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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-One


Chaz Ashley's mind was on his journey and his goal, but his heart and soul was left back at Esper Mansion with his wife. Kyra drove the Icedigger, but she did not know where they were going, nor did she care. They left many bad memories back at the mansion and one of their numbers, but they gained one in exchange. The Hunter found himself staring at Nei several times, but either she was not aware of it or she did not care.

What was she thinking, Chaz thought. He wondered what thoughts a person dead over a thousand years could possibly have. She was just as silent as the rest of them were, offering no indication that she had a possible plan of action. The Numan warned them that she was not a messenger with otherworldly powers that could bail them out of any situation. She was a simple mortal like the rest of them. The difference was that she, for all intents and reasons, should have not been there. It was through the graces of the Great Light that she was there, an event that was unprecedented in all of history. Through Esper magic, Rune possessed the memories of every Lutz before him and never was there a situation so dire that the Great Light had to physically step in and lend a hand to its protectors. There had to be a reason it chose to now, not that he would ever question its graces.

But the Hunter realized that his thoughts were not where they were supposed to be and he needed to get focused. They were basically wandering around without a destination, passing time until one of them came up with an idea. How discouraging it was that between nine minds, no one had one that was workable. Chaz felt like they were moving in slow motion and that their movements were as languid as a slug's. He surely knew how Gryz must have felt all those times when he itched for some action, but the Motavian's demeanor changed somehow and frankly, he was a little bit concerned about it. He knew that Rune spoke with him, but nothing further than that. It was not like Gryz to keep secrets from him, but he knew better than to pry into things that were none of his business. If it was a matter of importance, he was sure the Motavian would tell him.

A few hours passed and Kyra might have been driving in circles for all the good it did anybody. Even Wren seemed to tire of the monotony and she thought she caught him twiddling his thumbs a few times. Raja sat swaying side to side like he was aboard some vessel pretending to be in deep meditation while sporting a moronic smile. The Archbishop thought he could manage to get a smile or a giggle out of Nei like he used to with Rika, but she sat stolidly, appearing somewhat annoyed at his incessant movement. Sighing profoundly, he finally gave up and sat still, dejected.

Chaz did catch two among them conversing once, though their words went unheard to those around them. Hahn and Demi leaned close to each other and spoke in furtive whispers, their eyes drifting suspiciously to the new member in their ranks. The Hunter would have given anything to have been sitting next to or behind them when those words were exchanged. He speculated on what could have been said, the doubts or misgivings they might have had about Nei. He also wondered why they did not just come out and voice their opinions instead of keeping them from their friends. Perhaps it was not for the benefit of everyone else. Perhaps they did not say anything because of him.

Chaz realized that the way he had been watching Nei was not as obscure as he would have liked. It was probably all too obvious that when he looked at the Numan, he saw his wife, even though he tried to deny it himself. Despite all the support they gave him and everything that Rune did to get him to accept Rika's death, he did not. Nei's arrival may have been a blessing to their cause, but it was a curse on the Hunter's state of mind. He could not blame them for their distrust, of either of them. They were afraid if anything negative was said about Nei, he might fly off the wall in anger, and the Numan had yet to prove her value in a battle or otherwise. His friends were not like him, not in this case. They were not willing to blindly put their faith in her like he was doing. Even Rune appeared to be a little bit weary of her and he had even more reason to trust her since he, or at least a part of him, once fought with her. Everything was blown way out of proportion and nothing was going the way it was supposed to. They once knew exactly where they were going and how they were going to do it, but now their vision was merely a blur.

If Nei was even slightly bothered by all the negative feedback she was getting, she did not let it show. Chaz suddenly felt sympathy for her, leaving her eternal rest where she was loved and cared for to aid a few individuals who mistrusted her. She did not just give up chewing on her fingernails or anything, Nei gave up her salvation and was torn from the home she knew for over a thousand years, for a little while, anyway. To him, she was probably the bravest person he ever knew, braver than even himself and his friends. A flurry of thoughts spun a myriad of webs within his mind and he became a little angered at everybody. How could they possibly know what it was like? How could he know what it was like? Only Nei knew, but it was not something she was going to talk openly about.

The magic, the power, the mystery -- everything the Great Light stood for was strengthened by Nei's very presence. Every one of them was aware of the Great Light's existence and its intentions, but they did not understand why they were still suspicious of her. She did nothing to make them mistrust her, but suspicion was a part of the Palman, Motavian, and Dezorian psyche. It had been for countless eons and would continue to be until the end of time.

The Icedigger lurched and Chaz nearly fell forward. For one reason or another, Kyra braked without warning and offered no explanation. Once he regained his senses, the Hunter went to Kyra's side and looked out. "What is it?" he asked.

"It's a -- a child," she managed.

"A what?"

Chaz looked out and scanned the area in front of the Icedigger. Far off in the distance stood a small Child probably no older than three. It appeared to be a Palman child that may have gotten separated from its parents, but it did not seem to be frightened and was not signaling them for help. The thought that maybe it was dead crossed Chaz's mind, which was entirely feasible especially because of the storm. Its back was turned toward them and it was curled up in a fetal position. "I think maybe we should take the body back to Meese," Gryz suggested. "Someone there might know who the Child is or where to find its parents."

Before anyone could agree with him, they saw it move. It stood up and faced them, though no one could get a good look at its face. Raising its arms, the Child launched streams of energy right at the Icedigger. The passengers braced themselves for the impact, but nothing happened. "What is it and why is it attacking us?" Hahn asked.

"I don't know," Rune said, "but I can tell you that it is evil -- pure, unadulterated evil."

"Well, thank you for those comforting words, Rune. I think we've all figured that out."

"I don't understand," Kyra cut in, "it obviously attacked us but I don't feel any different and none of the Icedigger's controls seem to be damaged."

The Child waved its arms in some weird incantation and suddenly disappeared. Through the diffuse light of Algo which managed to penetrate the clouds and storm passed two shadows. Chaz and Kyra craned their necks to look upward, but could not see anything. Whatever passed above them must have disappeared into the clouds. "What's that?" Demi shrieked.

Two giant tails emerged from above and began descending slowly. Everyone inside the Icedigger instantly became deathly silent while they waited to see the rest of whatever was there. Within seconds, four enormously muscular legs appeared, both covered with scales which glimmered in a golden-brown radiance. Their feet were massive, pointed toenails sticking out like daggers. Snow and clouds swirled around like powerful wings were beating against them. In reality, the things were descending rapidly, but fear seemed to slow time and each breath Chaz and his companions took felt like it came with a startled gasp. Now there were two bodies, chests, and four three-fingered hands with claws. There were winged and despite their distance from the Icedigger, Chaz could still hear them pounding, beating against the air. Nei and Rune had an idea of what the creatures were, but did not want to start a panic until they knew for sure. When the two heads finally emerged, their fears were confirmed and they exchanged worried glances.

The creatures had elongated reptilian heads, beady, blood-red eyes set near the back of the head allowing them to see almost three hundred and sixty degrees around them. Four oversized, almost tusk-like canine teeth protruded upward and downward from their mouths, reinforcing the fact that if they ever met an opponent large enough to battle them, it would suffer a fatal wound. Their other teeth, though hidden by loose flaps of skin, were nearly as visible underneath. Nostrils which sat just above their teeth were sunken and sat below the skin. Although they appeared to be useless, they could probably pick up the scent of prey from nearly a mile away. Atop their heads they wore magnificent horns, crowns of bone that made them look like royalty.

Dragons.

The twin creatures landed with a boom and sent snow flying upward. Their necks, short enough to not offer an advantage to foes but long enough to appear serpentine, twisted this way and that, searching for a target. They found what they were looking for and began to march slowly toward them. Kyra, Chaz, and the others watched in horror as their chests expanded and then released two streams of blazing fire. Within moments, the snow which had accumulated on the ground was vaporized and the ground was laid bare. "What are they?" Gryz asked.

"Dragons," Rune replied solemnly.

"Dragons?" Chaz asked, confusion in his voice. "There haven't been dragons anywhere in Algo for over a thousand years."

"Yes," Nei said, "I warned you that shadows from my past would follow me here. These dragons are not ordinary. Their presence here is enough evidence for you. These are Archdragons and they are not your average foe. I remember watching my beloved Rolf battle them; one nearly took Shir's life. No, these are not your average enemies -- they are far more dangerous."

"Yes," Rune added, "if my memory serves me correctly, then we have much to be worried about. These Archdragons are intelligent, possessing even problem solving intelligence. They are incredibly powerful and never make take a second thought about killing anything. Their scales are an effective armor and Techniques are only a little more effective than blades. I have no doubt that their intentions toward us are anything but friendly."

The dragons took a few more steps, causing the ground to shake violently; Hahn bit as his fingernails in nervous anticipation. Death, massive and lumbering was approaching and nobody could move an inch to do anything about it. Even Nei was disturbed by this turn of events and was just sitting in her seat, speechless. "I don't feel like becoming dragon food today," said Gryz. "Doesn't this thing have weapons on it?"

"Of course!" Kyra exclaimed. We must have half a brain between all of us! I'll just use the Icedigger's fusion cannons and we'll make short work of them!" The Esper Leader's fingers worked at a dizzying pace while she prepared to use the Icedigger's weapons on the Archdragons. She flipped a few switches and everyone heard energy build up as the cannons prepared to discharge. The Archdragons lumbered forward, unaware of their impending demise.

Suddenly, the cannons powered down and all of the Icedigger's systems became inactive, leaving them vulnerable. "No! No! No!" Kyra chanted in rage and fear. "How could this happen?"

"I guess whatever that child hit us with wasn't meant for us," Demi offered.

"Yes," Wren added, "it would seem that our vehicle was the target, not us."

"But why?" Kyra probed.

"Probably because the Child knew that our chances of surviving would be lessened without the Icedigger."

"Therefore, forcing us to go outside and battle them ourselves, right?"

"That is about the size of it."

"Great."

"Well," said Raja, "we have to do something fast or we're going to end up char-broiled."

"Raja's right," Nei agreed, "we must stand and fight. The fate of our entire solar system hangs in the balance."

"Easy for you to say," Hahn told her, "you probably can't die, but unfortunately we can."

"That is true; I cannot die by conventional means. My death can only be brought about by someone whose feelings for me mirrors my own." For a moment, Nei seemed sad, bu it passed quickly and her attention turned back to the task at hand. She was hesitant, deciding whether or not to lead or to be led. If the Numan took the initiative and led her companions to prove to them once and for all that she was on their side, she could also risk being spurned by them if they fell into misfortune. On the other hand, she could follow one of them and be merely and observer and protector, which was her initial goal. Now that Nei had travelled with them for a little while, felt their pain from losing one of their closest friends, she understood their passion, and knew that they needed a boost in morale.

"Come on," Rune beckoned, "they may be large, but they're not invincible. Rolf and his friends were able to defeat these beasts, so why can't we?" Chaz and the others exchanged glances and quickly came to a decision. They were not about to die sitting down; if they were going to meet their creator, it would be fighting alongside each other. They had not made it this far to just give up and knew that Rika would have urged them on. Nei, in a passive way, was doing the same, she just did not want to jump into anything without their backing. Her quiet, thoughtful demeanor was evidence enough of that.

Wren stood up and walked silently toward the door while everything shook around him. For a moment, it seemed like no one would follow him except Rune, but then Nei took the incentive to prove her worth and joined them. Chaz was next and the remaining stood together as a group to complete their numbers. With a shutter of fear, Rune made the first move toward egress and stepped out into Dezoris' raging storm.

The ground cleared by their opponents still steamed like a boiler, but cooled rapidly in sub-zero temperatures. Standing over twenty feet high, the Archdragons loomed threateningly over Rune and his companions despite the distance between them. Snow fell off of trees and an unnatural silence passed over the land. They stopped, taking a few moments to study their opponents and measure their skill even though they had yet to see them in action. Both Nei and Rune knew that they did not have to -- they could sense an opponent's strength and Magical prowess as easily as they could detect changes in temperature. One raised its head high and roared forcibly, much to the dismay of everything around it. If they did not physically kill their enemies, they surely would have literally scared them to death. A myocardial infarction would have surely been a more favorable alternative than what these dragons were capable of doing.

Wren was first to attack and it did not take him long to get his enemies' attention. The bursts from his normally powerful weapon did little more than annoy them and enrage them further. Seeing them approach rapidly, Chaz and Rune combined their Nathu and Nafoi Techniques, creating a Fire Bolt which burned into their scales, but the thick armor offered superb protection. In the meantime, Dezoris perpetual blizzard raged around them, giving no indication of abatement. The wind strength had increased and it bit deeply into their unprotected skin. If Chaz and his friends did not get burned to death they would be frostbitten and may freeze to death. It was beginning to seem like they would have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

"How can we stop them?" Demi shouted over the blizzard's roar.

"With teamwork!" Nei shouted back. "We have to work together because none of us by ourselves can do it alone!"

"Nei!" Chaz hollered over the wind's howling, "you said that you possess Rika's skills, correct?"

"Yes!"

"Then come with me! Rune, Wren, you two as well!"

Chaz led three of his numbers before the menacing dragons. "You know Deban, Nei?" The Numan nodded. "Then use it now!" Sure enough, Nei raised her hand and used her Deban Technique. Immediately afterward, Chaz used Megid, Wren's shoulder plates opened up and fired the Positron Bolt-emitter, and Rune cast Legeon, an Esper spell which concentrated all of nature's energy into devastating explosions. The Deban shield gathered in their energies and concentrated it into a single eruption of power. The end result was Destruction, one of their most powerful combined efforts on the offensive, designed to totally obliterate anything in its wake. Just before the discharge, however, the Child reappeared before them and waved a negating hand, then disappeared as quickly as it came. The physical structure of Deban wavered, then faded, and Destruction was never brought to fruition. "What happened?" Chaz demanded. "How could it do that?"

"It appears that our enemy is going to stick around to see its Archdragons stalk and destroy all of us," Rune concluded, "and its going to help out as much as it can. The Child dogged one of our most powerful attacks. I don't know how we're going to pull this off, but we have to try."

"Rune!" Wren hollered, "the dragon is going to --" Before the android to complete his warning, one of the Archdragons unleashed all of its fiery breath. Rune concentrated his magical energy and used his body to split the stream of fire in two directions, averting it from incinerating his friends. He, however, was not untouched, the exertion of strength profound and all-consuming. The Reverent Fifth collapsed, his strength depleted. Chaz and Wren helped him to his feet and returned to the rest of their group.

Raja worked his mystical powers and replenished some of Rune's vitality and it was a good thing because the Archdragons attacked again, barely missing them. Hahn used Nawat and Demi fired the Phonomezer, but an assault of ice and sound did little to phase them. They felt like fleeing, running from their pursuers and escaping them forever. There was, however, a wall of snow and ice on three sides of them and there was no escape. Like animals being forced into a corner they would have to stand and fight for their lives and all the other lives in Algo. They already saw that even their most powerful attack would not work on them, not as long as the Child kept them within its scrutiny. It was their protector and would see them through to the end.

Streams of fire burst forth from the Archdragons' mouths, a horrible roar accompanying the sound of rushing fire like a harmony to a melody. Hahn acted quickly and used Nawat to counter it, releasing arcs of ice from his fingertips, but he could not hold them off for long. "Here," a weak Rune offered, "let me help." The Reverent Fifth stepped next to his Scholar friend and used his own Nawat Technique to reinforce Hahn's. Steam rose into the sky and seemed to add to the already thickening clouds. For a few moments, rain fell instead of snow, the steam melting the crystalline structure of each snowflake.

Had Rune been at full strength they could have probably outlasted the dragons, but in his current condition there was no hope of that happening. Kyra saw what was afoot and knew it was within her power to help. Taking great care to concentrate on her Esper powers, she cast Tandle, summoning lightning from the clouds to assail at her opponents. Passing through both Hahn and Rune's Nawat Techniques, it strengthened and the Archdragons were assaulted by bolts of Conductive Thunder. Cold and electricity jolted through their bodies and they simultaneously fell onto their backs, causing the ground to tremble. Kyra, Rune, and Hahn marveled at their accomplishment and stood proudly, but their celebration was short-lived.

Both Archdragons were on their feet within seconds after recovering from the unexpected attack. One brought its foot down with such force that the ground cracked and opened up. A long crack of opening ground raced at a high rate of speed toward Rune and the others. Half of them dove to one side of it, the other half dove to the other. The rapidly forming chasm sped rapidly away from them and Kyra watched as the Icedigger was in danger of being swallowed wholly by it. Luckily, the crack stopped just in time and the vehicle was only swallowed partially, but it threatened to fall at any time.

"Nothing any of us does seems to affect those beasts in any way!" Gryz proclaimed from across the newly-formed chasm.

"Yes," Wren agreed, "it does appear that our attacks are ineffectual."

"I think they knew that we are stronger when we are together," said Raja, "and more easily defeated when we are separated. I fear that by the time we run back to the Icedigger and rejoin our numbers, we're all going to be crispy critters."

"Raja," Hahn spoke out of despair, "shut up!"

For what felt like a long time to the oppressed, both sides stared each other down like they were at a standstill. Chaz and the others -- Wren, Demi, Raja, Kyra, and Nei on one side, Chaz, Gryz, Hahn and Rune on the other -- were afraid to make the first move for fear of having their foes charge in and end their lives swiftly. They could not, however, just wait for the dragons' move for that would prove to be a fatal mistake. No one moved and they were barely breathing. For all they knew, the Archdragons were locked onto their movements and would attack the first person that moved. "We have to make a move or we're going to freeze to this spot!" Nei whispered fiercely across the chasm. "I already feel my muscles stiffening!"

"My brain is freezing!" Gryz exclaimed.

"Funny," Hahn chuckled, "I bet that didn't take long!"

"This is no time for jokes!" Rune snapped while Raja nearly laughed out loud. "Nei's right -- we'll have to be the first to move because it's a sure thing that if they do, we're all going to die!"

The group's humor sobered up and they returned to their somber selves. They looked into each other's eyes and instantly decided that they would have to try and reunite because if nothing else, there was safety in numbers. Unspoken words passed between them; why voice their actions when they already knew what each other's thoughts were from experience? Chaz nodded his head at all of them while Kyra and Rune used their Esper powers to bridge across the chasm and make sure everyone was on the same wavelength. Taking deep breaths, their muscles tensed as they prepared to run for their lives. When the Hunter gave the signal, they took off.

Making great strides, Chaz and his friends easily put distance between themselves and the Archdragons. Demi and Wren, being androids, outdistanced all of their companions. Once their enemies caught wind of their actions, they leapt into pursuit using not their legs, but their wings. Raja peered over his shoulder and saw two gigantic dragon-missiles speeding toward them and shrieked. His long Dezorian legs sped up and moved him faster than he ever moved before, passing up first Kyra, then Nei. Chaz saw the Archbishop's panic and looked behind him, seeing for himself what Raja had seen. "We're never going to make it!" he shouted between his rapid breaths.

All of the sudden an explosion erupted ahead of them and Chaz swung his head around to see where it was coming from. Wren and Demi made it to the Icedigger and had turned to face their foes to give them a little more leeway. Both androids' shoulder plates opened up, revealing weapons of mass destruction. Wren fired his Positron Bolt Emitter, a cannon-like weapon which was once used to bring down large fortresses or even satellites and space stations. The anti-electron particles caused a chain reaction in whatever they touched, resulting in crippling damage or instant annihilation. Demi used her Phonomezer, sending screeching sound waves right into the Archdragons. The dragons flew with grace and managed to avoid most of their attack, but eventually fell victim to them. They crashed head-first and shook the ground even more, causing the Icedigger to slip into the chasm even more.

Both Archdragons regained their senses quickly and became enraged at being kept from their victims. Cold and snow finally began to take their toll on Chaz and the others, their lungs burning with each inhalation. All they could do now was lay down and meet their Creator at long last. Chaz turned to face his fate, saw the fiery streams burst from gaping mouths, saw his entire life pass before his eyes, felt a burning warmth begin to consume him . . . and suddenly --

Nothing.

The Hunter closed his eyes and thought it would be over quickly, but he was wrong. Upon reopening them, he saw what appeared to be a large magical Wall between him and his friends. Then he heard something close by, something which sounded similar to a large feline animal roaring. Another closer, more frightening roar confirmed his suspicions, and the Archdragons turned their heads upward to glance at what was headed right toward them.

A magnificent animal golden in color with wings that matched its body's brilliance swooped low over them. It had long pointed ears and sharp, alert blue eyes which probably enabled it to scrutinize even the smallest living object from a great distance. Enormous razor-like claws protruded outward from all four of its padded paws as it caught one of the dragons on the side of its face, inflicting deep wounds. The mysterious creature carried a shiny metal object in its mouth, a vicious weapon whose sharpness could be seen from the ground despite their great distance.

In its paws it carried familiar weapons -- a sword, an axe, and fighting claws. The creature dropped them close to those they were meant for. Chaz picked up the Guard Sword, a weapon forged from an unknown metal on the planet of Rykros. Nei slipped on the Guard Claws and tested them deftly. Gryz retrieved the Defeat Axe, a weapon that had few equals in terms of sheer power. It used at a crucial moment, it could kill an opponent instantly.

Another roar and the Protectors' savior swooped back down and prepared to attack the other dragon. It swept the weapon in its jaws from side to side and blood gushed from the second dragon's shoulder. Making a second pass, the creature slashed through the soft, leathery wings of both dragons, rendering them flightless. Cursing in the form of roars and howls, they raised their heads and launched fiery streams at this new threat, but missed.

"What is it?" Kyra cried out.

"An old friend!" Rune replied whole-heartedly. "Everyone! Meet Myau!"

Rune's eight companions' glances turned toward the sky where their savior continued to hold off the attackers. Myau -- a creature who was among a species that was believed to have gone extinct millennia ago. Myau -- one of the heros of lore who fought along side the Great Alis Landale and the Reverent Noah, the most revered Esper of all time. Kyra remembered the legend of how Alis, Myau, the warrior Odin, and Noah used their own Icedigger to journey onto the treacherous Altiplano Plato to retrieve the nuts of the Laerma Tree. It was those nuts that transformed the Musk Cat into the magnificent beast he was now.

"He's not going to hold them off for long!" Rune announced. "We have to help him!"

"Oh, I don't know," said Hahn, "he seems to be doing fine for someone who's over two thousand years-old."

"Rune's right," Chaz cut in, "we have a responsibility that we have to keep. This is supposed to be our battle, not Myau's. Come on everybody, let's kick some dragon butt!"

Chaz and Hahn extended their minds and used Nazan while Kyra and Rune cast Hewn. A cyclone of inestimable proportions arose and its apex shot up through the clouds far beyond the ordinary eye could see. The Rage Wind lifted both Archdragons from where they stood and lifted them into the air as easily as a pile of dead leaves. Within seconds, both creatures were no longer in sight.

Seemingly triumphant, Chaz and his friends exchanged high-fives and congratulatory pats on the back, but their celebration was short-lived. Like before, the Child appeared and negated their spell, reducing the Rage Wind into nothing more than a dust storm.

"Away with you!" a stentorian voice boomed. All eyes turned to Myau who was on another pass over them. "As long as I live and breathe, you will not interfere with what the Protectors are destined to do!" Myau landed a few hundred feet from the Child and faced it without fear. "By the power of Light," the Musk Cat said, raising a paw at his foe, "by the memories of Heroes past, I banish you from this place! Begone, you devil-spawn of Darkness!"

The Child hissed at spat at the ground, but faded away like a bad memory. Perhaps it was not strong enough to face such a grave threat, Chaz thought. Nevertheless, it was gone, there was no sign of the Archdragons yet, and they had a moment of respite. Myau, with his wings spread out wide, swooped low and landed skillfully next to those whom he just saved. "Myau!" Rune exclaimed as he ran to the Musk Cat. "Why have you left Myst Vale? The magic protected you from the Profound Darkness' scrutiny, but now that you've left, it will know your presence!"

"And what was I supposed to do?" Myau replied. "I was beckoned by the Great Light to aid you because it foresaw your demise and there was no one else to summon. I do not question what it tells me to do. Actually, my friend, when the Great Light enlightened me to your situation, I volunteered my services."

"Myau, my friend, although we are forever grateful for your intervention, I'm afraid you have forfeited your life."

Myau spread his wings and took to the sky. The winged Musk Cat flew overhead the Icedigger and lifted it from its precarious position. Setting it down away from danger, he again landed next to Rune and tucked his wings backward. "Who knows," he said, "maybe my time has come. I have lived for over two thousand years, longer than even this android," he raised a paw at Wren. "If my time has come, then I will not fight it."

"Nor should you," Nei spoke as she approached him. "You are a magnificent creature, Myau, who has devoted all of his life to defending the Light, but now it is time for you to be defended, for you to rest. I believe it was the Great Light's intention to make your presence known because it knows you deserve to rest and end your eternal vigil. Besides, there are people under the care of the Great Light who miss you. They have been waiting a long time to see their friend again."

"Alis . . . ." Myau's voice trailed off. "My friends, Odin and Noah -- it has been such a long time . . . ."

A sound drew the group's attention behind them, but they did not turn fast enough. The Child, defiant to the very end, reappeared and without so much as a thought, launched a black energy beam directly at Myau. Had the Musk Cat been aware, he would have been able to dodge it, but he was caught in its wake. Then, as if that was not bad enough, the Archdragons returned, dropping down from the clouds, their leathery wings healed. The Child ceased its attack and now it was time for its minions to finish. Mouths agape, the Archdragons spat their fiery breaths. Reacting instinctively to protect their fallen friend, Hahn and Rune created a raging Blizzard which negated the dragons' offense. No longer needed, the Child vanished, confident that its comrades would finish them off.

Both Archdragons landed with a boom and immediately began to advance. Rune ran to his old friend and beckoned him to return to his feet. "The Darkness has gripped me," Myau whispered. "I am no use to you in battle. Take this -- my final gift to you."

Myau spoke words of a language long lost, a dialect of his people that even they did not remember. His body erupted in a shimmering white light. The light grew in intensity and eventually enveloped all of those around him. His words brought tears to Rune's eyes for his memories from Lutz's past kicked in and he heard them spoken by a Myau of two thousand years past. The Musk Cat's Help spell increased offensive power tenfold, and everyone around him could definitely feel its effect.

Chaz raised his hand and used his Nathu Technique. There was a spark and a beam of energy like he had never seen before sped toward its target. One Archdragon reared back in pain as it was struck, then fell backward. "Wow!" the Hunter exclaimed.

"Let me try!" an eager Demi said. The android's shoulder plates opened up and fired her Phonomezer. Visible shockwaves emanated from her weapon and travelled toward the Archdragons, cracking the ground the entire way. The second Archdragon stumbled and fell, unable to maintain its equilibrium.

"Looks like we have a chance after all!" said Raja.

Enraged, the dragons returned to their feet and reevaluated their offensive strategy. Chaz and his friends heard a deep rumbling from within their chest and knew something major was about to happen. Their chests expanded and Rune and Hahn prepared to protect everyone from a fiery blast, but instead of directing their streams at them, they turned their maws skyward and let loose.

At first, no one could figure out what they were doing, but when the fire began to shift, began to take the form of something sinister, they realized that they were dealing with something much more dangerous. A great bird of flame rose from their combined breaths, like the phoenix of legend rising from its own ashes, its wingspan seemingly stretching from horizon to horizon. It shrieked so loud anything within a fifty mile radius could hear its cry. Raja felt the blood in his veins turn to ice. "What evil magic is this?" he thought aloud.

"Huh?" Hahn queried.

"I feel it as well," said Nei. "The Archdragons are powerful creatures, but they do not possess such power. Darkness has reinforced their strength. We are dealing with something much more that living creatures now."

"What is that?"

"Death."

* * * * *

Reinforced by Myau's magic, Chaz, Rune, and the others prepared themselves for a double-fisted attack from their marauding nemeses. Kyra was first to attack, sending her Moon Slasher flying up into the sky at the screeching phoenix creature. Made of flame and sorcery, the Esper's material weapon passed right through its body and returned to her hand. Wren fired a few shots but they were just as ineffective.

Heat rose from the phoenix's body in streamers like heat from Motavia's burning sands. Looking at its enormous body swaying and shimmering in the air was like looking at something at a distance through water. When it began to flap its great wings, a burning wind like no other swept between the Protectors, burning their skin, sucking the air from their lungs. Kyra, Nei and Raja instantly hovered over their friends with a combination of magic, Technique, and mysticism. At the same time, Chaz and Rune raised their hands and summoned a raging Blizzard to accompany the one that already surrounded them, but it did not have any effect. "I fear that conventional attacks will not have an effect on the firebird!" stated Nei. "It burns with a celestial flame formed of evil!"

"Look out!" Gryz hollered.

The Archdragons, thinking that they had been forgotten, charged into the fray, the ground trembling beneath their feet. Demi prompted the Hunter to assist her and he leapt into action. Sweeping his Guard sword from left to right, Chaz executed his Airslash Skill while Demi fired her Phonomezer. At that point, everyone was witness to a Silent Wave like no other. Reinforced by Myau's magic, Silent Wave exploded like a thunderclap, and everything within two hundred yards of them felt the impact. Trees were cut in half like so many toothpicks, rocks shattered under the duress, and the Archdragons were propelled backward with so much force, they slammed into a mountainside and left imprints of their bodies. Then, unexpectedly, another more fierce rumbling began, but it was not from the dragons. Snow and ice high atop the mountain felt Silent Wave's shock and began tumbling down the face, gathering speed and debris on the way down. "Avalanche!" Raja shrieked. The dragons tried to escape but were caught in its wake. Snow, ice, and debris continued to speed toward Chaz and his friends.

"Quickly, Rune!" Wren ordered. "Follow my lead!"

The android's shoulder plates opened up and fired Burst Rockets in what seemed like hundreds of rounds. The Reverent Fifth's hand ignited the air with his Nafoi Technique and Shooting Star rained down before them, melting the ice and snow headed toward them and effectively creating a barrier between them. As it re-froze, it created a plow-like ice structure that pushed the avalanche to either side of the party. But, as they figured out quickly, all great things must fall.

The avalanche continued unabated, fueled by generations of unmelted ice on the mountain and by several weeks of snow. Compacted snow began pouring over Wren and Rune's ice structure and cracks appeared in it. Kyra turned to Chaz who had broken into a sweat despite the cold temperatures that surrounded all of them. "Chaz," she said calmly, "if we die now there is no hope for anybody. Darkness will have won." The Esper Leader slipped her hand into his and felt it tighten.

"Then we must not die," he told her. Calling to his friends to gather around him and Kyra, he joined hands with the Esper -- his right in her left and her right in his left. They felt their energies intermingle, drawing strength from each other. A strong wind began to blow accompanied by flames. Just as the ice structure shattered and allowed the avalanche to rush in, everyone took a deep breath and Kyra and Chaz's Techniques flared to life.

Had they not been strengthened by Myau's magic their efforts would have been futile. As it was, however, Chaz and Kyra's Fire Storm was unlike any other. The flames, the intensity of the heat, were directed at everything surrounding them except those under their protection. Fire Storm rose straight into the sky and doused any chance that snow and ice would penetrate from above. Everything frozen instantly sublimated, changing into steam and rising skyward while everything not frozen was incinerated. It was over a minute before the flow lessened and came to a screeching halt.

Though their strength should have been sapped, Kyra and Chaz merely discontinued their Techniques and stopped to survey the devastation which surrounded them. The first thing they saw was the phoenix creature hovering above them. Instead of perishing with its creators, it sought shelter within the Fire Storm and replenished its energy. Like a guided missile it sped over to where its creators had fallen and began to flap its great wings. The snow melted almost instantly and within seconds, two flaming streams of fire shot up into the sky. The Archdragons emerged unhurt and very irate.

With the help of their creation, the Archdragons effectively cleared the field of snow and ice which separated them from their targets. "We're at a standstill," said Gryz. Before he could say anything else, the phoenix creature dove directly into their camp and scattered them. Seeing that they were separated, both Archdragons charged.

Shouts and screams echoed through the mountains and valleys while the dragons scattered all of Chaz's friends, keeping them apart, forcing them to attack individually instead of combining their attacks. They kept them corralled like sheep, keeping them confused, panicked, unsure of their actions. When one of them strayed off his stricken path, the phoenix creature was there, diving downward and forcing him back into an area where they were not allowed to leave. The dragons and their creation could have finished them easily but preferred to scare them to death, to feed off their fears and have a little fun while doing it.

Gryz, Nei, and Raja managed to regroup and stood apart from the mayhem for a bit. "We're getting nowhere fast!" the Motavian panted. "Myau endowed us with a great power and we can't even get a shot at them!"

"Yes," Nei agreed, "it seems that the harder we try to reunite, the more successful our foes are at keeping us apart. They're just toying with us right now, but I think they'll soon tire and make us a small meal."

"What are you worried about, Nei? You said that you can't die by conventional means."

"You know, Gryz, that's really not fair! I am in this with you guys until the very end! If all of you die I will return to the light with you! There is not much I can do alone!"

"That's nice and all," Raja interrupted, "but can we get back to trying to stay alive!" Another dive from the phoenix creature brought them back from back from their reverie. "That thing is going to get it!" The Archbishop raised his hands and took aim at his attacker. Gryz quickly pulled them back down.

"What do you think you're doing?" he questioned. "What do you think you can do to it?"

"I'm not as helpless as you perceive me to be, my friend. I was planning to cast Saint Fire and attack it with holy flame!"

"Are you daft or something? You can't hurt something made of fire with more fire -- wait a second!"

"The old adage, 'fight fire with fire,' comes to mind, doesn't it!"

"I see your reasoning now, Raja!" Nei exclaimed. "The fire that burns within that creature is not naturally occurring! It is borne of evil magic and a celestial flame may be able to harm it! Give it your best shot!"

The Archbishop prepared himself for another attack from his enemy while Gryz and Nei stood behind him for protection. It was not long before it came back to for another pass, but this time Raja was ready. Concentrating intensely, he felt his powers well up inside him, summoning the mystical powers of the Eclipse Torch from its sanctuary in Gumbian. Clouds of fire and smoke rose before the phoenix and engulfed it wholly. It fell from the sky screeching and fanning its wings so viciously Raja was blown over on his friends.

Rune saw the phoenix creature fall and decided it was time to strike. While Raja kept the firebird busy, its attention was not divided between them. Another quick look in their direction and he saw Nei throwing herself onto Gryz and the Archbishop, dropping them to the ground just before the phoenix attacked again. It was at that point when the Reverent Fifth searched the immediate area and saw Hahn lying flat on his face in the snow. Reaching him quickly, he picked the Scholar up by his collar and felt him struggle. Hahn wiped snow from his face and brushed Rune away. Giving him a stern look, the Scholar returned to his position in the snow. "Get up!" Rune ordered.

"Why?" was Hahn's muffled response. "We might as well just give up because we're good as dead anyway."

"No, look! We have a chance to strike now while Raja keeps the firebird busy! Come on, Hahn, me and you." The Scholar removed his face from the snow and looked up at Rune. Glancing to his left, he saw that it was true that Raja found a way to battle the phoenix creature. "We only have one chance to end this so we have to make this good."

"I understand."

Hahn joined his Esper companion and prepared to use an attack that was only used in dire circumstances. During the Scholar's sabbatical away from his friends after Alys died, he discovered that he had many a Technique at his dispense including a few that were directly related to living organisms. One of those Techniques was Vol and its more powerful counterpart, Savol. The Vol Techniques sought out a creature's nervous system and destroyed it, causing instantaneous death. Rune's Diem spell, on the other hand, worked on the premise that the spell could instantly cause a creature's body to cease all function. Rune and Hahn worked in conjunction, using Holocaust to attack their foes. The combination of Technique and magic caused excruciating pain in their victims as Savol forced their nervous systems into inactivity and when Diem took effect, the pain vanished but unfortunately so did their lives. Holocaust's effects are said to be so powerful that one can supposedly see a creature's soul, if it has one, rise briefly from its body in the form of a black shadow, torn away from its corporeal form so quickly it does not even have a chance to rejoin it.

Everyone heard the Archdragons cry out in pain then fall silent. Demi turned to see what had happened and saw the black forms which were supposedly the dragons' souls rise from their bodies then disappear a second later. She started to cheer in triumph but then saw that the phoenix creature was still alive! The android thought that if they could somehow kill the dragons, the firebird would cease to exist as well. Upon further thought, she realized that it was not the dragons who were keeping it alive -- it was the magic! Both Archdragons just supplied it with its physical form but the magic was not theirs to begin with.

Enraged, the phoenix creature dove at its enemies, a wing grazing Kyra across an arm inflicting it with third-degree burns so severe she felt her flesh nearly become molten and melt right off of her bones. Chaz was caught off guard and was struck though his burns were not as severe. Wren was thrown backward almost fifty feet on its final pass.

Demi saw the Esper Leader in distress and rushed over to assist her. Using her Medice Skill, she was able to ease some of Kyra's pain but she needed a more delicate hand to fully recover from her injuries. The phoenix seemed to seek them out and hovered. Demi felt something was afoot and used Barrier to protect herself and Kyra. A second later, flames burst forth from its maw and would have roasted them if it was not for Demi's precaution.

Rune ran to where Raja, Gryz, and Nei were gawking at the spectacle before them. "Come on, Raja!" Rune ordered as he seized the Archbishop's arm and pulled him toward where chaos threatened to end their friends' lives. "That thing up there is a product of Darkness and only Light can destroy it."

"Then we can destroy it!" Raja exclaimed.

"We have to act quickly! I don't know how long Demi can hold it off!"

Being careful not to attract the phoenix's attention, Raja and Rune worked their way to a position just behind it. Esper and Archbishop exchanged looks, then prepared themselves for the attack which would destroy their enemy. Concentrating on the task before him, Rune prepared to cast Efess, one of the most powerful Esper spells which only a few of them knew. Through their extraordinary link with everything natural, Espers could occasionally call on creatures from inner or outer planes of existence to aid them during combat. Efess was essentially a bridge between the caster's plane of existence and the inner plane and the creatures it summoned were as pure as the Light itself.

At the very moment Rune cast Efess, Raja used his mystical powers and cast Holyword. The Reverent Fifth's spell enveloped the phoenix creature in a dazzling aura of blue light while the Archbishop's hit its mark like a ton of lead bricks. Purify Light was the holiest of all attacks at the group's disposal. The joining of magic and mysticism was enough to purge the most nefarious of beings from the planet. By working at the spiritual level, Purify Light physically severed an evil being's link to the physical dimension. Once that link was cut, the being could no longer keep itself from dying or simply fading away.

Such was the case with the phoenix creature. Being nothing more than flame, Purify Light snuffed it out like it was nothing more than a match. Then, for the first time in a long time, everything was silent and the only sounds were that of the icy cold wind and of snow falling softly.

They were victorious.

Off in the distance lay the lifeless husks of two Archdragons, already being covered over by snow. Every member of the group would have happily lay down and did the same but they knew that was not possible. Bodies aching with the cold, fingers and toes numb, they gradually made their way over to where Myau was, Wren and Demi helping them as much as they could. Kyra noticed that no snow had drifted over him, like some magic was keeping it from covering his immense body. Then she looked down at her wound and felt a dull throbbing in it. The pain lessened but it would leave an unsightly scar. She knew what was ahead, knew that she was about to watch one of the greatest heroes of Algo pass on. The scar on her arm would hurt much less than the scar she was about to suffer from within.

Myau was not dead, but his heart beat slowly and his breathing was labored. Rune fell to his knees next to the Musk Cat's head. Sweat in his hair had frozen and gave the impression of ornaments hanging off his head. Wind was blowing more fiercely now and the tears in his eyes threatened to freeze to his face. None of his companions knew Myau like he did, but it tore at their hearts to see their friend grieve so profoundly. Nei stood behind him, stoic, impassive, almost like she had some devious scheme in mind. In fact, Kyra thought, the way she loomed over them she looked like Death itself.

"Myau, my friend," Rune spoke softly, but loud enough to be heard over the wind, "why? Why did you have to make such a sacrifice?"

"Why?" the Musk Cat replied weakly. "Why does a mother bird put herself in danger for her young ones?" Rune did not answer. "My time away from the Light grows short. I am happy that I was able to help you all."

"The Light beckons you, Myau," said Nei. "It has been waiting to receive you for a very long time. Your friends are there as well. Do not be afraid."

"I'm not, Nei. For the first time in my life, I am not afraid to pass on. Rune, when I am gone, you shall receive the nuts of Laerma. You may yet find use for them. If you do not, return them to my people, to the Musk Cats. They will protect them until the day comes when they are once again needed.

"I have seen much in the past two thousand years -- the good, the bad, wonderful times of joy and excitement, terrible times of despair. All in all, I think I have fulfilled my commitment to the Light well. I am old and tired and although my body has not aged I cannot say the same thing about my mind. I yearn for the company of familiar friends, not just the Musk Cats, but the ones I left behind a very long time ago."

"Your commitment to the Light is not over yet, my friend," Nei said solemnly. "You will join your friends in the Light and will receive its graces, but you will enter through Elsydeon so that your soul, your strength, will add to the sword's strength. This way you will always be a part of the fight against Darkness just as you have tried to be for the past two thousand years. Already I can hear the voices calling out your name."

"Yes, I can hear them, too."

"Close your eyes, mighty warrior. Your battles in this physical realm are over. Rest, be at peace, and join your loved ones in the Light."

Myau's eyes slowly shut and his entire body became limp. Nei hovered over him, arms spread wide, giving an uneasy impression of godliness over everybody present. An inner glow inside of the Numan became more pronounced and soon enveloped her in a dazzling halo. The Musk Cat's body shrunk to its original size, leaving only a small impression of the magnificent creature Myau once was. The small Musk Cat body remained only for a few moments, then slowly faded away into nothingness, as did Nei's mysterious inner glow. Left in the snow was three oblique spheroidal objects which glowed with magical power.

"Amazing!" Gryz commented. Two thousand years in Myau's gut and the nuts of the Laerma tree were never digested."

"Is what you said true?" Rune questioned Nei. "What will become of Myau now?"

"Yes," said Nei, "everything I said was true. Myau is inside me now, inside Elsydeon. Already I can hear the cries of happiness as he is reunited with the Ancients. Do not despair, Rune. He is also in here," the Numan placed her hand over his heart, "where you will keep alive even after his passing."

Rune nodded; he understood. During the last three years he had developed a close friendship with the Old Man and was especially disheartened to see his passing. Kyra seemed a bit overwhelmed, as did the rest of Rune's friends. The great Myau, a hero spoken about in reverence, died before their eyes and they were at a loss for words. Chaz went over and placed a comforting hand on Rune's shoulder as he bent down to pick up Myau's final gift.

"I don't know what kind of use we will have for these nuts," the Reverent Fifth began, "but I promise you I will protect them with my life, and when we are done with our journey, I will return them to your people. Thank you, Myau. May you rest in peace."

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