[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter 1

SPACE CENTURY 372.49

Present Day

Dezolis wasn't, despite first impressions, the worst place to spend eight years. And, upon reflection, the Esper Mansion wasn't a bad place to be either.

Chaz wandered the hallways of the Mansion, pausing every now and then to look out a window at the blizzard raging outside. Not far away, through the blur of snow, he could see the dim shapes of the small village that had sprung up around the Mansion in wake of the war.

Dezolisian refugees, fleeing the civil war, had come to the Esper Mansion in the hopes of being safe. Despite the Espers' strictly neutral stance on the conflict itself-though not, by any means, on it's causes-not a single refugee had been turned away. No matter which faction they supported, Goran L'Rell's or Tachel N'Par's.

Eight years ago Chaz Lain had lacked such perspective.

As always the Esper Mansion was magically warm, and Chaz had stripped off his blue cloak in the warmth. Some purists insisted on keeping them on at all times, but Chaz was far from a purist.

Cynic was more the word, despite his stance among the Espers. He was one of the youngest Initiates to be advanced to full Esper status, and gossip among some of his more jealous peers said that he would also become the youngest to be advanced to the Council. Chaz had no such aspirations, and anticipated that if offered a position, he would turn it down.

He sighed, for no reason other then he was feeling a little depressed. He didn't really know why. After all, he had nothing wrong with his life. He had his studies, his magic, Rachel…

"Rachel!" he whispered, snapping his fingers. Rachel would be waiting. He grinned and quickened his step.

* * *

"We have to face reality, Narrel," Kyra sighed, scrubbing a hand through her soft blue hair. "My duties as Lutz are finished. It's time to move on."

"I think you're wrong," Narrel replied bluntly. In the eight years they had worked together, they had dropped the rather stiff formality of 'Speaker' and 'Most Reverent' in favor of 'Narrel' or 'Kyra'. It was rather refreshing for the both of them and made their jobs that much easier. "I've never agreed with it."

"Rune Walsh did the same thing, and he was right. His duties as a Protector and as Lutz were finished. I had my duties and he knew it. Let's face it-if he had been Lutz during the Alisian Wars, we would have lost."

"We don't know that." Narrel replied. He sat down at the table across from Kyra. The Telepathy Ball hung suspended between them, it's up and down movement as steady and predictable as ever. Just watching the holy artifact made a dreamy lassitude creep over Narrel. He shook himself and moved on. "And what if you are wrong? What if you pass it on to one of them before your duties are completed? It could disrupt the Balance even more."

"Narrel, I can feel it. I don't know how to explain it." Kyra paused. "I just know that now is the time to pass it on."

"How?"
"How does a Dezo Owl know when to migrate?"

"That's not the same thing at all."

Kyra shrugged. "You don't have to agree with me, Narrel, but you do have to follow my instructions. It's time for me to select my Chosen."

Narrel sighed, rose and started pacing again. "Kyra, I'm not comfortable with this. If you're wrong-"

"I'm not wrong," Kyra replied with a touch of ice in her voice.

"-If you're wrong, you risk the Balance of the universe. The chaos…"

Kyra rose. "You know I don't hold any stock in that theory. The Balance is non-sentient, Narrel. There is no random chaos."

"Then why are there still Protectors?"

"Who knows? Maybe it's just one of the facts of life. But, Narrel, I know." She shrugged. "As I said, you don't have to agree with me. I'm still going to do it." She rounded the table and approached the stairs. "Walk with me a while," she said.

The courtyard was protected from the storm raging outside by a dome of Esper magic. It was as comfortable a place as any to talk.

"So," Narrel said, "if you're dead set on this, which will it be?"

"I don't honestly know," Kyra replied. "There's so much good to support either. They're both Protector stock-Rachel might not know it, but she is." Kyra sighed. "You'd be hard pressed to find a more admirable ancestor then Shir Gold."

"You respected her very much, didn't you?"

"Yes, yes I did. In any case, I'll know when the time comes. Isn't that the way these things usually go?"

Narrel pushed open the door to the Mansion proper and they passed out of the Courtyard. Their footfalls rang on the polished marble floor. Kyra took the lead, walking through the hallways until they reached the Council chambers. The Council wasn't in session at the time and they had the room to themselves.

"Have you had any luck with the 'Chosen Espers'?" Kyra said it was a disgusted twist of her upper lip.

"The Dark Espers? No." Narrel shook his head. "Neither of the Eclipse Torch."

"Narrel, it's been eight years. How many places could they possibly hide?" Kyra shook her head and leaned backwards against on the of the tiered benches.

"If it weren't for those gems, we'd have found them by now. They must be using t'santari to mask their locations." They were simply going through the motions of this discussion now, having said pretty much the same thing in the same way since the Alisian War. "We thought we'd detected the Eclipse Torch being used yesterday near Reshel, but when we got there all we found were a few residual traces and a blizzard that could freeze fire."

"They're toying with us."
"Yes."

"Any luck with Morgan at all?"

"You know Morgan," Narrel replied with a shake of his head. "You can't ever get a straight answer out of her. I was going to try to get something out of her again today."

"Don't expect much luck."

"I never do." He turned to go.

"Narrel-" Kyra paused. "Narrel, too many lives have already been lost because of our carelessness. We can stop the civil war if we can find the Eclipse Torch. It might be time to consider…taking what we need from Morgan."

Narrel stiffened. He spoke, not turning. "You don't know what you're suggesting, Kyra. It was done to me, and it's awful. Mind-rape is worse then anything you could ever do to a person. You lay bare their feelings, fears, pains, their souls to you, and you rip through them until you find what you need. If we did it, we'd be no better then Morovin." He walked out quickly and shut the door behind him, leaving Kyra alone in the empty room.

* * *

There was very little of any use at all left in the Vahal Fort.

Technicalities like that very rarely bothered Morovin Lan'Tearin.

Thankfully, their decoy with the Eclipse Torch had drawn most of the Espers away from their scouring of Motavia for the time being, but still, Morovin wished that he could just get this job done and get going. He surveyed the excavation.

There were twenty or so of his people moving through the rubble, and Morovin could feel them probing about with their minds. Some knelt and heaved aside rocks with their bare hands, but most lifted them telekinetically.

Not, by any means, for the first time, he cursed Tamerus' ineptitude. He should have gone to the Alisa III himself, not sent a no-talent, megalomaniac assassin like Tamerus. Of course, the moment his back was turned Tamerus and Morgan would have started struggling to achieve Archlord while he was preoccupied.

Chosen Esper politics were like that.

He followed up Tamerus' curse with a curse for Speaker Narrel of the Espers. And then a curse for himself. That day in Paseo he had lost the war almost as surely as Tamerus had-and he had lost more. Sometimes he still woke up and would scratch at where his arm used to be. Now it was only a stump, ended just above the elbow.

But the time that they would return was coming. He would repay Speaker Narrel a hundred fold. He would-

"Archlord!" Morovin snapped back to reality and turned to face the direction of the call. He grinned widely and began to pick his way across the rubble towards the Dark Esper who had spoken. The man was standing by a hole he had dug in the wreckage. As Morovin approached, he knelt and pointed into the hole.

Morovin dropped to one knee beside him and looked as well.

There it was, after all these years, still intact! A simple black wooden crosspiece, simple and unadorned, blackened as if in a furnace. Almost lovingly, Morovin reached out and stroke the hilt of Netrdeon. The Espers had missed it! And it was easy to see why. The blade had contained the obvious power, but that had been shattered by Elsydeon, and then the shards magically destroyed. The hilt had been lost in the rubble, lacking any obvious power.

Unless one knew how to look.

Morovin did.

He grasped the hilt and could feel something pulsing at it's heart. The last traces of the Profound Darkness still stirred within the hilt. The Darkness was dead, but here, in the last strains of Black Energy, was the master's legacy.

With it, they would rise again, and Algo would burn with their might and their anger.

He rose, and raised the bladeless wooden hilt above his head. "We have what we came for!" his voice amplifying magically to carry across the wreckage. "Let's go! Back to Dezolis!" Even as he spoke, he focused his mind upon his t'santari crystal, and made the Jump.

* * *

"Hello, Morgan."

"Speaker," she replied with the sincerity she faked so well. Morgan had, upon entering the Esper Mansion eight years before, traded in her Dark Esper black for Novitiate white robes. "So nice of you to come pay a visit. Did you say hello to the guards outside?"

Morgan was in one of the indoor gardens the Espers maintained within the Mansion. It was comfortably warm, the kind of temperature one would describe as a mild summer's day. These gardens were the last places (with the exception of the Alisa III) where plants native to Parma could still be found. Morgan was seated on a bench beside a small pool of water. Her back was to Narrel.

Narrel crossed the garden and sat down next to Morgan. He wasn't particularly worried-Morgan was Sealed by the guards at the door, and her t'santari was safely locked away with the other two chunks they possessed in the Arcanium.

"Morgan," he began, "you've been here eight years."

Morgan threw back her head and laughed. "Let's not discuss this again, Narrel. We've had the same discussion every time you've come to visit me, and eight years is a very long time to say the same things over and over again."

"Morovin isn't coming for you."

"Yes he is," Morgan stated with the conviction of the insane. "The Chosen Espers never abandon their own. When the time is ripe and he needs me, Morovin will come." She turned to look at Narrel. "I would suggest that you be elsewhere when he does. He hates you, I know it. If you are here when he comes, he'll kill you."

"And you accuse me of saying the same thing over and over again?" Narrel rose and walked around the edge of the pool, placing it between Morgan and himself. He gazed down at his reflection. "Morgan, be realistic. They've abandoned you. Tell me what they're planning and we'll forgive you."

"And then what? Once I'm forgiven, what happens to me?"

Damn. He'd done it again, mistaken insanity for stupidity. "We won't hurt you," he offered lamely.

Morgan rose too and faced him across the pool. "If you want to know so badly, you can simply take it." Her voice had lost the rather vague quality that it always had, replaced by a hint of steel. "You know how to do so."

"I'm not you."

"Then I think we've about exhausted the possibilities of this conversation, don't you?"

Narrel sighed. This was how it usually went. He shouldn't be surprised, not after eight years. "I suppose so, Morgan. I'll be back."

"As long as you're here, Speaker, would you care to go for a swim?" Her hands went suggestively to the ties of her robe at her throat. She was gorgeous, Narrel found himself realizing, then shook himself.

"No, Morgan. I'll see you later."

"Yes. I think, as long as I'm here, I'll go for a swim anyway. Feel free to come join me." She began to untie her robe as Narrel rounded the pool and walked away. He heard it slip to the ground and looked over his shoulder to see Morgan entering the pool. He quickly turned and walked out of the room.

That woman was very good at keeping him on his toes.

* * *

"Rachel?" Chaz called softly, shutting the door to her rooms behind him. "Where are you?"

"Here," Rachel called entering the room from the small adjoining kitchen. Rachel Toraneille was, among other things, the only other Esper aside from Narrel and Kyra to approach Chaz in terms of sheer power. She had auburn hair and auburn eyes that Chaz always felt his own eyes drawn too. Her voice had a touch of iron that made her sound like a clarion.

Chaz had never loved anyone more.

He crossed the room and embraced her, then kissed her. Rachel, to his surprise, resisted and pushed him away. "Not now, Chaz," she said. She turned and walked to a chair, and sat down. "Chaz, we're both being considered for the Chosen." She blurted it out as if it was the most vile curse word she knew. "I heard, today, some of the Councilmen talking. The Most Reverent has decided it's time to pass it on to another, and we're both being considered by her."

"Rachel, that's wonderful!"
"No, it's not. Chaz…Chaz, it's over."

Chaz blinked in surprise. "What?"
"There's nothing left. You have to face reality, Chaz. We've been strained to stay

together for a few months now, and we both know it. This could tear us apart. I don't want to hurt you, or hurt me, for that matter, any more then we have to."

Chaz was silent.

"What if you got picked, Chaz?"

"I'd turn it down."

"You don't have that right. And I can't promise that I'd do the same. Think about it, Chaz! I could be Lutz! Don't you realize what that means?"

"Yeah." Chaz replied coldly. "I do. I know exactly what that means.

"Very well, Rachel, if that's what you wish," he continued, his voice chillingly formal. "I believe I'll take my leave of you now. Light guide you, Rachel." There was no affection in his voice. Chaz had never been good with things like that.

Rachel sighed and nodded. Chaz turned and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

* * *

True to form, Goran L'Rell had arrived earlier that day under heavy guard. Tachel had ordered that he be well treated for the morning, and reports he had received from his underlings said that Goran was becoming increasingly impatient to see him. A few hours after noon prayers, Tachel N'Par, Archbishop of New Gumbious Temple, went to see his political arch-rival.

The New Gumbious Temple had taken twenty-five years to complete to satisfaction, and still it couldn't compare to the raw splendor of the old one. Gumbious had been constructed using old world technology and artisans, and no one could reproduce the kind of workmanship the Profound Darkness had so casually blown to atoms during the Redemption.

Tachel walked into the chambers he had ordered Goran put in and stood waiting at the door.

"Enter," Goran told him brusquely, waving him in. Goran was very bulky and muscular for a Dezolisian, but Tachel was careful not to be deceived. Goran was far, far from stupid. "Why the delay?" he asked angrily.

"My pardons," Tachel replied, nodding to Goran. "But I had several other matters to attend to before I could see to you. I set the time of this meeting specifically. If you come early, it's unlikely I'll be able to attend to you right away. May I sit?"

"Please." Goran paused. "Tachel, this war is lunacy. I have no quarrel with you. I wish you could see that."

Tachel took a moment in answering, surveying the room. Goran had brought two armed guards with him, and his closest aide, a scheming bootlicker named Okerin. He looked back to Goran. "A war against the people of Dezolis is a war with me."

"The Palmans, the Espers, and the Motavians aren't people of Dezolis." Goran replied. "I hold no grudge against you for the loss of the Eclipse Torch, I wish you could realize that. The Espers manipulated you…"

"They did no such thing," Tachel told him hastily. "What I did I did of my own free will."

Goran continued as if Tachel hadn't spoken. "The Espers manipulated you," he repeated, "and took the Eclipse Torch. Now, I don't hold you responsible for this, but Dezolis has become dirtied by the influence of the other races, you must realize that. They absconded with the center of our faith and then allowed it to be taken by their enemies. The only way to preserve what's left of our religion is to cleanse Dezolis."

"If, by cleansing, you mean 'death', I cannot allow it. We are all children of the Flame, Goran. You believed that once."

"Where are your Esper friends now?" Goran asked, changing the subject.

"They are searching for the Eclipse Torch as we speak."

Okerin scoffed. Goran silenced him with a glare. "But if they did not manipulate you, why are Espers not fighting with you, save for your church-sworn Magi? Why are Esper bodies not among the dead and dying."

"The foolishness of the people of Dezolis is not their concern. The Espers have always been neutral in the matters of war. They have promised me that they will find the Eclipse Torch and retrieve it."

"That won't end the war."
"Probably not. I wish you would consider stopping the fighting."

Goran thought about, to his credit, for a few moments. "No, Tachel. Dezolis must be cleansed. And if you are too blind to see that, then perhaps the only way to cleanse it is for me to wear the mantle of Archbishop." He rose. "I will return to Reshel now. If you have anything further to say, you know where to contact me. Okerin, to me."

Goran and his men rose and walked out of the room. Tachel sat alone for a moment, then murmured a quick prayer to the Flame and left the room.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]