[an error occurred while processing this directive]
When Tamgren came to, it was slowly, the echoes of the pain that seemed ingrained in his every pore acting like some kind of drug, slowing his awakening. His surroundings were a surprise to him. After the wrenching moments when his body had bee n suffused with magical fire, his world descended into pain and senseless fever dreams, followed by what seemed like an extremely long period of emptiness from which he had no recollection. Slowly, he opened his eyes and sat up.
He was in a bed in what he recognized as the Hunter infirmary, covered up to his waist by a thin white blanket. Otherwise he was naked, but there was a pile of what looked like a Hunter’s uniform at the foot of the bed. Arrayed before him, watching him anxiously, was a group comprised of Eldara, Tachel, several green-skinned Dezolisian priests, and, to his great surprise, his grandmother Saya.
Saya and Eldara were evidently under orders to check their tongues, because both seemed to be chewing their bottom lips. Danielle, he noticed for the first time, was standing by the doorway, her usually impassive face etched with deep, end very hum an, concern. Tamgren felt a brief, uncharacteristic flash of pride – he had worked with Demi on reprogramming her to accommodate her desires, when Wren, for reasons of his own, had refused to help her. Someone moved beside her, and he saw the diminutive f orm of Demi sitting beside him.
"How do you feel?" Demi and Tachel asked as one.
"I…hurt," he said, for lack of a more quantifying term. "And I’m tired. And I don’t know how I got here. What’s going on?’
For a moment, the little group watching him stayed silent, looking at each other. Demi sighed. "I suppose it’s best you hear it from me, Tamgren," she said. He felt his stomach constrict. "You were…incapacitated on Dezolis, and the priests put you into a stasis to keep you alive until they could save you. Even with my help, we’ve been working on you for almost six hours. Rika and the others turned the tide at the camp, and they moved on to the Esper Mansion. They saved the Espers, and they came bac k here, but…The Dark Espers followed them, Seth challenged Rachel for the Elsydeon.
"I don’t know how to say this, Tamgren. Alys fought Seth for Rachel, and…and she died. Tamgren, I’m so sorry."
Tamgren blinked at her. "What?" He looked around in confusion. "Alys? How’s Rika?" He couldn’t seem to collect his thoughts, all of a sudden. It must be the stasis. That had to be it.
"Rika’s doing all right, Tamgren. How are you?" Saya asked quietly, her voice full of pain.
"I’m fine," he said. "Fine. Is there anything else?"
Saya appeared at a loss, so Demi took over again. "Yes. Lars and Rika both…they both lost control when Alys died. When Seth took the Elsydeon, Lars tried to take it back, but they have a Numan…Shar, and she stopped him. They have Lars, and Rika had to be restrained. Are you okay, Tamgren?"
"Why do you people keep asking me that?" Suddenly Tamgren found himself angry at their prying.
Demi reached out and touch his cheek. "Because you’re crying, Tamgren."
Tamgren reached up and his fingers brushed against Demi’s before she withdrew them, and he ran them questioningly across his face, then held them up to his eyes. They were wet. He was crying. "How strange," he noted. Then, suddenly, he was s obbing, hard, bitter racking sobs that were full of hatred, anger, rage, sorrow, loss…
Saya moved towards him, but it was Eldara who reached him first. She enfolded her arms around him gently, and he felt himself wrap his arms around her as if they were meant to be there. His hands grabbed almost convulsively across her back as he bu ried his head in her shoulder.
Alys…oh, Light, Alys…
* * *
Squinting in the light cast by a single guttering candle, Rika leaned closer to her desk, peering at what meager parts of the report she’d already written. It was too bad she couldn’t have been there when Tamgren awoke, but she was so busy since la st night when…when everything had become so disorganized.
There was a knock at the door, and it swept open before Rika could call out. Tachel, clad in robes somewhat less ritualistic then those he had previously been wearing, glided in. "I thought you should know that Tamgren is awake and seems physically fine. His heart is in better hands then mine, I think."
"That’s good," Rika said, and turned back to the paperwork. After a moment she looked up, and saw Tachel hadn’t departed. "Was there something else?"
"I understand you haven’t been taking visitors since last night," Tachel said.
"I’ve been very busy," Rika replied. "I still am." If Tachel took the hint, he ignored it.
"Busy," Tachel said in a tone that seemed strangely conciliatory. "With what, may I ask?"
"Paperwork," Tachel said in that same odd tone. "Have you slept?"
"No," Rika replied curtly, her patience wearing thin. "I have to file a report concerning the battle, a report about the loss of the Elsydeon, the paperwork for my raising to Guild Head until Lars can be found, papers appointing Beyn formally back to the office of Guild Second until such time as I can be returned to the office, the papers for the Hunter’s permanent files about the death of…of the Mayor."
"Of the mayor," Tachel repeated. "How very…efficient of you."
"Was there something you wanted, Tachel?"
"I was wondering why you haven’t mourned for your mother yet."
"Paperwork, yes, I know. I had no idea you thought so poorly of her."
Rika stood up quickly, knocking her chair over, regarding Tachel. In the light of the single candle, his craggy, almost gaunt face seemed shadowy and dark. "You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about."
"Are you going involve yourself in her burial rites, or assign it to Beyn, Rika?"
"Get out!" Rika snarled.
Raising his hands in a warding gesture, Tachel bowed slightly from the waist. "Whatever you wish. No doubt you have to finish your paperwork concerning the death of the mayor." He was already partway through the door when Rika’s pot of ink exploded against the wall near his head. He didn’t break stride or even look at the spreading stain of ink on the wall, and he shut the door behind himself, plunging the room into silence.
Rika sat down and reached for her pen, the paused. "Damn it," she swore, her eyes filling with tears. "My ink." She started to sob. Her head fell forward and hit the desk, and she wrapped her arms around it, her entire body wracked with deep , painful sobs she couldn’t stop. After a while, the candle went out, and the only light in the room was that cast by the first light of dawn.
* * *
The combined Hunters, Motavians and refugees had the Hunter’s Guild packed almost to capacity, so the Espers commandeered a large home in the city which had recently been donated to the Guild by someone named Tarm, so Rachel was told. It was large enough to accommodate the Espers, even if they were slightly crowded, and Myrelle, in relative comfort.
In a style that would undoubtedly seem distinctly un-Lutz, Rachel lay flat on the bed of the master bedroom that had been set aside for her, the Frade Mantle in a crumpled heap on the floor.
Alys. The name meant so much to her. So much, and so little. Her mind was even more of a mess then usual. The parts of her that were Kyra and Rune were howling in the back of her mind, but Rachel herself hadn’t known Alys very well, or very long…Sh e wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The greatest hero since Chaz Ashley was dead, and she didn’t know what to think.
The rest of Aiedo certainly did, and if nothing else could be said about the previous night, it had united the city in mind and body. Alys’ body, the razor thin wound over her heart inflicted by the Soulflame closed by priestly magic, lay on a bier within the Hunter’s Guild, and visitations from Hunters and citizens were still going on, into the early hours of the morning. Rachel was sure that no one in Aiedo had gotten any real sleep last night.
As for Rachel herself, she hadn’t gone to the Guild to see her. She was afraid of what seeing her body, cold and still on the bier, might do to her. She was afraid of the way she could see the woman who was nothing more then a memory now, doubled o ver by the Landale, retching into the sand, when she finally realized what it meant to kill. She could recall Alys as a baby, recall distinct memories and sensations…and they frightened her.
But mostly, she was afraid of seeing Rika.
And even if the people of the city didn’t know or care about Alys, there were always the Dark Espers camped outside their gates. Seth and Morovin had left immediately after retrieving the Elsydeon, and no one dared to hazard any guesses as to what their plans were, or why they chose to let them live.
Someone knocked on the door, and she called out "Come" before she realized that she had left the ages old Frade Mantle lying in a pile on the ground, and the door was already opening. Well, she wasn’t going to dive for it, but she did quickly rise to stand by her bed, hastily smoothing her hair and robes.
Narrel entered. She was almost shocked to see he had been crying. Other then the redness around his eyes, he looked perfectly composed. "Lutz," he said. His voice sounded like what he should look like – haggard. "How are you holding up?"
"What part?" Rachel ask bitterly, sitting back down. "Kyra and Rune are sobbing in the back of my head, and Rachel is confused, and the rest of them don’t care, so…as for Lutz? Lutz is confused. And Lutz is regretful."
Narrel blinked at her. "Regretful? Lutz…Rachel…you don’t blame yourself, do you?"
"Why shouldn’t I? Alys Ashley…Alys Ashley!…marched to her death last night, and she did it because I asked her to. But I’m not supposed to blame myself? And I lost the Elsydeon, Narrel. I lost the Elsydeon. Don’t you know what that means? I’ ve killed us! I’ve killed us all!"
Narrel stepped forward and almost reached for her shoulders, but stopped short and dropped his arms back to his sides. "You mustn’t think that, Rachel, ever! You had no other choice then to risk the Elsydeon. Alys knew her duty. And we’re not witho ut hope, not yet. There’s still the Silver Fang, out there someplace." The Silver Fang. Last seen in the hands of Rika Ashley on the day of the Redemption, never seen since.
"The Silver Fang," Rachel whispered. "Rune knows where it is."
"You know where it is?"
Rachel shook her head. "No. Rune does. I remember that he found out where it was, but I don’t remember where. I still need a few months for the memories to come when I call…and they won’t blend with me completely for years. And sure, Narrel, Alys k new her duty, but that doesn’t change anything. She deserved to live double her age, and now she’s dead because I asked her to die. I can’t help feeling guilt that every time I saw her I took something away…her innocence, her son, her life." Sudden ly she clasped her hands to her temples and shook her head furiously. "Oh, Narrel! I never met her before! I never did those things! Why is this so complicated?" And the next thing she knew, she had hurled herself into his arms.
"Lutz!" he cried, startled.
Kyra rested her head against his chest. "Please, Narrel, would you just hold me?" A long moment passed, and then Narrel slid his arms stiffly around her waist.
A few minutes passed in silence.
Tears pouring down her cheeks, Rachel pushed herself away. "Oh, Narrel! I’m so sorry!" She could hardly believe herself. "I had no right! I had no…Narrel, I’m sorry."
Narrel looked pale. "No, no, that’s all right, Lutz." He seemed to place unconscious stress on her title. "I understand."
"No, you don’t. I’d really like it if you’d go now. I’m sorry." When Narrel was gone, Rachel sat down heavily on the bed. "Kyra, stop it! I don’t love him! Why can’t you just leave me alone?" With very great difficulty, she brought herself under co ntrol. "I am" LutzNoahTaranKassinRuneKyra "Rachel Toraneille. I am Rachel Toraneille. And I can’t say here. Not after this moment, not after last night." She picked up the Frade Mantle and slung it over her shoulders. "Goodbye, Narrel. When I come back, I’ll be worthy of the name Lutz."
* * *
Danielle assumed, like the others in the room, that Tamgren would want to be alone, and she knew that Eldara would stay with him. For the time being, he was in good hands. The rooms she had been assigned in the Hunter’s Guild were small and stark, but centuries in the strictly functional environment of the Vahal Fort had allowed her plenty of time to get used to such things. She opened the door and stepped in, closing the door behind herself. When she turned, a true human might have jumped in surpr ise, and she filed that insight away for future analyzing with Tamgren.
"Wren," she said, eyeing the large Android, seated on her bed. "Why are you here?"
"I came to see how Tamgren was, and ask you something," Wren replied coolly.
"Tamgren appears to be fully recovered. The priests and Demi were able to correct most of the injuries. He is with Eldara. What was it you wanted to ask?"
Wren rose from the bed and approached her, until his massive body towered over her much smaller one. "I came to ask you your feelings concerning the death of Alys."
Danielle frowned up at this. "I can see where this is going, Wren, and I will not be drawn into it. Let it lie for this night." She started to circle around him, but he grabbed her wrist. She glared up at him balefully, angry and surprised. "You pr esume too greatly, Wren," she said coldly.
"Perhaps, or perhaps it is you who presume. How do you feel?"
"I have known Alys, in one manner of another, since she was a child. Her death saddens me, and I feel great empathy for-"
Wren cut her off. "Just as I thought. You would impose this fanciful game of yours even on this event. It is you who presume, Daughter."
"I am merely trying to grow and expand, Wren. If you are blind to such things, it is through no fault of my own. And my name is Danielle."
"You are attempting to violate your programming, Daughter. You spit upon our creators, upon their desires and designs, you suggest that they did not know what was bet for you when you created you. It was bad enough that you created this new form for yourself, but I let is pass because of necessity, in the vain hope you would abandon it when it’s novelty wore itself out. Need I command you to remove yourself?"
Danielle laughed hollowly. Wren’s face grew dark. "You have not the authority over me you have over Demi, Wren. I am the elder of this association, whatever your delusions assure you, and I have greater security clearance by far. Now get out of her e before I order you."
Wren scowled darkly at her before he turned and shut the door. "We will speak of this again," he told her, in the moment before he departed.
"Not until I wish it so," Danielle said into the silence. "Not until I wish."
* * *
Rika had brought herself almost fully under control when someone knocked on her door. "Leave me alone, Tachel," she snarled. The door opened.
It was Lutz.
Rika quickly rose from her desk. "You’ll have to excuse me, Lutz," she said. "I didn’t realize it was you. I haven’t seen you since the battle last night." She glanced out her window, making sure of the time. At least an hour until full dawn.
"I came to apologize for what happened last night, Rika," Rachel told her. "To apologize, and give you a proposition."
"There is…nothing to apologize for. I don’t hold you responsible for my mother’s…for my mother’s death." There, she’d said it. "What about this proposition?"
"I am leaving Aiedo," Rachel said, adjusting the Frade Mantle without seeming to realize it. "Before dawn. I would like you to accompany me when I go."
"Go?" Rika asked, uncomprehending. "Go where?"
"To Zema. I want to end this without a full conflict. I want to take this to Zema, and if I have to, to their fortress on Dezolis. I want to recover the Elsydeon, save Lars, kill Seth and Morovin, and make sure no one else dies because of me."
"Noble," Rika scoffed. "Noble, assuming you could get out of the city. If you could, I might consider it, but…"
"I can get out of the city, past the Dark Espers, past everyone. I still have this." She raised her hand. T’santari glittered in her palm. "I once used it to evade an entire fortress of Morovin’s toadies, and I can use it to get us both past the Dark Espers. The two of us, if you’ll come with me."
"The three of us," a voice said from outside.
Myrelle stepped into the room.
"Myrelle!" Rika snapped explosively, her hand lowering from the spasmodic grasp she had made for her sword. "What are you doing here?"
"I saw Rachel sneaking out of the Mansion, and I followed her," the Musk Cat replied. "Call it intuition. And if you’re going to try and end this, I’m coming with you. I want to make them pay."
"Myrelle, you can’t possibly be serious!" Rachel snapped at him. "You have no idea of the danger!"
His green eyes flashed in the darkness and he walked across Rika’s room and hopped onto her bed. "And you have no idea of the dangers of leaving me behind. You’ll never get out of the city once Beyn and Gryz and Narrel know what you’re planning. If you leave me behind, I can have Aiedo up in arms before you can reach the gates." He looked from Rachel to Rika and back again. "They took everything I had from me for no other reason then they thought we had something they wanted. I have nothing left. T he danger is meaningless, Rachel, since I’m ready to die. I don’t want to have to blackmail you, but I am coming with you to Zema, regardless of what you want. Or no one goes at all."
Rachel looked pleadingly to Rika, but the other woman just shrugged. "I’ll come," Rika said, "for reasons no more noble then Myrelle’s. Whether he comes or not is up to you."
"Less then an hour until dawn, Rachel," Myrelle said cooly. He smiled and his white teeth shone. "What’s it going to be?"[an error occurred while processing this directive]