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Now, forty-eight years after Alys Brangwin's death, Alys Ashley lived there.
"Is something bothering you, Rika?"
Guild Second Rika Lain shook her head quickly, then paused, considered it and spoke. "Have you heard from Lant recently?" she asked finally.
Alys smiled faintly. "A few days ago, now that you mention it," she replied. "He's in New Molcum and he's thinking of settling down there. He sends his love."
"I'm sure he does," Rika replied a little coldly.
"Rika " Alys said. "Please, at least try to see it his way. You don't know what he went through, you don't know what it did to him "
"Of course I don't!" Rika snapped. "He would never talk to me about it!" She rose from her chair and walked the window. She leaned against the sill and looked out across Aiedo. The sunlight caught her hair and refracted off it brilliantly.
"He only did what he thought was right."
"He ran away."
"He did not!" Alys contradicted harshly. "He changed his life. Just because he didn't choose your life doesn't mean he ran away. He talked about you, in the letter I received. He hopes you've forgiven him."
Rika was silent.
"Shall I tell him you're still angry that he won't do what you want?"
Smiling faintly, Rika turned to face her mother. "You make it sound so childish," she offered lamely.
"Then maybe you shook take another look at it. You reject Lant because he 'lost his vision', as you put it, and never think to be glad that he didn't lose his humanity."
Rika shook her head slowly and was silent. Alys decided to change the subject. "How's Lars?"
Rika sighed. "Fine, all things considered. He's still complaining about all the administration involved, though "
"It's what being Guild Head means. Lars knows it - and he's got one of the best heads for administration I've ever had the pleasure of working with. I miss it, a little."
"You could come back to the Guild, mother," Rika offered, "and no one would begrudge you. You and Lars were the best administrative heads the Guild's ever had."
Alys shook her head. "I think you and Lars are better then Lars and I, Rika. Besides, I'm too old to go adventuring. I'm past my prime, Rika, and you can't deny it. And I can live quite comfortably on what my parents left me when they died."
"Just how much money did they accumulate over the years?"
"I'm not telling. I think I'll keep you guessing."
"I just don't understand the point, Tamgren."
Tamgren Aiedern threw up his hands for what seemed like the fiftieth time that day. "Danielle," he admonished, "I've told, you there is no point."
"Everything has a point," Danielle said, inspecting the painting more closely.
"Then," Tamgren laughed, "the point is that it does not have a point."
Danielle nodded. "That makes logical sense. I can certainly admire it's aesthetic value. The painter was renowned for his ability to-"
"I don't want to hear a biography of the painter, and I don't want to hear what your databanks are telling you," Tamgren told the Android. "What do you, Danielle Vahal, see?"
"I see a painting in which I can admire deep aesthetic value. The painter was renowned for his ability to create these decorative borders, which are practically are part of the action occurring on the main canvas. I am not sure it's aesthetic value is as high as I had read, as the shading," she pointed out, "should be several tints higher to be accurate in no less then twelve separate locations."
Tamgren sighed. Well, it was a start. Sometimes it seemed that he and Danielle had been getting off to a good start for eight years, and never getting any further.
"So, have you decided?"
"Not yet." Kyra turned and looked out the window. The blizzard still howled unabated outside, as it had for two days straight. It happened all the time during the Dezolis cold season. "I know I only have so much time before I can't be Lutz anymore, but it's not a decision I want to rush, either. I'm sure you can understand."
"How will you know when your time is up?" Narrel asked, joining her at the window.
"The same way I know the time is coming. Incidentally, did you have any luck with Morgan yesterday?"
"She tried to seduce me."
"Well, I suppose you could call that luck " Kyra grinned at him.
"That's not what I meant. I just don't know what she's trying to do. I can't understand her."
"You make the assumption Morgan can be understood." Kyra tapped her forehead gently. "I'm not sure she's ever been wholly sane." Wind howled across the plateau and set the windows of the Esper Mansion rattling. "It's kind of odd. Eight years of hunting the Dark Espers, eight years of nurturing our hatred, and we still don't know any more about them then we did during the Alisian Wars." Kyra turned and leaned against the sill, facing Narrel.
"Morgan must of had a life before Paseo, right?"
The altar was carved of smoothest basalt, the fine lines engraved on it's surface were inlaid with gold, as pure as could be scrounged from the mineral barren Dezolis mountains.
Kneeling before the altar, head bowed, Morovin prayed in silence to his dead God, a ritual without meaning. Once, the Chosen Espers had tried to spread-by any means necessary-the words and teaching of the Profound Darkness. The one way, the only way, to survive, once the Darkness chose to make it's return, was to repent. Then had come Chaz Ashley and his half-breed, mutant of a daughter, and destroyed everything of importance to Morovin and his people. And then, on top of it all, the twin son and daughter of Chaz Ashley's child had destroyed their most carefully wrought plan, a plan which had taken five years to bring to fruition.
So now all that the Chosen Espers had left was revenge. The absolute destruction of Algo would open up the Great Light's pathetic, linear little universe to the forces of Chaos in which the Profound Darkness had languished for countless billions of years. They would destroy the universe that had denied them their right.
Morovin Lan'Tearin, Archlord of the Chosen Espers, rose and carefully adjusted the red sash which denoted his rank. It was old, but not delicate with age, preserved by magic passed on down through the ages.
It was the responsibility of the Archlord to see too the mission of the Profound Darkness and to guide the Chosen Espers appropriately. There had been some very poor Archlords in the past. Zio Detrell had been a megalomaniac and a loner, and had not cared when the Chosen Espers abandoned him to his mad schemes of world domination. Shaedal Ziosson, son of Zio, had been proclaimed Archlord upon his father's death, for all that he had not lived to fulfill his position, or even to be aware of it. Ten years after the Redemption, with Shaedal just a child, Morovin had come to fill the position of Regent through a series of carefully woven assassinations. Shaedal had been fortuitously slain by Alys Ashley, and, with the death of the Profound Darkness, Morovin had gathered the Chosen Espers, always a reclusive sect, and given them a new mission.
"I never really thought about it," Narrel admitted, looking at Kyra. As always, he was amazed by her beauty. He was often hard pressed to remember that Kyra Tierney was, in fact, sixty six years old. It was said that Lutz only looked so old as Lutz chose to look-Rune Walsh had been seventy five during the Redemption. Ninety-nine when he actually passed along his memories to Kyra, and he hadn't looked, acted, or felt a day over twenty eight. But, Light, Kyra Tierney was gorgeous. "We don't know anything about them, do we?"
"No. And odds are we never will, either," Kyra said, shaking her head. "As long as she's here, as long as she lives, and long after she dies, we'll only ever know her as Morgan. And that might not even be her real name. It bothers me. It seems, since before the Great Collapse even, like we've been fighting battles and killing foes who have names and faces, but no lives.
"Who was Zio? What was the name of Shaedal's mother? What deals did Lassic make with the Profound Darkness that made him into what he was? Who were the Earthmen and what were their names?" She shook her head. "Where is the Great Light? Why did the Profound Darkness do what it did? Who was Nevak before Tamerus killed him? For that matter, who was Tamerus? Sometimes it all seems so futile."
"Yes, I suppose. But in all the years since, I've never been able to answer some of the questions that keep me awake at night."
"Did Shaedal deserve to die? Did I have the right to make Alys Ashley do it?"
Shaedal and Zio had both received what they deserved, Morovin reflected as he rose. The only competent Archlord, aside from himself, of course, had been Zirane Liodren, the man who corrupted Lassic.
Of course, Morovin's career wasn't free of it's stains, but then he comported himself more admirably by far then some of the previous ones.
Reaching out, Morovin took hold of the black box set atop the altar's flat surface. Opening it carefully, he removed the invisible magic wards he had placed against intruders and took hold of Netrdeon's hilt.
The hilt was truly a statement to the Profound Darkness's single-mindedness. The hilt and crosspiece were simple in design and they met at right angles, and were undecorated. The ends of the crosspiece were rounded, but for balance and not beauty. No bell to protect the hands from the blood of opponents-Netrdeon had been designed for quick, efficient kills, not prolonged duels. Assassin's blade. Functionally perfect in every respect. Not beautiful. Beauty was a needless indulgence without purpose.
Carefully, Morovin laid the hilt, with it's minute bit of dormant power, upon the altar. Then he reached again into the long, shallow box and drew out an iron dagger one of his servants had purchased in Jut. Morovin had used that servant's blood to quench the blade. He slipped it into his belt.
Finally, he took out the long wrapped package that lay in the bottom and cradled it gently in one hand. Shutting the box, Morovin picked up the hilt once again.
He turned and examined himself briefly in the mirror next to his large bed. His ceremonial armor was slightly skewed, he carefully adjusted it. Black and with large shoulders, it was nonetheless feather light. The clasp that held his cloak was obscured by a t'santari pendant surrounded by gold.
The time had come to begin Algo's damnation.
Narrel was silent for a moment. Then he looked down the hall and nodded in that direction. Kyra turned.
Chaz was walking down the hallway towards them, his posture tight and restrained, steps brisk-with anger, Kyra surmised, rather then hurry-and a cloud of disgust hanging about him. He seemed almost not to notice the Speaker and Lutz, but when he did he brought himself up short.
He was a handsome young man, if still a tad temperamental and rash. His power was practically unmatched, though there was a great amount of magical power concentrated in this recent generation of Espers. He, Rachel Toraneille, Kyra herself, and Speaker Narrel (though he rarely flaunted it), were among the most powerful Espers in history.
"Most Reverent, Speaker," he said respectfully, nodding. Chaz was usually fairly informal and for the most part Kyra didn't mind as long as he was formal when it counted. She really did consider Chaz one of her closest friends. That he was being so formal and distant with the two people who had helped rehabilitate him after the Wars had almost destroyed his mind spoke of his anger more loudly then anything.
"Hello, Chaz," Kyra told him. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," he answered a little too quickly. "I'm fine. Be well." Stepping around the pair, he set off briskly down the hall, head lowered.
"That," Narrel chuckled to Kyra, so low Chaz didn't hear, "was almost insubordination."
"Oh, we're a fairly close bunch, I'd say," Kyra grinned. "Chaz is a good kid, and I'll let it slide, for now. I really think of the Espers as more of a family then a group, so I try to give everyone some leeway."
The key to being a strong leader was fear. Structure and order defined an efficient machine, and any group which tried to support a cause as important as that of the Chosen Espers had to be efficient.
Punishment should be swift and fatal, decisions quick, leaders strong and distant. That was the only way one could achieve goals.
Morovin walked through the halls of the Stronghold, holding the hilt of Netrdeon and the wrapped package in his gloved hands. At the appropriate hour, a few minutes after Morovin left his quarters, the bell in the Stronghold's highest tower began to ring. Within moments, the Stronghold was a buzz with activity.
This new strike against Algo would be the blow that would destroy the Great Light. No one was to miss it.
By the time Morovin arrived in the temple most of the Chosen Espers had already arrived and were seated wherever there was room, as long as it was far from the five slabs which Morovin then approached.
The slabs were arranged in a pattern closely resembling a '+'. The central slab was empty and carved with various runes. To either side and directly above it were the slabs occupied by the children of the three races. Males, since that was what the ritual required, none over seven, since the soul was strongest in them. Their senses magically dulled, they had been easily lured away. Now they had been stripped and tied to the slabs, ready for the ritual.
The final slab, below the central one, was unoccupied but fit with the same thongs and ropes as the ones which held the children. As Morovin approached the slabs, a Chosen Esper rose from where he had been seated and fell in behind the Archlord.
When the Archlord stopped, the Esper moved on past him and stood next to the slab. Smiling the exultant smile of the blessed, he disrobed. Morovin came forward and bound the naked man to the altar, then blessed him.
All was ready. It was time to begin.
Kyra sagged suddenly, her fingers grasping the windowsill for support. Narrel quickly reached out and grasped her shoulder to hold her up. "What is it?" he asked worriedly.
"I I don't know. I felt something that I haven't felt for year-that I never expected to sense again. Something something is stirring."
On the edge of consciousness, in the realm of matter and form and linear time, something called out that which it had forgotten.
This creature which called was hard to hear, casting out that name and magic through the chaos to where he writhed.
It drew closer.
The words Morovin had so carefully written flowed from someplace deep within him, drawing his magic through his body and out into the air, where the runes upon the altar gathered it. The runes flared with a kind of pale eldritch flame as the magic activated their inherent enchantments, and reflected in Morovin's glassy eyes. Placing the wrapped package upon the rune marked slab, Morovin drew forth the iron dagger and approached the Parmanian boy. Released from the dulling enchantments, the boy began to scream and writhe upon the altar, struggling to be free, until the rope cut his wrists and the rough hewn stone tore his pale flesh. He was still screaming when Morovin buried the knife in his chest.
"Are you all right?"
Kyra nodded, but her face was pale. "Yes. Whatever it was, it's passed now. There was a sensation I almost recognized, but it wasn't there long enough for me to pinpoint it. I think we should go have a talk with Morgan."
"You don't think-"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do."
The Motavian boy died next. When Morovin approached, the boy didn't scream and struggled the way the other boy had. That was bad. Even Motavian children had stronger wills then most full grown Parmanians. There had to be fear. Morovin carefully began to slash the Motavian child's body.
Only when the boy began to scream in agony and sob for mercy did Morovin end his life as well.
Drawn by the display which the Caller had concocted, it drew as close as it could come and observed what it could observe. The chantings of the Caller held the soul energies of the dead children in check, stopped them from dispersing. The life energy hovered just out of it's reach, and it howled in dismay. The tantalizing brush of the life force against that which separated them was almost too much to bear. Then the agony returned to rip it apart, and it could no longer concentrate on that somehow familiar name.
The green-skinned Dezolisian boy was almost as easy to kill as the Parmanian child had been. Having seen the fate of the two before him, by the time Morovin reached him he was gasping prayers to the Flame through tortured sobs and screams of terror. That was good enough for Morovin, and the final child died as well.
Morovin approached the Chosen Esper who had willingly bound himself to the altar.
He died quickly, and Morovin made no effort to contain his soul energy. It was the magic power that Morovin craved. He gathered in the sacrifice's raw power, channeled it through his t'santari pendant, and used the force to punch a hole in reality.
They had not even made it to the end of the hallway when Kyra suddenly tensed. The sudden eruption of Black Energy was so abrupt and unexpected that he barely had time to lift her defenses to ward it off. It slammed into her like a physical blow and she was hurled off her feet by the intangible powers of a dead god.
Chaz lacked such defenses. He doubled over as a force grasped his body. Pain tore through him and he vomited a combination of food and blood. Hacking so hard and painfully that blood dribbled out of his mouth and down his chin, empty stomach heaving, he collapsed onto his side. A sudden seizure took him and he arched him back as he lay their on the floor, screaming as if he was being torn limb from limb.
Alys paused momentarily in the process of lifting her tea. She always had tea to watch the sunrise. A momentary dizzy spell overtook her and her vision swam. She shook her head and the feeling vanished. Shrugging, she went back to her tea.
For that critical second Rika's defense faltered and Lars darted through the practice blade to rap her smartly on the collar bone. A momentary, but intense, attack of nausea overtook her and she waved Lars off. She coughed once.
"Are you all right?" Lars asked her, leaning on his practice sword.
"I think I'm going to be sick," Rika replied. She coughed again, several times, and the feeling passed. She shook her head. "No, never mind. I wonder what that was all about." She raised her sword. "Okay, let's try it again."
Lant had always rather liked the view from the large hill just south of New Molcum. The thriving Motavian community that had sprung up from the wreckage of the city Zio had destroyed had become a new home for Lant. Among the mostly peaceful Motavians he had found people who finally embraced the philosophies he had adopted after the wars.
That morning, Lant had climbed the hill, the same as always. When he was almost to the top, the nausea and the dizziness struck, so sudden and so intense that he stumbled and toppled partway down the hill. By the time he had stopped rolling and regained his feet, the nausea had passed. Shaking his head, Lant began walking up the hill again.
Yes! Morovin felt the entity respond through it's haze of unending pain and he seized upon it, drawing it out of the rift he had formed. He gathered in the soul energy he had collected from the sacrifices and forced it into the runes upon the final slab. Slowly, painfully, the runes forced the energy into a physical form.
It was imperfect, reflecting the imperfection of the souls Morovin had employed to give it life. He reached again into the rift, drawing out primal chaos to bind the form together and stop it from decaying. Then he addressed the entity he had summoned.
"I offer you forgiveness," he said to the empty air. "I offer you a chance to make amends. Enter this body, lead us, serve us, avenge the Master, and all will be forgiven."
Yes. Yes. An end to the pain, an end to the pain. Forgiveness Yes. It had been wrong, so long ago, wrong. Repentance. The true path. Perfection.
The body upon the altar convulsed suddenly and then lay still. It began to glow as the energy it was forged from felt life pulsing at it's core. Then it stirred.
"Yes!" Morovin cried out to the assembled Chosen Espers. "Yes! If anything of the Master remains to hear us, then let it witness Algo's final destruction! We will fulfill our destiny at last!"
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