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Chapter Six

Lutz looked down at himself and saw that, somehow, he was standing outside Esper Mansion, his shoes buried deep in the blanket of snow that covered the Alplatin Plateau. He was clad in the Frad Mantle and he carried his staff, and though he'd thought it had just been night a brief moment earlier, the area around him seemed to be lit up with Dezorian daylight, reflecting brightly off the crystals of snow that covered the plateau.

He raised his head and gasped. Before him, Esper Mansion sat in a heap of destruction, burned to the ground, a smoking, simmering pile of rubble. All around him were young Esper students -- his friends -- and all of them were either weeping or staring at the destroyed mansion with looks of pure dumbfoundedness.

In front of him, Lutz saw a young Esper girl named Jain, and he smiled (despite the fact that the mansion was burning before his eyes, with the bodies of his people still inside) because earlier on this day, he'd attempted to light Jain's hair on fire. Master Noah gave me quite a dressing down for that one, he smiled to himself as Jain sobbed, "Our parents..."

"Our friends," added another voice, this one at Lutz's right. It was Aric, his childhood best friend and his accomplice in the famous "burning Jain's hair" prank. Again, despite the circumstances, Lutz could not help but smile at seeing his old friend as a fifteen year old. He and Aric had grown up together, trained together, harassed Jain together, and then, shortly after the day the mansion burned, their lives had quickly gone in separate directions. Lutz's had gone right into the cold sleep chamber deep in the mansion's basement, and Aric's had merged with Jain's, as, amazingly enough, the two of them fell in love, married... And had four children, Lutz remembered fondly. A boy, then two girls, then another boy. Zak, Cille, Avy, and Arden.

Lutz turned his eyes back to the mansion. If his adult self was now, somehow, standing in place his fifteen year old self had stood when this scene had originally occurred, his adult self might as well speak the lines the younger Lutz had said on this day to sum up the scene. "Our people," he repeated now, and then he turned to look at the man he admired more than any other -- the man who was about to perform the greatest feat of magic Algo had ever seen -- the master Esper Noah.

"I built Esper Mansion," Master Noah addressed him and his fellow students, "so that none of you would ever know the sight you see before you now. But somewhere along the way, I failed miserably. Both Pai'tekkan Ikuto and Sinc'tekkan C'Temm are dead, but that is not enough." He then turned to look at Lutz and the other students again. He wore the same Frad Mantle that Lutz currently was wearing, and he carried the same staff that sat in Lutz's hand. "Students, I need your help to insure that this never again happens. Never... again."

That was when Noah had rebuilt the mansion. He'd drawn on his own magical powers as well as those of his students. Afterward, the powers of all of the students (save Lutz) had been decimated. Before that happened, Lutz closed his eyes, as he and the other students had the first time, but this time, however, since his powers were not being utilized to restore the mansion to its original condition, Lutz was able to at least listen to the magic taking place.

Five minutes later, he opened his eyes and saw the mansion rebuilt. Noah then raised his staff into the air, chanted quietly, and cast a massive Wall spell which resulted in a magical blue force field shimmering around the Alplatin Plateau. Lutz kept his eyes on Noah, waiting to see his teacher create the Crevice, but before that happened, Noah looked directly into Lutz's eyes and said, "Darkness cracks the shield, Lutz."

All Lutz could do was blink. He looked around him, and his fellow students were still standing up straight with their eyes closed. Apparently, only he and Noah were no longer reliving the past. Finally, Lutz opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He closed it, blinked again, and then managed to say, "What?"

"Darkness cracks the shield!" Noah responded, swinging his staff before him and stepping towards Lutz. "Darkness attacks! The shield explodes!"

At that moment, high above Lutz and Noah, the magical energy field that prevented invaders from teleporting to the Alplatin Plateau and attacking Esper Mansion shattered like glass into thousands of pieces.

- - - - - - - - - -

Lutz had a bad dream.

The Esper leader remained laying down in his bed, but his eyes snapped open and took in his surroundings. Everything appeared to be in order but then, remembering his dream, he threw his covers off of himself and stepped towards one of his windows, using his mind to open it on his way there. When he poked his head outside and looked up towards the sky, he saw the force field Master Noah had created nine-hundred eighty-seven years before glimmering high above Esper Mansion.

Seeing it forced Lutz to realize the absurdity of what he was doing. He chuckled to himself, and then said aloud to the empty room, "You're one-thousand two, Lutz. Can't you tell the difference between a dream and reality?"

He turned around and walked back towards his bed, again using his mind to close the window behind him, but as it fell shut, and as the latches fell into place, Lutz's mind suddenly replayed the events that had occurred earlier that day. He again heard Master Noah's voice call out

Lutz!

in his mind. He again heard the cacophony of voices from Elsydeon, and that single coherent sentence which had broken through the haze: "He has returned!"

Maybe, Lutz thought, today at least, a dream should not be dismissed so easily.

He dressed quickly before throwing the Frad Mantle on over his clothes, taking his staff into his hand, and walking out his bedroom door. A quick mental check of the minds of the mansion's other inhabitants revealed that all but a handful were asleep. Lutz strolled quietly but speedily down the hall outside his room until he came to the west stairway, which he descended all the way down into the mansion's main entrance chamber. When he reached the thick wooden double front doors, he paused momentarily to secure the Frad Mantle closed at his throat before throwing the doors open and stepping out into the snow.

Esper Mansion was large, but the Alplatin Plateau was even larger, and the mansion formed but a dot on the northwestern part of its surface. Lutz walked directly forward from the mansion's doors, headed towards the very center of the plateau. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for, but he scanned his eyes across the force field nonetheless. "Darkness cracks the shield," he muttered to himself under his breath. "Darkness cracks the shield. Darkness attacks. The shield explodes."

As he repeated the final sentence he'd heard Noah speak in his dream, he looked up, half-expecting his words to act as some sort of magic chant that allowed his dream to become reality. The force field did not waver, however, and instead, Lutz got a good look at the nighttime Dezorian sky. When one had lived for a millennium in the same location, one got to be very familiar with the weather patterns around his home. One glance at the sky and Lutz knew it would snow the next day. Possibly even a blizzard by late afternoon.

After a few minutes of walking, Lutz stopped, exhaled heavily, and watched his breath fog around his face. Part of him wanted to admit that this little nighttime stroll was pointless and leave the cold air to return to his warm bed. But another part of him protested this, for that part of him sensed that something...

Something is not right, he finally pinned down his thought into words. It started with the attack on Hugh, and then Elsydeon called out to me, and I know this anxiety I'm experiencing now is not unrelated. He sighed again. But what, exactly, is going on?

Another minute passed, and Lutz realized that no answers were to be found out in the cold. He turned around and stomped back through the snow towards the mansion's doors.

- - - - - - - - - -

In the distance, Esper Mansion's front doors closed shut behind Lutz, and only then did King Lassic's three Xe-A-Thouls drop their magical barrier.

"We should not have hidden," Xarxas grumbled as he looked through the force field at the Alplatin Plateau. "We should have revealed ourselves to him and challenged him to face us. We could have killed him easily."

"He will die yet," Xanon answered coolly. "They will all die. But do not forget, Xarxas, that they are a cowardly lot. The student of Noah would not have fought us alone. He would have called his mansion for help."

Xarxas shifted his gaze to the mansion itself. His face twitched beneath his mask as he considered Xanon's words, and finally, he grunted in annoyance. "They call themselves Protectors, but only cowards would hide behind a force field like this one." The second Xe-A-Thoul flicked the field with his finger. It sparked and hissed, but it did not budge. "Can we try once more?"

"It is pointless," Xanon shook his head. "Even combining our magics does not work."

"His majesty's army can not traverse that Crevice," Xarxas pointed out. "And while I would be happy for the three of us to cross it alone..."

"No," Xanon said. "We must take them by surprise. Give them no time to prepare for us on the other side." The first Xe-A-Thoul turned to the third one. "Have you any ideas, Xerik?"

"Perhaps we could find some piece of technology," Xerik began, "through which we can channel our magic, to make it stronger."

Xarxas grunted. "Our magic is stronger than all technology, Xerik. If we can not do it alone..."

"Do not discount the idea so quickly, Xarxas," Xanon said. "After all, could we have created the king's weapon Neithird without technology?" Xarxas's only response was a grunt, after which Xanon addressed Xerik again. "What sort of technology will we need?"

Xanon sighed. "Lord Lassic will not like it if we return empty-handed. But I do not see us as having any other choice."

"Lord Lassic doesn't like a lot of things," Xarxas grunted. "Among them the fact that the four ants who killed him a millennium ago are dead. You know, I'd absolutely love to step up to his throne and say, 'Your majesty, we must destroy Elsydeon because it houses the so-called Protectors souls, correct?' And he'd grumble about how" -- Xarxas's voice got deeper, but remained as hollow as ever -- "'I will have my revenge!'." Xarxas chuckled, then returned his voice to normal. "And then I'd ask him, 'So how can Neithird kill them, then, your majesty? If, that is, their souls are already in that sword, how can your "pet" kill them?' I'd love to see him chew on that one!"

"He'd chew all right," Xerik nodded. "He'd probably chew your throat out."

In response, Xarxas simply grunted again. "Hmmph." Then he grinned and added, "The king may be pleased yet. Perhaps Neithird will get something good in Paseo."

"We shall soon find out," Xanon said, and then the Xe-A-Thouls created a swirling black portal, stepped into it one by one, and disappeared from the Alplatin Plateau.

- - - - - - - - - -

After re-entering Esper Mansion, Lutz leaned back against the closed doors and exhaled. He still felt uneasy, and he still wasn't sure why. Then, as a fresh pang of nervousness swept across his stomach, Lutz finally put his finger on it. He didn't know.

He'd known all his life. When he was but a student, he would watch his fellow students struggle to perform magic that he simply knew how to do. He'd simply known when Rolf had been born, and he simply knew ahead of time that Mother Brain was going to blow up Rolf's parents' ship. After rescuing Rolf, he simply knew how long to return to cold-sleep for, so that he would awake at the exact time that he knew Rolf would arrive at Esper Mansion. And finally, he knew Rolf would succeed in defending Algo. Lutz just knew.

Then, a year earlier, he'd stopped knowing.

The fact that the telemental Dezorian D'zkot even existed had taken him by surprise, and he soon learned why. He had known of D'zkot, once, but when he confronted D'zkot, the mad Dezorian had defeated him and wiped the knowledge of his existence from Lutz's mind. Lutz still cursed himself, that such a thing could happen. And at the hands of a... Dezorian no less, he sneered to himself. But D'zkot was dead and what was done was done, and he hadn't known D'zkot's plans a year ago and he didn't know what was going to happen now.

Amy had examined him once, in an attempt to figure out why his precognitive abilities had disappeared, but she was still in the process of becomming an expert in Esper medicine, and so she could not offer a positive diagnos is just yet. Her best guess was that when D'zkot erased Lutz's knowledge of him from his mind, he'd been sloppy -- either accidentially or on purpose -- and had erased his future-telling powers, as well.

Lutz released a breath, shook his head to clear his mind of his regrets. With nothing but shadows to chase after, Lutz decided to return to bed. However, when he reached the west stairway up towards his bedroom, his foot paused on the first stair. He stayed in that position for some time before he spun on his heels and softly walked across the Esper Mansion throne room to the east stairway, which he then ascended.

He continued walking until he reached the room set aside as the mansion's clinic. Slowly and quietly, he opened the door and stepped inside. The only sign of Amy's presence in the dimly lit room was her white lab coat, which hung on the back of the chair at the corner desk. A quick mental check, and Lutz confirmed Amy herself was asleep in her quarters. Another mental check, this one directed into the clinic itself, and Lutz confirmed that the Moonseers were also in the world of the dreaming.

Lutz smiled as he reached Shir's bedside. The agile thief lay on her side, with one hand resting on the underside of the enlargement in which lived the child she thought would be named Brandon but Lutz knew would be named Kyle. Glancing over his shoulder, Lutz saw that another bed had been pulled close to Shir's, and in this one rested Lance Moonseer, one of his most gifted students, who had refused to sleep in his own quarters so that he could be near his wife and unborn child. It seems like only yesterday, Lutz thought to himself, that I woke up to go see Rolf for the first time, and that's when I received the news that in the ten years since I'd last been awake, Rekon Moonseer and Shelia Derval had married and had a child, a boy named Lance. Lutz shook his head. Back then, he'd never imagined that one day he'd be training Lance -- or his parents, for that matter -- in the use of their Esper powers.

Turning back to Shir, Lutz realized that suddenly, his anxiety had dissipated. Not to say he was no longer nervous because of the strange things that were happening; he was. Now, however, he felt like he could approach things rationally. Calmly, even.

The master Esper looked across the room to Amy's chair (the one with the lab coat draped over it) and used his mind to float it through the air towards him. Sitting down between Shir and Lance, Lutz stretched his legs out, leaned back, and focused his eyes on Shir's belly, while his mind reached inside it to again touch Kyle's mind. Part of Lutz hoped that repeating that last thing he'd done before Elsydeon called out to him would again put him in contact with the blade's resident souls, but he had no such luck. Instead, he simply closed his eyes, leaned back his head, and spoke with his mind.

[Yes, I'm nervous,] Lutz admitted to the unborn child. [But I don't want you to be. No, I don't. So don't you worry, okay? Don't worry about a thing, young Kyle. Your mother and your father... and I... will protect you. I promise that, Kyle. I won't let anyone hurt you.]

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf's eyes fluttered and then opened. That first moment after waking -- the moment in which you can't remember who or where you are -- went over Rolf, and after it passed, he sat up in his bed and looked towards the open window, out at the street his house rested on. A glance at the nightstand clock revealed that dawn was still three hours away, and for the life of him, Rolf couldn't figure out why he'd woken up.

It had been so long since he had been in Paseo, and even longer since he'd spent the night in his own house and in his own bed. While living on the Landale or in Esper Mansion was great, nothing beat his hometown of Paseo, and so when he'd tossed off his clothes and collapsed onto his mattress six hours earlier, he'd expected to sleep straight through the night until, if at all humanly possible, lunch time the next day.

So why am I awake? Rolf asked himself. He shrugged in answer to his own question and then stood from his bed and stepped to the window. A cool breeze swept inside (that's why he usually kept this window open while he slept) and carried on it was the scents of Paseo itself. Rolf closed his eyes, rested his arms on the window ledge, and took in a deep lungful of air.

A moment later, he heard a sound from his front door. Creeeeek. Rolf shot his head around towards his bedroom door and instinctively reached out with his mind, but he sensed nothing. For a moment, he tried to convince himself that the wind he'd felt through his window had also blown open the door, but then his mind flashed the image of him locking his door securely before he'd gone to sleep, and all debate on that matter was quickly silenced.

Someone was in his house.

He paused for another moment before reaching towards the nightstand his clock rested on. Behind the timepiece, in its scabbard, was the Neisword. Rolf, eyes focused on his closed bedroom door (just in case someone tried to break through), slowly slid the blade from its holder before dropping the scabbard on his overturned covers. Then, without wasting time to don slippers or a robe, Rolf stepped towards his bedroom's exit.

The door's handle turned through the power of Rolf's mind. At the same time, the former Agent did a quick search for Tyler's mind. The Space Pirate appeared to be sound asleep across the hall, in what had been Rudo's room when the two of them lived as housemates and Nei's room before that. Determining Tyler was okay, Rolf used another small push of telekinesis to open his door, and then he stepped into the hallway.

A glance down it revealed that the living room was still dark; the intruder apparently had not turned on any lights. He scanned the living room with his mind but again he found nothing. Since he now stood outside his room, he was also standing right next to the door to the room Tyler slept in. Rolf used his mind to open this door, as well, and when it was open but a crack, he glanced inside at Tyler's sleeping form. {Tyler} he called into the Space Pirate's mind.

In the guest bed, Tyler rolled over. "Five more minutes, ma," he muttered under his breath. In response, Rolf sighed. Tyler obviously wasn't going to be of any help in this matter, so he began slowly walking towards the living room, shutting Tyler's door with teke as he walked.

As he proceeded, he saw that the bathroom door was slightly open. A mental check revealed no one was inside, but before he could stop himself, he noticed the line of light running from half-way up the wall to just before the ceiling on the wall across from the bathroom. It was a sliver of moonlight shining in through the bathroom window, and it shined right onto the Neisword, which Rolf still held before him in a defensive gesture.

If an intruder was in the house, and if that intruder was was watching the hallway from the darkened living room, then the uninvited guest had just seen a quick flash of moonlight reflect itself off of the Neisword's blade, effectively ending Rolf's sneak advance. With the element of surprise gone, Rolf took three quick strides into the living room and reached across the room with his mind for the light switch. The lights flipped on, illuminating the sofa, the chairs, the small table, and the adjoining kitchen, but nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary.

But then Rolf glanced over at the front door. It was open.

It had only been opened a crack, but considering he remembered locking it securely the night before, Rolf knew someone had just been inside the house. His mind raised the possibility that maybe Tyler opened the door and forgot to lock it, and what he'd then heard a moment ago was just the door being blown open by the wind, but Rolf quickly dismissed that possibility. First of all, his door was strong and heavy. The only way it could have been blown open is if Tyler had not just left the door unlocked, but had also left unclosed. Rolf knew that was something Tyler would never do.

Another glance around the room, both with his eyes and his mind, confirmed that no one was here. Rolf's shoulders relaxed and he lowered the Neisword to his side as he stepped across the room to re-close and re-lock the front door. As he walked, he glanced to his left, at his living room's east wall. He almost didn't see it at first, but by the time he reached the front door, he did a double take.

Nei's claws. They were gone from the display Rolf kept them in on the wall.

Rolf did not bother to move closer. He simply stared at the place where Nei's weapons should have been. The brackets that held the claws (blades that attached to the wielder's wrists) to the wall were still there, but the brackets were empty. Nei's weapons were gone.

There's no reason Tyler would have even taken them down in the first place, yet alone hidden them somewhere, Rolf realized. So, someone had been in his house, and that someone had committed burglary.

Without further hesitation, Rolf threw open his front door all the way and stepped out onto the porch, bringing the Neisword to bear at the same time. He looked west and saw only the other homes on his street and beyond them in the distance, the Central Tower, beautifully lit for the night with a few well-placed outdoor floodlights. Turning his head, Rolf looked east towards more homes and, further, towards the market district. Again, nothing. No, wait! Rolf said to himself.

He strained his eyes to see it, but at the corner three streets down, Rolf saw a shadow heading south. That's either my intruder, Rolf theorized, or, possibly, an eyewitness. Forgetting that he wore pants and nothing else, Rolf charged from his porch, turned left, and ran down his street.

Because he was in good physical shape, he did not breathe heavily nor break a sweat as he reached the intersection he'd seen the shadow head down, curving into it himself. A glance down the street with his eyes and across the area with his mind showed nothing, so Rolf began walking quickly down the street, turning his head left and then right at every intersection, searching for the owner of the shadow he'd seen.

If he hadn't been so impulsive, he could have brought a radio from home with him and called the Central Tower for some help. But he was on the trail now, and it was too late to head back. Though seeing an Agent or a Guardian right now would be nice... Rolf conceded.

There! As he reached the fourth intersection down the north-south street, he saw, about three blocks off to the east, the tail end of a figure. All he'd seen was a leg as its owner turned southbound onto another street. A leg and... A cape? Rolf thought in puzzlement. Yes, it was the tail end of a cape. Who wears a cape to burglarize a house?

Rolf paused momentarily, wondering what to do. His suspect was again heading south, as he was, but his suspect was three blocks east. Did he follow the suspect's trail exactly, or did he keep heading south and try to glance to the east to get a better look?

Before he could decide, something broke Rolf's concentration. Off to the south-east -- off in the direction of his suspect -- Rolf suddenly heard a terrible scream of fear cut across the night air. Rolf sprung into action. He ran one block further south as the scream of fear turned into wails of pain and agony, and then he took the corner as fast as he could and ran east.

Ahead of him, he saw nothing, yet the howls of pain and terror did, in fact, seem to be coming from this direction. It suddenly dawned on Rolf -- the torturous sounds were originating in the alley further up this street. Still clutching the Neisword, Rolf began to pump his arms up and down at his sides, his bare feet smacking against the pavement as he ran. After he'd traversed the first block, he heard the screams turn into a gargle. Then, the gargle was quickly cut off, and Rolf heard no more.

He strained his ears as he ran through the second block. Nothing. When he reached the third block, the entrance to the alley between two market district shops was visible, yet still silent. The former Agent started to apply the brakes, swung the Neisword in front of him, and then he jumped into the alley's mouth.

His eyes scanned the alley, then blinked. His mouth dropped open involuntarily, and then his jaw simply hung there, as if frozen. His forehead twitched, and finally, he brought his free hand up to cover his mouth. Oh, oh God... Rolf started to breathe heavily, oh my God!

Scattered throughout the alley were the pieces of a dead Musk Cat.

As Rolf's eyes scanned the horrifying scene, he decided "dead" wasn't the right word for it. Slaughtered was a much better description. Looking down towards his feet, Rolf saw what looked to be part of a leg. Deeper into the alley, Rolf saw several patches of fur. Blood lined the alley from wall to wall. Near the other side of the alley, which ended in a metal wall, Rolf saw several chunks of bloody, furry flesh that seemed to be the Musk Cat's long ears. A few feet from this, Rolf saw its severed head.

Unable to stand the gruesome sight, Rolf, who could barely catch his breath, averted his eyes towards the sky, but on their way there, they caught something which made Rolf's breath catch in his throat. He returned to the sight, which was on the metal wall at the end of the alley, and simply stared. He bit at one of the fingers on the hand that covered his mouth and after several moments he dropped it back to his side. Finally, he whispered, "I don't believe it..." It w as all he could say.

For there, on the wall, written in the feline's blood, were huge letters, and those letters spelled out a name:

?

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