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Rachel wanted to scream. Shar huddled in the doorway to the throne room, teeth bared, and for the love of the Light was staring right at her, through her invisibility. Shar’s nose scrunched up hideously and her snuffling noises increased .
"Smellllls," Shar repeated. "Is here."
The red lines the covered Seth’s body like liquid fire flared brilliantly and for a moment it seemed as if that fire had spread over his entire body and he was actually on fire. The light died, but the lines and those hideous flat eyes smouldered a s Seth turned his eyes right to her. But he was looking through her, past her.
"It’s an Esper," Seth intoned, "but the look of the armor. Probably female, and of high standing." Seth cocked his head. "You didn’t mask you shadow, Esper." His tone was derisive. "Chaz, Carlam, Morovin, crush th e Esper. She’s warded. If you probe hard enough you can target those and pierce them."
Her shadow! That was a Novitiate’s mistake! Abruptly, she felt someone’s probe touch her defenses, brushed past and then return to hammer at them, full force. Someone had found her.
"There," Chaz said, pointing at her, "Right there."
Please, Chaz, Rachel hurled the thought at him, a desperate plea, oh please.
Chaz’s eyebrows came up. "Disciple, Archlord, it is Rachel Toraneille. Lutz."
She hit him. Hard. Her t’santari enhanced power slammed through his inferior barriers and wards, a steady barrage of raw magical and psychic power, invisible and deadly. Chaz’s head snapped back and he teetered on his feet, then sank slowly to his knees. His attacks on her defenses dwindled and then died. It was all he could do to stay conscious.
Without lessening that magical power, Rachel turned the force of her blows against the Dark Esper called Carlam. He wasn’t as strong as Chaz by half and was physically hurled several steps backwards. His back struck the wall and he began to sink do wn.
Then Morovin launched his own attack. She felt her formidable wards waver and begin to collapse. She’d been foolish, latching on to the first target she had seen after Chaz, had forgotten Morovin’s power and ability. She felt Seth join in the attac k. His magical powers, she noticed, were outweighed by his cunning, as his barrage was hardly strong enough to weaken her barriers on its own. But with Morovin…
"It’s all right, Disciple," Morovin said. "I have her."
She needed power! Her wards were collapsing and if she became visible, she would expose herself to physical attack from Shar. Worse still, Seth hadn’t withdrawn his attack and Carlam seemed to be regaining his feet.
Stepping partway down from the dais on which Seth’s throne rested, Morovin halted, his face twisted in intense concentration, his stump of an arm twitching slightly. He was stronger then she was, stronger by far, and he didn’t have to maintain ward s…
Wards, She’d already been found. All she needed was to remain invisible so that Shar couldn’t kill her. Momentarily withdrawing her counterattack against the Archlord, Rachel released her hold on the Elsydeon.
The sacred sword flared at her hip, its incredible radiance shining through her shields, filling the room with warmth and light.
Morovin’s concentration was shattered and Rachel felt his onslaught vanish. Without wasting time, she focused the power she had taken from her wards and hurled it against Morovin’s mind.
"Disciple…" Morovin gasped before collapsing to the ground like a poleaxed Dezo owl. With a power like his, he was not unconscious, but he was stunned and oblivious to his surroundings.
The light died, and the warmth faded, and the room seemed darker, the universe smaller for the lack of it. Seth stood motionless on the dais, the red bands darkening to a dusky blue. Rachel glanced over her shoulder and saw the forces that moved th e Elsydeon had dealt with Shar and that she was was flat out on her back, still as a statue.
"That light…" Seth’s voice resonated from deep within him, awed. He was as stunned as Morovin and Shar, Rachel realized.
"Your fate," Rachel said, releasing her sound wards. "I am leaving." She quickly replaced her wards and turned and left, stepping over the Numan’s inert form. The halls were dark and empty, but not for long. The Elsydeon’s esote ric display had expended enough power to be felt on the Alisa III. She needed to be away from here. There was no point risking another confrontation with Seth and Morovin when she could avoid it.
Rachel slipped into a doorway and what looked like an empty bedroom. She pushed the door shut, released her wards, twisted space around herself, and Jumped.
* * *
Chaz groaned and pressed his hand to his forehead. Someone had him by his other arm and was helping him to his feet. His head was pounding and hear his own blood rushing in his ears. Slowly, his vision cleared and he stopped seeing double. Carlam, the Chosen Esper which Seth had assigned him, was helping him regain his feet.
"Are you all right, my Lord?"
Chaz nodded slowly, thought about it, and nodded again. "Yes. Thank you." He rubbed his forehead as he straightened. "Rachel has always been strong, but I think she had a t’santari." He looked around the room. "Disci ple? Archlord?"
Seth stepped down from the dais slowly. His bands, Chaz noticed, were a shimmering azure. "I shall see to Morovin," Seth said distractedly. "You are dismissed, General."
"Are you sure you’re all right, General?"
Carlam grimaced. "Are you sure? If someone higher up hears me address you so…familiarly, I could be beaten."
Chaz glanced at the other in surprise as they walked down the hallway away from the throne room. "On what grounds?"
"You are my superior, General. Don’t such things happen at the Esper Mansion?"
Shaking his head, Chaz took Carlam’s arm and guided him into the courtyard, turning his face into the falling snow. "That depends."
Carlam grinned sardonically. "On what, General?"
"That nature of the beating, of course. Younger Novitiates who break the rules continually might be strapped by the Master of Novitiates, but most time punishment is just a greater load of chores around the Mansion, or reduced privileges. Olde r Novitiates aren’t strapped, and full Initiates and true Espers…well, it would be degrading."
"I see." Carlam hesitated. "Fists, straps, whatever comes to hand really."
"You asked about the nature of the beating, General."
"Oh, of course." Chaz paused as the information sunk in. "Anything at all?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes, General. One of my friends was once beaten with a chair."
"What for?" Chaz asked, shocked.
Shrugging, Carlam shook his head. "I don’t remember. It’s not really important, either. There’s a strict hierarchy here, and you are free to do whatever you wish with or to anyone below you. In your case, anyone but Lady Morgan, the Archlord a nd the Disciple. How does it work in the Esper Mansion?"
"There’s a loose structure at the Mansion—well, there was." Something about that made Chaz sad, but only a little and only for a moment. "Novitiates, Initiates, Espers, Councilmen, the Speaker, Lutz. But even the Novitiates were trea ted with the same respect as anyone else—except for the Reverent One, that was different. If an Initiate beat a Novitiate, or anything like that, they’d probably be denied full Esper status and quietly asked to leave the Mansion. Punishments and that sort of thing are handled by the Master of Novitiates and the Master of Initiates. Only the most severe infractions are taken to the Council, and they rarely reach Lutz unless the Speaker deems it worthy." As he described the system, Chaz could feel loat hing bubbling up inside him. He had always hated that system, always. Yes, he remembered now. Fear. Fear was the key to an efficient machine. Where had he heard that?
"It sounds like an effective system," Carlam said, a note of longing in his voice. Suddenly, Chaz wanted to hit him.
"I don’t wish to discuss it anymore."
Carlam hung his head. "Forgive me, General."
Chaz sighed, smiled a little and shook his head. "Forget it." He clapped Carlam on the shoulder. "Come on, it’s cold out here. Let’s go inside and warm up."
* * *
"I hate Dezolis," Rika commented, shaking snow out of her cloak as she stood in the doorway of the Jut inn, careful to leave her hood up, a precaution Alys took as well.
"I hate Motavia," Myrelle snapped from his perch on her shoulder, twitching his ears in what Rika assumed was his equivalent of a shrug. "Too warm. But I didn’t do either you or your home the disservice of complaining."
Rika was too tired to argue with him. After leaving the Esper Mansion, Myrelle’s disposition had been growing increasingly venomous, and even the slightest comment engendered a waspish response. Instead, she finished brushing herself down and watch ed Tamgren and Eldara approach the counter to secure them some rooms for the night.
The door to the inn started to open and banged against Alys’ shoulder as she completed removing the snow. Alys stepped forward and pulled the door open as a younger woman entered. "Sorry," the woman said in a harried voice. "I’m in a bit of a hurry."
"Not a problem," Alys replied. "Sorry about that."
The woman crossed the lobby towards the counter where Tamgren was standing, then paused and turned to regard Alys. "Alys?" she asked in a lost sounding voice.
Alys’ eyes narrowed as she looked at the other woman. "I’m sorry—have we met?"
The woman withdrew a hand from her cloak and partially extended it towards Alys, as if in a gesture of longing or shock, as if trying to convince herself that the figure she beheld was real or not. "My name is Rachel," she said. "I’m Lutz."
Blinking and taking an involuntary step backwards, Alys shook her head. "Kyra?"
Rachel hung her head. "I’m sorry, but…she’s dead."
Stepping forward, Alys took the woman’s shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. "Tell me. Tell me something only Lutz would know."
"Alys?" Tamgren asked, approaching with the Magi. Rika silenced him with a glare and a gesture. He lapsed into silence.
The woman looked at Alys for a long moment, then sighed and dropped her eyes and her face from Alys’. Alys frowned. "I thought as much," she said. "Tell Morovin, or whoever you serve, that we’ll not be so easily broken. Unless you wa nt to have it out right here?" She pushed the woman to the side and approached Tamgren. "Our rooms?"
Steeling herself visibly, the woman took a quick step forward and laid her hand on Alys’ shoulder. Rika and Alys went for their blades with the speed of skilled warriors, while Danielle’s hand darted into her cloak for her gun.
"Let go of me, heretic," Alys snarled dangerously.
The woman took a deep breath. "I’m sorry," she said, but the quality of her words had changed. Rika was immediately struck that this woman, this Rachel, was no longer speaking, but someone else directed her voice. "But this isn’t a m atter of the parents making the choice. Alys may be your daughter, but she’s also fated to fight with us. She, and the two of you, stepped into my realm long ago, and that makes it my call. But I swear to you, I will keep her safe." Her voice returne d to normal. "Do you remember that day, Alys?" Rachel whispered.
Alys’ eyes suddenly filled with tears. "Our rooms?" she asked Tamgren in a hushed voice.
"They’re ready. Alys—"
"Take me there, now." She removed Rachel’s hand from her shoulder. "Please come with me." As the two of them brushed past Eldara, the Magi reached out as if she might stop Rachel, then let her hand drop to her side. "Lutz,& quot; she whispered so quietly that only Tamgren heard, in a voice full of reverence.
* * *
Rachel seated herself on the bed, spreading her cloak underneath her. "I’m sorry, Alys," she whispered, her eyes downcast. "I know how much these things hurt you. It just throws me a little. It seems that every time we meet, I’m so m uch different and it bothers me." She cast her eyes over each member of the group. "I don’t mean to sound peremptory, but perhaps it would be better if we introduced ourselves first. Councilman," she said, nodding formally.
"Most Reverent." Eldara bowed her head and her voice was breathless.
"Tamgren, Rika, Daughter. It has been some time."
"Lutz," Rika and Tamgren said, nodding as one.
Danielle briefly inclined her head in greeting. "I prefer Danielle."
Rachel’s gaze fell to Myrelle. "It’s not often that one sees a Musk Cat so far from the Vale." She suddenly adopted a whole different language, making sounds that seemed unnatural coming from a human mouth. "Iktani, prrhn alar. Qn iilchar?"
"Kalaar," Myrelle replied sounding surprised. "Please, I must speak with you as soon as possible," he continued, switching back into the common tongue.
"Yes," Alys said. "That’s most important. I’m prepared to believe you’re Lutz. How did Kyra die?"
Rachel nodded. "Someone tapped a dormant pocket of Black Energy that had somehow survived the Great Rebirth. It resulted in a very powerful wave of Black Energy that struck down those closest to the source who were most sensitive to Black Ener gy; Kyra, because of her heritage as Lutz, and your son, Chaz, because of his Numan blood. Kyra…she used most of her power to draw the poison from Chaz into herself. She saved his life. But the Healers couldn’t deal with that amount of energy and…she died . It was almost three weeks ago, I suppose. Chaz disappeared the same day."
"Have you seen him since?"
"Yes." Rachel drew a shuddering breath. "When he attacked the Mansion with Morovin Lan’Tearin."
Alys flinched visibly and Rika felt something within herself tighten and not release. She wanted to cry.
"Why would Chaz do such a thing?" Danielle asked. "I knew him, slightly, before he developed the instabilities which were most prominent during the Alisian Wars, and he was an imminently stable, sensible young man. Is there any reaso n he would side with Morovin?"
"He’s ensorcelled," Rachel replied, twisting her hands uncomfortably on her lap. "But—"
"Then he can still be saved!" Rika leapt out of her chair.
"But," Rachel repeated, firmly, "I’ve seen the spell that binds him. Spells such as those, they…they don’t work unless they already have something there to mold and intensify. Please," Rachel placated, seeing Rika’s risin g anger, "let me explain. The day he disappeared, we were both called to the Council Chambers. Kyra was dying then, and Chaz still recovering. Kyra had to choose one of us to follow her and…and she chose me. Chaz was very upset. A few days previously , we had separated from each other." She shook her head. "I had separated. From him. I knew we were both being considered for the Chosen. We were already strained, and I knew it wouldn’t survive. I was rather hoping we could see eye to eye and e nd it without rancor. I was wrong."
"Are you insinuating that Chaz would have betrayed the Espers regardless of enchantment?" Danielle’s cooly logical voice cut across the beginnings of protest from Rika, Tamgren and Alys.
"No. I’m saying he was angry, Danielle. That’s all." She turned back to Alys. "Alys, I don’t want to rush you, in any way, but…"
"Yes." Alys nodded. "I know. Eldara was taking us to Tachel N’Par’s camp in the mountains. She was sent to get help from the Espers to retrieve New Gumbious from Okerin, but…"
"The temporal warp. I know." Rachel replied. She looked at Eldara. "Where is Tachel?"
"South of here, in the mountains. He’s set up camp with the remnants of the clergy."
Rachel nodded. "Very well. I’ll be accompanying you."
Eldara blanched. "Most Reverent, no! It’ll be much too dangerous—with all due respect, of course, but…"
Rachel’s hand dropped to her belt. "I have a t’santari. With that we stand a much better chance of defeating Okerin. With it my powers are staggering, to say the least. I also have something else." Rachel seemed to take hold of thi n air near her belt, then slid her hand upwards. Rika felt the slight tingle she always associated with magic.
Rachel was holding the Elsydeon.
"Then the Dark Espers don’t have it!" Tamgren cried.
"No. But they do have the Telepathy Ball, the Psycho-Wand and the Eclipse Torch, and everything else that might give us an edge. It might even be better to have the Wand or the Torch or the Fang—at least then I’d understand their powers. Even to me the Elsydeon is an enigma."
"The Silver Fang?" Myrelle asked.
"Yes," Rachel replied. "It hasn’t been seen since the Redemption. Rika Ashley had it, but she never spoke of it." She pressed a hand to her forehead. "I should know where it is…but I don’t! My memories are still emerging. M ost of the things I know about the weapons and artifacts are what Rachel knows, not Rune or Kyra or Taren or Noah. If one of them did know where the Silver Fang was, I don’t."
Rika sighed. Such a long road, such a very long road, and what waited them at it’s terminus was already almost an inevitability.