouch, hanging from his belt.

The pouch contained one of the items he had appropriated from the Esper Arcanium, the vault of magical artifacts compiled over the centuries. It was small piece of marble, carved in the shape of a hammer. He quickly drew it forth and concealed it in his fist.

Tarik loomed above him, sword raised to strike him down. As fast as he could, Narrel flicked the hammer towards his opponent, at the same instant invoking it's latent powers. The hammer slammed into Tarik's chest and exploded, hurling the traitor backwards. Tarik cried out once before he fell silent.

Narrel lurched to his feet and stumbled over to where Tarik had fallen. Working as fast as he could, he pressed his hand to Tarik's forehead. The man was dead, but there was a slight possibility that Narrel could retrieve the traitor's last thoughts. Anything to understand why Tarik had tried to kill him…

Shaking his head in confusion, Narrel sat back on his haunches. That didn't make any sense at all.

What on earth was the Alisa III?

* * *

"I think the best thing to do would be for you to hide the fact that you're an Android, Daughter. You look enough like a human to pass, for now, and we don't know how these people relate to Androids." Rika's face was colored by a faint red light, cast be their campfire. The companions were arrayed around it. Daughter looked up at Rika, then nodded.

"I am fully anatomically correct in every way," she confirmed. "Also, because I lack internal weaponry components, I-"

Tamgren looked up from his trail rations. "What do you mean, no internal weaponry?"

"Due to the speed at which we were forced to complete construction of my body, we were unable to install any internal weaponry. Despite my natural strength, I do not possess any weapons similar to those employed by Demi or Wren. I do have a small blaster in a holster on my left arm." Daughter suddenly rose and looked off to their right, peering intently into the darkness. "There are riders approaching, Rika."

Rika smoothly knocked her rations off her knee and rose, her sword sliding into her hand like an extension of her body. A moment later Chaz, Tamgren and Daughter joined her. Though a moment ago the Android had been unarmed, there was now a small blaster in her hand.

"Lant," Rika hissed at her brother, who was drawing his dagger, "get back." Lant glared at her, but complied.

"Put down your weapons," a voice called out of the darkness. "Surrender and come quietly."

A group of riders emerged from the darkness into the light of the campfire, all drawing weapons. There were ten of them, and a young man rode at their head, obviously the speaker. He was tall and slender, with a pale white cloak on. His green hair was held in a braid the fell down his back, and he carried a long, slender sword in his hand. Emblazoned upon his nondescript brown shirt was a rampant, winged lizard of some sort, baring it's teeth.

"No one is allowed out of the gates past dark," the man said sternly. "How did you leave Landen?"

"We're strangers here," Rika put in carefully. "We just entered the area…" She realized a moment to late that she had said the wrong thing - for a moment, the young man's face flashed confusion, then anger.

The man made an impatient gesture. "Take them. We'll see how a night in the dungeons suits them."

The riders fanned out to surround them, raising swords and spears. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a rider closing in on Lant.

Rika hurled herself at the leader, while at the same time screaming "Run!" Her mad tackle served to knock the man from his horse, but he landed easily, and flipped Rika off him with great strength. He jumped to his feet and turned to face his attacker.

Suddenly, a brilliant flash of light lit up the area. The man froze and turned to face it's source. Lant stood at the center of that light, looking stunned as well. Clutched in one hand was a long, finely crafted sword. It's blade and hilt were night black, but it seemed to be the source of that unearthly light. In his other hand, Lant was holding a canvas wrapping.

The man jumped forward, and at the same time his body rippled outwards, becoming massive, more muscular. His clothing was seemingly absorbed into his body, and beneath it his flesh was formless and writhing like clay. Bronze colored scales emerged on his body, and huge wings erupted from his back. His legs and arms shortened and became strong, but stubby, clawed legs. His neck became serpentine and he roared, revealing rows or monstrous teeth. Beating his wings, he swooped down on Lant.

A moment before his claws tore into the boy's flesh, the light from the sword intensified, then spread to engulf the shapeshifter. The man roared and was hurled backwards, his body seemingly being forced back into it's original shape. Panting, he lay upon the ground. As he tried to get to his feet, Chaz was upon him, wrapping his arm around the shapeshifter's throat and pressing his blade to the other man's neck.

"Drop your weapons!" He cried.

"Chaz," Rika called out. Her voice was resigned. "Stop. Let him go." Chaz turned his head to face his sister, and saw her ringed by horsemen, spears pointed at her. The others stood nearby, all in similar straits.

Chaz snarled and hurled the man away from him. Immediately, he too was surrounded.

The light from Lant's sword had died, but no one made any move to take it from him. The blade was emitting a steady drumming noise, low but noticeable, and the soldiers ringing him seemed reluctant to get closer.

The man rose and dusted himself off, then jogged over to his horse and swung into the saddle. "In the name of Tareela Landale, Queen of the Alisa III and Rightful Ruler of all of Algol, I am taking you, Bearer, and your companions to Landen, where the Queen shall decide what is to become of you." His gaze centered on Lant. "Though you carry the Sword of Orakio, you are not immune to our laws, Bearer. If you struggle, I shall be forced to kill you and your companions. Come."

* * *

Their captors had a small camp a short distance from where they had been camping, concealed by a stand of trees. Under their leader's supervision, the soldiers pitched camp quickly and efficiently. Through the shouted orders and replies, Rika gleaned the name of the leader - Justin, though some of the soldiers also referred to him as Dracon. This mystified Rika.

After the soldiers had ordered Lant to sheathe the mysterious black sword, their captive's wrist were bound with black cord. The soldiers organized into a straight column with Justin at their head, and the prisoners walking along beside.

Though Rika desperately wanted to speak with Lant, she found herself forced to the back of the line, alone. Justin singled out Lant and ordered him to the front to walk beside his horse, then, as an afterthought, brought Chaz forward as well. Her twin looked at Justin with poorly contained hatred. Chaz had never been good that way.

At the center of the column stood Daughter and Tamgren, who were already engrossed in some conversation. Rika still didn't quite trust - or like - the Android, but she was forcing a tight lid on her emotion. Now was not the time to lose control. She certainly hoped Tamgren and Daughter didn't try to escape, or do something equally foolish.

Rika was glad she had had the forethought to put on her heavy cloak. It was warm, almost stifling, but it's voluminous hood concealed her ears to some extent. Though she couldn't hide them forever, she could put off the uncomfortable explanations her Numan blood entailed.

It was strange to note that while everyone else had been disarmed, the soldiers had allowed Lant to retain the sword. Many of them regarded the weapon with fear or awe, and one of the soldiers had meekly offered Lant a sheathe in which to rest the sword. It was too large for Lant to wear normally, so he wore the sword strapped across his back. She hoped he was holding up all right.

"Ride," Justin barked suddenly, and the column started forward at a walk. Rika almost had to jog to keep up with the horses. It was going to be a long night.

* * *

"Hey!" Chaz yelled. "Hey, you!" Justin's head swung imperiously to gaze at the prisoner. Sweat was streaming down Chaz's face, despite the coolness of the air, and his legs felt like lead. "Slow down! We can't keep up with you!"

"I am the leader of this group," Justin told him coolly. "I will choose the speed."

"Damn it!" Chaz snarled. "He's only a kid." He was supporting Lant with one arm - after three hours, he barely had the strength to jog, and Chaz, despite what he might want, didn't have the strength to carry him. Lant opened his mouth to speak, but Chaz moved quickly to stop him. "Save your strength, Lant." He glanced up at the moon. Midnight. "You called him the Bearer - he must be important. But he's no good to you dead!"

>From behind him, Rika made a warning call. "Chaz…"

For a second, Chaz glanced behind him, and Justin flailed out with one foot. His booted toe caught Chaz in his chin, snapping his head backwards. Chaz stumbled and fell. "You will address me with the proper respect," Justin hissed at him. "I am not a man to trifle with." He wheeled his horse and smoothly cut in front of Lant, moving towards his brother. "Boy," he said.

"Get out of my way!" Lant pleaded. "You really hurt him." He was cut off suddenly as Justin bent over, grasped his shirt, and lifted him into the air. Carefully, the man set him down behind him on the saddle and sawed through the cords binding his wrists. "Hold on, Bearer." When he felt the boy's arms wrap around his chest, he looked at Chaz, who was struggling to his feet. "Can you walk?" Chaz nodded mutely, rubbing his chin gingerly. "Good. We make Landen by sunset tomorrow!"

Chaz fell in beside Tamgren and Daughter. "Are you well?" Daughter queried gently.

"Fine." The response was clipped and curt. Tamgren and Daughter exchanged a long look, then Tamgren shrugged.

The rest of the night passed in silence.

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