Rubbing at his chin, Lassic realized for the first time that since his reincarnation, he hadn't shaved once, yet he had no beard. While he wouldn't go so far as to say his skin was smooth, his face was not covered with stubble, either. Never having to shave..., he thought. One of the benefits of being--
His thoughts stopped short, his eyes closed. I am not dead, he reassured himself. Could a dead man destroy the Alis-child like I shall?
Shaking his head to clear the thoughts away, he shuffled in his throne and gazed out the nearby window at the distant Motavia. Clearly, he knew, he had grown too far removed from the world. He had not trusted the world to Sirus, but he had temporarily forgotten it, planning to retake it as a simple afterthought after Palma was completely under his thumb. Sirus's leash simply got too long, he thought with a shrug.
And a part of him had to admit, the traitor had improved the place. Lassic very much preferred the green shade he saw in the planet now as opposed to the sandy brown it had been before. But how much better would be the planet's red tint, after the blood of the "Protectors" stained it.
A small grin came across Lassic's lips, just as wind swirled through the room and a teleportal opened in the corner. Lassic's grin became a smile as he turned to see the spot of blackness widen, the rift in space connecting his castle with Motavia opening wide. But the smile dissolved into nothingness when he saw Xanon stumble into his throne room, and then immediately turn around back to the portal.
The Xe-A-Thoul grunted as Neithird's body slammed into his own. With the creature between him and the portal, Xanon grabbed the beast by her shoulders and simply tossed her aside. He was two steps into the portal when Xerik came through it, forcefully pushing against his brother as Xanon hissed and roared, "Xerik, let me return!"
"In time, brother," was Xerik's hollow reply as the teleportal closed behind him. Xanon fought against Xerik's arms, finally succeeding in pushing his brother away. Xerik took two steps backwards but did not fall. He also did not flinch as Xanon raised his hand towards his face, white lightning crackling around his fingers as if to attack. Instead, Xanon clenched his hands into fists, and then released his energy blast at the ceiling with a mighty roar. He then fell to his knees in a heap.
"What the hell happened?" was Lassic's greeting.
Lassic could feel Xerik's eyes under his mask. He was looking at his master with respect, but frustration. "We were not successful in obtaining the items, your majesty."
"I can see that," Lassic said, teeth clenched, as he strode across the room towards the Xe-A-Thouls. He glanced at Neithird. She was seated cross-legged on the floor, the lower half of her face covered in blood that looked like it came from her nose. She snorted a clot of dried blood onto her hand and then reached out with her tongue and licked it into her mouth. "What happened to Neithird, and where is Xarxas?"
"Neithird fought Rolf," Xerik explained. Xanon was still on his knees a few steps in front of him, between him and Lassic. "Rolf was... unaffected by the sight of her."
The veins in Lassic's temple bulged as he clenched his teeth tighter. "And Xarxas..." Xerik finished. "Xarxas is dead."
"They used a common man-made weapon," Xanon said from the floor, his voice barely above a whisper. "They didn't even need to use magic."
A long moment passed. "I suppose it's a fitting end," Lassic said softly. "I knew Xarxas's arrogance would make him clumsy. What a fitting lesson in humility."
Xanon roared as he shot to his feet and spun around to face Lassic. The sound was in no way a human bellow; it was an animal growl, from the depths of Xanon's being. His hands were immediately aglow with his power.
Lassic was already turning away. He turned his head only to the side and looked at Xanon. "Do you have something to say to me?" he asked. A long hiss escaped Xanon's mouth under his mask.
"Look at me when I speak to you!" Lassic commanded. He opened his hand and Xanon's hood flew off his head and landed in Lassic's palm. The Xe-A-Thoul's empty eye sockets, usually nothing but black holes, had small circles of red fire glowing within them. Lassic knew the powerful being was in a blind rage and at this point would not obey him.
"Do you wish to kill me, demon?" Lassic demanded. One side of his mouth turned up in a grin as he saw the fire in Xanon's eyes grow larger.
"Xanon," Xerik said, removing his own hood and stepping to his brother's side. "Xanon, Lord Lassic is not your enemy. Save your rage for the forces of Light. We must return to them quickly, finish what we started, but not alone. We must gather the army."
The fire in Xanon's eyes faded but did not disappear as he turned to his brother. Xerik reached up and placed one bony hand on his brother's shoulder. With a soft hiss of resignation, Xanon turned back to face Lassic.
Lassic was looking at the demons' hideous visages. "Is this what you expect me to work with?" Lassic asked aloud. The fire grew for a moment in Xanon's eyes, but Lassic ignored it as he paced forward, away from his throne, out towards the window that looked upon Motavia. "You assign me specific tasks, and then you confine me to this castle. Aggression is my strong suit! And yet you make me passive, forcing the enemy to bring the battle to me.
"Did I wait for the rebels in Drasgow to arrive on my doorstep?" he asked, looking towards the ceiling. Xanon and Xerik knew exactly whom he was speaking to. Neithird stood in a crouch, her eyes alternating between Lassic and the Xe-A-Thouls. "No, I went straight to the town and embargoed it. I'm not a patient man!"
He bit his tongue, remembering the pain his master was capable of inflicting upon him. "Allow me to leave this castle," he asked quietly. "I wish to kill Rolf myself. Now." He paused, as if to give the being he was speaking to time to consider. Then he tersely shouted, "Xerik!"
Spinning on his heels he strode directly back towards the Xe-A-Thouls. His pace was quick, determined. The footfalls of his boots echoed through the throne room. Xerik raised his hand and opened a teleportal in front of Lassic. "Don't feed Neithird," he said as the wind from the portal blew into his cape. "I'll bring back some of Rolf's blood for her. This won't take long."
He stepped into the portal and disappeared, the portal closing behind him. A beat later, and he appeared at the top of his dais, still striding forward. He nearly tumbled right down his stairs.
With a roar of outrage he slammed his scepter onto the floor. "Why do you restrain me?" he screamed. "If I could go to Motavia, I would eliminate the Protectors myself! My army would cover the land. Not a single Palman would live to see another sundown! And yet you do not let me leave--"
>From the corner of his eye he saw the two remaining Xe-A-Thouls glance at one another, then back at him. The corner of his mouth twitched. Slowly, he found his throne and sat in it. He kept hold of his scepter with one hand, and dropped Xanon's hood so that he could tightly grip the arm of his throne with the other. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head, chanting softly under his breath.
Slowly, the castle started to shake. A few sprinkles of dust fell from the ceiling above. One of the torches fell from the wall, crashing to the floor. Neithird did not leave her crouch, but her ears did perk up as she cautiously looked around.
Lassic grunted with strain, a grunt that became a small yell of agony.
"Your majesty?" Xanon inquired, somewhat alarmed.
"I am breaking none of your commands," Lassic said softly, barely able to raise his voice. Opening his eyes wide, he looked upwards at nothing in particular. Sweat beaded down his forehead. "This is not against the rules. Remove my restraints! Let me serve you!" He took a deep breath, then another. Around him, the castle's shaking grew more violent. Xerik backed up to the wall, seeking for something to grab onto.
After inhaling for a long moment, Lassic bellowed, "Give me the power I beg of you!"
With that, the ground lurched under their feet, and the shaking ceased.
Lassic remained in his throne for another minute, slowly catching his breath. The Xe-A-Thouls collected themselves and again glanced at one another. Without answers, they looked to Lassic. "Master?" they asked.
"You have but one master," he answered without opening his eyes, "and it is not I. Your master is my master as well. My soul dwells with him in his prison, my body his only current link to this world. And through that vessel he has granted my wish so that I might serve him better."
Once again, Xanon turned to look at Xerik. Xerik only shrugged. Looking back to Lassic he said, "Your majesty... what has happened?"
Lassic opened his eyes and looked upon Xanon's malformed face with a smile. "Look out the window, my friend."
The Xe-A-Thouls did so, and saw that outside, the stars... were moving.
"I am not allowed to leave my castle," Lassic reminded them, standing from his throne and striding down his dais with quick steps. "But the rules never said my castle must stay in this asteroid field. I am returning to my kingdom to do something I should have done a long time ago."
Lassic released a nervous laugh. "My castle will hover above Paseo. My people will soon remember the name of their king. They will all come and bow before me." A beat. "They will die bowing before me.
"Prepare the army," he ordered them without turning from the window. "We will arrive at Motavia within a few hours."
The mask that lay on the floor next to Lassic's throne disappeared as a new one materialized around Xanon's head. "It will be done, your majesty," he replied with a bow. He and Xerik then strode from the throne room to make preparations. Neithird slowly crawled across the floor to sit at Lassic's feet. She looked up at him, and the king could not help but laugh as he glanced down at her broken nose.
"I'm going home, my pet," he chuckled. "I'm going home."
Rolf stepped into his living room as he heard the front door open. "Knock knock," Rudo greeted him. In the Commander's arms was a large metal crate. It was obviously very heavy, and Rolf helped Rudo lower it safely to the floor.
"Tyler says he's all set," Rudo reported. "He's ready for your team any time."
"We'll leave immediately," Rolf nodded. "Did he get his new toy installed?"
"Installed and fully functional, as best as we can tell. I warned him that Vahal Fort doesn't have a lot of space ships around to test these things on, but he seemed confident."
"I trust him," Rolf agreed. "Did you talk to Kip this morning?"
"No," Rudo answered. "Problems at Birth Valley?"
"I wouldn't say problems," Rolf clarified. "At Hugh's insistence, he and Kain took the body of that Xe-A-Thoul there last night, so that Hugh can dissect what's left of him after all of this is over."
"I've always said Hugh knows how to party," Rudo said, despite the look of revulsion on his face.
"Well, I hope it's not too late to cancel the band and the caterer," Rolf replied, "because Kip said he woke up this morning and found the body had turned to dust. When he pulled aside the robe to get a closer look, that disintegrated as well."
"Please convey my sympathies to Hugh."
"Somehow, he'll find a way to pull through." The former agent gently kicked the crate with the side of his foot. "What's this?"
"Tyler's not the only one with a new toy," Rudo grinned. He opened the latches on the crate and removed a silver cannon that was larger than the Neishot. Even the muscled Rudo needed both hands to hold it. "It's another prototype from Vahal Fort," he explained. "It's called a PDC -- personal defense cannon. It mounts to that backpack and harness" -- he motioned towards the equipment still in the crate -- "both for support and for power."
"Power? You mean ammo?"
"I mean power," Rudo clarified. "The backpack contains a canister of Class C Rytec plasma -- extremely well-contained, I assure you."
Rolf raised an eyebrow. "Rytec plasma? Do you have any idea how toxic that is?"
"Not first-hand," Rudo grinned. "But anyone that gets between us and that temple is going to learn. I brought this one for you. Interested?"
"No thanks," Rolf declined, wondering if Rudo was really serious. "I'll stick to my Neisword."
"In that case, Sawa says thank you." He placed the cannon back in its crate and resealed it. "And that means we're all set. Amy's looking after Shir and Kyle in one of our Land Rovers. Lance will be driving that one. Sawa and I will take the other one loaded with our gear. My team will leave immediately as well."
"Good," Rolf nodded. "And the Aero-Prism?"
Rudo patted a pouch on his tunic. "It's not leaving my pocket until we reach the Desan temple. Are you sure you don't want me to take the sword?"
Rolf placed his own hand on the second scabbard he wore at his side. "No," he said. "I'll deliver it myself. Remember -- as soon as we take care of Lassic, we'll rendezvous with your team at the temple. You have plenty of food and water packed?"
"I think we have enough for a month," Rudo assured him. "But do try to finish Lassic off before then, will you?"
Rolf answered the big man's grin with one of his own and shook the Commander's hand. "Good luck."
"Take care of my wife up there," Rudo responded quietly. "Bring her home to me safely."
"You have my word," Rolf answered.
"I'm flattered," Anna said from behind Rolf, "but I assure you, Commander, your wife can take care of herself."
Rolf turned back to Rudo and patted him on the back, then dismissed himself to round up the rest of his team. He brushed past Anna, leaving the former leader of the Guardians alone with her husband.
Rudo looked over his wife, his eyes resting briefly on the whip hanging from her belt, the sonic gun holstered at her side, and the twin slashers not far from her right hand. "Sure you don't want a personal defense cannon?" he grinned.
"I just need to kill our enemies," she answered, standing before him and fine-tuning his armor. "I don't need to obliterate them."
He looked down at her hands and pulled them away from his collar, taking hers into his own. "This mission is intensely personal to me," he confided in his wife.
"I suspected that if Rolf hadn't asked you to take care of this, that you would have insisted."
"Biomonsters killed my little girl," he replied, though he didn't have to remind her. "I'll be damned if anything is going to harm a hair on that little boy's head."
"Rowrr," she purred, smiling as she looked into his eyes. "Did I ever tell you how handsome you are when you're ready to fight?"
"You have," Rudo nodded. "But I don't get tired of hearing it."
He pulled her into his arms, and they stood there together for a long moment. "In some ways," she finally confided in him, "I'm more scared now then I was when we faced down those Earthmen. Without Lutz's power back then, we might have all died up on that space ship. And now, once more, we head out into space to fight. But this time it's different. Because this time Lutz isn't around. And this time, we're going after the monster that killed him."
"It's dangerous," Rudo agreed. "But do you honestly think Rolf can't defeat Lassic?"
A smile dashed across her lips and then disappeared. "I know Rolf can defeat Lassic." A pause. "But I want to come home to you, too."
Rudo ran a hand through her hair. "Anna, if you don't want to go..."
She pulled back from him, just slightly. "It's not that at all," she clarified. "I admit I'm scared as hell. Who wouldn't be scared of someone powerful enough to kill Lutz? But I have overcome too much in this life to see it destroyed by some madman who needs to learn to stay dead. If he wants to take that sword, or that prism, or Shir's baby... if he wants to conquer Algo again... he won't do it as long as I'm breathing."
One day, many years before, Rudo had learned what courage was the day he came home to find his wife and baby daughter dead at the hands of a Biomonster attack. Liz hadn't possessed a fraction of the fighting skill Anna did, but she defended their little girl to the death the best she could. The concept of courage had just been reaffirmed in Rudo's mind, and at the same moment, his heart filled with more love than he thought it would ever be possible for him to again feel.
He kissed his wife's forehead, leaving his lips there for several seconds. "How about after all of this is over we take a vacation together?" he asked. "A long one."
"If you don't take me on a vacation after this," Anna threatened, "you will sleep on the couch for the rest of your life."
"You got it," he assured her. "I hear the Dezorian tundra is lovely this time of year." His laughter filled the room as she repeatedly slapped him on the shoulder and the chest.
A few minutes later, he loaded the PDC into the Land Rover outside and ordered Sawa to roll out. A second Land Rover, driven by Lance, followed behind them. Both headed for the road that led out of town.
"And... she's fully charged!" Kain exclaimed. Hugh and Kain stood back from where Rolf and the mechanic huddled over the makeshift status display board for Tyler's new weapon. "Shall I restore power distribution to normal?"
Rolf considered for a moment. They had sealed off the entire Landale save for the cockpit, the cargo hold, and the corridor that connected the two so as to devote all power from the sealed areas of the ship to the new weapon -- to allow it to slowly charge with power. Now that the weapon was full...? "No," Rolf answered. "Reroute the power back to general reserves, leave the closed-off portions of the ship offline. I'll go tell Tyler he has a little more juice at his disposal. If we crank that power into the engines, we can get to the asteroid field a little faster."
"You're the boss," Kain nodded, his hands flying over the control panel to make the appropriate configurations.
"Hugh, Kip," he turned to the biologist and the guardian, "did you check out our arsenal?"
"We'll make one last check," Hugh told him, "but everything's ready."
"Rolf," Tyler's voice suddenly cut through the ship's intercom. "Cockpit. Now."
The former agent glanced at all three of them. "That sounded urgent." He closed his eyes briefly, scanned the two minds in the cockpit. "Something's up. Get those weapons checked one more time." Then, to Kain, as he was already on his way out the door, "Extra power ready?"
"It's ready," Kain agreed.
A few brief steps later and Rolf was in the ship's cramped cockpit area. Anna stood from the co-pilot's chair to take a seat behind Tyler, while Rolf slid into the chair she vacated. "What's going on?"
"First tell me the weapon is charged," Tyler answered, "then tell me if you want the bad news first, or the bad news first."
"The weapon is charged," Rolf replied, looking directly at Tyler, who was focused on the front viewport. "What's the bad news?"
"The bad news," Anna answered, pointing forward at a sensor readout on Rolf's panel, "is that there's a castle flying through space towards Motavia."
"What?" Rolf replied incredulously. He turned to the sensor board and studied it for a moment, then changed to a zoom view. Sure enough, a massive asteroid was on a course which appeared to have originated in the Palman Asteroid Field and which appeared to end at the planet Motavia. And unbelievably, a giant, gothic castle stood on the asteroid, its dark towers competing with space as to which was darker.
"My God..." Rolf whispered. "It's not just Lassic that's back. He brought the damn castle back with him."
"Based on its course and ours," Anna went on, "we'll rendezvous in thirty minutes."
Rolf nodded. "That was the bad news. Now what's the other bad news?"
"Apparently," Tyler started, "when you can move a castle through outer space, your pets come along for the ride as well."
For the first time since arriving, Rolf looked out the front viewport. Sure enough, the Gold Dragon was flapping its wings, blazing a trail across space in front of the castle. It had not yet reached the Landale, but it was closing fast. "Based on our last encounter," Tyler continued, "we'll be within range of its fire breath in one minute."
"What about us?" Rolf asked.
Tyler grinned. "We'll be in range in thirty seconds." He flipped a switch on his board. "Kain, get ready. I'm going to fire the weapon in one minute."
"Aye," Kain's voice replied quickly over the intercom.
"One minute?" Anna asked in disbelief. "I thought you said it would be able to fire on us in one minute?"
"It will," Tyler replied. "But I'm going to fire first. Fifty seconds."
"Tyler, are you sure?" Rolf asked.
"I'm sure," Tyler nodded. His gaze was completely focused on the dragon outside the viewport, which was getting closer and closer every second as it continued to speed towards them, and they towards it. It roared a blast of its demonic fire that burned hot even in the coldness of space. "I would suggest seat belts, however."
Rolf and Anna strapped themselves in as Rolf hit the intercom switch with his telekinesis. "Guys, get strapped in back there. We're firing in--"
"Forty seconds," Tyler chimed in.
"We have no idea what the actual effect of firing this weapon will be on the ship," Rolf continued. "Get ready for anything. I'm keeping the intercom open."
"We're ready," Kip replied.
The next several seconds went by in silence. Tyler kept both of his hands steady on his console, making just minor course corrections to keep them aimed directly at the dragon. Even though it was only half a minute, it seemed like much longer, as the Landale and the Gold Dragon continued their collision course towards one another. To the dragon it might have seemed like a game of chicken, or a suicide run. It had no idea what Tyler had received from Rudo at Vahal Fort and had mounted underneath the ship.
The silence was finally broken when Tyler said aloud, "Firing in 10... 9... 8... 7..."
"I hope this works," Anna whispered.
"5... 4... meet my new Positron Bolt unit and kiss your golden tail goodbye!"
Tyler slammed his right fist on the fire control button. The lights in the cockpit dimmed considerably and a soft whine was heard from all around them, as the engines seemed to violently downshift due to a sudden lack of power. For one agonizing second Rolf thought the weapon had shorted out the entire ship, leaving them essentially in a tin can coffin for the dragon to destroy them right there in space.
Then the space in front of the ship went so bright that Tyler, Rolf, and Anna all had to shield their eyes, as a stream of sparkling, crackling white energy practically as wide as the ship itself blasted out from underneath them and cut across the black of space like a knife. The floorboards underneath their feet shook as if they were in an earthquake, but the crew barely noticed as the wave of destructive power slammed into the dragon's chest, physically knocking it backwards and blowing a ball of fire out of its mouth, as if the wind had been knocked out of the beast.
Shouting over the roar the weapon made, even though it was mounted two decks beneath them on the underside of the ship, Rolf quoted the words Professor Jarkin had used when they had toured Birth Valley. "A ten second blast from Positron Bolt, and a ship the size of the Earthmen's will be blown to smithereens!"
The Landale continued to fly towards the dragon, even though it had stopped in its tracks. It was as if the beast was trying to push against the Positron Bolt wave, but the white glow of the weapon's energy was gradually spreading across the creature's entire body. "This is amazing!" Anna yelled back.
"This is a barbeque!" was Tyler's elated response.
The weapon seemed to get louder and glow brighter as the Landale got closer and closer to the beast. Finally, the white glow spread to the dragon's neck, rapidly moving up towards its head. The beast raised its mouth high and bellowed a river of flame, but it was not an attack, it was its death howl. The creature exploded just as the Positron Bolt ran out of power, and with waves of spent energy and gold matter bouncing off her shields, the Landale blazed through the space the Gold Dragon had occupied just moments before.
"Landale to Vahal Fort," Tyler mock radioed, "I'd say that was a successful test."
"That was great," Rolf agreed. "But that was just the gatekeeper. Kain, Hugh, Kip, you guys all right back there?"
An extended Yeeeowww! of joy from Kain was their answer. "We're all fine back here!"
"What's the status of the Positron Bolt unit?" Rolf inquired.
Kain took a moment to reply, but the moment Rolf heard him mutter, he knew the answer. "Kain?"
"Not good, Rolf. I can't get any status of any kind from it. I'd say the power output fried my readouts. It's a good bet the power transfer conduits were blown as well."
"That's all right," Rolf answered. "We didn't think we'd get two shots out of it, but it sure would have been nice. Why don't you guys all come up here? You're not going to believe it until you see it, but Lassic has a castle, and it's on an intercept course."
"Say that again, Rolf?" Hugh's puzzled voice came over the intercom.
"Come see for yourself," he said as he cut the intercom, and he meant it. He didn't mean see it on the sensor screen; he meant see it out the front viewport. There, still far in the distance but approaching fast, was the asteroid that Lassic's Dark Castle was built on.
For a moment, Rolf's mind drifted to Alis Landale, and the story of how she, Odin, and Noah had rode to the castle on Myau's back. And now, one thousand years later, in a strange way, he and his friends were recreating her footsteps. Before, Lassic had killed Alis's brother. Now, he had killed Rolf's mentor. Before, they flew to the castle on a Musk Cat. Now, they flew there in a spacecraft. The one constant was Lassic himself: a madman bent on either the domination or the destruction of the entire star system.
No, Rolf realized. There was one other constant: determination. Alis had it; nothing could have made her give up her quest. And now, Rolf had that determination, as well, but he had to wonder how much was his own, and how much came to him from the souls that resided in the sword at his side?
He placed his hand on the scabbard the held Elsydeon and reached out to the sacred sword. Please be with me, he prayed to the heroes. Please help me send him back to hell.
Is shorty here your current companion? He's still a kid.
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