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The Beginning

by P L Nunn

 

The prayer bells of Meta-Rikan cut through the thin chilly air as they did every morning just at sun rise to beckon in a new day of worship. It was as if nothing were amiss in the world; and if one clung to the drowsy remnants of dreams and snuggled just a bit deeper into warm blankets, one might forget for a while that one's home was on the verge of siege. It was not a thing Tia Note Yoko dwelled much upon -- the armies that darkened the plains to the south of Meta-Rikan. At sixteen, her world consisted of much less dire things than the defense of the world against all the evils that men like her father and the king and his council sat for hours discussing. She trusted them to her safety. They had always seen to it. For almost all of her life, brief as it was, she had known security and love. The War had ended before she had quite been a year old. It had claimed her mother, a tragedy which Father never discussed, and though Yoko mourned never knowing that lady, she could not quite mourn the loss of a woman she had never known with the depth of grieving that Geo Note did. For fourteen years since, they had traveled once a year to the grave on the hill outside the city; a grave among many such graves of those who had lost their lives during that final, horrible battle between sorcerers fifteen years past. She always brought flowers and sat and said a little prayer, while Father merely knelt with bowed head before the stone.

They had gone this last year, but Father had cut the visit short, fearful of being out of the city and unprotected what with all the mercenaries and bandits who were passing through the lands. Only two months past Judas to the South had fallen to the armies of the Four Lords of Havoc on their relentless sweep southward. Yoko had no notion what they were after, only privy to the whispers and speculations of the other girls and boys her age when they gathered for prayers or practice or studies. Father talked little about it with her, keeping more and more to his own council these days. It could not be that bad, if Father did not feel the need to explain it to her. On the other hand- and she only dwelled on this when she was particularly morose -- it might be so bad that he would not speak with her in order to protect her peace of mind.

With some lack of enthusiasm, Yoko pushed the covers back and swung her legs out of bed. The morning air was cool and she hurried to dress. There seemed to be in her chest a certain lack of garments. There was a hamper for dirty clothes in the corner, which she unfortunately had not gotten around to washing of late. One supposed her favorite things where crumpled there. She shrugged into a less pleasing outfit. Leggings and undertunic which were not of a color that went well with sunlight tinted-auburn hair. She wrinkled her pert nose at the overtunic before lifting it to slip over her head.

The door to her room swung open and there she stood with nothing but the sheer material of the under garment protecting her modesty from the boy in the doorway. Yoko let out a little squeal of displeasure and dropped the tunic over her head and settled it about her slim shoulders. She marched to the door without belting it and glared into the wide eyed face of Rushie. He opened his mouth to speak and she cut him off with an angry condemnation.

"Don't you have any decency? Do you just walk into a lady's room without knocking? You know privacy is a thing to be treasured. Did you see anything you shouldn't have?"

The boy shut his mouth. Swallowed, dark eyes even wider, dark hair tousled as if he'd jumped right out of bed without ever gaining the acquaintance of a comb. Rushie was a year her junior, but small for his age. He had more the look of a twelve year old than a young man of fifteen. It was more than the slimness of his form, more a innocence of expression that most boys his age had long since lost to adolescent mischievousness and budding thoughts of puberty and sex. On any other boy, she might not have believed the look of pure astonishment at her question.

"Did I see anything --- anything what?" Rushie asked innocently. He had in his hands a folded stack of clothing. The lot of them seemed of a uniform pale pink, although there was a vaguely familiar bright red skirt among them. Yoko narrowed her eyes.

"Is that my skirt?"

Rushie's astonishment faded and he smiled. "I did your laundry, Yoko. You left them in the lockers after practice and I thought you would like them cleaned."

She blinked at him. Then reached out and snatched the clothing, piece by piece from the stack. The tunic was silk and had once been white, as had the under tunic and her panties. She blanched when he held up that one remaining piece of her intimate apparel.

"You idiot!" She wailed, grabbing for the panties and slapping him alongside the head in the same roundhouse motion. "Look what you ---How could you --- you ruined ---Rushie, you moron!"

He blinked at her with the same baffled expression that usually crossed his face when he did something that sent her into a frenzy. He was always doing something. He tried so hard to please her - he always had, ever since she could remember, Rushie had been following in her footsteps, a cheerful, friendly little personality that wasn't her brother, but whom Father seemed guardian over. No one else had ever claimed him, as far as she knew. Another orphan of the war, but one the high priest of Meta-Rikan had taken in as his own and raised with his own daughter. She fussed with him and occasionally smacked him about when he did something particularly moronic, but she never stayed mad with him, because deep down, she knew she was all he had and that he loved her. For no reason she had ever been able to discern, people in general held themselves distant from the boy. Even Father, who had fed and clothed and seen after his education, kept himself strangely aloof from the boy. Rushie didn't seem to notice. If he did, he never complained. He seemed content with Yoko being the center of his universe. And anyone who treasured her that much could be forgiven certain shortcomings. Although ruining her best white tunic -- oh for that she would have to carry a grudge. At least for a little while.

He was still standing there when she slammed the door in his face. Muttering darkly to herself, she stalked about while she finished dressing, combed her hair and made her bed. When she opened the door again he was gone.

The day was already starting to warm, although the cool stone of the passageway outside her room was cold as always. She hurried up to the covered walk that lead from the dormitory attached to the cathedral where she stayed with her father, to the rest of Meta-Rikan castle. There seemed a great number of people rushing about this early in the morning. Normally before breakfast there were only novice priests on their way to prayers or servants bringing breakfast trays to their masters. Yoko had practice this morning. Martial fighting skills that every hopeful Holy Swordsman of the Church needed be proficient in. She very much wanted to attain that lofty position. She had little patience for the quieter and more peaceful vocation of holy priestess that Father had hoped she might wish for and he was still wary of her intentions of entering the order of Holy Swords. But, as her friends in practice told her, he was merely being a father, protective of his only child. Being a Holy Sword was the safest of professions, especially in this time when the South was under attack by armies from the north.

A young guardsman, whom Yoko was acquainted with walked towards her in the company of one of his fellows. His name was Dukkan and she had for the last year or so, since he had joined the royal guard, had a crush on him. At eighteen, he had grown out of the gangliness of youth and filled out his uniform nicely. Red hair and a spattering of freckles and a ready, foolish smile. He made her giggle when they talked.

"Dukkan." She waved at him, smiling shyly. The two young men paused.

"Lady Tia Note."

She blushed a little at the formality. She supposed he was on duty and in the company of his fellow guardsman her position as daughter of the high priest called for respect. She didn't know if she could carry on a decent conversation with him, being called Lady this and Lady that.

"You're out early." She commented on the obvious. "Have they got you practicing before breakfast?"

"No practice." Dukkan frowned. "Don't you know? They're outside our walls. They've been there since late into the night. Rikan town is in flames."

She stared at him in shock, disbelieving what she heard. "But -- how? I've heard no sounds of battle ---?" She broke off, for the smell of smoke was in the air and over the roof of the cathedral scriptorium gray clouds of ash and smog drifted into the morning sky.

"Oh -- Goddess." She whispered, clasping her hands before her breast to still the shaking. Dukkan and his comrade looked on her in sympathy, the former reaching out and clasping her shoulder in a firm, supportive grasp.

"We'll hold them off, Yoko. The forces of Meta-Rikan are the finest in the land."

They left her to go to their posts and she could not quite summon the duty to go to practice after hearing such dire news. Rikan town in flames? She knew people in Rikan town. Had the people been evacuated behind the walls of the castle? Oh please let it be so.

Knowing that she ought not, but egged on by a pulsing, horrible curiosity she went to the outside walls beyond the cathedral. Narrows stairs led upwards to various levels where defenders might perch. The first she passed, the window openings no more than slits for archers. The next was a walk some eight feet in width where more archers and armored warriors patrolled. She slipped in amongst them, and though many stared at her presence, none warned her down. The town could be seen from here, if she leaned over the edge between crenalations. The smoke was so dense that the charming little thatch buildings could hardly be seen. Only the stone clocktower stood out amidst the fog. Spots of flame glowed here and there. In the forests beyond, there was a sluggish, dark undulation. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bodies moving outside Rikan Town.

The armies of the Four Lords of Havoc. She had only heard tales of the creatures those dire lords employed in their campaigns. Beast men and monsters, so the rumors went. Things with no human decency in their dark souls. If they had souls. The opinion in the church varied on that subject. She pulled away from the wall with dread in her chest. Quietly and quickly slipped down the stairs and back into the tranquillity of the cathedral grounds. There was a bent old willow that she favored for time alone and to that she went, settling in amidst its twisted roots.

War. Again. Twice in her lifetime Meta-Rikan was threatened and for what? To control a people; a land for wealth or power? Goddess knew they were not a rich people like Judas to the South had been. They had no gold mines to their names. No diamonds glinted in the rocks of their mountains. They were farmers and stonesmithes and craftsmen. Didn't the Four Lords of Havoc know that? Didn't they know that anything she had, she would gladly give them if only to stop the pillage.

"Yoko?" An uncertain voice called her name. She looked up, blinking moisture from her eyes, then wiped at them furiously when she realized she had been crying. Rushie stood at the edge of the shade, half in and half out of the sunlight. A creeping trail of willow branches grazed his cheek.

"What?" she snapped, irritated to be spied in her weakness. His wide, expressive eyes were dark with apprehension and the realization that he had no doubt heard that the town was in flames and the castle under attack made the anger flee. "Oh, Rushie." She held out her hand and he came forward, settling beside her on the roots.

"They -- they said at the well that monsters were outside the walls. That we-- we're probably all going to die."

"Who said that? That sounds like the idle chatter of maids who're avoiding their chores. No one's going to die."

He stared at her hopefully. He always took her words to heart. She reached out and hugged him against her. "Our warriors are strong, Rushie. We won the last war. Don't you study your history?"

"But that's only because they went away when the Dragon Prince defeated their leader. He's not here now."

"My father's here." She said. "The high priest of Meta-Rikan is a force to be reckoned with. He'll make sure we're safe."

He nodded slowly, wanting to believe her, but holding all the insecurities of a boy whose world was about to be overturned. A boy would tend to be a little nervous of assurances of safety when all the grown ups around him were babbling about monsters in the streets of Rikan Town. Yoko sighed, content for the moment with Rushie's slim warmth against her. For a moment the world was as it should be, safe and happy and shrouded in love. Then the cathedral bells began to ring. It was a discordant sound compared to the usual smooth flowing chime. The bells were not supposed to ring now. They weren't supposed to ring till noon.

Rushie perked up, peering out from under the shade to the sun draped ground of the commons where people had started to scatter this way and that. Warriors in the livery of the Cathedral guard were running to the walls. A trio of Holy Swords, hurried towards the grand entrance of the Cathedral itself.

"What's going ----" Yoko's question was cut off as something boomed. A deep reverberating crack of sound that seemed to make the air itself waver. A breath later and the ground shook. Far away, cries from men atop the wall drifted past the sound of crumbling stone.

The walls were falling. The walls of Meta-Rikan were falling.

 

* * * * *

 

The city of Judas was in flames. Its defenders bleeding the last of their life's blood into the hungry earth. The smoke was so thick and black that it made day seem as night. And the creatures that had wrecked such havoc prowled the burning streets of what had once been a proud, rich city and desecrated what ever scrap of Judas remained. The cries of women and children echoed through the streets like the laments of ghosts. The men were all dead.

The smoke, obligingly wafted away from the ridge where the Four Lords of Havoc watched the final destruction of Judas. The wind and the weather were ever their allies, and it had been blowing from the south since the fire began with no sign of rain ever to come. Cloaks billowed in it, hair ruffled. Fair hair; dark.

"Feeble." A shift of pale blue eyes under a fringe of pale hair. A look to the city, then over the mulling mass of the army that spread out between it and them. "And Judas was the strongest resistance so far. Their armies supposedly the finest in the lands." A laugh. A turn of soft lips pressed into a hard line from distaste. A valiant ray of sun broke through the clouds and caught the slant of fine cheek bone, the glint of metal armor under a pale silken cloak.

"There is no army that can withstand our forces." A darker, burlier man leaned across the high pommel of his saddle and waved an arm negligently at the chaos below. "There was no doubt that Judas would be ours, Kall-Su."

The third of them sat back in a billowing fall of dark robes, short dark hair a stern frame for a long face and angular nose. When he smiled it was wolfish and not at all pleasant to gaze upon. "The first seal is ours, my friends. Victory is almost within our reach."

The blue eyes shifted his way. "Ah, but there are three more, Abigail, to be broken before Ansasla can be resurrected."

"And who stands against us that can hope to stop our forces now? Not Meta-Rikan. Its might has scattered to the four winds in the years since ---- he was defeated. There is no one, my dear Kall-Su."

An elegant blonde brow lifted. Kall-Su inclined his head marginally in wary agreement. "A fitting example, Abigail, of misplaced confidence in one's own power. There is no one who is undefeatable."

The sorcerer, Abigail shrugged, glancing askew at the fourth Lord of Havoc, who silently watched the devastation behind him. Silver armor from the hand of a smith who might not have been entirely human, so finely crafted was it. The helm that covered most of the shadowed face was in the form of an animal. The eyes under the crafted wolf eyes of the helm never flinched from the vista of Judas burning.

"Perhaps." Abigail said. "Perhaps not. But I tend to think that when our lord Ansasla has come back, that it will tend towards the latter."

"My lords---" A pounding of heavy steps up the hill behind them. The honor guard let a runner past. A burly, sweating man with the low forehead and broad mouth of a half-breed. "Reports in from the 7th army at Meta-Rikan. The sorcerer Kebi-Dabu has breached the outer walls of the castle. The city is about to fall."

Kall-Su nodded. "Very well."

The runner bowed low, and scrambled away, eager to be away from the dire presence of the Four Lords. Abigail smiled benignly, as though this news were the hard proof his argument needed. The dark haired warrior on Kall-Su's left snorted with more skepticism than gloating.

"Amazing, considering what a fool Kebi-Dabu is."

"Perhaps he is a fool, Gara," Abigail shrugged. "But he is a powerful one. And fools are easily controlled when the right bait is offered. Meta-Rikan is the perfect tool to cut his teeth; the legendary city where the final battle of the old war was finished. Too weak now to defend against even a portion of our armies."

Gara laughed. "Fifteen years ago and in the interim it fell and this burning bulk before us rose to dominance in its place. Of course it took Dark Schneider with it; the greatest mage the world has ever known. It will have that requiem even when it's no more than ashes."

Kall-Su drew a shuddery breath, as if some pain had fluttered across his heart. He lowered long, pale lashes, for the moment cutting out the sight of death and fire. "Don't dwell on it, Gara. It's past."

For a moment the dark eyes of the warrior fixed on Kall-Su's pale face, his lips parted as if on the verge on some other comment. He decided against it and snapped his mouth shut, nodding once, more to himself than the others. Behind them the armored lord shifted, flames glinting off polished armor.

Judas continued to burn.

 

* * * * *

 

The world shook. Yoko fought back a squeal and held on tight to Rushie's arm as they ran across the court yard towards the Cathedral, two amidst a river of priests, servants, women and their children; who sought the sanctuary of the church. Two guards at the massive wooden doors beckoned them frantically to hurry.

"They're inside the walls." One cried. "Hurry. We must seal the doors."

Her heart fit to burst from fright, Yoko dragged Rushie up the last steps and down the long hallway into the grand chamber. She vaguely heard the hollow echo of the doors slammed shut behind them, and massive wooden beams shot down into their brackets. She held onto Rushie as she waded among the terrified folk. There seemed so few here. A hundred people, maybe less. Where were the others? In the chambers under the palace? In the auditoriums where public functions were held? Were those places as safe as the great cathedral. She was not the only one who wondered. Speculation ran rampart. Voices raised in hysteria. Children screamed in bewilderment. It seemed as much chaos in here, as there was outside where their able bodied men fought to keep the invaders from their homes.

She found a corner and leaned into it, holding onto Rushie as her one bastion of comfort in a world gone mad.

"I'm scared, Yoko." He whispered once when an explosion rocked the cathedral and sent bits and pieces of plaster wafting down on their heads.

"Don't be. Be brave. We have to be brave if we're to survive this." She tried to convince herself of the same thing, but she was shaking.

It was nightmare. Hellish and horrible with the sounds of battle outside, the sounds of things that could not have been human or anything close to it, bellowing their war cries into Meta-Rikan air. She saw the robed figures of priests scurrying with arms full of precious manuscripts and codex's towards the catacomb entrances. More holy men clustered about the alter in the naive, heads bent together in frightened consideration. Something pounded on the doors and she thought --Goddess, they're breaking into the cathedral. But the Holy Swords scattered about the chamber seemed unperterbed. Those stoic women and men held their positions, gauntleted hands resting on the hilts of sheathed swords. But the people, for the most part, were not comforted by the calm of their few defenders. A clamor went up, a bubbling hysteria that threatened to send the refugee's into a frenzy.

"They're here!" A woman screamed. "Goddess save us, they're at the doors. We'll all die."

Other's took up the lament.

"No." A clear loud voice broke through the rising furor. "We are yet safe."

Through the collection of priests behind the alter, a young woman stepped to the edge of the podium over looking the crowd. Dark hair trailed down silken, embroidered robes. Jewels glinted at her throat and on the slim tiara that circled her brow. Half a hundred gasps whispered through the chamber. At least that many murmured her name.

"Princess Sheela. The princess is here with us."

Yoko whispered it herself, staring up at the girl she had known as a child, but had grown distant with over the last half dozen years. The princess stood before a trio of Holy Swords, all women, who hovered behind her protectively. The princess lifted a slender hand and called for silence with a motion. She commanded respect. Her family line was old and respected. Her father had won a kingdom and her brother a bloody war.

"The Cathedral is the mightiest stronghold in Meta-Rikan. Our priests have woven spells of protection into its very stones. This alter --" And she moved aside to let all the frightened people see the grand marble and gold alter. "--Is a thing of power in itself. Created to protect the faithful. Calm yourselves. Panic will achieve us nothing."

"But, your majesty -- the king is gone from the city with his royal guard. The Dragon Prince has been campaigning these last five years. Who will protect us?"

"We protect ourselves." Sheela said. "We have our Holy Swords and our High Priest. We shall hold out until the King returns."

The princess's dark eyes passed over the faces, paused briefly on Yoko. She inclined her head, a recognition that surprised Yoko to no ends. Then attention was drawn elsewhere, as a group of white robed priests marched into the chapel. More hushed whispering. People parted to let the group past. The man in the fore was almost as respected in Meta-Rikan as the king himself. The High Priest, Geo Note. Yoko's father.

He paused in the center of the chapel, scanning the people gathered about him. When his gaze fixed on Yoko and Rushie, he did not pass them by, but strode towards her with purpose in his gait. The thought of running into his embrace did not enter her mind. He had never been the most affectionate of parents, but he had taught her to be strong and independent. She lifted her chin and attempted a brave smile.

"We're okay, Father."

"Yoko, we need to speak."

She blinked at him, looked around at all the curious stares and felt a twinge of self-consciousness. She gazed up at him expectantly, trembling. He put one large hand on her shoulder, squeezing firmly, as if to buffer her strength. His face was craggy with age and the tensions of his position. His hair was graying more each year, but his mustache was still as rich a brown as it had been in his youth. He gauged her emotions, as he always did, by studying the clues her eyes gave away. She never knew how he did it, but he could always read her moods. His eyes slid to Rushie momentarily and a low sigh, almost of regret passed his lips.

"Come over here, where we might speak in private."

She pried Rushie's fingers from her arm and walked under the guidance of her father's arm, away from prying ears. The eyes still followed them.

"What's going to happen, Father? Can we withstand them?"

"It seems unlikely. The king is gone with the cream of our fighting force. The enemy seems limitless and they employ magic and arcane creatures."

"But father, you know magic."

"I am alone. Of the Five Clerics who once commanded such holy power, I am all that is left, girl. I'm not enough. Do you remember the spell I taught you became a woman?"

Heat rose to Yoko's cheeks. Talking of a girl's first bleeding with her father was not a comfortable thing. Thinking of that spell, which Father had told her might never come of anything, was equally so. He had given her a spell scroll and made her memorize it backward and forward and sat her down to a full day of fasting to purify her mind and body to fully accept the magic's potential. It was the first spell he had ever taught her and she had, at the time, been eager to fulfill his every requirement. What had he said to her? We create a magical seal that exists within you, Yoko. A seal that guards an evil presence that must be locked away in the prison of an innocent. You are the key, Yoko. It is a great responsibility, and to fulfill it, you must remain pure of body and strong of mind.

She had taken his words to heart. That he had given her such obligation was the greatest token of his respect that he could ever have bestowed. Father did not deliver burdens to others easily. How many years ago, had she memorized the requirements of that spell? Three? Four? The chant wafted through her head like a melody. The words of summoning an overtone beyond it. The physical actions required slapped her in the face so hard her mouth dropped open and she blinked dazedly up at Father.

"But -- you said I'd never have to use it. You said it was precaution only."

He waved an arm about them, steadied her and himself as the cathedral shook from an impact from without. "There is that in Meta-Rikan which must be protected, child. There is no withstanding the forces against us without formidable help. You're right, I never thought -- I preyed to the gods that it would never come to this --that I would have to undo what I did fifteen years past. But there is no other option if we and this city are to survive."

"But --but, father what innocent? Whose the innocent, if I'm the key?"

His eyes flickered past her to the corner she had left where Rushie still cowered, watching them both with large, frightened eyes.

"Oh, Goddess." She moaned. "I can't believe this. This cannot be happening. Why him? How can it be him?"

Father did not seem interested in philosophizing at the moment. He shook her shoulder gently, but firmly and started her in the direction of the boy. With a hiss she shook herself out from under her grip, retreated a few steps away from both him and Rushie and screeched.

"No! I won't do it. I can't do it!"

The outburst drew the fixed attention of every set of eyes in the chapel. The white robed priests who had come in with Father gathered behind him, staring at her with condemning, solemn eyes. She glared at them all.

Princess Sheela stepped up behind her, concern on her face.

"What is this all about, Great Priest?"

"It is about the salvation of Meta-Rikan."

Yoko drew breath, shaking from head to toe, feeling her head go light and dizzy. She had to force the air into her lungs where it belonged.

"How?" Sheela demanded.

"Our magic is Holy in nature, princess. We can defend, but not -- it seems with enough accuracy to stop the sorcerer our enemies have pitted against us. We are overpowered."

"No." Sheela whispered. "I had hoped we might have time for my father's return."

"There is a way --" One of Father's supporters said.

Geo Note nodded. "We have access to a wizard with the power to overcome our enemies."

"What wizard?"

Father stabbed a finger towards Rushie, who blinked owlishly at the attention. "A wizard trapped within that boy. A wizard whom only my stubborn daughter has the power to call forth."

Sheela stared at Yoko. Yoko blushed to the bottom of her feet and looked anywhere but the princess's serious stare.

"How can Yoko do such a thing? How is that boy --Rushie -- the vessel for such a power?"

"Yoko is the possessor of a magic seal. A seal of purity that must be broken if any of us are to live. The seal can only be broken by the power of a virgin's first kiss."

Oh that did it. Father didn't even bother to lower his voice. In fact, it seemed to Yoko that he raised it dramatically there at the end. A murmur went up about the room. Yoko clenched her fists and glared at the floor. Father shook a finger at her.

"No more nonsense girl. If we can reach this terrible decision then you can do your duty and carry it out. Prepare yourself."

"But -- what if I'm not the right person for the spell? What if there's another girl who's more pure?" She looked hopefully at Sheela who blinked back at her blankly. No help there. She tried to recall, had she actually kissed Dukkan? Was a mere crossing of lips considered a real kiss, or did there have to be tongues involved?

"You're the only one." Father was beginning to sound angry. She hated it when Father fussed at her. He motioned to one of his priests and the man stalked over to Rushie and snagged the boy out of the corner. It was a very reluctant boy who was brought to stand next to Yoko. A very reluctant and confused Rushie, who looked to her for guidance. Oh wonderful, as if she had any to give, when her own head was spinning.

The walls of the cathedral shook. Something outside that sounded like the screaming of the worst of winter storms broke against the walls. They should have held. Sheela had said there were wards, but they didn't. A beam fell, and chunks of masonry from above. Again the crack of impact and a great tapestry covering the outer wall sagged in, man sized stones pushed out of place and pulling it down to lay rumpled on the floor. People screamed, fleeing from the sagging wall, covering their heads to protect against falling rock and wood. Father screamed something and threw up his hands -- casting some spell of protection over the scrambling folk.

"Yoko!" Sheela gave her one last, pleading look, before she too ran for the relative safety of the inner wall. Rushie tried to follow. Yoko caught his arm, spinning him about to face her. He looked up at her, all fear and innocence. Oh, why hadn't father told her it was him? Her young friend, closer than a brother, a confidant dearer than her aloof father. He started to talk to her and out of embarrassment and frustration and sheer fear she slapped him.

"Shut up. Just shut up a minute and --- and sit down." She dropped to her knees, pulling him with her. Hesitantly he lifted one hand to his cheek, red from her blow. She was crying and his own eyes whelled up in sympathetic response. He didn't understand. She barely did. A chunk of stone fell and shattered on the floor not five feet away. Rushie flinched from it. Yoko hardly noticed. She delved deep within herself, calling up the melody of the chant, summoning the holy power. Slowly, as if in a daze, she placed a hand on Rushie's slender chest.

"Accept this -- in the name of Eno-Marta," her voice was a low, lulling mantra. She felt something stir within her. A brightening of color in the dimmer parts of her soul. "Our beloved Goddess of beauty. Break now this seal."

So simple, save for the kiss. She leaned forward and touched her lips to his trembling ones. Soft. The taste of tears on her mouth. Not the shy, half flirtatious kiss, she had shared with Dukkan, but something pulled deep from her heart. Something she meant for a boy she truly loved.

She pulled back, face burning. Rushie's eyes had never looked so large, dark pits in his pale, astonished face. They stared at each other, mutely, while the castle crumbled around them. And nothing happened. Nothing until Father let out a howl of frustration.

"Nooo! Yoko, you said you were still a virgin!!"

Her vision tunneled somewhat, going black at the edges. First he declares her virginity to the whole of the world, then he cries out at her lack of it. Yoko sprang to her feet, for the moment forgetting the crumbling walls and the mortifying kiss in front of every priest in Meta-Rikan.

"Father! How dare you ----? How can you say such a thing?"

"You chanted the spell correctly?" He demanded.

"Of course." She shot back.

"The incanta ---" he stopped in mid-sentence, staring beyond her with narrowed eyes. She whirled, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention. Rushie was hunched over, his dark head touching his knees, his arms wrapped tight about his body, shaking uncontrollable. She almost reached out to him, but something in the air stopped her. She drew her hand back in as if it might be snapped off and watched as the air about the boy almost seemed to shimmer. A jagged line of electricity sparked over his head, then another, hungry to join its brethren. They seemed to be striking Rushie's body, passing through it, creating light about him where before there had been cold, gray stone. He shuddered as if it hurt and she did move towards him, wanting to take it back. To stop any pain she might be the cause of.

A step, two and the light about him flared, turning angry and orange, sporting the heat of flames. She was flung to the floor. Every wall scone in the chapel flared to sudden and furious life, casting the whole of the great chamber in a flickering orange light. Through the bright flare at the center of the chapel, she thought she saw Rushie look up, but it wasn't his eyes staring out of the boyish face. And then it wasn't his face at all. The flames transfigured it, melding it, molding it into something else entirely. Short, dark hair lightened, snaking out in tendrils that flowed about the foreign face. The huddled body arched and grew, ripping out of a small boy's clothing and towering to naked feet. In the pulsing light of power and magic ripping into the world, a man's body threw back its head and howled wordlessly, furiously at reality in general.

Yoko cowered, hands over her mouth, knees knocking together in shock. The blinding light faded and it left a man devoid of clothing save for the thick mass of silver hair that flowed about his shoulders and back. He was laughing. His eyes, which had at first glowed an demonic orange, had faded to a pale, ice-blue, made all the more startling by abundant black lashes. One could just see finely arched dark brows under a unkempt fringe of thick bangs. Even with the silver hair, he would never be mistaken for an old man, not with that face that caught a body's eyes and just held them like some sort of beautiful, deadly trap, and that body which was -- well, Yoko had no words for just how riveting this man's naked body was, but old, out of shape or ordinary most certainly were not among them. What few glances she had ever had of unclothed males, had not prepared her for the sight of him . At first, while he was laughing like a mad-man, all he did was stare at his hands, turning them over and over as if he had expected some other appendages at the ends of his arms.

"I am reborn." She heard him declare, and he laughed a bit more. Then he realized he was not alone. That there were in fact some hundred odd people staring at him as they might an exhibit in a zoo. He canted his head to one side, staring back at them, hardly noting Yoko's sprawled form on the floor in front of him. A sly smile crossed his lips.

"How long has it been?" he asked of no one in particular. He stalked towards holy priest and stabbed a finger in the man's face. "How many years?"

The man clutched at his chest and jabbered incoherently. "F-f-fifteen y-y-years."

A brow lifted. One long fingered hand reached out and gathered the fine material of the man's over tunic. "You don't mind, do you?" he inquired even as he ripped it up, snapping the belt and over the priest's head. He settled it over his own, mindless of the eyes upon him. It barely came to his knees. He silently held out a hand and the old priest, standing there in his undertunic, handed over the frayed belt.

"I like that cloak." The wizard mentioned to another priest and was hastily handed a red, silken cloak. All this time and Yoko stared at him as if he were a monster. It occurred to her dazed brain, that Rushie was no where to be seen. That somehow this - thing - this frighteningly beautiful man - had devoured her dear friend.

"Where's Rushie?" she whispered, voice hoarse in her own ears. Then louder, to be heard over the sounds of battle outside. "Where's Rushie, damn you?"

He glanced over his shoulder at her, and even his sidelong glance sent shivers of -- something -- up her spine. His mouth turned up in a smile that was less mocking than that he had sent the priests.

"I am Rushie. But the spell has transformed me -- given me back my real self. Perhaps you've heard of me? Dark Schneider?"

She stared, aghast. Oh, she had heard. Heard so many tales of that particular wizard and his evil doings to fill a lifetime's worth of nightmares. And this was what her father had brought back into the world?

He walked towards her and she froze, like a rabbit caught in open ground. Goddess he was tall, and those eyes, when he looked down at her were mesmerizing. The eyes of a predator. He held out a hand. She stared at it dubiously. Patience was not one of his stronger suits. He tired of waiting for her and reached down, grabbed her under the arm pits and hauled her to her feet. For a second, his hands lingered. She shied back from him. How could it be? How could Rushie have any connection to this --mythical creature? She turned desperate eyes to her father. He stood across the chamber, with Princess Sheela at his side, his priests surrounding them both, watching the wizard fixedly. Sheela's eyes were wide, her mouth pressed tight. This was, after all the enemy of her brother. The man her brother and his armies and his phalanx of clerics, had managed to defeat fifteen years ago.

"How can it be?" Sheela whispered. "How could that boy have held such a thing within him?"

Schneider chuckled, pale eyes drifting to rest on Geo Note. "Oh, please, do tell her, old man. Tell her what you did."

Geo Note's mouth tightened. A muscle twitched in his jaw. He said nothing.

"Was it morality on your part, to find a nebulous host for me -- an embryo not out of its mother's womb -- or greed? To sacrifice the identity -- the sanctity of an unborn, to take away it's own self -- merely to create a prison for me -- why that smacks of unholy practices, great priest."

"Father?" Yoko sidled away from the wizard. "Is it true?"

"No. Not the way he tells it. You know we had no choice. You had cast Rebirth, you sly deceiver and had I not directed the flow of that spell, you would have come back to haunt us. Thousands more would have died."

"And they won't now that you've been kind enough to bring me back?"

People shifted, beginning to be as wary of this threat among them as they were of that outside. "But, you've got to help us." A woman cried. "He said you would help us."

"Yes, we brought you back. You owe us." That from a priest.

Schneider laughed, whirled around to cast his glare on the lot of them - or perhaps, and Yoko, did not know why she felt this - merely to enjoy the feel of the cloak swirling about his legs, and the passing of air on his skin.

"Owe you? I'm not a sword for hire, you imbecile. I do believe I've plans of my own that need be finished. Oh --" he had turned full circle and faced Geo Note again. "--But first, I have a score to settle with you, old man."

He smiled, a perfectly beatific smile that turned nasty a moment before his eyes took on a orangish glow and his hair began to shift as if a wind had gotten into the chapel to disturb it. Geo Note took a breath, balled one fist and spread the fingers of the other. His lips moved in silent chant, the beginnings of a spell. Schneider was not so subtle. Power lanced about him, as if it had missed him in his absence. He spread both hands before him and screamed out two words.

"DIE GEO!"

Some spell gathered in the air. Yoko had no time to think. Just a flash of the image of her father falling under this dark wizard's magic and knowing she had to stop it. She ran the few steps towards Schneider -- Rushie? - and reached out to grab the billowing cloak.

"Stop! Goddess, please stop. You say you're half Rushie -- well, Rushie would never do this."

He glanced back at her, a flash of white teeth, a glimmer of sparks in his eyes. The magic held static - he had that much power of it that he could hold it back when it wanted to find release. "But, he's my enemy, Yoko. He did this to me. Its only fitting he be the first to die in my conquest of the world."

He was so matter of fact in these earth shattering statements and he was not in the mood to listen to the pleas of a hysterical girl. He turned his back on her. Ignored her as he spat out his own incantations. A sizzling globe of energy formed between his hands. She stumbled backwards, stunned by the power of it. Saw through the nimbus of purplish light her father standing staunchly, abandoned by his priests. She couldn't move. She wanted to. She wanted to find something -- a sword, a torch, anything and pummel Rushie ---no no no -- Schneider with it until he called of his magic. But the fear was too strong. And then it was too late.

Schneider screamed out the final word of the spell and a force of energy that seemed to come from innumerable points in the air overhead, but from in the most part from Schneider himself, blasted towards Father. It washed over the alter and dais like a wave of turbulent water, and took out most of the circular reliquary cubbys behind the alter, but when the light faded and the energies had expended themselves. Geo Note still stood. Albeit, he sagged, and his face was pale and beaded with sweat.

Yoko took a great breath of relief, knees almost buckling. Schneider merely tilted his head, not even breathing hard and looked curiously at the high priest. "You know, that's not half bad, old man. But -- I can do better--"

 

 

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