"Dark! Dark, get out here - right away!"
On the floor above, the young hunter named Dark muttered something like "Hmwafhuh?" and buried his head in his pillow.
"Get out!" his sister yelled. "It's almost mid-day!"
"Get lost... I'm sleeping..."
Dark Gray - no pun had been intended; the name 'Dark' reflected his nature, and such names were rather common on Mota these days - put the pillow over his head to shut out the sound of his sister's voice. It wasn't enough. He pulled the blanket over the pillow. That was better. Much better.
"You...!" Shane shook her head and immediately regretted it when her wild-grown mane of brown hair took the opportunity to fall back into her face. Shane cursed. Usually, she bound her hair into a ponytail, but that little rascal Jun - a young thief whom Dark had apparently (for no apparent reason) adopted - had sneaked up behind her and somehow managed to untie the ribbon without her noticing. "Dark Gray! Get out of bed, you damn... Oh, darn." Momentarily forgetting about the opening of the new-built guildhouse, the youngest Gray stepped into her house. Stopping by at her room, she grabbed another ribbon and tied it in place as she continued on to Dark's room. Dark, of course, had fallen asleep again. Shane pulled the blanket from his head, saw the pillow, and sighed. She took that as well, then shouted, "Wake up and get out of bed!"
"Hmmh..." Dark's green-haired head moved a little, but he still didn't wake up.
"Oh, you lazy..." Shane placed a hand on Dark's neck. "Res!"
As the healing power flowed through him, Dark gasped, opened his eyes, and jumped out of bed. Wearing only a pair of black shorts, the Gray was not unarmed - a short clasp knife rested in a sheath sewn to the right leg of the shorts. He had it ready in the blink of an eye, but put it back as he saw who the 'attacker' was, putting a hand to his forehead.
"Shane! I've asked you not to do that! I could hurt you - even kill you!"
"Hah!" Shane laughed, flexing her muscles, suddenly in a combat stance. "You? No way, bro!"
"So you think!"
Taking an impressive leap over his bed, Dark grabbed Shane's wrist, twisted, and dropped to one knee, and his sister found herself on the floor, immobilised in an armlock. Shane could beat Dark at anytime with swords, but that expertise came at a price - she only practised swordfighting, had little knowledge of other weapons, or the barehanded fighting techniques that her brother used. But Dark soon released her, rolled away and muttered, "Oh, darn... I'll never be able to get back to sleep now!"
"That's the idea, isn't it?" Shane asked, grinning wolfishly.
"You... damn... saboteur! Get going, I'll get dressed. What's for breakfast?"
"Oatmeal porridge. By now, it's most likely cold oatmeal porridge," Shane answered with another grin.
"Lunch?" Dark tried, pulling a shirt over his head.
"Here? Forget it. We were going to see the opening, remember?"
Dark's head popped out through the correct opening in the shirt. "Crap! I had forgotten... Well, almost. I'll be there in a minute. Get going, I'll catch up."
Knowing that Dark wasn't going to get back to sleep as soon as she left - the Res-tech had woken him up too much for that - Shane went out and closed the door behind her. She barely got out of the house before Dark appeared, jumping out from his window on the second floor and landing effortlessly on the thick carpet of grass, adding another pair of deep footprints in the otherwise well-tended garden.
"You're too slow," he reprimanded, his voice stern but eyes glittering. "Get quick or get dead - that's what you say, isn't it?"
"Yeah. But I didn't talk about getting dressed, you nut!"
"Oh? That thought never occurred to me..."
Aiedo still wasn't a very big town. There were eight small houses, like the newly built one belonging to the Gray family - but most of them smaller - and perhaps five or six semipermanent tents. And, of course, the guild - by far the largest house in town. Another recently built house, it was made from bricks, not - as the old guild-house, and most other houses in town - from wood, and it had been finished only a few days ago. This was the first time other people than the builders were allowed to visit, and this had attracted hunters from all across Motavia - the guild, after all, was the one place where hunters from any town on Mota could meet and talk, and not have to fear any interference. Fighting was strictly forbidden within the guildhouse, and the hunters kept the rules up themselves, in the normal hunters' way of dealing with trouble - someone fighting would be forcefully thrown out, and if the fighter was lucky, he would be thrown out together with his teeth. It had happened often enough, though, that certain parts of the troublemaker remained in the guildhouse. Needless to say, people visiting the Guild were careful. Very careful.
Jun met them by the gates of the guild, not being allowed in unless accompanied by an adult hunter (since no one knew what to make of the boy).
As soon as she saw him, Shane grabbed the little thief, lifted him of the ground and promptly held him there until he promised to give her stolen ribbon back. Growling something about violent hunters, Jun put a hand in his pocket - and handed Shane a small snake! The huntress yelped and jumped, and it was only through Dark's swift reflexes that the unfortunate reptile was saved from an early death; he snatched it from the ground just as Shane was about to step on it. As he dropped the snake in a bush, noting that it was a completely harmless specimen - a sandsnake - Jun ran off, laughing, and Shane shook her fist at the thief, shouting surprisingly dirty insults.
"Come on, Shane," Dark said quietly. "It's not worth it - and you'll never catch him. Let's go."
Shane followed him through the gates to the guild, keeping an eye out for Jun. She'd never liked snakes - not since the time she, as a child, had almost been killed by a sandworm. Snakes and worms, worms and snakes, they were all the same to her. Just wait 'till she caught that miserable little... rat!
The hunters of the guild were divided in two groups - roughly put, 'the youngsters' group', where the hunters mainly boasted of dangerous missions taken and, of course, accomplished (no one ever seemed to recall failed missions), and 'the elders' group', in which older hunters spoke softly about life - not only as a hunter, but life in general - and missions both failed and successful. Shane, of course, belonged in the first of the two. Dark, on the other hand, seemed out of place in both - not being one to boast and speak like the younger, but being too young to fit among the elders. When, once they had looked around in the house, Shane went to join her friends, Dark sat down in a padded chair behind a large flowerpot with a small palm-tree in it. Enjoying solitude as much as or more than company, he was content just sitting there, watching.
But this day, fate had decided otherwise for him. Suddenly, there was a commotion at the door.
"Let me in," someone demanded.
"No way!" the guard told the uninvited guest. "Only hunters are allowed in today! No new assignments are accepted, nor, for that matter, are any handed out."
"I am a hunter... and I'm not here for an assignment today."
"Don't recognise you..."
"Look at this, then!"
There was a moment of silence. Then the guard stepped aside, allowing a strange figure to get inside.
The newcomer had short blue hair, a beard as short and the same colour as his hair, and wore black boots and gloves and a green robe - the kind of garb used by Motavians. But this couldn't be a Motavian - his ears weren't pointed, and his eyes were brown. Dark, from dealing with them once in awhile, knew Motavians had both red eyes and pointed ears, and so of course this man couldn't be one, though he had slightly Motavian looks, his hair falling down to his eyes and his beard covering almost everything below them, making him seem furred.
"Hello, stranger!" Dark called. "Have a seat."
"Thank you." The man sat down in another chair, some half meter from Dark's. "My name is Tiram," he said, his voice bright and friendly.
"Dark. Dark Gray. What brings you here?"
"Do you always question people like that?" the man asked, then blinked. "Excuse me. I always seem to say stuff. Don't mind me."
"Ah, I don't mind. It's... refreshing. I'm just a bit curious. Where are you from? I've never seen you around."
"From... ah, that doesn't really matter. I came here to see if there are any jobs for me here. I'm actually an explorer, but I take on assignments from time to time."
"Well, I don't think you could have picked a worse time to look for work." Dark noticed a questioning look on the man's face, and continued: "The new guildhouse is opened today - we're in it, by the way - so they are throwing a party... sort of. A day off, at any rate."
"Ah," Tiram said, "but they will tomorrow? Offer jobs, I mean."
"Yup, of course. Try to keep a hunter of the job for more than one day and he'll go nuts." Dark smiled wryly, as did Tiram.
"You seem rather calm..." challenged the blue-headed man.
"Of course - I'm talking regular hunters. If I get bored, I'll just go off picking peoples' pockets or something." He had meant it as a joke, and had thought that his smile would make that clear, yet the other man seemed to take it seriously.
"You're a thief?" Tiram seemed surprised.
"Not really. I'm a bored hunter. The difference is that... taking on jobs is a legal way of robbing people blind. Picking pockets isn't legal, but getting picked is usually a lot cheaper than hiring a hunter. By the way, remind me to brush up on my jokes, will you? They don't seem to work anymore."
"...hmm." Tiram looked at Dark, a little puzzled, and tapped his nose thoughtfully. Ignoring Dark's second 'joke', he said, "Hmm. Indeed. I've never thought of it that way. They charge a lot, do they?"
"Most do..." Dark trailed off. Of course, there were usually pre-set prices, but these mainly told how much them would-be employer considered the job to be worth - most hunters negotiated their own prices. Telling people what you charged wasn't something that hunters liked to do, and Dark, while he didn't really care, kept silent too, as to not stick out from the crowd too much.
"And you?" Tiram pressed.
"I... No. Not really. How 'bout you?"
"Only what seems appropriate. Enough to survive."
"Yeah... something like that." They laughed. Noting that his new-found friend seemed to lack all kinds of physical weapons, Dark asked, "What kind of work are you in? Like, mercenary? Or guide?"
"Guide, yes. I don't fight much if I can avoid it."
"Dark? Why are you sitting there for?" Shane asked, suddenly from behind the palm-tree by Dark's chair. "Huh...? Who's your friend?"
"My name's Tiram," said the blue-haired man. "And yours?"
"Gray - Shane Gray."
"Gray...? Then you are...?"
"She's my sister," Dark explained. Lowering his voice, he added, "She's a nuisance, but don't tell her I said that."
Tiram watched as the Grays started insulting each other in a way that was only barely recognisable as friendly, uncertain what to do.
"Eh... guys?" he tried. "Calm down, would you?"
"...about yours, Shane! Ah, bugger it. Sure." Dark stood up. "I'm gonna go get something to eat. Join us?"
Tiram rose to follow the Grays towards the great table where food was being served. This, he decided, was getting interesting.
A new day dawned on Mota. An hour before the sun rose into the sky, Dark got out of bed - for once earlier than his sister. He got dressed, grabbed half a loaf of bread, and ate it as he headed for the guild training area.
Later, when Dark returned from his practice session, Shane was up and eating breakfast. Dark washed, put on some clean clothes, then joined her.
"Any plans?" he asked.
"Nope." Shane shook her head. "None. Visit the guild?"
"Yah. Didn't look for jobs, though... maybe I'll do that later."
"No. I'll do that. Your turn to do the dishes."
"Hey, Shane!" called the receptionist at the guild. "Looking for work?"
"As usual," Shane replied with a grin. "Got any?"
"I'll check the papers and see."
As the fair-haired and dark-skinned woman behind the desk started looking through her papers and notes, Shane spotted a green-clad figure approaching. There was something familiar about that figure...
"Hello, Shane," Tiram greeted her. "Got a job?"
"Not yet. I'm waiting. By the way... how did you get in here yesterday? I didn't think they were going to let others than known hunters in."
"Oh, that. Ah. I just showed the guards a little paper..." As he spoke, Tiram pulled a slip of sandworm-hide parchment from his pocket. As Shane read it, she started to laugh.
"'Hunter's license'? There's no such thing!"
"You and I know that," Tiram replied dryly.
"But someone didn't, obviously..."
"Shane?" the receptionist called. "I've found two available jobs... the first is an extermination job. Some farmer complains about giant flies..."
"Well... I think I have something better here: a job as a bodyguard and guide to a travelling scientist who is trying to find stuff from before the Collapse... anyone interested?"
Shane looked at Tiram.
Tiram looked at Shane.
"How much's he willing to pay?" Shane asked. The receptionist cast a look in her book.
"Six thousand Meseta."
"Enough," the huntress decided. "How about a little teamwork? Three for you, three for us?"
"Sounds perfect - but only if we cut it two for me and two each for you and Dark," Tiram agreed. "Anything else would not be fair. Where is this scientist now?"
"He's in town. Ask for him at the inn," the receptionist answered.
"Good." Shane turned to Tiram. "We'll meet you there."
"Great. I'll see you later, then."
They left the guild together, but took different paths outside as Shane wanted to get her brother before meeting their would-be employer.
"Back already?" Dark complained.
"Yup - with a job. Bodyguards for a scientist. He's trying to find traces of before-the-collapse- stuff."
"Oh. Just wait for me, I'll get my stuff... it might come in handy, even if it's just from, like, 300 years after the Collapse," he muttered. Dark got up from the chair he'd been sitting in and disappeared into his room. A couple of minutes later, he reappeared wearing a dark green-lacquered hardened leather chestplate, a shortsword and a large pouch hanging from his belt, and holding a thin titanium staff. Meanwhile, Shane strapped her sword into place and pulled a chainmail shirt over her head. If the scientist wanted to leave immediately, they had better be ready for it.
When they were both done gathering their equipment, they locked the door and headed off towards the inn. Tiram was waiting for them outside, leaning against the wall and turning a not quite finished woodcarving in his hands, eyeing it with some disgust, as if he was not satisfied with the way it had turned out. As the Grays approached, he threw the carving into a bush and sheathed his knife. Dark noticed that the folds of the man's robe completely hid the weapon - useful, he suspected, in certain circumstances.
"You been waiting long?" he asked. Tiram nodded. Then he shook his head.
"No... nah, not really."
"I see." The hunter smiled and opened the door, shoving his sister and new-found friend inside.
"You are all hunters?" the middle-aged professor asked.
"Yes, we are," Dark replied. "Don't worry. The price remains the same - we won't charge extra."
"Oh. Well, in that case I have no complaints. When can you be ready to travel?"
"Instantly, if needs be," Shane told him. "We are ready when you are."
"That is good... shall we say at dawn tomorrow, then? Yes? Good."
"What a strange old man..." Tiram said as they left the inn. "He seems a little... well... somewhere else."
"Doesn't matter as long as he pays," Dark grinned. "You got anyplace to stay? Otherwise, we have some empty rooms."
"Thank you for the offer, but I do have a room... I shall meet you at the inn tomorrow."
"Yup. See you there, then."
Tiram left the Grays, disappearing into a house on the way. Shane and Dark continued towards their own house, deciding to get to sleep early - they had to get ready to travel before dawn.
"I see you're all here," the professor said. "Shall we start our journey, then?"
"Ehm, yes... but really, I think you'd better tell us where we are going," Tiram told him. "Near or far, for starters?"
"I'm looking for things from the time before the collapse five hundred years ago - all kinds of things - and I thought to start my search hereabouts. After that, I intended to journey towards Zema. Did you know there was once a dam near that town? Anyway, I understand that the road is a bit dangerous what with all the sandworms and suchlike - so I hired a hunter. Or rather three hunters, it seems."
"Four!" a well-known voice shouted. "Four!"
"What -" Dark turned his head to the source of the voice. "Jun! What are you doing here?"
"I'm going with you," the thief replied.
"Oh no you're not!" Dark told his friend. "We've talked about this-"
"But I'm almost grown up," the about-twelve-years-old Jun protested. "And besides, it's not dangerous with three hunters with me..."
"I'm not! If that old man can make it so can I! Besides I wanna see Zema!"
"You little brat... Blast! Come along then, but stay in sight, get it?"
"Yeah - sure he will," Shane sighed. "Sure he will."
"Yup, sure I will!" said the thief. No one believed him - but if they refused to take him, Jun would likely follow them anyway, and even more likely get into serious trouble trying to do so.
"Are we quite finished?" the scientist asked. "Yes? Good." And he began to walk away from the inn, not looking back to see if the others were following him. Dark, Shane and Tiram shrugged and exchanged glances, then followed. Jun, of course, did the same.
Ten minutes later, they were well outside Aiedo.
The few 'monsters' they met were no match for Shane's sword and, on some occasions, Dark's staff. They reached the place the scientist had chosen to start his examinations without problems, and stayed there for seven days. Unfortunately, whatever the professor had hoped to find wasn't there - which meant they were off to Zema. The road there was considerably more dangerous, and Shane had to use her prized Res several times during the trip, Dark as usual refusing both to use techniques and to have someone use them on him. Five out of four were in good shape when they reached Zema; Dark was limping slightly from a mean bruise on his left leg, the results of a close encounter with a giant centipede which had given them some trouble.
"So this is Zema," Jun exclaimed, jumping over a sand dune. The city of Zema lay before them, the rays of the setting sun casting shadows over it and making parts of it gleam. Some of Zema's houses were old, even a few domed metallic buildings dating to somewhere before the collapse - the ones that gleamed - and though most of them were in bad shape and had been fixed with wood and bricks, the professor seemed overjoyed.
"Indeed it is!" he said. "Indeed!"
"So, now that we're here, what are we going to do?" asked Dark. "Are we going in to town tonight?"
"Yes, that would be the best," his sister agreed. "How about you, professor?"
"I see no reasons not to," the scientist told her after a second of consideration. "Let's move before it gets dark - no offence, Dark."
"None taken." Dark knew their employer was right - many predators came out to hunt once it got dark (Dark considered himself one of them) and it would indeed be best for them all if they got to Zema before nightfall.
It wasn't going to be that easy, though. Only half a kilometre from the gates, they heard a sound only too familiar - the sound made by burrowing sandworms. While full-grown worms were peaceful creatures, only dangerous if someone tried to harm them, the small worms were blood-thirsty and mindless killers - attacking everything that moved, and sometimes things that didn't move as well, just for the hell of it. Realising the danger, Shane sent the professor and Jun running towards the gates, while she, Dark and Tiram retreated slower so they could halt the worms' advance and buy the others the time needed to reach the safety in Zema. Soon, several streamlined shapes came into vision from behind a dune.
"Damn!" Tiram growled as he saw the worms. "There are seven of them, and with only three of us... any suggestions?"
"Seven?" Dark sputtered in disbelief, while he tried to count the worms by himself. "Did you say seven?!" He did not need Tiram to confirm what he had said; Dark was as good at counting as anyone else in the group, and, unfortunately, counted seven worms.
"I did... It's uncommon, yes, but it happens that even ten of them band together. I've seen it happen."
"I got a suggestion, then." Dark sighed, watching the shapes swiftly approach. "Get over to Zema. Take cover."
"But -" protested the bearded man.
"No 'but's! No time! Run for it!" yelled Dark, then held out his hand and pointed his staff at the leading worm. "Zan!"
A hurricane-forced wind shot from the staff in Dark's hands, making the sand whirl in spiral patterns as it built in strength. "I can't hold them away from you forever!" he shouted, backing away from the worms. "Run, before they smell you and go around me! I can take them by myself, but get going or I won't get the chance!"
"Come, Tiram!" Shane muttered. "He knows what he's doing."
They ran. Behind them, the sound of fighting begun - then there was another rush of wind. Several worms shrieked in agony as the rapid windblasts tore at their tender skin.
As the two reached Zema's gate, they heard Dark, now some hundred meters behind them, cast Zan a third time; the surviving worms shrieked again, then there was silence. Shane motioned for Tiram to stay behind and headed out into the desert again. She didn't get very far, as Dark, swaying a little, met her halfway to the gate. Shane steadied her brother and helped him in, then pushed the heavy gates shut. No monster could hope to open that lock, which required use of a thumb to manipulate.
"Amazing!" the professor muttered. "You defeated seven sandworms on your own! I've never seen-"
"Aw, they were just small ones," Dark smiled - though bit weakly. "Just small ones. If I ever beat a big worm, then you'll have reason to be impressed."
It was quite late, but the inn was open. Without arguing, the professor paid for five rooms. Soon, they were all asleep.
A great pile of rubbish - both rocks, metal and plants - blocked the way into the cave that was supposed to be located behind Zema. The city was built close to a mountain, and the mountain seemed to catch the professor's interest even more than the metallic houses. He was overjoyed when he heard of the cave; he also got very disappointed when he saw it blocked.
"Can't anyone of you break through?" he asked. The hunters shook their heads.
"Maybe a technique..." the professor tried. Dark glared at him.
"No. I won't use techniques unless I feel it is necessary. Blowing up rocks isn't top priority."
"But I'll pay extra..."
"No! I said no, and I mean no!" The usually so calm hunter's rage was unexpected, and the professor backed several steps.
"Won't work," Shane explained to the crestfallen scientist. "Dark doesn't like using 'techs. He hates it, actually - and it will do you no good if you argue about it."
When Shane and Dark were young, their mother had been bitten by a desert-serpent, and died from the poison. Dark had tried to use his restoring techniques to heal her, but failed. Of course, he had not known, then, that he needed a special technique to cure poison, but, for some reason, he blamed techniques for her death. Shane knew, and knew that Dark knew too, that neither the techniques nor Dark himself were to blame, but also understood her brother's frustration; he needed something to blame. It would have been better if he had decided to hate snakes instead, like Shane did (although for a different reason), but Shane couldn't do anything to change his mind. The Zan 'tech he had used against the worms was the first technique he had cast since their battle with Ramare, almost two years ago.
Shane didn't explain this to the professor, though; partly because he probably wouldn't understand, and partly because Dark wouldn't thank her if she did - he might even decide beat her up for it.
"No. It won't work. Maybe we can use some kind of lever?"
"It's worth a try," he agreed. "Find a suitable lever, and we'll try."
"Take it." Dark handed Shane his staff. "But if it breaks, I'll hold you responsible," he warned. "You don't know how greedy those Motavian traders get... it cost me one and a half thousand 'M."
Shane smiled. "It won't," she promised as she inserted the end of the staff below a huge rock, then pulled. Nothing happened. "I could use some help..."
Dark and Tiram took hold of the staff and pulled with all their might. The slim titanium weapon bent a little, but didn't break, and the rock shifted.
"I see something!" Jun cried happily. "I'll get a look!"
And before anyone could stop him, the thief crawled in under the great rock.
"Jun!" called Dark, "get out of there! Now! If we drop this..."
"You won't!" the thief answered. "I see stuff here! Need light, but there's something metallic! And more rocks! And this strange little... little thing that just got the hell out of here - I can't se it anymore. I'm going in!"
"No!" Dark yelled. "Get out!"
"I can't! I don't have enough room to turn around. I'll get in so I can turn, okay?"
"Hurry! I'm getting tired!"
But Jun didn't hurry. He didn't come out, and though both Dark and Shane shouted for him, they got no reply. The rock was getting very heavy, and they were forced to put it down again. Dark sourly examined the stones, found one small enough to carry, and pushed it from its place. It fell to the ground, along with several other small stones, and Dark continued looking for portable rocks. After a while, he couldn't find any more, and started trying to lift the larger rocks.
Aided by Shane, Tiram and the professor, he was able to remove most of the other stones as well - but some time later, they had removed all they could. Three rocks remained, however, each too large to be lifted or moved. Dark sighed.
"Now what?" he wondered. The professor opened his mouth to suggest using a technique, but shut again it as he saw Shane's scowl.
"I might have something..." Tiram muttered. He put his hands on the largest rock and shut his eyes. He stood perfectly still for a couple of seconds, then opened his eyes again. "Stand back... in case this fails."
They did as they were asked, and Tiram once more shut his eyes.
"Ryuka!" he commanded.
The next thing they knew, both Tiram and the rock were gone, leaving only a faint, rapidly fading green light behind. The other two rocks fell down, almost blocking the entrance but leaving a hole big enough to climb through. Tiram suddenly appeared again, empty-handed, and sat down on one of the remaining rocks.
"Phew!" he groaned. "Really, that's got to be the worst thing I've ever done!"
"But what did you do?!" Dark asked, wild-eyed. "A technique?"
"Yes. The Ryuka technique. It's a teleporting technique.... But it's darn... difficult to use." Wiping his forehead with his sleeve, Tiram got up and looked at the cave. "Well... We can get in now, so it worked - didn't it?"
"Yes," Shane agreed, "it did. Let's go." She crawled through the hole, closely followed by Dark, the professor, and Tiram.
Jun got out on the other side of the cave-in, or whatever it was, and found himself in a natural cave, nothing unusual to be seen anywhere.
"Oh, darn! How boring!" he complained to himself.
A flash of light caught the boy's eye. Could it be... a treasure? Treasure was Jun's speciality. Slowly and carefully, he made way through the dark and slightly damp cave - forgetting all about his friends.
"Jun? Jun! Where are you?"
"Calm down, Dark. He's probably gone deeper within the cave."
"Mmh... probably. If anything happens to him, I'll - what was that? I think I saw a flash of light..."
They found nothing interesting in the cave. They did, however, find a hole leading down a bit further in. Holding a torch high, Shane climbed down and found herself standing in another cave like the one above.
"Come on down!" she called. "This looks interesting!"
And interesting it was. After finding out that the right path in the crossroad ahead of them was a dead end, they examined the left one... and found a metal door, shiny as if recently polished or new. The dampness in the cave would make any normal metal corrode in a short while, so it couldn't have been there for very long otherwise, as it was completely free from rust. The door was open, just a little...
"Jun's got to be in there!" Dark muttered. "I know he is!"
"Forget Jun, look at this!" the professor called. "This door is old! It's over five hundred years old, probably even several hundred years more! It's stainless steel, you see!"
"What? No one knows how to make that sort of stuff anymore!" Tiram exclaimed, examining the door. He gasped. "It is stainless! There's no other explanation... And look at this writing, down here! 'The Palman-Motavian-Dezorian Academy'...!"
"Palma... that planet exploded!" Shane exclaimed. "Then this door has to be over five hundred years old! But how could people from Palma get to Mota?"
"They used flying ships," the professor explained. "Ships that could travel the skies, at incredible speeds! That's how they got here. But let us pass this gate - I am sure there are tons of relics in there!"
"So am I - and along with 'relics', we are bound to get Jun... and the longer we wait, the more chance for that rascal to make scrap metal out of any valuables in there," Dark sighed. "Let's hurry. I don't want any of them - Jun or ancient relics - to get too damaged. I might consider damaging Jun a little myself, for running off like that, though..."
Then he realised no one was listening. He quickly followed the others through the open door, and found himself staring at...
A metal corridor lay before them. Not a single rusty spot was visible anywhere. The corridor was lit, though no one could spot the source of the light. A bright line ran across the floor.
Somehow, they knew that line was there to be followed.
"Warning, Master," one of the androids buzzed. "Sensors detect five organic beings approaching. Four are entering Main, passing the gate now. One is going ahead, estimated distance to the larger group is two hundred metres."
"Intruders?" a tall man asked. "Illogical! No human could break through the rockslide without using powerful techniques or technology, both of which have been lost to all beings on Motavia. Scan again."
But the droid was either damaged or correct, for it gave the same answer again: "Sensors detect five..."
The tall man turned to another figure, slightly shorter than him: "If the intruders are Palman, Motavian, or Dezorian, persuade them to leave. Are they biomonsters, destroy them before they cause any damage. In any case, they must not reach this place."
"Yes, Master," the figure answered. It grabbed a laser rifle from a long-unused weapons rack, checked the batteries for power, then, finding the weapon satisfactory, headed off through the steel tunnel. The tall man didn't watch it go.
"Wow! Look at that!" Jun whispered to himself. The thing was a short, metallic... something. It was about one meter across, perfectly circular, and on its sides (or was it just one side, since there were no corners?) there was a line of blinking lights. The thing was slightly domed, perhaps thirty centimetres high at the top, five at the edge - and it floated, close to the floor, instead of rolling or walking. As Jun watched, it came towards him - not in a straight line, but sliding back and forth over the floor as to cover all of the shiny surface. Jun assumed it to be a cleaning device of some sort. It seemed harmless, so when it approached, the thief remained where he was. The thing bumped into his leg, very gently - he almost didn't feel it. Standing absolutely still, Jun stared fixedly at the metallic dome hovering over his feet. The thing buzzed, seemingly puzzled to encounter this unforeseen barricade. The thought that it might pass Jun instead of floating through him didn't seem to occur to it. Maybe the one steering it didn't see him? Of course, Jun thought, that must be it... The thing didn't even have a window!
"Hello?" he said.
There was no answer. Jun tried to lift the object, and found it very light.
Suddenly, a cold and unpleasant voice called out from the dome-shaped thing in his hands: "Attempts to damage androids will be met with force."
"Yikes!" Jun shouted, and threw the metallic object as far as he could. It hit a wall with a solid 'clang!' sound, then fell to land on its back. "Don't spook me like that!"
"You had a warning," the voice answered. The thing started to move, and suddenly, it jumped. In mid-air, it twisted to land on its 'feet' (or at any rates the place where feet would have been placed, had it been equipped with such). A very short cylindrical tower rose from the centre of the thing. A smaller cylinder, attached to the larger, moved to point directly at the thief. Jun knew trouble when he saw it, so he turned and ran. Quick and agile as he was, though, Jun wasn't fast enough to outrun a laser ray.
Luckily for him, it was a low-intensity beam, so after it had struck his back and thrown him head first into the wall, he still breathed. The cleaning droid, having exterminated the 'threat', sent a short series of radio waves to the command centre as it withdrew the cannon tower. An order was issued, and soon another droid appeared. It bent low over the boy, lifted him and carried him off to the control centre. Jun, unconscious, didn't notice anything of it.
"What is this? And this? And that?" Shane gasped, pointing. Dark looked. One 'this' was a glass container. In it, the 'that' floated. It looked like a skinned animal carcass, a creature out of a nightmare, and it was floating in some kind of greenish fluid. Some thin threads seemed to hold the dead thing in place; other threads didn't seem to do anything at all, but hung limply between the creature and the top of the container. The second 'this' was another container, this one broken. A puddle of greenish fluid on the floor seemed to indicate that the container hadn't been broken for long.
"What is this?" Shane asked again. "Professor? Do you know?"
"No..." the professor answered absently, staring at the two containers, "But I'll be damned if I'm leaving without finding out."
"Yuck!" Tiram muttered, scratching his flat nose. "Disgusting, that's what it is!"
"No, it ain't," Dark smiled. "That is." He pointed. Tiram looked as if he had second thoughts about his last meal. A formless lump of flesh was crawling towards them. It looked almost exactly like the thing in the undamaged container; probably, it had broken free, also breaking the container in the progress. Trailing blood and pink slime behind it, the creature was slowly but steadily closing on them. Tiram swallowed, looking as if he was going to be very sick, very soon.
"Wh - what is that?" he gulped.
"No idea - none at all," Shane told him. "We'd better retreat to see what it does."
"No!" the professor protested. "This - this is fascinating! It's a life form I've never seen or even heard of before!"
"Back off anyway, old man," Dark cautioned. "It might be a dangerous one."
"No! I must see this!"
"Damn stubborn... ohhh! Stay, then. I'm backing off."
"Do as you wish, hunter."
Dark followed his friends, taking several steps back, and watched the strange being close in on the professor. When the thing was one step from the scientist, it stopped, lifting the part that had to be a head. Then it froze.
Several seconds passed, then the thing moved a little closer to the kneeling professor. And a little closer... And a little closer... Reaching out with his right hand, the man touched the monster gently. The thing recoiled as if he had hit it, seeming to cower. The professor lowered his hand again. The monster's head rose...
"Professor," Dark warned, "look out!"
But it was too late. From what had to be the creature's mouth, a jet of green fluid shot to hit the professor in the face. The man fell, screaming and clutching at his face.
"It spits acid!" Tiram gasped. "We have to do something quickly! He'll die!"
"Shane...!" Dark commanded. She nodded and went to drag the professor away from the monster, then sat down by his side and started to heal the damage. Dark, meanwhile, discarded his staff and drew his shortsword. After some consideration, he also took something from his pouch. With a few quick clicking folding motions, the claws were out. Dark placed the steel bar in his left hand, letting the three thirty centimetres long titanium blades poke out between his fingers. Tiram pulled two knives from his belt.
"Get it!" Dark shouted, then threw himself onto the monster.
Shane carefully pulled her hand away from the professor's face. The small bleeding that had been was stopped, but what skin and flesh was left was in a very bad condition - not to speak of the eyes. The professor would probably be blind for the rest of his life, even if he survived. He was unconscious now, mercifully, but still in pain. Shane winced. If the professor's life was to be saved, more powerful techniques were needed. Dark would have to help her.
"Dark! I need you!" she yelled
"Later!" her brother shouted back, stabbing down with his sword and blocking a clawed hand - or something that might be a hand - at the same time. "I'm - rather - busy!"
"He's dying!" Shane cried in despair. "Help me! Fast!"
"I can't! If I back off, it will get Tiram too! We have to work together or we're dead! Use Res!"
"Try again!" he told her, then leapt back to avoid the claws, hacking at the arm as he did. The arm fell, severed at the elbow, and the monster gurgled in pain. Even if it had no skin, the thing was horribly strong - Dark was right; neither he nor Tiram could defeat the thing on their own, but together, they might stand a chance. Growling, Dark took a bite in his left arm and felt acid burn on his skin.
"That does it!" he muttered, tore his arm from the monster's sharp fangs, then thrust his entire hand back into its mouth. Before it could bite, the blood-splattered hunter commanded: "Gifoi!"
"Is he dead?" Dark asked Shane. She shook her head.
"Not yet. But he is close, I'm afraid."
"Darn." Dark scowled at the acid-burned man. "I've had to use more techniques in a week now than I used for years!"
He placed his hands on the professor's chest. Closing his eyes, Dark pictured the man as he had been, before the acid struck, then as he was now. Slowly turning the later picture into the first, dark took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then whispered,
He kept his eyes closed until he heard the astonished gasps of his comrades, then opened them. He didn't see much. Almost as soon as he relaxed from the casting of this, his most powerful technique, he lost consciousness.
When he finally woke up, the first thing he saw was the professor - looking as if he had never been wounded, sitting with his back to the wall and staring at the destruction around him. Shane was arguing with Tiram about a burned hole in Tiram's robe where acid had struck. Beneath it, corroded steel glinted dully in the strange light.
"It's nothing," Tiram insisted. "I'm not hurt. See to Dark, his wounds are worse than mine."
"He's mostly tired," Shane replied. "Take that chestplate off, I see blood here."
"It's just my chestplate... it's rusty from the acid. Well, look at that! Dark's up!"
"Dark!" Shane gasped, turning to sit next to her brother. "Are you-"
"Yes..." Dark assured her, sounding somewhat groggy. "I'm alright. How are you all?"
"The professor's wounds healed," Shane told him. "Tiram's hurt, but he says he's fine. I'm unharmed, you have some wounds. I haven't done anything about them yet... -"
"...nor will you do anything. I've had enough of techniques!"
"Can I persuade you to take this, then?" Tiram asked, holding a small glass tube aloft for Dark to inspect. The hunter shrugged.
"If you insist..."
"And I do," Tiram replied. He threw the Monomate to Dark, who broke the seal and swallowed the bluish fluid. His wounds almost immediately felt better.
Sitting up, Dark looked at the monster. Its head now a smoking ruin, burned to a crisp by his Gifoi tech, it didn't look as threatening anymore.
"Wow. Talk about getting ahead in the world..."
"Ha. HahaHA," Tiram muttered. "It's still disgusting, if you ask me."
"But," Dark said, grinning, "I don't. Shall we go?"
Jun had no idea where he was. He was lying on a cold and hard metal table - or possibly a bed, one without a mattress. Had he been sleeping? The walls around him were featureless, not even a door... trapped!
"Hey!" he yelled, suddenly very scared, "Let me out of here!"
No one answered. Jun set about examining the room instead, curiosity winning over fear. If he'd got in, there must be a way out as well... and if anyone could find it, Jun, Aiedo's - no, Motavia's - most skilled thief, could.
"Stay where you are, intruders!"
"Who said that?" Shane challenged.
"Who are you, to speak to me like that?" Dark growled. "Come out into the light so I can see you, or I'll come in and get you!" He was obviously in a foul mood, and Shane winced; if it came to combat, she'd hate to be the one who had spoken.
"Stay where you are, Palman," the voice said. Then a huge man-shaped figure stepped from the side passage - a figure that looked like a human being, but made entirely from steel, or, possibly - no, probably - clad in full plate armour.
"Yikes!" Tiram gasped. "Who are you?"
"That is of no concern. Leave this place at once."
"No way!" Dark told the metal man. "I have a friend in here. I'm not leaving without him."
"Begone!" the strange man insisted. "You may not come further!"
"I can - and will 'go further'!" Dark growled. "Hand over Jun, then we'll leave."
"Go back. Any attempts to pass me will have consequences."
"Why you... heap of... garbage!" Speechless, Dark drew his sword and attacked. The blade connected hard on the metal man's head with a clang, but bounced - drawing sparks, but not damaging visibly. "Damn!"
Dark spat, and tried a kick. It hit the man's throat, Dark's anger making him use a normally lethal attack - to no effect. The man didn't even move.
"This is crazy!" the hunter exclaimed.
"Dark!" Shane cautioned. "Don't -!"
But it was too late. Dark dove, rolled, and rose to his feet behind the metal man, stabbing up with his sword, drawing more sparks off the man's back. Instantly, the man spun around with unbelievable speed, drawing a slim metallic tube from a sheath at his hip. Dark, expecting the man to wield this thing like a sword or club, took combat stance, glaring defiantly at his opponent. The man, however, calmly pointed the thing at Dark's chest, but made no other threatening gestures. All of a sudden, a slim-bladed knife hit the warrior's armpit. It hit in an angle that, on a normal person, would cause the blade to strike the heart, yet it rebounded and did nothing but cause the man's arm move a little. It served to spoil his aim, though - and a beam of ruby-red light struck the wall, almost but not actually hitting Dark, his actual target, as well. The metal wall melted where the light struck.
"So, you use techniques, you coward?" Dark growled. "I'll get you anyway!"
Then another voice spoke calmly: "Wat." A ball of ice struck home in the back of the armoured man, who didn't seem to notice it. The professor lowered his hands. Wat was the only 'tech he had ever bothered to learn, and it had proved to be a wise choice - most creatures on the desert-planet Motavia disliked cold - but this time, it didn't seem to have any effect at all. The strange warrior didn't even move, but as yet one more knife struck, wedging between two plates in his armour, he turned.
"Nonhuman intruder," he blurted, changing target from the professor to Tiram in an instant. Tiram ducked the ray and threw his last knife, but the shot made another hole in his robe. The knife struck between two plates in the man's chest, but he still didn't seem to notice anything. The professor raised his hands again, then lowered them, not finding enough strength to cast again. Shane thrust her sword into the crack where the dagger hung, but a sudden movement made her lose her grip. Sighing, Dark thrust his own sword through the same crack and once more used one of the accursed techniques:
Creating a vacuum inside the man's armour, Zan literally crushed it, sending metal flying in all directions. The ray-weapon fired once, then fell to the floor, silent.
"Phew. No blood anywhere... spooky! Yow, that was close - Tiram?" Dark said, turning his head as Tiram coughed, pressing a hand to his chest.
"Fine..." he managed. "Armour... took most of... that shot."
"Got any more Monomates?"
"No... gave you my last."
"Shane... Heal him, would you?"
"I'm on it." Shane placed her hands on Tiram's chest, then shook her head. "Take that armour off. I can't work through it, somehow - it must'a been charged with magnetism or something, from that shot."
"No... really. I'm fine-"
"Oh no you're not," Dark told him as Tiram fell to the floor, unconscious or - hopefully not - dead. "Help me with this, Shane."
Together, the Grays managed to pull Tiram's robe down to his waist, turn him over and unfasten the straps of his chestplate. Below the armour, Tiram wore a tight-fitting white shirt, which was torn and bloody in several places. Dark winced as he saw the blood on the shirt, from wounds which had to have been caused by the skinless monster's fangs rather than the flame-ray since they were on his back.
"Look at this! No wonder he collapsed..."
"Let's turn him over," Shane muttered. They did that - and gasped in unison.
"He's - he's - he's a girl!" Shane said at last. Dark scratched his chin, looking at the very female body that had been hidden underneath those robes and the chestplate.
"He's a she, at any rate. I'd rather call her a woman," he corrected, "for no one who acts like she's done is a 'girl'. But I'm not finding myself so surprised, somehow... it is easier for men to get hunter jobs, after all. I am a bit surprised to see that she has fur, though."
And indeed, Tiram was furry - short, blue fur, like a Motavian's but with a silky texture more similar to human hair than the coarse Motavian fur - showing clearly at the sides of the great hole in her shirt. The ray had struck her stomach, but the wound wasn't too serious - just as Tirom had said, the ruined chestplate had absorbed much of the force, although it wouldn't be able to stop anything else now, having been almost completely destroyed.
"I'll heal this," Shane mumbled. Placing her hand over the wound, she concentrated on healing... "Res!"
It was just a whisper, but it was, nevertheless, effective. The burned skin started knitting back together, blood stopped spilling. Together with the skin, the blue fur also regenerated - soon covering the faint scar, hiding the fact that Tiram had ever been injured.
"She's all right," Shane informed. "But I don't think I can cast anything more without resting up a bit first."
"Let's hope you won't have to," Dark muttered, glaring evilly at his employer. "If I knew all this would happen, I wouldn't have taken the job - not even for ten times the payment!"
As soon as Tiram woke up, and, her cover blown, apologised, confirmed that Dark had been right - she had been masquerading as a man to get hunter jobs more easily - and told them that her name was really Tirom, not Tiram, the group continued onwards. The corridors were devoid of life, and they made swift progress.
Going down another elevator (the professor's name for them) which the scientist examined as closely as the ones before, they expected to find more corridors. Instead, they found a gaping hole, leading down, and a network of slim bridges crossing the pit. The bridges seemed very thin from where they were standing.
"We... we aren't going out there, ...are we?" Shane asked. Dark shook his head. The professor nodded.
"Oh yes, we are. Your friend has to be on the other side... and the relics I'm looking for."
"All right, all right," Tirom muttered. "But I'll go first." No one protested. The blue-furred woman stepped out onto the catwalk closest to her, balancing carefully. She reached the other side without problems, looked around for a few seconds, then turned back to her companions.
"Hold hands, all of you," she commanded. The others looked surprised, but as Tirom took the hands of Dark and Shane, the hunters grabbed the professor, and Tirom said, "Ryuka!"
A green light blinded them. As they regained sight, they stood on the other side of the hole. Tirom leaned heavily on the Grays, but soon recovered, and they continued onwards.
"Master," the communication-android said, "unit 37211-631 has ceased to function."
"Ceased to function." The tall man seemed to think, though he didn't look up from the electronics he was working with. "Send two more, same directives."
"Yes, Master," the droid said, then transmitted the order. Two more Batro 286 combat androids left the com-centre. The tall man ignored them.
Jun sat up quickly. He'd heard something! But what?
Another elevator took them down to another floor... where two more metal men awaited their arrival. Both were armed with ray-spitting rods, and both kept them aimed at Tirom.
"Nonhuman intruder," they buzzed as they saw her - and fired, just a second too late. Tirom jumped back to take cover in a side passage, the professor following her.
Dark lifted the rod he'd taken from the first metal man. Pointing it at the two facing him, he tried to trigger the flame-ray. Nothing happened - Dark didn't know that in order to fire a rifle, one has to pull the trigger. Therefore, he found no way to discharge the item, but drew his sword instead, throwing his staff and the rod into a corner to get them out of the way. Then, remembering the effect it had produced the last time he tried, he grimaced, sheathed the sword, and asked Shane: "Borrow your blade?"
"Sure... what are you going to do?" she wondered, throwing him the weapon.
"You'll see," he smiled. "Oh, you'll see."
A hatch swung up, letting a bright light fall into the small room. Jun crouched near the hole, waiting. Soon a man of metal stepped through the opening. He looked at the table/bed, but Jun, of course, wasn't there.
"Human," the man said, "you have trespassed, attacked maintenance droids and disobeyed the directives for authorised access. You are to be exterminated. Show yourself."
No way! Jun thought, diving towards and rolling soundlessly behind the man. Outside was a corridor, looking exactly like the one he'd found behind that first steel door... and in the wall, two buttons were set. Both were red; one bore a white arrow pointing up, the other one was similar, but pointing down. And the door-hatch... Jun punched the 'down' button. The door instantly fell into place. The thief heard a clang, then another... and the door started to bulge outwards. Another clang, and the door bulged even more.
Jun ran for it.
Placing the blade of the longsword in his left hand and its hilt in his right, Dark held the weapon horizontally in front of him. Picturing blackness, he concentrated... and stars faded into view in the blackness. The sword glowed black, and Dark changed his grip to hold the hilt in both hands. He held the weapon above his head, its point thrusting up and almost touching the roof. Silvery stars faded into view in the blackness of the blade as well as in his mind. What takes several seconds to describe actually happened in one or two.
Dark swung the sword.
Trailing shimmering darkness and glittering, silvery sparks, the blade cut through air and steel alike, cleaving one metal-man cleanly in two halves. The man fell to the floor, black oil spilling from the body. A variant of the 'Darkblade' Dark had used to defeat Ramare, this 'Skyblade' wasn't as difficult to manage, or quite as powerful, but quite effective nevertheless. Another picture blinked into the hunter's mind: that of Ramare, dying as he was hit by an attack quite similar to the one Dark had used now.
"That's a machine!" the professor exclaimed, shattering the memory mind-pictures.
There was no way he could gather enough power to do the Skyblade thing again in only a couple of seconds. Dark threw Shane's sword back to its owner, who caught it, examined it - and found nothing but shimmering steel, unaltered by the power that had flowed through it.
"Get that one, someone!" Dark shouted, drawing his claw and thrusting it at the other machine's throat, hitting but not damaging. Shane's sword stabbed at the thing's chest. This time, her aim was true - and the sword slid in between two metal plates, cutting wires and fragile circuits. The metal-man halted, whirred, and went down. Oil dripped from its chest like blood. Some time passed, then Tirom came out from her hiding place. The professor, of whom only the head had been visible during the fight, poking around the corner, followed her.
"What was that?" the scientist asked, eyeing Shane's blade. "A technique?"
"No," Dark answered, "just something I know. I call it a Skyblade." A stupid name, he thought, but what else would I call it? I anticipated it turning black, but those silver sparks...
"Fascinating. I will examine this... metal... then we'll continue," the professor ordered, then sat down to have a look at the machines. Shane, Dark and Tirom looked at each other, then sat down to rest.
This would probably take some time.
Now where was he?
Jun started to realise that he was lost. He'd been running - he certainly didn't want to get 'exterminated' - but hadn't noticed where he ran. This was ridiculous! But wait - there seemed to be a larger room ahead of him... Treading carefully, Jun sneaked up to the open door-hatch.
There was a big man in the room, examining a wall full of flashing lights, screens and ...stuff. Maybe this man could help him find his friends? Deciding to take that risk, Jun approached the black-clad one.
As he got closer, he saw that the man wore shiny armour over his black clothes, and some kind of strange headgear. Perhaps he was a hunter?
When only a few meters remained between the man and Jun, the black-clad figure turned, as if he'd heard Jun approach. The young thief jumped, trying to bite back a yelp - for the man seemed to be half machine! Steel plates showed on his face, and what Jun first thought to be a headgear was attached to the man's head.
"Yipes!" Jun cried. "What are you?!"
"My name," the man said calmly, "is Wren. Have no fear. I do not intend to harm you."
"Now where are we?" Shane asked the wall, which didn't bother to answer. They had reached a T-cross, and were trying to decide which way to chose. There was a problem - Shane and Dark wanted to go left; Tirom and the professor favoured right. After a while, Shane took a silve one-Meseta coin from her pocket, and told her friends, "The planet side means right."
Then she threw the coin onto the floor, where it bounced and rolled, and came to rest with side bearing the mark of a mountain and the sun up. Shane pocketed her coin, then headed left.
Passing through an open door, they soon found that they hadn't needed to argue about which way to choose - both paths led to the same place. Further along the passage, they spotted another open door. Stepping through it, they found themselves in a large room, the walls of which were full with strange devices. Two human figures stood below a huge glass screen, much like a window but showing only blackness.
One of the figures seemed familiar...
"Jun," Dark shouted (he was unusually careless, Shane thought), "is that you?"
"Dark!" called the smaller of the two. "Come have a look at this!"
Passing over a catwalk was the only way to cross the room; below them, there was a great hole - the room was perhaps twenty meters high, but the roof was only ten meters above them. Avoiding looking down, Dark swiftly crossed the bridge and grabbed Jun's shirtfront.
"How dare you run off like that?" he yelled. "You could've got yourself killed! And you had us worried half to death!"
"If only you knew," Jun replied, quite calm despite the fact that his feet were dangling half a meter above the ground. "If only you knew."
"My, my, this is..." the professor muttered, starting to examine the walls. The tall black-clad man stepped forth, laying a hand on the professor's arm.
"I must ask you not to tamper with the computers," he said. "They are essential to all life on Motavia."
"Computers?" the scientist asked, bewildered, "You mean such things still exist?!"
"Indeed," the man replied. "I am Wren, the one in charge of these systems. This system in particular is a bio-plant."
"Bioawhat?" Dark asked, putting Jun down. The thief hurriedly scurried out of reach and hid behind Shane.
"A bio-plant!" the professor exclaimed. "This is beyond my expectations - beyond my dreams! I never thought such technology had survived the Collapse!"
"Yet it did," Wren said, "with my help. I was... made... on Palma, one year before it exploded, to manage the systems - but as Mother Brain was destroyed, I had to do much more than that."
"Built? Are you a machine, then, like the ones we encountered?" Dark asked. "You seem ... different, somehow."
"I am an advanced AI, artificial intelligence," Wren explained, "so I am almost as human as you. I am a true android; what you encountered were simpler creations, almost robots. I am sorry they attacked, but my orders seem to have been too diffuse. They followed old directives as well. I hope no damage has been done to you."
"Diffuse? Them robots or whatever seemed pretty clear about what to do," Tiram accused.
"When I found out that someone had made their ways into the compound, my orders were for them to persuade all Palmans, Motavians, and Dezorians, to leave this place, or to kill any 'monsters' encountered. You, however, don't fit on any of the descriptions of beings not to be considered 'monsters' - you are neither Palman, nor Motavian, or Dezorian. Thus, they tried to destroy you."
"But I'm Palman!" she protested. "Almost, anyways..."
"I did not account for crossbreeds," Wren said calmly. Tirom grimaced.
"Crossbreeds!" she spat.
"Whatever," Dark said hurriedly, "but what are we going to do now?"
"It would be best if you returned to the surface," Wren said, "and spoke no more of this. Humans are not yet ready to know of this."
"My pleasure," Shane told him. "But how are we going to get out? This place is a labyrinth!"
"Leave it to me." Wren handed her a small flute. "This is a 'Telepipe'. When played, it will transport you to any place you picture in your mind."
"Thank you. But I have a feeling our employer would like to examine things a little first..."
"Oh, don't worry about me!" the professor said absent-mindedly, looking closely at the 'computer' but being careful not to touch it. "I'll find my way out. Go ahead, really!"
"If it is of interest, I could use your help," Wren said suddenly. "I have several systems to check on - a human could be of some help."
"Deal!" shouted the scientist, clasping the android's hand. "I'll stay, then."
"But -" Shane protested.
"No 'but's! This is the chance I've been dreaming of my entire life! I'm sorry, but I have no way to pay you..."
"No need," Shane said quickly, before Dark could reply - not that he would insist on payment, but he'd probably get sarcastic. "It was... has been fun, old man!"
"Farewell, then," he said, turning to stand by Wren's side.
"I must ask you to leave the rifles, the... 'wands' you took from the droids, behind. They belong here," Wren said. Dark and Shane handed over the two rods they had taken from the attacking robots, then stepped back.
"Is there anything else?" Shane asked. No one said anything. The four hunters raised their hands in salute, then Shane lifted the Telepipe to her lips. A single tone sounded, the world disappeared - and they stood outside the cave, the rays of the sun beating down on them. Blinking to clear their eyes, they sat down, backs to the mountainside, to relax.
"That was something," Dark said after a while, "but I'm happier above ground."
"You and me both," Tirom sighed. "Damn."
"We did all this for nothing. I'd hoped for some money to finance my exploration tours..."
"More exploring?! I thought we'd all be rather sick of that now!"
"Hmh. I guess you're right... I can wait." She looked at the Grays. "I'll take you back to Aiedo."
"You can do that?" Shane asked. The pipe had crumbled as they arrived; she absentmindedly rolled a small piece in her hand.
"Yup - I can teleport to any place I've been to. As long as I remember it, that is, but I certainly know what Aiedo looks like. Shall we?"
"Yah. Might as well," Dark said, reaching out to take hold of Tirom and Shane's hands. Tirom closed her eyes, picturing Aiedo.
"Ryuka!" she commanded. The world flashed out of vision once more, there was a brief moment of falling vertigo, and suddenly they stood outside the gates of Aiedo.
Tirom sat down in a chair in the new guildhouse to wait for the receptionist to find her a guide job. All of a sudden, there was a commotion outside the door, and she turned her head to observe the events.
"I don't need a friggin' license, you bloody fool! You know me, Tam, so let me in! Or..."
"Don't try that with me!" the guard growled. "Show me your hunter's license, or get lost!"
"You idiot! You know who I am... Ooohhh! I'll take none of this nonsense from you! Foi!"
The guard yelled, then came running past Tirom, smoke trailing from the seat of his pants. Tirom smiled. Judging it wiser to disappear than to confront Dark - who knew she was the one who had fooled the dim-witted guard into believing hunters needed a license - she activated the Ryuka technique once more, and the guild faded from view, to be replaced by a small oasis just outside of Aiedo.
"I've found a - huh?!" the receptionist said, frowning. She was sure that the green-clad man had been sitting in that chair just seconds ago...
"Hello," Dark greeted. "Got any jobs?"
"Hello, Dark. The payment from your last job has arrived."
"What? But that's imposs-"
"Well, here it is." She handed Dark a large pouch, which didn't seem to hold coins. "The one who delivered promised that it's worth at least the agreed payment. By the way, you didn't happen to see..." She thought better of it and shook her head. "Never mind. Aren't you going to open it?"
"Hmm... Guild tax?" Dark asked. The receptionist shrugged.
"I don't think that will be necessary, when the payment isn't in money," she said, winking at Dark. Knowing that she was bending the rules a little, he winked back.
"Well, do you have any jobs? Or are they all taken?"
"No, they're not. Let me see..." She bent over the books and papers on her desk, and Dark opened the pouch. Inside, he found four smaller packages - one labelled 'Dark', another 'Shane', one 'Tirom' and the last one 'Jun'. Unwrapping the paper on the package that bore his name, Dark found a small piece of strangely white paper between the first and second layers of cloth wrappings.
'I don't know if this is to be considered fair payment,' he read, 'but it's the best I can do; we are a little short on hard cash. This claw is made from Laconia, a metal available only on the planet Dezoris. I don't know the price it commands on Mota, but Wren assured me it's quite valuable, and I believe it may be useful to you. With hopes that this finds you in good health,' signed, 'Professor Adrian Holt.'
Inside the second layer of wrapping, Dark found an item quite similar to the claw he used, but forged from a blue-greenish metal that shimmered brightly. Testing the edge with his thumb, Dark wasn't surprised to see it draw blood easily. The edge was so sharp that he almost didn't feel the cut.
"Dark? I think I've found you a good one, here," the receptionist said. Dark blinked.
"Oh? Wait a minute... could you give this to my friend Tirom? If s-" He faked a sneeze. "If he passes by here again, that is."
"Sure." Dark handed her the package labelled 'Tirom', and she put it on a shelf. "Now, about that job..."
"Shane?" Dark shouted as he opened the door. "Shane! You'll never guess the job I got us!"
"Not guarding an obnoxious professor again?" his sister asked warily, looking up from the cup she was cleaning; it was her turn to do the dishes..
"No - it's a request from a woman in Zema. Listen to this!" Dark took a small note from his pocket and, holding it up as if he was reading a proclamation from a king, read aloud:
"'My daughter Amy has crawled into the cave behind Zema, and the rocks have fallen and are blocking the entrance... please help my daughter'. That's the message," he finished, grinning. "Neat, huh?"
"No... ohh, no!" Shane moaned, closing her eyes in despair, "not again!"