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"Who are you?" The Old One's voice echoed across the gallery again. Myrelle looked up at the Old One for the first time since his name had been called, and it took a moment for him to realize that the Old One wasn't looking at him, but beyond him. Myrelle spun around.
There were Parmanians in the Myst Vale! Twenty or so of them, by Myrelle's brief count, wearing black. Even Myrelle's fledgling magical sense could detect magical power radiating around them.
The leader, a tall, slender, whip of a woman wearing a black robe, stepped forward. "I am Loren of the Chosen Espers, Myau." A ripple ran through the ranks of silent, still Musk Cats. No one called the Old One by his true name—it was a sign of grea t disrespect. "I have come for the Silver Fang."
The Old One grunted, and flared his wings, an awesome sight. "The Silver Fang is not yours to take, Loren of the Chosen Espers. I know you; I see your light. I know what you are, and you are no…Esper."
"Such foolish nonsense. I didn't come to bandy words with animals, Musk Cat. Give me the Silver Fang now or suffer the consequences."
"There are no consequences you could offer me that would make me surrender that weapon to the likes of you, Loren of the black light." The Old One settled his massive, multicolored wings back to his sides. "I am stronger then you in all things."
"But what of your people?" Loren grinned and made a quick gesture with one hand, taking in all of the Myst Vale.
The black armored men attacked.
* * *
"Never, Morgan," Narrel spat. "We're not like you." Morgan's eyes, however, were not on Narrel, but on Rachel, who was regarding Morgan almost thoughtfully, head cocked slightly to one side."Rachel," Narrel blurted out, shocked. "You can't really consider…"
"Need I remind you what's already been done?" Rachel asked. "Kyra Tierney is dead, hundreds of others are dead because of the Alisian Wars…the war they were responsible for. Who knows what else they've done?"
"Everything," Morgan laughed.
"Shut up, Morgan," Narrel shot at her without looking. "Most Reverent, it's wrong. It goes against everything we believe in."
"Narrel," Rachel replied with a touch of softness creeping into her voice. "I know what you think, and I know what happened to you. But if we don't do it, Morovin can catch us off guard and we'll be destroyed. Our duty has always been to defend Algo—a bove and beyond the needs of the individual."
"If we do what she wants, we'll be no better then she is. That's what she wants to see happen, Most Reverent, don't you see? She's cunning…and one of the most intelligent people I've ever known. When she can't use her magic to fight us she'll simpl y resort to toying with us. If we do what she's goading you into, we'll be as much her prisoner as she is ours."
Morgan laughed. "I think your praise is somewhat lofty, Narrel," she suggested sweetly, "but I think you should listen to your little girl leader. If you are not ready when Morovin is prepared to strike, he will crush you."
* * *
Myrelle stood frozen as the Parmanians unleashed their magic at the Musk Cats. The denizens of the Myst Vale mustered what meager defenses they could, releasing Weave after Weave of elemental magic upon the invaders.
Myrelle watched helplessly as one of the older Musk Cats, Edrinor, was struck full on in the flank by a bolt of magic light and simply exploded. A splash of blood and gore struck Myrelle, and that was enough to snap him out his trance like state. H e started to scream as he raced full out towards the meager safety of his nook in the back of the gallery.
One of the Parmanians, struck a lucky blow by a Musk Cat spell, collapsed in Myrelle's path, lifeblood gushing from the hole in his chest onto the floor of the Myst Vale. Myrelle vaulted over the body and just as he reached the apex of his leap, wh ite light engulfed him and he felt his body being tossed through the air a moment before everything went dark.
* * *
He saw the light racing away from him as he mustered his long ignored Weaving powers to combat the invaders. There was a searing pain in his shoulder and it took him a moment to realize that one of his wings had been blown off, leaving nothing but a messy stump.
They had lost, and now his people were being destroyed before his eyes. Another flash of pain and another…The world began to spin about him wildly. No…not yet. Duty. The light. He saw the light moving away from him, saw it leaping over a body that collapsed in his way and then…
From nowhere the blast came, hammering into the light and pitching it limply through the air. The light struck the ground and rolled limply, and did not move.
The light was fading…No. He had to save the light. That was all the mattered. Who had told him that?
It came effortlessly, spurred on by duty. He Wove, wrapping a section of reality about the light and it's bearer and tossing them away, as far away as he knew to throw. The light was gone. To that place he had gone once, long ago…What had it been c alled?
* * *
The sunrise really was the best time to practice if you were a morning person. For Rika, the early hours of the morning were the best of the day, and the time she was most alert. Lars was the same way, they had discovered.
Rika fought with the sun rising at her back, fending off Lars' attacks and launching her own, her body bathed in a fine sheen of sweat. The day was overcast, threatening rain, but water had never bothered Rika and neither she nor Lars had wanted to call off their early-morning practice session simply because of a little rain.
"You expose yourself when you swing that way," Lars chided playfully, darting aside and taking a quick stab at Rika's stomach.
"And you're too arrogant for your own good," Rika laughed, striking Lars a ringing blow on his thigh with the flat of her practice sword.
Within a few moments the sparring was fully underway, and both of the Hunters had lost all interest in taunts. Lars had learned to fight with knives rather then swords and they were still the weapons he favored. He danced as much as he fought, whil e Rika's style was steadier. She locked her feet and held her ground against Lars' attacks.A flash of light in her periphery caught her off guard and her defense wavered, but Lars had seen it as well and didn’t press his attack. The light flared only for a second then was completely gone.
"What was that?" Rika asked. It hadn’t been small or sharp enough to light off steel, so it must have been something else… "Hello?" she called, discarding her practice blade and drawing her Laconium one. Though most of the Biomonsters had died out in the forty-eight years since the Redemption, some of the bios had been part of the Algolian scenery for so long to be considered natural creatures, and there was always a threat…
Drawing his sword as well, Lars began to walk slowly towards the source of the light, Rika following. The Guild Head paused over a bush and, reaching down, drew back the branches. He gasped. "Rika, come take a look at this!"
Lying in the sand beneath the bush was a smallish beige creature, looking like nothing so much as a house cat with large ears and a bushy tail. The creature was bleeding from an ugly red welt on its side that looked fairly recent, and its breathing was shallow. "It’s a Musk Cat," Lars said.
"I’ve never seen one before." Carefully, Rika reached down and probed at the wound. The creature sighed as if in pain when the woman’s fingers brushed the edge of his wound. "Nasty." Almost absently, Rika’s hand drifted up to the Musk Cat’s delicat ely boned face and ran her finger across the black band of fur that ran from his nose to encircle his left eye. "What’s a Musk Cat doing here?"
"How should I know?" Lars asked, sheathing his blade. "I heard they never left their cave on Dezolis, and there aren’t that many people who even know where the cave is…I just don’t know. Well," he sighed, "it’s still alive, and I’m not going to let him bleed to death." Lars carefully slid his hands under the motionless Musk Cat’s torso and gently lifted it. The Musk Cat groaned again, but its eyes didn’t open.
"What’re you doing?"
"I’m taking it back to Aiedo. Hurry up, Rika."
* * *
The door to Morgan’s chamber suddenly slammed open and Narrel spun around. Standing in the doorway was a blue robed Initiate, panting from exhaustion. "Speaker! Most Reverent!"
Rachel turned her back on the venomously smiling Morgan and regarded the Esper. "What’s wrong?"
"It’s the Dark Espers, Most Reverent. They’re here."
Rachel gasped and started for the doorway, Narrel keeping pace. "Seal her and stay with her," Narrel shot over his shoulder at the Esper. If the Dark Espers breach the Mansion, run. Don’t waste your lives in a battle you can’t win."
If we have to say that, Narrel thought to himself as she and Rachel made for the roof, then Light help us.
Outside, on the roof of the Esper Mansion, there was little defense from the wind, but luckily the snow had abated. Narrel and Rachel strode towards the edge of the roof to look out across the barren snow waste.
The Dark Espers had laid waste to the village and there didn’t seem to be any survivors. A group of about a three hundred Espers, by Narrel’s brief count, were standing at the edge of the village but still a fair distance from the Mansion, motionle ss.
"I had no idea there were so many of them," Rachel breathed.
"And every one with t’santari," Narrel exclaimed.
Two figures armed and armored in black, stepped forward from the ranks of the Dark Espers and approached the Mansion. Narrel’s blood began to boil as he recognized Morovin’s one-armed shape standing next to the other figure, a figure that was clear ly…
"Chaz!" Rachel gasped in shock. "Narrel…"
"I see him," Narrel told her quietly. And he saw more. Chaz was surrounded by a faint aura of magic, subtle yet potent. "He’s been ensorcelled."
"Can you break the spell?" Rachel asked.
"Not from this distance, and not without a few hours, no. It’s a carefully crafted enchantment. It must have taken days to construct."
"Narrel," Morovin called up from below. "It’s been too long."
"What do you want, Morovin?"
Morovin chuckled. "You have something which I very much desire."
"The Elsydeon, Narrel. Don’t be tiresome." Morovin’s head turned slightly to regard Rachel. "Most Reverent Lutz, I presume? The most recent incarnation of the Esper parasite?"
"Hello, Rachel," Chaz called up coldly.
"The Elsydeon belongs to no one," Rachel called out. "Least of all demonspawn like you, Morovin."
Morovin grinned up at her. "You can talk, wonderful." Rachel felt the quick pulse of a magical probe. "You have a very strong will. I am sorry that I shall have to crush it. Chaz, give the order to destroy this Mansion."
"Yes, Archlord." Chaz turned and began to walk towards the ranks of the Dark Espers. Rachel called to mind a fire spell and readied it for use.
"Chaz!" she called out. "I don’t want to kill you."
Chaz didn’t stop. With a sigh of regret, Rachel released the spell. The moment the fire bolt was in the air, Morovin made a scything gesture with one hand. Magic rippled from his t’santari staff and intercepted the fire bolt. Rachel’s spell fizzled and collapsed.
"The most foolish thing you could have done," Morovin told her, "was to warn me. I truly am sorry that you will come to such a…ignominious destruction, Narrel. I had so looked forward to crushing you myself. Prepare to die, last guardians of the Li ght." Turning, Morovin made his way back towards the ranks of the Espers, which Chaz had already begun to lead forward in a steady march.
"They outnumber us," Rachel told Narrel. "And they have t’santari. We have to get to Lutz’s Room—get the Telepathy Ball and the Elsydeon. They have to be kept safe!"
"You’re right." Narrel quickly sent out a telepathic message to all inhabitants of the Mansion. Flee. We cannot win.
* * *
"Some kind of magical whiplash," the Healer told them, peering at the unconscious Musk Cat. Lars and Rika hovered nearby. The small room in the Hunter’s infirmary was noticeably crowded. "Not very serious—whatever spell that was cast on him wasn’t intended to hurt him, so he’s not hurt mentally. I’ve managed to stop the bleeding from the wound on his side, too. It’s a burn of some kind, possibly magical in nature. Again, now that I’ve treated it, it’s not going to do any lasting harm."
"Can you bring him around?" Lars asked. "I’d like to talk to him."
"I can, yes. There shouldn’t be any danger." Reaching across the cot on which the Musk Cat lay, the Healer picked up a small vial and a pair of tweezers. Reaching into the jar with the tweezers, the Healer withdrew a single grain of something, whic h he brushed along the Musk Cat’s tongue. The effect was immediate and startling.
The Musk Cat’s eyes leapt open, revealing that they were a brilliant green in color. His tail jumped out behind him in shocked and a small yell escaped his mouth. As his eyes came into focus, the first thing he saw clearly were the three Parmanians hovering over him.
"No!" he screamed. "Murderers!" The Musk Cat made an obscure gesture with one paw and a searing light erupted in front of Rika. She staggered backwards, hands cupped over her eyes, and the Musk Cat jumped to his feet and sprang for the doorway.
Lars had managed to twist his head to one side a split second before the flash of light had blinded him, and he reacted on instinct, diving towards the Musk Cat and seizing him by the only handle that presented itself—his tail. The Musk Cat cried o ut in pain as his tail was painfully yanked and his wound reopened. The Musk Cat’s head turned about to regard Lars with panic filled, desperate eyes, and Lars caught the gesture with the paw. His closed his eyes a moment before another ball of light coul d blind him.
Quickly, Lars opened his eyes and grabbed the Musk Cat’s forepaws, pinning them together, and then released his tail to grab the Musk Cat behind the head before he could bite Lars.
"What’re you doing?" Lars yelled.
"Murderers!" The Musk Cat yelled, thrashing wildly and trying to break Lars’ iron grip. Clawed hind paws scrabbled helplessly at Lars’ thick leather sleeves. "We never did anything to you! We never did anything to you! We never…" Realizing he was n ot going to be able to get free, the Musk Cat sank downwards and ceased struggling, shoulders shaking with barely contained sorrow and rage. "Murderer," he whispered.
"What are you talking about?" Lars hissed, struggling to get to his feet without releasing the Musk Cat.
"You killed them!"
"We didn’t kill anyone," Rika said placatingly. "Tell us what happened, maybe we can help you."
"Mur…" The Musk Cat trailed off as he looked at Rika for the first time. His green eyes went wide with shock. "Your ears!"
Rika smiled a little self-consciously and brushed her fingers absently across one of her long, tufted ears. "I inherited them from my mother."
"Was your mother Rika?" the Musk Cat asked. "The Protector?"
"No," Rika shook her head, regarding the Musk Cat with confusion. "My mother is Alys Lain…Rika Ashley’s daughter. My name is Rika too."
The Musk Cat twisted his head, trying to get a better look at Rika with Lars’ grip restraining him. His eyes became wider. "Alys Ashley-Lain is your mother?"
"Yes…but how do you know any of that?"
"It’s one of the stories my people tell," the Musk Cat replied. "How Chaz Ashley—and Rika, too—fought and sealed up the Profound Darkness, and then how Rune Walsh and Alys Ashley destroyed it once and for all. Rune Walsh came to the Vale before I w as born and told the Old One the story. My people still tell it, even though everyone knows it by now." The Musk Cat sudden became even more agitated. "You have to get Alys! She was a great hero, she can help us…If you hurry I can show you the way to the Vale and we can be there before it’s too late…Hurry!"
Rika shook her head gently as Lars set the Musk Cat down on the cot. "That…doesn’t seem likely, I’m afraid. We’re on Motavia."
"Motavia?" The Musk Cat sat down heavily onto his haunches. "Motavia?"
Rika moved towards the cot, making no sudden moves, and sat down next to the Musk Cat. "Look," she told him, "we can’t get to Dezolis quickly but maybe we can help you. Why don’t you tell us your name and what happened to you."
"My name? Myrelle." The Musk Cat nodded, as if trying to reassure himself. "Myrelle eragae Jemindor eragai Loraon. The Myst Vale…my home…it was just destroyed."
"Some Parmanians in black arrived and demanded that we give them the Jyrrin K’Trell – what you call the Silver Fang. But the Old One wouldn’t give it to them. Then they starting using Weaves and killing my people."
"Yes. Weaves. You know…you Parmanians call it magic."
Lars and Rika exchanged a look over Myrelle’s head. Rika returned her gaze to Myrelle. "Did they identify themselves?"
Myrelle nodded. "Yes, they did. Their leader said that her name was Loren…Loren of the Chosen Espers."
Rika was silent for a moment. "This is bad, Lars."
Nodding, Lars beckoned to the Healer. "Go get Alys Lain and bring her here. Myrelle, do you think you could repeat your story to her?"
Myrelle nodded. "Yes."
A few minutes later the Healer returned with Alys in tow. The older woman started in surprise at seeing Myrelle, then turned towards Lars and her daughter. "Fill me in," she told them, automatically assuming the tone of command she had used as Guil d Head and not seeming to realize it.
"Go ahead, Myrelle," Rika said gently, and the Musk Cat dutifully repeated his story, pausing whenever Alys prompted him.
When Myrelle was finished, Alys’ eyes registered deep concern. "The Dark Espers have resurfaced," she stated simply. "They’re on the move."
Lars nodded. "The question then becomes, what do we do about it?"
"We have to warn the people," Rika pointed out. "Lars, I’d like to send runners to Zema, Piata, Tonoe, and the rest of the cities telling them to be on the lookout. The Dark Espers may decide to attack Motavia."
"Good thought. Do it, and also send some people to Mayor Tarm’s office. Tell him we’re going to seal the city. No traffic in or out."
"That’s outside your jurisdiction," Alys told him.
"To hell with jurisdiction," Lars snapped.
Alys nodded slowly. "We’ll need to get word to Demi, Wren, Danielle and Tamgren on Zelan, and the Espers and New Gumbious on Dezolis."
"The theocracy has its hands full dealing with L’Rell and his insurgents," Rika told her.
"They’re going to have to put that aside, then."
"Easier said then done."
"We’re going to have to convince them, then." Alys shrugged. "The Dark Espers don’t care about their disputes."
"What about my people?" Myrelle asked suddenly. All eyes turned to him. "Those…Dark Espers attacked them. We should help them!"
Alys, Rika and Lars were silent for a moment before Rika spoke. "We won’t be able to get Dezolis until later, Myrelle…tomorrow, probably. By then whatever they’re going to do will have been finished, for good or ill. Besides, you escaped, didn’t yo u?"
Myrelle’s eyes were anguished. "Yes, but I don’t even know how I escaped, Rika! It just…happened."
Rika returned to the cot and sat next to the Musk Cat. "Then maybe it happened for the others, too. We can’t do anything for the Musk Cats, and I’m sorry. Once we get word to the Espers, we’ll do everything we can for your people."
Even if it is a burial, Rika reflected bitterly.
* * *
"Be careful!" Narrel hissed protectively as Rachel snatched up the Telepathy Ball on her way through Lutz’s Room. As long as the memories were contained within a human avatar, the Ball itself had no more resistance to natural or magical forces then ordinary glass, and the Telepathy Ball would take years of study and even more years of magical work to replace.
Rachel ignored him and pressed one hand against the far wall of the Room. With a grinding sound, a section of the stonework slid away into the passage beyond, then disappeared into a niche in the side of the tunnel wall.
"Only Lutz can open the door," Rachel told Narrel, "and only from the outside."
"Then we’ll leave it open!" Narrel snapped, ignoring her unspoken offer, and shoved her into the tunnel. They staggered along in the near darkness, feeling their way through the shadowy tunnel, until it gradually became illuminated by a light from the far end, streaming from the Chamber of Elsydeon.
Narrel heard a cry go up behind him a moment before the light streaming from the Chamber was eclipsed by the light of a magical bolt of energy. It exploded on the ground near Rachel’s foot, and she went down, the Telepathy Ball falling away from he r and rolling back towards the entrance. Scrambling to her feet, she grabbed for it, and Narrel barely yanked her away as a bolt of fire struck near her head.
"Never mind!" he yelled. "It’s no good as long as you’re alive!"
Within the chamber rested an ancient and beautiful statue of the Protector, Alis Landale, and cupped in her hands was the sacred sword itself, the Elsydeon. It was from the sword that the light sprang.
Rachel hesitated only a moment before grasping the Elsydeon and drawing it away from the statue, then she knelt to pick up the box lying at the statue’s feet and withdrew the artifacts within—a sword made of t’santari crystal and a pendant o f the same. The pendant she slipped on and the sword she passed to Narrel. "We’re getting out of here." She could hear the Dark Espers coming up the tunnel, coming closer and closer.
"You are," Narrel told her, "I’m not. If they have time to observe the Jump they can figure out where you’re going. I’m you’re distraction."
"Don’t argue. Go."
Rachel paused, then glanced up the tunnel. "Goodbye." Focussing her energy through the t’santari, she hurled herself away to the farthest edge of her range.
Raising the sword, Narrel prepared to unleash his strongest magic at the Dark Espers. It was only a moment later that he sensed the enchantment they had already woven, reaching out for him, and then he realized that the light suddenly filling the t unnel came not from a spell but from the creature at it’s head and then the spell encompassed him and everything vanished in a blur of pain.
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