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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Two


"Chaz," a gentle voice called out, "Chaz, it's time to get up now."

Chaz Ashley, now at a ripe age of nineteen, opened his eyes to bright sunlight and they struggled to focus on a blurry figure hovering above him. He felt wet against his back with sweat and knew that it was near midday for Motavia's sun already begun to make his day unbearable. As his eyes adjusted to the relentless invasion of light, he saw first a soft, compassionate smile, then his wife who adorned it. He sat up and was immediately kissed on his forehead.

Rika always seemed to make him feel better, even though Chaz considered his life a personification of hell. Her hair was reddish with just a hint of lavender and glistened with perspiration. Her ears, elongated and animallike, were reddened and flushed, just like her face, and he guessed that she was out and about already in search of employment.

"You're looking especially beautiful this morning, my dear," he managed before he was pulled to his feet. Rika smiled and held her husband's gaze with her own blue eyes. Reaching up, she ran her fingers through his lank, blond hair.

"And you are such a terrible liar," was her joking response. "I look terrible. And besides, it's already past midday." Suddenly, Chaz remembered his promise to her that he made the night before. He absentmindedly promised that he would go out with her and try to find a job of his own, but obviously overslept.

Every day was the same. Chaz simply lacked the energy and motivation he needed to get himself moving. It was not that he did not want to, it just seemed like nothing interested him anymore. He could wither and die like his crops did and would not care less. It was a burden on Rika, and not being able to do anything about it only upset him further. He felt he only had himself to blame for all their misfortunes.

"I'm sorry, Rika," the once proud Hunter said in a tone that would make a pack of wolves wail and lament. His wife rushed to him and kissed him fiercely on the lips.

"I love you, Chaz," she spoke with assuredness. "That's all that matters."

"Look at me, Rika, I'm worthless." Rika was taken aback at her husband's declaration. "I make promises I can't keep, I sleep half the day, I can't keep a job, I can't --" he hesitated for a moment, "I can't even perform my duties as a husband."

"Will you stop beating yourself over the head. I didn't marry you because of your prowess beneath the sheets," she offered jokingly. Now it was Chaz's turn to be taken aback, his pride wounded ever so slightly. Rika smiled again, realizing that she was not helping his situation any. "You're going through a lot of stress and I don't expect you to overexert yourself.. You are a good man, Chaz. You have never once raised your voice or your hand to me -- that's what makes you a good man. That is what makes you a good husband."

"Yeah, well, what gives you the right to judge?"

"This gives me the right to judge!" Rika snapped, bringing up her left hand before Chaz's face and exposing her wedding band. For a brief instant, he saw anger flash in her eyes and he knew that he overstepped his boundaries. "Do you remember our vows, Chaz? 'To live, to love, to honor one another in times of both health and infirmity?' I will not abandon you just because you're suffering though hard times. And don't you even start with that 'you'd be better off without me' nonsense."

Chaz was humbled before her furor, and forced to look at her wedding band made him cringe even more. He remembered when he proposed to Rika and how embarrassed he was that the ring was not more than it was. So much so that he even considered not offering his proposal, but everything turned out better than he planned. Despite his greatest efforts, he was not able to afford a true wedding band; consequently, her engagement ring and wedding band were one and the same. Seeing it again, he noticed that it's quality was truly beginning to degrade, a condition brought about by Rika's countless hours of manual labor while tending to their dying farm. Chaz's heart suddenly felt like a lead weight, and he began to feel guilt for making this beautiful woman, strong in both will and devotion, live under such terrible conditions.

Rika saw her husband's blue eyes glaze over and felt guilty for lashing out at him. She removed the ring and held it out to him in a symbolic gesture. Chaz averted his gaze, not wanting to look at it. "When you gave me this ring," she began, "it was the happiest day of my short life. Truth is, Chaz, I fell in love with you the moment I saw you, though I had no clue what it meant to love back then. Seed created me and imparted to me massive amounts of raw knowledge, but knowledge without experience is like a slasher without a blade. I was unable to interpret my feelings for you, but I knew they were different from the others. Now, when I look back upon it, I realize that it was 'love at first sight.'

"That is what this ring represents. It doesn't represent money or prosperity or fortunate times till our dying day, it represents a commitment to love, and an affirmation of our love for each other. If the value of this ring means more to us than our commitment to each other, then we've both been foolishly misguided. If you can honestly tell me that on that day you proposed to me you thought more of this ring than your love for me, then maybe we should reevaluate our relationship."

Chaz turned and snatched the ring from her fingertips with such suddenness, Rika flinched. For a moment it seemed Chaz would hurl it across the room away from them, but then took a second to consider his actions. He turned and faced his wife, taking her hand and holding her gaze with his own. Again Rika was startled, but this time pleasantly as a brief sparkle passed across Chaz's eyes -- the same sparkle she saw when he proposed to her over two years ago.

Chaz carefully slipped the ring onto her finger. "I love you, Rika."

And she knew it was true.

* * * * *

It was around midday again before Chaz stirred from his slumber. Rika was nowhere to be found so, remembering his promise to her, he got dressed and immediately began to do what he could to help around his home. That promise, he mused, was to clean up around the house while his wife once again went out looking for employment. She knew that in his declining mental state, he would probably not hold up at an interview, and might not even get that far because of the way he presented himself. His self-confidence was shot, and until she could help him reestablish it, he was useless outside of their home. Chaz knew as much, she told it to him directly. Those words had hurt him, but somehow Rika always had a knack to make things easier to swallow, like the greased pill that slides easily down one's throat.

Rika had, much to Chaz's delight, prepared a magnificent dinner for them last night. Though not the best cook in the world, she prepared some steaks with a side of kardich wings (a type of foul), and made a salad with their last greens. It was the best meal either of them had in a long time, and for a little while, Chaz forgot about his dilemmas.

Chaz walked into his kitchen and saw that their dishes were still sitting untouched, waiting to be cleaned off. Without a second thought, he filled a small pan with water and cleaning solvent and began to wipe them off. He had to be careful how much water he used, for water was rapidly becoming scarce and the people were being forced to ration. As he continued, his mind began to ponder.

What's happening to me, he thought. A year ago, I wouldn't be caught dead in this predicament, but now I'm up to my neck in it and I can't seem to dig myself out. But Rika -- she's a veritable pillar of strength. I'd be nowhere now without her. I might even be dead. I owe her so much, but have nothing to return.

Chaz paused, suddenly aware of his inflection.

Listen to me, he thought, wallowing in self-pity. At least now I can say that I am. I guess that's a step in the right direction.

The former Hunter took a long, hard look at what he was reduced to doing. The dishes that he held were in a miserable state of disrepair, some missing large chips, others cracked. They had not been able to afford new ones in a while. Chaz promised some time ago that when he found a good-paying job, he would buy some new ones, but that still remained to be seen. The clothes he wore, a cotton shirt and denim trousers common to all Palmans, was worn and among his last good articles of clothing. Rika's were in the same state, and it broke his heart that he was not able to give her what she truly deserved.

He finished his dishes and moved into another room. Retrieving a broom, he started to sweep off the hard wooden floor (carpeting was one luxury they could not afford and it just seemed to make houses hotter). It was about this time when Rika walked in from her quest for a job. Chaz looked up from his chore, her ears and face flushed from being out in the sun. "Welcome home, my dear," he greeted her. Rika smiled and proceeded into the kitchen where she pulled a seat at the table. Chaz followed after, broom in tow.

"I did the dishes," her husband announced, taking a seat next to her.

Nothing.

"Any luck today?"

"No," Rika replied, "but I do have some news for you that might cheer you up." Chaz was touched that despite the fact that they could barely afford to eat, his wife still thought of ways to improve his disposition. "I went down to the trans-communication center to see if we had received any messages, and I found that we received one a couple of days ago from an old friend of ours -- Gryz."

"Gryz? Really?"

"Yeah, it seems that he and Pana were planning to travel this direction from Molcum and was wondering if he could stop in for a visit. I wired him back that it would be okay, but I don't know if he left already. Anyway, I suspect that he'll be stopping in regardless." Chaz was filled with delight, and his wife was just as pleased to hear from their friend.

"It'll be great to see ol' Gryz after all this time. I wonder what he's been up to? I wonder if he knows we're married now?"

"Chaz, dear, he was at the wedding."

The former Hunter hit a brick wall. How could have he forgotten something as important as that? "Rika, I --" But he did not have to say anything, for she understood. She assured him that Gryz did not have to know of his current condition if he so wished. Chaz thought about it, and then decided that through everything they shared, the Motavian deserved to know what was happening in their lives, and Rika agreed.

"By the way," Rika continued, "I ran into Yebel while I was at the trans center and he told me something that might be of interest to you." Chaz raised an eyebrow. "It seems that someone in town spotted a nest of sandworms near the caves north of Aiedo, and the Nance's children, you know, Jan, Fenlye, and Bjorn, were seen playing near there yesterday, but never returned. They're looking to hire some Hunters to go and find their children, and they're offering a pretty meseta for the service."

Chaz was so ecstatic he could barely breathe. A wide smile spread across his face; if he were water, he would have been effervescing. Leaping from his seat, he rushed into an adjacent room and threw open an old chest that contained all of his Hunter's apparel. "Chaz," Rika called to him, "before you go and leap into this, you should consider that this is not just one sandworm, but a nest of them. Maybe you should wait till Gryz gets here. There's a good chance that he'll be in first thing in the morning." Her husband returned, carrying his red Hunter's Guild uniform, a chest/shoulder plate item, and a sword. Chaz was so excited his benevolent wife did not want to burst his bubble, but his very life was at stake. "Chaz, I don't want to sound cruel or anything, but you're not even half the Hunter you were a year ago. You've lost almost all of your Skills and I'm afraid you might get a little overzealous."

"I have not lost my Skills," a wounded Chaz protested. Rika shook her head, eyes rolling.

"Don't delude yourself, Dear." Her husband held his hand up in protest, determined to demonstrate that he still possessed every Skill he did before he began to decline mentally. Retrieving the sword, he stepped away from Rika.

In two quick motions, Chaz swept his sword from left to right, then, raising it up, he grasped it with both hands and brought it downward to complete the motion.

Nothing.

He did it one more time, determined to prove not only to Rika, but to himself, that he had not lost his Skills. Again and again he performed his Crosscut Skill, but never was it executed correctly. He became frustrated, and his arms hurt from the strain. Finally, disgusted with himself, he angrily hurled the sword away and crumbled into a miserable heap. Rika walked over and massaged his aching shoulders. "Do you know what the problem is?" she asked of him. Chaz shook his head negatively. "You, of all people, should know that Crosscut is much more than just a motion. If it was, then everybody could do it. You practiced long and hard to master that Skill, and no one has been able to repeat it. Chaz, the problem is that in order to make Crosscut work effectively, your mind has to be clear of all abnormalities. Like I said, it is more than just a motion, but a concentration of strength, both physical and mental. I've watched you practice and know that if done correctly, your sword can visibly slice through air, leaving an impression of a cross. That is why you named it as such, isn't it?" Chaz nodded. "If you want to go and do what you can, I won't stop you. I know for a fact that you're not lacking in strength, but it's your mental state I'm concerned about."

"You won't be coming with me?" Chaz interjected, hurt apparent in his voice.

"No," Rika confirmed. "When I hung my claws up it was because I was tired of the fighting, tired of the killing. I would fight again, but only if it was absolutely necessary, and only if either of our lives were in danger."

Taking her opinion into consideration, Chaz finally decided that he wanted to take the job and explained to his wife that it may help life his cloud of depression. It was what he had been waiting for, to once again express himself in what he truly enjoyed doing. Being a Hunter was more than just an occupation to him, it was his way of life. He spent many years preparing himself under the tutelage of Alys Brangwin, and to suppress his natural talent was almost worse than death. Rika, in all her wisdom, understood completely, but still did not like the idea of him trouncing around a dangerous situation when he was not at one hundred percent health. She managed to convince her husband to wait for Gryz if only to ease her mental status.

Still, Chaz was ebullient, anticipation growing almost exponentially inside of him.

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