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"Astounding, absolutely astounding, as these things go," Luveno responded. Currently, he was examining the Laconian shield that the group had picked up on Dezoris. He turned it over and over in his hands; its bright gleam seemed not to be merely a reflection of the firelight, but an intrinsic glow of all its own. The other booty that they had collected, including the armor of Laconia and a pot holding a few Laerma nuts, lay nearby in the corner.
Odin was oblivious to the conversation, staring intently into the fire. Myau was grooming himself, though his perked ears revealed that he was listening intently. Luveno continued as he handed the shield back to Alis. "And so what will you do now, friends? You have found this mystical rock," here Noah nodded and patted the breast pocket of his cloak, wherein he held the Aero-Prism, "and have gathered these magical weapons... what will you do now?" Alis and Noah traded looks. "We visited Master Tajim on our way back from Dezoris. He firmly believes that we are finally ready."
"To go after Lassic?" the doctor asked. Noah nodded again. "I can't say that I've always agreed with Tajim's judgement... to challenge Lassic, it's... it's unthinkable that only four people, no matter how prepared you think you are, could wrest him from power. Why, his forces control practically the entire planet! I don't see that..."
"We have no intention of taking on the might of his empire, doctor," Noah interrupted. "It would indeed be insane to do so. But we have formulated a plan with Tajim... to confront Lassic directly. His vast number of troops and resources will do him no good. If everything follows the plan, Lassic himself will save us, sealing his own fate."
"You speak daring words, Noah... I can only hope that Lassic is as cooperative as you think he will be. Do you even know where the tyrant is? He has not been seen in public in months. Some say he has even left the planet, working his machinations off-world."
Alis leaned back and took the reins of the conversation from Noah. "There is a massive flux of mystical energy directly above the tower of the Baya Malay mountains. Tajim believes that this magical field is a direct result of Lassic's presence. All we have to do is make it to the top of the tower."
"And then," she added, "either Lassic will retrieve us, or we'll rely on other means to breach the energy field." Myau stopped grooming and looked at Alis, his whiskers twitching slightly. He knew what she was referring to. "Either way, the confrontation with Lassic would soon be at hand. Our journey would finally meet its end."
Luveno sighed, expressing the tragic folly with which he viewed these heroes' chances. He had grown, over time, to respect these three new souls. They were capable, certainly... and Noah himself was quite powerful... but to challenge Lassic himself... madness. It would be truly unfair to lose such bright young stars as these to the darkness of the mad king. Though he had been aiding them over the past weeks, it had almost been a purely intellectual arrangement. Now that he was faced with the culmination of their tireless efforts, his emotional misgivings had surfaced. "When will you leave, then?" he asked them quietly.
"We would like to recuperate for a few days, making sure everything is in order, readying ourselves... and then we'll take the hovercraft to Baya Malay. We've learned that there is a small mountain pass that will lead us through the mountains, taking us right to the tower. We can avoid the guarded gateway that way." Alis' words bespoke more confidence that Luveno held for them.
"You can of course stay here for as long as you need," Doctor Luveno offered, gazing towards the crackling fire. "I pray for your safety, and your success, friends."
Alis and Noah smiled slightly, and nodded in recognition.
It was much later that night, after Luveno had retired to bed, that the four heroes sat again by the fireplace, by now holding only a small smoldering log that cast a dim orange glow over their faces. Only Alis was afoot, the others having settled comfortably in chairs. Quietly, she paced slowly between them all, eyes downcast, hands behind her back. She was obviously searching for words, but her companions, silent all, offered no help. Her diminutive shadow swept back and forth upon the far wall, matching her every move, echoing her own silence. This went on for a few minutes.
Finally the silence broke as Alis stopped and turned to face them all. Her mouth opened, as if to begin, but she paused as she caught the intent and questioning glances of her company. She took a deep breath and resumed. "My friends," she said in a lofty but quiet voice, "I could never have imagined so long ago that my journeys would be shared by a group as honorable and capable as you. You have all risked your lives to aid me, and have on multiple occassions kept me from meeting an early demise... I am truly blessed to have had such company."
"Had...?" Odin interjected.
Alis seemed to ignore him as she continued. "I could never have come so far in my quest without you. For that I wish to thank you, all of you, from all of my heart."
Odin again spoke. "This sounds disturbingly like a farewell speech, Alis..." Exhaling lightly, Alis pulled a chair over to the three and slumped down in it, putting her hand to her forehead.
"Alis...?" Myau asked haltingly. The heroine slowly drew her hand down the side of her face, eyes closed all the while. Finally it rested upon her knee.
Her voice now had lost its airy tone, and now came out stilted and vulnerable. "I don't know that you should come with me to face Lassic..." she explained. "It's too dangerous to ask you to do that."
Odin began to chuckle, but Noah was the first to respond. "You can't be serious, Alis. This is no time to pull something like this. You need us... you can't do it alone."
"If I go alone, I have a chance in a million of defeating him," she said. "Four chances in a million isn't much better, and it's certainly not worth the extreme possibility that you'd all be throwing your lives away."
As Odin continued to laugh, Noah retaliated. "And throwing your life away is acceptable?"
"That's different. I have a personal stake in this... for Nero..."
Odin, finally spoke, pausing after every word to accomidate his continuous laughter. "Of... all... the... unmitigated... GALL!" Alis was taken aback, unsure of how to respond to this forceful yet not quite insulting response. "My lord, woman, what fantasy world have you been living in? Do you really think that all that has happened, all that we've been through has been about you and your own personal vendetta?" His laughter began to die down here. "While we all appreciate your concern for our well being, we all know, including you , that this goes so far beyond any one individual's mission..."
"What I think Odin is trying to say, in a somewhat tactless manner," Myau commented, "is that we each have our own reasons for going after Lassic. Some we share with each other, some are all our own... but we are each willing, committed participants in this drama, and will continue to be such. We are not here now solely because you asked us for assistance... we are here because the world needs us to be here. Each and every one of us has taken the responsibility to protect and avenge our worlds, and, with all due respect, Alis, that is not a responsibility that you can, in all fairness, tell us to relinquish."
"What is this really about, Alis? What is it that..." Noah stopped as he noticed a single tear sliding down Alis' cheek, for a scant moment glistening in the dim firelight.
"...I don't want to see any of you die..." Her words silenced the room. The smile quickly left Odin's face; Myau drew his tail around his legs. Noah didn't move. By now, Alis' voice was only a whisper as she struggled to hold back more tears. "You've come to mean so much to me... almost as if you were part of my family... that I couldn't bear to see you die, for any cause. Please understand that."
After untold moments of silence, Myau crept down and jumped onto the armrest of Alis' chair. He raised a sinlge furred paw and gently wiped away the moist trail that the tear had left on her cheek.
"We will never leave you, Alis..." he said in a purring voice, "...if we live, or if we die, we will always be with you. In heart, in mind, or in body, we will always be with you."
For a moment she stared in his eyes, those full of warmth, honesty, and truth. Alis then embraced him tightly, her now ample tears dampening his soft golden fur.
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