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Chapter 14

Downfall

Outside of Aiedo, the night was still and cold. Outside of Aiedo, they could hear the sound of hundreds of people moving. Lars and the rest stared out into that endless night, straining for some sight of their opponents, while Wren, Demi and Danielle look out into the night with cybernetic eyes, their superhuman brains tallying their foes far more quickly then the other ever could.

Outside of Aiedo, they could see the moon reflected a thousand times in the polished surfaces of black armour.

Rachel stood off to one side of them, her hands white-knuckled upon the Elsydeon's hilt. She was afraid. Terrified. She wanted to run and hide and never hear the words 'Dark Esper' again. She couldn't pretend she wasn't any longer, she couldn't hide it behind the mask of what Lutz was supposed to be anymore. Kyra wouldn't have been afraid, or Rune, or Noah, or Lutz himself. Why was she Lutz? She was just Rachel. Not a name for legends. She looked helplessly to Alys, as strong as the day she fought the Profound Darkness, touches of gray in her hair and more wisdom in her eyes, but still the same. She would guide them. She would see them through it. She was Alys.

A light flared in the darkness that the world outside of Aiedo had become, and another, and another, until each Dark Esper held a sphere of white light, shining like a trapped sun. They were spread out before the drawbridge to Aiedo. In front of them, blue-black cloak pulled over his ravaged arm, was Morovin. Narrel tensed, gripping the battlements as if he meant to rip a piece out of them and hurl it at him. Next to Morovin, chaosform glistening dully in the moonlight, was Seth. His fingers drummed across the black hilt of the Netrdeon, hanging at his belt, fused to the rust colored blade.

"I might," he said, his voice amplified magically, "I might have let you live until the end. I might have let you be. I might have let your will and your spirit stay with you until I chose to break them. But you forced my hand, didn't you? I can't let so much power stay in one place. I am afraid I have to destroy you."

"How many?" Rachel whispered to Demi, standing beside her.

"Six hundred," Demi replied. "Double what we originally estimated their forces to be. We have a more then two to one advantage, but they have magic and t'santari andand they have the Netrdeon."

Rachel nodded and amplified her voice to match Seth's. "We outnumber you more then two to one, Seth. And we have this." She drew the Elsydeon and held it up above her head. She could feel the blade stir in her hand, energy passing from her to the blade and back again in perfect synergy. "Have you forgotten? Leave now, and perhaps we will let you keep your will and spirit." She waited for a reply that did not come. Seth stared at the blade as if fascinated, like a moth drawn to a flame.

"II challenge you, Lutz," he said suddenly. Morovin stared at him in shock. "I challenge a champion of your choosing to single combat forfor the Elsydeon." His tone became strangely reverent. "If you are the victor, I will depart this place and not return. If I triumph, then my prize is the Elsydeon."

Rachel tried to hide her shock. She had never expected such a strange reaction. "II will need time to consider your proposal," she told him, trying to mask her fear and apprehension. "Give me ten minutes."

"You have five," Seth told her.

"Rachel," Narrel snapped, grabbing her shoulder. He seemed to have forgotten she was Lutz for a time. "You can't possibly consider it! The Elsydeon is too valuable to lose!"

"It might be our best chance," Rika noted. "If we can kill Seth the Dark Espers might be routed. Otherwise, we're just waiting for them to kill us." She extended her hand towards Rachel. "Give me the sword, Rachel. I'll do it."

"No," Alys said, pushing Rika's hand down. "If anyone fights Seth, it'll be me."

"No!" Lars and Rika said at the same time.

Rachel looked at Alys, and the Elsydeon seemed to spring to life in her hands, the energy she had felt pulsing and rolling, and suddenly, Rachel knew, with certainty Lutz was always supposed to have. She turned back towards Seth, magnifying her voice once more. "We accept," she told him.

Seth nodded. "Send forth your champion with the Elsydeon."

Rachel balanced the sword in her hands for a moment, letting her eyes glide up it's length, twisting it to catch the moonlight. She sighed, and then, gripping the blade, offered the hilt to Alys.

Silence fell across the battlement. Rika's mouth fell open. Alys stared at the blade for a long, long moment, then reached out and took the hilt. Rachel released the blade, and Alys simply stood there, staring at it. "I knew," she whispered, "that it would come down to us again. I think I always knew. So we meet again." Her tone was such that Rachel couldn't tell whether she was addressing an old friend or an old enemy.

"This is madness!" Lars snapped. "Alys, Lutz, no! Please!"

"Mother," Rika whispered. "Please don't do this, mother."

Balancing Elsydeon in one hand, Alys drew her other, plainer sword with the other. "Hold on this for me," she said, passing it to Rika, who took it with a hand that shook. Then Alys pulled the old, beaten slasher she was never without from her belt and offered Rika that, as well. "Keep these safe until I come back." Rika nodded, not speaking, her eyes full of tears. Alys turned to Rachel.

"I'm so sorry," Rachel said. "I know how must it must hurt you, toto hold the Elsydeon again. And I'm sorry." Alys nodded. "Good luck."

Shaking her head, Alys fingered the Elsydeon's hilt as she slipped it into the empty sheath at her belt. "I can't allow myself that luxury, Lutz." She inclined her head solemnly to Rachel. "Rune," she said quietly, in a tone of farewell. Rachel hesitated, then returned her half bow.

Then Alys looked, without meaning to it seemed, to where Demi and Wren and Gryz stood. One by one their gazes locked and one by one they nodded. As if satisfied, Alys embraced Rika and then walked towards the parapet and the stairs down to the street. Rika watched her go, her mouth open as if to speak, but all emerged was a forlorn, lost whimper. Lars followed her down "Are you coming with me?" Alys asked him.

"I am the Head of the Hunter's guild," Lars said, smiling sadly. "I will escort you." He offered an arm to her, and she took it. "Shall we go?"

"Yes," Alys said, and a tear rolled down her cheek. "We'll go together."

They stepped out of Aiedo and into the night.

* * *

Narrel saw her step out onto the drawbridge, and she didn't speak as Seth drew his sword and advanced on her. He saw them meet at the center of the drawbridge, and she didn't flinch when their swords clashed for the first time. He saw her enter that deadly dance once more, as she had been born to do, it seemed. He saw the Elsydeon flicker in her hands like a tongue of white flame.

Blades met again and again, as they had met almost twenty-eight years ago in a dark room in the Vahal Fort. The two fighters worked themselves around until her back was to the moat, with Aiedo to her left and the darkness to her right. And he watched her give ground.

"What odds?" he whispered into the night. Beside him, Beyn answered, his voice thick with emotion.

"No," he whispered. "No. Eight years ago, yes. Five, maybe. Butno. No." His voice broke off into a choking sob.

Rika saw it too, and she cried out. "Mother!" And then she was running, pushing past the Hunter's on the battlements, taking the steps down to the street two at a time and vaulting down the last few to the ground. Scrabbling to her feet, she ran to the gate, and fell to her knees, screaming and sobbing.

Narrel wanted to flinch away as the blow was struck, but he forced himself to watch. It was clean, no splash of blood or death cry, and she had no time to feel any pain. Her face, as she fell to the drawbridge, was not full of fear or agony, but serene, the lines the years had beaten into her fading away at the last. And the light went out of her eyes.

And Alys Ashley-Lain was dead.

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