It was all his fault, and no one knew it. No one would blame Rune for the death of Alys Brangwin, but in his heart, he knew the truth. He'd watched her eyes close for the last time, even her will insufficient to hold off the power of Zio's Black Energy Wave as it consumed her body from within like a cancer. They'd grieved—Chaz, Rika, Hahn, Gryz, even the android Demi, but none had turned an accusing face towards him.
But then, they didn't know what he did.
They didn't know that Rune had within himself the will and memories of the archwizard Lutz, chief of the Espers. Lutz, who had battled alongside Alis Landale against the demonic Dark Force two thousand years ago. Lutz, who had witnessed the rise of Mother Brain and sent that tormented soul, Rolf, to battle the evil computer as well as the starfaring remnants of a lost race and the Dark Force that had irredeemably corrupted them both. Lutz, who should have known better.
Lutz, whom out of all the people in Motavia, could have and had made the connection between the wizard Zio and Dark Force, the demon whom every thousand years returned to Algo to bring death and destruction. Rune had slipped into Kadary when Zio was away and recognized Dark Force's face at once in the ornate church Zio had constructed to his evil god. He'd been a half-step behind in pursuing Zio to Molcum, barely missing his chance to keep the dark wizard from obliterating the village of native Motavians.
He hadn't been too late to meet Alys again, though.
When he'd last seen her, she'd been eighteen years old. Rune had accompanied Alys and her mentor, Galf the Thunder Sword, on a number of adventures when she was growing up, becoming almost an honorary uncle to her. Part of him had wanted to step up, take Galf's place when the old hunter had died, but he knew that his mission as Lutz would take him away sooner or later, so he had left her then. There was no point in fostering a dependence on him when he wouldn't be there.
You abandoned her, his heart told him coldly. You abandoned her when she needed you, just like you abandoned Rolf and his friends.
He's heard their story, heard how their paths had crossed with Zio's in the matter of Motavia Academy's Birth Valley investigation team. He'd seen the look of vengeance in the Motavian boy Gryz's eyes. He knew that Motavia's environmental deterioration was likely due to a malfunction in the planet's environmental controls and that Birth Valley—which Zio was protecting—was home to the Bio-Plant, a key part of that system.
In other words, he'd known that the stage was set for a confrontation between Alys and her friends and Zio. A confrontation that, with the power of Dark Force involved, could have only one result. In a way, it was a miracle that only Alys had died.
"I warned them, though," he said softly. "I told them they were no match for Zio."
Did you tell them why? his conscience asked remorselessly. Did you stop and make sure they understood?
No, he hadn't. He'd simply tossed off a warning in his best Mysterious Esper who Knows All manner and left them in Tonoe. He hadn't even had the guts to say it directly to Alys. He'd been afraid of an angry confrontation. He'd been afraid to spoil the look of happiness her face had shown when they'd met again after all those years.
Afraid to remind her of how he'd left her alone.
Look at where it got you.
No, he hadn't accompanied them or even given them advice in a useful fashion. He'd just abandoned them—abandoned her again—and went off to seek the Psycho-Wand, the holy artifact from his past that he'd need to defeat Zio. He'd been sure he'd be able to fetch it and eliminate Zio before anything else went wrong. After all, he was Lutz.
Except that he wasn't Lutz. He was Rune Walsh, fifth generation Lutz, whose brain and body were not yet awakened to the great magic that was Lutz's heritage.
Except that, somehow, Zio's underlings had slunk into the Ladea Tower, seeking the Psycho-Wand.
Except that he had only been able to reach the third damned floor—barely!—before Chaz had caught up with him!
By then, it had been too late. They'd rushed back here, to Krup, but there was nothing they could do. He'd been forced to watch Alys die.
Through the open door to the roof, Rune could see Chaz leaning on the low wall that ran around its edge, looking up at the sky. Like Alys herself, he'd apparently been an orphan, raised and trained by a hunter, and had lost their mentor too young.
Are you going to abandon him, too?
Rune didn't even like the kid! He was immature, hotheaded, prone both to act and to shoot off his mouth without thinking. They'd fight Zio together, of course—Rune now knew he needed all the help he could get for that—but what then?
Alys asked you, "Please help him." You told her, "Leave it to me." Will you abandon her a third time?
But he couldn't turn aside from Lutz's mission, either. Especially not now, with Dark Force upon them.
The only way it would work was if he took Chaz with him. Or, rather, if he joined Chaz and the rest of Alys' companions. They'd been put on the same path, to destroy Zio and save Algo. Maybe together they'd succeed. Rune wouldn't let Chaz go it alone, though. He wouldn't let the boy become another Rolf. That he swore.
He could use a few words of support, his conscience nagged. Here was a young man who'd just lost the most important person in his life. Not that Rune was very good at that sort of thing; even after two thousand years his skill with personal relationships wasn't what it could be. Still and all, the boy clearly needed someone...
He walked out onto the roof.
"You can't sleep?"
Chaz turned to him with pained eyes.
"What am I doing?"
This won't be easy, will it, Alys? But then, he was Lutz. Nothing about his life was easy, and this, he thought, could just be a challenge worth meeting.