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Chapter Eighteen

As Neithird dived downward from the ceiling of the Desan temple, Rudo -- the only one present who had spotted her -- didn't have much time to warn the others. All he could do, really, was call out the name of the monster's target.

"Lance!"

The Esper looked to Rudo, saw the Commander point upwards. Looking up, Shir's husband's green eyes then saw the black-haired abomination. All he could do, though, before she was upon him, was to push his wife and child out of the way.

Then, Neithird had reached him. She placed her right hand on the back of Lance's head, and as her feet touched down on the floor of the Desan temple, she brought her hand down, as well, falling into a crouch in order to bring her hand (and Lance's head) lower, until she had smashed Lance's face hard into the first marble step leading into the center of the temple. Shir's husband grunted once then fell still. Almost immediately after that, the Esper's son started crying loudly.

Rudo raised his PDC while across the room Sawa raised his laser rifle. Immediately, Neithird leaped into the air and tilted her head backwards, spinning her body around in a back flip. Both Rudo and Sawa traced her through the air with fire from their weapons, but soon, they were forced to cease their fire. Neithird landed... right in front of Shir and Kyle.

Shir tried to move away from the genetic monster -- the monster that, save for hair and eye color, was a dead ringer for Nei -- but anytime she moved, Neithird matched her steps. Lassic's creature kept her back to Shir, though, and her eyes focused on Rudo, Sawa, and Amy, daring any of them to fire... with Kyle right behind her.

"She doesn't like our guns," Sawa said aloud.

"Nor should she," Rudo agreed. He, Sawa, and Amy continued to slowly step around the room, jockeying for position, but Neithird continued to move, as well, keeping herself between Shir and Kyle and the others all the time. "All right," Rudo finally called to the others. "Let's give her what she wants. Drop your weapons."

Sawa shot an incredulous look towards Rudo, but Rudo knew Sawa wouldn't question an order if his life depended on it, and so the Motavian Agent dropped his laser rifle. Amy, too, dropped her acidshot, and then began slowly -- ever so slowly -- maneuvering around the room towards where Lance lay (dead?) unconscious on the floor.

Unsnapping the braces that held the massive PDC to his body, Rudo dropped the cannon and its backpack power supply to the marble floor, where it created a loud crash. Then, he held his arms out to Neithird. "You got what you wanted," he shrugged. "Now step away from the baby!"

Neithird's black eyes stared into his own, her mouth turned up into a grin, and a soft hissss came from her mouth. "Ohhh-dinnnnn," she whispered softly.

"No," Rudo replied under his breath, "but it sure would be nice if he were here now." He kept his eyes locked on Neithird's, raised his voice. "Now you listen to me! Step away from the baby!"

As if obeying his order, Neithird leaped into the air to her left, flipping over once, and twisting at her waist to land right in front of Sawa. She immediately backhanded his face, knocking the Motavian off-guard, and she followed that attack with three quick snap-kicks to his abdomen, each one pushing Sawa back closer towards the wall.

Sawa reached out an arm to grab her. Neithird slashed her claws across it, creating deep lines of red in his bright blue fur. When Sawa instinctively grabbed his wounded arm with his good one, Neithird took a step backwards, then leaped straight up, spinning her leg around to deliver a powerful kick to the side of Sawa's head.

He fell to the floor instantly, flat on his face. Neithird pounced, landing right on his back. Grabbing him by the ears, she pulled his head up before slamming it back down onto the marble floor, and then again, and then again--

And then Rudo reached her, grabbed her by the back of the neck, and threw her halfway across the room.

She landed, rolled, and quickly shot back up to her feet. She was very close to Shir, who held the crying Kyle tightly in her shaking arms. Brandishing her claws, Neithird hissssssed at Shir. Then, Amy came out of nowhere, and pushed Neithird in the side. The beast again fell to the floor, and again was quickly back on its feet. This time, though, it drooled and hissed and stepped towards Amy.

By this time, Rudo had again reached her. Realizing that, to defeat her, Rudo would have to attack her as viciously and as mercilessly as she was attacking them, the Commander of Mota slammed his fist into the center of the beast's face. The nose Rolf had previously broken spurted blood once more. Neithird stumbled backwards from the blow, shook her head, found that doing so created tremendous pain, and then she raised her claws and jumped towards Rudo.

He turned slightly, braced himself, and blocked her tackle with the side of his body. Her claws did manage to scrape his back, but the important thing was that he hadn't been knocked off his feet, and instead, she had. While she was still stunned, on her back, at his feet, Rudo brought one booted heel up and stomped it hard into Neithird's abdomen. Then he did it again. He raised his boot to give the beast a third stomp, but by this time she had caught on. She rolled out of the way, then swung one of her legs across the floor and slammed it hard into Rudo's left boot -- which, while he was in mid-stomp, was his only foot on the floor. He tumbled backwards and crashed onto his back.

Rolling over to straddle him, Neithird placed both of her hands around Rudo's throat and squeezed. As she did so, she lowered her face until it was just inches from Rudo's own, blood from her nose and drool from her mouth dripping onto him, and then she opened her mouth and screamed at the top of her lungs into his face. It was a feral scream, filled with uncontrollable, murderous rampage, and for the first time since his battle with her began, Rudo felt fear. Turning the fear into rage of his own, he jammed his forearms between his chest and her own and then pushed her off of him with all his might. She released her grip on his throat, but in pulling away, both sets of her claws scraped across the sides of Rudo's neck. Blood started to run down his shoulders instantly.

He stumbled onto his feet, praying to all that was holy that she hadn't hit a major artery or vein. As he stood, he saw that Amy was now kneeling over Lance, with Shir and Kyle near them, as well. To Rudo, Shir looked like she didn't know who to be most concerned about: Lance, Sawa, her baby, or him. Just as he stood all the way up, Neithird again pounced on him, wrapping her arms around his legs and driving her head into his abdomen. He was knocked backwards by the spearing attack, and as he had been standing right at the top of the small steps leading down into the center of the temple, he began tumbling end over end down. All the while, however, he held onto Neithird, taking her with him.

Rudo wasn't sure when they were going to reach the bottom of the steps, but he prayed that when they did, he was on top of Neithird, and not the other way around. They finally did stop rolling, and despite his prayers, he found himself underneath Lassic's creature. Not accepting the hand fate had dealt him, however, he rolled over one last time, leaving Neithird pinned underneath him.

Quickly, he seized her elbows and held them down. She never ceased to struggle; she wiggled her arms, kicked her legs wildly, and screamed and hissed and screamed. With her arms pinned at her sides, Rudo turned to look back towards Amy and Shir. If he could keep Neithird pinned while one of them grabbed Sawa's laser rifle and repeatedly smashed it into the creature's face...

Before he could call out to either of them, Rudo found he had underestimated Neithird's agility. Though the big former Hunter sat on her abdomen and pinned her arms to the ground, she still managed to raise one of her legs and kick it into the back of Rudo's skull. To Rudo's credit, at first, he did not lose his grip on her arms. But when she kicked him a second time, and a third, and then a fourth, and a fifth, he could do nothing but let go.

And she took advantage of her freedom immediately. She quickly threw forward her right hand in a punch that Rudo took high on the right side of his chest. Considering there were claws at the end of her hands, though, Rudo took a lot more than a punch. The claws drove themselves deeply into his flesh and through his body, creating exit wounds on his back below his shoulder, and sending immediate shockwaves of pain through his right shoulder and upper chest. Then, as he moved himself backwards and away from her, Neithird swiped her left claw across the front of his face. Lucky for him, she missed his eyes, but his mouth and chin were not so lucky. Each quickly became a bloody mess.

Back on his feet, Rudo simply tried to retreat from her. He stumbled backwards back up the steps, and she continued to follow him, brandishing her claws and emitting her ferocious animal yells. Soon, Rudo found himself with his back to the wall of the temple, and with Neithird right before him.

He ducked the first sweep of her claws, which she aimed at his head. Too late, Rudo realized the initial swipe was just a ruse, a ploy to get him to fall right into the hands of her one-two combination, for when he ducked, he left himself wide open for a right hand to his abdomen. Her claws went deep inside him. A puddle of blood exploded out onto the floor at his feet. He yelled out in pain. Before he knew what was happening, Neithird was swiping her claws across his stomach, and then stabbing him there again. She slashed her left claws across his upper chest, then again stabbed his stomach with her right. A backhanded left slash to his chest, then another right-stab to his abdomen, then another, then another. Rudo bent over in pain, his blood spilling onto the floor, and then Neithird stepped to his side, scraped her claws across his back three times before driving an elbow into his spinal column and knocking him back down to the floor.

As he fell, he managed to roll over onto his back, but a moment later, his position didn't matter much, for Neithird sat on his mangled and lacerated torso -- it was her turn to pin him to the floor. However, rather that seize his arms with hers, as he had done to her, her vicious, inexorable nature showed through once more, and she instead drove her claws straight through his upper arms and into the stone floor beneath them, pinning him tightly. Rudo screamed in agony as his blood leaked past her claws to trickle out of his arms.

He opened his eyes and saw Neithird right above him, howling and screaming, her black eyes wide and filled with carnage. First things first, she leaned her head down to his, swung in towards his left cheek, opened her mouth, and snatched his flesh between her teeth. She wiggled her mouth back and forth, a low growl emanating from the bottom of her throat, until finally she pulled away from his face, taking a bloody chunk of flesh with her, which she spit high into the air as her lungs unleashed another virulent howl.

Screaming again, Rudo looked up at her. It was a wonder he could still see -- most of the rest of his face was, by this time, covered with blood. But see her he did. He watched as she yanked her claws from his arms, and brought them high above his neck and heart, pointing downwards. At his sides, he tried to raise his arms to block her, and found he couldn't, at least not fast enough. He guessed they'd been nearly severed by her claws.

Multi-colored light from the stained glass windows high in the temple reflected off the metal of her blades. Those blades once belonged to Nei, his mind told him. She fought with me using those blades. Then she took them. She killed Lutz with them. Now I'm going to die by them, too.

Jennifer died because I wasn't there. Not Kyle, too. Not Kyle, too!

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf led the others into the Dark Castle's throne room. Only two torches, both of which sat perched atop poles at the top of the dais, lit the room. Though this dim light was by no means adequate lighting for the entire room, it produced plenty of light by which the group could see a man seated in the throne. The flame danced off of his golden armor, as well as a golden staff the man held in his right hand.

Rolf, Anna, Tyler, and Kain stepped deeper into the room, far enough inside that they could view out the room's side window. Through it, they saw the green world of Mota, getting closer and closer. It won't be long, Rolf realized, until the castle enters the atmosphere. The group stopped at about the center of the room, and when they did, the man on the throne -- who was undoubtedly King Lassic -- stood and opened his arms.

"Ah, my children," he called out to them, the torch flame revealing a devilish smile, "how nice of you all to welcome me back to Paseo!"

"Nahh," Tyler called to the king. "We're just here to welcome you back to your funeral."

"Or better yet," Kain added, "straight back ta yer grave."

Ignoring the comments, Lassic turned his gaze towards the window. "It has been a while since I've set foot in Sirus's city. No doubt, it is desperately in need of cleaning. Last I remember the talk of the town was some sort of 'Paseo Council'... some democratic rubbish the traitor Sirus came up with." Lassic turned back to Rolf and the others. "And Sirus is a traitor, you know. Why, I know for a fact that when I banished the Espers, Sirus helped some of them escape. He doesn't know I know, but I do."

Anna leaned close to Rolf's ear and whispered to the former Agent, who hadn't taken his eyes off of Lassic since entering the room. "He's still living in the past," she said. "He thinks it's still a millennium ago." Rolf's response was a slow nod.

Lassic looked over Rolf's party, and Rolf noted the king paid special attention to the sword he wore at his side, and the axe Tyler carried in his hand. "And I'll bet Sirus's betrayal continues, doesn't it? He helped the lot of you get here, didn't he? How else would you know of the Triumvirate Pact?"

Rolf had heard enough of the mad king's psychotic ramblings. "Step down, Lassic," he ordered.

The dark king's mouth twisted into a sneer. "Never," he replied flatly. Then, torches lining the walls of the throne room flared to life, brightening the room considerably. When this happened, the group, for the first time, got a good look at Lassic's face, until now obscured by shadows from his helmet. The old man's skin was wrinkled and dull, but his eyes virtually glowed with evil. He began speaking again, slowly, and deliberately. "I have waited one... thousand... years for my revenge. I will wait not a single second longer."

"Okay," Kain muttered behind Rolf, "that was a threat." The Wrecker raised his laser rifle towards the king, closed one eye, and aimed. But before he could pull the trigger, Lassic aimed his staff at Kain, and a bolt of lightning struck the staff's head from the throne room ceiling, ricocheting off towards Kain himself. The blast hit the mouth of Kain's rifle head-on, and the weapon exploded in Kain's hands, sending him reeling backwards with singed fingers.

The battle was on.

Tyler charged the king with a yell, holding the Laconian Axe before him. Lassic repositioned his staff to aim at the Space Pirate, and then fired another blast of lightning. Before Tyler could move out of the way, the axe lurched to the side, deflecting and absorbing the lightning blast. Judging from the look on Tyler's face, as well as the confusion Rolf sensed in his mind, Rolf guessed that, not unlike Elsydeon, the Laconian Axe seemed to have a mind of its own.

The Space Pirate continued his charge as Anna threw both of her slashers towards the top of the dais. Lassic watched them swing towards him, and then casually deflected them away with the rod of his staff as they reached him. They dropped to the floor of the throne room, where Rolf quickly seized them with his mind and brought them back to Anna's hands.

By this time, Tyler had reached the dais, and had climbed halfway up it. Lassic took two steps down to meet the Space Pirate halfway, then, the king deflected a swing of the Laconian Axe with the rod of his staff. After deflecting another, then another, Lassic swung his staff low, at Tyler's feet. The Space Pirate was knocked down to painfully tumble back down to the foot of the dais.

Tyler had occupied Lassic long enough, however, for Anna to reach to the king, and as soon as she arrived, she quickly leaped straight up into the air, throwing her right leg out in front of her and knocking Lassic's head backwards with a snap kick to the jaw. Lassic almost lost his helmet as he stumbled, stopping only when he found balance thanks to his throne.

Looking up, the old king saw Anna flying towards him again, this time with some sort of hurricane kick. He ducked underneath the blow, driving his staff up above him as he did so. The staff caught Anna in the ribcage, and she landed in a heap next to Lassic's throne. With a kick to her kidneys, Lassic sent her off the side of the dais, a plunge straight down of about five feet.

Kain was now ready for another attack, and he charged up the dais with a blade held high in his left hand. It was all a ruse, however; as he neared the top, his right hand produced another knife, and this one he threw at the king. It landed in Lassic's left thigh, and with a yelp of pain, the king reached down and pulled it from his flesh.

The Wrecker was now at the top of the dais with the king. He quickly transferred his knife to his right hand, and then ran towards Lassic for a stab. At the foot of the dais, Rolf again realized that Kain needed to either stick to his guns, or receive more hand-to-hand combat training. Lassic easily avoided the stab, and then drove Kain's own knife deep into the Wrecker's left shoulder. Kain cried out in pain as Lassic leaned over and flipped him over his head, leaving him to fall off the dais exactly where Anna had.

Rolf stood on the second stair of the dais, still staring up at Lassic, and with the others out of the way, he now had Lassic's undivided attention.

"I've been watching you," Lassic told Rolf.

"You shouldn't have," Rolf told him. "You should have been watching him."

Hearing the noise behind him, almost too late, Lassic spun on his heels to find that Tyler had climbed up the side of the dais, and was now behind Lassic, ready to drive the axe deep into the tyrant's back. "No!" the king screamed in rage, and a massive lightning bolt shot down from the ceiling to strike his staff. From there, it deflected off, striking Tyler square in the chest, and the Space Pirate, too, was then knocked off the side of the dais.

Reaching out with his mind and confirming his friends were all right, for the moment, Rolf then climbed the last of the steps and stood with Lassic at the top of the dais. As Lassic raised his golden staff before him, Rolf did the same with the purple blade of the Neisword.

Lassic shook his head. "First his daughter, now his descendant. Alex would be so displeased. He left me the crown in his place, and his jealous children come and attack an old man to get it back, eh?"

"Believe me," Rolf responded, "my conscience is clear. Can you say the same, murderer?"

Growling, Lassic charged, and with the soul of Queen Alis Landale at his side, Rolf fought back.

- - - - - - - - - -

Rudo looked up into Neithird's black eyes, expecting death at any moment. Instead, beyond her, he saw salvation in the form of a blue-furred Agent.

Sawa -- his mouth-beak cracked and bleeding thanks to Neithird slamming his face into the floor -- had awakened and had now sneaked behind the group's attacker. With the beast's hands held high in the air, ready to deliver the death blow to Rudo, it was easy for Sawa to throw his arms underneath her own, then lock his hands tightly behind her neck. He then pulled the animal off of Rudo, and though Neithird kicked her legs and struggled with her arms, she could not break the full nelson Sawa held her in.

She did, however, still have claws at the end of her hands, and she flailed them around wildly behind Sawa, several times nicking his ears and the back of his head. No doubt realizing he couldn't take those attacks forever, even while he held her tight, Sawa spun around and prepared to slam Neithird into the wall of the temple as many times as it took to knock her unconscious.

He didn't have to do that, though, for just as he was ready to introduce her to the wall, her claws fell off of her hands.

The Motavian Agent spun around in alarm. At this time, Neithird's feet then suddenly stopped kicking, as if they had been nailed to the floor. Which was more or less the case. Sawa looked past the animal he held in his arms and saw that Amy had managed to wake Lance, and though he bled from his forehead and held the sides of his head tightly, his eyes focused in concentration on Neithird, holding her legs to the floor while Sawa held the rest of her.

Calling out to the others through his wounded mouth, Sawa said, "Do you think one of you could grab a set of her claws and please, kindly, slit her throat?"

"No," replied Rudo, and from the look on Sawa's face, Rudo could tell the Motavian was surprised to see him on his feet. Hell, he was surprised to even be on his feet. Satisfied that Sawa and Lance had the monster restrained (for now), Rudo limped his way over to where he had dropped his PDC at the beginning of the battle. A steady trail of blood followed him.

"Rudo--" Amy started, alarmed, but he had no time for her concerns right now.

"I think," he instead interrupted her, "what she needs is... is simply some good, old-fashioned medication."

Having reached his PDC, Rudo leaned over. The simple maneuver almost made him fall off of his feet; the pain in his decimated abdomen was so intense. He managed, however, to reach the PDC's backpack unit, undo two latches, and push a release button. Hydraulics pumped, and the see-through metal canister of liquid rytec plasma -- the PDC's power source -- raised itself out of the machinery.

Rudo grabbed the canister, held it up for Amy to see. "Doctor... do you concur with my prescription?"

Amy nodded and said nothing else. He could tell she wanted to do nothing more than run to him and get him flat on his back to see to his wounds, and he would allow her to do just that...

But not until he'd sent the animal that killed Lutz back to hell where it belonged.

Limping his way back across the temple to where Sawa held Neithird -- who still struggled, though, thanks to the teke restraints she currently found herself in thanks to Lance, those struggles were but minor tremblings -- Rudo twisted the metal cap off the end of the plasma canister and looked inside at the swirling, green liquid within. "Believe me...," he told Neithird. "This is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts us."

Having reached Neithird, Rudo lashed out, seized a handful of her black hair, and pulled her head backwards. He glanced over his shoulder at Lance, and thanks to telekinesis, Neithird's jaw then dropped wide open. Her screams and howls of defiance echoed loudly off the walls of the temple. Her eyes drilled into Rudo's like Ice Diggers through Dezo.

Rudo only smiled, held up the plasma container. "Doctor's orders," he shrugged in sarcastic apology. "Down the hatch!"

Turning the canister upside down, he poured the toxic green fluid straight down Neithird's throat. He extended his arm as far as it would go and took a step back away from her, as her continued screams (now screams of agony rather than rebellion), gags, and chokes spit droplets of the plasma from her mouth. Scattered drops also landed not in her mouth, but on her face, and wherever they did, the acid quickly started eating at her skin, leaving spreading, black burn wounds.

Neithird's screams, first merely garbled by the acid flowing down her throat, soon ceased entirely as the plasma burned away her vocal chords. A black, sizzling lump of flesh Rudo guessed had been her tongue fell from her mouth and landed on the floor, still smoking and boiling. When the canister had been emptied, Rudo threw it into the corner of the room, then he motioned for Sawa to release her and stand clear. Both of them did so, and as soon as she was released, Neithird bucked and thrashed her way back into the wall of the temple.

Her black eyes were no longer filled with murderous intent. Now, wide-open, they were filled only with fear and agony. The beast clawed at her skin-tight bodysuit, ripping away the fabric covering her neck. When she did so, Rudo and the others saw a growing black wound trailing down her entire throat. A moment later, the plasma inside her burned its way straight through her skin, and a smoking hole opened itself in the middle of her neck.

Neithird ran her hands across her ravaged windpipe, and then across her entire torso as the plasma ate away at her stomach and lungs. A moment later, she simply ceased movement, and then, she fell forward to the temple's stone floor, where she lay motionless and still. And dead.

Rudo stepped to her corpse. "Call me in the morning," he sneered at it. Then he kicked it in the head for good measure.

After that, he turned to his friends, smiled, and then collapsed.

- - - - - - - - - -

The sounds of electricity sizzling and metal clanging against metal were the only sounds heard in the Dark Castle's throne room. Rolf and Lassic stepped all around the king's dais, performing a battle dance neither seemed to be leading, nor tiring of. Rolf would swing his Neisword in towards Lassic, and the tyrant would block with the rod of his staff. Lassic would aim a blast of Thunder at Rolf, and Algo's Protector would block it with a magical barrier and the Neisword.

"How dare you," Lassic started, blocking a swipe of the Neisword, shooting off a blast of Thunder, "invade my home and attack me? I am the king of the Algol star system! Why did Lusar even let you in here?"

"I don't know who Lusar is," Rolf admitted, swinging his sword towards Lassic three times in a row, before readjusting his angle and swinging again, in an attempt to take Lassic off guard. It didn't work; each blow was blocked. "But I'll wager he died a long time ago, just like you did!"

"You know, Alex," Lassic continued, "I've always enjoyed these fencing matches of ours, but you know what? You know what, Alex?"

Rolf couldn't figure out which was harder -- keeping up with Lassic's attacks, or keeping up with his wandering, psychotic mind.

"I'm getting bored with them, that's what!" Lassic roared. "I'm getting bored because I always win!"

Lassic launched a blast of Thunder, which Rolf blocked, but in a move a man Lassic's age should not have been able to pull off, Lassic then swung his staff low, towards Rolf's legs. Rolf managed to move one foot in time, but Lassic caught the other, and knocked the Protector to the ground.

Flat on his back, Rolf looked up with wide eyes as Lassic stood over him. "Let's talk about the Triumvirate Pact now, shall we, you little twit? Let's you, me, your Esper, and your kitty sit down and have a nice... little... chat!"

Raising his scepter high, Rolf knew Lassic planned to drive it through his heart. At that moment, inspiration overtook him. He wasn't sure where it came from -- for all he knew, it might have come from the laconian sword he wore at his side -- but he was sure (well, almost sure) that it would work. If Lassic can't think straight enough to know who I am...

"Lassic!" Rolf barked. The king stopped, looked down. "Lassic, what are you doing?"

The king let out one brief grunt of laughter. "Ask a stupid question..." he mumbled, then he again raised his scepter.

"Lassic! My friend!" Rolf yelled to him, urgently. "Lassic, I am not a hostile Dezorian, and this is not an invasion of Palma. I'm your friend, Alex, and this is a fencing match here in the castle!"

"Alex?" Lassic blinked.

"Yes!" Rolf replied, as if it were the stupidest question in the world. "It's me, Alex, your good friend!"

"Alex, I..." Lassic shook his head, lowered his scepter. "Of course it's you."

"Of course it's me..." Rolf nodded, climbing back to his feet. "And it would seem you have once again won our match." He raised the Neisword before him. "Would you care for another?"

Lassic shrugged, smiled. It was a pleasant smile, and it looked grossly out of place on the tyrant's face. "Why not?" he asked. "I'm always ready..." Suddenly, his face fell into a frown. "...to bring the power of Dark Force down upon your head!"

Rolf realized even he couldn't manipulate Lassic's schizophrenic mind for very long. So, wasting no more time, Algo's Protector took one step forward and slashed his Neisword across Lassic's chest.

The blade cut straight through Lassic's dark armor and into the flesh underneath it. The king's face, a twisted mask of contempt and darkness a moment before, quickly fell into incredulousness. He reached his free hand to his chest and then held it before his face covered in blood. At the sight, Lassic gasped, fell to his knees, and started to tremble. A moment later, he dropped his scepter. Rolf watched it tumble down the stairs of the dais. With both hands free, Lassic swiped both across his wound, then stared at the blood again, in shock.

Rolf determined him to no longer be a threat. He descended the dais and stepped around to the side to check on Anna and Kain.

"Lusar?" Lassic said aloud on the dais above. "Lusar, help me! Xanon! Xarxas! I command you to come to me!"

With Kain and Anna in tow, Rolf walked around to the other side of the dais to retrieve Tyler. As they stepped around, Lassic, still on his knees, looked to Rolf and reached out to him. "You'll... help me... won't you... Alex?" After spitting out the words, Lassic's eyes rolled up into the back of his head, and then he collapsed and fell forward before his throne.

When the three of them reached Tyler, they helped him to his feet. Shaking his head, Tyler asked, "Where's this 'Alex' he keeps talking about?"

"Only in his mind," Rolf replied. Tyler picked up the Laconian Axe, and then the four of them started back towards the door of the throne room, Kain in the lead, with Anna, Tyler, and Rolf behind him.

As Kain reached the door, all four of them heard a weak voice behind them call out, "Rolf..."

They turned around to see Lassic had raised his head. Holding one trembling arm out towards the Protector, Lassic again called his name. "Rolf..."

Rolf motioned Kain and Anna to go ahead and see to Kip back in the corridor. In the meantime, while Tyler waited at the door, Rolf took three steps back towards Lassic's dais. "What do you want, Lassic?"

"Don't... don't leave me..." the king begged, his voice trembling as much as his body. "Don't leave me here... all alone... to... to..."

"To die?" Rolf offered.

The words managed to bring out the rage, even in Lassic's wounded body. "I refuse!" he screamed. "I refuse to die! I'll kill you! I'll kill all of you! I am the king of the Algol star system! I'll kill all who dare defy me!"

"No," Rolf shook his head, yelling back at Lassic, "all you're going to do is burn in hell, you evil bastard. So allow me to light the match!"

With that, Rolf aimed one hand at Lassic, and launched forth the most powerful volley of Nafoi he could produce.

The throne, the dais, and Lassic himself instantly went up in flame. The king started to scream in agony, writhing back and forth across the dais. As Tyler and Rolf watched on, the ball of flame that was Lassic even managed to get back to its feet, though it quickly tripped on the top stair of the dais. The fireball tumbled downward, end over end, as the flame of the dais spread to the tapestries on the walls. Soon, the entire rear section of the room was an inferno.

And at the base of the dais, crumpled, and still burning like a blowtorch, Lassic again raised his arm towards Rolf. "Don't... leave... me!"

Rolf turned around and followed Tyler out of the throne room.

"Noooooo!" they heard behind them as they left. The screams continued all the way until they reached the end of the hall, both wordless shouts of agony and desperate pleas for help. By the time the group had reached Kip, who had made it back onto his feet, all they heard from the throne room was a final cry of, "I'll... kill... you... alllllll!"

Then the screams fell silent, as the throne room and everything -- and everyone -- inside it continued to burn.

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