[an error occurred while processing this directive]
And Seth slipped like a stilleto’s blade into the deepest recesses of the Telepathy Ball. Knowledge and power surrounded him, tantalizingly close but endlessly far away. It was untouchable to his mind, unChosen; the Ball would need to be broken to his will.
You’re not wanted here, Kyra Tierney told him. You haven’t been properly sanctified.
I didn’t chose you, Rachel Toraneille said coldly, floating before him. Did you think I would surrender after giving everything to stop you?
Begone, Rune Walsh said. This is not our will. Leave here.
"I am Lutz!" Seth cried to the uncaring ether. "I command you!"
You have no power here, Noah said. This our world.
"I am Lutz!"
You had your chance and you forsook it! Rune Walsh snarled, forming before him. The blue-haired Esper began to spin, faster and faster, in a circle about the Disciple, his motions stripping away the yellow chaosform and leaving a man, just a man, naked and shivering to his cold gaze. We asked nothing but endurance from you, little one, Rune snarled, his voice full of contempt. You knew! You saw the truth and turned away from it simply because the path to it was hard! Patheti c. What are you assertions worth? Do you think being Lutz will be an easier on you then being good was? Hmm?
"No! The pain! It was too much!"
Kyra Tierney’s blue eyes met his, a strand of blue hair falling across her forehead. Ask anyone here about pain, Seth, she told him with strange gentleness. Ask Rachel. Ask anyone. We all gave our lives over to an oppressive duty – do you thi nk your path was any harder then ours?
She grabbed his chin, twisted his head to one side and then to another side once more. Seth was suddenly, painfully aware of his nakedness, and shivered under the cool analysis of her gaze. There’s potential here. Now get out of my sight, murder er. You make me sad, and I’ve earned my peace of mind.
* * *
Seth’s hands, no longer flesh but shimmering chaosform, gripped hard the arms of his throne but could not go white-knuckled. The slits of his chaosform which passed for eyes flickered madly across the throne room, and fell on the Elsydeon. The Tele pathy Ball resisted him, and yet...
"I still have you," he whispered into the emptiness.
* * *
Tamgren passed the binoculars to Beyn. "There’s some guard there, but we outnumber them," he told the Hunter. He glanced over his shoulder at their small strike force, some of the best Magi and Hunters there were. "I know the way to the control room, once you get me inside. Demi’s schematics tell all."
Beyn nodded tersely. "You’ve got the machine for Shar?"
"Yeah. Remember, we’re looking to rescue Shar."
"I know that," Beyn snapped. "Don’t forget that she’s also the enemy. If she leaves us with no other options, I won’t hesitate." He put down the binoculars and gave Tamgren a hard look that brooked no argument. ‘Now all we do is wait for the signal."
* * *
"Are you prepared, Archbishop?" Narrel asked. "It’s going to be heavy fighting in their."
"I hope so," Tachel whispered back tersely. "I have you and Eldara. Given my choice, I wouldn’t be here at all, but this is my..."
"Duty," the three said as one, and shared a brief, tight smile.
"The Archbishop’s life is in the hands of the Magi, Speaker," Eldara told him. "You needn’t worry."
It was true, Narrel knew. The Magi were specially trained in defense and the art of attack, for their role in defending Gumbious against insurgents. With a cadre of Magi behind him, Tachel had less to fear then he might have otherwise.
"So, this is forever, I guess," Narrel said.
"Some, I suppose. I hope I won’t have to face them today."
"We all do," Tachel told him. He shrugged. "But all flames die in time. It is the natural way. There’s no use thinking about it. All we can do is wait for the signal."
* * *
Myrelle lay his head on his paws and tried to quell the fear that coursed through his body. There was no turning back now, and he was not as ready to die as he had thought he would be. But if he was going to die, there were worse places to die then Dezolis – the cool bite of the air filled his nostril, giving him comfort.
There was nothing left for him, he had spoken truly to Narrel. That didn’t bring peace, but it brought a sense of greater meaning. He’d teach them the error of what they’d done to the Musk Cats, he’d make them pay. The world needed the last of the Musk Cats.
So he waited for the signal.
* * *
"Looks impressive," Rika noted.
"It’s not half as impressive as it looks," Carlam asserted, staring at the Stronghold with contempt. "It has the kind of latent enchantments the Esper Mansion does, but they take time to activate, and Seth probably doesn’t know that we’ve joined you, so if we catch them off guard...It’s designed as a communal area, not a military installation. Once you get inside the main castle, it’ll probably get hot and heavy, though, since the passages are tight. We’ll have to be careful and try to stay together." He paused. "It would be helpful it I could use my powers."
"Forget it. Wren, is Danielle ready?"
"Verily," Wren said with some disdain. "I hope she chooses to function with the appropriate level of solemnity."
"Have some faith. Does everything seem to be in order? Have the other strike forces checked in?"
"Good. Tell the Espers to give the signal."
* * *
Morovin knelt, gathering his cloak about the stump of his arm. "You summoned me from Gumbious, Disciple?"
"Yes." There was a sound of falling glass and the Telepathy Ball appeared before Morovin, rolling to a stop. "This is useless to me right now, and it would be foolish to consolidate all of our powers here. Take the Ball with you back to Gumbious and guard it, Archlord."
"Yes, my lord. Will there be anything-" The Stronghold was suddenly rocked, and Morovin lost his balance, barely catching himself from falling. "An attack!"
The Disciple pushed to his feet and began descending the stairs from his throne as the castle shook once more. Quickly, Morovin grabbed the Telepathy Ball and thrust it under his cloak. Seth’s regime was falling apart. He had hoped that the Discipl e as a figurehead would draw the men together, but so far Seth’s leadership had been...substandard. He had been wrong to depend upon a figurehead. Morovin Lan’Tearin’s own best weapon had always been himself.
It was time to take matters back into his own hands.
Right where they belonged.
* * *
Okerin had never been so terrified in his entire life. He crumpled a fistful of the Archbishop’s robes and twisted them in his hands. They were outnumbered.
Where was Morovin?
He heard a cry, close nearby. That was it! He would order an immediate surrender. He could get protection, from the Espers, against Morovin. He’d been manipulated, threatened! He’d been blinded by magic, but now he was better! Rising, Okerin raced towards the hallway. He had to get the word out!
Morovin flashed into being before him and even as Okerin tried to slide to a stop, he felt a knife slide between his ribs. Morovin took a fistful of his robes as he fell, holding him on his knees.
"I am taking command," he said, the voice of the Flame incarnate, in the moment before poor, deluded Okerin slipped into darkness.
* * *
"He went that way!" Narrel cried. "Follow him! This might be our last chance!" He looked desperately at the Archbishop. "That was Morovin! I’m sure of it!"
"We can’t spare the men, Speaker!" Eldara snapped over the sounds of battle. "We’re spread thin trying to hold the center as is!"
"Damn it, Councilman!" He struck his staff hard against the ground. The Frade Mantle, about his shoulders, seemed to weigh heavily upon him. In the absence of a Chosen, he was the leader of the Espers, and that made Morovin his arch-nemes is.
"No, Speaker!" Tachel snapped.
"Idiots!" Narrel snarled. "I’ll find him myself!" He turned and shoved past a Magi, already preparing the spells he would need to break through. He was startled by the appearance of Myrelle, beside him.
"I’m coming with you!" Myrelle called. "I want Morovin too!"
Narrel nodded and grabbed Myrelle by the scruff of his neck, already turning himself invisible.
* * *
Morovin was in the nave of the Temple, as Narrel had expected, standing over the body of Okerin, which didn’t surprise him very much. Morovin sat in the Archbishop’s throne, the Telepathy Ball hovering before him on a small wooden table.
Narrel unwove his invisibility, and Morovin looked up in surprise. "I don’t have time for you now, Narrel," the Archlord hissed, and made a sharp gesture. Narrel saw the Musk Cat leap away as a bolt of raw energy leapt from Morovin’s hand toward him. His shields took the blow, but he was staggered. He had forgotten how powerful Morovin was. Luckily, he hadn’t had time to direct his blow through the t’santari pendant he wore, of the first blow might have destroyed him. He had to mov e faster then Morovin, keep him off balance.
Narrel began to walk forward. "The Telepathy Ball will never yield to you," he cried, and returned fire. Morovin scoffed, taking the blow on his t’santari powered shields.
"You’ll never hurt me!" Morovin cried, rounding the table and lifting a black battle-staff from across the Archbishop’s throne. "Do you know why, Narrel?" A vicious smile touched his lips, a chilling grin that Narrel well rememb ered. "You still remember the pain, the terror, the hate. You fear me, little boy."
* * *
Myrelle huddled in a corner and watched as slowly, Narrel and Morovin approached each other, taking short steps towards one another between salvos of magical energy. He’d envisioned himself, in a way, as a hero, coming to stop Morovin, but now that Narrel could use his help he was at a loss.
And then he saw it.
Morovin wasn’t turning his full strength on Narrel, and Narrel, in his rage and fear, didn’t realize it. No, the better part of Morovin’s t’santari enhanced powers were going into another attack – on the Telepathy Ball.
His chance, his chance to make good, to avenge his people. Myrelle didn’t stop for thought, but he extended his Weaving into a physical and mental wall, surrounding the ball, cutting of Morovin’s attack. Almost immediately, he felt the power Morovi n exerted redouble, feedback screaming back through the Weaves, making his muscles scream like fire. He felt his body start to fall, let it. All that was important was revenge. He felt blood begin to run from his ears as he struggled to maintain his fragi le hold on the Telepathy Ball, and suddenly...
The pain was gone, everything was gone, nothing existed but the tendril of power attaching him to the Telepathy Ball, and the Telepathy Ball to Morovin. Power twisted amongst them, joined them wholly, merged them completely...
"I am Lutz..." Morovin said.
* * *
Morovin’s attack ceased for a brief second, and Narrel paused his attack, strengthening his defenses against whatever counterblow Morovin was planning. Then, suddenly, into the silence, he heard Morovin speak.
"I am Lutz..." the Archlord said, as if in a daze. "I...am..."
The Telepathy Ball exploded with a sound like thunder, and Narrel sensed, in the last moment, the sphere giving into the attack he had never seen. He saw a bolt of green light flash from the apex of the explosion to Morovin, and another away to his left, out of his line of sight.
Morovin stumbled forward as the blast filled him with all the latent power of the Telepathy Ball, all the magical energy he had released sent coursing back through his own web of power into himself. His eyes bled power in greenish twists of smoke a s the overflow sought some method of escape. The power had intoxicated Morovin, there would never be a better time to strike.
Narrel slammed the full weight of his body into the Archlord, feeling his flesh crackle with power as he came in contact with Morovin. The Archlord had become, in essence, a giant battery of magical strength. The key was not to let him use it.
The two stumbled backwards. Morovin’s hand locked onto the back of Narrel’s robes, trying to hurl him off. The force of Narrel’s blow sent them both into the table that the Telepathy Ball had occupied, and they fell to the ground in a crash of wood and glass. Narrel groped after the wood, hoping for a club of some kind, but Morovin moved faster then he would have expected, his fist slamming into the side of Narrel’s head, knocking him aside. A burst of magical might followed the blow, and Narrel fe lt the whole left side of his face catch fire. He screamed, turning all of his magical power to dousing Morovin’s sorcerous flames.
The pain died quickly, suppressed through supreme effort of will, and Narrel realized he was on his hands and knees amongst the glass and the wood, gasping for breath. There was a pool of blood gathering beneath his face, and everything on his left side seemed to be a blur to his sight.
He saw Morovin’s shadow behind him.
"Now, Speaker," the Dark Esper said slowly, "you will die."
Narrel’s hand wrapped around a shard of the Telepathy Ball, and even as he felt Morovin gathering in what magical power remained in him, he rolled over onto his back and to the side, ignoring the screams of protest from his still shocked body. Moro vin’s face, in the moment before he struck, registered surprise.
And then the shard of the Telepathy Ball was thrown, and a moment later it took Morovin Lan’Tearin squarely in the throat.
His black armour suddenly stained red, Morovin fell to his knees, trying, in his last few moments of life, to speak. Panting, Narrel managed to lever himself back onto his hands and knees, the world spinning, to stare him in the face.
"I’m not afraid of you," he said, suspecting the massive damage to his face distorted his words. "And you are no Lutz."
Morovin’s eyes went wide, and then he fell forward, and was dead.
His magic still suppressed the pain, and his own feeble attempts at healing himself were making some headway, but Narrel also knew he was losing a lot of blood, and he was still so shocked from Morovin’s blow that he wasn’t functioning at peak effi ciency. Reaching out, his groping hand found the Archbishop’s throne, and he managed to lever himself to his feet.
"Myrelle?" he rasped. He suspected that the Musk Cat knew something of healing, since Esper lore concerning his people ran that way. "Where are you?"
He turned his head, trying to compensate for the darkness of his left eye, and saw the Musk Cat, sprawled at the foot of one of the pillars with blood dripping from his ears and nose and pooling all around him.
"No..." Narrel whispered, stumbling forward. "No..." He made it two steps from the support of the throne, and fell, and lay still because he lacked the strength to move. He could see the Musk Cat was still breathing, but shallow ly...Myrelle needed his help to live.
"Speaker!" He felt someone kneel at his side, off in the darkness where he could no longer see, and lay soothing hands on him. Eldara. "Speaker, what happened?"
Darkness beckoned. "Myrelle," the Speaker croaked. "Help him..."
* * *
Tamgren’s laser sword hummed and bit deeply into the armour of another Dark Esper. Looking around, he saw that Beyn’s force had subdued the rest of the guards at the end of the waterway.
"Good work," the young Hunter congratulated, wiping his blade. "Now we’re going on alone." Tamgren felt his stomach knot. This was the part of the plan he feared the most. He knew that most of the Dark Espers would be trying to deal with Lars’ attack force, and that travelling in a group was foolhardy, but even so...Beyn Almeerin and Tamgren Aiedern against the supercomputer of Seed were not odds he liked. "Ready, Tamgren?" Beyn asked.
"I suppose so."
"Good. Follow me."
Tamgren followed Beyn’s lead as they crept through the bowels of the supercomputer. An alert klaxon was set on full blast, and the noise made it easier still to mask their progress. Twice they barely avoided Dark Espers running through the halls, b ut made it to the control room in due course. Striking like a serpent, Beyn was able to take down the two guards with thrown knives, before they even realized that their command center had been breached.
Darting inside, Tamgren flipped one of the Dark Espers out of the chairs and sat down. "Shut the doors!" Beyn hissed.
"I’m working on it!" Tamgren replied. "This machine is very old, older then any of the stuff on Zelan. It’ll take a minute for me to figure it out!" He managed to access the computer’s security routines. He grinned. "You kn ow what would really play havoc with Seth, Beyn?" He flipped a switch. "Full security lockdown." The doors to the control room started to slide shut.
"Mmm-hmm. I just put Seed into a giant quarantine mode. Now..." He was cut off by Beyn’s sudden cry as a black blur slid between the almost closed control room doors and tackled his hunter companion. The doors slammed shut.
"Shar!" Beyn cried in the moment before he fell under a flailing mass of claws. He somehow managed to get his knees up in the moment before the Numan struck him – damn, she was fast – and Shar took them full in her stomach, preventing her from dealing a killing blow as they both went down. Beyn then snapped his legs outward, locking his knees and flipping Shar off him. Immediately, he scrambled to his feet, drawing his sword. "Tamgren!"
"I know, I know!" Tamgren snapped at him, fumbling for the device. "I can’t just jump to full charge, I’ve got to work my way up!"
Tamgren barely had time to leap out of the command chair as Shar leapt towards him, rather then the Hunter. He felt Shar’s claws rip upwards along his back, from his left buttock to his right shoulder. Shallow, because he had move, but they were in credibly painful. He screamed as he landed stomach down on the floor of the control room.
Shar perched on the console itself, her fingers already working the controls with lightning speed. Beyn flung his last knife, forcing her to leap away before she could deactivate the lockdown. Shar fell in a roll and came up leaping towards the Hun ter, claws extended and lips drawn back in a feral snarl of hatred.
The device reached second level and Shar snarled, writhing in midair. Beyn’s foot came up with acrobatic grace, and spun his whole body into the kick that caught the Numan in the jaw, knocking her aside onto the ground. Beyn took a quick step towar ds her, sword extended, but suddenly the Numan was up and tackling him. The device slowed her, Beyn delivered another blow with the flat of his blade, to the side of her head. She cried out and fell.
"Knock her out!" Tamgren snapped.
"I’m working on it."
The device crept towards third level, and killing force. There was an error somewhere, or else the device would have knocked her out by now, which meant she had partial immunity. It would take time for the device to have full effect, but when her n atural defense finally did crack, the device’s power would strike with hammer force. If she wasn’t unconscious by level three...the shock to her system when the frequency did start taking full effect would most likely kill her. Tamgren didn’t want to kill her, but if he and Beyn were left with no other choice...
Shar pulled herself painfully to her feet, wounded but still active. If Tamgren new anything about Numans, and he did, a partially wounded Numan would probably still be a handful for a normal human, even one as well trained as Beyn.
Beyn took a slash of Shar’s claws across his wrist, where he wore a small buckler, and kicked her in the stomach, staggering her. She was weakened, by Beyn’s pounding and by the device, but still dangerous. Beyn realized a moment too late that she wasn’t really as staggered as she pretended to be, and wasn’t ready for her lunge. Desperately, he twisted...
...and felt Shar’s claws slide into his shoulder like a knife into butter. He cried out, but through the haze of pain managed to grab Shar’s wrist with one hand and hold her claws in his shoulder, where they couldn’t do anymore damage. "Tamgre n!" he howled through the pain. Shar’s claws raked across his chest. His free hand reached up, twined in her hair, dragging her snarling visage away from his, then, with brutal force, snapped it forward, bringing his own head upwards.
He felt the ring of the impact, then fell into darkness.
When consciousness came back, he was still lying on the ground, but Shar’s weight had been removed from his body. His entire form was afire with pain. Shar’s claws, now removed from her hands, were still lodged firmly in his shoulder. He quickly lo oked away, and saw Shar, lying sprawled next to him. Tamgren appeared at his side.
"You got her."
Beyn nodded. "I know. I hurt everywhere."
Grimly, the young man returned his nod. "I imagine so. I won’t lie to you, Beyn, you’re in serious shape."
The Hunter closed his eyes and let his head loll back. "Will I die?"
"Not right away," Tamgren told him bluntly.. He pulled a knife and began to cut away Beyn’s uniform with precision. Tearing off the uniform shirt, he took the hem of it in his teeth and ripped off a long strip of red cloth, which he began to bind around Beyn’s bleeding torso. "And not if I have anything to do with it. I alerted Demi in the shuttle, with Seed’s communications, and we’re perfectly safe with the lockdown. Did I mention I studied medicine for a while? Sort of a family tr adition. You’ve probably heard of my grandmother, Saya, and my mom was a doctor too. I’m sort of," he paused to tear another strip, "the black sheep. But I know a little. Believe me," he told Beyn, tightening the binding, "I’m going to do all the hard work. All you’ve got to do is hang on until they can break through to us."
* * *
Carlam hadn’t lied. Fighting inside the castle proper was hot and heavy. Rika’s force had split, and she commanded a small team of Hunters, Carlam, and a handful of Espers. "The throne room is this way!" Carlam shouted over the din, point ing with the sword. "Down this hall, around the corner. If Seth is anywhere he’s there!"
As soon as the word were out of his mouth, the Disciple appeared around the corner, his glowing form casting eerie shadows on the wall. The Soulflame was clutched in one hand, the Elsydeon hung from a belt at his waist. Seth gestured with the blade , and a column of Dark Espers appeared behind him, then broke around him and rushed Rika’s team.
"Damn it!" Rika cursed, then gestured to the Esper holding Carlam’s shields. "Drop the shields! We’ll need all the help we can get!" The Esper balked, but then, after a moment, dropped the restraints. Carlam grinned and began pu shing his way, alongside Rika, to the front lines, arriving just as the first few Dark Espers came within striking distance. The rest supported the forerunners with magic, but the Espers had been outfitted with t’santari culled from the battlefield , and met them blow for blow.
Life descended into a swirl of blood and violence. The only thing she was really aware of was, of all things, Carlam, fighting alongside her with deadly grace. He was competent, she’d give him that much, and dependable. By the time the last Dark Es per fell, she and Nara’lak were fighting back to back.
"Where’s Seth?" Rika snapped. The nearest Esper gave her a helpless shrug.
"He left after the tide started turning. He Jumped."
"Do you want me to reactivate the shields, Lady Rika?"
Rika turned around and gave Carlam a searching look. He was pale, sweaty, and offered her a faint smile as he wiped his sword clean. They’d protected each other.
"No," she said after a moment, ignoring the Esper’s surprise. "Carlam Nara’lak is my companion...and my friend." She extended her hand towards him, and he hesitated before he took it.
"Thank you," was all he said, and she could see that he meant it.
* * *
"What about family?"
Beyn sighed. "Piata. They wanted me to study there, maybe become a professor, at least an academician. I had to run away to join the Hunter’s Guild."
"Oh," Tamgren replied, worried he’d touched on a dangerous subject.
Beyn laughed, then gasped with pain. He lay prone on the ground, and Tamgren had sunk into one of the chairs before the command console. "Nothing like that. They love me, they understood...eventually. I hope they’re okay. What about you?"
"Just Saya. My grandfather died in the Alisian Wars, and my parents...in a boat wreck. My mom was pregnant, too." He realized how bitter he sounded and immediately regretted it. "Sorry," he told Beyn apologetically. "I don’ t talk about it a lot."
"I understand." A long silence passed. "They’re not coming, are they?"
"Don’t be negative. They’ll come as soon as they’ve quelled the resistance." Tamgren leaned back. The long cuts across his back burnt like fire, and he’d lost a lot of blood. It was hard not letting Beyn know what bad shape he was in.
"Do you drink?"
Tamgren blinked, surprised at the question. "Not often, why?"
"We should get drunk together sometime, that’s all." Beyn cracked a faint grin and laughed.
There was a sudden screeching sound and the doors to the command center were wrenched painfully open. A figure stood in the doorway.
"I’m glad we’re not too late." Tamgren felt his body relax.
"Demi! Lars!" He felt incredible relief. They were at war, but he wasn’t ready to die...not at all. "Get Beyn, he needs help."
"What about you?" Demi asked as Lars carefully picked up the younger Hunter and disappeared out the door with him.
"Funny story, that," Tamgren replied. His head felt light. "I’ve lost a lot of blood, is all...but really, you should see to Shar...still out..." The world began spinning and then to fall, slowly, but faster and faster, into dar kness. He felt Demi’s hands upon his body, lifting him, carrying him. He was safe.
"You’re an idiot, Aiedern," he heard her say fondly before he slipped away.
* * *
"How’s the Speaker?" Eldara asked. Tachel looked up from Narrel’s prone form and sighed.
"Magical burning," the Archbishop told her. "Nothing I can correct. He’ll live...but...What about Myrelle?"
"I...I don’t know," Eldara replied dubiously. "I’m getting some really funny resonance from him. Give me a few more minutes." She looked back at the Musk Cat, lying, deeply in shock, on the floor. She could revive him, and she d oubted it would hurt him, but the resonance...It looked so familiar, but there was no way it could be what she thought it was...Quickly, the Magi performed a deeper probe then the ones she had performed earlier.
Her breath whistled from her lungs as if she’d been punched in the gut. The final probe confirmed the origin of the resonance, which meant there was nothing left to do but rouse him. Laying two fingers across the side of his face, she whispered his name while releasing a subtle psychic pulse to make him come around.
Myrelle groaned, and his eyes opened. He stared at her dully for a moment. "Eldara?" he asked, his voice slurred.
"Yes, Lutz," Eldara told him comfortingly. "I’m here. What do you need, Most Reverent?"[an error occurred while processing this directive]