A faint wisp of smoke rose from the smoldering campfire which burned in the center of the stone-flagged courtyard. The Air Castle's battlements towered around it, massive stone walls like those that protected the monarchs of antiquity. There was a barbaric splendor to the gargoyle-bedecked palace that impressed Noah; he knew intellectually that in this modern era concentrated laser fire could reduce those walls in minutes, but emotionally they represented power and glory.
Perhaps it is appropriate that I should be so moved. After all, am I not a relic of those times as well? The Esper wizard smiled sardonically at the thought. Not even thirty years old and he was already an antique. It was true, though. There was a grandeur to this castle, for all that it was a sinkhole of evil, that the staid, modern government buildings in the city of Camineet lacked utterly.
The astonishing thing, though, was that the gates and towers were unmanned, that the decadent court of the tyrant Noah had expected to see was nowhere in sight. Around the campfire, the swordswoman Alis, the warrior Odin, and the winged Musk Cat, Myau, slept peacefully, with no fear of arrows or gunfire raining down on them from the battlements.
It could only mean one thing: that the rumors they had heard throughout the three planets of the Algo Solar System were true. The tyrant king Lassic was afraid. Afraid of the four companions, or of the laconia weapons they carried, or perhaps just generally afraid. No wonder, Noah realized, that the four of them had been able to pursue their quest with relative impunity, if Lassic's oppression was being essentially run by his underlings without effective central coordination.
They'd searched the castle thoroughly during the day, meeting only a token force of robotcops, easily overcome, and had concluded that Lassic's sole possible location was a keep-like building set apart from the rest of the castle, a great block of stone that had neither any doors or windows. Myau had found a trapdoor leading to tunnels hewn into the rock of the sky-island, and had heard and smelled monsters beneath. No doubt, to reach Lassic they would have to run that enemy-filled gauntlet, but that could wait until daybreak. A night's rest would do them good. So, as they had done many times in the past, they had pitched their camp.
Noah had volunteered to take the first watch; the Esper's metabolism needed little sleep; a habit he's taught himself through long nights of study. He stared into the fire, seemingly in a trance, though his senses were acute to any intrusion. His magical perceptions were even more sensitive than his physical awareness, so that he sensed the gathering of power well before the fire died to embers and the three translucent shapes came into view.
Each of the three was perhaps eight feet tall, with a long, flowing violet robe from which emerged unnaturally thin, spindly arms, the face masked by a helmet built into the robe which was pierced only by a thin eyeslit for viewing. Noah could, with effort, see through their bodies; they were not physically present as yet, not even their shadows. There was no immediate danger, the wizard decided, and so therefore he chose to let his companions sleep.
"Who are you?" he challenged.
"We are the Xe-a-Thouls," one whispered, its voice like the bubbling of acid.
"We bring you greetings from our master Lashiec," added a second in a dry voice, as of bones snapping underfoot.
Noah and his companions had battled unnatural sorcerers before, robed and masked spellcasters who had once been Palmans or Dezorians but were now undead shells of themselves. These were not such creatures; they were entirely inhuman, demonic spirits whose current life was all they had known.
"Lashiec?" Noah asked. "Do you speak of Lassic, who hides inside this castle?"
The third laughed, and its cackles were the wailing of souls in torment.
"We speak of he-who-once-was-Lassic."
"He is not your puling, weak kinglet, more ruled than ruler."
"He is Lashiec, the iron fist of the Darkness."
Noah's azure gaze flashed from one to another.
"He can call himself what he likes. Come tomorrow, it will only matter to historians." Such bravado! he thought. I think Alis may be rubbing off on me.
Their triune laughter was like the burning of unclean flames.
"Names do not matter, Noah?"
"Mighty Lashiec is but the weakling Lassic, Noah?"
"Then is the great wizard Noah nothing but...Lutz?"
His lungs burned with the effort of running, and his legs were like lead weights. Each step was a titanic feat of strength, and yet he kept on, performing them one after another. It didn't matter, though. A hand closed on his shoulder, spinning him around by force, and a fist smashed into his face, sending him tumbling onto the dry, dusty Uzo street.
"Get up, Lutz!" Drogar sneered. "Let's see if you can at least fight like a boy, girl-face!"
The insult stung. Uzo was a hardy frontier town on the desert world of Motavia. Unlike the capital of the Palman settlers, Paseo, it wasn't "safe" and "civilized." Its inhabitants worked hard to expand their agricultural base beyond the original oasis, dueled native Motavians who didn't like the influx of technologically advanced Palmans into their world, and staved off attacks from the larger and more aggressive of the local species. Weakness was despised by the folk of Uzo, and it was an attitude passed on to their children.
Lutz had the bad fortune to be different from the uniform sea of rugged, tough-minded individualists. His features were elegant and beautiful. His pale blue hair was sleek and soft to the touch, hair any lady of Paseo or Camineet society would gladly have killed for. His fair skin burnt instead of acquiring the typical Uzo tan. His body was slender, even delicate. It wouldn't have mattered how he acted; boys like Drogar would have taken one look at him and concluded he was effeminate and weak.
The ironic part was that had he actually been a girl, the assumption of weakness would never have been made. There were many lovely women in Uzo, and none of them were weak. The adult Lutz would grow into might find the psychology of gender stereotyping a subject for analysis, but to the boy it only hurt.
It didn't help, either, that he confirmed the impression given by his appearance with his personality. Lutz disliked rough-and-tumble sports and physical games. He loved books, both stories that entertained and educational volumes. He excelled in school; his mind was quicker than anyone else's in class.
Unfortunately, a keen mind was no defense against a punch in the mouth.
It was not that Uzoites venerated stupidity. Quite the opposite, as expanding a frontier on a foreign planet took intelligence and education alike. A keen mind without strength and endurance, though, that was for people from Paseo or back on Palma. They were the people who needed folk like the men and women of Uzo to clear the way for them, to explore new domains.
"Get up!" Drogar repeated, slamming his foot into Lutz's belly. A spike of pain shot through him. "Get up, princess!" Another kick. Lutz would have loved to stand up, to try to shut the other boy's sneering mouth, but he couldn't. He couldn't even get his breath, it hurt too much to move, and the kicks and stomps came too fast. He'd have a fine crop of bruises when this was over.
Mercifully, it ended quickly. Drogar was alone today; he was always more vicious with an audience to show off to. He spat on the injured Lutz, gave him one last kick for good measure, then walked off in search of some more amusing pastime.
Lutz lay in the dirt for a long time before he felt capable of dragging himself to his feet. His torso and sides throbbed painfully with every step. He knew, too, what was coming once he reached home.
He was right.
"So," his father sneered, "you've been in another fight." Lutz's father was a hardscrabble farmer, who worked very hard to eke out a marginal living from the desert soil. "And you lost again. Who was it this time? Keevan? Ryth? Saldas?"
"Drogar," Lutz said sullenly. He supposed he could have lied, or hid, or tried to conceal the truth, but he took a certain perverse pride in facing the man's wrath directly and honestly.
"Drogar? He's only ten—two years younger than you! What kind of a worthless little weasel did I spawn, anyway? Why don't you ever fight back? Do you like getting beaten? Is that it?"
His hand closed over the handle of his heavy whip, coiling it into a loop. With a brutal snap of his powerful arm, he lashed the braided leather cord across Lutz's face. The boy's head snapped back and he reeled against the kitchen cabinet. He felt a trickle of blood flow over his chin from where his split lip had been reopened.
He also felt anger.
It always made him angry, the way his father dealt with everything he did 'wrong' with curses and blows. He was also contemptuous—Lutz wasn't being punished for fighting but for losing. Usually he was scared, scared that this would be the time his father at last lost control completely. Once he'd broken Lutz's arm; that had been the day after Lutz's mother had abandoned her family. It would have been all too easy for him to break something more vital.
This time, though, the anger outweighed the fear. It reached deep down inside Lutz into a place he'd never touched before. The place where the security and safety of a father's love was supposed to be. Something inside the boy kindled at the anger's touch. A roaring filled Lutz's ears and a lamp exploded in a surge of flames.
"Witch-brat!" his father roared. His fist whipped around in a clubbing blow that laid Lutz out in a daze. "I've known it all these years! That whore did foist off another man's get on me!"
The look in his face wasn't contempt or rage any more. It was hate, black hatred. Inside Lutz, the fear rose up like a dark cloud, consuming his soul as he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Weak Lutz," taunted a Xe-a-Thoul.
"Lutz," hissed the one with the caustic voice, "left in the desert by his father to die."
"Lutz," cackled the one with the voice of dry bone, "who wept in anguish instead of finding a way to safety."
"Lutz," sneered the third, "who would be dead if Master Tajim hadn't found him."
Lutz, eh? Noah could hear the gnomelike old man's voice as if it were yesterday. Well, if you're going to be my apprentice, I'll be giving you a new name. Old Esper custom. Mine was Tarzimal, until I started following my master's path. New name to symbolize your new course in life. Let's see, how about...Noah.
"Don't names matter, Lutz?" mocked the fiends. "Lassic and Lashiec. Lutz and Noah. Do you reject your master, Lutz? Do you deny what he made you? Lashiec does not deny his master. Lashiec wields the strength and power of his new self."
"You are not Master Tajim's Noah. You are Lutz, standing in his master's mantle and carrying a wizard's wand, but inside you are nothing. Inside you are still just Lutz."
"Run away, Lutz."
"Save yourself, Lutz."
"Lashiec will kill you, Lutz."
"Lashiec will destroy you."
"Lashiec knows you are Lutz."
"Lashiec knows you are weak."
"Flee or die at his hand."
"Enough!" roared Noah. His companions did not so much as stir in their sleep; some magic must have been keeping them bound in slumber. Noah was alone.
The Xe-a-Thouls seemed to fade in, their transparent images solidifying. They towered over the Esper, unnaturally long, clawed fingers clutching the air. Noah quailed inside, realizing that he was by himself, facing the three demon sorcerers without Myau's wit and speed, Odin's weaponskill and toughness, or Alis' blade and indefatigable will.
"Why wait for Lashiec, Lutz?"
"We will mutilate and kill you, Lutz."
"Go now, Lutz, or die."
Noah's hands gripped the Psycho-wand tightly, his knuckles turning white under the pressure. His eyes swiveled from one Xe-a-Thoul to another, keeping track of their positions as they advanced. He could feel the dark power radiating from them; these were nearly the most powerful foes he'd faced thus far, stronger even than the mighty white dragons of Dezoris. Possibly stronger than Medusa herself.
There were three of them.
And he was alone.
Noah was on the verge of calling upon the wand's secret power, the magic to exit a perilous situation by teleporting a short distance away. He might be a powerful Esper, who had even surpassed Master Tajim in spellcasting ability, but all it meant, apparently, was that he would be attacked by bigger bullies, ones who would kill him instead of merely beating and humiliating. He still couldn't do a thing to stop it. Why fight a hopeless battle?
If a Xe-a-Thoul's shadow in the moonlight hadn't fallen across Alis' sleeping form, he might have given in to the fear. Watching her suddenly become engulfed in darkness, though, made Noah realize what the cost of running away would be. The Xe-a-Thouls would fall upon his friends, caught as they were in the enchanted slumber, and murder each one in the name of Lashiec.
Noah realized something else, then. Those fiendish conjurers weren't bullies, people too stupid to know better because of prejudice and intolerance. They were like his father, consumed by evil born in sick, twisted minds. Lutz had never run away from his father. He had never fought back because he hadn't been able, but he had never run away. He had faced down that enemy in confrontation after confrontation.
Now that he was an Esper wizard, could he do less than a scared little boy?
"I call myself Noah," he told the Xe-a-Thouls, "out of honor for the man who saved my life and taught me my art. That does not make me anyone other than myself. Lutz or Noah, what you call me makes no difference. Lassic was a weak king who accepted your dark powers in fear, and now Lashiec is a weak tyrant who cowers in his castle and sends his minions out to face his enemies. Lutz confronted his own foes himself, and so shall Noah!"
He summoned the magic then, drew it up from inside himself as the faceless monsters reeled in surprise at his defiance. The Psycho-wand's crystal tip glittered as he leveled it at the nearest fiend.
Flame exploded from the wand's tip, blasting into the Xe-a-Thoul, knocking it backwards onto the flagstones. Another struck out, its claw cutting the air in a rending motion, while nearly ten feet away Noah felt the slash graze his arm and blood welled up in the cut. The third flicked its claws skyward, and a pillar of lightning seemed to explode down out of the sky. The magic seared into the Esper's body, but he bent his own will to absorbing and redirecting the energy of the attack, limiting the amount of power that could manifest itself in physical form to injure him.
"You enjoy lightning," Noah challenged them, "then try this!"
He raised the wand to the sky, pouring his magic into it, holding on to every last bit of it until it hurt.
Blue bolts exploded from the rod's crystal tip, lashing outwards, playing over the bodies of the three Xe-a-Thouls. They shuddered and flinched at the assault.
"This is not the end, Lutz!" threatened one. "Our memories are long, and our service endless."
"We will face you again, Lutz!"
"You will suffer for this insult a thousand times over, Lutz!"
Noah smiled thinly, watching the bodies of the Xe-a-Thouls fade to translucence.
"Next time," he said, "I won't be afraid of you."
The images faded even further, dwindling away until at last they were gone entirely. With their passing came a moment of transition; the campfire surged up brightly again. The pain in Noah's arm vanished as the slice made by the fiend's claw disappeared as if it had never been there. Simultaneously, he felt magical strength welling up inside himself, all the power he'd spent driving off the Xe-a-Thouls returning to him.
Then, it was over, and it was as if nothing had happened, and the courtyard was still and quiet. The only thing that remained to tell Noah that the Xe-a-Thouls had been in any way real were his memories.
Alis yawned, stretched, and sat up.
"What time is it?" she said, blinking.
"A bit past midnight," Noah replied.
"How strange; I feel wide awake. Why don't you get some sleep and I'll take over the watch," she offered.
"Thank you; I believe I shall."
Alis hugged herself, trembling.
"I'm so nervous I'm shaking," she confessed. "Tomorrow we'll finally get the opportunity to confront Lassic."
Lashiec, Noah corrected mentally as he composed himself for sleep. The name did not change the person, but it was a reminder of the path one took through life. The tyrant deserved to have his enemies acknowledge the choices that had led to the upcoming battle. After all, Lassic or Lashiec, king or demon, he still would fall. Noah was sure of that.