Noah could never get used to the bitter cold of Algo's third planet, Dezoris. The Esper mantle was a remarkable garment, keeping its wearer comfortable in temperatures of extreme heat or chill, but even the frad fibers couldn't keep the air from knifing at his throat and lungs with every breath. He had grown up on the desert planet, Motavia, and Dezoris came as a brutal shock to his system.
The Esper had been to this frozen planet before, and to the tower before him, when he had followed Alis Landale on her quest to oust the tyrant Lassic. The building had been full of monsters then, roaming packs set loose to destroy the natives inside. Corona Tower was the heart of the Dezorian theocracy, and its destruction would have been a great gain for Lassic. Alis and her companions, though, had freed the tower.
Noah had two purposes in coming to Corona. He had old business to close out, as well as new questions to ask. He paused, taking a long look at the tower's broad, four-level base and the graceful spire rising from it. Corona really was beautiful, and a faint, bluish glow seemed to suffuse the stone.
When the eclipse falls, Corona shall light our path. The symbolism of the Dezorian proverb was clear.
Scowling—he could lose himself in contemplation after he was inside, out of the cold—Noah started again towards the arched double doors, which were flanked by two Dezorian soldiers. Like all of their race Noah had met, they were tall and slender, with hairless green skin and flat faces. Each wore the traditional high hat of his race, with steel armor buckled over warm, padded furs. Their spears were largely ceremonial, with ornate, fluted blades, but Noah knew from experience that the guns holstered at their belts were not. While not capable of burst fire like Palman guns, the Dezorian weapon fired a powerful heat charge that was often brutally effective against single targets. Noah also knew that more guards would be available in an instant to respond to trouble; these two were an extension of their weapons, there for ceremony.
"Hold, Palman!" one barked. His command of Noah's language was marred by a heavy accent, but was certainly better than Noah's ability to speak Dezorian. "Zis is ze Corona Tower, ze holiest spot in Dezoris. What is your business here?"
"My name is Noah. I am an emissary of Queen Alisa III. I wish to speak with Prelate Ngangbius."
"High Priest Ngangbius is a busy man, Palman. He is not to speak to just anyone coming up road."
Diplomacy was not Noah's strong suit. He was cold and tired, he'd come a very long way even discounting the trip through space, and the guard's sneers were not appreciated. It didn't help that shortly after his arrival at the Palman colony town, Skure, Noah had been attacked by three Evilheads, fanatics dedicated to ousting all Palmans from Dezoris by force.
"Fine. I don't have to return the Eclipse Torch if you don't want me to."
The guard who had been heretofore silent continued so, just watching Noah with a slack-jawed gape.
"What kind of trick is zis?" the belligerent one challenged, lowering his spear to point at Noah's chest.
"The queen is a woman of honor. It's that simple." Noah grabbed the wooden shaft and commanded, "Flaeli!" The pole was blasted to ash by the wizard's fire spell; the blade clanked off the marble steps and fell into the snow. "Are you going to open the door now, or do you need any more object lessons pounded through your thick skull?" Their gazes locked, and the guard cursed, turning to open the massive portal. When his back was turned, the other Dezorian spun a finger next to his head, the universal sign for insanity, and grinned at Noah.
Either he doesn't like his partner, or Dezorians just have an odd sense of humor.
Once inside the tower, further confrontations were avoided. A servant who spoke Palman was found, and he conducted Noah to an ornate hardwood door. The servant knocked, was called inside, and then emerged a second later."
"Ze High Priest sees you now, yes."
Noah went inside, and the servant left, closing the door behind him. The room's stone walls, ceilings, and floor were stark and a bit oppressive, but the luxurious red carpet, pale pine bookcases laden with leather-bound books, tapestries of religious scenes, and roaring fire in the hearth went a long way towards lessening that impression. A Dezorian in dark blue robes ornamented with white and gold had risen from behind a large desk and walked towards Noah. The Esper bowed formally; in return the priest extended his hand to Noah for a Palman handshake.
"You look well, Noah," he said, speaking slowly and carefully but with very little accent.
"As do you." The young Dezorian's face had been haggard with the strain of commanding Corona Tower during the siege the last time they'd met.
"We hear that the tyrant king of your people was defeated. Your Alis was successful in her quest, then?"
"She was. Lassic has fallen, as had the One Who Comes with the Millennium."
Ngangbius' eyes widened.
"The..." he struggled with the Palman, "Dark Force? It has fallen?"
"It has. Alis defeated it," Noah said, then added with a wry smile, "with some help from her friends, of course."
The priest gave a great sigh.
"This explains why the fiends retreated. Without their master, they will skulk and wait another thousand years. I knew when I first saw that young lady that she was destined for greatness."
"She continuously surprises even me. Then again, you surprise me, too. From the look of your robes, 'High Priest' is a promotion from 'Prelate.'"
"It is. While I am, I think, too young for the rank, we lost many of our more experienced leaders battling the monsters that plagued our world. I used the Amber Eye Alis gave me to cast a litany shielding the Tower from the monsters, and by this act I became known and respected."
Noah favored the priest with a sardonic smile.
"Even though you gave the Eclipse Torch to a Palman?"
Ngangbius' eyes snapped up.
"I suspected it was more than what you claimed, and I found references in the Governor of Motavia's library. Alis had no idea that not only is there only one Eclipse Torch but that it is the most holy relic of your faith. Then again, if she had known she'd never have taken it, and we did need it to complete our quest."
"I am glad. The ways of Heaven are often complex, but I had worried many times whether I had chosen rightly. In truth, it is disquieting, being regarded as a hero in one way while in another being seen as a traitor."
"Well, you no longer need to worry." He took a scroll from underneath his mantle, broke the seal, and unrolled it. "Alis wanted me to read this message to you: 'Queen Alisa Landale III of Palma hereby thanks Prelate Ngangbius and the Dezorian Church for the loan of the Eclipse Torch in my hour of need. Now that it has played its part in the defeat of the tyrant Lassic, I duly return the Torch to its rightful place.'"
He rolled up the scroll and gave it to the priest.
"That was for the official archive, by the way. Alis also told me to tell you that she'd have come herself if her new job didn't keep her so busy, and that she hopes she's been able to live up to the trust you placed in her."
With that, Noah reached into a belt pouch and took out what looked like a glass sphere approximately six inches across. Inside the sphere, without air or fuel, a brilliant azure flame burned, leaping and dancing merrily despite the seeming impossibility of its existence. Its radiance washed over both of them, warming the Esper from within, soothing his irritation and suffering.
Noah did not know whether or not the Dezorian church was the true faith, but he was certain of one thing: the Eclipse Torch was clearly a holy flame. Reverently, he set the orb into Ngangbius' waiting hands.
"Thank you," the Dezorian said with heartfelt gratitude. "You don't know how much this means to us, to all of Dezolis."
"In addition, Alis wished me to express her willingness to reopen diplomatic ties with Dezo—did you say Dezolis?"
The priest nodded.
"Our respective accents, I believe, cause trouble. This planet is called Dezolis, rather than Dezoris."
"I'll make a note of that. There's no point in renaming the planet when it has a perfectly good name of its own."
"It most certainly does," Ngangbius stated, then bobbed his head apologetically, realizing he had been a bit brusque. It surprised Noah how fast he was picking up the Dezorian—Dezolian, he meant—mannerisms and their meaning. Only after a few moments did he realize the truth. Noah was not merely an Esper wizard, but also a telemental. Master Tajim hadn't been able to teach him much about this skill, because the gnomelike wizard did not himself possess it, but he had detected its potential in Noah. Without trying, he was picking up on surface emotions and thoughts subconsciously, understanding what Ngangbius was trying to convey.
This could be a very useful skill indeed, he realized. It was something worth considering, though training the ability might be very difficult, as he'd have to do it through self-study.
"Noah, would you pardon me? I wish to return the Eclipse Torch to its rightful place before any more time passes."
"Of course. Later, there is another matter I was hoping to discuss with you, High Priest."
"Certainly. I'll have Biron send you some refreshment while you wait, and feel free to make use of my library. I have some works in Palman, you see."
Noah was not a patient person by nature, but his wizardly training had taught him the ability to wait. Besides which, an irascible, blunt-spoken Esper was still within the mold, but a hotheaded, impatient one? That would never do! So, he seated himself and waited, accepted a cup of Laerma-leaf herbal tea, and paged through the High Priest's library. Seeing the number of books there, the wizard determined that one of his immediate goals should definitely be to learn the Dezolian language. There were spells to allow translation, but they were in and of themselves a minor modification of telementalism, an aid to communication but not to an actual understanding of language. Plus, they were useless for understanding a book unless a second person was reading that book aloud, for ink and paper had no mind.
Yes, he was going to have to learn more of Dezolis. The inhabitants of the frozen third planet had a complex history and culture, and were knowledgeable in many ways. This included new and different forms of magic, which Noah was always intrigued by, and legends about their encounters with the ultimate evil, Dark Falz.
The stories and lore of the Espers called Dark Falz the One Who Comes with the Millennium, and every indication had been that indeed, every thousand years the ultimate darkness returned to spread terror and destruction. Where patterns existed, there was a reason for them, and Noah wanted to explain those patterns. Why did Dark Falz appear only at thousand-year intervals? Was it merely an elemental force of evil, dedicated to causing harm for its own sake, or did it have a purpose that could be opposed and thwarted?
These were questions for which Noah wanted answers. Perhaps the Espers had them, or if not perhaps the Motavians or the Dezolians did, or even scientists like Dr. Luveno. Whomever held the key, Noah intended to assemble that information together, to amass all possible knowledge about Dark Falz so that the next time, the people of Algo would be ready for their nemesis.
Then, too, they needed a weapon. Knowledge was important, but so was strength, power to use against power.
That was the second half of his quest here, and the root of his impatience.
High Priest Ngangbius returned in slightly over an hour. He apologized for the delay, but it did not take a telemental's skill to see that he was pleased.
"Archpriestess Baratir actually apologized for distrusting the honor of your Queen. No doubt the fact that she is now queen did contribute to that, but nonetheless it is a step. Diplomacy most certainly will resume." He smiled and added, "If nothing else, the Evilheads are as much a thorn in our side as they are in yours. Perhaps working in unison we may bring these rogues to face justice for their murders and other acts of terror."
"You surprise me," Noah confessed. "I thought that the Evilheads were only dedicated to removing the Palman 'infestation' from Dezolis. I would have suspected they'd be a relatively minor problem for you, from a practical standpoint."
"That might have been true, especially as our government does not have the authority to punish crimes committed within Palman territory, even if the criminals are Dezolians. However, the Evilheads do not only assault Palmans, but also 'sympathizers' among the Dezolian people." He chuckled softly. "I must admit, perhaps immodestly, that I have been the subject of their most intense interest during the past year. Allowing the sacred flame to be touched by Palman hands, let alone given into their keeping, was to them an act tantamount to the greatest sacrilege."
Ngangbius smiled again.
"There is an old proverb which states, 'The measure of a man may be taken by knowing his enemies.' If that is so, I am glad that the Evilheads are among mine."
"I'll drink to that." Noah sipped his tea, suiting words to actions.
"Now, I know you must be bursting with impatience by now to address the other matter that brought you here, so I shall cease delaying you. Besides which, I am curious."
Noah shifted and removed a cloth-wrapped package about four feet long which he wore slung over his back like a fighting cane might be slung. Indeed, that was what the priest had assumed it was, but apparently not. The Esper unbound the leather straps at each end which held the cloth in place and unwrapped the fabric.
Inside was a long rod seemingly made of a single piece of crystal, about two inches in diameter. One end had obviously broken, for it came to a number of jagged points, while the other was perfectly smooth. The young priest's eyes widened.
"Noah...I can feel something from that, even from here."
"It has been the subject of a powerful enchantment, one which still lingers even though it was broken. This crystal was what Alis used to kill Dark Falz with, hurling it through the demon's head. It was a weapon of opportunity, but I had hopes of adapting it, making it into a true weapon that could be used through the ages against the ultimate evil."
The Dezolian priest shook his head.
"That is not what I meant, Noah. I don't doubt you...but by Heaven, this crystal has a presence. The very air is alive around it. Can't you feel them, gathering here?"
"What do you mean?" Noah asked. He'd hoped that the Dezolian might be able to tell him something of this artifact, Damor's crystal, and its unusual properties, but this sudden, intense reaction to the very sight of it was far more than anything he had anticipated.
"Spirits," the priest said.
Noah looked at him with an expression that was part curiosity but also part frustration.
"Was that supposed to be an explanation or an expletive?"
"The spirits of the dead," Ngangbius told him. "They're here, gathering all around us. Can't you feel them?"
"These spirits..." Noah said, "they appeared when I took the crystal out?"
"That's right. This room is alive with them."
Noah extended his mystical senses, but try as he might he could feel only the faintest impression, a magical aura surrounding the two men but not one which he could actively sense as anything in particular.
Certainly not as the phantoms of the deceased.
"Ngangbius...can you sense anything else?"
"I shall try."
He raised his long, green-skinned hands and closed his eyes, chanting softly in what appeared to be some kind of prayer or spell. A faint aura of violet flame shimmered around him.
"I sense...great courage," the priest whispered. "Honor, justice, compassion...but courage above all. The courage to sacrifice oneself for the good of all Algo. Names...Sean, Kara, Laya, Perseus, Artur, Mendos, Gyana, Linde, Ango, Tyrela, Nari, Cage...Loyal beyond death—Ah!"
His speech broke off with a sharp cry, and he staggered back a step. Ngangbius' eyes flicked open, and the violet aura faded, his concentration broken.
"These are no ordinary spirits," he said wryly. "While I spoke to them, they were looking within me. Judging me, I daresay."
"Those names...Ango was a great hero of ancient times. His sword still hangs in the Museum of the Antiquities in Paseo. I've heard of Troy, too. He was a great warrior from a thousand years ago. He and Perseus were supposed to have fought against Medusa when she tried to conquer Palma..."
"I, too recognize certain of those names. Gyana was a great priestess of four millennia ago, the foundress of our church. Linde was her aide and paladin, a heroic swordsman. There were more spirits, too, beyond the ones I named."
"But why? What do they have to do with this crystal?"
"It appears that they shelter it."
Noah wrapped the crystal again. As he did so, a look of relief passed across the priest's face.
"Thank you. While I do not believe these phantoms meant us any ill, their presence was most...overwhelming."
"At least for those who could sense it," Noah groused. He was being petty, he knew, but he couldn't help it. He thrived on being the wise, knowledgeable wizard, and it galled him to be in a position of which he had no understanding whatsoever.
Pride goeth before a fall, but it also maketh one act like a damn fool.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I don't like being unable to do something, especially if it involves magic."
"That's all right. I've had the same urge," the priest admitted. Noah realized that the two of them were of an age, relatively young men put into positions of power, positions where they were relied upon, by circumstances beyond their control. Ruefully, Noah realized that the Dezolian seemed to be the more fit for his role by his natural temperament. Quickly, he turned the conversation back to the matter at hand.
"When you say 'shelter,' do you mean that the spirits are within the crystal?"
"No, not within. It is more as if...how would I say it? As if the crystal was an anchor point to which the spirits are tied, holding them in this world."
"Loyalty beyond death, you said..." Noah mused. "They aren't trapped, then, but are doing this by their own will?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Then the phantoms are guardians, of a sort. They were all heroes in life, and now after death they remain to watch over and protect this crystal. But why?"
"I do not know, Noah."
"The soothsayer Damor put spells on it to make it a ward against evil power, and the spirits didn't stop him..."
"Perhaps what he did suited their purpose?"
"Right...Then the crystal broke, and the spirits are still here. That largely disrupted Damor's spells, though bits and pieces lingered. That means that the form of the crystal isn't important to the spirits, nor is any magical use it was put to before now. Breaking a magical item destroys the magic..."
His eyes opened wide.
"Ngangbius—Damor's spells aren't gone!"
"They're not gone! They've been disrupted, yes, but they're still here, partly present in the crystal. I'd wondered about that; it was what made me think of making this into a weapon against the dark force in the first place, but I didn't realize how special it really was. It even absorbed parts of Alis' magic when she threw it!"
Ngangbius was starting to understand.
"Then this crystal..."
"Might just be the most magically sensitive item in all Algo! That's why the spirits are guarding it, not because of what it is but because of what it could be!" Noah clapped his hands together. "It could have been turned into a weapon of evil, but now..."
"Now," the priest concluded, "if you are correct, you could not have picked a better material from which to forge a holy weapon."
Noah shook his head.
"Not me," he said. "Us—if you're willing."
"Two reasons. One, you can communicate with the spirits, and I don't want to learn that I'm making a mistake by getting blasted by the collected legends of eons. Two, as that example shows, Dezolians have magic that I don't, magic that might be useful in forging this sword of power. After all, I want this to be a weapon for all Algo, not just Palma."
"There is wisdom in what you say."
"And who knows? Perhaps one day, our spirits will watch as this weapon destroys Dark Falz not just for the millennium, but for all time.
They were prophetic words. Only, like all prophecies, they'd didn't come true in the manner he expected.