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Using a pair of telescopic binoculars Danielle had brought with her, Rika made a quick tally of the forces around the Mansion. "They're not as stupid as they were before," she noted to Rachel, Alys, Eldara and Tachel, lying beside her on the slope. "Looks like they've stepped up security. Good thing we didn't count on their overconfidence repeating itself." She put the binoculars down and the five of them quickly and quietly worked their way down the slope to where Danielle was waiting with a group of Magi, priests and Myrelle. "We're outnumbered, outgunned, and they have the advantage of position," Rika said bluntly.
"Do we have much of a chance?" Myrelle asked, his voice sounding small and frightened. Rika suddenly felt a pang for him. He had probably never left the Myst Vale before the attack, and nowShe forced a small smile.
"Not with a head on charge, no, but we never planned that anyways. Alys and I were talking, and we think our best bet is some kind of diversionary measure that would allow a small group to enter the Mansion and release the Espers is best. Eldara." Rika turned to the Magi. "You know the strengths and weaknesses of the Esper Magi best. I want you to select our strike team. Rachel, with the t'santari, Elsydeon and the Eclipse Torch, how many Magi do you think you'll need to unravel the stasis?"
"That really depends on the strength of the Espers, Rika. Individual power varies, you understand. And of the artifacts at our disposal, the Eclipse Torch won't do us any good. It doesn't enhance magic the way the Psycho-Wand, the Elsydeon or t'santari do. Judging by what I've observed from the Magi, I couldn't do it with less then fifteen." She glanced at Eldara. "Fifteen of your strongest, Eldara, and we'll stand a chance." After a moment's afterthought, "and Myrelle. It can't hurt to have him helping us."
Rika opened her mouth to contest the final point, but saw Alys shake her head ever so slightly. "All right," she acquiesced. "Eldara, go select your team. Myrelle, go with her. Brief everyone. I want them ready."
"I understand," Eldara said curtly, then turned and struck out towards the camp, Myrelle running to keep up.
"She's tense," Alys noted. "Something's bothering her."
Making a humming noise deep in his throat, Tachel spoke. "It's not truly for me to say, at least in any other times, when other's lives depend on it, butahTamgren's condition has her on edge. She's very worried about him."
"Because he rescued the Eclipse Torch?" Rika asked. Out of the corner of her mouth she saw her mother smile. She was suddenly quite confused.
Tachel coughed and looked faintly uncomfortable. "Well, you see, Rika"
"Oh, Light, Rika, she's in love!" Alys snapped irritably. "Have you been spending so much time honing your sword you've forgotten how people work?"
"In love?" Rika blinked. "With Tamgren?" Rika loved him too, of course, they had grown up together. He was like a brother to her, and he and Lant had always had a relationship, if not stronger then Lant's to Rika's, then fundamentally different, butTamgren was so distant, especially since his parents' accident, when he'd gone to live on Zelan. He'd always been strange "Tamgren?" she asked quietly.
"I had observed classic romantic tension when Eldara visited him in his stasis field," Danielle noted. She had been staying close to Tamgren since the battle.
"You noticed, and I didn't?" Rika gaped.
Alys took her elbow to get her attention. "Rika? We have to plan the attack."
Shaking herself, Rika focused. "Sorry about that, it's just" She grinned once more, then settled into business. "So, Rachel, what we need now is a diversion. Something to draw the Dark Espers into the mountains and give us time to free the Espers and escape. I don't want to put this down to main force if we can avoid it."
"The Eclipse Torch would be the perfect diversionary measure," Rachel said without hesitation. "It's control over the weather can be very subtle as well as very obvious - the exact opposite of what you saw at Tachel's camp. I can show one of the priests how to create a very subtle atmospheric disturbance, just enough to create a notable magical resonance. When the Dark Espers detect it, with any luck it'll draw them towards the disturbance, and away from the Mansion."
"That sounds good. How noticeable would this resonance be?"
Rachel reached out and took hold of Rika's chin, her fingers digging into Rika's cheeks. Startled, Rika tried to pull away, but Rachel released her and drew back. "About that noticeable," Rachel said.
Rubbing her face, Rika nodded. "Next time, tell me. Once you've drawn them to the resonance, how long would they stay there?"
Rachel's brow furrowed. "That's the loop hole. They'll either realize it's a trick and come racing back, or decide whatever caused it is in hiding and start looking."
That could be bad. Rika rubbed her arms underneath the heavy cloak she wore. She hated the cold, and she hated the odds she had. "Wait," Alys said suddenly. "Once the Dark Espers reached the source of the magic, couldn't you magnify the resonance?"
Rachel maintained her composure, but her hands twitched in front of her as if she wanted to strike herself in the head. "Of course! Once they reach the resonance field I can hit them with a real storm!"
"Not you," Tachel said suddenly. "Me. My mastery of the Eclipse Torch is at least as great as yours, Lutz, and they need your expertise in the Mansion. I'll handle this front."
Rachel regarded him silently for a moment. "I admire your courage, Tachel. Very well. Good luck. I think we'll all need it."
Rika hurriedly wiped her blade on the edge of the fallen Dark Esper's cloak and looked about, wary of reinforcements. Nearby, Alys and Danielle seemed to be doing the same.
Rachel's plan had gone off without a hitch, and only a few guards had remained at the Mansion's gate, which had been easily dealt with by their group's surprise strike. Rachel, Rika, Danielle, Eldara and fifteen of the strongest Magi had had very little difficulty dispatching the handful of Dark Espers.
"T'santari?" Rachel asked, but the Magi searching the corpses could only respond with shakes of their head. It seemed t'santari was only issued to Dark Espers of some particular rank, and even the corpses at the priest's camp had yield only about a half-dozen pieces, all of which were in the hands of the Magi in their little group. Eldara carried Rachel's piece, and Rachel carried the Elsydeon. Myrelle, having tried to use one of the pieces, had had no luck. For him, it was just a chunk of stone. Rachel sighed.
"It can't be helped," Rika said gently. "Let's move out. I want to get off this planet before nightfall." As she turned towards the gates, a huge explosion rumbled through the mountains, followed by another, and another.
"Light!" Rachel hissed. "That's not a storm he's turning loose, it's a cataclysm!" An enormous thunderhead was forming over the mountains, and lightning bolts that, from that distance seemed as thick as Rika's wrist, smashed down from the heaven's rapidly, the source of the booming. "He won't be able to keep that up forever, what's Tachel doing?"
"Venting," Eldara said quietly. "He wants to hurt them for making him abandon Dezolis." Rika could see a fierce light of satisfaction in Myrelle's eyes as he watched the storm.
"Then we have to move fast," Rika said. "Come on, hurry." She pushed open the gates and they stepped into the Mansion's main foyer, shutting them behind them.
The Mansion was eerily silent, and shadowy figures stood motionless in the shadows. It was exactly as Rika remembered. "Can you remove the spell from here?"
Rachel nodded briskly. "Yes, as a matter of fact I can." She turned to the Magi, Eldara and Myrelle. Danielle opened the door a notch and thumbed the safety on her blaster, as if assuring herself it was off. Alys raised the smaller version of the same blaster and took up a look-out position with Danielle. Rika flipped on the laser sword she had 'borrowed' from Tamgren. "I need you to link with me, so I can guide your magic. Myrelle, you remember how?" The Musk Cat nodded quickly. "Then let's get going. That storm's magic power is going to attract every Dark Esper on Dezolis, and I can already feel it's power wavering. We have to do this faster then I might like." Rachel paused a moment, and suddenly Rika could feel the air practically crackling with magic. Suddenly Rachel tensed, and she knew they had begun the delicate unweaving. The Magi stood silent and still, and Myrelle as well, save for an almost frantic thrashing of his bushy tail.
Five endless minutes passed with Rika's only company the silence, until Alys suddenly spoke. "Looks like Tachel's storm is dying out. I hope Rachel can do this."
"What if she can't?"
"We try to wake them up. And if not"
"What is it, mother?"
Alys sighed. "If we can't, we have to take the Elsydeon and run for it. We can't afford to lose it here."
"Sighted," Danielle said suddenly. "They look haggard, but mad. And they're making haste. I give usthree or four minutes until they arive." Alys rose silently and went to stand beside Rachel, her hand poised by the Elsydeon's hilt.
Long seconds that seemed hours stretched forward, and then, suddenly, the air, no the very reality about Rika seemed to thicken, slow. And then move with terrifying speed. Light flashed around her, and she seemed be living forwards from behind, thought the concept made no sense to her. Suddenly she was staring at herself as they entered the Mansion, watching the Esper standing by the door explode as it touched him, watching them leave, return what seemed seconds later, and
The Mansion exploded into life around her. Something nearby her did explode, and she hurled herself to the ground as a huge chunk of the Mansion floor exploded into flames.
"What?" She looked around to see the various Espers in the foyer look about in amazement. The one who had spoken came forward to help her up. "You're a Numan!" he said, shocked. "What's going on here? There were Dark Espers, and"
"You were placed into a stasis, Initiate," Rachel said, coming forward. Gasps ran around the foyer. "An area of slowed time. I shall explain later, we are somewhat pressed for time. Conduct me quickly to the Sanctum. You others, go and round up everyone. Tell them I shall explain in the Sanctum. Rika, Danielle, Alys, Myrelle, Eldara, to me. Your Magi will assist the Espers, Eldara."
Rika quickly fell into step behind Rachel and the Espers as Eldara dispersed her Magi and the Espers quickly departed the foyer. Rachel paused and gazed at the gates to the Mansion, and they suddenly slammed shut. "They won't open easily," Rachel noted. Rika could only nod. Rachel had suddenly shed her own personality and was, for the first time since Rika had met her, almost exactly like Kyra in every way. Her presence was so sudden and strong it was almost overwhelming.
They met Narrel about halfway to the Sanctum, striding purposefully up the hallway towards them, surrounded by a coterie of babbling Espers. "Lutz!" he cried. "I thought I just sent you away!"
"It's been several days, Narrel," Rachel replied curtly, "and I am Lutz. I come and go as I choose, and I choose to come save you. You can thank me later. For now, everyone should be gathering in the Sanctum. We must hurry and Jump out of here. The Dark Espers are on their ways."
"You're going to have to explain this to me, Reverent One."
"When we have time. Hurry, please."
Tachel cursed his own stupidity as he sank to his knees, the Eclipse Torch slipping from numb fingers. He should have paced himself, should have been more careful, and nowHe had maintained the storm as long as he could. He could only watch helplessly as the Dark Espers streamed into the Mansion.
"Flame preserve me," he whispered. He turned to the Priests and Magi arrayed before him, and prepared to give the order to charge. "I-"
Several flashes of light appeared around him, and he suddenly found himself surrounded by Rika, Alys, Rachel and Narrel. The Speaker looked disoriented in confused.
"Lutz," he stammered, "I"
"Not now, Tachel," Rachel snapped. "We're getting out of here. The Espers from the Mansion are taking up position around the campsite, and Eldara's getting word to the Magi." She glanced over her shoulder at the Mansion. "I was hoping we wouldn't have to leave the Mansion in Dark Esper hands, but it can't be helped. It looks like the best place for all of us would be with the Hunters in Aiedo."
Rika picked up the Eclipse Torch and handed it to Tachel. "You'll want to hold onto this, I think."
"Is everything ready, Narrel?" Alys asked. Narrel nodded slowly.
"I'm receiving word in from the Espers now, and they're in position for the Jump. Eldara, too. We can go anytime."
"Now, would be very good, Speaker," Alys said.
There was a flash.
There was a flash, and the large courtyard before the Hunter's Guild was suddenly filled with people.
"Excellent work, Narrel," Alys stated dryly, shrugging out of her thick cloak and hood in the Motavian heat. All around the courtyard, people were doing the same.
"Alys?" Lars appeared at the gates to the guild, his face a picture of shock. "Rika! You're back." He took in the courtyard in confusion. "What's going on?"
Rika set out purposefully towards Lars, people making a path for her as they saw her determined expression. "Lars, you have to fortify the Hunter's guild! The Dark Espers are on the move, and they already control Dezolis. You can bet they won't be happy with that for long."
"They've already started a Motavian offense!" Lars shot back. "They hold Zema and are leveling pretty much every city they come across. More refugees are pouring in every day. They control Dezolis?"
Suddenly Rachel and Narrel appeared beside Rika. "Perhaps," Rachel noted, "we could continue this discussion while you prepare this city for the assault that is about to come down on it. The Dark Espers are almost certainly aware that this is where we've come, and once they regroup, they'll probably try to destroy our little gathering before we can hurt them. What's the military like in this city?"
"We have a sizable force of Hunters, of course, and the city militia, and a considerable force of Motavians. Gryz is here, assisting us. Come inside the guild. Beyn," he shot over his shoulder to a young man, until then quiet, who stood beside him. "Beyn, start fortifying the city. Oh, and Alys?"
"While you were gone, I made you mayor of Aiedo. Is that going to be a problem?"
The day of the attack stretched through to nightfall with no sign of the Dark Espers. As soon as the city was fortified to Lars' contentment, he locked the command staff into his offices to reconnoiter. With Lars, Rika, Alys, Gryz, Eldara, Rachel, Narrel, Danielle, Demi, Wren, Myrelle and Beyn all in the same room, it was a little crowded, but they all found room around Lars' desk.
Alys, Rika and Myrelle quickly explained to Lars the events that had come to pass after they left Aiedo, up until they encountered Rachel and Eldara, when the Lutz took over. Afterwards, Lars grilled them for the better part of an hour, at the end of which Beyn spoke.
"If you'll excuse me, Head Garrate," he stated, "I shall return to my duties now."
"Why?" Lars asked.
Beyn frowned at him, then, realizing what he'd done, blushed furiously. "Guild Second Lain is back."
"Oh, sit down, Beyn," Rika snapped. "We need you."
Blinking, Beyn sat down. "Second Lain?"
"Who do you think recommended you for this job in the first place, Hunter Almeerin?" Rika smiled at him. "Your abilities outweigh your office, and for the time being, you're staying right here, do you understand?"
Beyn grinned. "Yes, Second Lain. Thank you, Second Lain."
There was a sudden knocking at the door and a young Hunter stuck her head in. "Head Garrate?" she asked in a shaking voice.
"What is it?" Lars rose, pushing back his chair, icy fear clutching him.
"Head Garrate, the Dark Espers have arrived!"
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