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Chapter Twenty

"Ah, my young pupil, you are preparing to face Lassic..." Noah stood with Master Tajim in the old Esper's ready-room while the three other's waited outside in the "lobby". Tajim held four rooms deep with the cavern, each filled with mountains of books, artifacts, and trinkets of unknown origin.

Tajim himself was an extremely short, stocky old man, draped in a white robe that seemed to glow with its own power. He held a small staff, much like Noah's. "When the governor first contacted me about the young heroes' plans to overthrow the tyrant, I immediately told him to send them to you."

"Yes, all of that was explained in the letter that Sirus sent," Noah said. "I would surely not have joined them without your instruction... even now I have great doubts as to their ability. Through each battle we triumph, each obstacle we overcome... but challenging Lassic himself is so far beyond anything they could ever have experienced."

"Perhaps you are too quick to discount others' worth before examining your own, young Noah..."

Noah was puzzled by this comment. "What are you saying, Mas..."

"Come, you must pass your final test..." Tajim exploded, "we will duel!" Immediately, Tajim thrust his staff forward, and two balls of fire escaped, launching themselves at Noah. Without thinking, Noah fell backwards, raising his own staff just in time to absorb the fire balls. As Tajim raised his weapon again, Noah jumped to his feet, this time prepared for the challenge. More fire came, but now Noah, instead of using his staff to absorb them, quickly sidestepped. A split second later, two jagged bolts of lightning shot towards Tajim, knocking him back, though still on his feet.

This melee continued for minutes, as both Noah and Tajim refused to give ground, trading magical attacks. The small room was lit by flying fireballs, lightning bolts, and torrents of mystical wind. It was obvious that neither competitor would triumph under the current conditions.

But Noah would not be held back. Sensing a weakness, he suddenly ran at Tajim, just after dodging an attack, rather than launching his own. In an instant he was upon the old man, and he drove his staff forward and swung it upwards, prying Tajim's own staff from his hands and tossing it several feet away. They both stood motionless.

A smile came upon Tajim's ancient face. "You have become much stronger... you are well prepared." Noah bowed his head, a sign of humility and respect. "I'll give you a Frad Mantle as gift. It protects you from danger..." Tajim began to remove his cloak, and held it out for Noah.

The young Esper was shocked. He had always been taught that no one but the head Esper ever wore the legendary Frad Mantle, a mystical robe with innate protective powers. Stunned, he slowly took it from his master, replacing his own. As soon as he put it on, he could feel some type of energy swirling around him, unlike anything he had experienced before. "Master... this cloak is reserved for only the highest order Esper... how can I..."

Tajim held up his hand. "The coming days for you will be tumultuous, young Noah. You will need the power of the cloak. And there is nothing more that I can teach you... your destiny, as well as the destiny of the others, is paramount to Algo."

"...Thank you, master. But I have worries... when we travel to Dezoris, we'll have no way to find the Aero-Prism. You yourself instructed me to find it in the letter, according to Sirus. But how...?"

"You will find it, Noah. When you are near, you will know. Such is how it must be." The young Esper was not satisfied with the response, but he knew that he'd not get more out of Tajim. "There is more. Something that I alluded to in the letter. You must protect the girl."

"Alis?" Noah asked. Tajim nodded.

"Yes. Her destiny, more than any of ours, is tied up within the fate of the entire system. I cannot forsee her future, but she must be allowed to act her part in the Great Play. You must never fail her, Noah. Her survival must take precedence over all else..."

Tajim's implication was obvious. Even the lives of the others, the life of Noah himself, could not be held above the girl's. Noah nodded understandingly.

Outside, Alis and the others sat, oblivious to what went on in the next room. "They've sure been in there a long time," Odin was saying.

Myau, who was visibly uneasy about their being in the middle of a monster-infested dungeon, spoke. "Noah's visage was very serious when he went in... I imagine they discuss things of great importance."

"Well I don't like being left out of Noah's dealings," Alis replied. "He should not be hiding things from us..."

"Such is the Esper's way, Alis. They are their own community, a brotherhood. There are surely things that they say to one another than they cannot say to outsiders." Odin's words, though true, did not quell Alis' distaste for the situation.

The door to the ready-room opened, and Noah came into view, alone. "Alright, we are finished here."

"Just like that?" Alis asked. A moment later she noticed Noah's new cloak.

"Yes. Master Tajim has given me words of advice, and we can be on our way." With that, Noah strode past them, towards the exit at the opposite end of the room. The others stood and followed him, each taking out their weapons for the trip to the surface.

"I sure hope it was good advice," Odin said to himself.

- - - - - - - - - -

The trip in the Landrover back to Uzo was unusually quiet. Each hero was lost in his own thoughts, faces all untelling. Their ship's cargo hold proved large enough to handle the rover, as Odin easily drove it in through the loading bay.

"On to Dezoris?" he asked as they settled themselves into their seats.

"Yes, that is our next..." Noah began. But Alis interrupted.

"No, we're going back to Palma. If that hovercraft really is salvageable, we're going to get it."

"But why..." Myau questioned, "would we need a hovercraft?"

"Because with it we can get to Drasgow," she responded.

"Drasgow..." Odin whispered. "Of course."

"My brother often mentioned the floating town of Drasgow," Alis continued, "saying that it was the most active in the resistance... that is until the shipping lanes were closed."

"Nowadays it's completely cut off from the mainlands," explained Odin. "Who knows how they've been fairing."

"Nonetheless, if they can provide us with any support, it'll be worth the trip. Hapsby," she called, "take us back to Palma." Noah silently consented, though he was unsure of allowing Alis to take the lead. Destined to be pivotal or not, she certainly didn't have any true experience. Certainly he would keep an eye on this.

- - - - - - - - - -

"I'm sure that Hapsby and I can repair this," said Doctor Luveno happily. "Give us half an hour." All six, the four heroes, Luveno, and Hapsby, were currently pulling associated junk and scrap from the damaged hovercraft, which sat on the outskirts of Bortevo. They had taken the landrover from Gothic, as the ship could not land anywhere else safely. It was agreed that the mountains near Gothic kept the ship well hidden from anyone who might report the sight to Lassic.

The hovercraft was even smaller than the rover, and it was obvious that it'd be a tight fit for all four of them. Alis, Myau, and Noah walked farther into town, leaving Odin to assist Luveno and Hapsby.

As they found a shady spot under a tree to sit and rest, Alis turned to Myau. "We've not had much time to discuss what happened in Abion, my friend. It worries us all how you are dealng with this... we want to help you work through it, but you must stop trying to keep us out..."

Myau's face softened more than it had been in days. He rested his chin upon his foreleg, stretching out upon the ground. "I've thought much about my role in the tragedy... I've not stopped thinking about it since then. I have a difficult time denying responsibility, as you would have me do."

"But you're not responsible, Myau. All of this, all the plagues on our world, they're all Lassic's doing. You didn't cause their deaths any more than I caused Nero's death..." Alis quietly stated.

"But you were not raised to be your brother's protector. It was my duty to watch over my people, to dispell threats to them. But I chose to leave that responsibility behind. And because of it, they are dead."

"You didn't choose to leave the role behind, Myau" she countered, "you chose to fulfill your duty in another way. Lassic was an omnipresent threat, and you chose to fight him, along with Odin. There was no way that you could defend your people on all fronts... you had to choose. But you never stopped fighting for them, never stopped trying to protect them..." The Musk Cat had no reply.

Noah joined the conversation for the first time. "Myau, not so long ago, we Espers were faced with a choice. Lassic banished us from Palma, because we would not grant his wish of eternal life. It was then that we knew of his true evilness. We could have bowed to his command and left Palma, or we could have stayed and tried to fight him ourselves."left, rather than confront him..." Myau said dryly.

"We left, yes, but we did not abandon our home world. On Motavia we train incessantly, strengthening ourselves for a time when we must fight. Not a day goes by when an Esper does not recall the fact that we left... but we know that it was the right decision. We could not have challenged Lassic's forces then... we would have failed, and would surely have been destroyed. But we are more powerful now, and more able to fight him in discreet ways... my presence with you today is testiment to the fact that we never gave up the fight. And all the while, we know that after we chose to leave, hundreds, even thousands of Palmans lost, and continue to lose, their lives. That weighs heavy upon us, just as the loss of your families weighs upon you. But we never forget that we made the right choice. We never forget that we opt for a higher road, where in the end, more lives can be saved. That is the choice you made, Myau. You chose to protect your people by saving an entire world. The choice may bring many losses, but is one that you must make, for everyone."

Myau lay, silent again. Alis placed a hand on his shoulders as she leaned back against the tree. She couldn't say anything more. Noah had said it all.

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