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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Sixteen


Garuberk.

At its last appearance, Chaz and his friends discovered that it was merely a living extension of a form of Dark Force. It grew downward into Dezoris' core, feeding off of it like a parasite, growing like a tumor. Like a parasite, it fed off of its host, devouring its insides in an attempt to leave it a lifeless husk. But Garuberk was more than simply a parasite or tumor, more deadly. Its dark magic made sure of that.

Kyra made sure to pass by Meese without being noticed for they would easily recognize the Icedigger. Being that it was the only one in existence, the Meesians knew exactly who it belonged to and knew them as their saviors. They did not want presence known yet, for it would only hinder their process. Their names were almost legendary throughout Dezoris and a mob would surely follow. Many people never got to thank them for their deeds and would jump at the opportunity to do so. Subsequently, Kyra believed she made the right choice.

The Esper Leader dropped her friends off close enough to Garuberk to minimize the amount of time they would have to walk through the storm, but also minimize their amount of travel time. Chaz and Rika bade a long, emotional farewell to each other, one that brought tears to their friends' eyes. "Be careful, my beloved Rika," Chaz said tearfully. "You are my world, my strength, and my compassion. For three years, you have been all that matters in my life, and without you it would lose all meaning now. If anything should happen to you, I don't think I could ever forgive myself because I will know that I chose to separate from you so that we could go off in different directions. Please, be careful. I love you, Rika."

"Chaz, you make my world turn and without you," Rika returned, "everything would come to a standstill. You are my Algo and all of my life revolved around you. I will not be there to protect you, my love. I entrust your safety to our friends, just as I entrust their's to you. I know that you will do your best to make sure that all of you returned unharmed, and I will try to do the same. Remember, this is merely a farewell, and not a goodbye. We will see each other again. I love you, Chaz Ashley."

Husband and Wife held each other for an inestimable amount of time, not wanting to let go. If they were any other people, several of their friends would have protested, but not this time. They knew exactly how much Chaz and Rika loved each other, and that they had spent almost every waking hour together in the past three years. Having to leave one another under such dire circumstances must have surely been hell for them. There were so many uncertainties in what they were doing, so many possibilities for what could and what could not happen. Although they appeared to be composed, it was merely an act for the other's sake, for deep inside both were trembling with fear.

Finally, they let go and Rika joined her companions inside the Icedigger, leaving her husband and his group in a cold snow storm. Chaz watched as the distance between them increased, imagined Rika looking back at him from the rear window if the Icedigger had one. When it was nothing more than a speck in the horizon, Chaz turned and followed his companions toward the unknown.

Less than half an hour later, Chaz began to discern a dark image through the snow storm looming above them. It did not take them much to figure out that it was Garuberk Tower, and Raja was there to verify that. The Dezorian Archbishop shivered, but not from being cold. He shivered out of pure fear. He never got to go to Garuberk the last time, falling victim to an evil plague created by the tower's dark magic. When Dark Force was banished and Garuberk fell, Dezoris' storm dissipated, and everyone who suffered from its plague recovered.

And then, there they were, standing right before Garuberk, evil incarnate. The structure itself was a living, breathing being, and when Hahn touched its walls, he could feel its flesh shift and move away, making his stomach crawl. "Eh," he commented dourly. "I'm beginning to be thankful I didn't accompany you here."

They approached Garuberk's entrance slowly, with much caution, even though wind and cold bit at their skin. Every step brought them closer to danger, closer to facing something unfathomable to everyone except those who had faced it before. It was no secret that only one entity in the known universe could have created such a thing as Garuberk. The Profound Darkness and its minions were nearly invulnerable -- except to the Great Light and those who wielded the power of Light. The question on their mind now was whether or not the Great Light would still be their to guide them.

* * * * *

As if it sensed their approach, Garuberk opened it's flesh-laden door wide so Chaz and his companions could gain entry. Raja and Hahn, having not seen Garuberk before, trembled ever so slightly in fear. Even Demi, who was firm and solid in bad situations, felt a bit of trepidation. There was no turning back, however. Once they made the decision to proceed, they would have to follow through.

Chaz entered and beckoned Demi, Raja, and Hahn to follow him. Weapon drawn, he knew exactly what to expect, advising his companions to ready their weapons as well. Raja drew forth his Nares Staff and walked protectively by his friends. Demi held her Sonic Buster, a finger over its trigger ready to fire at a moment's notice. Hahn unsheathed his Mahlay dagger, a weapon he forged himself using a knowledge and technique passed on through two thousand years and many, many generations of his family. In his other hand, he carried his Mahlay shield.

Garuberk's walls moved, life flowing through its structure. Hahn got the impression that he was a meal gradually moving to some creature's gut to be digested. Everywhere he walked, floors were soft and pliable, slick sometimes like saliva secreted at the surface of a tongue. Long bluish extrusions ran from ceiling to floor both along walls and in corridors which pulsated with life, almost as if blood flowed through them. And everything was a sickly pinkish color, like skin rubbed raw, with black and blue blemishes scattered about. A dull throbbing sound echoed throughout Garuberk's corridors, adding to the image that it was a living entity.

Strange noises emanated from every nook and cranny. Listening carefully and being aware of their surroundings was absolutely vital to their survival. Should a demon-spawned creature of Garuberk's magic attack them, they would have to do battle without hesitation. If any of their number did, then it could mean the end for all of them.

Chaz was no stranger to this type of activity, nor were his friends. The last time they travelled together, it became a way of life. They lived constantly on the edge, each prepared to sacrifice himself for another, sacrificing himself for a greater good. As Protectors of Light, it was a responsibility taken on freely. LaRoof chose his Protectors well, and in the end, they did not fail it.

Raja stopped in mid-stride just as he discovered they had traversed nearly all of Garuberk's first floor. For a moment, it was like he sensed something approaching, but then thought about it and must have dismissed it. The Archbishop's senses were more finely tuned to changes in the spiritual and could sense things out-of-the-ordinary, more so than his companions. Chaz, Rika, and everyone else came to respect his ability to do so, and did not think lightly of it when something disturbed him, no matter how small a deal it was. If he shrugged it off like he did just then, it usually meant that danger was near, somewhere. However, if he made a big fuss, it usually meant that it was a matter of life and death. Raja shook his head and indicated that they could proceed, but with caution.

Three years had passed since Chaz was last here. Garuberk was completely destroyed and nothing remained. Despite that, he found that this reincarnation was an exact duplicate, identical down to its ambience. A chill always ran down his spine when he thought of this place and now that he was within it again, the chill became a full-blown icy blast. Hahn might as well have just used Nawat on him because he would not have noticed a difference.

Then it happened -- a rush of adrenalin alerted them all to a pending situation. Chaz gripped his sword so hard his hands began to hurt from the strain. Then, like out of some nightmarish dream, they watched as a wall opened out and a gigantic creature, half-creature, half-evil, stepped out. Equine in its motion, it trotted forth with no hesitation in its gait, the four legs with hoofed feet moving in perfect rhythm. Standing over nine feet tall, it towered over even Raja, who was a full head taller than his friends. Thick, cartilaginous armor covered its entire body, the color resembling that of dried raw hide. In one hand it carried a massive lance with a tip which could penetrate even Laconia. It its other hand, the creature wielded a Moon Slasher identical to Kyra's, and it was just as skilled in its use as she was. "Wh -- what is it?!" Hahn stuttered, short of breath. Chaz knew what it was, knew it as a creature which nearly ended his life before.

King Saber.

The Hunter remembered it like it happened just the day before, when he, Rika, Wren, Kyra, and Rune were here. King Saber had just lost its first weapon of choice to Rune's powerful Tandle Spell. They recognized its Slasher, though they did not know its potential. The creature hurled it and it whirled toward them at lightning speed, toward Chaz who was mesmerized by the weapon's brilliance. His guard down, Chaz realized too late that his head and shoulders were about to part. Had it not been for Rika's quick reflexes, her future husband would have been a full eight pounds lighter.

Muscles bulging, King Saber roared hideously and charged, its lance aimed to skewer anyone in its way. Chaz, Hahn, and Demi were able to deftly jump out of its path, but Raja was not as swift. Luckily, the Archbishop did sidestep and used his Nares Staff to parry the blow. His foe anticipated his move and swung backward, but Raja, having learned fighting techniques from his Hunter friend and others, knew exactly how to defend against such an attack. He veered around and struck at the lance with a force equal to that of King Saber's, blocking what should have been a fatal blow. "Ha!" he cried in triumph, then struck at its side, sending electrical arcs surging through its body.

King Saber howled in pain and reflexively kicked with its hind legs, striking Raja as he retreated. He flew almost twenty feet, landing on top of his companions, bowling them over. Chaz was on his feet instantly, his titanium sword raised high. Striking with all his strength, the Hunter successfully forced his enemy backward, made it take a few steps away from his still-recovering allies. With the skill of someone who held a sword from birth, he swung over and over, cursing the limited capability of his weapon. Titanium was fine material, but had he possessed Elsydeon or even the Guard Sword, he would have ended this battle easily. As it was, however, he could only match its strength, if he was lucky.

Demi returned to her feet, distressed to see Chaz battling King Saber alone. She swung her Sonic Buster around and ordered her friend to get out of the way. The creature was puzzled by Chaz's retreat at first, but understood his reasoning when it saw Demi take aim, and fire. She fired her weapon continuously, bombarding it with a constant stream of intense sound waves. It reared up on its hind legs, feeling its insides begin to quiver and shake, almost to the point of explosion. With as much accuracy as it could manage, King Saber took its lance and began firing sizzling bolts of energy at her. One of the bolts found its mark and Demi shrieked as she felt her internal mechanisms begin to malfunction and shut down. She crumpled over in a miserable hovel.

"Demi!" Hahn cried out. "Demi!" The Scholar and Raja rushed over to her side, but she was unresponsive. Chaz, having seen his friend's defeat, became enraged and threw himself between her and danger. Raising his sword high, he struck at King Saber, struggling to keep it at bay while Hahn and Raja worked to revive Demi.

Frantic, Hahn used Nares, a shimmering umbrella of light enveloping Demi's defunct body. He waited for her to reactivate, but nothing happened. "No! No! No!" he chanted. "I forgot that the Res Techniques don't work on AI's! In our rush, I forgot to grab a repair kit!" Hahn began looking over her body, looking for some sign, some indication that she could be repaired by just pressing a few buttons in an access panel. "Raja, can't you do anything?" Raja shook his head in disbelief.

"I don't know!" he replied, dismay apparent. "I've done plenty of healing in my life, but I've never healed an AI before. This could be tricky, and I might do more harm than good." A loud crash brought their attention to the battle raging on behind them. Chaz was thrown up against a wall, but he found strength born in anger and fear for his friends, rushing back into the fray. Using incredible dexterity, he executed his Crosscut Skill, leaving a visible impression of a cross on King Saber's left flank. His foe fell back from his attack, but it was not out for the count.

"You have to try, Raja!" pleaded Hahn. "We need Demi if we're to succeed!"

"I'll try, damn it!" the Archbishop returned. "And you can bet I'll try my hardest!" Raja stood up and raised the Nares Staff toward the heavens. "Now, if I can only think of what will work." He paused for a moment while sounds of battle neared. "I got it!" Waving his arms like a retarded butterfly, Raja used his Regeneration Technique. An odd event took place as orbs of light fizzled and popped while entering Demi's body. Even Raja, who had seen his Technique work numerous times, seemed surprised. The Regeneration Technique was useful in that it was able to adapt to differences in anatomy between species. He hoped that it would somehow adapt to repair Demi's damaged circuitry, which it was apparently doing. The android stirred, while his Technique worked to restore her completely. When the light show was over, she returned to her feet under her own volition.

Chaz rejoined his friends, sweat pouring off his brow, breath shallow and rapid. "I -- I," he panted, "I can't d -- do this for much longer!" Raja did not say a word, but instead used his Nares Staff to return some lost strength to his friend. Hahn stood protectively before his friends and used Nawat, rapidly freezing the air around King Saber. The creature fell backward from the attack, stunned.

Light on their feet, Chaz and company took off running, using Hahn's attack to place a buffer zone in between them and their enemy. They were running blindly and did not notice where they were taking themselves. Before anyone was aware of it, they had cornered themselves in a corner which seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Chaz had seen this certain peculiarity before and knew that Garuberk was working to destroy them. He knew that King Saber was closing in on them and theat they would have to stand their ground and fight. Nothing he could do could prevent that. Even without Garuberk's assistance, King Saber would have pursued them until every one of them was dead.

Chaz, Raja, Demi, and Hahn turned and faced the corridor they had just walked down. Light was scarce and they could barely see beyond a few dozen feet. Luckily for them, they could still hear their surroundings and were aware of King Saber's trotting movements. Then, it stopped and nothing more was heard. Besides Garuberk's haunting heartbeat, only their rapid breaths were audible. "Maybe --" Hahn began, "maybe it gave up." He said it with hope in his voice, but deep down he knew he was deluding himself.

"Shhhh!" Chaz ordered. The Hunter's finely honed instincts were ever-aware, reaching out into his surroundings, listening, feeling, smelling everything. In concentration, he could detect air movements from a distance of sometimes thirty feet or more. Garuberk, however, was seemingly aware of this and increased the volume and frequency of its pulsating heartbeat. Chaz struggled to listen, but could hear nothing more than his frustration. Suddenly, he finally heard something out-of-the-ordinary, a sound that was apart from the rest of his surroundings. A whirring noise, a rushing of air, and he knew that King Saber had launched its Moon Slasher. "Get down!" he yelled, then dove to the ground. Trusting him implicitly, Raja, Demi, and Hahn did as they were ordered, right before the Moon Slasher whizzed just inches above their heads. It spun and ricocheted off of a wall, then returned to its master.

Chaz heard the trotting of hoofed feet and leapt into action. He raised his sword and prepared to take the full blunt of his enemy's attack. The Moon Slasher again sped toward him, but his was ready. Holding his titanium sword firmly and bracing himself, the Hunter swung his weapon and successfully fended off King Saber's attack. Then, like out of thin air, it was there, right in front of him. Chaz circled around it, drawing its attention from his friends, leaving it vulnerable for an attack from behind. Hahn took his friend's hint and prepared himself for what could turn out to be a foolish action, but he was prepared to sacrifice himself for his companions' safety. The Scholar brought forth his Mahlay dagger, its blade shining brightly in Garuberk's dim atmosphere. Taking a deep breath, he launched himself on top of King Saber, driving his dagger deep into its back. The magic-imbued material cut deeply, leaving a ragged trail in its victim's cartilaginous armor. Hahn hung on for his life as one might hang onto a cliff's edge. Raja rushed in to help him, but was only caught in King Saber's painful fury and was forced back.

Then, like a guardian angel who swept down from the heavens to protect her charges, Demi was there. The little android rushed in to her friend's aid, lowering her shoulder and hitting it with every last ounce of strength. King Saber was momentarily distracted, allowing Hahn to retrieve his dagger and dismount. Fearing for his safety, Demi, using her android strength, positioned herself beneath King Saber's massive body and lifted it completely off the ground. King Saber kicked and grunted, taking aim with its lance, but she was too quick for it. With a loud scream of strain, she hurled it away, sending it crashing into a wall.

Chaz ran over to Demi, who had fallen onto one knee. Looking her over carefully, he asked, "Are you okay?" Demi nodded.

"Just a little strained," she replied. She looked over at King Saber; its body lay unmoving. But, she would find out, it was only feinting death, and began to stir. Within no time, it was on its feet, staggering, but poised to strike.

"Demi?"

"I'm ready, Chaz," she replied gravely. Chaz nodded, then turned to face their enemy for what he hoped to be the last time. King Saber knew something was abrupt and was prepared to put a stop to it. Chaz concentrated, his full attention placed on executing his Airslash Skill. Demi positioned herself directly behind him. The moment Chaz swept his sword from left to right, creating a intense vacuum pocket, Demi fired her Phonomezer. Sound, naturally passing more quickly through denser areas, found the vacuum pocket, its strength increased nearly tenfold. King Saber screamed in agony against the force of Silent Wave, then its body exploded into thousands of bloody fragments.

"Wahoo!" Raja hollered triumphantly in the midst of all the carnage. "I've been living in such a boring world for the past three years and all this excitement is just what I need!"

"Come on, Raja!" Hahn sighed. "Get serious! We almost died just now!" Chaz patted him on the back.

"Don't worry, Hahn," he said. "Just let him revel for awhile. He'll come to his senses eventually." The Hunter took a quick look around the area. "Come on, let's get moving before some more unpleasant surprises jump out of nowhere." Raja smiled and smacked him roughly across his back.

"Good idea!" he said. "I'll tell you what -- I'll lead!"

"Raja, maybe --" but before Chaz could finish, the Archbishop hurried off. "Raja!"

"Chaz," Hahn said, patting his friend on the back, "just let him revel for awhile." Demi followed after Raja to make sure he did not get into trouble and Hahn followed close behind. Chaz shook his head in mock despair, running after them.

* * * * *

The party of four walked through Garuberk for what seemed like hours on end. They made numerous wrong turns in the tower's labyrinthine corridors, a few right turns, and ended up at a few dead ends. "I wish you wouldn't use the term, 'dead end,' Chaz," Hahn said. Garuberk was, after all, a living entity, and by all appearances was protecting something at its top. When Chaz and the others came here before, he did not remember it changing around, trapping them, making them turn back, but it was this time. Something important was at its apex. Last time, it was a manifestation of Dark Force. This time, Chaz could not be sure. Malevolent as it was, Garuberk could just be leading them on a wild goose chase, keeping them from something of greater importance. They would have to make sure that it was not, first.

Time dragged on and still they did not find anything. They had no further incursions with Garuberk's guardians, no more, thus far. They were ever vigilant and were ready for anything. Raja still walked in the lead, excited like a child walking ahead of his parents to a park. While Hahn walked a few steps behind him to keep him from getting too overzealous, Demi fell even farther behind to walk with Chaz. "Just like old times," she said to him, "eh?" Chaz smiled fondly at her and nodded. "We never got to travel on Dezoris with each other before, but I guess there's a first time for everything. To tell you the truth, I never thought that I was ever going to see any of you ever again. When we went our separate ways and I went to Zelan with Wren, I thought that was going to be all that I needed. To be with my master, help him keep a constant vigil on Motavia and Dezoris, was what I wanted for almost two centuries. Now, I don't know."

"What do you mean?" Chaz asked, his interest piqued.

"I don't know. I guess I'm being a little bit selfish, but now that I have friends, all of you, I'm beginning to think that I can't live without them." Chaz smiled, but it was a sad smile. "I remember when I was first beginning to learn about Palmans I was particularly interested in this thing called friendship. When I started reading about it, I thought it was kind of useless. After all, who needed other people to talk to, to ease loneliness and lend a shoulder to cry on? Such things were superfluous in an android's life and since I tried to model myself to Wren's standards, I thought they would be superfluous in my life as well. But there was something inside me that told me that I wasn't just an ordinary android, told me that these values, these emotions involved with having friendships were a part of me. The first years I spent with Wren, I began to think of him as a friend and wanted to develop a relationship with him as such, but he was not like that. I guess that's when I started calling him 'Master.' He never could stand it, but it wasn't long after that when he sent me to Nurvus to oversee its operations."

"So, what do you want now?"

"I want to stay with you, on Motavia. I want to be with you and Rika and Hahn and Gryz for the rest of your lives. I need all of you. I need my friends. Whatever Wren does or wherever he goes, I will stay with all of you."

"Demi, I don't know how hard that's going to be for you. With Motavia in its current state, it could be very hard to watch us suffer through. You say that you're different from other AI's, and I have first-hand experience that your are, so you have the same emotions that Rika and I have. You think it's going to be emotionally easy to watch us, or all Palmans, even, suffer as Motavia returns to its natural climate? No, it's not going to be easy. I don't think you know what it truly means to feel helpless until you see your friends suffer and know you can't do anything about it."

"Chaz, if you had a terminal disease, I wouldn't just simply abandon you because you're dying. It's basically the same thing you're talking about. Isn't that what friendship is? I mean, sticking by your side til the end? I know you think you're trying to spare me all this pain, but it is my choice. You could turn away from me and say some really cruel things to me, but I know you're not like that, Chaz Ashley. What I feel for Rika, and Hahn, and Gryz, and Kyra, and Raja, and Wren, and you, and even Rune -- I know what that feeling is now. It's love."

"You're right on two counts, Demi," Chaz said. "For one, I guess I have been trying to spare your feelings. For two -- Demi, you truly have a grasp on the true meaning of friendship, more so than I do apparently. I guess I'm going to have to have you around so you can teach me that meaning again. Of course you'll be welcome to stay on Motavia, stay in Aiedo, stay with me and Rika if you like. You can start a life of your own there, if you want, and Rika and I will be there to help you do it."

"I'd like that," Demi said quietly.

"Demi, is something else on your mind?"

"Actually, yes. Chaz, I need to tell you something about Rika, something I don't think eve she is aware of?" Chaz stared at her quizzically, concern evident in his face. "Well, um, Chaz, Rika's --"

"Chaz! Demi!" Hahn hollered back at them. "Come quickly!"

"Tell me later," Chaz said, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come on!" The Hunter took off running toward the rest of his group, Demi doing the same. They were surprised to find out how far ahead Raja and Hahn had gotten. They ran for nearly an entire minute before their friends even entered their sight. Expecting to see trouble, they saw exactly the opposite.

Archbishop and Scholar stood dumbfounded, staring at something they had yet to see. They were not afraid, appearing more curious than anything else. Hahn scratched his head in thought while Raja's mouth hung open wide, prepared to catch anything which may have been unfortunate enough to gain entry into it. Chaz and Demi rounded the corner and came face-to-face with a large spheroid object. Grey in color, it simply just levitated about five feet above the ground. It did not seem threatening, not yet, at least. In fact, it was more docile than anything, almost playful. "Watch this," Hahn told them. He walked closer to the spheroid, attempting to get by and walk on past it. As he did, however, it hovered closer to him, preventing any passage. He ducked down to try to rush under it, but it sank lower and stopped him again. It rushed toward him and stopped just inches before his face, then backed off, bouncing playfully through the air. "See! We've been trying to get past it for a few minutes now while you two were dragging behind." Hahn scratched his head again. "We can't get past it."

Curious, Chaz decided to try out this new obstacle for himself. He walked directly toward it, then tried to quickly get past it. It proved too fast to him and he merely ended up knocking his head on its hard metal casing. "It's Laconia," Raja told him.

"Thanks for the waning," Chaz told him sarcastically.

"Maybe," Demi thought aloud, "if we all rush it at once, maybe a couple of us can get past."

"And what of us who don't get by?" Raja asked.

"Well, I guess we'll just have to get everyone by somehow." Chaz shrugged, not having any ideas of his own.

"It's worth a try."

Chaz, Raja, Demi, and Hahn positioned themselves, ready to put Demi's plan into effect. They held a visual conference, then, nodding in agreement, they moved forward as quickly as they could. The spheroid object moved like lightning, preventing any of them from getting past it. It knocked each of them on their head with skill and precision, the bounced gleefully away.

The Hunter was fuming, and he had a second bruise on his head to add insult to injury. Furious, he pulled out his sword and held it threateningly. "Um, Chaz," Hahn began, "I don't know if that's such a good idea. It may seem playful now, but there's no telling how it will defend itself."

"Hahn has a good point there," Raja agreed. "The thing is made of Laconia, so we'd do little damage."

"Demi," Chaz snapped, his eyes filled with determination.

"Chaz, listen to Hahn and Raja!" she pleaded. "Venting your frustration without thinking about your actions first can have dire consequences. You simply don't know what Silent Wave will do to this thing! It could cause more harm than do us good!"

"Demi! Get ready!"

Demi shook her head in despair, but not wanting to upset Chaz any further, she did as she was told. Just like before, Chaz concentrated on executing his Airslash Skill, and Demi prepared to fire her Phonomezer. In one swift move, both combined their Skills to create Silent Wave once again. Intensified sound waves spread outward along a fine line of evacuated air, the target found. The spheroid was made of Laconia, however, and what should have been a fatal attack was only turned against them.

Hunter and android were the first to fall, overwhelmed by Silent Wave's raw force. In an instant, they both felt sorry for any of their enemies who met their downfall by it. Pressure built up so fast inside Chaz's head, he thought it would explode at any moment. He felt his eyes begin to bulge and his ear drums threatened to burst. Demi's internal mechanisms seemed to want to shut down altogether, her inner mechanisms shaking and rattling. "I've got to help them!" Hahn cried. Raja, though seeing his friends suffer, was calm, laying a restraining arm on his friend.

"That is not the answer, Hahn," he said. "We can help them another way."

Raja stepped forward, his hands glowing with a strong green light. Using his Blessing Technique, the Archbishop created a mystical shield before Chaz and Demi which instantly began to absorb most of Silent Wave's force. The impact lessened, both dropped to the ground, their vitals slowly returning to normal. In another few seconds, Silent Wave dissipated completely, leaving its sources struggling to survive. Hahn hastened to Chaz's side and Raja to Demi's. Using healing techniques, both revived their friends before any permanent damage could be wrought.

The spheroid was not through with them yet, however. Though inorganic, it was a living organism, an organism created by Garuberk's dark magic. If they could hear its thoughts, then they would know it as a Jarrol, a creature nearly impervious to conventional attack, but it had hidden secret, a deadly secret. Hahn and Raja watched in horror as Jarrol began to transform, its perfectly spherical body contorted, protrusions poking out here and there, mechanisms turning and squealing, creating a metal mockery of limbs, body parts. As it turned out, Garuberk had created a perfect warrior, an AI made of pure Laconia, the most impervious metal known to Palman science. When all the clanking and twisting and turning was done, Jarrol was transformed into a complete war machine, sword and all.

Seven feet tall and shining in Garuberk's dim light like a newborn star, Jarrol moved slowly, each step shaking the ground beneath them. Primitive compared to Demi and Wren, its arms and legs were skinny, like tree branches that sway easily in the wind. Its body, though once spheroid in appearance, was now more blocky, possessing a box-like appearance. A cylinder-shaped head sat upon flat shoulders, its eyes hidden inside a single, narrow slit. What Jarrol lacked in speed in skill, the thing made up for it in strength and power.

Chaz was aghast, his fear holding him firm like a prison. Demi was already on her feet, Sonic Buster drawn and ready to fire. Behind her stood Hahn, Mahlay dagger in hand and next to him was Raja, his Nares Staff gripped tightly in both hands. Each of them felt fear, fear of approaching the unknown. They already saw what happened when Demi and Chaz attacked it with Silent Wave and were uncertain of how to proceed with this battle. Every step Jarrol took, it brought them closer to their downfall, but all they could do is stand there and watch it approach.

The Hunter saw his life flash before his eyes, all that it had been, all the glory, all the pain. He saw Alys again, her stern hand and warm smile a welcome addition to his life. He felt the sting of her hand across his back when he did not hold his sword correctly. He saw Zio, saw Alys die at his hands, saw himself grieving over her death. Then he saw Rika, her smiling face warming his soul. As his wife, she brought unimaginable joy to a life that he thought could only be filled with pain. When Rika's smiles and laughter filled his mind, they became the triggers from which he drew in new strength. Determination, strong and vigorous, created a tingling sensation within him, made him come to his senses. Chaz was determined that Rika would not live her life without him, would not mourn his death like he mourned Alys'.

The Hunter sprung to his feet just before Jarrol's massive Laconian sword crashed down on him. Hahn attacked, his Nawat Technique doing little damage. Raja rushed forward and struck with his staff, sparks flying. Slow as it was, the Archbishop barely missed being decapitated by Jarrol's sword. Over and over again he struck, his ardor increasing with each strike. "Woo-ha!" was his battle cry. Chaz could see his determination and how strikingly ineffective he was against the metal giant. The Hunter almost laughed out loud. But it was Raja's determination which filled him with hope. They would not die easily.

Chaz struck, but the titanium was not a match for Jarrol's armor. Sparks flew, a result of clashing metals. The Hunter veered around, his concentration increasing. With two swift moves, he performed Crosscut, but even that mighty attack had little effect. Jarrol swung at the annoyance, just barely missing Chaz. It was moving faster now, like its metal joints were becoming accustomed to all the movement. This was cause for some worry because if it was able to move quickly in addition to having such strong protection, they would meet their fates sooner than they thought.

Knowing it to be an AI, Demi reached out to touch Jarrol, panels opening up on the back of her arm. With a powerful electrical surge, she attempted to disable its primary systems with Spark, bu it had no effect. In fact, it seemed to anger her foe even more and it struck out at her, this time finding its mark. The little android flew head-over-heals down a corridor and landed with a thud. She was not damaged too much, however, and her automatic repair systems kicked in almost instantly.

Angered, Hahn charged in, his dagger seeming small and infinitesimal compared to Jarrol's bulk. The strange Mahlay metal forged by a magic known to only to his family glimmered lightly, as if it was calling forth magic. The Scholar struck, and metal crashed against metal. To everyone's surprise, including Hahn's, the Mahlay dagger penetrated the metal giant's armor! Hahn looked to his shield, forged of the same magic. It, too, seemed to glimmer, like starlight on a clear pond. Jarrol swung at him with its massive Laconian sword, bearing it down with full force onto Hahn's shield. The Mahlay metal withstood not only Jarrol's strength, but the strength of Laconian metal as well.

Hahn felt a rush of adrenalin, a feeling of relief when one has just saved himself from oblivion. He let it carry him and his actions, launching himself up against Jarrol, damaging it again with another swipe of his weapon. It was not phased by his attack, not possessing any pain receptors. Unfortunately for Hahn, he did, and its next attack landed him face-down, his foe looming above him. "Hahn!" Raja shrieked. "Hahn! Get up!" But Hahn was slow to recover, slow to even pick himself up, and he was about to lose much more than his pride.

Air began to swirl around Jarrol and an instant cyclone formed. Chaz stood from afar, his hand engulfed in a swirling white light. His Nazan Technique literally lifted Jarrol aloft and sent it reeling, smashing it into walls, but doing little damage. Hahn realized what was going on around him and quickly rolled out from underneath it. Joining Chaz at his side, he strengthened the Hunter's attack by using Nawat. Within moments, a Blizzard raged in the corridor, a lack of space intensifying its power. It was that lack of space which proved to be a burden to them, however, and they began to feel the effects of it. Body parts, mostly extremities, began to numb, and they were forced to discontinue. Jarrol fell ungracefully and landed with a bang, but it got back up with almost no effort.

Demi fired, visible sound waves travelling down an entire corridor. Impacting Jarrol's Laconian body, it created a vociferous ringing which reverberated all around them. The metal giant stepped backward, caught off guard by her attack. Seeing that it was vulnerable, she continued to fire, the very air parting at her weapon's command. Hahn used Nawat again, hoping that a continuous attack would eventually wear it down. Raja stood back, his purpose in providing his companions with a first line of defense, using Blessing and Nares whenever it was necessary. All their efforts had little effect, though, for Jarrol was a juggernaut compared to even their might

Jarrol swung its sword, this time with more speed, more accuracy. Chaz was barely able to counterattack, using his weapon to parry its strike. The Dezorian Archbishop rushed forward, Nares Staff poised to attack. He would have gotten a successful attack in had he not underestimated its swiftness. Jarrol barely missed slicing him in half, but landed a stunning strike with its other hand, hitting Raja squarely across the chest.

"NO!!" Chaz screamed, his hand bursting into a blaze of light as he used Nathu. Like lightning, a bolt of light shot at Jarrol, heat momentarily fusing its internal mechanisms together. Hahn took his Mahlay dagger and hurled it at Jarrol, penetrating its armor.

"Now!" Hahn yelled, "attack it at that point! We might be able to drive a wedge into its armor!" Demi and Chaz joined Hahn in his endeavor, using their own powers to add to his. Demi took the forefront, Phonomezer releasing its sound waves. Chaz, standing behind her, used Nathu again, firing it directly into Demi's attack. Hahn raised his arms and, gathering energy from the Astral realm, used his body as a focal point, fired a lethal beam of Astral energy at Jarrol. At that point, something strange occurred. The combination of Technique and Skills produced an astonishing effect. A spark, and suddenly their surroundings exploded in a Cosmic Boom.

Demi's Phonomezer gathered energy from Chaz's Nathu Technique and Hahn's Astral Skill. Sound and light exploded all around Jarrol, causing massive damage. Not only that, but it used Astral's power to literally blast it to a place half way between their world and the Astral realm. Normal matter, not able to survive in two dimensions at the same time, expanded rapidly, half seeking shelter in the previous world, the other half attempting to enter a new one. Even Jarrol's Laconian body could not withstand the tension, and it split and fractured right before their eyes. Hahn's dagger fell to the ground, unscathed.

Hahn picked up his weapon, they quickly hurried to were Raja fell in battle. They found him near a wall, crumpled up in a miserable heap. "Raja!" Chaz yelled. "Raja, are you all right?" The miserable heap moved, but slowly.

"Uhh," he groaned. "Remind me never to do that again. I seem to have broken a few bones."

"Not a problem," Hahn told him. The Scholar placed a hand on his friend's body and spoke the words that would instantly mend his broken bones, heal his broken spirit. Raja smiled at him kindly, then accepted his offer to help him up. "If that's what you had to go up against last time you were here, Chaz," Hahn said, "then I truly would have pitied you."

"King Saber, yes," Chaz replied, "but I've never seen that creature before. I wonder where it came from."

"Garuberk's evil magic, no doubt," Raja said gravely. Demi nodded in silent acquiescence for her thoughts were one and the same. "Twice now we've almost lost our lives in this place. I'm beginning to think that there really is something lurking at the top of this tower. I'm just not sure I want to find out what it is."

"We have to, Raja. If we're going to keep ourselves and all of Algo from being destroyed, we have to make it to Garuberk's apex."

"How did I know he was going to say that?"

"We're barely half way through the tower from what I remember. If there's something at the top, we'll find it, but our success relies all of us staying alive. We have to trust in each other and the bonds that we have formed. Garuberk will try its hardest to divide us; it may even play tricks on our minds. Remember -- countless millions of people are depending on us."

"Sure," Hahn said, a touch of hysteria in his voice, "no pressure. No pressure at all. Why don't we just waltz on up to ol' PD and politely ask it not to destroy our universe?"

"Come on," Chaz said, politely ignoring Hahn, "let's get going."

With success on their minds and fear in their hearts, Chaz, Demi, Raja, and Hahn continued on their trek to discover the truth behind Garuberk's reappearance and what purpose, if any, it served this time around. The two confrontations they had with its guardians slowed them down significantly. They were weary from the battles and wearier still of what might be lurking around each and every corner they took. There was no telling what fate Garuberk had in mind for them, but it was a sure bet that it would not be a kind fate.

Chaz took the head of the group, now. Raja had his fun leading and decided that the job should be turned over to someone with a little more fighting skill and agility. Chaz did not have a problem with that and patted Raja on the shoulder just to let him know that he did well while he was leading. The Archbishop stood tall, his pride beaming from him like light through a crevice in a basement.

A sudden movement, and one of Garuberk's fleshy walls parted, allowing passage to Chaz and his cautious companions. They hesitated at first, but decided that they needed to get this over with as quickly as possible and return to the rest of their friends. They stepped within, and the door closed, seeming dark and mischievous in its intention.

All of Garuberk quivered with excitement, then went still.

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