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Chapter Fourteen

Shir leaned her head to the side against the soft pillows on her bed and released a long breath. "Did you want to hold him again?" Lance asked.

"No, that's okay," she said, turning her head back to smile at her husband and watch him cradle their newborn son in his arms. Kyle Moonseer -- his tiny head bald except for a few wisps of sea green hair -- looked up at his father with wide eyes, his mouth alternately opening and closing, as if trying to make sense of this strange place he suddenly found himself in.

"Hon, I want to share something with you," Lance told his wife. "I'm not even quite sure I have the strength to do this yet, but... I'll try."

She felt a gentle probing at her mind and opened it to let her husband inside. "We've linked minds before," she reminded her husband. "I'm the one without much strength, my dea--" Her words fell short as over the mental link, she suddenly felt a second mind. It was that of her son. Kyle.

"Lance..." she whispered. She didn't know much of what she was supposed to be sensing, but she couldn't pick up any thoughts. All she could read in her son's mind were emotions: happiness, wonder, love. "What's he thinking, Lance?" she asked her husband. "All I can read are feelings."

Her husband flashed her the smile she'd fallen in love with. "That's because that's all that's there," he grinned. "He's not yet weighted down by our adult concerns, our cacophony of thoughts. He's not even concerned yet about where his toys are. I wanted you to feel this, golden girl, because pretty soon he'll be hungry, or he'll be wet, and this... this purity will be gone. At least for a bit. But one day..."

Shir understood. Reaching over, she placed a hand on her husband's leg, then simply closed her eyes and felt the love that drifted from her two men towards her, and from her to them. "I can't wait to go back to Dezo and introduce him to his grandparents," she smiled.

Next to her, Lance cleared his throat. Perhaps forgetting he still had the mental link open, before he'd even said the thought, Shir's eyes were open, and she was sitting up in her bed.

"Absolutely not," she replied out loud.

"What?" Lance asked her. "I didn't--"

"I don't understand everything about your Esper abilities, not by a long shot, but I suddenly had a vision of my parents in my head, and it came from you, Lance. I know what you were thinking, and the answer is no. No, no, no."

"We're here in Paseo," he pointed out. "We're never going to get back here much, if at all. This could be their only opportunity..."

Shir bit her tongue. She did not want to argue with him, especially in front of their newborn. She took a deep breath and continued, but she kept her voice low and civil. "Lance, I don't want anything to do with them. And I don't want them to have anything to do with Kyle. You didn't grow up with them, Lance. You can't know what that was like. They never laid a hand on me, but if they had, it probably would have hurt less than some of the things they said."

"If you want an android daughter, mother, then ask Mother Brain to make you one!"

"I would, but I don't know how I'd live with myself if I ended up with another ungrateful brat!"

"I know," Lance whispered.

"They didn't want me, Lance. They wanted their idea of the perfect little socialite princess. And I will never forgive that... that rejection."

She closed her eyes tight, swallowed hard. She swore long ago she wouldn't shed any more tears over her parents. She hadn't broken that pledge yet, and she wasn't about to now, either, no matter how out of whack her emotions were due to the day. "My parents are out of my life, Lance, and all three of us are no doubt happier for it. They will never, never be a part of Kyle's life."

"All right," Lance reassured her. "Case closed. I'm sorry I brought it up."

Looking straight into her son's eyes, she smiled. You're perfect to me just the way you are, Kyle. I'll always love you, no matter who or what you want to be.

At that moment -- as if in response? -- Kyle Moonseer looked at his mother and smiled for the first time.

- - - - - - - - - -

"This was the office of the leader of the greenies, wasn't it?" Xarxas asked. "The big flame, so to speak."

Xanon turned his masked head, saw his brother looking around the ruins of the room. "Yes," he answered. He looked back out the non-existent wall, where a large window overlooking much of Dezo had once been. "The city was destroyed during the civil wars, and obviously, even this high office wasn't spared from fighting.

"Obviously," Xarxas agreed, kicking one of the half-decomposed Dezorian corpses in the room, and looking at the firebomb damage that lined the walls that were still intact.

"It is ready," their brother Xerik announced, standing from where he was fine-tuning the EX-17 energy disrupter.

It had been placed on a tripod in the middle of what had been the top floor and office of the President's Building in Aukba. Xanon was correct; the civil wars that had plagued Dezoris following the defeat of Pai'tekkan D'zkot were brutal and far-reaching. The entire capital city of Aukba was now nothing but an abandoned ruin, and this office -- the highest man-made point on Dezoris -- was no different. During the constant shifts of power, one faction leader had managed to occupy the high office until his enemies stormed the building, sending suicide bombers straight to this room.

The three and a half walls the room had left were barely enough to contain the harsh Dezorian atmosphere outside. Wind and snow whipped through the room, tugging and pulling at the Xe-A-Thouls' robes. However, the demonic creatures felt no cold, and instead gathered together behind the EX-17.

As Xanon and Xarxas stood in place, they saw their brother had aimed the weapon squarely at the distant Esper Mansion energy barrier, its brilliant blue visible even from this high vantage point. Xerik activated the weapon. A whine developed from inside the weapon, building in pitch until it had gone past the spectrum of Palman hearing, and then the weapon's barrel shot forth a wave of crackling blue energy, shooting across the Dezorian sky, pointing towards -- but not reaching -- Esper Mansion.

Without a word and in perfect unison, the three Xe-A-Thouls then raised their bony hands, fleshless palms upward, and added their own power to that of the technological device. The surge of power whipped across all three of their bodies, then surged forward, enveloping the EX-17. The energy disrupter's beam widened in size and glowed a brighter blue in response, and with an extra push from the Xe-A-Thouls, the beam stretched father across Dezoris, slamming into the barrier protecting Esper Mansion. The Espers' shield, however, held true.

Their faces straining under their masks, the Xe-A-Thoul brothers donated every ounce of dark power they had to the energy disruption beam. Again and again, with each new surge of power, their beam slammed into the Espers' shield, which buckled, but did not break.

Xanon then pulled the Laconian Axe from the strap that held it to his back and raised it high over his head. He extended his arms as far as they would, and slowly lowered the axe. The blade was on a trajectory not to hit the EX-17, but to cut firmly across the disrupter beam the EX-17 continued to produce.

Again, without a word, all three brothers unleashed their entire magic potential into the EX-17 as Xanon lowered the Laconian Axe's blade squarely into the center of the disrupter beam. Instantly, the blue of the disrupter beam exploded into a bright magnesium white, the air in the room roared as if filled with thunder and lightning, and a comet-streak surged across the sky and crashed into the Esper Mansion energy barrier.

The shield Noah had created almost one thousand years before as a compliment to the Crevice, to keep teleportational-equipped invaders from the Alplatin Plateau, was gone a second later. The magnesium-white disrupter beam slammed into the blue force field, creating a series of "cracks" all around it before it simply popped, scattering across the Alplatin like small flakes of gently falling blue snow.

Xerik powered down the EX-17 without setting a finger on it. Xanon triumphantly returned the Laconian Axe to its holster on his back. Xarxas ran forward, towards the edge of the building, for a closer look. "It's down!" he proclaimed. "It's down!"

"Remember," Xanon warned him, swirling black portals appearing before each one of them, "we get the sword and the prism first."

"And then we kill them all!" Xarxas agreed. He stepped forward into his own portal, like his brothers, and on the other side, they all stepped in a small, dark room with thick stone walls. The only light in the room appeared to be from candles, but it was enough for them to see the altar at the end of the room, lined with plush velvet and indented as if to store a sword. Elsydeon.

It was enough for them to see peculiar platform, the center of which looked perfect for storing the crystal rock of the Aero-Prism.

It was enough for them to see the room was completely empty.

"Where are they?" Xanon asked quietly. "We all teleported to these coordinates on our own, did we not? We were created with the knowledge that this is where the unholy objects would be found, and this is, indeed, that place, is it not?"

"It is..." Xerik agreed. "It must be. But... but..."

"They're gone!" Xarxas roared, his bony hands igniting in spontaneous blasts of flame. He almost uttered the words aloud, the words he knew both of his brothers were thinking, as well -- They've outsmarted us! -- but instead of vocalizing their defeat, he instead simply put his hands before him and exploded in rage, screaming wordlessly as he ignited the ornate wooden altar that was supposed to house Elsydeon into an instant pyre of flame.

It was then that the voice behind them said, "Hello there. Welcome to my home."

- - - - - - - - - -

Lutz grinned. "Tell me, how is the weather in hell these days?"

The three robed and masked demons then turned to face him, slowly, with the flame from the burning altar forming their backdrop. He brought his staff before him and locked his eyes on each of the demons' masks in turn. "I am Lutz," he introduced himself.

"We know who you are," the one in the center -- the one who had the Laconian Axe strapped to his back, the leader? -- said to him, his voice as hollow as that of his brothers. "As you must surely know the pain that you are about to experience."

"Why, you seem rather upset," Lutz chided him. "What, is my home not what you expected?"

"Where are they?" the leader asked him again. They were all three moving towards him now, slowly.

Lutz shook his head. "My apologies," he mock bowed. "What kind of host am I? You refer, of course, to refreshments."

"We are not amused," said the one on Lutz's right, the one who had set fire to the altar.

Lutz turned his staff to face him. "Stand where you are," he commanded the demon.

The demon threw its head back, barked out a laugh. "Or what?"

Soon, he would be outnumbered. Lutz knew this. But for now, it was three-on-three. The three demons versus him, his power... and the element of surprise.

Lutz called down a blast of Thunder. It struck the head of his staff, then turned and slammed into the chest of the firestarting demon, knocking him backwards across the small room. He turned, then, to face the other two, but the brothers seemed to work in unison, for as the leader was preparing an attack, and as Lutz was preparing to block it, the third demon opened his bony hand and Lutz's staff flew from his hands and into those of the demon.

The leader was then upon him, wrapping one of his cold, bony hands -- which, God help him, contained more physical strength than Lutz guessed he had in his entire body! -- around his throat and raising him into the air, before slamming him hard against the stone wall of Elsydeon's Room.

Unable to breathe, instead of using his hands to pull at the one the demon had wrapped around his throat, which he knew would be futile, Lutz placed both his hands directly on the mask that covered the demon's face. If he had been able to breathe, Lutz guessed he might have wretched right then and there at what he felt under that mask. Sparing no time, Lutz then leaned his head as far back as it would go and threw the most powerful blast of Fire he could manage directly into the demon's face.

His entire head a bonfire, the demon roared in agony and dropped Lutz, scurrying across the room, delirious in pain and anger. By this time, the firestarter demon was getting back to his feet, recovering from the Thunder he had taken, and Lutz knew he was running out of time. Landing on the floor in a heap, Lutz glanced towards the third demon, the one that held his staff, and cast Fly.

In less than the blink of an eye, he was standing before the third demon. He yanked his staff from the startled third demon's hands and spun on his heels to face the firestarter, who was even now charging towards him. Calling down another blast of Thunder, Lutz turned the blast bi-directional, sending half of it behind him to attack the third demon, and the other half of it ahead of him, where the firestarter was again knocked off his feet by the blow.

Spinning back around, Lutz prepared another blast of Thunder. This time, with his close range to the third demon, he was sure it would be a killing blow. He raised his staff--

And then dropped it as a surge of power flood through his body. With his back turned, he had not seen that the third demon had cast a Deban spell that had protected it from Lutz's blast of Thunder. Uninjured, the demon was waiting for Lutz as he turned. Lutz could see no visible attack coming from the demon, but even still, his body felt instantly weaker, and his movement became sluggish.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the firestarter stand up, open his right hand, and call the Laconian Axe from where it rested on the back of the leader demon, whose head was no longer on fire but was still immersed in a cloud of smoke. Still feeling sluggish, and unsure of what was going on, the demon charged him, swung the handle of the axe low into the backs of his knees, knocking him off his feet and flat onto his back.

With the axe-armed demon standing above him, Lutz could not move in time as the demon dropped one of its heavy boots on his chest. He crouched low, right on top of Lutz, and rested the axe against the floor, one side of its blade against the side of his neck. He turned the blade slightly, ripping a patch of skin from Lutz's neck and producing an instant trickle of blood.

Glancing to the side, Lutz saw the third demon was also staring straight at him, one hand outstretched towards him. That's when Lutz realized what had been done to him. He tried to Fly, tried to Wind, Thunder, anything. Nothing worked. The third demon was, somehow, restraining his magic.

The demon on top of him lowered his mask-covered face until it was just inches from Lutz's. Even through the mask, the stench of the demon was repugnant. "Listen to me and listen well, Esper," the demon hissed, using his people's name like a curse. "I will separate your head from your body, I will decapitate you with your own precious axe, this very instant, if you do not tell me where we can find the sword and the prism. Now!"

Lutz did not blink as he said, "I would rather spend eternity with the three of you in hell than give you so much as a clue as to where you will find the prism and the sacred sword!"

The demon spun the handle of the axe in his hands until the blade was resting along the top of Lutz's forehead, directly in line with his nose and the center of his face. "I will split your head like a fruit!" the demon roared at him in insolent rage. "Tell me now!"

"Is your hearing as vile as your stench, demon?" Lutz screamed back. "I... will... never... tell... you!"

"Xarxas, release him," the voice of the leader said. The firestarter demon -- Xarxas? -- turned his head to see the leader of the demons stand, his back to the others in the room. The top of his red robes was now charred black, the fabric of his mask now little more than ash. He ripped the mask from his head, threw it across the room into the fire of the Elsydeon altar, where it instantly disintegrated into dust.

Lutz swallowed hard. The back of the demon's head was shaped like that of a bare skull, yet in the firelight of the room, it appeared to be made of flesh -- sickeningly diseased, pus yellow flesh, that was.

Did I do that to him, with the Fire? Lutz wondered. Or is that... what they really look like?

Before Lutz could get any kind of closer look, the demon used his bony hands to grab hold of the reddish-purple fabric of his robes around his neck, and then in one fluid motion, he stretched the fabric over his head and down across his face. When he turned back to face Lutz, his mask -- with its stripe of yellow across his eyes and its gray-white symbol across his face, was once again intact.

"Release him," the leader repeated. "He won't tell us where the sword is."

"He will!" Xarxas roared, standing and releasing Lutz anyway, and storming towards his leader. "He will tell us or he'll die!"

"He won't tell us," the leader once again said. He then turned his attention back to Lutz, staring him straight in the eye. "He'll tell him where they are."

The leader outstretched his hand and another black portal like the ones they arrived through appeared. Xarxas turned to look back at Lutz, and even though he wore a mask, Lutz just knew the demon was grinning. He handed the Laconian Axe back to the leader, marched back to Lutz, grabbed a handful of his long, sky blue hair, and yanked him to his feet.

Lutz swallowed hard. If these demons' creator was who Lutz thought it was, if the being that had returned to Algo was who Lutz thought it was, then the demons were about to take Lutz before Dark Force itself.

May the system prevail, he repeated his silent prayer.

- - - - - - - - - -

"He's in danger... he's in danger," Rolf continued to mutter under his breath. He had regained his strength, and was now walking on his own, but behind him, Rudo and Amy could barely keep up.

"Rolf, slow down, wait!" Rudo called to his friend. "Rolf, let Amy take a look at you!"

Amy ran behind, a medscanner in her hand. "Rolf, you are absolutely off the scale," she told him. "Rolf, you need to stop and slow down. Rolf, you're going to give yourself a heart attack!"

They both knew he was heading for the elevator at the end of the hall. Rudo grabbed his radio. "Anna, I need you and the others to wait by the elevator. No time to explain, just keep Rolf from leaving."

"No!" Rolf shouted, turning on his heels and shouting at his friend. "No, I have to go! Lutz is in danger!"

Amy took a step towards Rolf. "Rolf, please, listen to me: your heart rate, your brainwaves, your blood pressure... it's like you're a boiling pot ready to expl--"

She did a good job of keeping her mind on other things, Rolf would grant her that. But Amy just wasn't good at deception. He lashed out and seized her wrist before she could administer the sedative. "Amy, I appreciate your concern for my well-being but there is nothing wrong with me. It's Lutz. Lutz is the one in danger!"

"Fine, we'll all go to Lutz," Amy tried to reason with him, "but first, Rolf, I need to give you this sedative so we can all talk about this rationally."

A fresh wave of the danger sense poured into Rolf's mind.

"No time!" he shouted, right in the middle of the hospital hallway. "Let me go! Lutz is in danger!"

"Rolf!" Amy cried out again, but ending the tug-o-war, Rudo reached over and plucked the dosage device from Amy and Rolf's entangled hands.

"Amy, you know him almost as well as I do," Rudo told the stunned doctor, dropping the medicine into a pocket of her lab coat. "We're not going to stop him from this."

Rolf nodded quickly, then he was already off back down the hallway, running now towards the elevator.

"If you're going to let him go," Amy told Rudo, "then I'm coming with you."

"Fair enough."

With that, they then both ran down the hall after Rolf. When they caught up with him, Rolf was just stepping into the elevator. "Are you going to stop me, or help me?" Rolf asked.

"Whatever you need," Rudo answered, "just name it."

Rolf swallowed. The sense of danger, the pain... "We need to get to Nurvus," Rolf answered. "We need to get to Nurvus, aboard the Landale, and back to Dezo, right away."

Rudo got back on his radio as the elevator started to descend. Amy brought her medscanner back out, and continued to monitor Rolf's vital signs. Rolf closed his eyes, leaned back against the elevator wall, but his breathing did not slow, could not slow. For what he wasn't telling Amy or Rudo or anyone else -- what he didn't want to believe himself -- was that he wasn't just sensing that Lutz was in danger, and in pain.

He was sensing that no matter what he did, no matter how fast he did it... it wasn't going to be enough.

- - - - - - - - - -

For a moment, Lutz thought the demons' portal hadn't taken him anywhere at all. He fell from the portal and landed flat on his face, but the stone floor underneath him was of the same old Palman style of architecture as the hidden tunnels beneath Esper Mansion. But as he raised his head to look at his surroundings, he saw the room he was in now was much wider, much longer than Elsydeon's Room.

The lighting was about the same -- Elsydeon's Room had been lit only by candles and the flaming mass of the altar. Here, a row of torches lined each wall of the room, which at first, Lutz thought was completely empty save the torches... until his eyes landed on a set of stairs at the far end of the room.

The stairs raised to a dais, and a blood red carpet went up the center of those stairs to an ornate gold throne. There were two torches on poles here at the top of the dais, and the light from this flame bounced off of the metal helmet and armor worn by the man sitting in the throne.

A flowing cape -- its outside blue, its interior the same blood red as the carpet -- hung from the gold that covered the man's shoulders. As he stood from the throne, he brought a scepter into his hands, and he stepped to the edge of the dais and looked down at Lutz, but he did not descend the stairs.

Lutz knew immediately who the man was. God help all of Algo, he knew exactly who it was.

He slowly climbed back to his feet as the red-robed demons entered the room through their portals and took position behind him. His blue eyes were wide open, staring directly into the red eyes of the man on the throne. It was like looking upon pure evil.

"By all that is holy," Lutz whispered, "you have returned." He paused, swallowed down bile. "Lashiec."

"Lutz, I presume," the man-disguised demon responded, still standing at the top of the dais. "Actually, the name is Lassic. King Lassic, king of the entire Algol Star System. Once, now, and forever."

Lutz's jaw quivered, his teeth clenching in rage. He had only been a few months old when Lassic's tyrannical grip on Algo had been ended by the soon-to-be Queen Alis Landale, Myau, Odin, and his teacher, Master Noah, but Noah had insured that despite their horrific nature, every Esper in Esper Mansion had been educated in the crimes committed by this hellspawn man. "We must never forget what he did," Noah had told him and the other young children his age, over and over. "Because we must never let it happen again."

And now here he was, Master Noah's ultimate nightmare come true. Lassic was back, and no doubt would he attempt to commit his crimes again. He had been behind the attack on Hugh, the slaughtered Musk Cat, the theft of the axe at Myst Vale. He was the one the voices of Elsydeon had tried to warn him about. He, through his lieutenant demons, had been the one to invade Esper Mansion in search of the Aero-Prism and the sacred sword.

Lutz knew exactly what he had to do.

Assassinate the bastard.

With a complete loss of composure most unlike him, Lutz bellowed and charged the dais. Bringing forth all the strength he could muster, he raised his hands forward in an attempted Wind spell, but the demons still restrained his magic, and no attack could be produced. I will have to simply tear out his throat, then... Lutz told himself, continuing to charge the dais.

He had almost set foot on the stairs when he was grabbed from behind by two of the red-robed demons and physically restrained, still bellowing at the monster above him on the throne.

"Your king has returned after a thousand year absence!" Lassic shouted at him. "Show the proper respect!"

"You monster!" Lutz yelled at him. "Monster! Only a man can be king of Algo, not a devil like yourself!"

"I know your kind well," Lassic shook his head. "I once followed your religion, until my eyes were opened. Who are you to pass judgment on me? What right do you have to throw stones?"

"Who am I--?" Lutz asked incredulously. "You slaughtered innocents! You handed down rulings that wiped out entire towns! You killed the people of Drasgow!"

"That was self-defense," Lassic pointed a finger at him, stepped onto the first stair of his dais. "There were rebels in that town plotting against me--"

"If there were then they were doing the Lord's work to put an end to your terror, but you closed the shipping lanes and let the entire town starve to death! You let women and children starve to death!"

"Drasgow was a town of criminals," Lassic responded, "that got exactly what they deserved."

"Butcher of Bortevo!" Lutz shouted, his rage building and building as he fought against the inhuman strength of the red-robed demons. "You razed Bortevo, and for what? For what?"

Lassic again pointed squarely at Lutz. "Bortevo was the most evil city to ever stand!"

"What?!" Lutz asked, incredulous. "You're saying the old men, the children, the babies you killed in that town were evil?"

"I grew up in that wretched town," Lassic explained, "and my turning it into a junk pile was the best thing that ever happened to it!"

"The people's screams could be heard for miles!"

"And they were screaming in happiness!" Lassic fired back. "Saying, 'Thank you, my king! Thank you for returning home and freeing us, thank you for sending us to our blessed graves!'"

"You are mad!" Lutz roared. "You are mad, sick, and demonic!"

"Don't you impose your morality on me. Your rebellious lies will not be tolerated in my kingdom. I've executed other criminals for lesser crimes than that. Your views and interpretations of the things I have done are so far out there, I must ask you how it is up there on the space satellite."

"Use whatever last defense mechanism you must," Lutz rebuked, "but it won't change the truth that every last person you executed was an innocent!"

"I grow tired of this debate," Lassic snapped. "I will not debate someone who has a view twisted so far from reality as to be unrecognizable."

He's insane, Lutz realized. He is thoroughly and completely insane.

"Xe-A-Thouls, why have you brought this trash before me? And where is the sword and the prism?"

Lutz grinned. "He has removed them from the mansion," the leader Xe-A-Thoul said. "And he refuses to tell us where they are."

"We thought you might enjoy giving him a personal demonstration, your majesty," Xarxas added, "of what happens to those who do not bow before the power of King Lassic."

"They are superb, are they not, Lutz?" Lassic asked him. "Xanon, Xarxas, and Xerik, my Xe-A-Thouls. Metzi de le rei. They couldn't get you to talk, eh, student of Noah?"

"They can't, nor will you," Lutz proudly proclaimed. "I would rather die before helping you at all, fiend."

Lassic laughed, a deep chuckle. He waved his hand, and the Xe-A-Thouls who held Lutz let him go, the three of them stepping aside towards the edge of the room. "I have learned that every man has a breaking point, Lutz. In the end, it is the self, I, that motivates every individual. And there is a factor that can determine for each man exactly where his point is. That factor is pain."

He could ramble all he wanted, but he had made a significant mistake by having his Xe-A-Thouls release him. For the good of Algo, Lassic was going to die, and the minute he forgot that Lutz felt that way was the minute the old man would fall. Lutz placed one foot on the bottom stair of the dais, looked up... and that's when he saw her for the first time.

Almost as if he had activated an alarm system by touching the stair, a low hissss cut across the throne room. He thought it was merely a shadow at first, and then he realized the mass of black he saw was hair, a woman's hair, and when he saw the creature's face... he knew he was looking upon the weapon that had been created to combat Rolf.

The demonic Nei crawled on all fours to the edge of the dais, kept her knees and feet there and stretched out with her body, "walking" her hands down one stair, then another. "Your first teacher may have been Noah, but your last teacher will be Neithird," Lassic told him. "Neithird is going to teach you about my favorite subject, Lutz. She is going to teach you about pain.

"She will teach you things you have never so much as dreamed of before..."

Lutz took a step backward. In response, Neithird climbed down another stair. He stepped backwards again, and she matched the move. He took three quick steps backwards.

Neithird pounced.

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf -- trailed by Rudo, Amy, Anna, and Kain, all trying to keep up with him -- stormed out the front door of Paseo Memorial Hospital. Rudo clicked off his radio. "I have transport on the way to take us to Nurvus, Rolf," he announced. "It will be here in two minutes."

"We'll be there by then," Rolf told them, spinning around to face them and then casting a Ryuka technique.

In seconds, they were no longer in the middle of Paseo but instead in the middle of the prairie that housed Nurvus.

Rolf started running for the power station, in which waited Tyler and the Landale. The others struggled to keep up with him.

- - - - - - - - - -

Lutz tried to take in a breath of air and instead coughed up another wad of blood. He looked down -- with his one remaining eye -- at the floor underneath where he had been pinned to the wall. The gray stone of the floor was a deep red, and he knew that the canvas was a work of Neithird art for which he had supplied the "paint."

Searching the room for her, he saw her crouching a few feet away from him, her back to him. She was obviously licking his blood off of her fingers. As if sensing that he was watching her, she spun her head around to face him, hissed in rage, and charged at him again.

He braced himself, but once again, she drove her claws through his right thigh, while she attacked his knee and lower leg with her mouth, lacerating the flesh and tearing off chunks of tissue with her teeth before spitting them behind her head. Lutz was certain that if he survived this -- and of that, he was by no means certain -- that Amy would have to amputate the leg. But he knew that Amy would not be the one to take it from him. It would be taken from him by Neithird, just as she had gouged out his eye. Just as she had cut off his left hand. And bitten the fingers off the right one by one.

She had used her claws to cut torches down from the poles they were mounted on the wall with, then she used those cut, jagged poles as spears, driving them through his shoulders and pinning him to the wall.

She had sliced her claws across his head, cutting off part of his scalp and throwing the long sky blue hair attached to it over her shoulder like a trophy.

She had stabbed and slashed him so much in the abdomen -- then jammed a lit torch into him to cauterize the wounds -- that he didn't know how he'd ever eat again. If, of course, he survived this.

But he'd never screamed. Not once.

And he didn't need his telepathic powers to tell him that was making Lassic very, very angry.

"Enough," Lassic called out, descending down his dais. He called Neithird off, and she reluctantly gave up the piece of leg she had been chewing on. As Lassic approached, so, too, did the Xe-A-Thouls, forming a sort of honor guard behind him. The demon king stood just a foot before him, in a puddle of his blood, and snickered.

"You've never known this kind of pain before, have you?" he demanded to know. "What you have gone through here is... Just look at you! You don't even look human anymore!

Lutz spoke, though to him, his voice sounded funny, with the gaping hole in his cheek. "I still look better than you, old man."

The words were definitely an insult to Lassic, and he took a step closer to Lutz. "I have enjoyed listening to you scream in agony, but it's time for you to scream some--"

"No, you haven't," Lutz interrupted him, "because I haven't screamed."

"You... you've been tortured, you..."

"But I won't give you the pleasure," Lutz managed a smile. "I won't give you anything, you sick, twisted old man."

"Stop that!"

"Oh, of course," Lutz nodded. "You can't be old. Because you're dead."

"I live!" Lassic roared.

"You're dead because Alis Landale and her friends killed you!"

"Where is the Aero-Prism?"

"I'll never tell you, don't you get that, you bastard? What more could you possibly do to me to make me tell?"

"Where is it?"

"You've been defeated, Lassic. You might as well return to your grave."

Enraged, Lassic reached forward and grabbed him, ripping his flesh from the poles that pinned him to the wall, severely lacerating his shoulders and causing his arms to fall limply at his sides. "Where are they?" he roared, grabbing him by his blood-soaked lapels and shaking him. "Where is the prism? Where is the sword?"

Something he'd heard Joshua once say came to mind. "Try looking... up... your..."

"I have broken you!" Lassic screamed at him, as if saying it aloud could make true what so obviously was not. "All bow before the power of Lassic! All!"

Lutz spit a wad of blood on Lassic's face.

"Where is Elsydeon?" Lassic roared.

With his one remaining eye, Lutz looked at him squarely and said, "I don't know. But I'll be there soon."

Lutz's vision was blurred red from blood, but at that moment, he knew Lassic saw more red than even he did. The king roared, his temples bulging, and he pulled Lutz forward, driving the pointed end of his scepter straight through his chest.

He coughed another blast of blood into the king's face as the scepter pierced his heart. His vision went black.

"My prayer... God..." he muttered. Then he felt Lassic pull the scepter from his chest. He fell forward, but he was gone before his body struck the floor.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Dispose of him!" Lassic roared, storming away from Lutz's body back towards his throne. "Get him out of my throne room! Get him out of my sight!"

Xanon turned to Xerik, "Leave him right where we found him, where the sword and the prism should have been. Then return here where we will await further orders." Xerik nodded, picked up the body, and disappeared into a teleportal.

"I made a mistake with that worm," Lassic told the Xe-A-Thouls. "I underestimated just how damned twisted these so-called Protectors are. They think not of themselves, but of others, basing their own self-worth on how many other lives they can benefit. How pitiful."

"Perhaps we should make contact with our creator, your majesty, across the dimensional seal," Xanon suggested. "Only our creator is powerful enough to sense the whereabouts of the sword and the prism. Perhaps--"

"No!" Lassic roared, spinning on his heels. "This mission was given to me, and we do not need to go crawling back as if defeated. Far from it, we are winning this battle, and victory is within our grasp. Isn't it obvious where the sword is, Xanon? Isn't it?"

Xanon tilted his head. Then his brother spoke. "Rolf," Xarxas answered. "Rolf must have the sword."

"Exactly," Lassic nodded. "The sword is too important to them to hide somewhere unguarded. Of course Rolf has the sword. Where is he now?"

Closing his eyes, Xanon searched. "Somewhere on Motavia. He senses Lutz is in danger and is preparing to leave for Dezoris."

"Perfect," Lassic grinned. "Let him go to Dezoris and discover what we have done. He'll return to Motavia to rejoin his friends. When he does, that is when we will attack. With Rolf watching, we will kill his friends one by one until he gives us the sword."

"And then we kill Rolf?" Xarxas asked.

"Kill them allll!" Neithird hissed.

"Yes," Lassic nodded, smiling. "Then we kill Rolf, and then we conquer Algo."

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf stormed into the hangar bay where Tyler was working on the Landale and Byren was working on Wren. "What's going on?" Tyler asked, dropping his tools and bypassing all formalities.

"We need to leave for Dezo, now!" Rolf replied. The danger signal was building to a fever pitch. The danger was imminent! They had to move, and move now, now, now!

"We can't," Tyler responded, "at least not in the Landale. I'm still trying to put her back together after that tussle we had in the asteroid field."

"She'll have to do as is," Rolf countered. "Tyler, we have to leave now!"

"We can't!" the space pirate repeated. "Rolf, I have an entire engine taken apart! It will take at least an hour before we can even hover, let alone break orbit!"

"I have to get to Dezo!" Rolf shouted. The signal in his brain was building to a crescendo, it felt like his mind was about to blow, and then--

...

Rolf screamed.

He fell to his knees, clutching his head, and screamed again. Still on his knees, his entire body dropped to the floor. His chest shook with sobs, and he reached out with his mind as far as it would go, but he could sense nothing.

Ever since the day twelve years ago when Lutz had saved him from the space ship crash that had killed his parents, Rolf had shared a mental link with the Esper. And he had just felt that link sever.

Amy was on the floor next to Rolf immediately, looking him over with her medscanner. "His vital signs are lowering," she told the others. "And his brainwave activity has gone back to normal almost instantly." She placed a hand on Rolf's back. "Rolf, what's happened? What's this all about, Rolf?"

Rolf sat up, tears streaking down his face. "Lutz was... he was in danger," he said. "But it's too late now." He turned to Amy. "Lutz is dead."

"N... no," Amy whispered, shaking her head. "No."

Rolf closed his eyes against the tears and nodded. He was sure.

As if as a doctor it was the only medicine she could provide at that moment, Amy reached out and pulled Rolf into her arms.

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