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Chapter 16

Lant looked up as the door to his room swung slowly open and Chaz entered, shoulders slumped and face pale. His black cloak trailed on the floor behind him, his hand brushed disconsolately across the pommel of his t’santari blade. Silent ly, he watched as Chaz shut the door and sat down in one of the chairs across from the bed Lant sat on.

"She’s dead," he whispered.

Lant blinked and felt an icy fear grip him. He rose. "Dead?" Silence. He mustered his strength and courage to ask the question he knew he had to. "Chaz…who?"

Chaz looked up and Lant wanted to shy away from the deadness in those eyes. "Mom, Lant. Mom’s dead."

Sitting down hard on the floor, Lant could only stare up at Chaz in horror. "What? No. No. What did you say?" The world seemed to have gone flying out from underneath him – he clutched at the floor as if to assure him the substance of reality still surrounded him.

"Mom’s dead. Seth…the Disciple laid siege to Aiedo. Rika rescued the Espers and they escaped, so he retaliated…He challenged Rachel to a duel, and Rachel chose mom to be her champion. They fought, and she…she died."

"She died."

"Yes."

"Yes?"

Chaz raised one eyebrow at him as if wondering about his state of mind. "Yes, Lant."

Suddenly Lant was up and on his feet, staring down at his brother, who flinched away. "Yes, Chaz? Yes? That’s all you can say, Chaz? Yes? Yes! Don’t you feel anything, Chaz? She’s dead…and you killed her!"

It occurred to Lant that he was glaring daggers at Chaz, and his fists were clasped at his side, white-knuckled, and Chaz…Chaz was flinching away. As if he was afraid that he was going to be attacked.

Lant spun away, disgusted. "You thought I was going to hit you. Me. Damn it, Chaz, you never did try to understand." His strength vanished again and he sank to his knees, back to Chaz. Silence reigned, until Chaz broke it.

"What should I feel?"

Lant didn’t respond. He heard Chaz rise and come to stand behind him. "I feel for you, Lant." Chaz hung his head. "I’m sorry you think I don’t understand how you feel. But as to mom…I don’t feel anything."

"Don’t lie to me. You can’t feel nothing. And you never did try to understand what I thought. All you two did was condemn."

"It’s not Rika’s fault or mine that you never tried to help us understand, Lant. You never talked about what happened. All we had to go on was ourselves – you never helped us to see."

"Don’t change the subject," Lant snapped at his brother.

"Why not? There’s nothing to be said about mom."

Lant looked up at him, his face tear streaked. "Light, you really believe that, don’t you?" His voice was full of shock and horror.

Chaz shrugged. "Yes."

"Fine, Chaz, fine. You want me to help you see? You want to see the world through my eyes, is that it? That’s a hypocrisy and you know it. They did it to me, and now you wear the armor, and you want me to open my heart to you as if nothing’s change d between us, Chaz?"

He saw Chaz flinch as if struck. He shook his head. I wished I understood you, Chaz, he thought to himself. What’s happened to you, that’s made you so confused? Finally, Chaz spoke.

"Please, Lant."

Lant rose and walked to the window. Through the window of the house Chaz had commandeered, he could see the city of Zema. The Dark Espers were busily working to fortify the city against any threats they might not be aware of. Directing his eyes sky ward, he could see the mass of Birth Valley, and the horrible excavation at work within it. Seed had died there, and Seed was in many ways the father of Rika, so…that made Seed, in a way, Lant’s great-grandfather. It seemed wrong to exhume that ancient, s prawling corpse and turn it into a Dark Esper stronghold.

"All right, Chaz. Promise me something?"

"What is it, Lant?"

"You’ll think about what I say…about what they did to me. Think about whether or not you want to wear that armor. Please, Chaz."

Chaz sighed. "Very well, Lant."

Lant turned and sat down, visibly steeling himself to resurrect memories he didn’t want to confront. "All right."

* * *

The night I was taken from Landen, the men that took me weren’t gentle. They were angry with me, but I didn’t know why…I know now that Nevak - or Tamerus, whatever you want to call him – had whipped them into a frenzy over the death of Tareela, acc using me of murdering her. But I didn’t know it then. The last thing I remember of my room in Landen was crying out for Rika, and the pain. He’d really hurt me.

I heard Rika call back, and I remember thinking that she would save me, that I’d be fine, that Rika would make everything all right, that she wouldn’t let him kill me. Then I went black.

When I woke up, I was out of Landen, in a Land Rover heading for Aridia. They’d got me, they’d taken me, they were going to kill me. Rika hadn’t saved me. She hadn’t come. Light, I was twelve, Chaz. I was terrified.

Anyway, they’d already broken my nose. My face and the front of my shirt was covered with blood. I was flat on my back, and they’d pulled my arms and legs behind me and tied them all together, so I couldn’t move. I was gagged, so I couldn’t scream. There were four men in the Land Rover with me. I started to cry and they…they laughed at me.

It’s unfair that I remember it this clearly. But it’s going to be with me forever, Chaz, forever. Don’t you see that?

I guess not.

It took us what seemed like hours to reach Aridia. No one spoke to me, or anything like that. It was so still and quiet. All you could heard was the Land Rover and me crying, and even then, I was gagged.

When we got to Aridia they took the gag out of my mouth and sliced the ropes tying me. I remember I started screaming and someone hit me, here, on the jaw. They shoved me down onto my hands and knees and they…they put a leash on me, Chaz. Nevak had them that crazed. They were fanatics. They didn’t just want to kill me, or torture me, they wanted to destroy me first. I think I realized it when they slapped that leash around my neck.

Do you have anything what it’s like to be leashed, Chaz? Like an animal. It’s not just a physical experience, not just pain – but it does hurt when they yank on it, because it can cut off your breathing until they decide to give it back. It’s the k nowledge that they own you, totally and completely, the knowledge that they can do whatever they want to you and you…you can’t do anything to stop them. I was crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I knew they were going to kill me, and now I knew the y were going to hurt me first.

They made me follow them on my hands and knees like a dog, following behind the man holding my leash. If I didn’t follow fast enough, they yanked hard on the leash, and I got kicked in the ribs. They walked me around the Land Rover a few times to m ake sure I understood. They told me it’d be like that for the rest of my life, so I might as well get used to it early on.

Nevak’s orders, Chaz. One of yours had grown men terrorize a little boy. Your brother. How does that make you feel?

And he’d just begun to make me hurt, Chaz.

Anyhow, after I stopped crying so hard, they took me out of the Land Rover into the docking bay. I remember the jeers, the shouts. Someone threw a rock. It’s funny…there was no real terrain in Aridia. They must have gone outside the dome to get tha t rock. Doesn’t it bother you that they were that insane?

Nevak was there. He was holding this staff – of office, I guess – and he’d gathered pretty much everybody in the facility to watch the criminal arrive on his leash. They all hated me. The man holding my leash dragged me up to Nevak, and I thought…t hey’ve been caught at it. Nevak’s my friend. He’ll help me, he’ll save me, he’ll take this thing off my neck and let me go home.

You know, I think making me trust him, even a little, was all part of what he wanted to do to me, in the end? I think he enjoyed destroying my life.

I saw him, and I tried to stand up, tried to make him help me, and he kicked me in the chest, and knocked me down. And I saw his face. He looked so…angry. Like the wrath of god, I guess. Then I knew that he wasn’t going to help me any more then Rik a had. He was going to hurt me too.

They took an innocent, helpless, twelve-year old boy who wanted nothing more then to go home, and they put him on trial for ‘crimes against humanity’. They accused me of regicide, theft of the Sword of Orakio from it’s rightful owners, the Landales , impersonating the Bearer, and the guards said I’d resisted arrest. Because I tried to fight back when they were busy throwing me around my room in Landen. Nevak said I’d been tried in absentia, and found guilty. That I’d already been sentenced.

I knew that they’d just started with me. They weren’t even going to kill me quickly. Do you have any idea what it’s like to know you’re going to be tortured until they decide you’re not worth keeping alive?

Then they tore my clothes off, right there. They destroyed any semblance of humanity I had left. I had no right, no privileges, no identity, no dignity. I was meaningless to them. They made sure I know Lantamaral Lain was already dead.

Where do you find people that insane? That they’d do that to a child? Or better yet. Nevak…where do you find a man who can make people want to?

They dragged me around that room, naked, on that damned evil leash. People threw things at me, kicked my as I crawled past, laughed at me, at my shame, at my pain, at my tears. Partway around the room I couldn’t stand it anymore and I threw up. The y didn’t break stride.

Imagine it, Chaz? You’re leashed, naked, terrified, crawling on the floor and crying and vomiting, and because they won’t stop, you’re crawling through your own vomit, while people you’ve never met are laughing at you and hurting you because you de fended yourself from a mad woman who wanted to kill you. And Chaz, these things, they live on in my head every single day. I can’t escape them, ever. Not even for a minute.

One thing I do remember, and I think that saved my mind in the end. I remember seeing one person, standing right at the front, who wasn’t laughing or throwing things at me. He looked sick, disgusted, like he suddenly realized that I was a human bei ng…that I was alive. All the way through that ordeal, the hope that somebody thought I was worth living, it was always with me.

Once we’d done a circuit of the room, Nevak said it was time to begin my sentencing. They dragged me through the halls of this tower with Nevak right behind us. If I fell behind my leash got yanked on so I almost fell down, and Nevak kicked me, har d, in the backside to make me go faster.

They took me to this dark, empty little room and there were shackles in the floor and they chained my arms to the floor so that I was down on my knees, and they all started laughing.

The memories of that beating still hurt a very great deal, Chaz. They whipped me first, for what seemed like hours, until there was blood all over me. Then they just beat me with their fists until they got bored. One man kicked me in the elbow and I heard my arm break, then again in the collarbone, and it broke too, right by my shoulder. After a little while, I passed out. The pain was too great. I just wanted to sleep, and sleep, and sleep, and maybe never wake up.

And I remember thinking, why haven’t they saved me? Why haven’t they come?

And they’d destroyed me so much, that in that moment, when there was nothing but pain and hurt and shame, that I thought it was maybe because you blamed me too. Maybe you, and Rika, and Tamgren, and Daughter…maybe you’d betrayed me, just like Nevak . Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

I don’t remember when the pain swallowed me and everything went away, but I’m glad of it. And when I woke up, it was on the Land Rover going back to Landen, with Rika and Kyra and Justin and Demi and Daughter and Wren. And the first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, now it’s their turn to hurt me’.

I didn’t really wake up, or want to, until we got back to Aiedo…to mom. You do remember her, don’t you? It was her that saved me. She took away the pain. Eventually. And there were things after that. I’m still afraid of the dark, because it reminds me of that room, and a little later I went into shock because I didn’t have the Sword of Orakio with me any more.

And none of that, none of that, ever would have happened without the war. Without the war I never would have been in Landen, I never would have held that awful black sword, I never would’ve…well. I still have scars, from the whip, and my arm aches from time to time, since it never healed right. After they broke it they hung my from a wall by it until you found me, I’m told.

I’ve never held a sword since, or hurt anyone. Unlike you and Rika, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of violence. I promised, when I had my strength back, that I’d devote my life to peace. That I’d never hurt anyone the way I ’d been hurt. I guess all I really want, ever, was to forget. In the end, just being left alone would have done. But you and Rika…you had to try and change me back, didn’t you? And Rika, when I wouldn’t…she got angry with me. We haven’t spoken for a coupl e of years now. Maybe we never will again, thanks to you. The one person who understood what I wanted with my life…you killed. Or you stood by and did nothing, or you helped bring it about…when you’ve been through as much as me, Chaz, it’s all one.

I blame the war, and I blame the Dark Espers, and right now I hate you with a passion, Chaz. I’m sorry, but I do. You’re one of them, now. I hate anyone who tries to kill simply for the sake of killing, like Morovin does. I hate him because he sent Tamerus to Landen, and Tamerus tried to destroy an innocent little boy because he’d interfered with his plans. There was no reason for me to be tortured, Chaz.

They did it for the same reasons they do everything, brother.

Because they hate.

* * *

By the time dawn crept above the horizon Rachel, Rika and Myrelle were gone from Aiedo. True to her word, there had been enough strength in Rachel alone to Jump the three of them without leaving a noticeable resonance that the Dark E spers – or Narrel, for that matter – could zone in on. By noon they were on their way north – on foot.

They sought the Silver Fang.

"After the Redemption," Rachel had explained, "Rune allowed the Ashleys to safeguard the Elsydeon. But he was still young, as Lutzes go, and worried about any threats that might not have been dealt with by the death of the Profound Darkness, so he made sure there was a weapon squirreled away where he could get it if he needed it. The Psycho-Wand was safe with the Espers, the Eclipse Torch with the Magi that he formed to protect New Gumbious, and he thought about returning the Silver Fang to the Mus k Cats."

Myrelle had shaken his head. "It was freely given because we no longer needed it. He probably knew that."

"Yes, but there were other reasons besides. The Elsydeon, the Wand, the Torch and the Fang are all infused with a kind of good Black Energy. That’s what makes them holy weapons. Colloquially, it’s called White Energy, but some scholars say the term is inaccurate. The Espers used to be able to infuse things with the Energy, and that’s how the Silver Fang was created."

"It was the weapon used by Myau to defeat Lassic," Myrelle had put in. "The Espers infused it with energy so that we would be better able to protect ourselves, as a way of thanks. For all the good it did. We were enslaved as pets for years afterwar ds, and now…"

Rachel had looked pained, so Rika quickly cut in. "Go on, Rachel. Where’s the Fang?"

"Let me finish. The technique to manipulate White Energy was lost during the Collapse, like a lot of things were back then, that’s why I can’t just make a Silver Fang for us. Certain artifacts were required, and most of them have been destroyed ove r the aeons. The Elsydeon alone…well, it’s the avatar of the Great Light on this plane. I don’t think it can be reproduced, even if the means still existed.

"But I digress. The thing about White Energy, the one thing it really shares with Black, is that it gives off a detectable sensation. Rune couldn’t return it to the Musk Cats, since anyone – or anything - that really looked would be able find it and the Myst Vale. The Mansion and the Temple were too obvious targets to hide his ace-in-the-hole, so he made the only move that made sense. He concealed its energy by placing it within the ambience of a gr eater field. He-"

"Hid it near the Elsydeon!" Rika deduced, gaping. "That’s so obvious, though!"

"It’s still hidden, isn’t it? Chaz wasn’t moving it, so could count on his weapon’s safety, at least until the Elsydeon was moved. But even so, the Silver Fang gives off a fairly small field, so it may still be hidden unless the Dark Espers are alr eady at the Ashley farmhouse. Once we get there, I’m not exactly sure where it is, so we may have to search for a little bit. But we need it if we’re going to kill Seth."

"And this all just came to you?" Rika had prompted.

"No, not really," Rachel had admitted. "I wish it had. No, I remembered how to identify the power given off by White Energy, so once I looked it wasn’t too hard to detect the general area, once I knew the general area, it kind of triggered a bunch of dormant memories that told me why it was hidden there. That whole rational I gave you…well, I kind of learned it after I’d already found the Fang’s location."

That had all been before they slipped out of Aiedo in the early dawn. Now night had fallen and they were more then halfway to the abandoned farmhouse of Chaz Ashley. They camped that night in the woods. After they had eaten, the sat around the fire trying to stay warm. Rika poked disconsolately at the flame with a stick.

"Is something wrong, Rika?" Myrelle asked, looking at her.

"I don’t know. Rachel, do you feel guilty about leaving Aiedo like that?"

Rachel cast her eyes downwards to watch the fire. It danced in her eyes. "Yes…and no. They’ll fend for themselves – there’s more power gathered in that city then there’s been anyway for…well, a really long time. And more Protectors then I can ever remember in a single place."

"What is a Protector?" Myrelle asked. "I’ve heard the term, but I don’t know what it means."

"A Protector is someone imbued with an intangible quality derived from the Great Light. All Lutzes have been Protectors, because we inherit the qualities that were given to Noah, the First Chosen and Second Generation Lutz. Some of the people at Ai edo aren’t Protectors – Beyn and Narrel, for example. But Gryz, Wren, Demi, Danielle, Tamgren….They’re Protectors. It’s really hard to define actually.

"In any case, they’ll fend for themselves. They’d be doing that whether we’d gone or not, Rika. And it’s not like we took anything they would need – I even left my t’santari. No, if the Dark Espers decide to level Aiedo, our presence would j ust have been three more corpses. We have to destroy this evil at its core. And…I owe it to myself, and you, and everyone, to…"

"To what?" Rika asked as Rachel trailed off and looked sad.

"There’s innocent blood I want to try and save. I owe it to myself. The Numan, Shar. If Demi’s information is right, she’s been reprogrammed by Seth to accentuate her instabilities. As childish as it may seem…she doesn’t deserve to die. Her body mi ght be an adult, she might be extremely cunning and intelligent – but basically she’s a little girl who’s been misled.

"And we have to save Chaz. I hate the thought of it, him being trapped in his own mind. The mind, and the soul, Rika…they’re sacred to us. The Dark Espers cross lines we’d never cross. The things they’ve done to Chaz, and to Narrel during the Alisi an War…to me, it’s a far worse violation of a person then rape. It makes me sick."

"You can save him."

Again Rachel was silent for a long while. Then she sighed. "I don’t know. Maybe. If we can get him to drop his guards, then I can definitely counter the magic. But he’s one of the best people for guarding his mind I’ve ever met – the wild Espers of ten are. So there’s no chance of me simply beating them down through sheer force of will. We have to make him drop his guard."

"How are we supposed to do that?" Rika asked.

"I don’t know."

"I’m tired," Myrelle suddenly said. "I’m going to try and sleep." He rose and turned from the fire towards the small tent Rika had hastily put in her supplies. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "And just so you know, I don’t feel any guilt at all about leaving Aiedo. Nobody there cares if I stay or go, but here…All that matters to me is making them pay for killing all the other Musk Cats. That’s all. Maybe I’m callous, but…" He turned and vanished into the tent.

"We should probably try and rest too," Rachel said. "We all need to gather our strength. Once we go into Zema, we’ll probably have to deal with Seth quickly, or we may end up with Morovin or Morgan breathing down our necks."

"Rachel."

"What is it, Rika?"

Now it was Rika’s turn to be reticent. "I don’t know how to say this. My mother…she’s dead. I loved her so much, and she’s gone. So, I was wondering…you’re Lutz, and…Rachel, could you, I mean, could you tell me about her. Just anything you r emember."

Rachel looked deep into Rika’s eyes. "My memory is still full of holes, Rika. I’m not sure where Rachel ends and Lutz begins. That’s harder on me then you know. I didn’t know Alys. But Rune did, and Kyra, and they both loved her like their o wn blood. I admired her, liked her, but I didn’t love her. But I do. It’s so confusing. There are two lifetimes worth of love crying out its grief that its object is dead, and I don’t know how to deal with it because I don’t know where that love came from . That’s why I’m doing my best not to think about those memories. I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me.

"But. I’m Lutz, and this is my lot in life, now. And I feel that I owe you, and I care deeply about you, Rika. Right now, you’re my only real friend. So, yeah, I’ll gladly tell you anything I can remember, if that would please you."

"It would please me very much."

Rachel looked up from the fire at the moon, partially obscured by clouds. "When I heard that Rika Ashley was pregnant, I remember my joy. I knew I had to be there. But I knew that Chaz seeing me again would bring back to many memories of his Alys. She was his mother in so many ways – just not blood. And I didn’t want to do that to him. So I made sure I was at her birth, just not as…myself." She smiled weakly. "Delivering a baby isn’t really so hard. Lutz himself did it once, and Lutze s have delivered babies once or twice over the millenium." Her smile broadened, her eyes grew wistful, and she chuckled softly to herself. "I remember when it was done, I held up the umbilical for Chaz to cut, and I saw the unconditional love in his eyes, the joy of seeing his daughter for the first time. There’s nothing like that joy in the world, Rika. Nothing. I thought, ‘This is it. She’s the daughter of two of the greatest Protectors of all time, and she’s born into a world without Darkness. I’ve fin ally done it. This is when things will start to change.’

" ‘This is when things will get better.’"

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