[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter 9

Monsen destroyed. Termi eradicated. New Mile, Molcum, Tonoe, Piata and Krup all under siege. Innocent men, women and children dying faster then the Espers could save them, especially with their forces split across Motavia and Dezolis.

But even Espers need rest.

The inn at Zema, recently saved from attack by Wrens, was as good a place as any to spend the night. Most of the Espers had already retired, drained beyond their abilities. Cullus and Narrel sat in the deserted common room, nearby a roaring fire. Between them sat Tarik's crystal blade, it's almost glassy surface turning pale red in the light of the fire.

"It's definitely magical," Cullus told Narrel. The Speaker nodded in agreement. "I just can't determine what it's designed to do."

"And it's not enchanted, either," Narrel said. "I'd have seen that right off, otherwise. So the magic is a property of it's being, then."

"Ghastly thing, no matter what it is," Cullus replied. "I always knew Tarik was a bit power-hungry, but I never suspected anything like this. And, Narrel - did that armor he was wearing look familiar to you?"

Narrel shook his head. "Should it have?"

"I've been trying to remember where I last saw armor like that before, and I think I know. After the Great Rebirth, Lutz returned to the Esper Mansion with the body of Shaedal Ziosson. He was wearing the same armor. And from the descriptions I've received of Zio, his armor was also of the same design."

"Could Tarik have somehow gotten a hold of the armor Shaedal had? Maybe he was…" Narrel trailed off.

"Darkness worshippers in the ranks of the Espers," Cullus murmured softly to himself. "By the Light." He shook his head slowly. "But no, Tarik couldn't have stolen the suit of armor - we keep it under lock, key and spell in the Esper Mansion. The wards are foolproof."

"Nonetheless," Narrel replied, "I'm going to get word to Jaln and the others at the Mansion to check on the armor. If it has been stolen, that answers a lot of questions."

"Don't!" Narrel was surprised by the amount of vehemence in the old Esper's voice. "We can't trust anyone. If our suspicions are correct and there are worshippers of the Profound Darkness in the Espers, we can't let anyone know that we know. Who knows who might have gone over to the side of darkness?"

"Damn it, you're right," Narrel said. "But I need to know about that armor. Did it have any special properties?"

"None that we could find, and Lutz had people probing that armor for months after he brought it back with him. Of course, the Darkness can be very subtle. We might have missed it."

Narrel sighed. "We'll just have to keep doing what we're doing - act natural. We'll have to check over Tarik's body, see if there are any identifying marks. It's a long shot, but…"

* * *

"I don't believe this!" In spite of himself, Narrel laughed.

Narrel and Cullus had retired to the Speaker's Room, where Tarik's body was being kept bound in a stasis field of considerable power. The corpse lay between them.

"What it is?"

Narrel pointed to Tarik's arm. Just below his shoulder there was a patch of shriveled, black skin in the shape of a six-pointed star. Narrel could practically feel it oozing dark magic. Some enchantment on Tarik's body must have hidden it, and later, the stasis field had concealed the power of the mark.

Cautiously, Narrel reached out and touched the mark. The skin over it was leathery and unnaturally cold. His finger tingled, then began to sting. He snatched his hand away.

"At least we know how to identify them, now," Narrel sighed. His gaze drifted to Cullus, his eyes asking the obvious question. The older Esper nodded and pulled off his tunic. The skin beneath was bore no similar mark. Narrel did the same, and after a moment, Cullus nodded. They both replaced their tunics.

Narrel quickly wove an enchantment about Tarik's body, and a glowing field shimmered into existence around the corpse. Narrel seated himself on the edge of the bed. "The question is," and here he paused, "was Tarik the only traitor in our ranks?"

* * *

A pall of smoke hung above Krup, and the fires of the building that were burning licked the sky. Screams rose high above the sound of Hahn Aiedern's voice, even amplified by Demi's 'megaphone', a gift to a curious young man. How long ago that seemed.

The sleek Laconium form of the Hydrofoil floated several feet above the surface of the water, and a long staircase had been extended down from the open door to the ground, where the beleaguered remains of Krup were rushing aboard.

"Please," Hahn spoke into the megaphone. "Please, try to remain calm. It's going to be all right." His words sounded hollow even to himself. He wondered if he would live. Already he could hear the Wren's advancing across the portions of Krup they had already destroyed. They were a fair distance off, but coming closer.

Lowering the megaphone, he wrapped one arm comfortingly about Saya's slim shoulders, clutching her tightly for a moment. He watched the last few survivors of the massacre run up the stairs and into the armored body of the Hydrofoil. "Don't worry," he murmured, kissing her hair. "Once we get to the Soldier's Temple, we'll be all right. We'll be fine.

Saya looked up at him. "I hope so. Let's get aboard." She started towards the stairway, Lorin, their son, and Reira, his wife, following. She paused halfway up and looked at Hahn, who hadn't moved. "Come on. Hurry." Hahn shook himself and started up. The sounds of the Wrens had increased dramatically. They were almost there.

Hahn paused at the top of the stairs. Everyone else was already on board. He drew out the small remote control for the Hydrofoil. Cupping it in his hands, he pressed the button to shut the door, and another button to lock it with his password. He tossed it inside as the door slid shut. A moment later, the Hydrofoil roared to life and shot off across the water.

* * *

"Hahn!" Saya shouted over the din in the Hydrofoil. "Hahn! Hahn!" Cold, tight fear knotted in her stomach and she felt herself succumbing to the hysteria that had haunted her since the siege began. "Oh, Light," she whispered through her tears. "We left him behind."

* * *

When they found Hahn he was seated in a small house in a chair, in one hand a small black box, and in the other, a glass of wine, cradled delicately. He was the only living creature left in Krup, save for the man standing at the head of the Wrens that filed into the house.

"Who are you?" the leader demanded.

"I have," Hahn murmured wistfully, "led a very full life. I have fought a god and lived. I have a loving wife, a wonderful son and a brilliant daughter in law. I have a grandson, who, without a doubt, is going to be one of the most intelligent men ever to live on Algo. In my spare time, I've worked to lead Algo out of the dark ages and back into the culture we had prior to the Collapse." He nodded slowly, and paused. "Do you know what I've been experimenting with lately, sir? Explosives. Wonderful tools, those, but so volatile. Think of all the destruction that could be done with enough dynamite."

The man advanced closer to Hahn. "Why are you telling me this?"

"I want you to know what I'm giving up." He dropped the wine, and the glass shattered when it struck the ground. His finger went to a small switch on the box. "I'll see you in hell." He flicked the switch.

A moment later, there was nothing left of Krup but a fireball rising into the heavens, lighting up the sky.

* * *

Justin had vanished off down the hallway, but Rika didn't move. Every bone in her body felt as if it was made of lead - she hadn't realized how exhausted she was.

"Rika…" A hand fell upon her shoulder. She started, and turned to see Tamgren. "Chaz is asleep. Daugh-Danielle says that he's slipped into a state similar to the one she observed back on the shuttle. He's really drained. How' Lant?"

"Asleep too. He was hysterical back in throne room, but he's asleep now." She shook her head. "Sometimes I forget how young he is."

"Rika, I have to talk with you. It's important."

"Go ahead."

"Not here. Come to my room with me."

Rika glanced at him in surprise. It wasn't like Tamgren to be secretive. "Please, Rika," Tamgren pleaded. "This is really important."

Rika nodded. "All right."

As Tamgren opened the door, Daughter's figure rose from a plush chair in the corner. The Android nodded politely to Rika. "How is Lant?"
"Afraid. Very afraid. How're you?"

"I am fully functional in every respect." Daughter re-seated herself. "Chaz is in his room. He is extremely fatigued."

"Yes," Rika replied absently. "Do you have any idea what happened back in the throne room? Either of you?"

Daughter looked to Tamgren. "I still do not understand," she said. Her gaze returned to Rika. "I felt nothing."

"Nothing at all?" Rika crossed the room and lowered herself into a chair. It felt so good! She didn't want to move at all. Tamgren seated himself across from her.

"Daughter claimed not to have sensed, detected, felt anything back there."

"Could it be because she is an Android?"
"I doubt I would not have detected anything untoward," Daughter interjected. "Yet you both seem to believe something out the ordinary has occurred. Perhaps I am malfunctioning. I will run a diagnostic scan." Her eyes glazed and she slumped. Rika blinked at her in surprise.

"Very abrupt, isn't she?"

Tamgren didn't even smile. "Rika, I need to talk to you. About the sword."

* * *

"For the last time, Cyborg," Takk ordered, sounding exhausted, "state your registration."

Demi sighed. "I don't understand. My name is Demi, and I am the Systems Control Android for the computer system Nurvus. I have no registration."

"Perhaps it's a new model," Aryal offered from the corner of the small, dark room. Demi stood across from them, in the sights of the blaster that Takk held almost casually in his grip. She didn't doubt the man's aim, though. "Maybe Central Tower has developed a new system."

Takk shook his head. "Unlikely, unless they've kept this thing secret for three hundred years. According to our scans, that's how old it is. The Wren is over a thousand years old, but barely matches our schematics for that time period, let alone today. They're both very odd." He sighed. "I never trusted Cyborgs anyway, and I especially don't trust strange ones. Let's just ship them to the Central Tower and be done with it. They're Tareela's business, Commander, not ours."

Aryal nodded. "We're not accomplishing anything. Have some transportation ready for tomorrow morning. I just want these two out of my sight."

* * *

"Ahh, Justin. Come in and sit down." Tareela gestured to a chair across from her. Her chambers were empty and no one was around, except for the guards outside the doorway. "Tell me everything you know about these strangers. What of the Bearer?"
Justin seated himself and sighed. "He doesn't know about the Sword, Queen, or what the Bearer is. None of them do. And they don't think of themselves as Alisans. I think they may be from one of the planets."

"How would they have gotten aboard?"
Justin shrugged. "We know they have at least some shuttlecraft available to them - we've seen the cruiser and the two probes since we entered the star system, and Zelan is and Kuran was in good repair, for all that they've been around since before the Dying. They could have transporting facilities somewhere."

"You didn't probe them?"
"I tried, but they don't seem to be sure about it either. The two younger boys are both guilty about something, though."

Tareela sighed. "Anything else?"

"The woman, Danielle Vahal, is very difficult for me to probe. Impossible, actually. She may have some sort of telepathic defense. I could assign a full Layan to watch her, if you'd like."

Shaking her head, Tareela made a dismissive gesture. "It's of no moment, Justin. Not yet. What do you know about the freak-child? This Rika?"

Justin flinched. Under the rules of honor, she couldn't question his right to Grant Honor the way he had done, but she could certainly try to get him to admit his reasons. "Nothing, my Queen."

"Nothing at all, Justin?"

"No."

The gaze Tareela fixed on him was piercing, and Justin did his best to ignore it. He walked a razor blade here, and he had to be careful not to pass from defending his honor into insubordination. Tareela followed the same code he did, and she knew it's laws. As Layans, they lived by it. But should he step out of that code, it would be open season.

Finally, Tareela sighed. "Very well. I'd like you to remain in Landen and watch them for a time. The Bearer, especially."

"But my Queen, I have duties in Aquatica…"

"This is more important. You have your orders, Justin."

There was a sudden knock at the door. Justin rose and opened it, to admit a boy wearing the colors of a page. "My Queen," the boy dropped a quick bow. "The Chancellor requests his son's presence in his quarters, at your convenience." Tareela waved him away. The boy bowed again and then disappeared back into the hallway.

"You are dismissed, Justin."

* * *

"You knew about the sword? Why didn't you tell me?"
Tamgren flinched. "Rika, I'm sorry…"

"You're sorry." Rika's voice was laced with venom. "You're sorry? Tamgren, I trusted you. Your parents trusted me with you…"

"Don't talk to me like that, Rika! I'm not a child!" Tamgren leapt from his seat. Rika was up and facing him in a flash.

"You've been acting like one!"

"Stop patronizing to me, Rika! You're not much older then I am and you know it." Tamgren sighed, struggling to contain his anger. He lowered himself back into his chair. "I'm sorry, Rika. I shouldn't have let Lant keep it. But don't talk down to me, Rika. Don't presume to do that. If we can't treat each other as equals, we have nothing more to say to one another."

Rika took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. Tamgren could see her stuffing her emotions aside again. "I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "What do you know about the sword?"
"It shapeshifts."

"That went by a little fast, Tamgren."

"Back on Motavia," Tamgren explained, "when Lant found it, it wasn't the same sword at all. It looked like Laconium, only lighter and sharper, and the hilt was gold and blue. The blade was funny - when it reflected the light, it looked as if the metal was moving and shifting. It was glorious."

"Then how do you-" Rika asked, at the same moment another voice said, "The Elsydeon."
As one, Rika and Tamgren turned to look at the Daughter, who seemed to be shaking off the last vestiges of her reverie. "All systems fully functional," she reported. "Why," she asked, "are you discussing Elsydeon?"

Rika gaped at her, but before she could speak, there was a knock at the door. Rika looked from the door to Daughter and back again. Tamgren quickly rose and opened it.

There were two people in the doorway. One of them was Justin, and the other was the man from the throne room. Nevak.

"Ah," Nevak said. His voice was soft and gentle. "Here you are. There was no answer at any of the other rooms." He glided in, Justin close behind. "I am the Chancellor of Landen, Nevak Hondaile. You've met my son, Justin." Justin made a brief nod to everyone, his eyes carefully avoiding Rika's. Nevak's eyes narrowed. "Where are the others?"
"Lant and Chaz are both asleep," Rika put in. "And I'd rather they stayed that way."

Nevak nodded. "I had hoped to meet all of you. May I?" Without waiting for a response, he walked over to a chair and seated himself. Justin took the last one. "We have some things to discuss."

"I don't see that we have anything to discuss with you." Rika tried to make her voice even colder then it already was.

Nevak sighed and shook his head. "But there is. For instance, we are aware that you are from Algo, not the Alisa III."

Tamgren blinked in surprise. "How do you know that?" He suddenly realized having admitted to it. He flushed scarlet.

"My son, Justin, is half Layan." Seeing their confusion, Justin elaborated.

"I have some inborn magical powers," he said. "I can read some thoughts. I've been probing you all ever since I saw the Sword Of Orakio." For a moment, he looked guilty. "We're not going to use that against you in any way, of course."

"What else do you know?" Rika asked. Her gaze fell on Justin, who was still stalwartly trying to avoid her gaze. "What do you know about us?"

"That's not important right now," Nevak replied. "Save for one thing - you want to try and stop the invasion, don't you?" Rika hesitated, then nodded. Nevak was silent for a moment. "I must think on this for a time. We will discuss this further tomorrow. For the moment, Justin is to be your 'keeper'. He is to remain near you at all times, and see that you are comfortable and secure." He gave slight emphasis to 'secure'. "You are to have free run of the castle and the city, but must remain under guard. As the Bearer and his companions, you are honored guests."
"But not trusted."

"Not by Queen Tareela, no." Nevak looked as if he was about to say more, but stopped. He began to rise.

"Wait!" Tamgren seemed startled by his sudden outburst. "What is the Bearer?"

"The Bearer," Nevak sighed. "That is a long tale, and sad. Suffice it to say that the Bearer, this Lantamaral, will either lead us from the path of darkness - or destroy us all."

* * *

Back out in the hallway, Nevak turned to Justin. "I want an explanation, Justin. Now."

Justin shrugged helplessly. "I've already read all that I can, father. If you want more you'll need a full Layan-"

"Not that. The girl, Rika. Why did you Grant her your Honor?" Nevak's gaze pierced like a knife.

"Look at her, father, then think of me, and what I was-what I am. I see another person going through the same thing and I just can't stand by. And I wasn't about to let her die, father." Justin's voice became both sad and distant, as if remembering something he'd rather forget. "No one will go through that while I live, father. Not if it's in my power to help."

Nevak sighed, and clapped Justin on the shoulder. "Trust your instincts, I suppose, like you always have. Laya knows they've never steered you wrong. I just hope, for your sake, that altruism isn't misplaced."

[an error occurred while processing this directive]