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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-Three

After a long flight of over four hours, the Landale finally pulled into the bay of the spaceport near Kadary. Chaz, Rune, Nei and the others prepared for the short trek to Kadary and from there to Aiedo. The Hunter was glad to be on his own planet, but a the same time he was sad, sad that he had returned without his beloved Rika.

Space flight always took its toll on those who chose to travel that way. Everyone but Wren and Demi were space-lagged, or so they called it, and moved around slowly. Backs and necks were sore and after being in space for a few hours, one tended to feel heavy and fat like lead weights were attached to body parts. The remained at the spaceport for about an hour to let their bodies readjust to Motavia's gravity, then moved on.

Chaz and Gryz led their party past Kadary, bypassing the town completely, and directly into the caves. A brisk walk and half an hour later, they emerged on the other side. Off in the distance Chaz could already see Aiedo, the jewel of the desert, shimmering in the mid-morning heat. Many a time he had eagerly returned to this city to a warm welcome from his wife. Now, he would be returning to an empty home and his eagerness dwindled. Kyra urged him on and reluctantly he proceeded.

The Hunter walked through Aiedo's gates and discovered that nothing much changed. A few people walked around, perhaps just getting off of work, heading for their homes to escape the day's heat. One woman walked past and recognized Chaz, but seemed puzzled at why Rika was not with him. She saw Nei but knew that she was not Rika because the Hunter's wife would have been at his side, not near the back of the group. She nodded politely and continued without a word. Basically everyone in town knew him and furthermore they respected him. They knew that Chaz was happily married and were rarely seen outside of each other's company. The Hunter could feel their stares. No one would ever openly ask him why Rika was not with him and why he was with this person who looked like her, but he could hear them as if they had been asked.

Fearing their stares, Chaz quickly led his friends to the northwest corner of the city where his home was located. Very rarely did anyone in Aiedo steal from each other so with exception of the businesses, homes went without locks on their doors. The Hunter opened his home's door and invited his friends in. Taking a few glances around at his home town, he noticed a few stray looks from his neighbors' windows. He smiled at them while trying to make it look like everything was all right even though he knew it was not. A few of them smiled back and went on with their business. There was one house, however, off in the distance where the eyes of three young children looked out. Despite their distance from each other, he could see them and thought he could hear a cry of a child. Feeling a bit uneasy and a little choked up, Chaz quickly went inside and closed the door behind him.

* * * * *

Three children huddled close together near their bedroom window. One wept silently. They were supposed to be asleep by now, but were awakened by familiar voices. Pulling themselves away from the window, they sat down on the floor and looked at each other with puzzled glances. "Where is Rika?" Bjorn asked.

"I don't knew," Jan cried, "but Chaz looked so sad!"

"How do you know?" Fenlye questioned. "He's to far away for you to see that!"

"Believe me, I know!" The Nance children continued to talk but realized that they were being too loud. Adjusting their volumes, they tried to figure out what may be going on.

"You two are too young to remember," Fenlye said, "but I remember some of those people that are with Chaz. They came here three years ago about the time when everyone in Mile died."

"I was not too young to remember!" Jan protested. "I remember that one woman with blue hair. She looks so nice."

"Me, too!" Bjorn added.

"Yea, right," Fenlye disagreed, "you were only two years old. How could you remember?" The youngest Nance was hurt by his older brother's comment, but he was young and did not take it to heart. "We have to find out what's going on. If Chaz is in company with those other people again, it can't be good."

"Chaz and Gryz saved our lives before," said Jan. "We have to find a way to help them with whatever they're going through now. First, I'd like to find out what happened to Rika. There has to be a reason why she's not with them. And who is that other woman who looks like her but isn't? There's something really weird going on."

"Maybe Rika went to work," Bjorn offered.

"No," the oldest Nance disagreed, "Jan's right. I've never seen them away from each other." He scooted on his behind to where his bed was and reached underneath it. Jan and Bjorn heard something metal slide out. "We're going to help Chaz any way we can," Fenlye announced, bringing his titanium short sword up above his head.

"Put that away!" Jan was shocked by her older brother's gall. "I want to help, too, but we can't get in their way like that!"

"I can hold my own!"

"Yea, like you did with those sandworms."

"Shut up! Chaz taught me his Crosscut Skill and I'll prove that I can use it when we help them!"

"I've seen him practicing," the youngest Nance supported his brother. Fenlye stood tall with pride. "He looks like he's drowning." Bjorn's older brother went livid and almost swung his sword at him, but then saw Jan giggling and started giggling with her.

"Come on," he said, wiping the tears from his eyes, "let's go to sleep. I'll wake you up in about four hours and we'll all sneak out and pay Chaz a visit. Who knows, maybe he'll have a use for us."

"I heard mom and dad talking about something called a Vahal Fort," Jan said. "Dad was telling mom that he talked to someone from Zema that said there was some strange humming sound coming from across the water from them during the day."

"Good! We can tell Chaz! He'll know what it means!" Jan seemed a little distressed at her brother's enthusiasm. She knew that he idolized the Hunter and would do anything to gain his favor, even if it meant putting his life, and sometimes hers and Bjorn's, in danger. She did not want to look weak in her brother's eyes so she would go along with them. They always took Bjorn with them because they did not want him to rat on them.

But the middle Nance was not without talent, and she would show her older brother that. She patted her bed where underneath it she hid a pouch of what she affectionately referred to as "Wish Dust." Rika had given it to her a few months ago when she was feeling sad. In all reality, it was probably just normal dust and Jan realized that, but in her heart she knew that if she believed hard enough, it could become just that. Rika would never lie to her.

Satisfied with their plan, the Nance children went to bed content.

* * * * *

Everything was silent within Chaz Ashley's home. Everyone was asleep, either on furniture or on the floor. Everyone, that was, except the host of the house. Chaz was restlessly tossing and turning on his bed, his dreams filled with disturbing images. They were not all images of horror or suffering, though. Some of the images were of Rika, sometimes working outside their home, sometimes working inside. He thought about how useless be became in the past few months, how Rika alone had supported him through all the tough times. He saw himself struggling, fighting to make himself useful, but his mental condition held him back. Their neighbors looked upon him with kindness and understanding, but also with pity, and Chaz resented every moment of it.

The Hunter began to weep even though he had no idea why. In his dream world he was suddenly thrust into his past where, as a child, he wept at the loss of his parents. "You shall overcome," a voice said to him. Then, out of nowhere, Alys was standing next to him. His world spun around and suddenly he was standing above her grave, weeping. "You shall overcome," another voice said to him. Then, just like before, another person was standing next to him, but this time it was Rika.

The Hunter's world spun around again, this time more rapidly, more violently. He saw himself holding Rika in his arms, limp, growing cold. He remembered how chill her skin felt. Even though blood still flowed through her veins, she felt like ice compared to how he remembered she felt when they last embraced. This time it was not his mind and heart that wept.

This time it was his soul.

Dreams are bits and pieces of the truth, often glued together like a conglomerate rock to tell a story of how it was formed. Chaz's dream was no different. His felt like his wife just slipped though his fingers. It just so happened that his beautiful wife who he tried to hang onto so tenaciously turned to sand and slipped through his fingers. He grasped at it frantically, desperately, trying to keep just a part of her even if it just was a single grain. "You shall overcome," came several voices and suddenly he was surrounded by his friends, all comforting, all understanding. Nei stood nearest to him, her eyes filled with compassion. The Hunter drew upon their strength and remembered how Rune's magic worked on him.

He was right, he thought. I can get through this and they will be here to help me. My beloved Rika is gone but I am not. The friends I love so much are here and they need me now more than ever. I cannot disappoint them.

Chaz's dreams were less disturbed then although they were not completely silenced. If he had been awake he would have seen a lone figure standing in the hallway watching him attentively. Nei could not sleep either, did not really require sleep. Under normal circumstances, she would have went to him and comforted him, but she knew better not to do that. She could have invaded his dreams and made them easier for him to handle because that was within the limits of her powers. Instead, she decided to give another the chance to comfort him.

Moving silently as she usually did, Nei approached Kyra who was asleep on the floor near Chaz's bedroom. She gently shook her and the Esper Leader awakened immediately. "Nei," Kyra spoke sleepily, "is something wrong?" Nei put her finger to her lips and indicating that silence was required.

Helping her friend to her feet, she led her to stand just outside Chaz's room. "His dreams are disturbed," she told her. "I thought maybe you should lay with him. Who knows -- maybe having someone next to him will ease his nightmares."

Kyra rubbed her eyes and nodded. "Thank you, Nei," she said. "I will see what I can do."

The Esper Leader timidly entered Chaz's room and carefully crawled into his bed and lay next to him. He immediately became restless and started to thrash about. "Rika!" he cried out, "Rika, please come back!" Kyra rolled over against his back and put her arms around him.

"Shh," she hushed, "your big sister is here. Rest, Chaz. Your dreams shall bother you no more tonight." Kyra began mumbling the words of an Esper spell beneath her breath and soon she began to glow in a violet haze. The magic surrounded her, enveloped Chaz, and his cries and struggles lessened.

The Esper Leader held on to him tightly, not wanting him to wake up, not wanting him to feel alone. Her spell would temporarily suppress his dreams and put him in a deep sleep which only she could end. "I don't quite yet understand what the Darkness has done to you," she said, knowing that he could hear her even in his state of unconsciousness, "but I will be here for you as long as you need me." Kyra gently kissed him on his head and her tears ran into his hair. "Chaz, I just wanted you to know that sometimes I feel like you are the closest thing I have to family, that is, you and Rika and the rest of our friends. I may be with my people, the Espers, but sometimes I feel so alone. It's like I'm a stranger among my people. If I had a choice, I would leave them and come live here in Aiedo with you and Rika, but that's not possible now. I don't think it was ever possible," she added solemnly.

"But don't you worry, little brother, you have us and you have me. You have Nei now, too. We talked for awhile on the trip over here and I truly believe that she'll be an asset to us. I know you loved Rika; I did, too. Try not to push Nei away because they resemble each other, but don't get too close to her either. I think that maybe her resemblance will confuse you and you'll eventually see her as Rika and not Nei. That wouldn't be fair to you, Rika, or her. Think about what I've said, Chaz, and when you wake up this evening you will have done so."

Kyra closed her eyes but did not fall asleep immediately. It was a shame that she felt that she could not talk to Chaz while he was awake. She had this nagging little problem called pride that got in her way all too much. It was the same pride that kept her from expressing her true feelings toward Balor before he died. He passed on without ever knowing. No, the Esper Leader thought, I will not let that happen ever again. We've already lost Rika. There's no telling who or how many others we'll lose. I will make sure that all of them know that I love them and that my life was empty before they came into it.

Satisfied, the Esper Leader kissed Chaz's head again and went to sleep.

* * * * *

The afternoon was getting later and everywhere there were signs that in a few hours Aiedo would come to life. Working silently and quickly, the three Nance children snuck about, trying their best to not look suspicious. In all actuality their destination was only a few hundred feet away, but it was hot and every foot would have easily equaled a mile. So far, so good, Fenlye thought. If we keep this up, we'll be there in no time at all.

"What do we do when we get there?" Jan asked.

Fenlye stopped in his tracks. He thought he had planned everything out perfectly, but evidently there was one aspect he missed. "I guess we just knock on the door," he replied nonchalantly.

"Oh, and what are most people doing this time of day? Duh! They're sleeping! Even Bjorn could have figured that out!"

"Fenlye," Bjorn said while tugging on his older brother's shirt, "most people are sleeping this time of day."

"Shut up, Bjorn!" the oldest Nance fumed. "Who asked you!"

Still, Fenlye thought, they did have a point. What made him think that Chaz and his guests would be up at this time of day? This time of day was when only the early risers were up getting ready for work. Everybody learned to sleep during the day to pass the heat. Most business was conducted under darkness of night when it was more comfortable to move about. Not only did Fenlye risk getting himself and his siblings into trouble, he risked all of them getting heat stroke.

Fenlye, Jan, and Bjorn reached Chaz's house fairly quickly and without incident. A strange feeling came over them like icy fingers grasped the nape of their necks. They were frightened at first because they never felt such a coldness during the day. Upon further investigation, they discovered that the coldness itself was coming from Chaz's house.

Fenlye crept up to a window and peered inside, his eyes immediately focusing on something inside. His siblings, curious about what he was beholding, crept up beside him and had a look for themselves.

Inside Chaz's home was a narrow column of the purest, bluest light any of them had ever seen before in their lives. On the floor lay a man with short brown hair who held his hand aloft and was apparently the source of the coolness. The Nance children were surprised that he would display such a power in the company of so many. Usually those who possessed some sort of power coveted it and rarely used it in public. Voices came from another room and soon a man with blue hair and a white cape walked out with a small female android in his company. "Are these Chaz's friends?" Jan questioned in a whisper. A few moments later, another android emerged from the room and the three children gasped. This AI was they largest they had ever seen and they ducked down immediately. "Did you see that!" Jan breathed. Wide-eyed and frightened, Bjorn and Fenlye nodded.

The individuals within Chaz's house began conversing, much to Fenlye's distress. He could make out one of them saying that there was some movement outside. The android probably saw them! Evidently, Jan heard exactly the same thing her brother did because she looked like she was about to take of running. "I'm beginning to think this was a bad idea," Jan whispered to her brothers.

"So do I," Fenlye conceded.

"Hi, kids," came a voice from above them. Bjorn began to scream but Jan was quick and put her hand over his mouth and silenced him. Looking up, the middle Nance saw a large Motavian face looming above them. She and Fenlye jumped to their feet and turned to face him while at the same time backing away slowly.

"Oh, um --" Fenlye stuttered, "hiya, Gryz. Fancy meeting you here."

"Really now?" Gryz's beaky mouth parted in what was interpreted as a smile and was accompanied by a chuckle. "I was about to say the exact same thing to you!"

"Uh, sorry we can't stay and chat, but we really have to get going. Isn't that right?" His question was directed at the two frightened individuals behind him who nodded emphatically.

"Nonsense!" was Gryz's simple response. "Come inside for a little while until it cools down outside. It's way too hot for you kids to be out walking about. Don't worry, my friends don't bite." The big Motavian disappeared for a second, reappearing at the door. "Come on! Hurry up before you get heat stroke!"

The Nance children glanced at one another briefly, then timidly walked over to Gryz where he hastily huddled them inside. For and instant they felt like all eyes were on them and then realized that they were. "These are the Nance children," the Motavian announced, "Fenlye, Jan, and Bjorn." Bjorn immediately fixated on a green-skinned person with a big head sitting on the floor

"What are you?" he asked without tact. Raja laughed.

"Forgive him, sir," Fenlye interjected, "sometimes he doesn't know how to keep his mouth shut."

"Oh, I don't mind," the Archbishop said. He stood up and walked over to the youngest Nance who was surprised by his height. Raja kneeled next to him and shook his tiny hand. "I'm Raja. Pleased to meet you. To answer your question, young one, I am an Archbishop from Dezoris."

"Dijorus?" Bjorn tried to say the big word.

"No, no, no!" Raja chuckled. "De`- zor - is," he sounded it out for him. "It's the other planet in the Algo system."

"Cool!" Fenlye said excitedly. "You're from another planet! What's it like?"

"Where I come from it's very, very cold. There's snow and ice all the time and it never melts."

"Snow? What's that?"

"Well, without going into any major details, let's just say that it's really cold there."

"It's cold in here."

"Cold? Not even! This heat is a little too much for me so my friend Hahn over there was kind enough to give us some air conditioning."

"Hi, kids," Hahn said, acknowledging their presence.

"These are our other friends, Rune --"

"Pleased to meet you," the Reverent Fifth said.

"-- and Wren and Demi, who are our resident AI's." Both nodded at the kids, Demi adding a friendly wave. Some movement and sounds drew everyone's attention to the hallway. They heard shuffling and a soothing voice, then footsteps. Three figures emerged, one male, two female. Chaz rubbed his eyes against the bright light of day and was still groggy from his magically induced sleep.

"What's going on out here?" he asked sleepily.

"Just some guests," answered Gryz. The Hunter had trouble focusing his eyes on the three Nance children, but recognized them almost immediately.

"Fenlye? What are you doing here?"

"They're visiting," Raja asserted after the oldest Nance could not answer for himself. "Kids, these are our other two friends, Kyra and Nei."

"Where's Rika?" Bjorn questioned. Again, the youngest Nance displayed his uncanny ability to ask the very same question his older siblings had, but lacked the tact that they would have used. Everyone present, including Fenlye and Jan, cringed, taking a defensive stance like they might do in the presence of a bomb. Jan became flustered and turned red in embarrassment while Fenlye stared down at his feet. Bjorn, on the other hand, held Chaz's gaze, fully expecting some kind of answer.

But the Hunter did not explode like everyone expected him to, deciding to try to explain to a five year-old child that his wife was dead. "You don't have to do this," said a voice, not out loud, but inside his head. "I can explain to him if you want me to." Chaz turned his head and looked at Kyra and she smiled fondly. Evidently, she was using her Esper powers to communicate with him telepathically.

"No," he responded, "I need to do this. It's all a part of my therapy and will help me recover from this tragedy." Kyra nodded and indicated that she understood.

"Bjorn," Chaz spoke in a tone of voice no one had ever heard him speak in, "Rika is gone."

"Where did she go?" the youngest Nance asked with the innocence that only a child could display.

"You mean she's --" Jan began, but ended up choking on her words. She buried her face in her hands and started weeping. Fenlye tried to console his sister but was overcome by his emotions as well.

Bjorn held his ground, however, not fully understanding the Hunter's words like his siblings did. Chaz looked him in the eyes and saw things that only could be seen in a child's eyes. There was blissful ignorance for the things he did not yet understand, and he envied the young Nance for that. There was a lack of malice and deceit, traits that some adults excelled at. Trust and non-bias was there as well and would stay as long as he never knew betrayal.

What stuck out the most and tore at Chaz's heart was the innocence of this child, a child that he once saved. His thoughts went to his own child, stolen from her mother's womb even before she was to be born. That child was innocent, too, and it never had the chance to gain knowledge, to question everything and look at the world with indiscriminate eyes. The Hunter suddenly became very sad and almost lost the desire to try and explain death to someone who never experienced it before. He fought that urge, though because he knew he had to continue on.

Chaz shook his head and sighed, walking over to a large cushioned chair and sitting down. No one spoke; only Jan and Fenlye's muffled sobs were heard. Kyra, feeling sorry the grieving children, went and put her arms around them. She looked to Chaz to see if he needed her assistance, but he gave no sign.

"Bjorn," he finally said, "come sit here -- on my lap."

The youngest Nance playfully ran up to Chaz where he picked him up and sat him down on his knee. "Has anybody ever explained to you what happens when someone gets really old or if he or she has a really bad accident?"

"Papa says that they go to sleep," Bjorn answered, proud that he was so well-informed.

"Yeah, I guess you can look at it that way." Chaz thought back to the time when he was very young and his parents died. There was no one to tell him such innocent lies like the ones Bjorn's parents told him. He would eventually know the truth, but for now he was too young to be exposed to the truth. Alys was extremely blunt about his parents' death, so he knew what death was at an early age.

"So when is Rika gonna be back?" Bjorn asked.

"Bjorn," Chaz began, half speaking, half sobbing, "Rika had a really, really bad accident." Bjorn's face became long and sorrowful, driving ten inch metal stakes into his heart.

"Rika's gone to sleep, hasn't she?" Had Chaz not learned self-control, he would have been content at throwing this child off of his body and running through Aiedo's streets screaming in grief; however, this child, his brother and sister, were becoming like family to him, and although he was not old enough to think of them as surrogate children, he felt protective of them like an older brother might. Kyra still consoled Fenlye and Bjorn, their combined grief almost too much for her to bear. The Hunter looked to her in an obvious loss for words, but she could not leave her charges, and tears filled her eyes as well. Like an angel from the heavens, Nei was there for her, placing a reassuring hand on the Esper Leader's shoulder, giving her strength.

"Who's that?" inquired Bjorn.

"Well, Bjorn, that's -- uh --"

"I'm Rika's sister," said Nei, coming to the Hunter's rescue.

"But you look so much like her," the youngest Nance observed.

"We're twins."

Bjorn nodded and understood to the best of his ability. He turned to face Chaz again who looked miserable. "You won't forget Rika, will you?" he asked.

"No," the Hunter assured, "of course not. I love Rika. I could never forget her."

"Will she ever wake up?"

"No, I'm afraid not. But someday, I will go to sleep and we'll be together again." That was considering they could free Rika's soul from the Darkness' chill grasp. It would be so easy to explain that to someone who was older, but he was forced to simplify his explanation into words that a five year-old could understand.

The littlest Nance's face became long again. He began shuffling his body closer to Chaz who was unsure of what he was going to do. Reaching up, Bjorn put his arms around the Hunter's neck and buried his face in his chest. "I miss Rika."

Chaz put his arm around Bjorn's tiny body and held him close. His tears streamed down his face and onto the youngest Nance's back. Fenlye looked up and wiped the tears from his eyes. There he saw Chaz and his little brother locked in an embrace. Chaz, his hero, the person who he idolized and admired -- was crying. The Hunter was the epitome of his profession -- strong, brave, quick, ready to react at a moment's notice. His views of his idol immortalized him, made him untouchable. Now, there he was crying with his little brother. Fenlye was relieved -- Chaz was mortal after all.

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