The sharp Dezolian wind cut at the aged bishop. Two thousand years of life, it seemed, had done its work in reducing his share of the natural resistance of the Dezolian race to their planet's cold climate. Perhaps he should have stayed out of the elements, in his subterranean chamber, but he had wanted to see the work being done above him, the rebuilding of the Gumbious Temple.
"Is it not fine, Your Holiness?" asked one of the priests. Nominally they were supervising the work, though in truth it was the architects and the masons who were actually in charge.
"Yes, it is. It reminds me of the first time it was built. Of course, then the Corona Tower was already here to add on to."
He smiled at the junior priest. They all seemed so young, these days, young and upstanding and full of righteousness. There was that one High Priest, who ran the temple south of Ryuon--Raja, his name was--who seemed to have the right attitude if perhaps an overly developed sense of humor, but then, he was eighty-five years old now. Perhaps that was all that was truly important in such matters, the time necessary to balance out the passion for truth and holiness with tolerance and calm.
The bishop had been like that too, once, a young man with fire in his heart nearly two millennia ago. A time when there had been no Gumbious Temple and when it did not seem like there ever would be. It was odd, he thought, how memories from five or ten years ago could quickly fade, while those of more than nineteen hundred years ago were as sharp as crystal.
* * * * *
The siege had lasted for over three weeks now, and it was clear that the tide was turning. Unfortunately, it had turned against the tower's defenders. The monsters and once-men that swarmed into Corona's passages seemed endless in number, and the Dezolian defenders were most definitely not. They'd done their utmost, rigged traps, fought with blades and guns and the power of the holy litanies, but step by step they'd been pushed back. One by one they'd lost the tower floors from the ground up, until all they had left was the last level of the main tower and the spire above.
Prelate Ngangbius was sure that they were about to lose that, too.
He was the highest-ranking priest left in Corona Tower. High Priest Moraya had died early on, defending the first floor. Archpriestess Baratir had left long before the siege began in a desperate attempt to rally her people. Ngangbius was afraid, though, that her quest would be in vain. Their people were scattered; the wintry climate had always encouraged independence in the various towns. More than one village had been forced to relocate underground to keep out marauding creatures. The folk of Abara had fled to the Great Cave, but even those were under a bitter siege. Then, of course, there were the guraasejpaa^oTireepmoo. The so-called Society of Free Defenders of Dezolian Life were so obsessed with their mission of driving Palmans off Dezolis that they wouldn't bother with the real threat. guraasejpaa^oTireepmoo--Evilheads--really was the right name for them, blinded by their hatred.
A heavy banging on the door broke the Prelate's concentration. A warrior slid back the viewing slot in the heavy, barred portal.
"Let us in, quickly; they're right behind us!"
The door was thrown open and a dozen battered fighters and priests dragged themselves in while two temple guards fired their guns down the corridor to keep the pursuers at bay. A sorcerer hurled a fire spell back at them, and a warrior staggered back, clutching an injured arm, before the door could be slammed shut and barred again.
Lestain, a warrior monk and captain of the temple guards of Corona, sighed bitterly as the wounded walked or were carried up the stairs where their wounds could be looked at with medicine and holy power.
"This is it, then? One tiny room in the highest level of the tower and the spire above? This place is barely more than a landing. About the only reason we have to even dignify it by listing it is that it's one more door between us and them, and because of its defensive use." He pointed at the murder holes inset in the ceiling through which arrows, boiling oil, and gunfire could be rained down on enemies from the spire.
"If this keeps up, it's only a matter of time," Ngangbius agreed.
"Couldn't we use the holy flame of the Eclipse Torch to burn those fiends out of the Tower?"
The Prelate shook his head grimly.
"Some, perhaps, but not all. The purely demonic, perhaps, would be swept away by the holy fire, together with the risen undead, but most of the monsters are living beings and at best would only be injured, and would still overwhelm us."
"Never any easy answers, are there, Prelate?"
"No, I suppose not. Well, there is one that might qualify, but for it to work..."
"Easy to do, but not easy to prepare for?"
"Exactly. There is a ritual technique to increase the power of the Blessing litany by a thousandfold, enough to erect a shield around a small area that will block both physical and magical attack. The High Priest was researching it before he was slain."
"Strong enough to cover the spire?"
The Prelate smiled thinly.
"You understand, then. Unfortunately, this ritual depends wholly upon the use of a magically active amber jewel to focus the forces necessary, a gem of such rarity that one is found once in a generation."
What moved this need beyond the realm of mere wishful thinking and into pure irony was that according to communications among the priests such a jewel was available on Dezolis even at that moment. A group of Palmans had been reported in Ryuon--and who knew how they had endured the trek through the tunnels, which were hag-ridden with monsters, Dezolian wildlife, and the Evilheads--attempting to sell a jewel they called the Amber Eye. Apparently, according to them, they had taken it from the body of something they called the Casba Dragon.
They had also been asking for information on the activities of the Palman "King of Algo," Lassic, a fact which Ngangbius hadn't thought much of then but had taken on a disturbing connotation when he'd heard some of the more humanoid monsters speaking in their twisted voices of a master they called Lashiec. Yet what connection could, for example, the masked sorcerers and magicians of Menobe have with a Palman king?
"Prelate Ngangbius! Captain Lestain!" a young priestess, barely more than an acolyte, jarred them both with a cry from the stairs.
"What is it?" the Prelate snapped, nettled.
"Come and see! It's outside!"
Driven by the urgency in the young woman's voice, the leaders of Corona Tower's remaining defenders rushed upstairs and to the casement where several others were already clustered. Rank having its privileges, room was made for them to look.
"You see! There are Palmans down there!"
"Oh, wonderful," groaned Lestain, whose experience with Palmans had given him sympathies tending towards the guraasejpaa^oTireepmoo. "As if the monsters from this planet weren't enough."
"No, Captain, don't you see?" protested a guard. "They're fighting the monsters!"
With a kind of dazed, surreal amazement, Ngangbius watched five growling sphinxes, monsters with the faces of bearded Palmans, lion bodies, dragon's wings, and poisoned scorpion tails, begin to stalk the newcomers. Before they could strike, though, the Palmans reacted with smooth efficiency. One of them, a man wearing a hooded white mantle, raised his wand and shouted, "Tandle!" With a crash of thunder, lightning sprang from the wand's tip and raked the beasts. A second later, a massive blond man in a red jumpsuit under armor plates sprayed the monsters with blue-white bolts from a laser pistol.
Only when their companions had finished did the others move into action. One, a large, yellow, catlike animal, leapt on a sphinx, clawing savagely as well as ripping it with a gleaming laconia-bright fanglike weapon. The monster was helpless to prevent the cat's speedy attack, falling under its whirlwind strikes. As for the last of the group...
By the holy flame, the Prelate thought, how can anyone fight like that? It wasn't so much that she was a great swordswoman; on the contrary, even the priest could tell that her swings had the look of the self-taught rather than the trained fighter. What so amazed him was the presence she had on the battlefield, how the sphinxes, rather than lashing out with a wounded beast's ferocity, actually seemed tentative and hesitant to face her. The woman, on the other hand, wasn't hesitant at all; she fought boldly and courageously, and her enemies fell before her.
While the sorcerer guarding the door and his red crystal bodyguards stood stunned at the turn of events, the four warriors were already on the move. It took very little time indeed for them to force their way into Corona.
"Are they here to rescue us?" one guard said hopefully.
"Palmans?" another said. "I hardly think so."
"Prelate, what do you think?" Lestain asked. When Ngangbius didn't answer, he said, a bit more forcefully. "Hey, Prelate? Do you know anything about these Palmans? Did the Archpriestess hire them or something?"
"The same ones..." he murmured.
In truth, he hadn't even heard Lestain. What had truly stunned the Prelate was not the Palmans' fighting skills or their timely appearance, but the fact that they were the same ones whom he had been thinking of just a moment ago. The had to be; the presence of the cat, at least, was conclusive. If they still had the Amber Eye (and whom would they have sold it to?), then they had literally brought salvation to Corona's doorstep.
Then again, perhaps it was not coincidence at all. It was entirely possible that the hand of Heaven had intervened to bring these four to save Dezolis' most holy treasure and the center of its Church. Surely, Prelate Ngangbius thought, there could not be a time of greater evil than this, when the minions of the guraasejpaa^o wuub, the One Who Comes With The Millennium, threatened to swallow whole the heart of the faith?
The next few hours passed with agonizing slowness, and yet they simultaneously seemed to march steadily onward towards an inevitable outcome. In his mind's eye, Ngangbius could imagine the struggles the Palmans endured, creeping through the dimly lit halls, trying to slip past the monstrous guards, fighting them when necessary. He saw them caught up in vicious hand-to-hand battles, saw them struggle to learn their way through the twisting halls, attempting to avoid whatever traps happened to remain, even meeting with pockets of Dezolian resistance caught below. It would be an arduous quest, almost worthy of a ballad in and of itself.
The sounds of combat in the hall beyond the door heralded the outsiders' arrival.
"I will greet the Palmans," the Prelate said to Lestain. "Be on your guard; should they attempt treachery be ready to kill them."
"Prelate, you should have an escort."
"You saw them fight," Ngangbius said. "Then only way we will prevail is a surprise attack from above. Anyone going down with me would be no more than another corpse. Enough of the honored dead will feed the crypts of Guaron Morgue from this defense as it is."
Lestain grunted, but he knew that it was the truth. Corona's defenders didn't have the luxury of romantic illusions any more. The Prelate went down alone.
The grating of a key in the steel door's lock took Ngangbius by surprise, but then he realized that as experienced adventurers the Palmans must regularly encounter locked doors and have the means to pass them. Quickly he drew back the bars and stepped back, blocking the staircase with his body. In order to insure that his act was more than a mere gesture, he intoned the words of the Blessing litany and felt the holy power infuse the air around him with the ability to turn aside blows. Ngangbius did not feel he would truly need it, though; the prayer was a precautionary measure, an acknowledgment of the folly of being unprepared.
Instead of fear and trepidation, the Prelate felt a curious serenity as the door swung open. The woman led the way inside.
"Myau, you'd better keep an eye out for trouble," she told the animal, which looked even more like a cat at close range, only it was at least three times the size of any cat the Prelate had seen. That was when Ngangbius received his first shock.
"All right, Alis. No one will get past me."
"The cat...talks?" he exclaimed. Hardly a worthwhile welcome speech, but it was all he could think to say. At least he'd remembered to speak in Palman.
"Of course I do, meow."
"He's a Musk Cat," said the blond-haired warrior. His face was hard-edged, and he carried himself with the ease of one long familiar with combat, similarly to Lestain and the most accomplished of the temple guards. "They're as intelligent as anyone, Palman, Motavian, or Dezorian."
"Often more so," softly murmured the white-mantled wizard. With his long blue hair and delicate features, it was difficult for the Dezolian to tell if he was male or female. It was only his voice and the way his body moved that gave him away. There was a thin, sardonic smile on his face that lent his words a slight barb, probably as part of an ongoing rivalry between the two.
"I see," Ngangbius said. "Do forgive my ignorance, and welcome to the Corona Tower. Your arrival is most timely, as we have been greatly pressed by monsters."
The woman nodded.
"Our world, too, is becoming infested with them, only instead of fighting them with his armies as you do, King Lassic does nothing. It's as if he wants the monsters to plague us so that we're forced to submit to his tyranny just to remain safe." She spoke with passion, but also determination as she added, "Our quest is to defeat Lassic and free Algo. It's taken us all the way here. My name is Alis; my companions are Odin, Myau, and Noah." She indicated the warrior, the Musk Cat, and the wizard in turn.
Studying her, Ngangbius received his second shock. This swordswoman, the heroine in a pink dress and battle-scarred breastplate, was no more than a girl. It was difficult to tell, both because of racial differences in physique and because Dezolians lived about one-third again as long as Palmans, but to the Prelate she seemed no more than fifteen or sixteen. Yet the three others, skilled fighters all, followed her.
"Well met; I am Prelate Ngangbius. May I ask how your quest had brought you to us?"
"Well..." She hesitated, embarrassment in her bright blue eyes. "I know this will sound silly, but we need a Laerma nut."
"I'm afraid that I do not understand. We certainly have no such thing here. Laerma trees are exceptionally rare, and it is the wrong season for them to give berries in any event."
"I know that, but we've found one, only as you said, it's the wrong season. We've learned that a Laerma berry had to be dried in a laconian pot to become a nut, but from what we've heard in the Dezoris village, it will be months before the season is right, and we can't wait that long."
Dezoris, Ngangbius thought absently. The strong accent of most Dezolians when speaking Palman had led to that mispronunciation, which had endured for over two centuries since the first planetfall by Palmans on the third planet of Algo. For some reason, it seemed exceptionally wrong hearing it from the girl's lips.
"We've also heard," she hurried on, seeing the confusion in his face, "that special holy torches are lit here that can encourage things to grow."
Special torches? Was she talking about the Eclipse Torch? If she was, though, then why was she using the plural? Then the Prelate understood. Alis did not realize that there was only one Eclipse Torch. The language barrier, perhaps--a Dezolian struggling to find the right words in an alien tongue. Or perhaps the natural reticence of his people had won out, and her informant had spoken of the most holy item in their faith in half-truths so as not to arouse Palman greed. Whichever it was, it was clear that the girl had no conception what she was asking.
The curious thing was, the request itself was not wholly unnatural. The light of the Eclipse Torch did, in fact, nourish the growth of plants and encourage the health and well-being of living things generally. She might be able to use it to coax a Laerma tree to put forth a single berry. Why they needed a Laerma nut was beyond Ngangbius, some Palman magic perhaps, but if they had an urgent need for one, the Eclipse Torch might bring it too them.
He wondered about "Lashiec," and this unknown figure's connection to Dark Force and King Lassic. Were these people fighting not just to remove a tyrant, but to destroy a spiritual evil as well?
Then, of course, there was the matter of the Amber Eye...
Ngangbius' heart caught in his throat as he realized what he was thinking. Did he, a Prelate of the Church, truly intend to lend out the Eclipse Torch to these unbelievers? People he had just met? Palmans? For all he knew, they could have been agents of Dark Force intending to steal the Torch. Evil was always callous with life, and what were a few monsters measured against the value of the holy flame?
Archpriestess Baratir would turn down the request, but she was not here. High Priest Moraya would not have even considered it, but he was dead.
"I'm sorry," the girl said, her eyes downcast. Obviously she had taken his long silence as a rejection. "We've come all this way chasing a folktale; I know how it must sound to you."
"It's all right, Alis," the one called Odin said comfortingly. "We've had good luck looking into stories and rumors until now. It's only natural to believe."
"Please wait!" Ngangbius exclaimed. "I was merely considering your story...a Dezolian custom signifying respect for the importance of the situation," he excused his lapse. It was an outright lie, but a convenient one when dealing with foreigners.
"I see," Alis said thoughtfully. Behind her, Noah's eyes twinkled, and he favored the Prelate with that same thin-lipped smile. Clearly he had his own ideas about Ngangbius' delay but was willing to allow the Dezolian to save face.
"Once every hundred years," the Prelate rushed on, "there is an eclipse on Dezolis." That, as much, was true. "During this time, special flames are lit. A torch lit during this time is known as an Eclipse Torch, and it does possess the power to nourish the living and encourage growth. I can let you have one"--A muffled gasp came from upstairs as at least one of the listeners understood enough Palman to realize what Ngangbius was saying--"but they are holy items of our faith and so I must ask something in return."
"We'll be glad to pay," Alis said at once.
"We would not ask for money. I have heard it said, however, that you possess a jewel taken from a dragon called the Amber Eye. Would you give us this gem in exchange for an Eclipse Torch?"
Alis turned to her companions.
"I can't make the decision for us; we all fought hard together to win the Eye. Do we want to give it up?"
"I don't see why not, meow," the cat replied, his eyes still on the passageway. "It isn't doing us any good, after all."
"We can't even sell the blasted thing," Odin agreed. "The merchants who don't say it's an unknown stone and therefore valueless say it's too valuable for them to afford or find a buyer. No surprise there; who's buying luxuries with the Algo System in the trouble it's in? I say we fix a price for it: one Eclipse Torch."
The girl looked up at the white-robed wizard.
"What about you, Noah?"
"I'm afraid that I am forced to agree with Odin. He and Myau have aptly summed up the situation. There is no reason to keep the Eye, so why not exchange it for something we need?"
"All right, then; Prelate Ngangbius, we agree to your trade."
Alis reached into her pack and took out the Eye, a massive faceted jewel at least the size of Odin's fist. The prelate could see where its name came from; it was translucent and precisely the same dark golden shade as amber.
Exactly what he needed.
"Very well; I shall fetch an Eclipse Torch for you." Ngangbius made no move to take the gem; he did not want to do anything that might imply treachery. Instead he turned and went back up the staircase. He was met by shocked and angry faces.
"Ngangbius," Lestain said in a low voice so the Palmans would not overhear, if they happened to understand Dezolian, "are you insane?" The omission of his title was clearly no mistake. "Do you truly intend to hand over the sacred Eclipse Torch to these unbelievers?"
"They could be spies! Allies of those fiends using subterfuge to trick us!"
Ngangbius shook his head gravely.
"I do not think so. Moreover, the Eclipse Torch itself will verify for us that they are not creatures of darkness."
Captain Lestain gnawed at his lip.
"There is that," he admitted. "They're still Palmans, though. Will they properly show respect for the holy flame? Will we endure if they do not return it to us?"
The second complaint was the one that drew fearful nods of agreement from many of the others. It was the plea of men and women worried for their souls. How could he justify that risk, they were asking.
For the second time that day, a curious serenity came over Ngangbius as he realized that he knew the answer.
"The flame," he said calmly, "is a symbol. The Eclipse Torch, for all that it is a relic of holy power, is also a symbol. We believe in fire because its light is as the light of Heaven which guides us, and its warmth is as the power of Heaven which shelters our souls from the storms of doubt."
He walked to the altar upon which the Eclipse Torch sat and reached out, his long, green-skinned fingers wrapping around the crystal globe inside which the azure flame tinged with silver burned without fuel or air. The Prelate could feel its holy warmth flow through him.
"Should the Palmans hurl the Eclipse Torch into the depths of the deepest crevice on this planet or set it adrift in space between the worlds, it will not matter. Our Church will endure, because our faith is not in an object, but in the infinite wisdom and goodness of God."
Ngangbius picked up the Eclipse Torch and turned back towards the others. They said nothing as he walked back to the stairs. Before going down, he paused and added one last thing.
"Do not think I mean to do this lightly. The Amber Eye I requested in exchange is more than merely a valuable jewel. It is the key I need to erect a barrier to keep the monsters out of the spire indefinitely. It means all of our lives."
He descended the stairs, the crystal orb cradled in his palms. Alis gasped in amazement as she saw the dancing flame.
"Behold the light of the Eclipse Torch!"
Ngangbius reached out with his mind and touched the Torch's essence. As he had heard, it responded swiftly to his entreaties. Unlike some mystical artifacts, which had to be browbeaten into functioning by the user's will, the sacred flame was meant to give its light to the world. It did just that, its radiance shining out into the room, bathing the Palmans, the Musk Cat, and Ngangbius himself in its brilliant azure glow.
This was the test. If any of the four was a minion of the ultimate darkness, infected with its unholy power, the Eclipse Torch would burn it like a searing flame. As the Prelate had been sure, though, none of them was injured in any way. On the contrary, the light seemed to make Alis and her companions feel better.
"What a wondrous thing," Alis said. "I can believe all the stories I've heard about these torches--oh! The Eye!"
The Amber Eye seemed to be shining in counterpoint with the Eclipse Torch, a soft, warming golden radiance. The silver-blue glow of the Torch flame flickered over its surface, then seemed to sink into its heart, where it began to dance as if a second Eclipse Torch had been kindled there. It was not truly a second Torch, for as the Prelate let the radiance recede to its quiescent state, so did the fire within the Amber Eye dwindle to a single spark, but that spark remained, like a star within the jewel.
Carefully, Ngangbius gave the Eclipse Torch to Alis, a part of his soul weeping as he let it go despite his fine speeches, and she set the jewel in his hands. As she did, the spark of light seemed to flow out again, and for a moment the Prelate found he himself to be the center of a glowing aura. He was afraid at first, but there was no pain; instead he felt giddy, bursting with strength, as if the exhaustion of the siege had been wiped away in an instant. Deep within himself, he knew that something had changed in the very nature of his body, though he would not come to learn just what for many years to come. A quirk of magic, of powerful items of people reacting together?
Or, perhaps, Heaven's gift for having the courage to aid the Heroine when her quest was in peril?
"Thank you, Prelate," she told him earnestly. "With this, our mission is saved."
* * * * *
No, the Bishop thought. Thank you, Alis Landale. Through you all our lives were saved.
The temple that Alis built," he said, watching the work of restoration go on.
"What was that, Your Holiness?"
"Nothing, Gana. An old man's stray thoughts." He pulled his robe tightly around himself. "Come, let's go inside. This day is too chill for these old bones."
The young priest lent his elder his arm, and the two of them walked towards the rising temple.