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Sneaking up behind the guard, Rika slid her sword free of its scabbard and quickly drew it across the Dark Esper’s throat. He went down without a sound.
"Lars!" Rika cried, momentarily forgetting that he couldn’t hear her through Rachel’s shields. Glancing around, Lutz nodded and made a scything gesture with one hand, and Rika felt the shielding fall away.
Rachel had tracked Lars’ energies into the bowels of Seed, a new wing carved out of the rock by Dark Esper magic. A group of haphazard cells had been cleaved into the granite of the valley itself – Lars occupied one. He rose, startled, as Rika, Rac hel and Myrelle materialized before him.
"What are you doing here?" he asked quietly.
"We’ve come to rescue you," Rika replied, taking a ring of keys off of the guard’s belt and unlocking the door. "Aren’t you…" She trailed off as the door swung open and she saw the look on Lars' face.
"Rika," he said slowly, "I’m sorry."
Biting back a gasp of pain, Rika waved a dismissive hand. "There’s no time for that right now, Lars. We’ve got to…"
"Escape, Rika?" a horribly familiar voice asked from the doorway.
Rika and Rachel both spun around, the same word forming on their lips. "Chaz!" they both said as one.
The young man stepped into the wide, rough hewn room, torchlight flickering on his armour. He said nothing, resting his weight on a Magi-style battle staff he carried. The glint of t’santari shone from the center of the staff.
Behind him came Morgan and Shar, both gliding in on silent feet. Shar wore twin claws on her hands, and was crouched low, shifting her weight constantly, watching their every move. Morgan seemed unarmed, but Rika doubted that the pendant she wore w as mere crystal.
"You’ve come a long way, children," Morgan chided them sibilantly. "Did you really think you could sneak past us?"
Rika drew her sword, watching out of the corner of her eye as Lars picked up the guard’s black blade. Her hand dipped to her belt and she wrapped her fist around the awkward looking Silver Fang. Rachel didn’t move an inch, but Myrelle was creeping backwards, out of range of the battle. "Chaz," she pleaded. "Don’t do this to us."
It had been one thing to hear that Chaz had forsaken them for the Dark Espers, even under the influence of the spell. It was another thing entirely to see her twin brother, his face mirroring her face, standing before her in full black regalia, mur der in his eyes. Her sword wavered indecisively between Morgan and Shar; she knew that she would be unable to do battle with Chaz. Only years of training in the warrior’s instinct kept the tears back.
"Then join us, Rika," Chaz said, hope in his voice. "They’ll let you live! Just like…"
"That’s quite enough, General," Morgan interrupted. "We don’t make deals with Protectors."
"Really?" Rachel said suddenly, in a voice curiously distant. Chaz turned to look at her, and their eyes locked. "It seems to me that you do. Don’t they, Chaz? Or did they make deals with you? Did they even offer you a choice? Did it matter? Doesn’ t that seem odd to you, beloved?"
Chaz mouthed the word ‘beloved’ to himself. His grip on the staff faltered.
"They’re using you, Chaz," Rachel told him, her voice barely a whisper. "You remember the spells that would make it possible, don’t you? You were angry. I understand. I’m sorry, and I forgive you."
Despite the incongruous nature of Rachel’s words, it was obvious to Rika that Rachel was attempting exactly what she’d planned on – a subversion of the spell laid on Chaz. She held her breath, wondering why Morgan or Shar didn’t interfere.
"Come on, Chaz," Rachel tried, her voice shifted into an odd mix of command and pleading. "Forget them. Isn’t your place with Rika, and me? Doesn’t that seem right?" Her eyes flickered to Morgan and Rika realized that the struggle didn’t even conce rn Chaz – Rachel was fighting whatever hold Morgan had on her brother, and Morgan was so busy fighting it that she couldn’t do much else.
Chaz suddenly stumbled back, and Rachel flinched as if struck. "No…" he whispered. "No…"
"I’m sorry," Rachel replied, then suddenly made a slashing motion with the Psycho-Wand. Rika watched as a bolt of green light flashed from the tip of the staff and struck Chaz in the face. Her brother gasped, clutching his hands to his face.
"Kill," she heard suddenly, from Morgan, and then Shar was full upon her. Catching the first slice of those deadly claws upon her sword, Rika riposted, slashing at the Numan’s chest, but Shar was quick, quicker then she, and blocked with her other claw. As the Numan swung once more, Rika half spun, caught her foe’s wrist, and twisted, almost taking the Numan’s arm right off as she flipped Shar onto her back. Shar gave a cry of pain and rage. Rika raised her sword.
Chaz appeared before her out of nowhere, jabbing the tip of his staff into her stomach, and Rika stumbled back, winded. Her sword came up as Chaz stepped over Shar’s body and approached her, staff up and ready.
"No," Rika whispered. Shar got to her feet, but rather then attacking her again, engaged Lars as he approached her. Risking a glance around, she saw Myrelle looking around him helplessly, and Rachel and Morgan had moved in close and were exchanging magical blows back and forth.
And Chaz…Chaz was preparing to kill her.
"It’s a spell!" Rika cried, parrying a swing from Chaz’s staff and giving ground. "Fight it!" Another swing, another crashing parry. "Chaz! Please!"
"Surrender!" Chaz bellowed at her. "Rika, please! I don’t want to kill you!"
"Then you can stop this!" Rika shouted back. "Don’t be an idiot, little brother! This all depends on you!"
* * *
"You were the one who created the Chaos-lens, aren’t you?" Rachel asked.
"You have a great deal of potential," Morgan told Rachel, moving closer and ignoring her question. A nimbus of magical force danced around her hands. "Were you a little stronger, or I less so, you might just have won him back. Tell me, child, is al l this really worth winning back your bed partner?"
Rachel raised the Psycho-Wand to a defensive position, preparing her magic. Quickly, she tossed a spell, sealing a wall of magical energy over the doorway to the room. "It’s more then that," she told the Dark Esper coldly. "You wouldn’t understand. "
"Let me show you what I do understand, child. It’s time for you to gain some real lessons in the applications of magic!" Morgan thrust her hand forward, and the nimbus erupted towards her in a sizzling arc of crackling energy, boiling the air aroun d it as it rushed towards Lutz. Focusing her powers, Rachel met the bolt of lightning with the bluish length of the Psycho-Wand, taking the full force of the blast onto her shields and dissipating it.
"Very nice," Morgan said, with a tone of real approval in her voice. "Now it’s your turn, little Lutz. Show me your true power."
"Whatever you want, Morgan!" Rachel snarled, letting her anger bubble to the surface. Her stood the last opposition – if she could kill Morgan, she’d be able to break down the shields on Chaz and stop this insanity. Gripping the wand two-handed, sh e raised it above her head and called down a cocoon of white fire on Morgan.
* * *
"Stop it!" Rika cried hopelessly. Chaz swung once more, and, parrying, Rika aimed a kick at his jaw, hoping to catch him off guard. I can’t hurt him, she told herself. It was unthinkable. "Chaz!" she half sobbed. "Please! Damn it, ple ase!"
"Rika…" Chaz whispered, and his offense faltered. Rika let her guard slip momentarily.
"Chaz, it’s me," she said coaxingly. "Rika. Come on…"
She never saw the blow coming. Chaz’s staff slammed into her gut again, doubling her over with pain, and the second blow on the back of her head. Half unconscious from the force of the blows, she barely saw the floor rushing up to meet her.
* * *
"You never did learn to deal with distraction," Chaz whispered. Here was his enemy, Rika Lain, the Protector, lying before him, ready to be slain. He primed his spells.
No. He forced the traitorous thoughts from his mind. Rachel was just using him. They needed his powers, so they lied to him. He was a Chosen Esper, and he knew his duty. He forced Rachel’s thoughts out of his mind and raised his fist to deliver the killing blow.
"No!" Something blurred past Chaz’s face with blinding speed, and he felt his cheek and lip get ripped open by the passing blur. His head snapped aside by the fury of the attack, he followed the blur’s trajectory to where it landed. The Musk Cat turned to face him, delicate beige and black face a picture of fury that seemed to large for the body to contain. "You killed them all!"
Chaz waved his hand and struck the impudent little beast with a hammer of magical force, watched for a moment as the small form sailed across the ground. He looked around him. Lars seemed to have learned from his last – brief – skirmish with Shar, and was holding his own. Rachel and Morgan were dueling still, but their battle had progressed into an invisible level, purely mental and raw force.
They didn’t care.
He would have time to finish the Musk Cat in a moment. There were more important matters to attend to.
* * *
"Do you see?" Morgan asked suddenly. "There is no hope. The Musk Cat Protector is already helpless, ready to be slain. Shall you watch while you ‘beloved’ deals the death blow to his own sister?"
In spite of herself, Rachel turned and saw Myrelle lying, stunned, near where Chaz was about to slay Rika. "Damn it, Morgan," she whispered. "He’s innocent."
"No one, child," Morgan told her icily, "is innocent."
I can’t die here, Rachel thought. I need to get back to Aiedo, stop the weapon… "This isn’t over," she told Morgan.
"I certainly hope not."
It was harder to grip Myrelle and Rika than Lars, since they were almost completely unconscious. "I’ll kill you someday," Rachel promised, and then she Jumped.
* * *
"General!" Morgan snapped. "Track that Jump!"
Chaz looked at the other Chosen Esper hopelessly. "Not a chance. Rachel’s already Jumped them again, and I can’t track it from so far away. She’s on the run, and she knows we’ll have to move to counter her now.
"Then I shall contact the Archlord and the Disciple. Shar, begin mobilization of the troops – Lutz knows about the Chaos-lens. Chaz, wait on further instructions." Morgan turned, and paused to break Rachel’s shields on the doorway. "General," she said suddenly, looking over her shoulder. "Next time, don’t hesitate your blows. Rika Lain could be dead by now."
* * *
Rachel had the presence of mind to fling herself, Lars, Myrelle and Rika roughly in the direction of Aiedo – now that the Dark Espers knew where they were, there was no point in being stealthy.
"What happened?" Lars gasped as they reappeared, not in the rough hewn cave, but on an empty stretch of Motavian desert.
"I removed us before we could be slain," Rachel replied. "We can’t afford to be killed now." She looked around. "I moved us twice, but they might still be able to track us. How’s Myrelle?"
Lars quickly checked the Musk Cat. "Myrelle?" he asked. The small feline groaned in reply. "He’s coming around."
"Good," Rachel told him. "I’m going to wake Rika up." Quickly, carefully, she slid her mind in Rika’s, gently probing until the Hunter began to stir.
Rika groaned, then sat up sharply. "Rachel?" she groaned, touching one hand to the back of her head, where her hair was matted with blood. "What happened? Where’s Chaz?"
"We had to escape."
Suddenly Rika cursed, slamming her fist down into the sand. "He sucker punched me!" she snapped, angry with herself. "I didn’t even see it coming! How could I be so stupid?"
Hanging her head, Rachel sighed. "There’s no time for that now. The Dark Espers will pursue us, and now that I know what their plans are, they’ll likely strike against Aiedo right away."
"With that weapon?"
"Yes. The box is a Chaos-lens – it focuses the ambient Chaos that flows up and down the timestream. It was created as a side-effect of the destruction of the Profound Darkness by your mother, a way for the universe to slowly wean itself off the dis appearance of one of the fundamental Powers of reality. What Morgan’s weapon does is gather all the Chaos which is nearby onto the lens – and cause it burst. That’ll influence events in the immediate place and time away from the Great Light – and presumab ly right into where Seth wants them. The weapon has to be stopped, which is why we have to keep moving."
"What about Chaz?" Rika asked desperately as Rachel prepared to Jump.
Hanging her head, Rachel clenched her fist in front of her chest, her nails digging into her palm. "Morgan is stronger then I am. I couldn’t break the spell. I planted a block – a wall between Chaz and the enchantment that will block some of the sp ell, return some of his free will. Morgan wasn’t expecting me to undermine the spell rather then attack it directly, so I was able to root it firmly. It might help, but…probably not." She sighed. "I’ll need at least one more run at it before I can break t he spell entirely."
Rika was silent. Not bearing to look at her, Lars, or the unconscious Musk Cat, Rachel moved them one, final time, taking them to the desert outside the city of Aiedo.
* * *
"Where are you going?" Shar snapped as Chaz turned to leave the control room. Chaz glanced over his shoulder in disdain at the Numan.
"Morgan was right," he told her. "We don’t make deals with Protectors. I’ve humoured my brother long enough. I’m going to go deal with Lantamaral Lain."
* * *
Rachel swore, uncharacteristically harshly. Her last jump had brought them, as she had intended, to the desert outside Aiedo, where she could see what it was the Dark Espers were doing. "Morgan’s fast. She beaten us here – and she’s priming the len s."
Before the gates of the city, the Dark Esper ranks had retreated, forming a circle around the dark clad form of Morgan Atienne, standing at their center. Though Rachel could not see the Chaos-lens in her hands, she could feel it beginning to activa te.
"What do we do?" Myrelle whispered.
"There is one thing," Rachel returned, equally quietly.
* * *
"What are they doing?" Beyn asked Narrel, standing in the parapet overlooking Morgan, who was standing motionless in the center of the circle. Suddenly, the Speaker stiffened. Startled, Gryz, standing on the other side of the Esper, grabbed Narrel’ s shoulder in alarm. Suddenly, from outside the parapet, he heard a scream – Eldara’s voice.
"Gryz!" Beyn snapped, "I’ll deal with Narrel! You go mobilize the troops! Whatever we’re dealing with, we’d better stop it right now."
"Or die trying," the Motavian replied.
* * *
"What do you mean?" Rika asked.
Rachel sighed again. "Morgan can’t release that power, she mustn’t be allowed to do so. Her shields are strong – I can’t attack her from this distance, not to harm her and not without revealing our location. It’s hopeless. The best I can do," her v oice dropped, "is make sure that no one else dies because of me. Isn’t that what Lutz does?"
Rika looked at Rachel in alarm. "Rachel, what are you talking about?"
"No one else. No more Alys Ashleys. No more." Then, there was a brilliant flash of light and the only thing left to indicate that Rachel Toraneille had ever been there was the Psycho-Wand, abandoned in the sand.
"No!" Rika shrieked, unable to contain herself.
* * *
Rachel appeared right in front of Morgan, just as she had planned. The Chaos-lens was humming in the Dark Espers fist, her black armour shone with that unholy luster. Foregoing magic, she focused all of her rage and punched the woman hard in the ja w, staggering her. As Morgan stumbled, Rachel reached forward and ripped her t’santari pendant from around her white throat, channeling all of her power through it the moment it was in her hand. Almost immediately, the t’santari began to hum in her fist, as it reached its critical mass.
"I am no child, Morgan," Rachel whispered, and released the power.
There was a brief flash of pain, and a brief flash of agony, and everything blossomed into white light and fire.
It was over quickly for Rachel, and then light, like all other physical sensations, fled forever into darkness and was gone.
And the gates of Aiedo opened.
* * *
Lant looked up as his brother entered the room, his black cloak drawn around his body like a shield. The deadness in Chaz’s eyes was disconcerting. Lant rose.
"Chaz? What’s going on?" Involuntarily, Lant took a step backwards as Chaz bore down on him. "Why are you looking at me like that? Chaz? Chaz!"
* * *
"No!" Rika shrieked, unable to contain herself. Around the forms of Morgan and Rachel, she saw a red glow form, then a column of fire, wide enough only to encompass only themselves, blossomed about the two distant silhouettes and erupted upw ards, point flare. Behind the flame, she could see the gates of Aiedo begin to open, and the armies beyond. "Rachel! No!"
"Rika…" Myrelle said quietly, alarmed, and Rika spun around-
-seeing for the first time the ring of Dark Espers that had appeared behind them, cutting of their retreat, as black as death.
Fighting back tears and rage, Rika drew her sword.[an error occurred while processing this directive]