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"I wasnít able to find any Espers who werenít being held by the temporal flux," Danielle reported. "I believe that they are all under the power of the spell."
"We found Narrel," Tamgren told them. "Heís in Lutzís room, in the hidden chamber. Heís ensorcelled too, but he looks terrified. He must have seen the spell coming, or somethingÖIt looks like the Telepathy Ball and the Elsydeon areÖgone."
"Any sign of Chaz or Kyra?" Alys asked quietly. Rika gave her a sharp glance. She had never heard such fear and resignation in her motherís voice. For the first time, it seemed, she saw the greying of Alysí hair, the rings below her eyes. Oh, mo m, she thought to herself, this isnít fair.
"No." Tamgren reported quietly. "ThereísÖno sign of either of them. Iím sorry, Alys."
"No!" A cry of horror came from behind them and the group spun as one. Rika and Alys produced their blades, and the newcomer suddenly found them pressed to her throat.
Rika took a long look at the interloper, then lowered her blade. "Its all right," she said, "sheís a Magi."
Not lowering her blade, Alys gave the woman a probing look. "No point being careless, Rika," she said pointedly. "Whatís your name?"
"Eldara," the woman answered, her words minced by gasps. "Councilman Eldara Taramur, leader of the Magi of New Gumbious. Please, please I must sit."
Alys considered it for a moment, then sheathed her sword and took Eldaraís arm and helped her ease herself to the ground. "My armor," Eldara said, and Alys and Rika went to work on the catches of her breastplate, then quickly laid them aside. Benea th it, she wore a blue Journeyman tunic, with a white flame on a field of stars embroidered upon her left breast. Rika recognized the symbol of the Magi of New Gumbious.
Tamgren appeared at her side with his canteen. "Here, drink this. You look exhausted."
"I am," Eldara whispered, taking the canteen away from him and taking a drink.
"Not too fast," Tamgren warned. "Whatís wrong?"
Eldara practically choked on her water, but quickly swallowed it and spat out her news. "New Gumbious has fallen! Morovin LaníTearin has allied himself with the dissident movement!" She gave a choking sob. "I had hoped to gain the assistance of the Espers to retrieve it, butÖThis was the Archbishopís last hope."
"Itís all right," Tamgren said soothingly. "Stay calm."
"Goran rules in Gumbious?" Alys asked.
Eldara quickly shook her head. "No. Okerin PíNem does now. Rumors say that Morovin approached Goran for an alliance and was turned away."
"Then heís dead," Rika said with certainty.
Nodding, Eldara continued. "Morovin appointed Okerin head of Goranís forces. Prior to that, he was just Goranís favorite hanger-on. Now heís a puppet for Morovin and Chaz."
Rika blinked. "Chaz? Chaz who?"
"Chaz Lain. One of the heroes of the Alisian War and a most promising Esper has sold us out to the Dark Ones. He serves Morovin now, and sometimes acts as a liaison between LaníTearin and Okerin. Heís one of Morovinís most trusted generals, and com mands a sizeable portion of his force."
Rika sat back very hard, steadied herself, and fought a rising despair for control over her emotions. "Youíre lying. Please, please, youíre lying."
Alys rose, eyes flashing. "Thatís not true!"
Eldara looked up and seemed to see Alysí and Rikaís ears for the first time. "Oh," she whispered. "I see. You would be Alys, Rika, and Lantamaral Lain?" Her voice was wrought with a kind of profound sorrow.
Tamgren smiled wanly and shook his head. "Tamgren Aiedern. Lant isÖnot a part of this, I hope." He cast a wary glance at Rika, but she wasnít paying attention to him.
Rika rose and stood before her mother. "If she was lying," she said, very levelly, "she wouldnít have made that mistake just now. She would have known about Lant."
Alys opened and shut her mouth several times. "Oh, Light!"
They fell into each otherís arms.
* * *
Lars Garrate, head of the most prestigious and successful mercenary association in the history of Algo and the current leader of the Motavian war campaign, had a headache. The volume and frequency of the Dark Esper incursions had increased alarming ly in the past twenty-four hours, but despite a constant sweep of the countryside by Zelan, Hunters and Motavians, the counter-offensive had proved completely ineffectual.
Because, as far as their scouts were concerned, their were no Dark Espers on Motavia at all.
Gryz slammed his fist down on the tabletop. "Theyíve all but conquered Motavia, Garrate, and theyíre not even staying planetside!" His voice was incredulous.
"Iím afraid thatís what it looks like," Demi interjected. "They come in, crush a settlement, and Jump out. We canít pinpoint them or follow them."
"You canít detect them when theyíre on Dezolis?"
"We have spent the last eight years attempting to do so, Head Garrate," Wren said pointedly. "But, in preparation for a Dark Esper offensive upon Zelan, we have been dividing all of its power between scans of Motavia and reinitializing the anti-mag ic protocols developed by Mother Brain. At this point, with our power being what it is, a thorough scan of Dezolis would decrease the effectiveness of our Motavian scanning sweep by approximately seventy five percent."
"I see. Sorry, Wren."
"Do not apologize."
Lars sighed and let his gaze drift around the room. Wren and Demi preached caution, Gryz demanded action, and Beyn, reticent and shy, preferred to supplement the opinions of the others with ideas and strategies, rather then putting forward any of h is own. Even so, Lars couldnít regret appointing Beyn to Rikaís position for the interim, as his keen tactical mind was obvious.
He sighed again.
By unanimous vote, however, Gaideen Tarm, mayor of Aiedo, had not been invited to sit on the command staff. This was not, evidently, a fact that went unnoticed.
Lars had just been about to speak when the doors to the council chamber burst open and Gaideen Tarm stormed in, his generous paunch his up and down with rage, his completely bald head florid, in what was perhaps the most amusing parody of anger Lar s had ever seen.
"I demand a position on this council!" he roared.
Tarmís eyes went wide. "What right do you have! This is," he thrust one index finger skyward, "a matter of interplanetary importance! The people of Aiedo must have their say!"
Lars leaned back. "Technically, they must not. According to the law of Aiedo, any invasion force that threatens the welfare of the city of Aiedo is a military matter, Tarm. It is therefore under my jurisdiction. However, since you have so graciousl y offered, I will divert all non-military refugees to your office, Mayor Tarm."
"Thatís not what I meant at allÖ"
"I know." Lars leaned forward and rested his elbows on the council table. He glared at the Mayor. "For once, Gaideen, Iím going to be completely honest with you. We both know youíre only here because you donít want your supporters to know what a co ward you are. I donít have time to deal with your posturing so that you can garner a few worthless votesóassuming we survive to the next election. Additionally, I am declaring a state of martial law, and thank you kindly for sparing me a trip to your offi ce." Lars withdrew a piece of paper from a pocket and unfolded it. "Iíve drawn up a simple set of instructions, Tarm, and I think even you can follow them. I want you and all your personnel out of your office by tonight, as the Hunter infirmary, even with the help of Lady Saya Aiedern and Demiís help, is sorely taxed. We need the space. Additionally, I want the gates of Aiedo sealed. I will post a member of my staff their on a cyclical basis. There will always be someone I trust there to clear refugees so you need not worry about that. You will relinquish all administrative power to me, whether you like it or not. And seeing as I am now the main in charge of Aiedo, I would like to take this opportunity to remove you from your office. Sadly, your re placement, Alys Lain, is not available at this time, but Iím sure my Guild Second will double admirably in the capacity until her imminent return. Now, citizen, please leave my office. This is a military gathering.
"This is an outrage, Garrate! I demand-"
"Wren, if you please." The massive Android rose.
* * *
Such a weapon she had found. Had they possessed its like a thousand years agoóDarkness take it, twenty years ago, eightÖHow different this world of theirs might be. Rachel had stopped trying to sense the limits of her newfound power hours ago, stop ped probing for the limits of her abilities. She had always been strong, and she knew that fact so well that she could say it without pride, but now she wasÖ
She couldnít even think of the word.
Silent as a ghost and just as invisible, Rachel moved amongst the halls and corridors of the Dark Esper stronghold. The tísantari Narrel had given her kept her unnoticed and block psychic probes of any kind. Drawing upon the ambient energy o f the tísantari and its augmentative powers, she was able to accomplish more with her abilities then she had ever thought possible.
And she had not even begun to experiment with Elsydeon. The sacred sword still hung at her belt, and it took yet another expenditure of her seemingly inexhaustible reserves to keep it hidden as well.
She wondered how much power it would take to level this fortress.
That, at least, was probably beyond her. Now, she and Narrel, or she and ChazÖ
Sighing, Rachel tightened the sword belt around her waist. No point in wondering about what might have been with Chaz anymore. She knew that he had been unstable when he had come to the mansionóRachel had been there and studying already, and everyone h ad gathered to watch the return of Narrel and the Reverent One. The blocks Kyra had placed in Chazís mind were of such staggering power that more then a few of the Novitiates were sent reeling by the force. But she had never thought that after all of her hard work, Chazís problems would resurface.
Rachel pressed one hand to the side of her head. Kyraís work, not her work. Kyraís. "Stay out of my mind," she whispered to herself, her spells masking her sounds, "I need to concentrate. Please."
Narrelís Jump had placed Rachel and the sacred sword safely in the vicinity of Jut, but it hadnít taken Rachel long to tap the powers of her new crystal and take her back to the Mansion. Even if she hadnít been able to figure out how to use the tísa ntari on her own, Kyra remembered. She had discovered a massive Dark Esper presence at the Mansion and had probed the temporal void around it and found that even her new powers couldnít hope to unravel the spell. At least three Espers with a level of power equal to or greater then Morganís, at least, had collaborated on the shield. The Dark Esperís numbers in the area had quickly dwindled, down to a few patrols in the surrounding area and guards at the doors. The guard changed every couple of hours, s he had discovered. The guards Jumped out and more Jumped in, so with proper timing and concentration, it had been easy to catch the tail of one of the departing guards and trace the Jump all the way back to the Stronghold. Neat trick, that. Actually, and this was the part that frightened her, it had been Runeís idea. There were so many memories and theories and spells kicking around in her head, it was next to impossible to differentiate between her own memories and the implanted ones. And it had been Run eís theory. It seemed somehow important to her that it not be her theory.
The Stronghold was a sizeable complex, well run and efficient, and it hadnít taken Rachel very long to find the Telepathy Ball and the contents of the Arcanium, but getting to them was a whole other story. There were only three posted guards, and m ost of the Dark Espers were off planet on Motavia or securing their position in Gumbious and not at the Stronghold. But both guards were strong, and both had tísantari, and with them, Rachel suspected that their powers combined were comparable to h er own, and she could not afford to risk her life. If she died, the Telepathy Ball would become charged again, and Morovin would know it. She shuddered to think what would happen if LaníTearin or Morgan got his hands on even of a fraction of the potential ly destructive magic the Telepathy Ball had imparted to her.
She could hear voices up ahead. The first, she recognized instantly as Morovin. Another person was speaking, but it was a voice she didnít recognize. And thenÖChaz. She quickened her step and the corridor widened into what appeared to be some kind of throne room. She stopped in the doorway, still cloaked in the spells and wards, but strangely hesitant to try their subtlety against Morovin.
But it was not Morovin LaníTearin who reclined upon the throne at the far end of the room, but a sorcerous entity the likes of which she had never seen. Her tísantari enhanced senses began flooding her with input. It was primal chaos, drawn from someplace she couldnít comprehend, and bound into this plane, into an almost human form.
How had they accounted for the decay? Chaos was a primal a force as their was, and individual pockets of chaos had a life of about four minutes before the chaos turned inward upon itself and was destroyed, unless the Chaos was sustained by a force of nature like the Profound Darkness or the Balance.
Even as Rachel asked herself the question, she knew the answer. Someone had created a flux over the chaosform, a self-sustaining wave of magical power that coursed its way through the creatureís form. It was changing the chaos and renewing the powe r it emitted constantly, slight alterations to the form that kept it from turning inwards. Brilliant, too be quite honest, but the flux was also a form of diluted chaosÖ
Öand the Elsydeon was order, Noah told her. There were other weapons to counter a chaos flux such as this, her memories supplied. The Psycho-Wand, which was being held captive by the Dark Espers, the Elsydeon, which she possessed, and the Silver Fa ng, which wasÖ
She didnít know. Her memories hadnít surfaced completely and so her consciousness was full of small holes that prevented her from getting all the information she wanted. She wanted to scream. Where? Where?
Standing next to the chaos creature was the familiar form of Morovin LaníTearin, and kneeling before them were Chaz Lain and another Dark Esper she didnít recognize of similar years.
"Rise," the creature intoned. As one, Chaz and the other murmured, "Yes, Disciple Seth," and rose. Something within her memories screamed at her, but she couldnít remember what it was. She slipped, almost without thinking, deeper into the throne ro om. "Welcome, Chaz Lain," the creature intoned, "to the true path. I summoned you here, in part, to congratulate you on finding the path your own family has denied for so long. Your knowledge and aid will be invaluable."
"Thank you, Disciple," Chaz replied in a hushed voice. There was something in his voice that made Rachel shudder. It was humility, and fear, and thankfulness, andÖfanaticism. Rachel trembled at the strength of the enchantment on him.
"But you must understand," Seth continued, "that most of our number here at the Stronghold were raised and educated under the true path. Some, such as the young Carlam here, trace their ancestry all the way back to the days of Lassic and the greate st of all Archlords, Zirane. Our traditions and customs are taught to them from the day they are born. You are, in many ways, as a child to us."
"That is why I have called you here. This," Seth gestured to the other Dark Esper, "is Carlam Naraílak. You are likely not very familiar with the name, but it carries a certain amount of prestige and notoriety at the Stronghold. His family has been with us almost since the beginning, and I feel he is well suited to teach you our ways."
"Thank you, Disciple." The both of them, Chaz and Carlam, spoke at once.
"Carlam," Seth intoned, turning his strange, eyeless gaze to the other Dark Esper. "It is my sincere desire that you stay near to General Lain for the time being. Do whatever he asks of you, but also be aware of your duties and do not allow yoursel f to take advantage of my benevolence and overstep yourself. See also that General Lain remains in his place. Teach him our ways."
"Of course, Disciple," Carlam replied deferentially.
"Very well. You are dismissed."
Chaz and Carlam rose and turned to depart the room. Rachel carefully, slowly extended a probe into Chazís mind, momentarily extending certain of her wards to encompass him and hide the psychic sensing.
Something behind Rachel made a quick, hissing sound like a cat about to attack that which it has been toying with and is now going to slay. Starting in surprise, Rachel quickly withdrew the probe and sensors and concentrated on masking herself. But whatever had detected her had not gone unnoticed. Seth rose quickly, the yellow nimbus of his body making shadows dance chaotically on the walls.
"What is it, Shar?" he asked.
Rachel turned and saw a figure crouched in the doorway she had passed through, kneeling in the shadows. She had walked right past the lurker and never noticed. Chaz and Carlam were frozen and staring at the creature with something akin to loathing.
The figure crept forward like an animal and into the light cast by the torches. It was all Rachel could do to maintain her wards through the shock.
It was Alys Lain.
Noóit was not. The figure was definitely a Numan, but her ears were longer and much more pointed then Alysí or Rikaís, and there were subtle differences in stature and face. The posture of the Numan was bestial, like a caged lion, and she didnít ri se to her feet but remained crouched on all fours, her muscular body taut.
Shar. Her memories supplied the word, as it meant in the old tongue. Death. Nei. Power. Rika. Grace.
Shar. Death. It was the Dark Espersí idea of a sick joke.
The Numanís head went up and she made a snuffling noise of some sort. It took a minute to realize that Shar was sniffing for her, and had caught her scent somehow. She could feel Seth probing for her, but he hadnít yet diverted his power through a tísantari so she was able to mask herself to him. But against something as mundane as a wild animalís ability to smell her, she had prepared no defense.
"I sense nothing," Seth said, making a casual gesture to Morovin. He began to probe as well. "Shar, explain yourself."
"Smelllllls," the Numan snarled, lips curling back over her teeth. "Smelllllls."
Morovin raised an eyebrow derisively and withdrew his probe. "The creature is insane and foolish and stupid, Disciple," he said. "Allow me to remove her from the throne room."
"Donít be an imbecile, Morovin. You have a mind, use it," Seth reproached, stepping down from his throne and drawing his blade. Something about that weapon made Rachel draw back in horror, but she couldnít tell what. The blade was tísantari. "You have studied Rika, to be sure, and I do not question your knowledge concerning her, but Sharís genes bear closer ties to an earlier project known as Number 23, particular knowledge of which I am privy to. Her intelligence is negligible now, but as w ith the original she adapts and evolves at a staggering rate. Her intelligence will increase dramatically over a short period of time. But her senses are developed on a much higher scale. Feral, perhaps is the word. If she smells something alien here I am inclined to trust her. Who do you smell, Shar?"
Shar snarled deep in her throat and crouched lower into herself, hunching deep down, still sniffing. There was a long silence.
"She does not know." Seth said. "Shar, is the smell still here?"
"Heeeere," Shar growled. "Is heeere."
The bands of darkness that crisscrossed Seth's chaosform turned blazing red. "Morovin, Chaz, Carlam," he said in a tone of command, making a scything gesture with one hand. "Be ready." Rachel began to make for the doorway, diverting most of her pow er into her wards. She stopped suddenly as the creature called Shar slipped into the doorway, snarling. "Probe the room," Seth commanded them. "We have a guest."[an error occurred while processing this directive]