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Death, blood, and the swirl of endless violence, rolling and eddying in unpredictable tides. None of the blood on Tamgren Aiedernís clothing was his own; part of that was skill, since he was an average swordsman, and part of it was luck. Most of it was ingenuity and quick thinking.
He envied the people who found pride in the flash of a blade and the dulling of the enemyís eyes. He felt nothing but shame. But he danced the dance anyway. For Alys, and Kyra, and Rachel, and Rika, and Chaz, and Lant, and everyone. Revenge was as important to him as patriotism, and as much as he hated himself for it, he hated his enemies. Hated Morovin, hated Seth. Hate was a luxury he rarely allowed himself.
He couldnít see the Espers, but he could hear them, a knot of roaring power and sound somewhere off near the gates. Under Narrelís frenzied commands the Magi and the Espers had formed a wedge around the site of the explosion where moments ago, anot her Lutz had fallen.
The flicker flare of his laser sword brushed aside a tísantari blade and then struck home, piercing dark armour and skewering his opponentís chest. Thankfully, the surprise strike Lutz had launched had given the forces within Aiedo a chance to close to distances at which powerful battle magic would be ineffectual, at the cost of her own life.
What about Rika and Myrelle? Had they been taken by Morovin? Were they dead?
Maybe they were just two more names to add to the lists.
So Tamgren danced.
* * *
"Keep them away from the gates!" Eldara cried, waving her staff towards the gates of Aiedo. "Donít give them access to the city!" As her Magi dispersed, Narrel caught her arm.
"Can you hold the gates, Councilman?" he asked tersely.
"Of course, Speaker."
"Good." Turning, the Speaker began shouting orders to the Espers. "Push them back! No quarter!"
Eldara cast about quickly, seeing Tamgren fighting alongside the Hunters. She breathed a quick sigh of relief. He was all right, for now, and it looked as if Gryz was nearby him in case he needed help.
Revenge was irrelevant, and she was glad that Tamgren was sensible enough to know that.
All that mattered was survival.
* * *
Cautiously, Beyn sheathed his sword. The field seemed empty now, but there had been several lulls in the fighting in the last few hours. "Gryz." The omnipresent Motavian appeared beside him, covered in blood and with his huge axe looking like a toothpick in his hand. "Send runners to the rest of the battlefield. Make sure there arenít any warrens of Dark Espers holed up."
"Good work. Losses?"
"Lutz," Gryz said quietly.
Beyn hung his head and scrubbed his hand across the back of his neck. "I know, I know." Looking up, he cast about. "Whereís Narrel?" Priests were moving from the gates of Aiedo, healing the living, offering comfort to the dying. Beynís eyes were drawn to a knot of Espers and Magi forming about fifty feet out from the gate. Some of the Espers were moving charred and slain bodies from the area of the blast. Sunlight sparkled off glass at the center of the circle. Touching Gryz lig htly on the arm, he approached the rough circle which had formed.
A smaller ring of the Councilmen, including Eldara and Narrel, had formed around the charred body in the center. Narrel was gently lifting a length of blue cloth, untouched by the blast, from the shoulders of that thing which might once have been a human form. Slowly, he rose, cradling it in his arms.
"Lutz is..." The Speaker paused and swallowed hard. "Lutz is dead."
A muted moan passed through the ranks of the Espers. Narrel crushed the mantle to his chest, and Beyn could see that it was only the greatest strength of will that contained his emotions. Eldara raised a hand towards his shoulder, then let it fall, and simply stood as silent as the Speaker did.
Besides Beyn, Gryz sighed deeply.
The crowd of Espers was dispersing now, to be replaced by the Priests, moving from the city of Aiedo. There was care to be given to the wounded, comfort to the dying, dignity to the dead. In spite of all his years of training, his dedication to the Hunters, Beyn felt torn in half. Nothing could have prepared him. There was a constant, steady wail over the battlefield, made up of not hundreds of individual voices but hundreds of voices joined into one, like a moaning wind. He wanted so desperately t o flee, and could not.
Gryz laid a hand upon his shoulder. "The others will feel as you do," he pointed out. "And you are their leader. They mustnít see in you what they see in themselves; they need you to be strong. Later, Beyn. Later we can shed tears an d raise a glass to the fallen. But not now."
Beyn sighed. "I know. Itís just that..."
He heard a sudden cry come up from within the gates of Aiedo. "What?" Gryz snapped.
"Somethingís wrong!" Beyn shouted. "Hurry! To the city!" Enough people were standing nearby him to hear his command and follow he and Gryz as they raced for the gates.
A startling scene met them just inside. The Dezolisian Archbishop, Tachel, stood at the head of a delegation of Magi, which had ringed a small group of men in distinctive Dark Esper armour. What was not necessarily surprising to Beyn was that a gro up of Dark Espers had penetrated the city. What did surprise him was that Rika, Lars, and Myrelle stood at the head of the group.
"Beyn!" Lars cried upon seeing him. "Call off the Magi!"
Beyn hesitated. "Itís a trick," Gryz asserted.
"Uncle Gryz!" Rika shouted. "Itís me! Iíll explain!"
Beyn glanced at the Motavian beside him. "That satisfies me," he said, "for now." Raising his voice, he called out to the group. "Iím coming over there to talk to you, Head Garrate." Lars scowled as Beyn parted the rin g of Magi and stood before him.
"There isnít time to waste, Beyn..."
"Iím still in command of this city. Guild Head. This could very easily be a trick."
Rika sighed. "I know how this looks, Beyn. Listen to what we have to say?" Beyn nodded, and Rika gestured to a young man in black behind her. "This is Carlam Naraílak. He is Ė he was Ė a Dark Esper. He had contact with my brot her, Chaz, while they were both at the Stronghold on Dezolis.í
The young man came forward, nodded to Beyn, and then, to his great surprise, bowed to Narrel, who had joined the circle ringing them. "The Profound Darkness is dead," Carlam told Beyn. There was a fiery intensity to his eyes as he address ed the Hunter. "I, for one, donít wish to give my life to defend its memory. It can offer me nothing but dogma under Morovin and a life of fear. My companions agree with me."
"Youíre deserting?" Beyn asked, stunned.
"Just so. Originally, we had intended to sabotage Morovinís plans from the inside, but the Disciple became aware of our plans and we were forced to step them up. He paired me with General Lain Ė Chaz, in that hopes that I would betray my sympa thies to him and thus expose myself. I almost did. When that failed, the Disciple simply tried to have me killed, but I was able to escape with most of my allies." His sweeping gesture took in the group of about twelve Dark Espers.
"How are we supposed to trust you?" Narrel demanded, striding forward. The blue cloth had transferred from his hands to about his shoulders, and he wore it with a kind of fierce pride.
Carlam didnít reply. Instead, he reached up and released the black clasp of his cloak and armour, making no effort to catch them as they fell away from his body. His hands next went to his red sash, which he tossed aside. Beneath them he wore a loo se-fitting black bodysuit. Beyn coached his face to impassiveness as the other twelve, as if following Carlamís lead, did the same.
Carlam Naraílak knelt before Speaker Narrel.
"I place myself wholly in your judgement," he whispered.
As the other Dark Espers knelt, Lars spread his arms wide. "Satisfied?"
Beyn tried not to betray his confusion on his face. "Narrel, what do you think?"
Eyes narrowed into tiny slits, Narrel regarded the recumbent Carlam with something close to disdain. "I think Lutz is dead, and no amount of bowing and scraping will bring her back. I think Seth now has access to the fully charged Telepathy Ba ll. I think weíre all doomed. I donít think that this...manís...pretty words mean much of anything. But if you want to hear him out, I can make sure that he and all of his allies are shielded."
Nodding, Beyn turned to Rika, Lars, and Myrelle. "Ummm....I think Iíll need Narrel to probe you three, too. We need to be safe."
* * *
At the very least, Beyn was satisfied that Rika, Lars, and Myrelle were actually who they said they were and werenít under any kind of compulsion. Narrel and Eldara assured him that none of the thirteen Dark Espers could use magic.
Gryz thought, and told the other three bluntly, that it was best Beyn remain nominally in command, at least for a short while. He could tell neither Lars nor Rika was happy about it, but grudgingly agreed with the Motavian. He did, too.
Extra room was made in their makeshift council chambers for Carlam, while the rest of his associates were held under close guard.
Leaning forward, Beyn steepled his fingers and watched the Dark Esper. Narrel had insisted on holding the shield on Carlam personally, and treated the young deserter with barely concealed contempt. He occasionally shifted the mantle about his shoul ders, his eyes still full of pain. Pain that turned to anger whenever his eyes fell on his young prisoner. Rika and Lars sat on either side of Beyn, content to watch. Gryz, Demi, Wren, Danielle, Tamgren, and Eldara all sat nearby.
"You dealt Morovin a powerful blow," Carlam began without preamble. "Heíll be spread thin. Heís got to hold the Stronghold, Gumbious, and Zema, if he wants to maintain his powerbase. The Strongholdís location is secret, and it has th e lightest guard. Zema will have the most. Heís been using it as a stop-off point for all the troops subjugating Motavia."
"How much of Algo does Morovin control now?" Beyn asked.
"Heís running pretty much all of Dezolis through Okerinís puppet government."
Tachel raised an eyebrow. "What happened to Goran?" he asked.
"Heís dead," Carlam told them bluntly. "Morovin killed him and installed Okerin as the head of Goranís forces, then took control. Last time I heard, he was babysitting Okerin personally at New Gumbious, but he may have returned to Ze ma or the Stronghold after that. No doubt Morganís death has left a vacuum in Sethís chain of command.
"Most of Motavia is also under his control. Most of the larger settlements Seth left standing, but all of the smaller villages were destroyed. Mile, Torinco...Piata and Molcum sustained heavy damage but are still inhabited, under martial law.& quot;
"So Seth will be spread thinly?"
"Yes. Heís maintaining his Motavian outposts, and his hold on Gumbious. Okerinís forces maintain control on Dezolis. But as I say, youíve dealt him a grievous injury."
Wren nodded. "If we can strike at Sethís major holdings, heíll likely have to withdraw troops from Motavian soil to consolidate against our attacks. With all of his power concentrated at those three points, we can defeat him in one fell swoop. "
"I concur," Gryz noted. "A three pronged attack, all of our power, against Zema, Gumbious, and the Stronghold." He slammed his fist on the table. "Theyíll be crushed."
"Assuming we have the power available here," Rika noted. "We could be crushed instead."
"If the timing is perfect, we can catch them by surprise," Demi told them all. "Weíll be expecting the confusion, but theyíll be caught off guard."
Danielle jumped in as cleanly as if she had begun the statement herself. "The point is, we cannot afford to sit here and await Sethís and Morovinís next attack. If we simply focus all of our power on one of those targets, Morovin will have tim e to plan an appropriate counterattack. He still has the high ground Ė if we surrender the initiative he can respond with such overwhelming power as to crush us."
"All of our experience teaches us that both Seth and Morovin are cagey foes," Tamgren offered. "Weíve hurt him, sure, but if we just sit back and watch now...well, the kid gloves are off, so to speak. He wonít underestimate us again, or depend so heavily on a special weapon."
Beyn nodded slowly. "Itís dangerous, but I tend to agree. Lars?"
"We have as close to a tactical advantage as weíve had these past days," Lars said. "I agree."
"All right," Beyn replied, nodding briskly. "Then the next question is how to divide our forces. Weíll need Espers or Magi with the groups that attack Gumbious or the Stronghold, to ferry people to Dezolis."
"I want Seth," Rika growled. "Iím going to the Stronghold. Iíll take Carlam. Youíll show us how to strike them." The Dark Esper nodded.
"Obviously Tachel will lead the strike against Gumbious," Beyn pointed out. "Speaker Narrel, Iíd like you to accompany him, and Eldara as well."
Narrel nodded briskly. "Very well. Iíd like a shot at Morovin. Iíd also like a chance to examine the Silver Fang, if thatís all right. Iíll need Myrelleís help for that."
"Lars and I will lead the attack against Zema, with most of the Hunters. Rika, are there any weaknesses we should know about?"
Rika nodded. "I should say so. If you get me a map, I can show you a back entrance that ought to be lightly guarded. You can pincer them if you attack from the front and back."
"Or take control of that super computer, Seed," Lars noted. "It ought to have some kind of defense system we can exploit."
"Then youíll need me, or the Androids," Tamgren said. "If youíre going to try and use a computer, youíll need some expertise on your side."
"We can requisition some shuttles from Zelan," Wren noted. "If you want air support on any attacks, we can offer it."
"Seed, then, or the Stronghold," Beyn pointed out. "Thereíll probably be more Dezolisians then Dark Espers at Gumbious."
"Point well taken," Wren replied. "Demi, perhaps you should join the attack against Seed. Itís possible that Shar may have figured out how to activate Seedís defense systems, in which case youíll no doubt want some return fire."
"Speaking of Shar," Demi offered, reaching into a belt pouch, "we can neutralize her now." She lay a small, rectangular device on the table in front of her. "Iíve been working on this since I discovered sheíd been awakened. This device emits a frequency attuned to the data we have on Sharís chemical instabilities. At low settings, it will make her uncomfortable, hostile. Sheíll be unsettled but she wonít know why. At medium settings, sheíll start experiencing physical pain, and as you rise higher and higher up the spectrum, it has the ability to incapacitate her, or even kill."
"How many of these devices do we have?" Beyn asked.
"Just the one," Tamgren told him. "Demi and I had enough trouble putting together just a functional prototype. Given more time...but just one, now. I think it should go with the team thatíll be trying to usurp the Dark Esper control over Seed. Thatís where Shar is most likely to be."
"All right. So division of our command staff will be as follows Ė Narrel, Tachel, and Eldara will go to Gumbious to take down Okerinís regime. Rika, Wren, and Danielle will take down the Stronghold. Carlam will go with that team to provide sup port. Weíll also want an Esper with Carlam to keep him under shielding."
"My Magi are especially well trained in that area," Eldara offered. "No offense, Speaker, but itís true. I can find someone from my own people."
"Good thought. Gryz and Lars will lead the frontal attack against Zema. Iíll take Seed myself, with Tamgren." Beyn paused. "The next thing will be to decide the division of troops. Honestly, I think if I have Rika, Lars, and Gryz to help me, I can have that done by morning."
"With all due respect," Rika pointed out, "somebody high in the chain of command should mobilize the troops, and brief them. One of us four."
Beyn nodded. "You have a recommendation?"
"Yes," she replied firmly. "Me. Iíve been in Aiedo less then the rest of you since the war started Ė donít forget my sojourn on Dezolis. Iím sure Lars can fill you in in detail on our activities, and I can keep control of the Hunters and other forces as well as anyone."
"Okay. Narrel, Iíll send for Myrelle and tell him youíd like his presence. I hope you donít mind pulling an all-nighter. Tachel, if you donít mind Iíd like your insights on Gumbious temple as well. Carlam, you stay too. Unless the rest of you want to hang around, youíre dismissed."
* * *
Rika had never felt so weary in her entire life. The briefing had lasted long into the night, and it had taken some time to get mobilization well under way. Their odds of winning anything the next day other then an early grave were slim at best, bu t some of the observations presented at the meeting of the command staff had given her some hope...
Her own home had been given over to refugees in her absence, so she had taken the quarters held for her at the Hunterís guild. She unlocked the door and stepped inside, not into the expected darkness, but light and a roaring fire in the hearth.
"I thought you might like a little warmth and something to eat," Tamgren told her from where he sat by the fire, in a comfortable armchair. "Iíve sent down to the kitchens for you."
"Thanks," Rika replied, meaning it. She crossed the room and took the seat next to her childhood friend. "Howíre you holding up?"
"Surprisingly well, considering I just volunteered for whatís basically a suicide mission." Tamgrenís tone was dismissive, but Rika could tell he was afraid.
She wished she could tell him that he could back out, but he couldnít. He was needed inside Seed. "Donít be pessimistic, Tamgren. Beynís the best."
"Sure. Anyway, how did it go with the troops?"
There was a knock at the door, and Rika rose to answer it, returning to her chair balancing a large tray. "Iím not the hungry," she admitted. "Want to share?"
"No thanks. I ate at Tarmís mansion."
Tamgren blushed. "Yeah. I went to see Saya, but she sent me away. She told me I ought to be with Eldara. I appreciated the thought, but it doesnít do much for my outlook on tomorrow."
"How is she?"
"Good," Tamgren replied with feeling. "The best. I hardly even know her, but..."
"So why are you here with an old maid like me?" Rika asked, joking.
"Because I love you, big sister," Tamgren replied with a faint smile. "I guess in a way Iím kind of making the rounds. Itíll take a miracle to pull through tomorrow, so I was just..."
"Saying your goodbyes?"
"In a sense."
Rika sighed. "There arenít many people left that I care about to say goodbye too. Youíre the closest thing I have left to family."
Tamgren reached out and clasped her shoulder. "Donít give up on Lant yet, or even Chaz. We donít know either way. A couple of days ago I would have told you we were all doomed, and now...well, now we have a fighting chance.&quo t;
Rika sighed and turned to her food. After a few minutes of silence, she raised the bottle of mulled wine that had been put on the tray. "Care to share a quick drink, Tamgren?"
Tamgren smiled as Rika poured him a glass of wine and placed it in his hand. "Just one," he told her. "Busy day tomorrow."
"Naturally." Rika raised the bottle. "Hereís to the present. Today weíre alive, and tomorrow who knows, and thereís no pain right here, right now. Drink with me, little brother."
Rika raised the bottle half-mockingly, and took a long drink. As she lowered it from her lips, someone knocked on the door. She sighed. "Itís open."
The door opened to admit a Hunter in red, a blue-clad Journeyman Esper, and Carlam Naraílak, still clad in his black body suit. "My lady," he acknowledged her with a brief nod.
Rikaís eyes narrowed. "What do you want, Carlam?"
The young Esper glanced at Tamgren. "A moment of your time is all, my lady."
"My name is Rika. Anything you can say to me you can say to Tamgren."
"As you wish." His eyes flickered to his guards. Rika leveled an impassive glare at him. "Very well," he sighed. "I wonít take long. I thought you deserved to know that your brother Lantamaral still lives."
Rikaís hands went white where they gripped the bottle. She carefully set it down. "What did you say?" she whispered.
"Lantamaral Lain is still alive, and in the custody of General Chaz. He was taken hostage and sentenced to death when Morovin and Seth took Molcum, where he resided. General Lain begged for his life, claiming he could convert h im to the side of the Profound Darkness."
"Where is he now?"
"If he still lives, he will likely still be in the custody with his brother. If."
"And you donít know where Chaz is now?" Rika asked tersely. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Tamgren leaning forward, but he remained quietly. Silently, she thanked him.
"After leaving his service, I was not privy to General Lainís movements, no." Carlam shook his head.
Rika leaned back, schooled her face to calm. "Thank you, Carlam. Youíre dismissed."
Her veneer cracked. "Leave!"
Tamgren waited silently until Carlam and his two silent guards had departed. Leaning forward, he clasped her hand. "Are you all right, Rika?"
"I was wrong, Tamgren," she said, sliding her hand from beneath his. Gripping the bottle by the neck, she poured the wine out onto the floor. "There is pain here."
* * *
"You sent for me, Speaker?" Myrelle asked, slipping in through the open door. Narrel caught a quick glimpse of a Hunter just outside as the door closed. The Musk Cat padded across his makeshift workroom to where Narrel stood, Silver Fang on the table before him.
"Yes, I did. I was hoping you could shed some light on this weapon."
"The Kyrrin?" Myrelle cocked his head. "Iím sorry to disappoint you, but nobody really knew anything about it. You use it to...fight evil, I guess. Thatís all." He sighed. "The Old One never spoke much at all, since the Bli ghting. Not very much before that. And now..." He sighed again. "I have a request, Speaker Narrel."
The Speaker glanced up from the Fang. "What is it, Myrelle?"
"Tomorrow...take me with you, to Gumbious."
"Whatís that?" Narrel asked, shocked. "Myrelle, itís suicide! You could get killed."
"So? The Musk Cats are done anyhow. Whether I die tomorrow or in twenty years, it doesnít matter. And if I go to Gumbious, I have a chance to accomplish something for my peopleís memory. I donít ask for anything from you, Narrel, I can take ca re of myself. No responsibilities, no strings attached. Please, Speaker."
Narrel scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I canít allow you to march into death, Myrelle..."
"Why not? Whatís left for me but a life of loneliness?" Myrelle turned and started to pace. "I can understand what youíre thinking, really, but Iím not asking anything that a hundred Hunters havenít already asked for." Green eye s met Narrelís, held them. "I have a right to die for the Musk Cats, Narrel, just like you have a right to die for the Espers. Donít you see that?
"I have every right."[an error occurred while processing this directive]