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The cracks of thunder were muffled by layers upon layers of cold stone. Even the shuddering of the earth as lightning struck again and again, was subdued in the depths of the fortress. Servants scurried quietly and quickly, keeping to the shadows, fearful of ever gaining the notice of their dread lord. There were some places they never went. Those that did, were lost forever.
Boot heels echoed down the halls, a lonely sound bouncing off stone walls and towering chiseled columns. At the very depths of the fortress, towards great brass doors, Kall-Su walked. The fine material of his white cloak swirled about his polished black boots. His armor and the tunic over it were impeccable as ever. That he felt the need to wear it here, in a fortress that had been safe haven for the Four Lords of Havoc for almost ten years, was a matter he would be hard pressed to explain. Perhaps it was the all encompassing hugeness of the place that made him feel vulnerable. Perhaps the nervous stares of the servants, who feared him and ran like rats to do his bidding, but who nonetheless looked upon him as an abomination. Perhaps there was no one he truly trusted, not even his fellow lords.
He hesitated at the great, engraved brass doors, standing a mere third of their height, staring at rune signs that went all the way up into the shadows of the ceiling. The warding was so strong he felt it all the way to his bones and that with the spelling even keyed to accept his presence. He could feel the pull of the thing even through the thickness of doors and walls. He could always feel the pull -- the magnetism of it , no matter where he was. It was a presence that filled a void and offered some semblance of comfort and acceptance. He wondered sometimes, how he had ever existed without it. He could hardly remember a time before Ansasla.
He pushed one of the doors open wide enough to admit his armored form. Behind it was a room who's size defied imagination. The ceiling was hidden in black shadow and the walls, curved outward before they disappeared into the darkness. Rows of great columns radiated inwards towards a central pit the size of a great quarry. From that pit a pale, greenish glow emanated. It cast the whole of the chamber in an eerie light. It silhouetted a dark figure kneeling as if in supplication at the lip of the pit.
Abigail didn't turn or make a motion as Kall-Su approached. Knelt there basking in the unhealthy glow, head not quite bowed, hands clasped before him, black cloak spread out about him like a puddle of shadow. Kall-Su stopped three feet behind him, staring up at the barely illuminated shape of a smoking brazier on an arch spanning over the pit. On the stone of the arch under the brazier was the charred symbol of a rune.
"Can you feel it?" Abigail's voice vibrated with his satisfaction. "Can't you feel it in your soul? It's breath pumping -- it's blood seething. The stirring of life." He laughed outright, his fingers fluttering out in his exhilaration. There was so very little of life that thrilled Abigail anymore, it was surreal to hear his delight. Kall-Su didn't answer. He felt it -- but it was too private a stirring to speak of.
"Too many years has it lain dormant while the world decays around it. Our beautiful Ansasla. Our most powerful God of Destruction whose purity cleansed the old world and shall cleanse the new. And here it slumbers, awaiting the stroke that shall resurrect it."
Only the seals stood between Ansasla's reemergence into the world. They had taken the one at Judas--there was one at Meta-Rikan and after that only two kingdoms left to conquer before victory was theirs. Before Ansasla awoke and swept all that man had wrought away in its wrath and left behind it a clean slate that might be rebuilt and repopulated with a greater scheme in mind.
Kall-Su shivered, a hidden tremor of awe at the magnitude of it all. Of the thing that lay dormant within the great pit under the shrine. A great, convoluted form, bulbous and thick with tentacles the width of wagons, all curled about it's body in it's slumber. In places it gleamed of metal- in others of dull flesh. In the center of that nest of tubers and tentacles nestled the features of an inert face. A classic face of androgynous beauty, caught in a stasis that had lasted over four hundred years. But soon -- soon those eyes would open and it would once again taste of life. And the world would suffer for it -- but that had always been the way of Ansasla.
* * * *
The king returned amidst a flurry of confusion. He and his royal guard rode into the castle while the Cathedral and the castle guard were rushing about in chaos, everyone blaming everyone else for the lapse in security that had allowed the enemy into the very heart of their stronghold. Guards were dead at the north cathedral gate. Two more in the court yard outside the high priest's private wing. There were reports of activity outside the walls in the forests to the north, but the patrol that had been sent out had not returned and the second foray had produced nothing, not even word of the first unit.
The king and the royal guard had fought their way past the outlying reaches of the entrenched enemy army with great success. The heavy horse of the guard cutting through the beast-men foot soldiers with bloody ease. The king was most certainly not in a light mood. He was most sorely put out at the state of his castle and city. He met a flurry of councilors and petitioners with a black and dour mood upon him. That only briefly lifted when his daughter welcomed him with a formal hug and a more private kiss on one gray bearded cheek. But, she melted away in favor of the crowd that gathered in the throne room to state their cases. Town councilmen, captions of the guard, his generals, his priests, his councilors --- all of them vied for the attention of a road weary king. He heard bits and pieces of things that pleased him not at all. He heard rumors of the battle that had wrecked Meta-Rikan and his mood darkened considerably. Men practically stumbled over each other to be the first to spill the facts concerning the rumors. Oh, how greedily they sought to be the bearers of foul news.
And when the High Priest Geo Note himself appeared late in court, a small, terrified boy clutching at his priestly robes, the king narrowed his eyes and waved the whole of the gibbering court to silence. Geo Note walked with determination up the length of the room, but his face was haggard and his hair somewhat disarrayed. He stopped before his king and lifted his head.
"What have you done, High Priest." It was more a statement than a question and Geo Note almost flinched from the tone. "By the goddess tell me the rumors I've heard are not true. Tell me you did not call forth the demon that cost me a son and a thousand lives."
"Would you have lost a thousand more and Meta-Rikan to boot? Would you have lost what this city protects?"
"Don't answer my question with a question, Geo Note, I'm not in the mood. You had not the power to make such a decision on your own. How dare you loose that creature in my city?"
"I did it to protect this city, its people and your daughter."
"He should have died and you sheltered him all this time ----" the king almost stood, peering around the High Priest's stout form to better see the child behind him. He stabbed a finger at the boy. " ----- in that boy, I hear tell. You've harbored the devil among us."
"I thrawted his plan, majesty. If I had not, you would not have had the peace you've had these last fifteen years."
"Larz killed him."
"And he cast a spell of rebirth upon himself." The high priest snapped in a tone one did not easily take with the king. "I merely channeled it to a more suitable and moldable form."
"Father." Sheela stepped from between two courtiers. "No matter what you've heard, the High Priest's actions saved us all. He was right, father. Dark Schneider did not turn on us as he could have. His power saved us and it might again. We cannot discount such a powerful weapon. Only without Yoko, I don't know if we can control him."
"Yoko? Your daughter, High Priest? What has she to do with it?"
"He loves her." Sheela answered.
"And she has been taken by our enemies." Geo Note declared grimly.
"By the goddess." The king sat back, disgusted. "Does this mean our enemies know about your tame wizard?"
"Never tame." Geo Note said solemnly. "Only -- restrained -- by the years trapped in the body of ---" he hesitated, putting a hand on Rushie's shoulder and gently pulling him forward. The boy was trembling, dark eyes wide with awe and fright. It was not everyday that a young boy found himself standing before the king and all his court, the absolute center of their attention. "Rushie somehow managed to avoid their notice -- when they took my daughter. If they had the both of them --- things could have been worse for us."
Geo Note held back the fear of his daughter in his voice, but the king had known him long enough to see it in his eyes. The king sighed, sagging onto he arms of his throne. "I can only imagine your worry, Geo. I fear for the girl. I fear for us, if as you say, she is the only thing holding our -- wizardly weapon in check."
"She must be rescued." Someone cried. And several of the guard took up the cry.
"But where have they taken her?"
"I recognized the man responsible." Geo Note said. "Gara, the ninja master. One of the Four Lords of Havoc. I know of someone who knows where his fortress is."
A collective breath was drawn. Every eye in the place riveted onto Rushie, who drew a startled breath and cringed back against Geo Note's solid form. The King looked for the wizard in those eyes and found only the boy. Somehow that discovery made acceptance of what Geo had done more palatable.
"So we need the girl back and quickly for all our welfare." The King looked into the grim faces of his generals. The frightened eyes of his courtiers and priests. The determined face of his daughter.
"Father, it's the only way. We have so few resources to call upon. We can't squander what is right before us."
Goddess. When had the world been reduced this? These horrible choices?
"How do you propose we ask him? If the spell requires the girl? And our enemies have her."
"The spell requires the kiss of a virgin pure." Geo Note said somberly. "The seal itself is broken and only the transformation needs be triggered.
"I'll do it." Sheela volunteered without hesitation.
"Daughter." The king frowned.
"I know something about spellcraft from my studies under the high priest. I can perform this ritual. I am eminently qualified." She lifted her chin and met her father's eyes squarely and unflinchingly. He looked away first, embarrassed at her brazen honesty.
"If there is no danger ---"
"Father, there is danger all around us! If I don't do it, there will be more. You can't shelter me with the skies falling about our heads."
"No. I suppose I cannot." He agreed. He looked past her at Geo Note. "Do it, priest. And goddess save us all if your wizard turns on us."
The high priest said nothing. His mustached face grew all the grimmer. He kept one hand on the boy's shoulder while he bowed his head in respect to his king. And mixed with the reserve the king saw fear in his eyes.
* * * *
The princess Sheela stood with her back straight and her head bowed in concentration in the center of a circle of power within the hallowed halls of the cathedral. It was a shrine made for working. A place made to gather power; a holy place where the faith of men brought the powers of the gods just a little bit closer to the mundane earth. Sheela had faith. She had been brought up and educated by the greatest priests and scholars in the kingdom. Religion had been her life for a good many years, as befitting a royal princess, who would one day sit as queen on her kingdom's throne. The people demanded a leader of faith. That she had garnered some wizardly powers in the process could only be a benefit, but not as widely proclaimed. The people, after all, had a healthy respect of wizardly things after the mischief the one she was attempting to revive had caused some fifteen years past. The people were wary and awed over the powers of the Great Priests. A sorceress princess was not a thing to inspire the comfort it ought. So she kept her learning in the arcane arts quiet and to a minimum. Let the Swords of God - those holy knights of the church carry the might of magic as well as the sword. She had to keep to the shadows in some things.
"Are you ready?" Geo Note stood at the top of the steps leading down into the well with the circle of power. She took a breath, focusing her will and her attention.
"I am." She settled to her knees in the center of the circle of power and lifted her chin proudly, stoic and regal under the gazes of the priests. There was nothing of Yoko's embarrassment to the princess, merely a determination to see this spell through.
The Great Priest nodded and beckoned to the boy. Rushie hesitantly came to him, looking from face to shadowed face of the priests that clung to the edges of the room. He looked up at his foster father questioningly, his thin shoulders haunched under the loose brown tunic he wore. The boy always looked so disheveled, the princess thought, as boys that age had a tendency towards. Mostly he looked lost without Yoko's coattails to hand onto. How very odd that so naive and trusting a boy could contain something like Dark Schneider.
"Rushie." She called his name, her voice a clear, echoing sound in the silence of the chamber. His dark eyes riveted to her, uncertainty warring with curiosity in his face. She smiled at him, her royal smile, full of practiced warmth and sincerity. "Come here. It's all right."
She held out a hand, bracelets jangling on her wrist. He hesitated, looked up once to see if Geo Note approved of the summons, and when the priest nodded, he went down the steps onto the sunken stone floor of the shrine. He put his hand in hers and she bid him kneel, knees touching hers. She took a breath, gathering the chant the great priest had taught her in her mind, calling on the serene power of the goddess.
"Accept." She said in a sing song chant. "In the name of Eno Marta beloved goddess of beauty. Break this seal."
She leaned forward. Took his face in her hands and touched her lips to his. For a breath she held it, then pulled back. She had expected an interim between the spell and the transformation, as it had been when Yoko first broke the seal. There was none. She had barely sat back to catch her breath when the air around them began to seethe with magical energy. Heat hit her face, blinded her with its brilliance. Reflexively she held up both hands to shield her eyes. Rushie's figure was a curled, glowing form in the midst of the maelstrom that seemed for a moment to contract before the glow obscured the whole of him and swelled.
Then the cry of an enraged man, who stood before her, naked flesh bathed in the fading glow, long, silvery hair strewn about his shoulders. She gaped, a first flush appearing on her cheeks at the male anatomy displayed before her eyes, then cast her gaze demurely away, thinking that it was as impressive as the rest of him.
"God, that's annoying." He muttered, shifted his weight to take a step and staggered, knees almost buckling under him. He caught himself, standing spaylegged to maintain uneasy balance, long, slender fingers covering his eyes under a fall of hair. "I hate that. I truly hate that."
He seemed to have little care that he stood unclothed in a room full of priests. He hardly seemed to notice the priests or Sheela at all, more interested in regaining his own equilibrium. Sheela heard the whispers of the priests, though. He was weaker with this calling, they noted the obvious. And somewhat more disoriented. The spell perhaps had not performed as smoothly with her as the caster as it had with Yoko for whom it had been designed.
One of the foolish priests took a few excited steps down towards the circle of power. "Thank the goddess you're back. Ninja Master Gara has taken the lady Yoko."
He glanced at the man, a dark glare from under his brows and between his fingers.
"If you yell at me again, I'll turn your intestines to snakes." The fingers moved to his temples, massaging gently. He closed his eyes, lips moving slightly as if chanting a spell. When he opened his eyes again, they were clear of pain and discomfort.
"You've got to rescue lady Yoko." The same bold priest said in a much lower tone of voice.
"I don't have to do anything." He tossed hair out of his face and waved a hand negligently before his body. With a display of power so casual it astounded her, Schneider's form was suddenly clothed. Sheela blinked. The priests did. The man had astounding taste, she had to admit. Black leather trimmed in silver, rakishly cut. He did not even look down at himself to observe the effect. He did finally pass his eyes over the room, over the priests, pausing on Sheela with what might have been the most comtemplatingly disrobing gaze a man had ever given her. His eyes came to rest on the High Priest. A wicked smile touched his lips.
"Ah -- didn't we have unfinished business - you and I?"
"There is no time for this." Geo Note stood his ground. "My daughter's life is in danger."
Schneider shrugged. "Just as well. With Yoko gone it makes my life that much less complicated."
"Oh, how can you say that?" Sheela cried in dismay. "I thought you cared for her?"
"See? That's what you get for thinking." He leered at her.
"But, she'll die --?" Another of the priests said.
"And what do I care?" Anger flared in Schneider's eyes. He whirled, stabbing a finger at the lot of priests. "When I rule this world I can have any woman I want. Why should I care about one annoying little girl? I can have any woman I want now -- even this one." Fast as a cat he snatched Sheela, pressing her against him, one hand on the small of her back the other on her posterior. She squealed in outrage, rearing back and slapping him.
"You unconscionable bastard!!" She cried at him, pushing away. "He'll kill her and all because of you. Is that what you want?"
If looks alone could kill, her life would have withered away on the spot. "You little bitch. You'll pay for that."
She lifted her chin, trembling, afraid to stand up to him, afraid to back away. If she showed fear, it would go all the worse for her. After a moment his snarl relaxed. He took a breath, another, then took a step away from her. "Bunch of meddling, moronic priests. Can't even protect one of your own. How your piddling religion has lasted this long is beyond me."
There were a fair number of scandalized gasps from the priests in question. Geo Note didn't blink. "Will you find my daughter?"
Schneider sniffed disdainfully. "Well it certainly seems no one here is capable of it."
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