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Prologue

Space Century 351.90

The flames from the burning shell that had once been a commuter space ship turned the sky a sooty red. Intermittent flashes of blue light lit the sky as the ship's wreckage became a battlefield.

The man who had become an Apostate ignored the battle behind him, already knowing the outcome. Though the men and women who had once been his allies were strong, the man who came among them now was much stronger. The man called Lutz would kill them all. Of that, the Apostate had no doubt.

He picked his way through the rubble of the second ship, ignoring the cries from the wounded and the dying, concentrating only on getting as far away from the battleground as possible. His pace, however, was unhurried. After tonight, he had nowhere to go.

He had walked for several miles, away from the wreckage of the two ships, when he felt the touch upon his mind. He shivered, then tried to cover the gesture, even though there was nothing he could hide from the creature which no called out to him.

You have betrayed me, Disciple.

"Yes."

Why?

He sensed, vaguely, a second touch upon his mind. One of his brothers-no, brothers no longer-was calling out to him. It was Mantherren. He would recognize that mind anywhere. The first presence to touch his mind gave a roar of frustration as Mantherren's desperate plea for help was ignored. After a moment, it died out.

Mantherren was dead.

Why did you call him? The presence demanded. Why did you betray me to the Lutz? You were my most trusted Disciple.

"I didn't want to be on the losing side," the Apostate replied with as much mettle as he could muster. "Not in a struggle like this."

Had tonight's work gone well, you would not have been.

"Perhaps you think so. But it would only have been a matter of time. You would have weakened the seal, burst forth, conquered Algo, and then, one day, there would have been another Protector."

I would kill him.

"That's never sure. All that is sure is that until the struggle is decided, there will be a Protector. And another, and another. So what's the difference? I help you kill the boy back there, and as soon as we turn our backs another Protector will come, waving the Elsydeon or the Neisword or whatever it wants to call itself, and thirsting for your blood.

"And no matter which Protector it is, when it comes time for the struggle to be decided one way or another, you will lose."

I will miss our discussions when you are gone, and therefore I will allow you to explain your words before you die.

The Apostate shrugged. "When you first came to me, and Mantherren, and Tigrelle, and all the rest, you described yourself as 'perfect evil', and you promised to make us as perfect as you. But perfection is flawed. Perfection has nothing left to strive for, and so it stagnates."

You are on dangerous ground.

"And what will you do? Kill me?"

Point taken. Continue.

"Throughout all the eons, since the dawn of time, the only constant has been evil. There's not a man to walk mortal soil who doesn't have darkness in his soul. But good, good is more rare. Good can only exist where there is darkness. Evil lacks such a quality."

It is a sign of weakness, not a quality.

"Take Alis Landale, for example, and Lassic. Nine hundred and ninety years ago, they fought, and Lassic lost. But why? The man you sent to corrupt Lassic-Zirane, I think his name was-had become your living idol. He was perfect evil, and he made Lassic over in that image.

"But Alis had darkness and light in her soul, and she had to overcome that. It gave her something to strive for. Lassic, as I've said, was stagnant. The battle wasn't won when Alis drove her sword into Lassic's chest. It was won when she overcame her desire to do so. That is why evil loses, because, in it's perfection, it becomes flawed. Good, which recognizes perfection, embraces the other half of the human soul, and strives to be better."

And you hope, through your repentance, to gain the half of your soul that you surrendered to me?

"No, master. You taught me too well. I just didn't want to die on the side that can't win." He started to laugh.

Darkness coalesced in the night before him, drawing itself into something tangible and real. Tendrils extended from the shifting mass, surrounding him, stroking his body. Where they touched him they left absolute chill. He stopped laughing.

The tendrils drew him close in an icy embrace. He began to scream as the cold of darkness pierced the very fabric of his being, stronger then any sword.

I will show you the stagnation of evil, Disciple. You will live, and never sleep, and every moment of your life will be agony. I will kill you when night falls and resurrect you each morning, tearing your soul away from the loving arms of death. And each moment that you live will be pain. But here is your lesson, Disciple. The pain will never be the same twice. Every second it will grow. Perhaps in a millennia or two I will set you free for a time, and then, Disciple, we will discuss the stagnation of evil.

The tendrils drew tighter, and the Apostate and the darkness surrounding him vanished.

* * *

Space Century 372.21

Alys yelled suddenly as something grabbed her shoulders, spun her about, and slammed her into the wall. Her head cracked sharply against it and as her vision cleared she found herself face to face with one of the demons.

This demon was female, and grinning insanely, the flash at the corners of her mouth torn backwards, awful slashes running almost to her ears, leaking blood. Her grip was strong, and her blackened, diseased nails dug into Alys' shoulders.

Alys writhed helplessly in the grip, but the demon had her arms pinned tightly to her sides, and had lifted her off the ground, unable to kick, struggle or draw her sword.

Demi swore, pointed her blaster and fired. The cone of force flashed from the gun to slam directly into the demon's back. The entity was slammed against Alys, pressing the girl painfully against the wall, and the demon's grip loosened to the point where Alys slid to the ground. Quickly, Alys linked one foot behind the demon's ankle and pushed against her shoulders, tripping the demon up. As the demon stumbled and fell, Alys leapt away -

- right into the Black Energy Wave once more. Alys convulsed helplessly, retching, and fell to the ground. She heard Demi gasp and the battering of the Energy Wave redoubled. There were several more of the muted slams signifying the use of Demi's blaster, and a sickening, crackling sound. From behind her came the familiar scream of the demons - a high pitched cackling ending in a gurgle that she did not want to dwell on. The next thing she knew, Demi was scooping her up and carrying her away. The last thing she saw of Nurvus was that every aperture on the computer seemed to be oozing slime like blood.

The Black Energy coursed through the computer like cold flame, activating and deactivating circuits and functions randomly. A long unused program was activated, and the computer's vocal circuits offered a prompt.

"Reactivation of Rika biomatrix is a restricted command. Please state your security clearance code for authorization."

Several years passed. A surge of the idle Black Energy triggered a response.

"Authorization accepted."

"Cryogenic field is still active as stated in Rika Project security protocols 7. Please deactivate the field."

It was only three months later that the Black Energy Wave perverted that one critical circuit, and Nurvus responded.

"Security protocols are no longer active. Carrying out orders."

"Rika biomatrix is now active. Estimated time to full growth: Unable to calculate due to cryofreeze."

Deep within the computer's twisted, warped circuitry, something stirred. It was dormant, and unaware, but now it was alive.

* * *

Space Century 372.42

Lant started to scream.

Rika sat bolt upright in bed, momentarily startled until she realized what was happening. Rising, her lithe, muscular formed pale in the moonlight streaming in through the window, she picked up her robe and pulled it on, tying it tight about her waist.

She heard her mother padding down the hall towards Lant's room. Rika left her room and followed.

In the year since the Alisian wars, Alys had changed. Her shoulders slumped, and there was, about her eyes, a sort of deadness. It was because of Lant-no, because of that damned black Sword.

Alys looked back over her shoulder at Rika. "You don't have to worry about it, Rika," she told her. "I can handle it tonight."

"He's my brother."

Lant was lying on his bed, sheathed in sweat, his body and face painfully contorted. His mouth was open wide, and an endless scream emerged, filling the room with the sounds of his pain. His hands, white-knuckled, clutched at the sheets. Alys quickly crossed the room, kneeled, and enfolded Lant in her arms.

Lant didn't respond for a moment, then his scream died out into a hacking cough that finally settled in heart-wrenching weeping. Lant wrapped his arms about Alys, sobbing into her shoulder.

He looked up, his eyes wide and wild, his face empty of thought and sense.

"Where's my sword, mother?" he asked frantically. "Please, where's my sword?"

Alys looked over her shoulder at Rika, helplessly, her eyes brimming. Rika looked back at her and she could feel her lower lip beginning to tremble. They didn't need her, so she turned and left the dark room as quickly as she could. A few moments later, as the seizures took Lant again, he began to scream.

Rika walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table, lost in thought. She tried not to think about what might happen, but, as always, she did.

It all came down to the Sword of Orakio. Or the Elsydeon, depending on who you asked. Justin-her lip began to tremble more violently-had told her what had happened to King Adan when separated from the Sword. First had come madness, then suicide.

When the seizures had begun, Kyra Tierney had come from Dezolis to see if there was anything she could do-and she had brought Elsydeon with her. But even contact with the sacred blade that had, a year prior, been the black blade that caused all the trouble, had no effect on the seizures. What Lant needed was the Sword of Orakio, and no one knew how to make the Elsydeon shapeshift in order to cure him. Despite Kyra's firm belief that the seizures would pass in a few years, Rika couldn't help but think of the picture of the dark haired man named Adan that had hung in Landen.

A few minutes later Lant stopped screaming, and Alys came into the kitchen. She sat down at the table and took Rika's hands, and they sat like that, not speaking, until the sun came up in the morning.

* * *

Space Century 372.44

The storm had come up completely unexpectedly, but they should have expected it, really. It was the season for sudden, furious storms. A wave crashed across the deck of the small pleasure boat, picking Tamgren up and hurling him on his back onto the deck. As he felt himself beginning to slide down towards the prow, which was dipping dangerously towards the water, he heard his mother scream. He turned just in time to see a wave grab her and hurl her off the deck.

He didn't have time to scream, because a moment later the same wave picked him up and tossed him overboard as well.

Water surrounded him, muting the storm on the surface. Suspended in green darkness, Tamgren thrashed his way to the surface and gasped air. A wave enveloped him, and, as he went under again, he heard his father cry out his name. Then he was beneath the surface, carried by the wave.

He was hurled out of the water and tossed for a brief moment through the air before crashing onto the bank, onto a wide, flat rock. His breath exploded from his lungs with the impact, and it was all he could do to rise and stagger away from the beach before the next wave could grab him and drag him back out. Gasping, Tamgren collapsed upon the shore and lay still.

He was the only survivor.

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