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Atonement
by Darrell Whitney


A titanic burst of fire slammed into the lithe Esper wizard, knocking her sprawling on the marble-tiled floor of the palace. The demon slashed out at her, huge talons as big as her head gleaming with the desire to take her life, but Orakio leapt forward, the razor-keen edge of his black sword shearing through the monstrous wrist. Sickly green ichor spewed from the stump, and Dark Force's three mouths screamed in anguish. Orakio spared a half-second to grin down at Laya.

"Crazy having you watch my back," she said, snatching up her bow from where she'd dropped it, then snarling angrily as she realized the force of the flame spell had snapped it in two. She drew her sword, a slender length of laconia that had been honed to a nearly planar edge but was still neither as strong or as keen as Orakio's blade. It was strange, thought Orakio, to be fighting side-by-side with the woman who had led the force opposing his own for over a decade of brutal warfare.

He'd despised Laya, and she him, more than anyone either of them had met during their lives, but those hatreds had been forcibly extinguished when the two of them learned that they'd been manipulated throughout their long war by this demon, this monstrous Dark Force. Laya's mother, Orakio's sister-in-law, his niece and nephews, all had fallen because of it, as had the thousands of others who'd fought and died on board the Alisa III, turning what should have been the salvation of the Palman people into a vessel of destruction.

Dark Force's other massive hand lunged out at Orakio, but the Mieu-type android, Miun, dove at the demon, raking its side viciously with the gleaming black claws crafted in antiquity by the same wizards who had created Orakio's sword. Dark Force repaid her savagely, rending her with its remaining talons, tearing apart her synthetic skin and leaving her with half a face.

There were only the three of them left. Orakio's Killsat and Metalstix robots lay in a smoking mass of metal, fallen alongside Laya's bioengineered monsters. Those few that had endured the battle with Dark Force's minions had fallen easily to the demon itself. Now, it looked as though Miun was out of the fight until her self-repair systems could kick in.

Orakio and Laya looked at one another. Both were exhausted, weakened from the long battle, their armor rent in places and minor wounds scoring their bodies.

"You have gained nothing," sneered the demon. "Sealing the world-domes of this spaceship may stop my minions as well as separating most of your misbegotten followers, but even without the keystones I have the power to open them by main force!"

One chance left, maybe, to do what they'd come here to do.

"Your broken bodies will never be seen again. New leaders will replace you, and my agents will see that they fight on in your names. All of this...Alisa"--he spat the word as if it was an obscenity--"will be consumed by hatred and despair, and will become mine!"

The hilt of Orakio's sword was slippery with his own blood; his hands clenched it tightly.

"I shall have this ship, and the souls of everyone aboard! With it, I will return to Algo and finish the destruction of your worlds."

"I'll see you in hell, first!" Orakio shouted, and charged the fiend. It was a suicidal rush, but Laya had anticipated the charge and was ready to cover him.

"Legeon!"

Detonation after detonation of light and energy burst against Dark Force's face. Laya's spell left him reeling, staggering back, blinded. It, too, had been weakened by the effects of the fight.

With his enemy temporarily unable to defend itself, Orakio abandoned skill and instead put every ounce of his remaining strength into a titanic overhand swing that ripped a long slash open in the creature's chest from throat to groin. It howled in agony, staggering back, not dead yet but brutally injured, its power to fight temporarily gone.

"Now, Laya!"

The Esper's voice rose in a chant of life and power. Radiant symbols in scarlet glowed in the floor beneath the monster, forming a barrier to restrain the demon's soul. It writhed in anguish, lashing out, trying to escape the magic that wove itself around its weakened form. Orakio's sword and Miun's claw began to glow with an identical silvery-blue light, the sealing spell drawing upon the power of the ancient, sacred weapons. Dark Force's form rippled and undulated, losing its awesome solidity.

"Noooo!" it screamed as its body dissolved away into tendrils of shadowy smoke. "This is not possible!"

A whirlwind of power crackled above the seal, thundering as the demon strove to shatter the bonds around it. Resolutely, Orakio strode forward, raising the glowing blade, and thrust his sword savagely into the marble floor at the heart of the seal, piercing the stone tiles.

"Done," he gasped, falling to one knee. Even he, without magic, could feel the terrible pressure in the air, the rage of the imprisoned fiend, but it was held fast. The seal was anchored firmly by the power of the holy sword. "Rant and rave until the end of days, demon; you will trouble us no more."

Slowly and painfully Orakio rose to his feet. Laya regarded him with a weary but triumphant smile.

"You look awful." She ran a hand through long blond hair matted with sweat, blood, and grime. "Then again, I expect I'm no prize either at this point. Nice work, Orakio. I'm amazed we pulled it off."

The dark-armored warrior breathed heavily, replenishing oxygen.

"There's still work to be done. We need to take the Twins' Ruby and lock the Landen/Aridia passage. That will finish the work of separating the worlds and give us the time to calm our people's hearts."

Laya nodded her agreement. She knew, as he did, that the hatreds of warfare were not easily healed, especially when they had been fanned and magnified by the manipulations of one such as Dark Force. It had to be done, though. Each of them had been so sure his or her way was right, willing to lead their followers into blood and violence. Dark Force may have been the war's ultimate cause, but Orakio and Laya had been the generals, and it was their responsibility to fix their mistakes as best they could. It was too late for the dead, but not for the many more still living.

Orakio turned his attention to the fallen Miun. Unlike the other machines, the red-haired android was not a servitor but a friend. He didn't have many of those left. Slowly, she pushed herself back to her feet.

"Miun! Are you all right?"

"I believe so, though I'm not going to be very pretty until my face is repaired. Oh, Orakio, we did it!" she caroled.

"Yes. Dark Force is sealed away."

"Then, all we have to do is to seal Landen?" She lightly touched the Twins' Ruby, which glittered in her buckle.

Orakio nodded.

"I'll remain here in Landen, while you go through Aridia with Laya."

"No...you mean we'll be separated? Now that we've finally ended this war?"

"It's not over," Laya corrected her. "Dark Force is beaten, but our people still see each other as mortal enemies. No, you and I will go to Aridia and retrieve Wren and my sister. Then you and Wren will take control of the weather control tower while I go on to Aquatica and Orakio works for peace here. I only hope that we'll be able to reach the point where our two sides can trust each other enough to continue the Alisa III's original mission."

"Amen to that," Orakio sighed. He looked around the temple that had become Dark Force's palace, its brilliant white columns belying the corruption that had resided within. "Come on; let's get out of this place."

They left the building, all three of them weary, and walked across the grassy lawn towards the beach of the small island. It was a luxury, just to be able to smell the fresh air and know that they'd succeeded in stopping a great evil.

"Orakio, are you sure you're all right?" Laya asked as he stumbled. "I think there's some Dimate on the boat."

He shook his head. Medicine wasn't what he needed, only rest, and the chance to see the faces of his wife and son. The boat drawn up on the sand interested him only as a means of transport.

The explosion caught him completely off-guard, the boat ripping apart in a giant cloud of flame. For a moment, Orakio thought that it was because of some mechanical problem, a slow fuel leak created during the approach to the island, but then he saw the aquaskimmer approaching and heard the roar of its engines.

"A patrol craft," he murmured. "One of mine--but what's it doing here, and why did it attack?"

"I don't think you'll have to wait long for answers," Laya replied. "It's coming this way."

The sleek black shape of the aquaskimmer sped directly towards the beach, gliding to an easy landing. The hatch opened, and a tall man in fitted armor made for royalty disembarked, followed by another, the second carrying a braided steel whip.

"Greetings, brother!" the lead man called. Rulakir Sa Riik looked little like his elder sibling; his height, broad shoulders, and the square face that seemed to have been hewn from elemental stone all resembled the men on their mother's side of the family. Orakio had fought by Rulakir's side for years, toasted his brother and his bride at their wedding, and stood next to him at the funeral of Rulakir's wife and children. It had been in Rulakir's eyes, in the strange changes in mood, in his dealings with odd individuals neither of their side nor Laya's that Orakio had gained his first knowledge of the existence of Dark Force.

Orakio wanted to rush to his brother's side, to embrace him and let him share their triumph, but he could not. Rulakir had been enslaved by the demon, become its pawn and servant, the general of its armies. That control should have ended with the sealing of Dark Force, but Orakio could just not bring himself to trust.

"It's done, then," Rulakir said as he approached the three. "You've sealed the demon. I could feel it as we neared the island."

"Then why destroy the boat?" Laya asked sharply.

"Why do you think?"

Rulakir made a quick gesture, and the soldier with the whip lashed out at Laya. The wizard leapt back, reaching for her sword.

"To make certain you did not escape, of course!"

Rulakir was upon him before he could react. A massive hand locked around Orakio's throat, fingers digging into his skin, while Rulakir's left fist hammered his brother's midsection with more than human strength. Orakio's battered armor did not protect him; he felt the snap of bone as ribs gave way.

"No...how can you..." he managed to choke out.

"How can I still serve Dark Force? How can I still draw upon its power? It's very simple, Orakio. It takes all five of the sacred weapons to form a complete seal. Here you have only two. You may have trapped Dark Force's body here and held its will in slumber, but its power remains!"

Orakio fought for breath as Rulakir lifted him off the ground by the iron grip on his throat, but the adrenaline surge from his battle with Dark Force had gone, and his struggles were as ineffectual as a child's. Rulakir hurled him away, Orakio's body crashing into a grassy slope where he lay, stunned.

"Now, my dear brother, once I have finished killing you, I shall walk into that temple, rip your black sword from the heart of the seal, and laugh as all your plans are undone." The nihilistic hatred burning in his eyes made Orakio cringe; Rulakir's grief at the loss of his family and anger at those who had killed them had made him easy prey for the demon, who ironically was the ultimate cause of that loss.

Laya and Miun, injured as they had been by the fight, still had enough left to deal with Rulakir's single soldier. The android's claws ripped out his throat while Laya's slender blade pierced his torso.

Orakio, Laya realized, was doomed. He had no magic and no weapon to use against his brother. Even with her help and Miun's, they had no chance against the fresh enemy, who seemed to glow with power in her wizard's sight. It was as if Rulakir was feeding off his master's magic--and why not? There was a link between him and Dark Force, and the demon could not make use of its power now, so why not transfer it to one who could?

Rage boiled up inside Laya, not the black hatred of the demon but pure, human frustration at the waste of it all, of all that she and Orakio had done to try and redeem themselves and for the sake of the people that had followed their banners. Inside her soul, that red spark seemed to grow, taking on a life of its own until she could feel it hammering in her blood.

"Miun, go! Seal the Landen cave!"

The battered android looked at her, wide-eyed.

"But--what about Rulakir!"

"Don't worry, Miun. I'll make sure he never reaches the seal."

There was hesitation as the android tried to judge whether or not she could trust the one who had been her master's greatest enemy, but then recent events and her dedication to Orakio and his purpose won out, and she sprinted for the beach.

Rulakir stood over Orakio, hand raised to crush out his life with a spell.

"Any last words, brother?"

Orakio felt a trickle of blood flow down his left cheek. It hurt to draw breath, let alone speak; he felt the hot spike of a shattered rib piercing something deep inside. In spite of it, he grinned.

"You might want...to look...behind you."

Rulakir's eyebrows rose in surprise, but he didn't actually turn until he heard the roar of the aquaskimmer's engines. He spun around then, seeing his transportation pull away from the island.

"Now...Miun will finish...closing the worlds...and the war will be over."

Rulakir laughed, the sound booming out over the island.

"Don't be stupid, Orakio. Once my master is freed, we'll catch your little android and crush her before she can get to shore."

"And just how are you going to do that, Rulakir?" Laya's voice slashed like a knife-edge.

"Oh? Do you think you can stop me, little wizardess? You barely have the strength left to stand, much less fight."

"I don't intend to fight."

The anger inside her begged to be let out, hammering at her from within. Very well, then, she'd let it emerge--but not at Rulakir. He was too strong; he might not fall, and if he did not it was all for nothing. Better to take the one sure course, regardless of the cost.

"I'm sorry, Orakio."

His gaze met hers, as if he understood what she was going to do.

"Don't...worry...Laya. This is...justice."

She raised her arms, and let the rage out.

"MEGIDO!"

The earth trembled and shook, the force of the detonation surging up through the ground.

"What have you done?" Rulakir screamed.

The churning sea began to creep up the beach, swallowing the sand in great gulps, nearing the grass almost at once.

"The forbidden technique which turns anger into strength--MEGIDO," Laya said, "cast against the rock underneath this island."

The sea had reached the edge of the grass.

"Can you breathe water, Rulakir?" Laya taunted.

"Damn you, witch!" Rulakir screamed. The island was sinking fast; water was already pooling around his boots. He'd never reach the palace and break the seal, and he was miles from shore with no boat, no aquaskimmer, not even a chunk of wood to cling to. There was only one way to survive, the spell of instant flight, but that would take him back to the city of Lashute, in the sealed dome of Terminus. He'd be trapping himself.

The waves hid Orakio's sightless eyes, flowing around Rulakir's knees. The dark scion was out of choices.

In a fit of rage he hurled a fire spell at Laya, severely injuring if not killing the Esper, but the gesture was a futile one; she was resigned to death anyway. As the water reached his thighs, Rulakir thrust one hand upwards.

"Grantz!"

And he was gone.

*     *     *     *     *

The subsurface explosion had generated waves that nearly swamped the aquaskimmer; Miun had been lucky to keep it above water. Unlike an emotionless Wren-type, the Mieu-type could not help but turn and look, though she kept the skimmer on course.

She saw the island sink steadily into the depths, first the beach, then the grassy lawn, and finally the white marble palace itself. Carried with it were the bodies of Orakio and Laya, as well as the sealed Dark Force.

"He's gone," she whimpered. Miun hadn't known that she could feel it, this soul-crushing despair, this sense of agonizing loss. Why would anyone build an android that could feel such things? That could feel love?

The Mieu-type hadn't been equipped with tear ducts, but Miun was crying inside as she set her hands to the wheel. She wanted so badly to turn back and search the area, but the rational machine in her knew it was hopeless. Besides, she had Orakio's final mission to complete. She would do it. And perhaps someday, somehow, if she carried out her tasks faithfully, her master would come back to her.

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