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Gumbious Temple was liberated, and there was rejoicing.
The Stronghold lay in ashes and ruins, and there was rejoicing.
Zema was freed and Morovin dead, and there was rejoicing.
There was a Seventh Chosen, and Eighth Generation Lutz, and there was rejoicing.
But despite all that, Rika couldnít make herself feel better. After the fall of the Dark Esperís holdings on the two Algolian planets, their forces had been consolidated in Gumbious Temple. There was an incredible number of wounded in need of pries tly care Ė Beyn and Tamgren were still in bad shape, Narrel was comatose, and Myrelle...
No one was sure what effect the bequest of the Telepathy Ball would have on the Musk Cat, but despite still being in mild shock from the surge of power he had been struck with, Myrelle seemed all right, if a bit confused. There was some whispering, quickly quashed by Eldara, that it might be better if Myrelle didnít come out of shock at all...if he died...
Eldara didnít seem worried by it, so Rika didnít let herself get too excited. Apparently, much the same sentiments had passed through the Council when Rune Walsh appointed Kyra Tierney as his Chosen. That wasnít what bothered her...
Leaning against a window in an empty room of the Temple, Rika gazed out across the empty streets of Jut. There was no life there, not yet. Those innocents that hadnít been killed were likely in hiding someplace. The Dark Espers hadnít been complete ly eradicated, of course, but the threat was greatly reduced. They had lost their command structure, their Disciple with all his figureheads had abandoned them. They were bandits now, and it was only a matter of time.
Reflected in the glass, she saw the door behind her open and Gryz walk in, carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses. She gave a faint sigh and turned around to face him.
"Uncle Gryz. Are they still celebrating?"
"Those that can." The Motavian gave her a searching look. "Donít be too hard on them, Rika. They need this, the sense of victory..."
"Seth is alive, Iím sure of it!"
Gryz pulled up a chair across from Rika and eased his massive body into it. He passed her a glass and she held it out to him while he poured the wine. He raised his glass in a brief salute, then drank. "As am I," he replied finally, resti ng the glass on the arm of his chair.
"Then why are we sitting here? Why are they celebrating?"
"Because Seth is one man." The Motavian shook his head and sighed again. "This isnít about Seth anyway."
"Oh, really?" Rika couldnít meet his gaze.
"No. They never found Chaz and Lant."
She didnít reply, but quickly drained her wine. "Iím not going to be very good company, Uncle Gryz. I think Iíll go to bed."
It wasnít even dusk yet. Gryz shrugged. "Good night."
* * *
Rika checked in briefly in the main hall of the Temple, now converted into a large infirmary. The sounds of the celebrations from the floor above drifted down. Some of the wounded seemed to be straining to hear them. There was, here, even surrounde d by death, the same sense of fierce pride and victory that had driven Rika from the celebrations.
Beyn congratulated her, and she forced a smile, a nod, a clap on the shoulder. Tamgren gave her a wan, sympathetic smile that she didnít feel the need to return. Narrel was still out, but they were hopeful heíd come around soon, even if they couldn ít do anything about the scarring. Heíd never see out of that ruined eye again, and his reasonably handsome face was now a memory.
Myrelle was in seclusion with Eldara and a couple of the other high-ranked Espers, while they examined him. With nothing left for the memories of Lutz to return to, it was critically important that Myrelleís health be monitored at all time, especia lly if the Telepathy Ball created side effects in the young Musk Cat. She hoped he would be okay.
But none of these people were her destination. There was a room, just off the main hall, where the last of the recuperating was being treated.
She crouched in the corner like a caged animal, under Danielleís watchful eye. Priestly magic kept her insanities in check, but nothing permanent could be done until Wren and Demi returned from Zelan with the appropriate equipment.
"Good evening, Rika."
"Hi, Danielle. Is Shar talking?"
"Yes," the Numan snapped at her. "You can speak directly to me, yes?"
Rika turned a cool eye on her. "I donít owe you any respect, Shar. Just remember that youíre a prisoner here, and I make the rules."
"Kill me, if my performance so dissatisfies. I donít care."
"Then why is there fear in your eyes?" Rika crossed the room quickly, ignoring Danielle, and grabbed Sharís chin in her hand, yanking the Numan up to eye level. "Where is Seth?" She began to shake Shar fiercely Ė in her w eakened state, the Numan was unable to fight back. "Where is he? Tell me!"
Danielleís hand locked with clamp-like force onto Rikaís wrist. "This is not appropriate behaviour, Rika," the Android chided. "Shar is our prisoner, and she is helpless."
Rika didnít look at the Android, but instead deeply into Sharís eyes, full of fear. "You didnít look so afraid when Seth killed my mother, beast," she snarled, gripping Sharís jaw tighter. The Numan whimpered.
"Rika!" Danielle snapped. "You ought to leave."
Rika felt her mouth twist into a sneer. "Pathetic," she snarled, releasing Sharís jaw. The Numan collapsed to the ground and began to pull herself away from Rika, snarling and sobbing.
"We are trying to acclimatize her," Danielle told Rika coolly, not releasing her wrist. "Your actions are counter-productive."
"Are you throwing me out?" Rika asked, stunned.
"Not yet." Danielle released her wrist and pointed to the door. "If you please, Rika."
* * *
Why were they all so blind? Did they think all the problems had disappeared with Morovin? Rika stalked through the halls towards her room as dusk approached. These people lived in fairy tales if they thought it so easy. They didnít even have Els ydeon back!
She slammed the door to her room behind her, and, paradoxically, felt tears rise in her eyes. Dashing them away, she crossed the room to secure the windows against the cold...
...and saw the note lying on the table in the middle of the room.
Come to Jut. Alone.
It was unmistakably her brotherís hand. Her own hands shook as she picked up the note. Heíd been here, in her room, and sheíd been away...heíd been almost close enough to touch and now he was gone!
Rika looked out the window. Almost dusk. Tendrils of snow, grasped by the blowing window, danced across the snowfields like mist. Chaz was out there someplace.
Rika sat down on the edge of her bed. It could be a trap. But it was Chaz. She had to go. Alone? She considered it. Yes, so not to alarm him. But Seth was still out there, maybe Chaz was still his unwilling slave...She needed insurance. Something t o keep her safe. She needed...
The Silver Fang.
* * *
The guards recognized her, so it was easy to gain access to the armoury and make off with the Fang. They never even asked why she wanted it. Their blind trust in her made Rika experience a pang of guilt, but she quelled it as she slipped out of the Temple, Fang hanging on her belt.
"Iím coming, Chaz," she whispered into the night.
* * *
"You have to come with me!" Lant insisted. "Iím not a piece of meat to be traded, and you know it! Whatíll you do, Chaz?"
Chaz glanced over his shoulder at his brother. "Iíll find Seth."
"Why would you want to do that?" Lant snapped.
Chaz slammed his fist down on the windowpane. "Because I need to know, know for certain, what I think. I have questions that need answers...from Rika and Seth. I donít know where I stand anymore."
"Then at least let me come with you."
"No," Chaz replied flatly. "Youíre going with Rika, and thatís final."
"Untie my hands, Chaz." Lant held up his bound wrists. When Chaz didnít respond, Lant sighed helplessly and slumped back into the chair he sat in. "The ropes cut, Chaz. That takes me back." Chaz stiffened, but Lant ignored him. "Whenever I become a problem, I just get tied up and locked away...I expected better from you."
"Shut up, Lant."
"No. Chaz, this could be your last chance! What are you clinging too? The Dark Espers are finished!"
"While Seth is still alive I have an obligation. I canít renege on my oaths. Iím not saying Iíll lead the reborn armies of the Dark Espers against Rika, Iím just saying I donít understand what I think anymore."
"So you might."
"Sheís coming. Stand up." Lant rose, and Chaz draped a thick cloak over his brotherís shoulders. "Come on. Please, little brother, donít make this any harder on me then it already is."
The pain in Chazís eyes was real. Lant sighed. "Lead on."
* * *
Rika walked, on alert. She didnít want to believe that Chaz would set her up, and yet...she had let him catch her off guard once before. It wouldnít happen again. She slipped her hand into the Silver Fang, the other hand rested on the hilt of her s word. She thought about calling out.
"Rika Lain." She spun around, whipping her sword free of its scabbard and raising the Silver Fang. A pale yellow light flickered across the snow. Sethís black boots crunched into the snow as he walked out into the center of the road, sizi ng her up. The Elsydeon hung from the belt at his waist, the rust-coloured Soulflame was held negligently in his hand.
Chaz had set her up.
"I assumed," the Disciple told her, "that I would have to bide my time before such an opportunity presented itself. And yet here you are, with the Fang, no less. How marvellous." Seth slid gracefully into a fighting stance, the sword extended before him. She didnít recognize the style.
Her sword, she knew, would avail herself for naught but defense, since Sethís chaosform was impervious to normal weapons. She quickly transferred the Silver Fang to her right hand and readied her sword in her left. Seth, obligingly, waited.
"Last chance, Seth," Rika told him, slipping into a ready stance. "Last chance."
"Never!" The Disciple cried with vehemence. Red light flared. "We shall rise again. We converted innocents to our numbers in Lashiecís time, we can do so again! I will inaugurate the second coming of the Chosen Espers with Protector blood!" Seth pointed his sword, like a salute, at Rikaís forehead. "I believe Iíll begin with yours."
* * *
Chaz suddenly clamped a hand over Lantís mouth and hauled him into an alley. "Itís Seth!" he hissed into his younger brotherís ear, releasing Lantís mouth.
"Good," Lant replied acidly. "Hereís your chance for that question and answer period."
"Shut up!" Chaz snarled, but inside he was trembling. Peering out of the alley, he looked down the street and saw Rika and the Disciple engage one another. "Damn," he whispered. "Damn, damn, damn." Suddenly he grabbed Lantís wrists and hurriedly untied them, then spun his brother around and bound them behind his back. Against his older and stronger brother, Lant was helpless.
"Chaz!" Lant gasped as he felt his brother draw the ropes tight. "Whatíre you doing?"
"Stay here," Chaz ordered, tying the end of the rope, like a leash, onto a signpost. "Iím going to go deal with this."
"How?" Lant whispered desperately, crying now, twisting at the ropes that bound him. Chaz turned and began to stalk towards Rika and Seth, using his staff to find solid footing in the snow.
"How should I know?" Chaz shot over his shoulder.
* * *
Sethís style was archaic, unlike anything Rika had ever fought before. It wasnít necessarily esoteric, just a little bit unexpected; and that, combined with the snow, making footing difficult, gave the Disciple a slight advantage.
"You are very good," Seth commented as Rika slipped away from another blow. He parried her counterattack, artfully deflecting the Silver Fang before it could harm him. Rika sidled quickly to one side and leapt forward Ė the Silver Fang sc ored the area beneath Sethís right arm. The Disciple cried out in pain and took two stumbling steps forward, clutching at the wound. With horror, Rika saw that the chaosform where sheís struck him was blackening, as if it burned, curling inwards at the ed ges of the wound. Raising the sword and the Fang, Rika approached.
"Stupid child!" Seth snarled, suddenly spinning. There was a flash of pain, Rika felt agony go racing through her jaw, and she was unexpectedly lying on her back. She could feel an enormous bruise rising along the line of her jaw. Sethís bands were the deepest possible crimson, and he loomed over her. "Iíll flay the skin off of you, Protector!"
Rika scrambled backwards as Seth aimed a kick at her, and succeeded in taking it in the shoulder, not the face as Seth had intended. The power knocked her back into the snow. Desperately, she rolled backwards, landing on her feet, but as she rose a bove a crouch Seth kicked her again, this time in the stomach, at the same time grabbing her hair with his free hand. Rika gasped in pain as Seth dragged her to her feet and threw her down into the snow. As she raised her head to look up...
She saw Chaz, standing not ten feet away, pale as a ghost, shivering in the cold...and just watching. "Chaz!" Rika screamed. "Please! Brother!"
"General Lain," she heard Seth say, as if surprised. "Come to watch the end of this Protector?"
Chaz said nothing.
Rika took Sethís momentary distraction as her last chance, and quickly worked the Silver Fang off her hand. Then she rolled, spinning onto her back to stare up at the Disciple, and threw it at his head.
Seth jerked backwards, startled, and raised the Soulflame to deflect it. Rika felt her stomach begin to churn, knowing instinctively that Seth was drawing upon the last of the Black Energy Wave dormant in the Netrdeonís hilt. Darkness flared along the tísantari blade, and there was a flare of white light at the point of impact as the Silver Fang exploded. Rika cried out in spite of herself, raising her hands to cover her face, cursing her stupidity as she tried to scramble away from the Disc iple. A moment later, Sethís foot connected with her again, in the ribs, knocking her down. Lying on her back, gasping for breath, helpless, Rika watched the Disciple raise the Soulflame, and watched it fall.
It struck sparks off a metal staff and was held there by it, quivering.
"Donít you dare hurt my sister," Chaz Lain said.
Seth raised the Soulflame once more and stepped back. "General Lain?"
"I donít know what I think anymore," Chaz said quietly, "but I know that Rikaís my sister, my twin sister. That means more then... a lot of things."
Seth struck like lightning, and Chaz parried with his staff, but Rika could see that all his years of Esper training had left him out of practice. He was a little bit more sluggish then heíd been at the peak of his physical training, eight years pr ior. He needed her help, but there was nothing she could do without a weapon that could hurt Seth. She cast about desperately, and her eyes fell on an especially large piece of shining shrapnel, left by the explosion of the Fang. She reached for it...
...and heard her brother cry out. Looking up in horror, she saw the Soulflame slide into Chazís shoulder, deeply, so deeply, and out again. Chaz staggered backwards, and Seth pressed his attack, gripping the Soulflame two-handed to deliver a massiv e overhand strike.
Rikaís hand closed on the shrapnel.
Too late, too late.
Chaz raised the staff to parry and deflected the Soulflame , but his arm was weakened by the stabbing, and the force of the parry spun him halfway around, exposing his back. Seth struck mercilessly. Chaz screamed as the Soulflame bit deeply into hi s spine, felt his legs go numb beneath him, and he fell forward into the snow.
"No!" Rika screamed, leaping forwards. At the last moment possible she swung with the piece of the Fang, slicing down Sethís side, through the black armour, through the chaosform, and through the swordbelt. Rikaís momentum carried her forwards, past the Disciple, she grabbed for the belt and felt her hand touch it...
...and came up holding the Elsydeon.
"My turn," she snarled.
* * *
It wasnít easy to untie a knot while your wrists were tied together and your back was turned. The stories all had people finding shards of glass, or discarded daggers, to cut their ropes on. No such luck for Lant. The tips of his fingers had been s craped raw, and were slick with blood, but he grinned triumphantly as he felt part of Chazís knot give way.
* * *
The Elsydeon was a beautiful sword, perfectly balanced and weighted, the blade gloriously smooth and sharp as a Dezolis wind. It danced in her hands, and she met Seth, blow for blow, in the city square of Jut.
Seth was good, very good, almost as good as Rika Ė only his unusual style let him match her blow for blow as he did. And Rika was powered by rage and sorrow and loss, and she found herself slowly gaining the upper hand.
"Iíll kill you!" she snarled. "You killed Chaz, damn it! Chaz! You killed him!" The sacred sung as it was deflected off of the crystal blade. "Iíll kill you! Monster!"
* * *
"Monster!" Rika Lain cried, and struck again. Seth fell back.
Monster...He remembered, within the Telepathy Ball, how the chaos had been stripped away and had left human flesh beneath. He remembered the feel of air on his body, as he had felt it all those thousands of years ago. He remembered being able to to uch, and smell, and really see...He remembered his humanity.
That dream, heíd had in the Stronghold, came back to haunt him, and the sword he had seen there was this sword, which Rika Lain wielded before him, and he wondered idly why he hadnít made that connection before.
The sound comes again, too, that endless tone which promises true almost-perfection while never giving it, the subtle undertone of discord that doesnít belong haunts it, quieter now but still there, perfection shot through with dirt, and of a sudde n Seth knows that no time has passed, that he is still standing as he did so long ago by the wreckage of two space freighters, with the Darkness in his head and a man he had once called brother dying behind him for the sake of a child he has only seen onc e, and never met, and he knows that he hasnít really reneged at all, that he hasnít made his choice yet, that the Light remembers him and what he has done, and he has one last chance, and here it is, here it comes, sweet surrender and oh my sweet little w ayward son, hereís your last chance, it wonít come again and Iíll forgive you and you can have everything youíd thought youíd lost because I do understand your fear, and Iíll give it to you this time if you want it, everything you dreamed of that night so long ago and all you have to do is surrender...
* * *
Seth dropped his guard and the Elsydeon slid into his body. There was a silent explosion of light and energy, and Rika found herself blinded in the moment that the last servant of the Profound Darkness passed out of his life and died.
And there was nothing where once Seth had been but a crystalline sword falling into the snow.
Rika fell to her knees, using the Elsydeon to prop herself up, her head resting against the crosspiece. It was over so fast...
"Rika!" Looking up in shock, Rika saw Lant as he knelt down beside her, his face flushed and wet with tears. "Rika, oh Rika!"
"Lant?" she whispered, uncomprehending. "Lant?"
"Itís me, itís me," Lant told her breathlessly. "Itís over."
Chaz groaned, and Rikaís head snapped around, her little brother momentarily forgotten. "Chaz!" She ran to his side and knelt down beside him, gently turning him over. His face was bloodless, and the snow and the hands she touched him wit h were red with his blood. Glancing up, she saw Lant approaching, the Elsydeon left where it had fallen, quivering, point down in the snow, with the sun setting behind it. "Chaz, are you okay?"
Chaz chuckled, and a trickle of blood ran down his chin. "No. Yes. No. Better, now. Hi, Rika."
Rika swallowed her tears. "Hi, Chaz."
"Hey, Lant," Chaz whispered, "sorry about..."
"There is nothing to be sorry about," Lant told him firmly, shaking his head. "Weíre good, Chaz, weíre goood."
"Thanks. I guess I must look like a mess, huh?"
"Not really," Rika lied. "Lant, run to Gumbious, get a healer."
"No time," Chaz whispered. "Not that it would make any difference." He coughed, and gasped with pain. "The Soulflame was...charged...with the Profound Darknessí energy. Itís...inside me, now. Eating me. Itís only a matter o f...a few minutes, tops."
Rika stopped trying to hide her tears. "Oh, Chaz! Youíre so stupid!"
"Right. You had him, huh?" He smiled weakly again.
She took a deep breath. "Thanks for that, Chaz. I...needed you."
"What can we do?" Lant asked his brother quietly.
"Stay with me?" Chaz asked. Rika could hear fear in his voice. She began to cry harder and could see Lant was doing the same. "I hurt...everywhere. Help me...help me with this armour?"
"What do you mean?" Rika asked.
"Take it off. You were right, Lant...it is too heavy." He closed his eyes and leaned back as Rika and Lant went to work, pulling off the heavy armour and leaving him in the black bodysuit beneath. He gasped when their work pained him, but didnít complain. When the armour was removed, he opened his eyes again and watched Rika scoop it all up in his black cloak and dump it across the square from him.
"Anything else?" Lant asked. Chaz rested his head back, taking the weight off his neck. He felt so weak.
"No. I just want you here. I need more time..." He sighed, then gasped in sudden pain. "Not long."
"Itís okay, Chaz," his sister told him. "We know what your mean." Rika cradled his head in her lap and he lay still, his breathing shallow. A few moments passed in silence.
"Rika?" he whispered. "Lant?"
"Yeah, Chaz?" Rika replied through her tears.
The sun set.[an error occurred while processing this directive]