Noah felt his magic key settle into a new shape within the lock, and turned it. There was no noise, no sound of any mechanism, but then Noah hadn't expected this to be an ordinary lock. He took a deep breath, and looked back at his companions for support.
Lassic had fallen before them. As had the Medusa, and Dragons, and countless monsters. There was nothing alive on any planet which might now threaten them, and yet...
They were nervous, on edge, oppressed. Something waited beyond the door. Perhaps not immediately beyond it, but they all felt it somewhere ahead. It was like the air before a thunderstorm, filled with static and pressure and silence.
Odin leaned over and pushed. The door swung open noiselessly.
It opened into a cavern, empty of any cave formations. It was just a huge empty space in the rock. They all relaxed slightly. It really was empty. Noah's magical light lit it like the roof was open to the sky, and there were no hiding places. There was also no other way out.
They searched the cave, such that they could.
It was Odin who noticed that Alis had vanished. It was Myau who noticed that the door had.
Alis was collapsed on the floor of a dark place.
The world had turned impenetrably dark around her, as if she had been struck blind – (No, don't think about that again. You are not blind, not blind, not blind...) – and she had lost all sense of direction in those first frantic seconds as she spun, searching for even a glimmer of light. She had called to her friends, her voice becoming more strident and desperate as they refused to answer. She had waved her sword out into the blackness, and felt nothing. And now she was paralysed, afraid to move out into the unknown with no senses to aid her.
But she had to. But she couldn't.
Panic simmered within her. It would overboil and take her again if she thought about her predicament, so she lay there – where? Where? mdash; trying not to. Panic surged up within her when she did, and she would clamp down, clearing her mind of everything.
Eventually, the adrenalin turned sour in her system, and she shook with its withdrawal. She felt fragile and weak emotionally, but clear headed at last, curled upon the floor against her own shivering. She waited, feeling sorry for herself, knowing that to do so would help heal her.
Eventually she felt better, and just lay there thinking.
Not even Myau, with his feline senses had heard or presumably seen her. So she wasn't with them. She had been moved. That in itself could explain the darkness, so she rejected the idea of blindness, resolving not to even consider it again. Noah had a saying about not multiplying entities. If one explanation could explain everything, then don't go for two. She wasn't blind. There.
The floor beneath her was strange, like rigid, warm, polished glass. It had no texture she could feel, but it wasn't slippery, either.
There, she told herself. See? An unnatural floor. I have been moved.
Alis got up, but gingerly because her muscles still felt slightly shaky, and looked around. She made sure she also looked up over her head, and beneath the floor, but she could see nothing.
...who are you...?
...do you know...?
Alis' sword sang from its sheath, the sound of it continuing on from the whispering voice as if the speaker had hissed. In the same movement, she whirled to face the voice, doubting as she did that she would be able to see anything.
But, no. There were two red points, as dark as coals in a dying fire, immovably hammered into the darkness. They didn't move, or blink, but Alis immediately thought of them as eyes. She should be afraid, she knew, but instead she was relieved. This, she could deal with. More, this, she could see.
...Alis, poor Alis, denied a forgotten birthright...
...do you know...who you could be...?
...do you know...?
Alis steadied her sword in a guard position, listening to the sawblade echoes of the voice die.
"Who are you?" she called, noticing that her own voice had no echo.
...who am I...?
...can you not see..?
"I can't see anything but darkness."
But it was not quite true. Alis could see faint red highlights around the eyes, their glow reflecting off glossy ridges. Something like black glass, or...
Something crackled in the darkness, and the eyes shifted slightly.
...chitin, Alis thought. The thing is armoured in chitin, like an insect. She tried to imagine an insect, big enough to have eyes that high. A mantis, perhaps, but this thing was black, so maybe something like an ant, but so big...
Alis took a step back. The sword was weighing down her arm, but it held steady as she moved.
"What do you want?
...I want you, Alis...
Alis felt a chill.
...Lassic was a flawed vessel, mad with paranoia...
...It is good that he is dead...
...you could be so much more...
...You could repair his terror, rebuild the worlds...
"Did you bring me here? Where am I?"
...You could do so much which is good, Alis, and I can take you there, to the throne. You are a hero, and it is your birthright. No one could deny it to you...
"Permit me to doubt you, Darkness." Birthright?
...Oh, I am not the Darkness. She is lost to a world between...
...come with me, Alis. Think of all the damage Lassic has done. Who better to repair it...?
Alis wanted to. There was so much to be done, and she could do it, she knew, but this...beast of the darkness. She could not believe it would help her. Perhaps this was how it started with Lassic: a gentle, reasonable voice, promising a reign of peace and plenty.
She could feel the voice in her mind. It was so reasonable, and it was right, but...
It was in her mind, and her own thoughts echoed to it. Like her thoughts were fish, and its voice the current, dragging them along.
...Alis? Answer me, Alis...
And the eyes. Alis stared at them, holding the red gaze. Nothing with eyes like that could be good. Maybe Lassic was as much a victim as Nero.
The voice was right, she could do it, and would if possible, but...
"Not with you." And now her voice echoed. Her determination carried, and was reflected back as if off stone walls.
"Alis!" Odin's voice.
And then there were stone walls. And her companions, standing back from her, smiling in greeting. She wondered what, if anything, they had seen of it all.
And then their expressions changed, and she knew what they were seeing. She could feel the chill at her back, feel the coal-red eyes focus on her from behind.
She turned, bracing herself to fight.
It was no insect.
Her sword tilted in her slack fingers, and her nerveless legs folded up beneath her.
It was a god!
Myau's feline eyes saw the movement before the others. The shadows at the end of the chamber were shifting, darkening, thickening.
Twin red lights appeared deep in the shadow, where instinct told Myau no light should ever exist. They rose from the darkness, pulling it with them like a cloak, and, like a cloak, it fell into the contours of the body that wore it.
The head rose first from the black pool, its eyes burning into Myau.
This thing was not mortal, he knew. It could not be stopped, could not be beaten, could not be killed.
They had lost. This thing would endure. You could not deny a god.
From a well of darkness, Odin saw an armoured demon rise with the slow majesty of the absolutely secure and the omnipotent. He couldn't see its shape, as it melded into the shadows behind it, just the eyes, burning with alien malevolence, and the glossy reflections from its burnished shell flicking across the darkness as it moved.
Odin wasn't breathing. He was too scared, too awed.
The stone floor sparked as his axe struck it.
Records had been lost, and the precise dating was not known. This thing had made sure of that, but Noah knew now.
Twice before, this creature had attacked Algol. Its black cancer was direct and combatable. A dark, twisted shadow which crawled across the land, corrupting all in its path. The people feared the cancer, but they rallied against it. Unity was a poison to this beast as much as hope was.
But it had learned from its defeats. It had learnt what the Espers had always known. That the most effective cancer is the cancer of the soul.
The Millennium. Here. Now. And what could he do?
...and what can you do...?
Most promising of the Espers, one of the most powerful, and young with it, but against this, he might as well be a corpse for all the use he was.
...for all the use you are...
Noah shook his head, trying to clear the echo.
...No, Esper, there is no echo...You are confused...
He was confused, powerless. What hope could he have of fighting this?
...what hope you could have of fighting me?
What hope was there for Algol?
Noah saw Alis, whimpering on the floor, Odin limp and nerveless with fear and Myau wide-eyed and petrified.
What hope would he, alone, have against this?
Again, there was...
No, Esper, there is no echo...your mind is playing tricks...
Noah heard a sound, more of a movement of air. He looked up, and saw a dark shape shift towards him, saw reflected light flash across a glossy claw.
Unity and hope, shattered before the fight had even begun, the pieces spread about the floor, lost to unreasoning fear.
Yes, Esper, fear me...
Noah looked it in the eye, feeling the pressure of its mind in his.
The beast roared and lunged.
Noah was already moving, but the beast was fast. Its claw ripped through Noah's hair, catching in it enough to yank at Noah as he dodged. Noah brought up his best defensive spell, feeling the creature flinch as its claw was caught inside as it was forming. He dived away and rolled, but he was not a physical fighter. He came up disorientated. Where was...?
It is futile! I am a GOD, mortal! What could you do against my power?
Noah dodged again, feeling the stones crack under an impact as he left. It was futile; this thing was a god. What could he do against its power?
You cannot resist me!
He couldn't resist him. Why should he even try?
...should you even try?
The creature backhanded Noah from behind. Or tried to.
Sparks exploded from the Esper's defence spell and the creature roared. Noah collapsed, his hands desperately covering his ears.
You DARE defy a GOD?
No, not a god, thought Noah. Look at it, defeated by an Esper defence. Not a god. Believe in that, hold on to that truth. Not a god...
Noah raised his eyes and saw a spill of gold/brown hair.
She had succumbed to its whispers. Even he, Noah, had almost been lost, but he could not fight alone. The beast's lies could be broken. He had done it, but he had had training.
Not a god...
Noah scrambled forward, fearing the next blow would unravel his magic and crush him to the stone floor. He felt angry eyes at his back, felt the air move as its bulk shifted towards him, but he reached Alis. He reached her, grabbed her hair, and yanked her head back to stare into the eyes of the beast.
"Look at your god, Alis!"
The beast reached out with talons like shattered crystal as Noah loosed his spell.
A lance of lightning punched forward, cracking the air. It caught the beast in the center of his claw, surging through with a report as the armour superheated and cracked. The arm spasmed as the bolt travelled up it, breaking free in a gout of smoke from the creature's elbow.
"Look at it!"
Alis saw, and the fear left her mind. This thing was mortal, and her enemy.
If it worked, it worked. Noah had no time to waste to check. He ran from the beast as it staggered back, creating distance. Spells raced through his mind. He needed to keep it off balance, stop it from defending itself, give Alis time.
He flung another spell without looking. It would be more of a distraction than anything else, but he was out of breath and couldn't concentrate. With luck, the beast would be off balance.
A tube of gale force air struck the beast on the unwounded arm, not causing any damage, but punching it askew. Noah didn't see, but he heard the roar. Anger, frustration, but no pain yet. Get up, Alis, he willed. Fight, damn you.
Alis felt her sword in her hand, the leather hilt warm from her grasp.
If Lassic was a victim, too, if Lassic had been corrupted by this beast as she had, then Nero had not yet been avenged. Lassic was just the tool. The beast was the cause.
She heard it bellow in anger.
Her sword scraped against the stone floor as she rose, eyes burning.
"I'll hold him! Get Odin!"
Noah spun, skidding on his momentum. He came to a halt crouching, one hand lightly touching the floor for balance. He wasn't looking for Alis, he was looking for Odin, but he saw her first, striking shards of chitin from a sweeping claw as it passed over her head.
Odin was to one side, nearer the wall. Noah rose like a sprinter, his robes dragging at the air as he ran forward. He saw Odin's slack and glazed look, and didn't pause. All of his momentum, all of his weight focused on to his fist which he drove into Odin's chin.
Odin's eyes focused with an angry snap. Noah met them with an expression of contempt and pointed at the combat.
"Look at her," he sneered. "Fighting for us all. What are you going to do about it, coward?"
Yes, Odin, a coward is what you are. I am a god, Odin! Fear me!
Odin heard the voice for the first time as something alien, not his own. He saw Alis, stronger than she had been, but still slight compared to him. He saw the massive bulk of the beast, towering above her.
His eyes' focus changed, and there was his axe, lying where he had dropped it. His hand moved, seized the haft.
Noah heard Alis cry out. He couldn't see Myau, but it was no good. Alis was fighting with no defensive magic. She needed him now. Three of them would have to do.
Turning, he let loose another blaze of lightning at the beast.
The beast bellowed as the lightning hit. The bolt had branched and spread over distance, but it crawled into his wounded arm, burning at the exposed flesh. There were three of them now, and the cavern was restrictive. One on each side would wear him down. He needed to back off. He needed to heal, to bring his own magic into play.
The whispers stopped.
Alis backed away from the beast, as the beast backed away from her. She didn't want to, but she needed the support of her companions to fight much longer.
Odin ran to her, axe ready, eyes warily scanning the dark, red-eyed shape for sudden movement.
Noah joined them, spells held ready at his fingertips, knowing what the beast was doing, but waiting for the last of their group.
And Myau, free of the whispers, looked up and saw his friends united against a beast he had cowered from. And swore it would not happen again.
The beast backed off from the four, hissing like a cornered cat. Its arm crawled with new flesh as the beast healed itself in the reprieve.
It tried again...
You dare defy me? I am your god! You have no hope, no future. I will destroy you like you would destroy a fly!
...but the voice was strident, desperate and false in their unbelieving minds.
Alis shifted her grip on her sword.
For Nero, she thought above the whispers. And maybe even for Lassic.
Lassic bowed to ME! You could barely defeat him, and I am his GOD!
Odin felt the comfortable weight of his axe, for which he had suffered so much to get.
For the months I was a statue, he thought. For how close it was to being an eternity.
You must obey! You cannot defy me!
Noah knew the history, knew what this thing had long considered its biggest threat, and knew what it had tried to do during its second incursion, one thousand years ago.
For the ancient genocide against the Espers. For chasing us to an alien world. For all the blue hair stained with blood.
Leave, now, and I will spare you!
Myau grinned. It was his friendly grin, but apparently the fact it showed his fangs made people uneasy, which he liked to take advantage of.
For the life of a planet.
For the future of everything.