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Lars nodded. "Are you sure youíre up to it, Alys? It could be dangerous."
"I know that," Alys replied with an angry edge to her voice.
Lars looked abashed. "Iím sorry," he said. "I didnít mean to implyÖ"
"Thatís okay. What about you, Myrelle?" Alys looked at the Musk Cat, still sitting on the cot next to Rika.
Myrelle nodded slowly. "Iíll do anything to help my people."
"Iíd like to go too," Rika said suddenly. Lars raised an eyebrow. "WellÖno offense intended, mother, but weíll need an official representative of the Hunterís Guild there in order to agree to any terms at all, since some of the Guild members are st ill leery of the Espers after the battle at Paseo and the Layans during the Alisian Wars. Weíll need something binding and official in order to get make sure some of them don't decide to go vigilante on us. Plus," she smiled a little sheepishly, "itís bee n a few years since Iíve seen Chaz."
"I see," Lars replied. "All right. Iíll appoint someone to act in your stead while youíre gone. I assume youíll leave right away?"
"No," Alys told him. "Iím going to have to break out my gear and get ready to leave. Iíll get a decent meal in before we head out, too."
"Iím rather hungry," Myrelle suddenly interjected.
"No problem." Carefully, Alys picked up Myrelle and walked towards the door. "Weíll come back in a couple of hours. Be ready, Rika, or Iíll leave you behind." Alys shut the door behind her.
* * *
The young Esperís face was ashen, and the tip of his protruding tongue was turning such a fascinating shade of blue. Morgan decided he was probably dead and released her death grip on the cloth belt of her robe. It slipped off the Esperís neck and floated quietly to the ground. Picking it up and replacing it around her waist, Morgan tried briefly to reach her powers. No use, the Seal was still firmly in place.
No, waitÖThe Seal flickered and then was gone entirely. Morgan felt rushes of power enter her system, and she exulted in the flow of raw magic pulsing through her body.
A moment later, while Morgan was still adjusting to her sudden and unexpected exposure to her own magic, the door opened and Morovin slipped in, grinning viciously.
"Morgan," he said warmly, moving forward. "Iím glad to see youíre well."
"I knew you would come for me," Morgan replied, laughing. "Why havenít you killed these Espers?"
Morovin glanced out the open doorway at her guards, still standing erectly at attention. "They are of more use to me as they are now. While I can always release them from their bindings, I cannot dig up their graves and replace their heads should I desire information from them." He idly kicked at the corpse lying in the middle of the room. "All your usual skill, my viper. I have a gift for you."
Reaching into a pouch hanging from his belt, Morovin withdrew a glistening tísantari crystal on a delicate golden chain, which he gingerly placed upon Morganís shoulders, lifting her hair out from beneath it. "Welcome home, Morgan Atienne," he said, smiling.
* * *
"Chaz." The young man in black armor stopped short at the sound of the Archlordís voice, then turned around to see Morovin and a woman he didnít recognize walking up the hallway towards him. "Have all of the Espers been dealt with?"
Chaz nodded. "Yes, Archlord. To your specifications. The spell is almost impervious."
"Almost?" The dark haired woman laughed.
Chaz glanced at her. "I have my detachment working on it, as we speak." The woman smiled even more widely.
"Chaz," Morovin said, "I donít believe you and Morgan have met."
"Not personally," Morgan told him, "but Iím certainly familiar with his handsome face."
"Morgan," Chaz nodded curtly, then looked back to Morovin. "The Mansion is completely under our control now, Archlord. There is no resistance."
"He has returned to the fortress, with orders that the contents of the Esper Arcanium be transported there. He also asks that Lady Morgan make haste to see him, at your convenience. I have taken the liberty of sending some men to deal with the defe nsive enchantments upon the Arcanium doors." He paused. "LíRell and his entourage have arrived and are awaiting you."
"Excellent," Morovin told him. "Go ahead and inform Goran that I am on my way." Chaz turned and started off at a brisk walk. Morgan watched him go, then laughed.
"Rather wooden, isnít he?"
Morovin grinned back at her. "All in good time, Morgan, all in good time."
* * *
"Quite a display, Parmanian," Goran LíRell stated bluntly, surveying the defeated Esper Mansion. "Quite a display indeed."
"The Espers crumbled, Goran," Morovin told him, brushing off a small clump of snow accumulating upon the shoulder of his cloak. Snow was always drifting on the Dezolis ice wastes, and the plateau south of the Mansion was no exception. "This conques t was merely a small display of my childrenís power."
Morovin noticed immediately that Okerin, Goranís favorite toady, took great notice of the word Ďpowerí. Despite the fact that Morovin had known Okerin for only about three minutes, and further that he hadnít spoken at all since they had been introd uced, Morovin already recognized the Dezolisianís weak mind.
"I assume your boasting has a point," Goran told Morovin bluntly. Chaz bristled at the soldierís bluntness, but Morovin laid his hand upon the younger manís arm to steady him.
"Indeed it does," Morovin replied, turning to survey the Mansion, Dark Espers rushing in and out with various artifacts and then Jumping away with them to the stronghold. A very different man from his servant, this Goran LíRell. Not, necessarily, a n opportunist, but more of aÖaltruist, at least in his own view. Strong minded, willful. A powerful man among his following. Not as easily corrupted as Morovin might have hoped.
"The Espers fled before us, LíRell," Morovin stated, matching Goranís bluntness. "That display speaks louder then words about the extent of my abilities. My master has incredible power at his disposal, if you should like to make use of it."
"Exactly so. I offer you my services in your conquest of Dezolis, and you give me yours in order to destroy Motavia and instate my Master as the sole ruler of that planet."
"And Dezolis?" Goran asked.
"As I say, you would be the leader of the Dezolisian theocracy, of course. But you would, of course, defer to my Master in matters of policy and law with repercussions throughout the system. But you would haveó"
"I want nothing to do with Parmanians," Goran stated bluntly. "I will not defer to you, your servants, or your unholy master. Your people have corrupted Dezolis!"
Morovinís lip turned upwards in an ugly sneer. "Youíre a fool, LíRell. With me on your side you could be sitting in Gumbious noontide tomorrow with NíParís robes on. Donít let prejudice destroy this opportunity!"
"I will have nothing to do with you or your people," Goran snarled. "Okerin, come with me."
Okerin hesitated a moment before joining his master in walking away from Chaz and Morovin.
"Donít turn your back on me, LíRell," Morovin offered quietly. Goran didnít pause.
Morovin hurled a fireball at him.
Goran turned a split second before the fire impacted against his chest, pitching him backward across the snowy ground. His body bounced, once, like a perverted toy, before coming a rest with his head twisted at an ugly angle.
"M-master?" Okerin stammered, his gaze flickering wildly between Morovin and Goranís corpse before he hesitated, and a calculating gaze entered his eye.
"You killed him," Chaz noted with a touch of disbelief.
"I am authorized to take any measures necessary to secure control of the theocracy," Morovin replied quietly. Then, more loudly, "Okerin, I assume you know what this means."
"Iím the leader!" Okerin snickered. Simpleton, Morovin thought coldly.
Instead of speaking his mind, Morovin merely raised one eyebrow inquisitively and approached the man. Okerin shied away at Morovinís approach. "It means," Morovin stated deliberately, "that you are the leader and you owe it all to me." He leaned fo rward to put his face near Okerinís. "I want my alliance, Okerin, and I will do whatever is necessary to secure it. You may either profit by this, or be destroyed."
Okerin shook his head. "If you put me in Tachel NíParís robes, Morovin, then you may consider your conquest of Motavia assured."
Morovin leaned backwards and smiled coldly. "I knew that I could convince you," he said. "Come with me, dear Okerin, and weíll work out the details of our newfound alliance."
* * *
"What kind of place is this?" Myrelle asked, gaping at the unworldly architecture and machinery indicative of an Old World structure.
"This is the Kadary Spaceport," Rika told him, pulling the heavy doors to the building closed behind her. "Itís where weíre getting out transportation to Dezolis."
"A starship?" Myrelle hopped down from his perch on Alysí shoulder. "On the Landale?"
Alys shook her head sadly. "The Landale was destroyed during the Alisian Wars, Myrelle."
Rika quickly crossed the room to the communications console built into the wall and quickly began working the controls. The screen flashed static at her for a moment, then clarified into Wrenís head and shoulders.
"Rika," he acknowledged with a brief nod. Then, noticing her obvious worry, "What is wrong?"
"The Dark Espers are on the move again," she told him quickly. "Theyíve sacked the Myst Valeóone of the survivors wound up on Motavia somehow. We need to get him to Dezolis to report to the Espers about whatís going on."
"I see. Perhaps it would be best if I contacted the others now."
"Do that, yes."
A moment or two later, the picture of Wren shrank to occupy only a quarter of the screen. Pictures of Demi, Danielle and Tamgren occupied the other three.
"Hi, Rika," Tamgren said. "Whatís up?"
Rika and Alys quickly filled Tamgren and the others in on the situation. Tamgren and Demi were noticeably shocked by the news, but Danielle and Wren remained as impassive as always.
"What will the Hunters be doing while youíre seeing to the Espers, Alys?" Demi asked. "Maybe we should try to help them, too. Aside from the Espers, the Hunters are the greatest threat to Morovin. We should make sure theyíre prepared."
"Good idea," Alys confirmed. "Demi, why donít you and Wren go to Aiedoóbring some weapons with you. Danielle, you and Tamgren can come and ferry us to Dezolis, all right?"
"Great," Tamgren told her, nodding. "Give us a couple of hours to stock a shuttle with weaponry and weíll be there."
"I shall see you soon," Danielle said. Alys was momentarily taken back by the skill of her inflection, a far and noticeable cry from the aloof, cold speech she had once used.
"Good luck," Demi told them.
"Zelan out," Wren said, a moment before the screen went dark.
* * *
"What if they donít believe me?" Okerin whispered nervously, practically into Morovinís ear. Pushing the Dezolisianís head away, Morovin resisted an urge to belt him.
The main street of Reshel had been cleared of all shops and Morovinís men had quickly assembled a makeshift stage there. Morovin and Okerin huddled behind it while Goranís troops quickly assembled in front.
"They will. Just tell them what I told you, Okerin. Just rememberóyou in Tachelís robes." Morovin smiled condescendingly at Okerin. The Dezolisianís face split into a wide grin. "I knew I could inspire you. Go!" Morovin shoved Okerin towards the pl atform, and he stumbled up it into full view of Goranís troops.
"MÖLoyal troops of Goran LíRell," Okerin began, "I-I have terrible n-n-news for you. Our leader, the most holy Goran LíRell, w-was attacked and murdered by Esper Magi in the employ of Tachel NíPar as we journeyed to meet a summons from Speaker Narr el." A moan went up from the amassed crowd. Morovin smiled to himself. "I-in the absence of Goranís ex-excellent leadership, I haveÖtaken the liberty of not only assuming command of this group, but I have cemented a new alliance."
Now the moan of sadness became a ripple of discontent. This was the most important part of Okerinís speech. He had to head off challenges with a proper show of his newfound might, and quickly.
"I will now present my new second in c-command, who will l-lead us against Tachelís b-blasphemous legionsóthe most holy Archlord, Morovin LaníTearin."
Making sure his black cloak had the proper flourish in it, Morovin mounted the steps of the platform and stood before Goranís troops. He made a slight signal with one hand, noticeable only if you were actively looking for it, and his men slipped fr om concealment and quickly surrounded the assembly.
"Greetings, most loyal minions of Goran LíRell," he said. "I am Morovin LaníTearin. My soldiers and I came upon Goran as he lay dying, after the Espers had brutally attacked him while under a flag of truce. Seeing that my servants and I had driven away his attackers, Goran recognized my prowess and asked that I aid Okerin and his troops in your time of need. With that in mind, I have decided it is now safe to return to most holy Eclipse Torch to its rightful owners. Now that we have at last joined forces, there is little chance of any of us being endangered by an attack from the treacherous Espers." Reaching into his cloak, Morovin pulled out the crystalline sphere of the Dezolisianís faith. Balancing it on his fingertips, he extended it to Okerin. "To our new alliance."
Any doubts about serving a Parmanian and Okerin melted now that the troops saw that the Eclipse Torch had been returned. Surely it was a sign, a sign that they were destined to win this greatest of all strugglesÖ
Goran LíRell had been dead for less then two hours.
* * *
It wasnít until much later that Morovin slipped away from the crowd of soldiers and his Espers to contact the Disciple. He quickly cast the scrying spell, and a moment later his masterís face appeared in the air before him.
"Everything is going according to your plan, my master. I am now in control of LíRellís force."
* * *
"Thatís incredible," Myrelle breathed, watching the shuttle circle and then descend towards the spaceport. "Iíve never seen anything like that before!"
Rika grinned at him, and not for the first time Myrelle reminded her of Lant, back before he hadÖchanged. The youthful exuberance, the naivete, the energyÖ It suddenly occurred to her that she wasnít sure exactly how old Myrelle was. On the other h and, Musk Cat aging might not have been proportionate to Parmanian aging, soÖRika decided to let her curiosity lie.
The shuttle slipped through the open docking hatch at the top of the spaceport and settled itself down in the docking bay just beyond the main room. Alys, Rika and Myrelle hurried in to meet Danielle and Tamgren as they emerged.
Tamgren smiled warmly at his friends. "Itís been a long time, Rika. Of course, you all remember my aunt," he indicated Danielle with a sweeping bow and a joking grin.
"Let it go, Tamgren," Rika advised him with a straight face, but then grinned. "This is Myrelle," she indicated the Musk Cat. "He has news about the Dark Espers."
Danielle nodded. "Then we must make all haste to the Esper Mansion, naturally." She trailed off.
"But?" Alys prompted.
"We need to refuel," Tamgren replied sheepishly. "The strain on Zelanís power hasnít gotten any better since the Great Rebirth, and our fuel production on the remaining facilities, Zelan included, is fairly, well, low. Weíre already patched into th e spaceport system and warmed up the pumps. All we have to do is hook it up and weíll be ready to fly in a few hours."
Alys looked out the doorway at the night sky, the moon already rising above the horizon. "Weíll wait till morning then. Weíre going to need to be alert. We donít know how much the Dark Espers know, so we have to be careful."
* * *
"Why not step into the firelight, Myrelle? I assure you that I do not bite." Danielle turned to glance in the Musk Catís direction, then went back to her contemplation of the night sky.
Myrelle stepped out of the shadows and into the light cast by the small fire that Danielle had been tending. The moon had reached its apex and was descending towards the dawn horizon. "You couldnít sleep either?" he suggested.
Danielle shook her head. "I was fully recharged. I have yet to reconfigure my operational parameters for sleep. I am fully rested."
Myrelle walked over to Danielle and then sat down on his haunches next to her. "What are you looking at?" he asked.
"The sky," Danielle replied. "I have recently been reviewing poetry from the time period prior to the Great Collapse. There is a sizeable body of poetry devoted to romantic interaction, which I am striving to understand. In this poetry, events and objects such as the night sky, stars, sunset, dawn and flowers are given symbolic meaning. I am trying to comprehend from where the metaphors spring."
"Oh." Myrelle paused briefly, mulling over Danielleís words. "Why?"
"To better myself. During the Alisian Wars I began to fully understand the limitations of my ratherÖstatic programming. I was originally conceived not to interact with organic life on a regular basis, but to allow lesser artificial intelligence's t o do so for me. I believed that by giving myself an organic appearing form I would gain understanding into their lives.
"Instead, my limitations became more starkly clear to me." Danielle paused. "In many ways, my design is highly superior to those found in organic life. I am stronger, faster, more intelligentÖBut I lack the fundamental things which have allowed org anic life to persevere throughout the ages, while my culture has died." A moment of silence passed. "Perhaps you could help me to understand the symbolism of the night sky? It is often associated with peace, serenity, and contentment."
Myrelle sighed heavily. "What kind of contentment does the night sky hold, Danielle? I donít find any peace or serenity in it when I am the only Musk Cat below it. Iím sorry."
"That is perfectly all right," Danielle replied. "I am sorry for what happened to your people, Myrelle."
Myrelle didnít reply, and when he at last did, it was to change the subject. "Iíve never known an Android before."
"And I have never known a Musk Cat."
"Then maybe we can both help each other toÖbetter ourselves." Myrelle smiled up at her.
"Perhaps. I would like that very much." Danielle glanced at the sky again. "It is a scant five and three-quarters hours until dawn, Myrelle. You should sleep."
Myrelle nodded. "I should. Thanks, Danielle."
Danielle turned from where she was sitting to watch the Musk Cat leave the sphere of firelight. Her gaze rested on the spot where he had disappeared a moment more, then she returned her gaze to the stars and stayed that way until morning.[an error occurred while processing this directive]