Chapter 7

Zalbard stared out the window of the office in which he had just taken up residence. The reflected light from Ceralune, what the locals had so inaccurately dubbed the Blue Star, was growing dimmer.

It would be only another sixteen hours until the world on which he stood blocked out the light from the sun, and it would be bathed in night.

He envied its natives even that short respite from the daylight.

“My lord?”

He turned from the window and faced the masked esper who knelt before him. His lip curled back in thinly veiled disgust. This one bore a strong -Taint-. If the tainted ones had not failed, the espers could have escaped their Banishment long ago.

Of course, there had been other attempts. Once, Zalbard had served in such an attempt, and that too had failed. Not, of course, through any fault of his.

But that didn’t make any difference now. “You are certain of what you saw?” he asked.

The other esper nodded. “The Seeker is here. A Banisher is with him.”

Zalbard stroked his mustache. Three of the Four were now on this Fragment called Lunar. Two, he could deal with. Three? Well, three was a crowd. “He must be seeking the -Heir-, then,” Zalbard said, more to himself than to his subordinate.

“I assume as much.”

“Do not assume.” Zalbard turned back to the window. “The Master will have to be informed, of course. He will be... displeased.”

There was a pause. Zalbard waited for his subordinate to give the ritual farewell, but it was not forthcoming.

“The Seeker bears a -Taint-,” the other esper said.

Zalbard spun about. “What?”

“There are -Menace- cells within him. Active ones.”

Impossible! It was unheard of in a human. The Cetra had not known of such things, and certainly, with so few -Menace- entities on the Fragments, it would be even farther from the realm of possibility. “You must be in error.”

“I am not,” the other esper said. He rose to his feet.

Zalbard’s mind reached out and grasped his scythe. Better to be prepared. Did this tainted fool think to attempt a power struggle now, with the Great Vengeance so close at hand? If so, he would find it a difficult task.

“As one who bears the -Taint- myself, I can easily recognize it in another.” The other esper bowed. “You may confirm it yourself, of course, my lord.”

Zalbard nodded. “Very well. You are dismissed.”

“May you find rest, my lord,” the other esper said, though Zalbard doubted he meant it.

This was... disturbing. Two of the three -Heirs- were already captured. One, Zalbard had taken himself. Everything had been going according to the Master’s plan.

The gaps in their knowledge had been filled almost completely after the death of that accursed Banisher, Leknaat. True, Silverburg had failed to acquire the True Runes - that reflected badly on Zalbard, as well. But the discovery of innumerable Cetra records more than made up for it.

And now, he had been assigned to seize the final -Heir-. Time was short - the Cetra’s own folly would be the undoing of they and theirs. The Great Vengeance was almost upon them.

But a tainted human? That, he had not anticipated. No one, he suspected, even the Master, could have anticipated that.

It was not a pleasant thought.

All effects seemed stronger in humans than in any other race. Even before the Banishment, they had begun to develop powers that rivaled the espers’ own. The Cetra had discovered and classified those powers in the years since. When they had again needed fodder to throw against the -Menace-, it was to the humans they had turned, not the espers. Espers who had received a strong -Taint- during their disastrous attempt to find a new world were greatly increased in power, although they were rendered vulnerable to the -Menace-’s influence. If the Seeker, a human, had that taint, he would no doubt possess the full power of a -Menace- entity.

Zalbard shook his head.

It didn’t matter.

Not even the strongest -Menace- entity would be able to oppose the Great Vengeance once the last -Heir- was recovered. And that would be soon. Indeed, one of the three destined ones was sure to lead them to the final -Heir-, and with time to spare.

Zalbard smiled. The living hell he called home would soon be transformed into a paradise. And when it did, he would be among the first circle, justly rewarded for his role in bringing it all to pass. It would, he suspected, be a very pleasant existence indeed.

He would not let anything stand in the way of that.