The Eve of War

1016 AD, alpha timeline

-o-

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Zeo shifted in his sleep.

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"Your Majesty," came a faint voice, "are you awake?"

"Mmm," Zeo muttered, "my loyal subjects, you crave a boon?" No, wait. Zeo propped himself up on an elbow and shook his head. He wasn't "Your Majesty" yet. They were knocking on Mom and Dad's door, not his. He pried his eyes open. It was still night. In fact, it felt like Zeo had only been asleep for an hour or two. He ran a hand drowsily through his spiky blond hair.

"What on Earth is this racket?" That was Zeo's mother. "I hope you didn't decide to violate the..." a very slight hesitation, "…royal privacy for anything less than a state emergency." Zeo padded to his door and opened it. Across the hallway, Mom was standing in an open doorway, hair mussed, wearing a nightgown with a hastily tied sash. Behind her, Zeo glimpsed his father pulling on a tunic. Royal privacy indeed - yuck!

The soldier who'd knocked cleared his throat politely. "Yes, Queen Nadia. A message from our Ambassador in Medina, marked Urgent and Top Secret."

Zeo's father - Crono, King Guardia XXXIV - stepped up behind Mom and took the offered message. He broke the seal and read it quickly. He frowned and handed it to Mom.

"Dad?" Zeo said. "What's going on?"

Queen Nadia looked up from the message, her face paler than usual. "Go back to bed, Zeo. Lieutenant, summon the Privy Council at once." The solider bowed and left.

"Dad!" Zeo's father pointed sternly back into the room and followed the soldier downstairs.

"I'll be along as soon as I'm dressed, Crono," Mom called after him. "Zeo, close your door and go back to bed this instant. And don't think I won't check."

Zeo sighed, rolled his eyes, and slammed his door. Honestly. He was almost fifteen, and he'd been learning how to rule for two years, but whenever anything interesting happened it was "go back to bed, Zeo." He flumped into bed and pulled the covers over himself. Sure enough, after a couple minutes, his door opened quietly again, and closed as his mother saw him in bed.

Zeo promptly threw the covers off. He reached under his bed and pulled out a bag. Inside were clothes, not his usual court silks but rough grey and brown garments, the sort a kitchen boy or a worker's son from Truce would wear. Zeo shucked off his pajamas and pulled the disguise on. Not only did he not look like the Crown Prince, the colors were good for hiding and the material was tough and didn't restrict his movement.

At the bottom of the bag was a rope. Zeo tied one end around his bedpost and looked out the window. The castle was quiet - apparently the signals lieutenant had followed regulations, and no one but Mom, Dad, and Zeo knew about the message. But if the Privy Council were being summoned, things would get livelier pretty quick. Zeo tossed the free end of the rope out the window and climbed out.

-o-

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Kurt woke up with a start, and fell out of his narrow bed.

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"Mistress Lucca! I have a message from the King!" The voice was coming through Kurt's open window, from the front of the house.

Kurt fumbled clumsily at the nightstand until he felt his glasses. He pulled them on and went to the window. Mistress Lucca had already opened the door. "All right, what does Crono want? I'm busy." She had grease stains on her clothes and was holding a wrench. Apparently she'd been up late working.

"His Majesty has summoned the Privy Council," the messenger said, handing her a sealed note. He looked up and saw Kurt. "Who's that?"

Lucca had swiftly broken the seal and started reading. "Huh? Oh, that's just my apprentice. He's trustworthy, if that's what you're worried about." She called up to Kurt. "I have to go up to the castle. If I'm not back by morning, bring the order form on my workbench to Fritz and Elaine." Kurt nodded absently. His parents were the lab's main suppliers. He was always running orders and packages back and forth.

"What's up, Mistress?" he called down.

"Oh, some diplomatic nonsense. Melchior's been recalled, or some such. Nothing to worry about, go back to bed." Kurt nodded and moved away from the window, but then he paused. Mistress Lucca had made it sound like she hadn't known the Ambassador was coming. If the King and Queen were planning to recall the Ambassador to Medina, wouldn't they have told the Privy Council? Had Ambassador Melchior come back without orders? That would be very strange; he was supposed to be completely loyal to the King and Queen.

A tinny mechanical voice came from the corner. "Does Master Kurt require anything?"

"Huh? No, Proto, I'm just thinking." The half-built robot's eyes flashed in acknowledgement. Then something occurred to him. "Proto, data search. Does the ferry to Medina run at night?"

"Processing." Some lights blinked. "Negative. The last ferry on today's schedule left Truce at 4 P.M. local time."

So Melchior was returning without orders on a commandeered ferry. "Extremely strange."

"I do not understand."

"I wasn't talking to you." Kurt rubbed his chin. "I'm going to investigate. Stay here, Proto."

"Acknowledged. Advisory: this unit is not currently capable of locomotion."

"Oh, right. I'll finish your legs soon, Proto, promise." Kurt dressed, and grabbed his satchel from the desk - there were several useful things in there. He went downstairs, through the empty lab, and out the back door.

-o-

Zeo was glad he'd practiced this climb. If he'd done it for the first time on a moonless night like this, he'd probably have fallen.

The trouble was, his bedroom was a recent addition, stuck onto the side of the northwest tower when he was born. "I did not," his mother had told him, "want to go down one tower and up the other for every feeding." Moving closer to the old nursery (and away from Dad) was apparently not even considered. In any case, Zeo's room hung out over empty space seventy feet above the flagstones. Getting down past the overhang was definitely tricky. (Getting up was nearly impossible. He wasn't sure he even wanted to try it by starlight.)

If Zeo wanted to get out of the castle, he could climb all the way down to the courtyard, where he knew a way over the outer wall. But all the doors leading in were guarded, at least the ones at ground level. So he had to swing in past the overhang and catch a ledge on the tower wall, since the new construction had no such conveniences. This was the real tricky part - he had to get himself swinging at just the right speed so he didn't fall short or bounce off.

But then, Zeo had practiced this. He reached the edge of the overhang, kicked off the wall, and let a measured amount of rope slide through his gloved hands. (He'd added gloves to his disguise after taking most of the skin off his palms trying that the first time.) Zeo firmed his grip, feeling the jolt in his shoulders, and swung back toward the wall. He'd timed it perfectly - at the top of the arc, he let go of the rope and landed on the narrow ledge.

Leaving the rope hanging from his window, Zeo edged along the side of the tower. It wasn't dangerously narrow, by his standards - it extended about a foot from the wall - but he didn't have room to walk normally. On the east face of the tower there was a gargoyle, its head level with the ledge. Zeo clambered down over the thing's shoulder and got his foot into an arrow slit. Hanging from that slit, the drop to the slate roof over the throne room was only about six feet.

Zeo landed on the slate with a thump, hoping Mom and Dad weren't meeting the Privy Council in the throne room for some reason. From here, it was easy going. He just had to climb up onto the judicial wing and squeeze through a window into one of the storage attics. There were no guards up here - after all, who would try to steal old court transcripts? Zeo was in. He heard Leene's bell ringing eleven in the distance.

-o-

Kurt's entry was much less athletic. He simply ran up to the gate waving a few pieces of paper. "Who goes there?" the guard officer said.

"It's just me," he said. "Mistress Lucca forgot these." He showed the guards the pages, covered in Mistress Lucca's handwriting and completely indecipherable to anyone but her and Kurt. It was actually some notes she'd made for him on Proto's knee articulation, but it could have been military diagrams or a soup recipe for all the guards could tell.

"That's the apprentice," the officer told his men. "Let him through." Kurt jogged into the castle with a wave. That trick always worked, because half the time it wasn't a trick. Mistress Lucca was always leaving her notes about, and she had no skill for organizing anything without gears and circuits in it.

The Privy Council would likely be meeting down in the map room, next to the barracks. They only sat in the throne room for formal or public meetings. Kurt trotted down the stairs like he owned the castle. Just outside the door was an antique suit of armor on a stand, hiding the weapon chests in the corner. Kurt passed the door and ducked behind the armor. He tried to step around the chests to find a hiding place, but his foot landed on something softer than the floor and lumpy.

Kurt wobbled and fell onto the chest. He had a dismayed moment to realize he was going to roll off the other side and knock over the armor. Then someone grabbed his shirt and pulled him back. Kurt smacked his head against the wall and landed behind the chest.

Blinking, he sat up and saw who he'd stepped on. "Thanks a lot, Zeo," he whispered. "That hurt." He should have realized the prince would be here first.

"Serves you right for stepping on my foot," Zeo whispered back. "Shut up and hide." Kurt ducked into the shadows.

"How sure are we that this information is correct, Your Majesty?" General Taron was saying.

"Melchior knows magic when he sees it," Queen Nadia answered. The King added something, but Kurt couldn't make it out.

"An attack on our ambassador!" the Chancellor huffed. "This is an act of war! The Mystics can't be allowed to get away with this." The Chancellor didn't like Mystics; something about a box that Kurt had never got the details of. "We should prepare our troops at once, Majesties."

"Hold on a minute," Mistress Lucca says. "Melchior's message didn't say he was attacked by Mystics. If he thought that. . ." She was cut off by several people at once. Kurt caught only a few words, "magic" and "hasty" and "war." He and Zeo looked at each other.

"War?" Kurt whispered. "With Medina?"

"Maybe," Zeo whispered back. He looked excited, and nervous.

"But we've always been friends with the Mystics," Kurt murmured. "Well, for four hundred years. Why are they attacking us now?"

"Melchior signaled us from his ship," the Queen said, cutting off the argument, "so he'll be here shortly. We can decide when we have the full story."

"Until he gets here," the Elder of Truce said, in his reedy voice, "we should discuss our plans for. . ." something Kurt didn't care enough to strain to hear. The Elder was a bit of a windbag.

"At least it sounds like Uncle Melchior's okay," Zeo whispered after a while.

"I wonder what this is about?" Kurt asked.

"I don't think anyone knows. Shh!" Kurt ducked. Around the armor, he saw Ambassador Melchior coming down the stairs. He was moving a bit slower than usual, Kurt thought, and his beard was singed. He was followed by two very nervous soldiers. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said once he was at the door. "That will be all." The soldiers saluted and went on into the barracks. Melchior went into the Map Room, but Kurt thought he saw the old man wink as he passed them.

"Did he see us?" Kurt hissed.

"Probably. Uncle Melchior's got eyes like a hawk." Zeo sounded almost proud. "Don't worry, he won't tell."

"Melchior!" several people said at once. "Ambassador," the Chancellor went on, "I'm so glad you escaped that heinous attack."

"Yes, well, this old man still has a few tricks up his sleeves."

"What exactly happened, Melchior?" Mistress Lucca asked.

"Well. In short, the spell Fire 2 was cast on my embassy nearly four hours ago. Of those in the building, only I survived, however, the two guards at the gate lived. I joined them, and learned they hadn't seen a thing except for the spell itself. We made our way to the dock. The mayor of Medina was waiting there for us. The little fellow can move remarkably quickly when he needs to. He apologized profusely and promised an investigation - I rather believed he'd known nothing about the attack. I thanked him and told him I would await his findings in a safe place. I ordered the ferry to gather its crew and disembark, and sent a message to the castle on Lucca's televoice device once we were at sea."

"Hmph," the Chancellor said. "The Mayor was obviously lying. How else would he have found you so quickly?"

"I know him fairly well by now, and he seemed to be telling the truth," Melchior said.

"If the attack had succeeded," General Taron said, "we wouldn't have known what happened for some time, especially if the ferries were stopped. It would certainly have been a good precursor to a surprise assault on Truce or Porre, with no one to see them preparing."

"Well, I hate to say it," Mistress Lucca said, "but these days the only human in the world who can cast fire magic is me." The ambassador harrumphed. "I certainly didn't do it," Mistress Lucca went on, "so it had to have been a Mystic."

"I wouldn't jump to conclusions," Melchior said. "There is much about the world we don't know."

"Besides," General Taron said, "it might have been a Mystic that was acting without the Mayor's orders. Mistress Lucca, how many Mystics would you say are capable of casting Fire 2?"

"Actually. . . until tonight, I'd have said 'none.' It's not easy magic, and the Mystics aren't what they used to be. It's not impossible, but I would have thought if someone else could cast it I'd have known about them."

"Certainly it would be easier for a Mystic than a human," the Chancellor said.

"We can't just sit and hope for the best," the Queen said. The King said something, but once again Kurt couldn't hear it. His voice too deep to carry well through the wall.

"Yes, Your Majesty," the General said. "I'll alert my staff at once. They should be already awake. With your permission, Majesty, Majesty, counselors." Kurt and Zeo ducked as the General left the room.

"The rest of us have preparations to make, too," Mistress Lucca said, sounding grim. "I should get Gato Mark III out of storage, and dust off the Wonder Shot." Kurt blinked. He'd helped build the Gato III, but he'd never heard of any Wonder Shot. Some kind of weapon, presumably.

The rest of the council muttered agreement, and started filing out of the room. The boys ducked completely behind the weapons chests until they were gone.

"Wow," Kurt said. "If there's a war, I wonder if they'll let us fight?"

"Not me," Zeo sighed. "They don't let me do anything. You might get to help work some battle machine, but I'll be stuck in the castle. And speaking of overprotective parents, you need to help me get back to my room before they check on me."

"No way, Zeo! I'm not climbing up that tower again. I nearly died last time."

"Oh, come on. You don't have to go all the way, just help me out. Got anything useful in that bag?"

"Well, I do have the mini-grapple for my multigun, but. . ."

"No, the gun's too loud," Zeo said, "but could I just use the grapple?"

Kurt sighed. "Fine. But I'm not putting one foot on that tower."

"Whatever you say," Zeo grinned. "Let's go."

-o-

Zeo sprinted up a narrow staircase. "C'mon, Kurt, hurry up."

"That was the third successive flight of stairs, you know," Kurt said, jogging up the last few steps.

"So?" Zeo opened the small window high in the far wall and started wriggling through. He spoke quietly, so the sound wouldn't carry to the guards on the walls. The castle was starting to get noisy, as Taron put the troops on alert, but they'd still hear if he and Kurt were loud enough. "I can just feel my mom thinking, 'I should go check on Zeo, he seemed upset.'" He reached up, grabbed the edge of the roof and pulled himself onto it.

"Is that a quote?" Kurt asked, as he started climbing out after.

Zeo held down a hand for him. "Yeah. She said it while I was spying on her, and I knew there was no way I could get back there first." He pulled, and Kurt rolled onto the roof. "That one got me grounded for…" Zeo looked up, and saw a figure in a white robe standing on the roof, right above the center of the throne room. He snapped his mouth shut and dove to his belly next to Kurt.

"What…"

"Sh!" Zeo pointed. The figure looked like a man, judging by size, but the robe concealed his features completely. He was looking away from the boys, studying the northwest tower. "It's probably a Mystic spy," Zeo whispered in Kurt's ear. "It looks like he's trying to break into Mom and Dad's room; there's secret stuff in there."

"Should we shout for the guards?"

Zeo shook his head. "He'll get to us before they do. They would have sent someone dangerous. We'll have to sneak up on him."

"There's a hole in that logic," Kurt muttered. Suddenly the intruder looked around, as if he sensed the boys' presence. They froze. The stranger shook his head, as though dismissing a brief fancy, and started moving quietly toward the tower.

"Grapple," Zeo whispered. Kurt pulled it out and gave it to him. "Load your gun, but don't shoot until you're sure you'll hit." Kurt nodded. Zeo took off toward the tower, moving as fast as he could without making noise.

The intruder was apparently used to breaking in to places, because he found the best route up the tower - Zeo's route - with almost no hesitation. He climbed onto a crenellation, jumped to the arrow slit, and pulled himself up the arrow slit to the gargoyle. As the intruder reached the ledge, Zeo (hanging from the arrow slit) realized he'd left his window open and a rope hanging from it. He nearly cursed out loud. Well, maybe the guy would miss the jump and make himself a courtyard pancake.

No such luck. As Zeo was scaling the gargoyle, he saw the white robe fly out from the wall, ghostlike, and catch the rope like a pro. He even had gloves. Zeo edged along the wall as fast as he could, fumbling Kurt's grapple from his pocket.

"Hey," came a voice from the wall. "Is that the Prince?"

"Huh? No! Sound the alarm! Intruder in the King's tower!" Zeo snorted. It served the guy right for going sneaking in white.

Once he was around the tower, Zeo studied the grapple. He thought he remembered seeing Kurt use this before. Folded, it looked like a short metal rod attached to a reel of thin, strong wire. Zeo gave it a yank, and the tube folded out into a three-pronged grappling hook. He found the switch on the reel that would let the cord play out.

As soon as the intruder was off the rope, Zeo threw the grapple. It spun around the rope a few times and caught a tooth on the fiber. Zeo flipped the switch and let it reel in. The rope came right to him. He swung out and started climbing. Above him, he heard snapping wood - the thief had forced his parents' door. There went the chance of sneaking up while he was busy picking the lock. Zeo tried to climb faster. He was past the overhang, now - with a wall to push off of he'd go faster.

"Zeo," Kurt shouted, "there's another one!" Zeo looked back. He couldn't see - wait - there might be someone, robed in black. . . waving his arms? Several things then happened at once. There was a crack like thunder as Kurt's gun went off, but the buckshot ricocheted off the man's back, leaving only a small wound in the side of his leg. There was a crash like glass breaking up in the tower. There was an ominous hum as the black-robed man pointed upward, and Zeo felt the magic like a hole in reality.

From his sword training, Zeo had learned that if you practice something often enough, you can do it without thinking even under the worst kind of stress. It applied to climbing, too. Zeo kicked off the wall, slid down the rope, and swung in beneath the overhang. He went fast enough that he was already flying toward the tower wall when the wave of destruction reached his bed, and the rope came loose.

Zeo hit the ledge with his gut, not his feet. The wind was knocked out of him, and he started to fall. Somehow, he managed to get four fingers of his right hand around the ledge and hang that way. He looked up. A. . . thing, a void, something darker than the night was exploding through the tower. As Zeo watched, the outer walls blew away, and the entire top of the tower was obliterated. He thought he saw the magic spin there a moment longer, a sharp-cornered blackness blocking the stars, before it vanished. "Holy crap." Had Mom or Dad been up there? They should have been going around giving orders, but what if they had gone up to check on him?

Zeo could worry about his parents later; now he was hanging by one hand over a fatal drop. He reached up with his left hand, and a chunk of broken masonry crashed down on the ledge, right where he'd been about to put it. Zeo flinched away, but two splinters of stone cut his hand, and one struck his face less than half an inch from his left eye. A larger piece knocked his leg as it fell, making him swing alarmingly.

When Zeo looked back up, the ledge was broken off almost right next to his hand. He tried to grab the edge with his other hand, and the stone he grabbed crumbled away into gravel. Zeo couldn't pull himself up one handed, and the other hand had nowhere to grip.

Something appeared in front of him, grabbing: a strange gauntlet of bronze and some light-colored metal. Zeo blinked. "Give me your hand, Zeo, hurry!" Hearing Kurt's voice, Zeo grabbed the thing. It closed on his hand, with a strength that had to come from the gauntlet; Kurt's grip wasn't that strong. The wrist of the thing creaked and groaned as Kurt pulled him up. "You're the luckiest boy alive," Kurt breathed. "Never do that again."

"I wasn't going to," Zeo said. He looked down onto the roof. He'd heard things, but he'd been too busy to pay attention. The two intruders were fighting each other. The one in white held a katana whose blade shimmered through every color like an opal, even by torchlight. The scabbard was in his other hand; he didn't seem to have a belt for it. The one in black was holding the other off with his dark magic. The stone of the roof was already marked by the blasts.

"The white one came down the other side of the tower, so fast I thought he fell," Kurt said.

"Well, yeah," Zeo muttered, "if you can go out Dad's window, it's easy." He peered down at the fight. "Wait, that's Rainbow!"

"Which one?"

"No, the sword. That's Dad's katana. Thief!" he yelled down. The two fighters didn't look up. "We need to get down there."

"Zeo! You can't just run into the middle of that. Wait for the guards."

"They can't get up here in time. Go, Kurt, get out of the way." Kurt sighed but he started moving. He wasn't fast enough for Zeo. While he was waiting for Kurt to get clear of the arrow slit, he saw an explosion of black magic knock two holes in the weakened roof. There were crashes and screams from the throne room as the masonry fell. Mom and Dad probably were in the throne room.

He heard Kurt drop, and immediately started climbing after. When he was down and could look again, the sword-thief had forced the magician back away from the throne room. Zeo sprinted after, keeping well wide of the holes. The thief was close enough to take swings at his opponent, now, but the black-robed man just flowed out of the way, moving like a ghost in the darkness. Finally, when it seemed he would be struck, he drew a red knife from his robes, and parried Rainbow. The world seemed to ripple out from where the blades met, and lightning arced to the nearby stone.

"You fool!" the man in white said, staring at the knife. "What have you done?"

The man in black laughed, cast a spell, and sunk through the stone in the form of a shadow. Zeo froze, stunned.

The man in white barely hesitated. He sheathed Rainbow and pulled a lasso from under his cloak. Sprinting toward the edge of the roof, he tossed the loop of rope over a handy crenellation on the edge. Zeo stared, realizing what he planned. "No way. . ."

The thief reached the edge and took a flying leap into space. When the slack in the rope ran out, he stopped in midair and swung back toward the wall - except there wasn't precisely a wall there. Rainbow flashed. The forty-foot-high stained glass window depicting Justice and his scales shattered away from the slice, and the white-cloaked thief flew through the ten-foot hole into the courtroom.

"Get back here, you rotten thief!" Zeo yelled. It was his turn to make use of a rope left behind. He grabbed it and started climbing down the wall, and then down the intact part of the window. When he reached the hole he used his kick-off-and-slide trick, and ended up below the hole, inside the room. He slid to the floor.

Glass crunched under Zeo's boots. He reached down and picked up a yard-long piece of wrought-iron, slightly curved. It had probably been the edge of Justice's shoulder. It wasn't Rainbow by a long shot, but it would have to do.

Zeo vaulted over the arm of the judge's bench and landed on the seat. In the center of the room, the two intruders were fighting, lightning flashing whenever Rainbow met the red knife. "Stop!" Zeo yelled, summoning memories of his father's rarely used Royal Command Voice. Almost to his surprise, they stopped. "You," he said, leveling the metal rod at the one in white, "are a thief. For the honor of Guardia I will take my father's sword back if I must pry it from your dead hands."

The hood of that white cloak turned toward Zeo, then to the black cloak, and back to Zeo. He pointed at himself incredulously, as if to say, me?

"That one will pay for attacking my home and endangering my people and my family," Zeo said, "but first I need my sword."

"This ends now." The voice came from the depths of the black robe. The wizard pointed at Zeo, and dark arcane symbols spun around his arm.

The thief moved, so fast he seemed to blur, and Rainbow spun like moonlight on a mirror. The red knife came up, and the world rippled as the weapons clashed twice, with almost no pause between them. The thief skidded to a stop. Wet stains appeared on the black cloth from three more strikes, in the shape of three-fifths of a star. "I'm your opponent," the thief said hoarsely. Either he'd taken a throat injury once and it hadn't healed well, or he was disguising his voice.

"Zeo!" came a shout from out the window. "Slow down!" Then Kurt looked in through the hole in the glass, and groaned.

"Cover me!" Zeo shouted, and took a flying overhand leap at the thief. He swung the bar straight down at the man's head. Rainbow came up to meet it, deflecting the strike from cracking his skull, and shaving a neat slice of iron off of most of its length. The bar glanced of the thief's shoulder. Zeo landed behind him and rolled to his feet, snapping the bar into low guard. The balance was actually better now, with that slice taken out.

Kurt's multigun cracked from the window. Blood spurted from the mage's hand, interrupting the spell he'd been casting. "Zeo, get out of there!" Zeo ignored him and charged.

After three parried swings, he thought he had the thief's measure. The guy was fast, and of course his weapon was much better, but there was a hesitation in his movements - a fatal flaw in a swordsman. Zeo attempted a disarm. Rainbow met the attack, all hesitation suddenly gone, and the iron rod was twisted out of Zeo's hands. The thief swung Rainbow's sheath, hard enough to knock the wind out of Zeo and throw him back twenty feet on a wave of air. He skidded into the wall, and saw the thief spin and raise Rainbow against an explosion of black magic. The two strangers resumed their duel, though blood was seeping through the black robe and the white cloak was smoldering.

Kurt knelt down beside Zeo. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Zeo gasped, "it's the room that's spinning."

"Look at that sword work, that's incredible." Kurt glanced from Zeo to the thief. "Could that be your father?"

"If Dad wanted Rainbow, he'd have gone up the inside of the tower." Zeo spotted the iron bar, and crawled toward it.

"Stupid heroic princes," Kurt muttered, reloading the multigun. "Go for the limbs," he called, "they've got body armor." Zeo grabbed his improvised weapon and staggered to his feet. As he started to charge, Kurt fired into the melee, not caring which one he hit.

This was no buckshot, but a single heavy slug with a double charge of powder. Kurt's gauntlet groaned as the springs absorbed the recoil. The noise was incredible, so there seemed to be no sound when the mage's knife hand shattered, or when the red knife itself broke in two.

The next thing Zeo heard was his own scream. He tumbled to the ground in mid-charge. A foot-long shard of the red knife - half of the thing, it looked like - was embedded in his left knee. After that, he heard Leene's bell ring sweetly in the distance, beginning to stroke midnight.

"Zeo!" Kurt shouted. Leene's bell rang; stroke number two.

The mage reached down with his undamaged hand and grabbed the other half of the red knife where he'd dropped it. Three. The thief brought Rainbow to high guard and charged. Four. The mage began waving his arms, and was surrounded head to foot with spinning balls of black magic as he cast. Zeo thought it was the spell that had destroyed the tower. Five. Rainbow spun like moonlight on a mirror, and the mage's bloody hand pointed.

The sixth stroke of Leene's bell was lost in the sound of the universe starting to tear. The sound was a whining buzz that was somehow much louder than it sounded. Seven. The mage and the thief landed on opposite sides of the room. They immediately started climbing to their feet to fight again. Eight. Zeo watched what was left of poor Justice ripple, as though through a heat haze. But it wasn't a heat haze, because Zeo could feel the rippling in his guts.

Nine. The hole in the universe opened up, an enormous sphere rippling blue and black. Zeo felt himself start to slide toward it. Ten. Kurt grabbed his arm with the gauntlet, trying to pull him back, but he was pulled off his feet. The intruders were being pulled in, too, plucked off the ground in mid-charge, up and in. Eleven. The four of them passed through the edge of the hole, and Zeo saw the thief and the mage twist away in directions he hadn't known existed. The gauntlet's grip held, though, and Kurt stayed with him.

The last stroke of midnight was cut off as the hole closed.