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Tachel stirred and then sat up in bed, blinking away the sleep that had but a moment ago so deeply enfolded him. He looked across his sparse room at the young priest standing in the doorway. "What is it, my son?"
"Goran L’Rell has arrived, Archbishop. His troops…they just appeared south of the temple and they’re advancing now."
Tachel felt a twist of cold fear materialize in his stomach. Appeared? Never before had Goran actually been so audacious as too attack a primary religious structure before—indeed, actual attacks on Dezolisian towns had been rare. Instead, Goran’s t roops had concentrated on Parmanian towns and towns whose populations were predominantly non-Dezolisian. So why, then, was Goran suddenly attacking Gumbious itself?
However, it was Tachel’s duty not to let his worry show. As religious leader, he was going to have to be strong for his people. "I see. Rally the Magi and the priests. We must prepare to defend New Gumbious."
The priest nodded curtly and quickly departed, shutting the door behind him. Tachel quickly dressed in his priestly robes and made his way to the main room of the temple, where the priests and church-sworn Esper Magi had rallied. Their leader, a yo ung woman named Eldara Taramur, approached him.
"Archbishop," she nodded to him. She wore the green armor and raiment’s of a Journeyman Esper, but about her neck hung a talisman denoting her affiliation to the church of Dezolis. She was slender and fit, with carefully groomed blue hair falling to just above her shoulders. "L’Rell’s troops are approaching and are almost at the gates. The Magi have woven several defensive spells about the doors, but the attackers seem to have some kind of magic available too them as well, so I can’t honestly say how long they’ll last."
Tachel nodded and made his way towards the stairs leading towards the upper floor. Eldara kept pace. "They have consecrated priests among them, then?" he asked.
Eldara nodded. "Yes, but the magic they used doesn’t seem to be at all related to the Flame. It seems to be more…Esper in nature."
Tachel paused on his way up the stairs and turned to face Eldara as the full enormity of her statement struck him. "You can’t mean—"
"I’ve tried to contact the Mansion," Eldara replied, "but I can’t get through. There’s no blockage to my spells, but it’s as if no one I’m trying to contact is even aware of me. And if L’Rell is working with the Dark Espers, then the y may have the Eclipse Torch with them."
Tachel scrubbed one hand across his scalp in worry. "If L’Rell has allied himself with Morovin Lan’Tearin and his minions, then we can not and will not surrender the Temple. We must try to defend it."
"But your priests…"
Tachel brushed one hand across the Temple’s wall. "This building may be only brick, stone, wood, mortar…But it is the center of all my people believe in. Their hopes and dreams all come to rest in this building. It is my badge of office; it is the greatest sign of their faith in me. I will defend the Temple…But…" He trailed off. "Eldara, give the order to defend this Temple until I give order not too, do you understand?"
"Yes, Archbishop N’Par." The Magi nodded obediently and descended the stairs back down towards the assembly of priests and Magi.
* * *
"Taemen!" Eldara cried, watching her fellow Magi hurled backward from his position at a window by a Dark Esper spell. His body struck the stairs and rolled down them to the second floor, where he lay with his head twisted at an odd angle.
It hadn’t taken long for L’Rell’s troops to puncture the Temple’s meager defense, and now Tachel’s priests and Eldara’s Magi were scattered throughout Gumbious, tiny pockets of resistance struggling against impossible odds.
She had last seen Tachel rallying forces down on the second floor, Eldara remembered. The battle was over already, the Temple was lost. Eldara gave out a cry of ‘retreat’ before turning and practically leaping down the stairs to the landing. A Dezo lisian soldier with a massive battle-axe was going through Taemen’s pockets. Eldara slew him with a single bolt of lightning launched from her palms, and then saw Tachel standing at the far end of a hallway with a cluster of Magi and priests, fighting his way through soldiers and Dark Espers with mixed results. Tachel was definitely taking higher casualties then those he tried to kill.
"Tachel!" Eldara called out, and raced to his side. "Your people are dying, and my sect is all but slaughtered. It’s over."
"No! I refuse to believe that! I won’t abandon the faith!"
Reaching out, Eldara grabbed Tachel’s forearm. "Faith is an amorphous thing, Tachel. Do you think it rests in this building alone? Do you think this Temple was the vessel, and not you? Do you honestly believe that? Because if you do, you can s tay and be killed when Goran and Morovin take this place. Or you can leave now and I promise you we will come back."
Tachel stared at her for a long moment. A gash above his eye was dripping blood across his sweat soaked green skin. It was odd seeing the Archbishop in that light, and Eldara briefly reflected that he belonged behind a pulpit preaching to the Flame far more then he belonged her, defending his temple from that bigot Goran. Then…
"Give the order to run, Eldara."
* * *
The weapon-laden shuttle swept away from Zelan and dipped towards the Motavian atmosphere. Inside, Demi and Wren guided its movements.
"Entering atmosphere," Wren told her. "Raising thermal shielding."
Demi checked the ship’s status. "Hull temperature nominal, holding. All systems functioning within normal parameters."
A few moments went by in silence, punctuated only by Demi’s reports on the status of the ship’s hull.
"Out of atmosphere, firing braking thrusters. Leveling descent." The Motavian countryside had now replaced the darkness of space on the shuttle’s main viewscreen. Flight, for Demi, had never quite lost its novelty, and too her eyes there was nothing so lovely as a bird’s eye view.
"Laying in a course for Aiedo," Wren reported. "Engines full power."
Demi suddenly leaned forward, as something on the viewscreen caught her attention. "What’s that?" She pointed to the spot, which had disappeared to one side of the viewscreen.
"What?" Wren asked, angling the shuttle, and the object came back into view. It was a sizeable body of what appeared to be Parmanians and Motavians, moving north towards the Aiedo Bridge.
Demi quickly telescoped her vision to magnify the group, and she gasped. "Wren, it’s Gryz! Take us down, Wren!"
The group came up short as the shuttlecraft set itself down between them and the Aiedo Bridge and Demi and Wren stepped out. At the sight of the two Androids, the massive Motavian at the head of the group lowered his axe and approached.
"Demi, Wren," he acknowledged with a nod. "It has been quite a long time."
"Forty-eight years, Gryz," Demi replied. "What’s going on?"
Gryz grunted and snapped his beak shut with an audible clacking sound. "The Dark Espers have sacked Tonoe, Krup, and Zema," he explained in his sonorous voice. "My people fought valiantly, but we barely survived the struggle to escap e," his voice took on a distinctly disgusted edge at that. "There were casualties. Pana is dead."
"Oh, Gryz…" Demi whispered, remembering the unique and special bond the two had shared. Gryz, however, quickly waved aside her condolences.
"What is important now is to defeat the Dark Espers. My group and I are travelling to Aiedo and doing our best to aid the survivors of the Dark Esper attacks. They seem to strike quickly and then withdraw after annihilating all resistance.&quo t;
"The goal of Morovin was never to conquer, only eradicate," Wren noted. "We are also making haste to Aiedo, and—"
"Demi? Is that you?" Following the voice, Demi saw an elderly woman on a pony approaching them.
"Saya?" Demi quickly ran to Saya’s side and help her down from her pony. The eight years since the Alisian Wars had aged the woman considerably. The death of her husband Hahn, and of her only child and spouse, combined with Tamgren going to live on Zelan made her appear older even then her seventy-two years. "You’re alive!"
Saya nodded as she got her feet underneath her. "Yes. When the Dark Espers attacked, the people retreated into my clinic. They were just a small group, and it looked like we were all going to die, but then Gryz rescued us and chased them away. How is Tamgren?"
"That is part of a very long story," Wren said to both Gryz and Saya. "One which Demi shall likely tell far better then I. I shall allow her to explain while I shall take the shuttle and go to Aiedo to make sure you are received with proper medical care and food."
"Thank you, Wren," Gryz said. "We have some people in critical condition. Saya has been caring for them, but our medical supplies are sorely limited. Perhaps you could rush them to Aiedo aboard your shuttle craft?"
"Excellent. I’ll show you where they are. Come along."
Demi follow Gryz and Wren with her eyes as they walked further down the column. "To think, forty-eight years and he can still fight like he was a boy again." It was true—with an average life span of one hundred and fifty years, Gryz was c onsidered to by still in his prime.
"It is a dark time," Saya replied. "We’ll need all the strong bodies we can get." A few moments later, Gryz, Wren, and several refugees came back up the column, bearing the most wounded survivors of the Dark Esper attacks. Demi gave them each a touch of what medical care her bionic implants could offer before they were loaded aboard the shuttlecraft. As Wren took to the air and Saya remounted, Gryz called out an order and the column began to move again. Demi easily kept pace wit h Saya’s pony.
"Now," Saya said as Gryz dropped back to walk beside them, "you can tell us what’s happened to Tamgren."
* * *
"I guess that’s about got it," Tamgren said, emerging from the shuttle. "It’ll get us to Tyler." He patted the hull of the ship affectionately as he walked away from it. "No detours, though."
"Shall we depart?" Danielle asked. "Everything appears to be in order."
Alys and Rika nodded and walked towards the open hatch. Myrelle, on the other hand, stiffened suddenly upon his perch on Rika’s shoulder and jumped down, then made his way towards the spaceport doorway, looking out across the countryside.
Looking at him curiously, Alys followed him. "What is it?" she asked.
"Someone is Weaving nearby," Myrelle replied. "I can feel it."
Tamgren came towards them. "Maybe the Espers?" he suggested hopefully.
Rika felt a knot of fear forming in her stomach. "Don’t get your hopes up, Tamgren." She loosened her sword in her scabbard. "If it is the Dark Espers, we should break for it. I’m not prepared to fight them now."
Shaking her head, Alys as well went for her sword. "But we should check. Rika, come with Myrelle and I. Myrelle, show us where the Weaving is coming from. Danielle, Tamgren, you stay here and…uh…"
"Warm up the shuttle?" Tamgren offered.
"Okay." Rika lead the way out of the spaceport and Myrelle bounded forward away from the spaceport until he crouched on the side of a dune. Rika and Alys quickly came forward and kneeled where they couldn’t be seen by anyone on the opposi te side.
"Just over this ridge," Myrelle told them. Nodding, Alys raised her head a little above the dune’s lip.
"Morgan," she whispered acidly.
Rika had never met Morgan before, having been preoccupied on the Alisa III at the time, but somehow the black armored woman standing in the sand was exactly how she had pictured her from her mother’s descriptions. Rika despised her on sight.
"How did she get free?" Alys mused.
Myrelle’s ears perked. "Someone else is Weaving, too," he warned. A moment later, the air next to Morgan began to ripple, and something seemed to materialize within it. What that ‘something’ clarified into was a being out of nightmares. < /P>
The being was humanoid in shape, but had a stature that could rival Wren for build. It was clad in a suit of Dark Esper armor, and a sword hung at its side. Most terrifying about it, was the fact that the creature seemed to be formed completely of raw energy. It’s bald, mouth less head and all flesh exposed by the suit of armor was a glowing yellow in color, that seemed to shift sluggishly as they watched. Streaks of gray energy crisscrossed the yellow, and didn’t seem to shift the way the rest of the creature did. Rika heard her mother draw in her breath in terror.
"That sword," she whispered in the smallest voice Rika had ever heard her use, "it’s…it’s the Netrdeon!"
"It’s evil," Myrelle said quietly. "The sword, the armor, that demon…it’s the most evil thing I’ve ever felt in my life."
The creature lay one hand almost protectively atop the hilt of the blade sheathed at its belt. It scanned the horizon, and Rika got a good look at the demonic face. As she had surmised from her first look, the creature had no mouth, simply a smooth face entirely except for a pair of glowing red slits where a Parmanian’s eyes would have been.
"Motavia." The deep male voice came not from anything upon the creature that could have been a mouth, but instead seemed to emanate from it. "It has been a very long time, Morgan. I had forgotten the warmth of the sun here."
Morgan nodded. "Soon this planet will belong to you, Disciple Seth." The name made Rika remember something, but she ignored it and concentrated on the creature, this Seth, and Morgan.
"Yes." There was a definite edge of satisfaction in the creature’s voice. "I will redeem this universe." The gray streaks upon its body flared a soft blue color, contrasting sharply with the yellow energy. "Where are we?&qu ot;
"Southwest of the city of Kadary, Disciple Seth. As you commanded, we are near the computer of Nurvus now."
"Ahh, yes. I begin to recall the geography of this area." The creature nodded and once again looked about. Rika, Alys, and Myrelle quickly ducked their heads to avoid detection. "It has changed much."
"Much has changed during your imprisonment, Disciple."
"I am certain. Where is Nurvus?"
Morgan gestured to the south. "The entrance is south of here, Disciple. It has been sealed off for twenty-eight years. It is the only place in the world where Black Energy yet prevails."
"Not the only place." The shade of blue now suffusing the streaks visible upon its body darkened momentarily as Seth laid one hand upon the hilt of the Netrdeon. "And Black Energy, lacking motivation and a storage device, will become dormant in a few years. It should be safe for us. Come then, there is little time." Seth proceeded in the direction Morgan had indicated, towards Nurvus. Alys gestured back towards the spaceport and the three of them quickly and silently made their way back.
"I think we should follow them," Tamgren said. "We need to know what they’re up too…and this Seth creature! We should take information of it back to the Espers."
"I don’t think so," Rika countered. "They’re on the move, and we have to move faster. Morgan escaped from the Espers somehow—they might be in danger. I think, if anything, this should convince us to get there faster."
Myrelle sat down next to Rika. "She’s right. My people have already been k...killed," Rika lay a comforting hand upon him as he stumbled, "and more people will die if the Espers don’t do something."
"I’m curious as too what they hope to find at Nurvus. No one in this day and age except for myself, Demi, Wren and Tamgren know how to make the computers function," Danielle said speculatively. "Especially when the computer is as cor rupt as Nurvus is. However, our first priority must be to defend the masses. Myrelle is completely right."
Tamgren sighed. "Alys?"
"I think we should go to Dezolis too. Once we have at least partially leveled the playing field, then we can engage in reconnaissance. Our best plan is the old one, regardless of what just happened." Alys rose from where she was kneeling on the spaceport floor, cutting short the discussion. "Let’s get ready to go."
As Alys was boarding the shuttle, Rika, with Myrelle next to her, caught Alys’ arm. "Do you think it’s coincidence?" Rika asked.
"Seth and Seth. Forty-eight years ago…"
"Seth was Dark Force, I haven’t forgotten. And that creature isn’t human." Alys sighed. "But if that creature is Dark Force, somehow surviving after all this time…God help us." She quickly boarded the shuttle.
Rika and Myrelle exchanged a long, uneasy look before they too got aboard.
* * *
"Bane Almeerin?" Lars asked, glancing up from his desk at the young man standing framed in the doorway. "Come in, come in."
The man stepped into the office, nervously adjusting his red Hunter uniform, and couched uncomfortably as he sat down in the chair Lars indicated. "That’s…that’s Bey-in, sir. Beyn. Beyn Almeerin."
"Of course. Just a moment." Lars quickly dipped his quill and dashed his signature across a piece of paper, then set it aside. "I was examining your file earlier today, Bane."
Beyn opened his mouth, then closed it, and then opened it again. "Th-thank you, sir."
Lars cocked an eyebrow at him and smiled. "You’re welcome. You’re a very promising young man, Bane, and you have a successful career ahead of you as a Hunter."
"Thank you, Head Garrate."
"As you may know, a situation which has been a danger since the Alisian Wars is now coming to a head. The Dark Espers are on the move, and our scouts report that they have already ravaged several other large Motavian cities, including Piata, Z ema, Krup and Tonoe. Guild Second Lain has traveled to Dezolis for the purpose of meeting with Speaker Narrel and deciding on a strategy. As such, I am understaffed and staring the possibility of a massive confrontation with the Dark Espers squarely in th e face. Do you understand?"
Beyn nodded quickly, his pulse racing as he realized what he was being asked. "Yes, Head Garrate."
"Now, I’m going to ask you to fill in for the Guild Second until she can return with Speaker Narrel. You have to understand, firstly, that this is a temporary position, but one that would speak highly of you when it comes time for Guild Second Lain when it comes time to appoint her Second as well. You must also understand that as one of the commanders of the Hunters you would be in very real and very great danger as well. Think about that, and know that I won’t hold it against you if you refu se."
Beyn rose. "Head Lain, I’d be honored!"
"Excellent. Thank you, Bane." Lars extended his hand across the desk and Beyn clasped it. "Now, we’ve got a lot of work ahead. I want you to…"
* * *
The doorway slid open at the touch of Morgan’s magic, and the yellow light cast by the Disciple’s unnatural form fell across the darkened hallway. Black, brackish slime coated the group, but Morgan didn’t detect the latent power usually contained i n Black Energy. "As you said, Disciple, it is harmless."
"Yes," Seth replied. "I do not recall ever being within Nurvus, but I do recall examining it’s architectural schematics. I believe that the core is in this direction. Come, Morgan."
Morgan picked up her pace and followed the strange, demonic creature down the hallway, deep into the bowels of the dead computer.[an error occurred while processing this directive]