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Branches ripped at his clothing and smacked across his tear-streaked face as Lantamaral Lain pushed his way through the underbrush as fast as he dared go. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of the pursuit that had dogged him since Molcum.
The Dark Espers werenít bothering to push through the wilderness like he wasóhe could hear them blasting their way through with magic, without regard for all that they were destroying.
"Find him!" he heard the womanís voice call over the destruction. "Bring me the Protector!" The woman seemed to be in high standing among the Dark Espers and seemed to be in command of the force that had attacked his adopted home.
Lant tripped and went sprawling in the dirt. As he scrambled to his feet, something icy cold and very strong clamped around his ankle like a vice and pulled hard, tossing him back down. He heard a sultry chuckle and looked back.
"Hello, Protector," Morgan said pleasantly, smiling like a wolf.
* * *
Eldara leaned into the wind and pulled her cloak tighter about herself. Beside her, Tamgren stumbled in the snow and she caught his arm, pulling him back up. "Are you all right?" she called over the howling of the wind.
Tamgren nodded briefly, his face beet red from the cold. She pitied himóand Rika and Alys too, for not being natives to the utter numbing cold of Dezolis.
The Most Reverent led the way. It was hard for Eldara to think of Rachel Toraneille in that way. Though Rachel obviously didnít remember her at all, Eldara had known her when they were both children in the Mansion, before Eldara had left for Gumbio us for her special Magi training. She hadnít been informed of Kyraís death, but since the Espers and the Magi had both started priming for a potential assault on Algo, the two groups had drifted apart. Eldara didnít get to the Mansion much any more, and h er position as Councilman was more in recognition of her standing among the Magi then anything else, as she didnít really function in an official capacity among the Espers.
The Church-sworn Magi had been formed after the Redemption after a petition by the old Archbishop to have a garrison posted at the newly rebuilt Temple. At that time, the Magi had been more of a sub-group among the Espers, but it was Eldaraís stron g suspicion that eventually they would be a group entirely separate from the Espers.
Alys, Myrelle and Rika had filled in the rest of the story for Rachel after she had spoken about Chaz the night before. That was a name Eldara was familiar with, at least in passing. Eight years ago, word had still traveled between the two groups, if slowly. Rachel had taken Myrelle to her room and they had spent the better part of the night together while Rachel dissected his storyómost likely in the hopes that it would give her a clue as to the location of the Silver Fang. If anything, Myrelleís story more upset then informed Rachel. The knowledge that Seth was also looking for, and might even have secured possession of the Fang, deeply disturbed her.
"If Seth has the Fang," Rachel had explained, "then he must have another secured area where heís keeping it other then the Stronghold." She shook her head. "Or my probes missed it completely, in which case Iím incompetent, and I donít think I am."
"How much farther do you think it is?" Tamgren asked her, and she returned to the present.
"Itís in a valley not very deep into the mountains," Eldara told him. "Weíre almost there now." She pointed. "Just over that ridge, I thinkÖ"
A sudden flare of light illuminated the mid-morning sky and a bright purple bolt of lightning flared down from the white clouds above. Eldara felt a surge of magic travel outwards from where it impacted like a shockwave. The signature was startling ly familiar to heróand she was suddenly terrified.
Someone had called down lightning on Tachelís camp!
And whoever was doing it was using the Eclipse Torch.
"Tachel!" she screamed and took off running, pushing past Rachel without a second thought. A moment later she heard someone follow her, calling out her name, but she didnít look back.
Eldara topped the ridge and then descended into a battlefield.
* * *
Rika made a lunge for Eldara as she took off running. "No! Itís too dangerous!" she cried after her as she missed and fell into the snow. "Eldara! Stop!"
Tamgren had mirrored her gesture on Eldaraís left and missed as well, but successfully kept his balance in the snow and took off at a run after her, right past Rachel, who stood stock still and unmoving. Within a second they had both disappeared ov er the edge.
"Damn it!" Rika yelled, pounding her fist in the snow. "Whatís gotten into Tamgren!" A moment later, Myrelleís head poked up out of the snow where he had been thrown from his perch on Rikaís shoulder when she had fallen.
"Whatís going on?" he demanded.
"Morovin is here," Rachel said suddenly, starting out of her trance. "And heís got the Eclipse Torch. He wants to eradicate Tachelís forces before he can oppose him." She smiled thinly. "I found the Eclipse Torch and Iíve managed to render it dorma nt for a few minutes, but it wonít be long before Morovin finds his way through my spell. Now he knows where I am, so Iíll likely be the target of the next assault. Tachel needs the rest of you, so get clear before we start fighting. With any luck, I can draw the devastation away from the camp."
Rika almost protested, but saw the determination in Rachelís eyes. "I understand," Alys told her. "Do what you have to do. Rika, Danielle, Myrelle, come with me."
"Wait," Rachel said suddenly. "Myrelle, you stay. You know magic, donít you? Good. Iíll need all the help I can get. Iím going to need you to help me hold off Morovin so I can strike back now and again. I might be able to end this right now."
Myrelleís eyes lit up. Rika felt a pang of fear for the Musk Cat, for what he might be becoming. "Fine," he said anticipation in his voice. Rika gave Alys a brief, questioning look, saw her nod, then followed her and Danielle down the ridge.
Rachel beckoned and approached the ridge, then crested it. Myrelle sat down next to her and looked across the valley.
Tachelís camp was fairly large, but it was devastated. The group was pock marked where Morovinís attacks had leveled it, and the general melee consisted of Dark Espers, Magi, Dezolisians fighting the Dark Espers, and more Dezolisians fighting the D ezolisians fighting the Dark Espers. Myrelle latched onto Alys, Rika and Danielle as they descended into the battle, but quickly lost them in the confusion. "Whereís Morovin?" he asked.
"I donít know. I canít pinpoint him until he strikes back, and it doesnít look like heís going to unless he can get the Eclipse Torch working again. Do you know how to link minds?"
"Thatís all right, Iíll do it. Relax, and donít fight me." Myrelle felt Rachel extend her magic towards him and penetrate his consciousness. Abruptly, he felt all singularity of his personality become merged with Rachelís, as they became as close t o one person as two people can be.
"This is a little dangerous," they said in unison, though the words were Rachelís. "Which is why itís rarely done between two Espers, since theyíre usually functioning on roughly the same wavelength. Why have we done it, then? Because, Myrelle, our magic styles are different. I donít really understand. Thatís all right. You manipulate elements at a basic level, to accomplish the effects you require for staying alive on Dezolis. We Espers use more specialized magic then yourÖWhat is it that y our people call it, Myrelle? Weaving. How poetic. In any case, I canít assume that youíll know what Iím doing when I get started, and I need you to keep up. Which is why I did it. Oh. Why is it dangerous? Because if I die, youíll be a vegetable for the re st of your life, Myrelle. IÖsee. Do you want to stop this? No, I donít. Iím going to hurt them, Rachel."
For an outsider watching, the path of their thoughts and linked voices would have been almost impossible to follow, but with their thoughts moving practically as one, he was not only keeping up with Rachel, he almost knew what she was going to say before they spoke it. The ground began to rumble beneath their feet.
"Morovinís coming back," they said. As they began to move their differing magical abilities along a single path, lone consciousness practically vanished. "We have to keep hitting him, draw his attacks away from the camp. Iím going to try using my I>tísantari. The Elsydeon can be our trump card."
Lightning arced down from the clear sky as clouds began to gather above their heads. A chill wind blew. The lightning exploded nearby them, but they quickly erected a barrier of shimmering magical force around the explosion to contain it.
"Now, while heís off balance, follow the path of the lightning back to its source." Their single duality flashed along the magicís path and found the Eclipse Torch, wove its way through it and found Morovin. They struck him. Hard. Morovin reeled, a nd returned fire through the Eclipse Torch. The ground buckled around them. Myrelleís magic worked flawlessly, a simple Weave of earth expanded around the entire area, enhanced by Rachel, and calmed the fault line Morovin had created.
"Iíve got him pin pointed," they exclaimed. "Now, weíll render the Eclipse Torch inoperative again." Back along the ways of magic, which Myrelle had never truly explored, into the heart of the artifact. Their magic struck against it andÖ
"No effect," they said. "Heís defending against us. Heís off balance. Keep trying to break down his defenses and he wonít have a chance to hit us back." As one, their faces began to knit in a mixture of concentration and pain. "Have to keep up." P>
* * *
Eldara and Tamgren fought back to back, Eldara wielding a full metal staff, the use of which all Magi were trained it, and Tamgren with a sword with a laser charged blade he had brought from Zelan. They had already felled two of about forty Dark Es pers who were storming the encampment. The rest of the force seemed to be Okerinís. Okerinís force outnumbered the priests behind Tachel, but the Magi dominated the Dark Espers in terms of numbers, if not power.
Farther across the valley, Tamgren could see what was apparently Tachelís base of operations and it looked as if the priests and Magi were rallying there. He could see Rika, Alys and Danielle moving as a group towards it, cutting a swath through th e enemy ranks. But where were Rachel and Myrelle?
His blade hummed in his fist as he carved through another Dezolisian soldier, cleaving through his collarbone and into flesh with relative ease. Tamgren was no swordsman, but the almost superhuman quality of his weapon made up for it to some extent .
Tamgren had been reticent about delving into the armory of Zelan for weaponryóas far as he was concerned, weapons were the least interesting of the technologies Zelan had to offer. He was far from being a pacifist; it was simply that weapons develo pment held no interest for the young scientist.
Once again the invisible energy field around the blade proved its lethal potential as he managed to get the drop on yet another Dark Esper. As the man fell, he saw behind him a perfectly still, one-armed figure in black.
"Eldara!" he cried. "Itís Morovin!" He darted forward, blade flashing.
Tamgren slammed into the Archlord and brought him down, pinning Morovinís arm by his side and slamming his forehead into Morovinís skull, snapping the Archlordís head into the ground. Morovin grunted as his skull cracked against the floor of the va lley, but seemed strangely limp. A largish glass sphere rolled away from him.
"Iím through!" Rachel and Myrelle cried out.
Eldara could only watch helplessly as Tamgren slammed into Morovin and they both toppled. She brought her light metal rod around into her opponentís jaw, and the Dezolisian fell like a rock. There were few staff fighters in the world to rival the M agi. Gripping her staff two handed near both itís end points she stepped nearer Tamgren. She swore. Dark Espers were gravitating towards their threatened leader. Raising her staff, she launched energy from its tip and sent one sprawling. She spun and brou ght the length of her staff down, hard, on the skull of a Dark Esper that got too close, then quickly brought it up under the stunned hereticís chin. His jaws snapped together and the Dark Esper screamed as he bit through his own tongue.
"Eldara!" Danielle appeared beside her, blaster flaring. She glanced around and saw Alys and Rika holding back the tide in the area around Tamgren. She quickly dropped her guard and spun to look at Tamgren. The Archlord of the Dark Espers was strug gling back now, but Tamgren seemed to have the upper hand. She tried to approach, but found herself halted by an invisible barrier Morovin had erected. As she extended her senses into the barrier, she called out "Lutz?"
"There!" Alys pointed to the ridge. Eldara followed her gaze up to where Rachel and Myrelle stood motionless. As her gaze returned to Morovin, she saw the Eclipse Torch lying in the snow just outside the barrier.
"Light, no!" she screamed. "Theyíre going attack! Tamgren!"
A cocoon of green magical fire suddenly erupted around Morovin and Tamgren.
"Tamgren!" Rachel shouted, ripping free of the link so quickly that Myrelle collapsed to the snow, barely conscious. She stemmed the flow of magic, but it was too late, too lateÖ
Howling in agony, Morovin shoved the upstart brat off of him and drew upon his healing magic to extinguish the fires covering his body. Magic exploded around his barrier as his Espers rushed to his aid. It would only be a matter of time before the Protectors clustered around his shielding fell.
He was having trouble putting out the flames, his concentration blurred by the pain. He needed to defend himself. Where was the Eclipse Torch?
His questing eyes found it, lying where it had rolled just outside his barrier. Mustering what power remained in his pain racked body, he began to extend his shields to encompass it.
There were no weaknesses in Morovinís barrier. Eldara was an Esper of no mean power, but she couldnít compare to the likes of Morovin, Rachel and Chaz by any definition of the world. She was barely above average and against a sorcerer as powerful a s the ArchlordÖ
Eldara! Rachelís voice sounded in her mind. The Torch!
Cursing herself, Eldara realized what Morovin was doing and dove for the Eclipse Torch. At the same time, she felt forces enter her body and she realized that Rachel was drawing her into a joining of the minds. The Lutz was already pushed to th e limits, but Eldara threw all of her power into maintaining the link over such huge distances.
Her shoulder slammed against the extending barrier, but the pain was swept away by the euphoria of the magic. Her fingers found the smooth surface of the Eclipse Torch and she snatched it up and clutched it to her chest as she crashed to her belly in the snow. Quickly, she rolled to one side so as not to be caught by Morovinís barrier, and felt Rachel already guiding her power into the deepest recesses of the Torchís power even as she began to throw her strength into whatever Rachel had planned.
The skies shattered. Thunder roared across the skies that were black as night, hot rain and hailstones like shrapnel hammered against the battlefield. Lightning slammed into the Dark Esper forces. Then, a moment later, Rachel withdrew her powers an d the deluge ceased.
Morovin looked up as he felt Lutzís voice penetrate his mind.
I could kill you now.
A fascinating claim. Why have you not put it into action?
I would prefer not to have to kill my allies just to stop a worthless creature like you.
So, you do not have full mastery of the Torchís abilities? How amusing. You can unleash a cataclysm to destroy my forces and myself, but not without slaying your friends. Your emotions are your frailty and your downfall, parasite.
I will do it if I have to.
Drop your barriers, leave Tamgren, take your forces and get out of here.
I will do it, Archlord.
There was steel in that voice, Morovin realized. Perhaps you might. This could very well be refreshing, Lutz. I had always thought Espers were soft.
As you wish.
As the valley abruptly emptied of everything save priests, Magi and corpses, Rachel slipped to her knees. Joining was not an easy thing under any circumstances, and not two in quick succession, one over a distance. The storm had taken a lot of her power, and as well she hadnít been sure she could bluff MorovinÖ But she had.
She was so very tired.
Sighing gently, Rachel fell into the snow and slipped into a deep, cleansing oblivion.
* * *
"Theyíll be all right?" Eldara asked.
Night had fallen over the mostly destroyed camp when Eldara had had a chance to join Rachel and Tamgren in the infirmary. Tachel NíPar himself, Archbishop of Gumbious, was seeing to their care personally.
Rachel seemed to be peacefully asleep. Tamgren was another matter. The priests had taken great care assessing his injuries, and he lay on the cot stripped and uncovered so as not to aggravate his massive burns. There seemed to be very little of his body that had been spared the fire. The priestsí own special brand of healing magic had managed to save his face, in particular his eyes, which had almost been melted by the heat. Though his vision might never be quite the same, he would see when he awok e.
Tachel lay a gentle hand upon Rachelís brow. Nearby, Danielle stood silent watch, while Rika and Alys dozed nearby. Myrelle was nowhere to be found. "Lutz is merely very tired. She has taken her abilities and exhausted them over the past several da ys. She must have had practically no power left when she began the battle, and she was very flamboyant in her expenditures. While it may take her several days to fully recover, I expect her to be conscious by morning." He turned to Tamgren.
"This brave young man is another matter entirely. It was quite a potent counterstrike he was caught in. Luckily, he was at the outer edge of the power and he also seemed to have been caught in some of the ambient protection of Morovinís shieldsódue to the proximity. Otherwise, he would be dead. But we donít have the facilities necessary to treat himÖeven with our magic." Tachel shook his head. "If he hasnít begun to recover by tomorrow morning, I think we should place him in a stasisówhile in the s tasis he wonít heal, but he wonít suffer a relapse. With magical injuries this seriousÖ"
"I understand, Archbishop," Eldara told him. "But you should be telling Alys, not me."
"Let her sleep. We could all do with some, I should think. Tomorrow, we will worry about battles and wars, and you can tell me all about whatís been going on outside this valley."
"I could tell you now, ArchbishopÖ"
"Sleep, Councilman. We need you to function, donít we?" Tachel smiled sweetly at her.
Eldara shook her head. "IÖI think Iíll stay with Tamgren for a while. Just in case."
She felt herself flush uncomfortably as Tachel gave her a probing gaze. Then he smiled again. "You care for him, donít you?"
"He wasÖvery brave, Archbishop," Eldara replied defensively. "He recovered the Eclipse Torch for us and may very well have won the day for us."
"Of course, child. Please fetch me if anything should happen during the night." Tachel stepped around her and out the door.
Walking to the table set between the two cots, Eldara drew up a chair next to Tamgrenís and extinguished the single candle in the room. In the sudden darkness, she shifted so that she could watch his face and the steady, if shallow, rise and fall of his chest. Within a moment, she was asleep.[an error occurred while processing this directive]