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Chapter Eleven

Standing at a window in one of the Dark Castle's towers, Lassic slowly turned around and bore his eyes into Xanon and Xarxas. Responding quickly to the glare, the brother Xe-A-Thouls each took a silent step backwards, giving Lassic more space.

Satisfied, Lassic then turned back to the window, and looked outside at the shimmering red force field his magic had constructed around the Dark Castle's asteroid. "Tell Xerik," the king said slowly, "that he may fire when ready."

Underneath his mask, Xanon closed his eyes and telepathically gave the instruction to his brother. A moment later, from a window at the top of the tower, the wide blue energy beam of the EX-17 energy disrupter -- channeled through the Laconian Axe -- shot forth, stopping only when it came into contact with the shimmering red field surrounding the asteroid.

There was a brief, but spectacular, fireworks display, during which the red force field turned a bright white at the EX-17's beam's point of contact. The field rippled, then buckled, and finally dissipated altogether, sizzling away into nothingness, until the stars outside the Dark Castle were once again visible.

"It works!" Lassic cheered triumphantly, raising his scepter high above his head in celebration. "It works!"

Xarxas risked spoiling the king's good mood. "With all due respect, your majesty," he said, "this energy field of yours isn't the Espers' shield."

"Of course not," Lassic responded, his eyes still focused out the window. "But that is irrelevant, for the test has served its purpose. With the power of the Laconian Axe added to the EX-17, we have in our hands a weapon capable of slicing through the Espers' shield as if it were made of the greenies' snow."

Behind the king, Xarxas and Xanon glanced at one another, realizing that Lassic hadn't really addressed Xarxas's point. Xanon answered his brother's unspoken words with a mere shrug. There was no logic in Lassic's mind, but his madness was not without method. Not one of the Xe-A-Thoul brothers doubted that the destruction of the Espers' energy shield at the hands of the Laconian Axe-enhanced EX-17 was probable; they simply couldn't share in the king's one-hundred percent certainty. Not until the shield-smashing had been attempted for real, on the Alplatin Plateau.

Lassic turned, pushed past Xanon and Xarxas, and headed out into the corridor. "Tell Xerik he may rejoin us."

"He is already headed down the tower, your majesty," Xanon replied.

"It is still day at the Espers' Mansion. I wish to wait until nightfall to attack. If the head-invaders must rise from their slumber to defend their home, response time will be that much slower."

Xerik stepped down the stairs behind them, the EX-17 over one shoulder and the Laconian Axe over the other, as he filed into step behind Lassic and his brothers, who were heading towards another set of stairs taking them further down the tower, back to the main castle. "If we attack while they sleep," Xarxas pointed out with a laugh, "it will also give us the chance to slice Esper throat so that they might never awaken."

"No," Lassic exclaimed, turning on his heels to stick a finger in Xarxas's face. "We don't kill a single Esper until we possess Elsydeon and the Aero-Prism. Once I hold those two items in my hands, you may slaughter until the Alplatin turns red, but you shall not waste your time on a single Esper before. Is that clear?"

"Extremely, your majesty," Xarxas responded, "but a clarification, if you will? If we are not allowed to slay any Espers until we possess the sword, is it acceptable, once the sword is in our care, to use it to behead as m any Espers as we see fit?"

Lassic found that amusing, and he laughed, slowly, at first, but steadily, until his head was thrown backwards, his guffaws echoing off the walls of the castle tower. "Acceptable, Xarxas," Lassic replied, "and heartily enc ouraged!"

Both the king and the demon brothers laughed their way back to the main castle, where Lassic turned to them and gave them final instructions. "I am retiring to my chambers for a few hours. Take this time to prepare for the attack. I am assuming the three of you will, at first, head into the mansion alone, but once the objects are acquired, and the full-fledged assault begins, the entire army is at your disposal."

"Including Neithird, your majesty?" Xanon asked.

"Including Neithird. There is good chance that Rolf himself may be at the mansion when it is attacked, and so what better time to introduce him to my pet? Though, of course, before Neithird is allowed to kill him, he is to be brought before me."

"Of course," Xanon nodded.

Gripping his scepter tight, Lassic looked out a nearby window past the asteroid field at the distant planet Motavia. "Everyone knows that I am the King of Algo," Lassic muttered softly, "but before he dies, I will see to it that Rolf knows, for sure. Before he dies, he will bow before me, and address me as king."

- - - - - - - - - -

A steady hum reverberated all around the android Wren, as his optical sensors glanced across all of the readouts, toggles, dials, and switches around him. "All systems optimal," he said aloud, to no one in particular -- not that anyone else was around to hear. "Engine launch in ten seconds."

The emergency shuttle was only the third space ship in all of Algo, Tyler Jorran's Landale and the Agents' ship the Paseo being the other two. It had only been discovered well after Mother Brain's destruction, when Wren and Byren were given permission by the Paseo Council to become caretakers of Zelan and Nurvus, respectively, and its discovery was quite a surprise. It had been assumed that the caretaker of Zelan would be stranded on the satellite, yet a shuttle had been found in the docking bay, placed there by Mother Brain and her alien masters for unknown reasons.

Now, Wren was going to use it to head straight into the heart of the wholly illogical quandary of the mysterious residents of the Palman Asteroid Field. Hours earlier, he had the possibilities of what he would discover in the field narrowed down to a handful. Now, after hearing the sound, his artificial mind was simply clueless. Whatever was out there, though, Wren was prepared to face it head-on, then return to Paseo to personally report his findings to the Central Tower.

"Five," Wren began the final countdown, "four, three, two, one, ignition!"

No sooner had the shuttle raised itself off the deck of the docking bay, it surged forward into the launch run, pulsating lights flashing off the shuttle's cockpit glass as well as the shiny metal braces surrounding Wren's face. Within moments, it was clear of Zelan completely, and Wren shifted the engines up into main drive and gunned across space towards the Palman Asteroid Field.

- - - - - - - - - -

They stood beneath the mansion's main entrance chamber, in the old cold-sleep room, their voices silent but their minds speaking volumes. Rolf stood with his eyes closed, head tilted slightly backwards, as he replayed the events of his trip to Myst Vale for Lutz. About twelve feet across the room, the Esper leader stood staring at Rolf silently, processing the telepathic communication. If Rolf had been in Lutz's place, his eyes, if open, would no doubt have been glazed over in concentration, his fist, perhaps, clenched at his side. The master Esper Lutz, however, gazed at Rolf effortlessly, the telepathic contact causing no concentration tension anywhere in his body.

But to say Lutz was without tension entirely was flat-out incorrect. The moment Rolf returned to the mansion without the Laconian Axe, the tightness in Lutz's shoulders grew even more taut, and the details of what had happened at the Musk Cat sanctuary did nothing to ease it. In the end, when Rolf had told Lutz everything that had happened, Rolf opened his eyes and looked towards the Esper leader expectantly.

"It can not be denied now, of course," Lutz nodded, rubbing his chin in thought and looking away from Rolf. "The mansion will be coming under attack."

Rolf took a deep breath, released it. "I'll do what I can to get everyone ready. I think a guard rotation is one--"

"You'll do nothing of the sort," Lutz interrupted, still not meeting Rolf's eyes, instead his vision drifting across the room. "I will take care of things here at the mansion. You must return to Motavia."

"Excuse me?" Rolf blinked. "Lutz, in case you've forgotten, I'm the Protector of Algo. As a matter of fact, it was you who helped to show me my destiny on this matter. If Esper Mansion is going to come under attack, then I'm going to be here to do my job. Why in the world would you want to send me away?"

. "Because sometimes," Lutz said, looking up at Rolf, "being a Protector does not mean being the guardian of the entire system. Sometimes, all it means is making sure one little boy remains safe."

"Brandon?"

"That is correct," Lutz nodded. "I want you to leave Esper Mansion because I don't want Shir and her unborn child here when the attack comes. And to be quite frank, the safety of Kyle is much more important than the safety of the mansion."

Despite the tone of the conversation they were engaged in, a slight smile came across Rolf's lips. "That's the second time," he said to Lutz, "that you've used that name, 'Kyle.'"

Lutz paused for a moment, staring straight into Rolf's eyes. In that moment, Rolf was positive that Lutz was trying to gently probe his mind, to see what he knew, but Rolf had closed off his mind, and he had the guilty satisfaction of seeing -- for just a moment -- a look of uncertainty flash across Lutz's face when the Esper leader couldn't read his thoughts. It was gone, then, and Lutz shrugged and looked away from Rolf. "I told you," he said, "Lance had a relative named Kyle, and I simply--"

"You told me a lie," Rolf cut him off. "You told me Lance's great-great grandfather was named Kyle, but he wasn't. I asked Lance. His paternal great-great grandfather was named Benik, and his maternal great-great-grandfather was named Zeote."

There was not a word of response from Lutz for a long moment. All he did was stare into Rolf's eyes, his mouth a straight line. Finally, he said, very softly, "You are correct. I knew both Benik and Zeote well."

"As I suspected," Rolf nodded. "We all know you, Lutz. We know you don't make mistakes like that. So who is 'Kyle,' Lutz?"

"It was a slip of the tongue," Lutz shrugged. "Nothing more."

Shaking his head, Rolf sighed. "It was about a year ago," Rolf replied, doing his best to keep his cool and not let his frustrations spill out, "that we were in the tunnels under the mansion" -- Rolf pointed at the wall -- "right through the secret door there. We were going to Elsydeon, because Nei wanted to speak to me, and you told me, essentially, that one of the first things I had to learn as I started to manifest my Esper abilities was that it was pointless to lie to people who can read your mind."

Lutz's jaw clenched. He was obviously more comfortable as the one giving the lectures, not the one being lectured, and again, Rolf felt a twinge of guilty satisfaction, but he didn't care. This was something he was firmly convinced Lutz had to learn. Rolf was willing to go off to his own death for Lutz -- something he very well could have done back when Lutz had sent he and his friends to the space ship Noah -- but in order to keep that level of implicit trust, Lutz had to give the same back to Rolf.

"Now I know you're used to being the only telemental around, and even now that you're not the one and only, you're still easily the most powerful. You're used to being able to read others' minds, all the while making sure that no one can read yours unless you want them to. But I don't need to be a mind-reader to know that you're lying to me right now, Lutz. I want to know the truth, and I don't want any nonsense. So tell me, who is this 'Kyle' you keep referring to?"

For a good half a minute, Lutz was silent. He simply returned Rolf's gaze, a slightly pained look on his face. After taking and releasing a deep breath, he finally spoke in very soft tones. "Kyle is the name of Shir and Lance's yet-to-be-born son."

Rolf blinked. "They told me they were naming him Brandon."

"That is what they think they are going to name their son," Lutz nodded, "but they are incorrect."

At first, Rolf just looked back at Lutz. Then, the sheer absurdity of what Lutz was saying hit Rolf, and he chuckled, except for Lutz, this kind of statement wasn't absurd at all. "You're sure?" Rolf asked. Lutz's only response was a slow nod.

"Well," Rolf said flatly. "I guess that wasn't so hard, was it? I just wish you wouldn't be so secretive, Lutz. It's so..."

Lutz was looking directly at Rolf. "Arrogant?"

"Well, yes," Rolf replied. "In a way. Whenever you're like thi--"

"Egotistical?" Lutz prompted, ignoring Rolf's words. "Conceited?"

Rolf swallowed, caught unaware by the sudden shift in Lutz's attitude. "A little."

"Rolf, you are one of the most intelligent men I know," Lutz shook his head, "but on this, you are wholly naive. You have absolutely no idea why I do the things I do."

Folding his arms across his chest, again holding back frustration, Rolf said, "So tell me, then. Because as far as I can tell, you're secretive just to be secretive. And to be perfectly honest with you, it hurts, Lutz. I'd trust you with my life, and with the fate of this entire system which I've sworn to protect, and you don't even trust me with the knowledge that you've foreseen the name of my best friend's child."

Lutz shook and lowered his head. "I don't do this to hurt you, Rolf. I do it to protect you."

Blinking, Rolf watched as Lutz turned his back to him, and slowly stepped further across the small room. "During the last nine-plus centuries, I made many, many friends here in this mansion, during the short periods of time in which I was awake from cold sleep. And almost inevitably, there would come a time when one of my closest friends would ask me, 'Why?' They would ask, 'Why, Master Lutz, do you stay alive like this? You don't have to. If you want to live a normal life, free of the cold-sleep, you can stay awake. If Esper power is not restored to all of the residents of the mansion by the time you die, we can continue your work.'

"They never understood, you see? They never knew that as long as they were without powers, I had to stay alive to ensure that an Esper -- a real, with-powers Esper -- was alive come Space Century 352, at which time a beast from the deepest pits of hell would return to Algo in an attempt to eradicate all life from the system."

"You could have told them," Rolf pointed out.

"Yes, I could have," Lutz admitted, "but what would have been the point in that? I was already worried beyond belief that I would make the wrong choices, or that I wouldn't live up to the expectations I know Master Noah had for me when he gave me this job. Why spread that worry around? Why let the others worry about it, as well? No, I never revealed the fact that Dark Force was going to return, not until the day your birth parents were murdered by the devil's trap, to be perfectly honest with you. Because it was only then that I knew, with the God of Algo as my witness, that you would succeed in protecting the system. In protecting them."

So that was it. Rolf saw now that he had been mistaken. It wasn't any kind of arrogance that drove Lutz to his secrecy; it was affection. He cared so much for those around him that he chose to keep his burdens his own, sharing them with no one. It was incredibly admirable. It was an action that, on so many levels, truly defined who Lutz was.

But there was one thing he apparently did not understand.

"That's all well and good, Lutz," Rolf said. "That really exemplifies the care you possess for those around you, that you're willing to keep your own life filled with anxiety so that others might not have to. But you have to realize something. You're not alone anymore, because I'm here now."

Lutz turned back to face him, and Rolf continued. "This is a partnership now, Lutz: you and I. The fate of the entire system no longer rests on your shoulders alone. It's my responsibility now, too, and I hope you'll learn to understand that."

After letting the words sink in for a moment, Lutz slowly nodded. "I know," he finally admitted. "Old habits die hard, though. I've never truly opened up to anyone, not since... well, not for a long, long time. But I suppose you're right, and you deserve to know why the protection of Kyle is so important."

Once again, Rolf blinked. He had thought that the simple fact that Shir was nine months pregnant as well as the fact that, once born, Kyle would be a defenseless newborn were the only reasons necessary to insure both mother and child's protection. But there was something more...?

"You see, Rolf, Kyle... is me. Or at least, he will be."

Of all the things Lutz could have said at that point, Rolf guessed that never in a thousand years would he have seen those words coming. "What do you mean, he's you?"

"When Master Noah died," Lutz explained, "he told me that he had planned to place his memory and will into an enchanted object called the Telepathy Ball, so that even after his death, a future Esper would possess his knowle dge of Algo's history, so that the system will never be caught unaware by Dark Force's regular arrivals.

"However, Master Noah died before he could use the Telepathy Ball. When he asked me to take his place, he also asked me to start this tradition for him. And I have foreseen that after I am gone, the son of Lance and Shir Moonseer, Kyle, will be the one to use the Telepathy Ball and gain my knowledge."

"He'll... he'll be you," Rolf realized. "He'll be Lutz."

"So you understand the importance of his safety," Lutz nodded. "Should the mansion come under attack, so be it. It has been attacked before and it has survived. But under no circumstances should both Kyle and myself be here when the inevitable attack comes. He must be taken far away, back to Motavia."

Rolf straightened. "I understand. I'll tell the others right away, and we'll leave as soon as possible."

"You'll tell them you're returning to Motavia," Lutz said, "but you'll say not a word regarding Kyle's future."

His jaw dropping for just a moment, Rolf replied, "I thought we'd just discussed--"

"You and I are the guardians of the system, Rolf, and as such, I agree to share not just the duties but also the worries and concerns that come with the post with you, but I ask you, as a friend, to respect my wishes. Shir and Lance and Amy and all of the others are as much my friends as they are yours, and I will hold no secrets from them... but they will learn of Kyle's destiny at the appropriate time. And now is not that time."

A smile turned Rolf's lips. "Okay. As I said before, I trust you."

Lutz returned the smile. "And I, you, my friend. I always have, and I always will."

It was all Rolf ever wanted to hear Lutz say. He extended his hand out towards the master Esper and exchanged a firm handshake. Then, they both ascended up to the mansion's main entrance chamber, and off to their respecti ve preparations.

- - - - - - - - - -

We dare you!

The two boys had been no older than eleven, but to the six year-old Lassic, their relative maturity had made them the two wisest sages in all of Palma. At the time, he was, of course, wholly naive to the fact that the elder boys viewed him not as an equal, but as a lackey, a "fan club" that fed their delusions of adulthood. If older children and parents and teachers could boss them around all day, then at least in the afternoon they could go to the neighborhood and boss a round young Lassic.

And he had fallen right into the trap. As an only child, he'd always been desperate for playmates, and how wonderful that the two older boys considered him their friend! How ignorant, how callow, how stupid he had been.

We dare you!

It was after dinner one night, and he had been allowed back outside to play in the remaining minutes of daylight. The two elder boys laughed as the three of them strolled down the street, and Lassic laughed with them, completely unaware they were laughing at him. They'd sneaked around to the back of the funeral home, where one of the boys produced a small slab of metal. Crouching down to a basement window, and jamming the metal between the window and the frame, they'd pried open an entrance into the presently unoccupied establishment.

We dare you!

How could he have resisted? Any fear or hesitation that rose up in him was quickly squashed by the need for acceptance, by the need to prove that, like his two friends, he was a big boy, too. In his child's mind (in his child's ignorance), he was on equal terms with the elder children, though to resist this dare, this challenge to his maturity, would no doubt place that status at risk. Was there ever any doubt that he would accept the dare? No. Did the elder boys know this? Yes. Had they used it to their advantage, to get a hearty laugh out of the stupid younger kid? Most assuredly. Had Lassic realized any of this at the time? Not for a moment.

And so, he'd accepted the dare, and squeezed through the opened window, and dropped down into the basement of the building, and when he'd turned around to see what the boys wanted him to do next, he was just in time to see them slam the window closed. Then, already back on their feet, they ran away, their laughter proving they had no intention of returning.

"Let me out! Let me out!" Lassic had screamed, trying with all his might to jump back up to the window. Tears of panic started to well up in his eyes; his jumps didn't even bring him close to the window.

Though absolutely naive to the boys' true feelings towards him, Lassic was an extremely book-smart young lad. Turning to face the room he found himself in, he searched for another way out. He found it immediately -- there was a single door leading from the room. He ran to it, and grasped its handle, but it would not turn. Locked. Lassic tugged and pulled and tried to twist at the handle, but it was no use.

So it would have to be the window, the boy realized. Unable to reach it, however, he would need something he could drag to the window and then stand on. His eyes again taking in his surroundings, he again immediately found an answer. Three tables were lined up in the room, each covered with white sheets, and how lucky for Lassic, each had wheels at the end of their legs!

Relief washed over the panic-stricken boy as he started to realize that getting out might not be so hard after all. He ran to the side of the table closest to him, grasped it tightly, and tugged. Nothing happened. Though Lassic was intelligent, extremely so for a six year-old, in his frightened, anxious state, he never once thought that the wheels of the (stretcher) strange table might be locked into place.

And so he tugged again, with all his might, and brought the table and everything on it crashing down on top of him.

Weight plowed into the young boy, temporarily knocking the wind out of him. He recovered a moment later, but remained on the floor, flat on his back, taking a couple of deep breaths before opening his eyes to see what had happened. When he opened them, he flinched, for a face was right in his own, no more than an inch away.

Lassic stared into the face, blinked a few times, and then started to realize something was very wrong. It was the face of an old man, and his wrinkled skin was pigmented a light purple. At first Lassic thought it just a bruise, but then he realized the color was all over, and he started to realize other things, as well. The man's cheeks hung limp at his side, and though Lassic never understood why, he felt compelled to reach forward and touch one of those cheeks.

When he did so, he found that though the cheek looked soft and limp, it was in fact hard and brittle. And cold. And that's when Lassic realized the old man heaped on top of him was a corpse.

The young boy screamed in a state of fear previously unknown to him. As he suddenly realized that it wasn't just the face, but the entire body piled on top of him that was inhumanly cold, Lassic's body, too, went cold, almost numb, as he squirmed his way out from underneath the dead body. Pushing it away, at one point Lassic's hand fell on top of the old man's head, and a clump of dead white hair came away from the corpse in Lassic's hand. Lassic screamed even louder, dropped the clump immediately, and scurried backwards...

Where he crashed into another one of the stretchers, knocking another corpse to the floor. Lassic was able to move away in time to avoid being tackled again, but his eyes and his mind still saw the image of the dead woman's cold body falling to the cold floor of the funeral home, one of her dead arms flailing out to her side, the hand pointing towards Lassic.

Again, the young boy screamed and screamed, gripped with terror previously unknown to him. Backing away from the downed dead woman, however, made Lassic trip over the old man who had initially fallen on him, and Lassic fell backwards, crashing into the third stretcher and knocking it to the ground, as well. Lassic did not get a look at this third body as he fell backwards on top of it -- all he felt was its coldness underneath him, and he again screamed at the top of his lungs, backing away towards the room's one door.

Reaching the door, Lassic again attempted to twist its handle, and when that again proved fruitless, he took to banging on it with both fists, screaming all the while. "Let me out!" he bellowed, his voice powered by his deep sobs, as tears streaked down his cheeks. "Let me out!"

His mind gripped by absolute and total terror, Lassic continued to pound at the door and scream at the top of his lungs, until his voice gave out, allowing him to emit nothing but sobs. Slowly, he seemed to calm, as he fell to his knees, sobbing. He turned around and sat on the floor, his back against the door, and his face buried in his hands, his strained and cracked voice softly pleading for someone to let him out.

And then he raised his head and opened his eyes and looked upon the scene he had accidentally created.

All three corpses lay sprawled out on the floor, one or both arms of each dead body sprawled out before them. The legs of each corpse had fallen at odd angles, and the sheets that had covered the bodies on the stretchers now only partially covered them on the floor.

To a scared six year-old boy, it looked for all the world like the corpses were crawling towards him.

The terror Lassic previously had experienced during the ordeal was simply nothing compared to the terror that overtook him in that moment. No longer was Lassic's mind a cacophony of fear and desperation, struggling for a way out of the room the elder boys had deliberately trapped him inside. Now, Lassic's mind, his entire world, was simply a world of sheer hell, in reaction to the unspeakably terrifying site before him. The young boy screamed and screamed. No one, no one at all, was around to hear him, but yet the young boy responded to the indescribable horror by screaming, and screaming, and screaming...

King Lassic shot up to a sitting position in his bed and opened his mouth and screamed, the cry echoing back and forth off the walls of his chambers. His face and hair were damp with sweat, the collar of his tunic absolutely drenched. His breaths short, Lassic simply stared across his room, his eyes wide open, shaking off the effects of the (memory) dream.

Swinging his legs around and planting his feet beside his bed, Lassic closed his eyes and consoled himself. When he had not come home after dusk, his parents had searched for him. Naturally, they had first gone to the two elder friends of Lassic, but unwilling to testify on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves, they pled ignorance as to Lassic's whereabouts. It wasn't until morning that Lassic had been discovered by the funeral home's mortician, and rescued by his father. The entire night. He had been forced to spend the entire night with his terror. And every single moment of that night would forever remain cemented in Lassic's mind.

Which was certainly a bad thing for Lassic's two good, caring friends. As the king stood and donned his dark armor, a slight smile played across his lips. He fondly remembered stepping back into his home village of Bortevo, showing all of Palma his new set of armor for the very first time. He cherished the memory of his robotcops dragging the two boys -- now, the two men -- before the Algo Star System's king, along with their families. Both had wives and children. One even had grandchildren. And as he allowed his 'cops to have their way with the men's wives and daughters, as he beat the life slowly out of the two former eleven year-olds, and as he forced them to watch as he personally exterminated their families, he made sure the two knew exactly why all of this was happening to them.

And before he'd killed them, he'd offered them the chance to hold their wives' bodies in their arms one last time. In fact, his exact words to them had been, "Go ahead. I dare you."

Then, he killed the men, and ordered his 'cops to raze the village.

As Lassic placed his helmet atop his head, he took a series of deep breaths and pushed aside all memories of and related to the incident, both the bad (such as the incident itself) and the good (such as the retribution inflicted upon the guilty). He had to remain focused on the task at hand, and as such, he grabbed his scepter and strode from his chambers back towards his throne room.

He had an Esper massacre to oversee.

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