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It was also the city to which Justin had brought his prisoners.
"You must be joking," Justin gaped at the slim man standing between him and his goal. The hallway he and his captives stood in was deep within Landen palace, a bustling mansion to which he had brought the Bearer. "This is the Bearer, Arcus. Do you have any idea what that means?"
"I know exactly what that means - but I will not have these people " He waved detachedly at the prisoners, "admitted to the presence of her Majesty in such filth, no matter what you might want, Dracon." Arcus gestured to the prisoners and their guards. "Follow me, please."
The soldiers all looked to Justin, who shrugged helplessly. Quickly, they set off after the major domo, leaving Justin standing alone in the hall.
"Jackass," he murmured.
The man Justin had called Arcus hustled them through the endless passageways of the castle until they came to a large, wide hallway with doors on both sides. Quickly, Arcus singled out Lant and shoved him into the first doorway, slamming it shut behind him. Lant was immediately surrounded by warm air. A steaming tub of water dominated the room.
"Well, boy," a man in black spoke up from the corner. Lant hadn't noticed him before, assuming he was alone in the room. "Strip and get in the tub. I don't have all day."
Numbly, Lant began to peel off his clothes.
Moments after he had undid his sword belt and removed his shirt, a sudden scream split the air. Lant jumped, startled, and at the same time reached for the sword. The black blade came into his hand seemingly of it's own volition, and Lant darted into the hallway, brandishing it, ignoring the cries of the man in black.
The man Arcus was kneeling next to a woman, huddled in a corner and whimpering fearfully, pointing towards a door next to the room Lant had been in. Though from the distance he was at, he couldn't hear what they were saying, he could pick out the word 'monster' being stammered quite often.
There was a sudden staccato of boots on the marble floors, and Justin rushed into the hallway. He skidded to a stop when he saw Lant.
"Put the sword away, boy," he hissed, drawing his own sword. "We don't want to hurt you, Bearer."
Arcus looked up at Lant, and his eyes widened in awe and horror. "He he is the Bearer! I never believed "
As Justin drew his sword, the hilt of Lant's weapon grew hot in his hand. To his horror, Lant felt the hilt adhere to his hand, sealing him to the blade. A steady thrumming filled the air, and Lant realized it was coming from the sword.
"Monster!" The woman Arcus was kneeling next to screamed suddenly. "Monster! In there!" She pointed fearfully at the doorway.
Lant was suddenly conscious of being flanked by several figures - Chaz, stripped to the waist, as Lant was, Tamgren and Daughter.
"The screams," Lant stammered by way of explanation. "I "
"Never mind that," Justin snapped. "What's going on?"
"Monster!" the woman bawled. "Monster!" She pointed again to the doorway.
"That's the room your sister's in," Justin said. "I have to make sure she's all right."
Chaz stiffened suddenly. "There is no monster," he hissed. "There's no monster in there."
"Oh, god," Tamgren murmured. "Rika "
Justin gave them all a confused look, then, drawing his sword, he kicked the door wide open.
"Surrender the courtyard!" Alys yelled. "Retreat! Retreat!" Laser fire erupted all around her, and the Hunters were dropping like flies. The Wrens had struck early that day, combining their fire on the gate. Even worse, there appeared to be an Esper aiding them - he had appeared as the assault began and used his magic to rip the gate apart. The Wrens had flooded the courtyard immediately.
Alys ducked a Wren's punch and smoothly ran it through with her sword. At close quarters, she couldn't use her slashers or her bow, so she was forced to rely on her blade. As the Wren fell, Alys could see the Esper through the milling crowds of warriors. She snarled and jumped over the fallen Wren, making a bee-line towards him, cutting down any Wrens fool enough to get between her and her target.
Above her, the sky rumbled ominously, and huge sooty clouds churned and roiled above her. Suddenly there was a huge crack of thunder and lightning erupted from the heavens, tearing a huge crater in the courtyard. Again and again the lightning struck, flashing downwards into the places where the Hunter's were least and the Wrens were most concentrated. Alys caught sight of the Esper engaging a man in a blue robe - another Esper, Alys realized. She quickened her pace.
Then, with a rumble of thunder that made the ground beneath her feet seem to shudder, the rain began to pour.
"He's no Esper," the blue-robed man told Alys. "He wields a similar form of magic but he's not one of us."
Alys' office was in a state of disarray - during the fighting one of the walls had been blown out and the torrential rains had destroyed the room. Nonetheless, it was the only place Alys could retreat to with the Esper. Through the new window Alys could see the courtyard, littered with the bodies of Hunters and Wrens. She turned back to the man.
He was a young man, with an earnest expression that was possessed of a gravity and purpose that belied his age. He was soaked to the bone, and his dark brown hair was plastered to his face, but his green eyes sparkled.
"Just who was he?" Alys demanded. "And for that matter, who are you?"
"I am Speaker Narrel of Esper Mansion. My Espers and myself were sent to Motavia by Kyra to attempt to stem the invasion." Narrel sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "The man I fought was something called a Layan - they appear to be the human counterparts to the Wrens you were fighting. There aren't many of them, but they wield strong magic. You're lucky we were in the area when he used his magic - otherwise we wouldn't have detected him." He glanced out the window. "My Espers are lifting an attack on Zema now, so I can't stay long." He rose.
"Wait!" Alys said so sharply that she surprised herself. "Where is Lutz now? Nowhere near here?"
Narrel sighed. "She's gone to a space ship that's headed towards the asteroid belt - the source of the invasion. The Most Reverent intends to stop the attacks at their source." He half turned, then paused. "I have heard your story, Alys - it is one told to Esper children, and taught to students in the Mansion. You are truly a great warrior. But I understand that you and Lutz didn't part in the best of terms." His steady gaze seemed to bore into Alys. "I never knew Rune Walsh, but I know that no Lutz would do anything to harm an innocent unless it was absolutely necessary. I hope you can understand that."
Alys rose slowly, resting one hand on her sword. "That's my business, Speaker. I think you should be on your way. I thank you - you've saved many lives today."
Narrel sighed again. "Farewell, Alys Ashley." He made a gesture and his body became two dimensional, then winked out of existence.
A few long, tense minutes passed after Justin entered the room Rika had been in. The hall was silent, save for the quiet sobbing of the hysterical servant woman. Arcus had placed her comfortably on a soft chair, and was now pacing back and forth across the hall.
Suddenly, the door opened, and Justin emerged, his sword sheathed. Rika followed behind, her hood safely up. Tamgren felt a knot of fear form in his stomach.
How much did Justin know about her? What did he intend to do?
"Dracon!" Arcus exclaimed. "What happened?"
"There is no monster," Justin replied coldly, staring Arcus down. "The woman is obviously ill. I suggest you relieve her from duty." His gaze had an air of finality to it. Arcus' gaze flickered to Rika for a moment, and Justin's hand snaked out and gripped his shoulder. "There is no monster," Justin told him quietly.
"Of course," Arcus replied dubiously. "Perhaps it would be best if we ignored the formalities for a time being."
"Yes." Justin replied. "Go on ahead and tell my father that we're coming. I want them to be prepared."
"Yes, Dracon." Arcus backed away from Justin and Rika, dropped a quick bow, then turned and vanished down a corridor.
After they had retrieved their clothes, Justin lead them off down on of the myriad passageways that honeycombed through the castle. Tamgren found himself walking beside Daughter as Justin lead them off down the hall. Justin was walking directly in front of Rika and Lant, and seemed to have steered them both to the head of the line by design. He definitely wanted to watch them. Lant had sheathed the eerie black sword.
"Do you understand what's going on?" he murmured to Daughter. She shook her head, then paused, as if considering.
"Partially," she replied. "But it would be unwise to form a hasty analysis of the situation " she trailed off.
"We don't have much time," Tamgren told her. "Tell me what you think."
"As I told you," Daughter said, "this is indeed the Alisa III. The Alisa III was the ship to which the queen of that time, Aylari Landale, was said to have been traveling on, with her children. It seems the current queen, this Tareela, is a descendant of her. Evidently the sword Lant bears is either a sword of some great religious or cultural value, or bears a striking resemblance to that sword."
"I bet it's the same sword," Tamgren murmured.
"What would cause you to draw that conclusion, Tamgren?"
"It shape-changed. I was there when Lant found the sword," he admitted, "but it was different then. It looked like a normal sword. Only glorious."
Daughter's brow furrowed. "Odd "
"Silence!" Justin ordered from the front of the line. "We're approaching the throne room."
"Silence!" Justin snapped as Lant opened his mouth to speak. "We're approaching the throne room."
Lant sighed and slumped a little as he walked along. Everything was happening so fast he didn't have time to be afraid - all he was aware of was that he was dirty, hungry and tired. And the stupid sword - whenever he moved, it either banged his hip or his head. Rika walked along beside him stonily, her every movement tight and coiled. She was walking like someone expecting to be attacked. Justin was studiously avoiding even the slightest look at the hooded young woman.
Justin stopped suddenly, and Lant, lost in his reverie, almost walked into him. Justin gave him an acid look, the swung the doors wide open.
The throne room of Landen was one of the most grandiose rooms Lant had ever been in. The room was made of some pale white rock, and seemed to be lit by glowing orbs of light hovering above the ground. Obviously magical, but Lant had bigger things on his mind.
The ceiling of the room was high and vaulted, with several large windows looking up into the sky of Alisa III. Men and women - nobles, he supposed - crowded to the right and left of a wide aisle running the length of the room. A rippled went through them at the sight of the travelers - dirty, disheveled and improperly attired.
At the end of that aisle was a huge ivory throne, in which lounged a woman in her middle years. No, possibly younger - as they approached the throne, Lant saw that much of the age on her face was strain and stress. She was actually only in her late twenties. Her hair was a soft blue and it cascaded down her back to her waist, with nothing trying to contain it. Her gown was pale and had a low neckline, revealing a necklace off which hung several precious-looking gems.
Standing next to her was an older man, with brown hair streaked gray and a regal bearing. He was tall and slender, and clad in a blue robe.
"This had better be good, Justin," the woman purred. "Considering the urgency of your 'summons'." She sneered the last.
Justin bowed deeply before the woman, flourishing his cloak. "I would not have asked your Majesty's presence, Queen Tareela, if it was not of the most-"
"No one covers her head before the Queen," Tareela said suddenly. "Remove your hood, girl."
Before Rika could reply, Justin cut in once more. He coughed politely. "Your Majesty, I think it would be best if these proceedings continued in private." His gaze flickered desperately to the man next to Tareela, who simply returned his gaze and looked suitably baffled. "The information I bring is of the most volatile nature, and I would certainly not wish to worry the nobles." A ripple immediately went through the crowd.
"No one covers her head before the Queen," Tareela stated doggedly. "Remove the hood, girl, or have it removed for you."
Rika hesitated, then raised her hands towards her hood. They hovered for a moment, indecisive, then pushed it away from her head. Her Numan ears were clearly visible above her hair.
The quiet buzz of the nobles' conversation turned dead silent, then pandemonium broke loose. The dignitaries who a moment ago had been crowding the rail separating them from the visitors crowded backwards in terror, some shrieking in fright. Tareela rose, her eyes wide, and suddenly armed men had grabbed Rika and were dragging her off down the aisle. Stunned, Lant fumbled for the hilt of the sword, but couldn't reach it He suddenly realized silence had fallen again.
Justin stood between the men who had seized Rika and the doorway. His weapon was not drawn, but his hand rested casually on it's hilt. His gaze was firm and cold.
"Hold," he stated levelly. "Her honor is mine."
The guards gaped, then released Rika so quickly she fell to the ground. Tareela gasped and the older man took an involuntary step forward. Another buzz came from the assembled nobles.
"Who challenges?" Justin's voice rang off the walls of the room like a bell. No one moved. Lant swore you could have heard a pin drop in that room. "Then she is mine." He walked past the stunned looking Rika and faced the throne. "Perhaps now you will consider a private speaking, my Queen?"
Ignoring Justin as usual, Chaz stalked down the aisle and gently helped Rika to her feet. Her eyes were wide and she was trembling violently. Rika was not a woman driven easily to fear or terror, and those more often then not sparked defiance within her. Lant realized how terrible that must have been for her - she had often been sensitive about her ears, and to have people ready to kill you over them
"Very well," Tareela stated as if nothing at all had happened. "Nevak," she addressed the older man, "be so kind as to have this chamber cleared."
The man, Nevak, nodded and made a sharp gesture. Armed men filed into the room and quickly hustled the nobles out the double doors. The guards themselves quickly followed, leaving them all alone with Justin, Tareela and Nevak.
"Who are you?"
Rika gently disengaged Chaz from her and walked boldly towards Tareela. There was an obvious changing of her stance as she walked - she was regaining control of her emotions.
"My name is Rika Lain."
Tareela snarled. "That answers nothing, child. Explain your deformities."
Rika's eye's went absolutely flat. She did not respond.
"Girl," Tareela hissed warningly. She rose and descended from her throne towards Rika. "Do not cross me "
Justin slipped in between Tareela and Rika, faster then a whip. "I understand that Rika is sensitive about her ears, my Queen. And, I have made her honor mine - any slight against her is a slight against me, and thence against the Layan people. Were I to be blunt, milady, that is not a line you can safely walk."
Tareela scowled before regaining her composure. Her face became calm and restrained, as if she had donned a mask. Lant found the sudden change chilling. "You speak the truth, Dracon. I will learn of this girl's heritage another day. I certainly hope," she continued coldly, "for your sake and hers, this is not the only reason you disrupted the day's proceedings."
"No," Justin's face became grave. "I bring tremendous news. That boy," he gestured to Lant, "is the Bearer."
Tareela's eyes widened again in shock and terror, that ivory mask slipping. "The Bearer," she murmured. "By Laya's own bow " She shook herself furiously, and the mask came back on as if it had never fallen. "Prove it, Justin. Boy, what is your name?"
"He is my brother, Lantamaral," Rika put in. "The other," she indicated Chaz, "is my twin brother, Chaz Lain "
"Charles?" Nevak interjected.
Rika gave him a confused look. "Chaz," she repeated. "This is Tamgren Aiedern, a close friend, and the other is " She hesitated as she looked at Daughter.
"Danielle," Tamgren put in quickly. "My aunt, Danielle Vahal." Rika blinked at him, then tried to cover it up as best she could. Daughter nodded helpfully.
"Yes, Danielle. What we would like is more-"
"You will have nothing!" Tareela roared, rising from her throne again and slamming her fist onto the arm. "Show me the Sword! No bargains until I see the Sword of Orakio!"
Rika, shocked by the sudden eruption, was speechless.
"I think you'd better show her," Tamgren said slowly.
Lant gulped audibly and reached behind him. He groped about for the hilt of the sword for a moment before he acquired a good grip and carefully, if somewhat clumsily, pulled the sword from it's sheath.
The black metal of the sword seemed to draw in the light of the glowing spheres, seizing warmth and light and destroying them. It's blade gave off an eerie pale glow all it's own, that seemed somehow to be black light. Again, Lant felt the hilt seal itself to his hands. He resisted the urge to begin sobbing in terror.
"It is the Sword," Justin said slowly, quietly. He was visibly awed. "It attacked me when I tried to take it and-"
"You attacked the Bearer?" Nevak exclaimed, shocked. His eyes never left the sword.
"I was stunned, father. It it countered my powers, Majesty. It made me human again." Justin shuddered in memory of the moment. He had never been forced out a shapechange before. It had been uncomfortable at least.
Tareela was silent, a slow, exultant smile spreading across her face. "Excellent," she cooed. "Excellent. Come here, Lantamaral." She gently beckoned the boy forward. To afraid to do anything else, Lant complied. "There's a good lad," she whispered. "Now give me the sword, Lantamaral."
Lant took a slow step back. "I can't," he admitted.
Tareela's lips immediately drained of all blood. She rose to her full height, towering over Lant. Her entire form shook with rage. "You will!"
Lant took several more steps back, stumbled and regained his balance. "I can't," he repeated, close to tears. "I just can't!"
"You stupid child! I'll "
"He says he can't."
Tareela's head snapped up, registering Chaz for the first time. He stood just behind Lant, his entire body tensed. He seemed to ooze some kind of strange power, a force to match Tareela's rage. His fists were clenched at his sides, and he barely stirred.
"He says he cannot," Chaz told her, his voice a chilling monotone.
Tareela, obviously discomfited, stepped away from Lant. Her eyes as they took in Chaz were imperious and cold. "You are a strange group," she admitted. "Very strange indeed. You are dismissed. Justin will show you to our guest chambers in the west wing. I will meet again with you tomorrow. Nevak, remain. We have much to discuss."
Rika scowled at the woman, but moved quickly over to Lant, frozen with fear. "Come on, Lant," she whispered encouragingly to him. "It's all right. Come on."
"I can't let go," he murmured. "I can't let go, Rika." His voice quavered on the edge of hysteria. "Make it let go of me, Rika, please!" His hands were white-knuckled about the sword's hilt, and they shook uncontrollably. "Please!"
Tamgren and Daughter were gently guiding Chaz away, Lant noticed dimly. His brother seemed almost staggering.
"It's okay," Rika murmured, taking his wrist and gently disengaging his grip on the sword. "It's okay, see? Here, just put the sword away, Lant, and we'll go. Okay?" Still shaking, Lant slid the sword into it's sheath. His hand came free without meeting resistance. "Ready to go?" Rika asked him, trying to sound light. He nodded once, slowly and detachedly. "Okay, then. Come on." Gently taking Lant's arm, she lead him down the hallway after Justin.
Tareela watched impassively as the small, oddly mismatched group left the throne room behind Justin. The boy Tamgren and his aunt were supporting the one who had just stared her down. She couldn't believe she'd let herself be intimidated by a boy. The Sword of Orakio had been so close at hand, and she'd let it slip away. Well, there was always tomorrow, and she had the Bearer in her grasp.
"Are you sure he'll be all right?" Justin asked as Rika emerged from the room she'd just laid Lant to rest in. His voice sounded almost gentle.
Tamgren and 'Danielle' were both in their rooms, farther down the hallway. Rika and Justin were alone in the hall.
Rika ignored the question for the time being. "Where do you stand?"
"Who are you, Justin? You stand with Tareela, but you really do care what happens to Lant. Is it because he's your Bearer?" She sneered at him. Justin shook his head.
"No!" he snapped. "No. He's a young boy, Rika, and he's lost and alone. Who wouldn't worry for him?"
Rika gave him a skewed look. Justin shrugged. "That is your room," he told her and pointed at a doorway. "I hope you'll find it to your liking." He turned and started off down the hallway.
"Wait!" Justin half-turned and looked at her. She found herself flinching, involuntarily at the intensity of his gaze. She straightened. No one had ever stood her down! "Back in the throne room, you said that my honor was yours. What does that mean?"
"It means that your honor and mine become one," he replied. "That any crime you commit is considered my crime, and I will feel the repercussions of your actions. Anyone challenging you challenges me. That was all that saved you in the throne room, you know. They would have killed you for a monster otherwise."
"But " Rika shook her head. "Why would you do that? You have no idea who I am."
"Because, Rika Lain, I think we may be more alike then either of us know." Turning, Justin vanished down the hallway.
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