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Chapter Thirty-Two

"What the hell--" Odin began to yell; but his cry was cut short as the panel beneath their feet collapsed, sending the four heroes crashing violently onto the cold stone floor below.

They began to shake off their surprise. Amidst the dimly lit corridor, they picked themselves up and looked around.

"Must be some type of basement... but I can't imagine why there'd be a trap door..." said Alis. Rubbing her elbow, she turned her eyes upward, barely seeing the ceiling some fifteen feet above them. "It doesn't look like we can get back up that way. We'll have to find some stairs."

Having arrived at the Governor's Mansion only a few short minutes ago, they discovered the building to be seemingly deserted. But at Noah's continued insistence, they set about searching the palace for Sirus. After finding a passage behind the main hall, they had walked for only a few seconds before falling through the trap door.

Noah himself was still visibly affected by something; his forehead was covered in sweat, and he would often fall to one knee. Despite their having dispatched Lassic, his condition was causing his companions a great deal of worry.

Behind them the corridor ended sharply in a smooth stone wall; ahead, it wrapped around a corner to the left. "Let's go," Alis resumed. The group surged forward, rounding the corner.

Before them the end of the hallway, where ever it lay, was lost in darkness. Only the light generated by Noah kept them from plodding around in blackness.

"You don't suppose that..." Odin again failed to finish his thought. He was looking at Alis, who was just behind him... yet she was staring unblinking right past him. He turned to see what had caught her attention.

Before them, not ten feet away, the very air in the corridor seemed to be writhing... taking shape. It was slow at first, mesmerizing. But colors and patterns began to form, and the entire apparition gleamed a red tint. The heroes' weapons were readied, although the four were all still entranced by the sight.

It was no surprise, then, that were were unprepared for what came. In an instant, the form fully materialized, becoming a floating reddish-caped and hooded ghoul, scaly hand raised menacingly. A blazing blast of energy shot forth from its palm, sending the now-aware quartet scrambling to the edges of the hallway.

But they had been through this a thousand times before. Even taken by surprise, the group still far outclassed such an opponent. Without thought, they reacted. Noah and Alis took defensive positions, while Odin and Myau leaped forward on opposite sides of the creature. In a dazzling display of movement too quick to allow the ghoul to react, Odin swung his great axe into the gut of the beast, while Myau jumped through the air, Silver Fang in mouth, and sliced off its head. The coordination required by the duo to perform such a double-sided attack was nothing short of spectacular, but the dead ghoul had not had time to take notice of the feat.

"Looks like someone doesn't want us here..." Odin said dryly.

"C'mon, keep moving," came Alis' response. They moved forward again, now at a quicker pace. The walls whizzed by, but the end of the path was still not to be seen.

Myau, running with the others, spoke up seconds later. "There are more of those things materializing behind us... at least four, probably more."

Alis looked over her shoulder, but saw only darkness behind them. It didn't matter, though. She had grown to trust Myau's hyper-keen senses without fail. They quickened their pace even more. Finally, another turn in the hallway came into view ahead, and they turned sharply, only to face yet another long expanse.

"They're popping up all along the hall behind us," Myau cautioned. "We're in trouble if we don't find an exit soon..."

And then the exit was there, in quite a discomforting manner. Running along at full speed, the heroes had no time to react as the floor panel beneath them collapsed, sending them sprawling through the air below yet again. Odin was nearly cut in half by his own axe as he crashed into the next floor, and Alis landed in a quite unfavorable position across Noah's back.

"Damn trap door..." Odin said, wiping away the trickle of blood that lay on his cheek.

Noah began moaning quietly as they each stood. His hands were now placed firmly over his brow, and his staff lay untouched on the ground. "...uuuunnnnnnnnnnnnnnngh..." he cried.

"What is it, what's wrong?" Alis questioned, her eyes full of concern.

Noah could barely sputter out the words. "We're near... near something... evil... ungodly evil... it ahhhhhhhhgh..." He doubled over.

Odin rushed to his side and raised him back up to his feet, while Alis grabbed the staff nearby. "It pervades this whole place... it's everywhere..."

They had never seen the Esper so physically or psychologically distraught before... and it was cause to spread intense fear in them all.

"What are you talking about... where is it?!? It can't be everywhere, whatever it is... where is it?!?" Even the great warrior Odin betrayed his own disturbance with his words.

Noah raised a shaking hand and pointed to the wall just to the right of them. "There..."

- - - - - - - - - -

Marlowe sat alone in his personal room aboard Noah reading a computer display when he heard the muffled tone telling him that someone was at his door. "Come in," he called, turning off the display.

The door slid open and Terrick, a trusted ally of Marlowe's, entered. The door closed behind him.

There was silence as Terrick took a seat on the other side of Marlowe's desk. His straight black fair waved slightly to the side, and he folded his hands neatly in his lap. They stared at each other.

Then, without warning, Marlowe and Terrick grinned disturbingly. "You have finally found them..."

"Yes," Terrick replied, "they were kept in a vault deep within the engine compartments... they're quite midieval in design, a sword, some type of claw weapon, among others... there was a firearm, though, too."

"Perfect, absolutely perfect," Marlowe cackled, running his hand through his hair.

"I wonder how Gerod would react if he knew that we now have the means to dominate his 'god'..."

Marlowe's laugh grew louder. "The fool couldn't even comprehend such a notion, he's so blinded by faith. But he'll be of no consequence once we take over."

"What do you plan to do with him," Terrick asked probingly, "once our group stages the coup against the Council? He might remain a threat to us."

"Hah hah... he's a pet to be tolerated, nothing more. Once we capture the demon and his delusions are shattered, I will keep him around to serve us... his knowledge will be useful for our domination of the planets of this system. With only twenty-five of us able to think for ourselves, we should not be wasteful of resources. But don't worry... we'll keep the dog on a leash."

Their evil laughter echoed against the walls of the room.

Noah itself was only four hours from its destination.

- - - - - - - - - -

"There's nothing there," Odin grunted, brandishing his axe towards the blank wall. "Your perception must be messed up from this place..."

"No..." Noah whispered, "there's a door... it's been concealed by magic." He stepped forward, leaning on his staff; his face strained amidst sweat. "Let me see if I can... uncloak it..." Raising his left hand, he motioned twice at the wall, then stepped back, leaning against the opposite wall.

Before them, the surface of the stone began to warp and swirl... and in a moment, it disappeared in a glimmering flash.

"He was right..." Myau added. There was a set of double doors embedded in the wall, carved with intricate abstract patterns. With a thud and a gush of air, they opened a crack.

"Noah, we need to go inside...?" asked Alis, her back to him, sword held out before her. "What are we going to face?"

The Esper's head was slumped down onto his chest, eyes closed. "Nothing less than pure evil," he exhaled. "I don't know anything more than that... except that... we have to face it... or everyone dies..."

"How do you know that? Why?" Myau's questions went unanswered.

"Who gives a damn how he knows it," Odin proclaimed, "let's just go in there and do what we have to."

In her young life, Alis had not been faced with many paramount decisions. Until recently, she had lived in a world where almost all choices had been made for her. That had changed, of course, the day that her brother had been murdered. On that day she made the first important decision in her life.

Yet even in the months that followed, despite the fact that the others often viewed her as the driving force behind their quest, she had deferred many decisions to her comrades, who eclipsed her in age, or experience, or power. In that sense she had not worn the title of 'leader' on anything but an intermittent basis. Perhaps that had been for the best. The responsibilities that accompanied the task of guiding others, of rewarding their devotion and fulfilling their expectations, were immense, and were not for the weak willed.

But it is said leaders are born, not made, and that they will only emerge in times of crisis. Alis had shown many flashes of her gift along their journey, and now, at the end, she had one more choice to make, one more quest to take the other heroes on. Her decision would be the final, irrefutable proof of whether or not she was born to be a leader.

"We're going in."

- - - - - - - - - -

Darkness. A door sealing shut with a short 'click' behind them. Noah's light shone dimly, reflecting off of each warrior... but nothing else. Although they could feel the ground beneath their feet, it was not to be seen. No walls, no ceiling, no furniture. They were alit in the darkness, and they were all to be seen in the darkness.

Alis' sword was glowing slightly. Looking over to Odin, she saw that his axe held the same greenish tint. Both stood at the ready, but neither knew what to be ready for. Myau was frozen, desperately scanning the void for some signs of movement. Noah's eyes were closed, and he was chanting something obscure and rythmic under his breath, unheard by the others.

No one spoke, for fear of disturbing the razor-edged calm that pervaded the room (if it indeed was a room.) They merely stared into the darkness, holding fast to their weapons.

And suddenly Noah screamed out a deep, guttural tone and hurled his staff into the space before them with all the strength he could muster. A second later, it exploded in light and knocked them backwards off their feet, temporarily blinding them. When at last they regained their vision, their senses were flooded.

Before them, nestled amidst the darkness, was an immense demonic form, writhing uncontrollably and producing a deafening shriek of pain. The beast, whose deep blue-colored flesh seemed to swirl and flow, floated a few feet off the 'floor'. It rose some twenty feet high, full of coils and tentacles, in remarkable contrast to its otherwise humanoid structure. A skullen, skinless face was lit with glowing yellow eyes. And in the belly of the beast was embedded the staff of Noah, sparkling and crackling with dancing fingers of energy and light.

The sound produced by the creature was so intense as to cause the group, still lying on the floor, to drop their weapons and cover their ears tightly. A vile stench filled the air. The sight before them was unbearable, but they were paralyzed and could not effect an escape. And so they watched in fascinated horror as the arms of the demon, flailing wildly at times, slowly pulled the staff from its gut, spilling a rich green liquid into the darkness. When at last the tip of the stick was free from the body, the beast snapped it in half, causing the lightshow to cease, and tossed it to the side.

And the screeching was gone. The demon now floated before them, heavy breath visibly filling the air; it gently swayed back and forth, never getting any closer to or farther from them. Its eyes darted back and forth over the quartet, and the massive fangs it held gnashed together every few seconds.

They rose, slowly, recovering their weapons. Alis and Odin tossed their packs away; they would have no use for them now. Defiantly they formed up ahead of Noah and Myau, never losing eye contact with the beast while taking the few steps forward, one hand each holding a laconian weapon, one arm each strapped with a shield. Their surprise had faded... now their minds were filled only with the solitary goal of destroying this evil.

Myau slowly crept to Noah's side, Fang in mouth. The Esper was still lying on the ground, and was breathing heavily. For what it was worth, the Musk Cat readied himself to defend his weakened comrade.

The demon moved forward an inch, but stopped immediately; Myau let out a low growl, and the laconian weapons were slightly raised in readiness. The beast retreated to its former position.

For how long this stalemate went on is unknown. Perspiration began to drip into the eyes of the warriors in front; but they would not move a hand to wipe it away. In that moment, there were only five beings in all of the universe... and nothing but death filled their thoughts.

The beast motioned slightly with one of its massive arms... and Alis and the others were momentarily overcome with an intense fear, as their hearts were filled with a desire to escape, to run away from this dread being.

But inside Noah's sack, still slung over his shoulder, the Aero-prism began to glow a deep green; its light momentarily flashed through the cloth of the bag, then subsided. The heroes felt their doubt and fear driven out, and they reasserted their dedication to the goal.

The force of darkness grinned malevolently. Somehow a test had been passed.

Odin could not maintain the inaction any longer. Charging forward, he deftly evaded a responsive slash by one of the demon's tentacles and brought his great axe crashing down into its shoulder. As quick as he moved in, he was out again, pulling the now blood-covered axe from the beast and rolling to the side. Myau, having left the Esper, flew in to deliver a double lightning strike of slashes to the already-wounded mid-section. Jumping off to the side of the monster opposite Odin, he left Alis alone to face it. She held her ground, awaiting its reaction to the powerful blows.

From somewhere inside the beast, now leaking blood in multiple areas, a laugh arose. It had been unfazed by the attacks. Seeing a momentary opportunity, Alis raised her sword into the air above her head, ready to charge in quickly. But she was beaten to the beast by shooting torrents of fire and wind that originated behind her. The blasts struck the creature one after another, staggering it backwards; turning her head for a split second, Alis saw Noah, still on the ground, readying another spell.

Regaining its poise, the demon thrust its right arm forward and lashed out with a magical blast of dark power. As Alis turned and ducked to avoid it, the energy collided with an invisible barrier before her, temporarily lighting it with a blue glow. But there was no respite as wave after wave of magic was spewed toward the shielding; each time it glowed a bit less bright, and Alis knew it would not hold for much longer.

Witnessing this from the side, Odin lunged forward again and brought the blade of his laconian axe into the still out-stretched arm of the creature. Before it could react, he had hacked away three times, nearly severing the appendage at the elbow. But with a violent swinging motion, the beast struck the warrior against the side of his head, sending him reeling backwards and losing the axe.

While its attention was diverted on Odin, Alis ran up and sliced off the remains of the arm with one quick downward slash of her sword. The demon howled in pain, but she was able to avoid its unfocused attempts at swatting her away and sliced its other arm before diving backward. A leaping Myau managed to cut open the face of the monster, then landed gracefully near his long time partner.

More fireballs impacted the creature as Noah regained his feet. The magic barrier had almost faded, and Alis used her shield to buffet herself and the reprising magical attacks of the beast. It was unrelenting, and she had no chance to dodge or counter-attack. Noah still stood defiantly, but with each blast that the barrier took, he was visibly forced backward. A seemingly endless stream of impacts rocked them both as the creature's other arm continued to generate massive amounts magical power.

Myau, leaping in and out of the being's reach, was not able to strike effectively, as mounds of tentacles swung everywhere. Only then had Odin finally recovered, regaining his axe, his face half-covered in his own blood.

With an animalistic growl, Odin heaved his massive weapon at the remaining arm of the beast... and the resultant impact carried the axe, along with the entire forearm, to an area some twenty feet on the other side of the creature. Two stumped appendages waved amidst the darkness, as the monster's rage continued to escalate. Both Odin and Myau ran back towards Alis and Noah for cover, as the demon seemed to expand the reach of its tentacles every moment.

Having lost its ability to produce magical attacks, the force of darkness hammered away incessantly at the group, seemingly from all angles, with innumerable tentacles. Alis and Myau were managing to fight off the limbs, but Noah and Odin, both weaponless, were completely occupied in avoiding the strikes. The Esper did not have time to concentrate to form another barrier, so continuously were they besieged.

No words were spoken... no thoughts clouded the minds of those gathered in the darkness. All was action, and reaction. Everytime it appeared that the beast was about to crush its opponents, a blinding flurry of slashes by Alis and Myau would push the being back.

But the stamina of the warriors was not limitless... after a lifetime of fighting, and defending, the four champions of Algo began to slow. They endured more impacts from the monster, took more time to react with each blow. The strength and ferocity of their resistance began to diminish... yet the hellspawn seemed to hold limitless reserves of power. Somewhere, deep inside the heroes, they knew that they are on their final legs. To continue in this manner much longer would mean certain failure.

Noah, the powerful Esper, had been beaten nearly unconscious. With each blow he could feel his senses slipping away. Myau, the tenacious Musk Cat, had lost the fighting edge he once held in speed and agility. And Odin, the great warrior, had more than a few broken bones, and was reduced to fighting off the beast with his bare hands.

But the hearts of these beings had not been weakened. Summoning all the remaining strength he could muster, Odin dove through the swirl of tentacles in a desperate attempt to reclaim his axe. The demon was far too quick, though, and he was beaten to the side with one brutal strike to the back of the neck. Landing near the mystical laconian weapon, he reached out a fractured hand... but was dead before his fingers could grasp his goal.

Myau had no time to witness this. Lunging forward into the creature itself, he aimed for the glowing, fiery eyes that begged for assault... but his diminished speed was laughably apparent, and he was knocked aside by a simple blow. Landing with a dense thud, he lay motionless several feet away.

Noah, ultimately responsible for the guardianship of these people, may have failed. A savage blow struck his abdomen, piercing his stomach. Falling to his knees, he knew that this last blow would be fatal. He was dying, and had mere seconds left. But as the life poured out of him, he gathered all his remaining skill, all his remaining power, all his remaining hope into one last spell. As it was cast, the Esper collapsed, dead.

And then all is still. The demon, pleased with its handiwork, pauses to savor the delicious possibilities of slaughtering the last of these pests.

Alis, the last, dropped her sword and fell to her knees. Overcome with the magnitude of their loss and the deaths of her companions, she wept, burying her face in her hands. The battle was over. They had failed.

And somewhere deep within, a spark was lit. She could feel it inside, growing, burning. It began to spread throughout her body, enveloping and embracing it. Holding out her hands, she shall them sparkle, and glow... and the creature was slowly, ever so slowly retreating.

Her body was now shimmering red, yellow, blue, red in the darkness. What was happening?

And at last, she knew. As the flames inside her finally spread to her mind, she knew. Or rather, she felt. She could feel the souls of her three companions, could sense their presences, as she was energized with their hope and love. It felt as though every atom of her being was alive with a new, immense source of energy and determination. Understanding had reached her. Noah, in his final act, had gathered the souls of her fallen comrades, including his own, and melded them into her being; all of their power was now within her form.

As the monster continued to shrink away in horror from the light she radiated, the heroine picked up her laconian sword and walked over towards Noah. Grasping the sack that now lay beside him, she drew the blade of the sword through it, and it slid gently down to the hilt, firmly attached. Turing back to the beast, she defiantly moved to it, easily overcoming its backward pace.

But it was soon held in place by an unseen power. Frozen in fear, it could not resist as Alis stood not two feet in front of the cowering demon's body. Raising her sword to her face, she mouthed a silent prayer of thanks to her friends. And for a split second, she saw a rich green glow emanating from within the bag she had taken from Noah.

In the next instant, Alis Landale of Palma, avenger, champion, Protector, drove her sword into the heart of the force of darkness.

A crescendo of light, motion, and agonized screaming rocketed upon her, and she fell to the ground, turning her back, shielding her eyes from the chaotic sight. The demonic being was ripped apart from the inside out, every molecule of its being becoming an exploding bomb that reduced its essence to free-flying packets of vicious energy.

But despite the sound and fury of the beast's annihilation, somehow Alis herself remained unscathed, unshielded though she was. The light and thunder soon subsided, and as she removed her hands from her eyes she was greeted with the warming laughter of her Musk Cat ally. Turning in an instant, she saw her three friends standing proudly in the spot the demon once held, smiling at her. She ran to embrace them all as tears formed in her eyes.

- - - - - - - - - -

And somewhere within the bowels of the spaceship Noah, now nearing Motavia, another demon was wracked with agony, its body convulsing with sensory shock and insidious, life-draining pains.

- - - - - - - - - -

After vanquishing the force of darkness, the heroes had been quite surprised at the following events. Light had filled the room, and they recognized it as being just another great room among the many in the governor's mansion. But even more surprisingly, the unconscious form of the governor himself, Sirus, lay sprawled before them.

Taking the governor, they made their way back to the main floor of the palace (they were all quite pleased to see that the monsters that had threatened them in the hallways had all vanished) where Sirus was attended to carefully. Explanations of the heroes quest and triumphs over Lassic and the demon were exchanged, and a great feast was held that night to honor the liberators of Palma. In truth the implications of what they had done were enormous and needed much attendance, but for a while everyone was content to relish their newfound freedom.

It was later that evening, as the party guests dispersed throughout the mansion, that Sirus asked Alis to join him privately in his state room. Leaving her companions to admire the beautiful Motavian sunset outside, she acquiesced.

"I'm glad that we have this time to speak to one another before the fallout from your actions reaches us, Alis," said Sirus with a smile, offering her a chair. Taking it, she sat, and he drew a chair up in front of hers near the fireplace. "There are very important matters that I must make you aware of... and a very important decision you must make."

Alis was intrigued by his attitude. "What kinds of matters, Governor?"

"Sirus, please," he responded. "Before I begin, you must understand something... I knew the King of Algo very well... we were the closest of friends, and I would do anything to honor his memory or fulfill his requests."

"...Okay..." Alis was unsure of the meaning of this.

"I have a story to tell you... and it will be very difficult, so please allow me to relate it without interruption."

Sensing he meant no insult by the comment, Alis nodded.

"Many years ago, when this city was nothing more than a fledgling colony on a harsh desert world, King Alex Ossale, the King of Algo, brooded over his position. At heart, he was an adventurer, a builder, a man of action. But haing been named the King of all Algo by his predecessor, a great man I also knew well, he became frustrated with the relative inaction of kingly duties... he felt that his gifts and talents were wasted. That is not to say he was not en effective ruler, as under his reign Palma had never been brighter... he was absolutely adored by the people. But still he yearned for change.

"And so, one day, he decided to join the still-birthing colony on distant Dezoris... to leave Palma and actively manage the building of the Skure settlement. Though many advised him against this course of action, both for fear of his safety and the vacancy he would leave behind, he would not be deterred. And so he, his wife, and his infant son left for Dezoris, joining those already living there. In his place, he left two key appointments... I, his friend, was named to directly oversee the Motavian colonies. And he left Lassic, his and my ally and friend, to oversee Palma."

Alis' eyes widened at this announcement. The idea that any man could be so foolish as to grant Lassic such power...

"In those days, my dear, Alex, Lassic and I were all the closest of friends, having served in our youth in the court of the King of Algo. When Alex was granted the throne, Lassic and I were also given important positions in the new regime. And so you must understand that no one knew of the madness that would later overcome Lassic and ravage the worlds of Algo.

"As I said, King Ossale left for Dezoris... but before he went, he called Lassic and I together, and we each pledged to lead the three planets of this system to the best of our ability... this became known to only the highest court attendants as the Triumvirate Pact.

"And for a time, we each fulfilled our oaths. Lassic guided Palma with a gentle hand, I did what I could to improve life for Palmans here, and Alex enjoyed his new, active life in Skure. He and his wife even had another child, a daughter, proving that life could indeed grow on the ice planet."

Here Sirus paused uncomfortably and shifted in his seat. For a few moments, it seemed that he was lost in another world, oblivious to the increasingly attentive Alis.

But his consciousness returned shortly. "But fate would not allow continued prosperity. In a conflict with the native Dezorian government, the King was charged with a horrific but completely unfounded crime. His wife, the queen... the queen was sentenced to death for her husband's offense, as is their custom, and was executed during the King's mock trial... shortly after that, the King was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. I can see that you wonder why the Palman forces did not prevent such a tragedy... it was because the King was a very wise man. He knew that any resistance to the 'official' Dezorian justice would lead to a full scale war with their people... and despite the loss to himself, he had no wish to see the future of both our races destroyed.

"He sacrificed himself, for the sake of the future. In the last in-person communication he had with the other leaders of Skure, he instructed them not to let anyone but the highest officials on the other planets know what had happened to him and his beloved queen. He was determined to live his life out in prison, keeping the secret of his tragedy, so that future generations would not be impeded in establishing peace with the Dezorians.

"Lassic, I, and a few others were the only ones off-Dezoris who were told what had happened. For all others, everything was normal...

"But that was not the end of the matter. While in prison, the King was routinely tortured, often for the amusement of his captors, other times in efforts to gain information on Palman aspirations on Dezoris. One lone Dezorian, whose name escapes me know, knew this was happening and knew that the entire procedure had been a gross warping of true Dezorian justice. He managed to smuggle a letter out from the King to a man in Skure... here it is..."

Sirus pulled a yellow, folded paper from his breast pocket and and, putting on his reading glasses, read it aloud. "'To my dearest friends... Those who have imprisoned me have revealed their true aim, and have subjected me to all manner of torturous practices... I fear that soon my will to resist will give out and I shall lay down and die, to finally rejoin my beloved. But this is of no consequence to me, as I have led a full and rewarding life. The purpose of this letter, which was brought to you by a trusted and compassionate Dezorian, is to inform you of my final royal order. You must remove my children from our settlement and place them in the care of my dear friend Lassic... I see now that it was a mistake to bring them to this harsh and dangerous world, and they must be removed to the safety of Lassic's care immediately. This is my last wish as your King, and as your friend. Peace be with you, my friends. Alex.'"

The continuing sadness of the tale was visibly affecting Alis, as she held back tears. The governor refolded the letter and held it in his lap. "The children were, of course, put on a shuttle immediately for rendevous with Motavia, at which point I myself was to send them to Lassic. With a great sadness in my heart, I received the boy and girl, and the two pilots who had brought them, in a private meeting. They stayed in my care secretly for two days as we made preparations to take them to Lassic.

"Tajim..." he called out. Seconds later, a door in the back of the room opened, and Master Tajim, the Esper, emerged and walked over to Sirus' side. His face, though aged, glistened with a faint but powerful smile. "Tajim, an ever-trusted personal advisor of mine, came to visit me, as he did often, during that time. With unwaivering persistence, he advised me not to give the children to Lassic... I must say, I was hard to convince, wasn't I Tajim?" Sirus and the Esper shared a light chuckle. "But I finally did grant his request... what was that you said that one evening, Tajim?"

"My memory of many things ebbs away in my path down the final road of life, Sirus, but I will always remember those words... 'These childrens' fates will decide the destiny of all Algo one day... and they must be protected at all costs. Only in a world that thinks them dead can they truly live,'" replied Tajim.

"Heh heh, you were always so cryptic, my friend... but also always right. The decision was made," he said, returning his attention to Alis, "to hide the children. After gaining the cooperation of the two escorts, I informed the Skure settlement, indeed the only ones who knew who the children really were, that they had died in a shuttle crash while entering our atmosphere. I must say that it was difficult to deceive the close friends I had in the town... but it was necessary. I personally informed Lassic of the same... and among all, I kept the secret within a secret of their existence.

"And so, I placed them with a family on Palma, though they were never told of the childrens' true origin. And over the years, I have done my best to remain apprised of their condition, though I myself could not directly involve myself in their affairs... the secret that Tajim and I have shared these many years has weighed heavy upon us, for not a day has gone by that I don't worry that I made the wrong decision in hiding them so."

Sirus held the letter up again and offered it to Alis. Unsure of his intent, she took it. She noticed a tear running down the governor's cheek.

"I think that it is best that you keep that letter... as it is the very last thing your father had ever written..."

Alis' eyes widened, and her mouth opened, but no sound came out. The tears she had been fighting back burst forth, yet still she did not move.

"The family I placed the children with were the Landales, Alis, your foster parents... you, and your brother, Nero, were the children of the King and Queen of Algo." It was at this point that Alis began sobbing. Sirus' reached out a hand for her, but withdrew it. Tajim looked on caringly, but neither spoke. The only sounds that filled the room were those of a weeping young girl.

Finally, after long minutes of crying, Alis slowly began to regain her composure, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. "My mother and father... they... they were good people?" she asked.

"They were, deservingly loved by all. I had never met a more honorable man or more caring woman... Alis, I can understand if you cannot forgive me for what I have done, for what I have kept from you... for indirectly causing your brother's death..."

"Sirus," Tajim said disapprovingly, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"I carry the responsibility for what has happened with me," the governor went on, "as do I the shame of disregarding your father's last wish. But I thought that you must know, once and for all, and so that is why I have told you this today."

Alis was again silent for many moments, but she continued to search the eyes of the aging, guilt-ridden man before her. She sighed, caringly. "You have no need to regret what you have done, Sirus... it was not you who caused Nero's death, and if it were not for you, surely Lassic would have destroyed us all. As sole heir to my father's legacy... I grant you absolution from your guilt." Here she could sit no longer, and rose to hug the governor tightly, he, the last living link to her parents' world.

After the hug had subsided, Tajim added, "There is one more consideration to discuss, is there not, Sirus?"

"True enough, old friend, true enough." Sirus stood, holding Alis at arm's length. "Alis Ossale Landale, your are the true and rightful heir to the Throne of Algo. The Triumvirate Pact has been dissolved, and we are without a ruler. Will you accept the title and be declared the Queen of Algo?"

Alis was aghast. Not once in the preceding moments had she considered such an implication. But it was there, staring her in the face. She stammered, "But... but I'm only... I don't have the ability or knowledge to rule... I..."

"You have shown your worthiness to lead by vanquishing Lassic and ridding our worlds of an unnatural evil... you have proven yourself in every sense of the word."

Alis tried to return Sirus' smile, but she was overwhelmed.

Queen of Algo.

"Do you think... my parents would have wanted that?"

Tajim and Sirus nodded their heads in unison.

Queen of Algo.

Alis took one huge breath, then kneeled before the governor. "If you agree to advise me, and help me adjust to the myriads of responsibilities a ruler must face... then I accept your offer to be named Queen of Algo." She looked up at Sirus and smiled brightly.

Goodness help us all, she thought playfully.

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