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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-Four

Half an hour passed and everyone managed to collect his emotions and put them aside for the time being. Chaz brought out some glasses of water and shared them with his guests who accepted them graciously. The Hunter was still trying to figure out why his youngest guests went through so much trouble to reach him. He knew how Karl and Lily kept them on a tight leash, especially after their latest adventure nearly got them killed. These kids must be especially sneaky, he thought, a trait that could get them in a lot of trouble, but may eventually benefit from.

The Hunter was still feeling a bit embarrassed at his show of emotion in front of the kids. He did not care about showing them in front of his friends, but his macho pride took over when it was anyone else. He knew that Fenlye idolized him, which was very obvious despite how hard he tried to keep it a secret. Seeing him cry with his younger brother of all people must have been especially hard on him. Deep down inside he hoped that Fenlye's opinion of him did not change.

Not that it mattered much because he did not like the idea of being an idol anyway. There was much about him to idolize, he admitted as much, but there was an awful lot about him that should not be idolized. Being raised in the streets with another urchin just like himself was difficult and they had to do some terrible things just to survive. He and Alys used to steal, forage through garbage for meals, and even beg for water. One time, as much as he was loathe to admit it, they assaulted a woman in an alley for her food and meseta. Although they did not kill her, they might have done her better by doing so. Her body was found later that day propped up against a building where they left her. Her flesh had nearly completely fused with the pavement; consequently, she died of heat exposure.

Yes, there was much in the Hunter's life that the was not proud of. At times, he did not even see what he and his friends did as heroic. They were predestined to do what they did and be who they were. LaRoof itself told them as much. Heros were those that act on impulse, who were at the right place at the right time. In Chaz's eyes, they were nothing more than pawns in a cosmic game of good versus evil. Fenlye and his siblings were lucky -- their lives were not strewn out all over an entire solar system. He did not, however, regret what they were able to do and if he would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, Chaz began to worry about the three Nance children. They were not very talkative like they usually were. Jan, especially, seemed the most withdrawn, barely lifting her head to look at anyone. If anything tipped Karl and Lily off to their little deceit it would be their sudden change in attitude. How could the children possibly explain to their parents how they came across such knowledge when no one else in Aiedo knew. He would have to do something to change her disposition before they went home. Her parents probably would not be mad at him since they adored him, but the wrath of parents was something to be reckoned with.

Jan chose to sit near Wren for some odd reason. She was fascinated because she never saw and AI before and never did she expect to see one so large. Chaz thought that maybe she felt safe next to him, safe and protected. Wren did not speak to her, but he did not seem to mind her presence. The big android was not used to dealing with children; in fact, the Nance children were probably the first Palman children he ever met.

Demi, on the other hand, was more experienced with them and knew how to act to not upset them. She was worried that Wren might say or do something to upset her. He was doing pretty well on his own, not moving away when Jan inched closer to him. She moved three times in the past half hour. A couple more moves and she would practically be on his lap. If the truth needed to be known, Demi thought it was kind of cute.

Bjorn latched on to Raja after his initial attachment to Chaz. The youngest Nance's interest in the Dezorian Archbishop returned and he bombarded him with questions. Raja was pleased that someone was so eager to have conversation with him. These Palman children are so talkative, he thought. They are such pleasant conversationalists. It was like Bjorn could not get enough of his stories and he enjoyed telling them. He even brought up some stories he had not told in ages. Everyone else heard them already and groaned at the thought of having to hear them for a second time, but Bjorn did not mind. The smallest Nance was endearing to the Archbishop.

After spending a short while away from his hero, Fenlye started warming up to him again. The Hunter was initially worried that he did something to damage the oldest Nance's opinion of him, but when he stood up and sat down next to him, all doubt dissolved away. Not that Chaz cared about a ten year-old's opinion -- he was just relieved that Fenlye's hero was still his hero. He remembered what it was like to idolize another person, wanting to be exactly like him. For a long time Alys was his idol. It was not until she told him that she thought of him as an equal and a partner that he lost his hero, but he had achieved his goal by then. Alys was his friend and his equal; his ambition in life was fulfilled.

Now there was Fenlye who was too young to have any real ambitions, but old enough to start thinking about them. He was easily influenced by those around him, susceptible to be easily motivated by anything he took interest in. The oldest Nance was different, though, and Chaz took notice of that. He had not seen anyone take an interest in the Hunter's profession since he was a child. If the Hunter's Guild still existed he would have dared to say that it had a bright prospect in Fenlye. That was considering he could convince his parents to let him follow that dream, however. Even back when the Hunters' numbers were great, it was not the choice profession parents had for their children.

Jan sat near Wren lost in thought. She thought of why they were there, the real reason. Sure, they made up a story to tell Chaz, but the real reason was because they wanted to find out what happened to Rika and why Chaz was once again in company with these people. When last they travelled together, towns burned, crops perished, and people died. Now that the truth was revealed and Jan was so stunned by it, she suddenly forgot what they were going to tell Chaz. What was it? she thought.


"What did you say, child?" Wren questioned, standing in the process.

"Oh," Jan said, startled at his reaction, "I was just thinking of the excuse we were going to tell you for our visit before everything kind of got out of hand."

"Jan," Demi jumped in, "where did you hear that word?"

"Well, I -- uh, I me we --"

"We heard it from our father," Fenlye explained, taking the attention away from Jan who was not used to so much scrutiny. "He was talking to some guy from Zema who said that there was some kind of activity coming from across the water. We didn't hear him say much more than that, just the word 'Vahal.'" Demi looked to her master for some kind of response, but did not get one.

"Wren?" she inquired. "Do you think that Daughter has been reactivated somehow?"

"No," Wren simply stated. Demi knew that he wanted to say more, but felt inclined not to talk about the instrument of destruction that Daughter became before its deactivation.

"Who's Daughter?" asked Jan.

"Well," Demi spoke again, "imagine you lived over a thousand years ago . . . ."

The android launched into a story to tell the kids how Daughter came to be. They listened intently to her as she told them of happenings that they would never hear in school, a history lesson from someone who had lived long enough to be a part of history. Demi told them of Mother Brain, how she made all of Motavia's inhabitants weak and lethargic. Things started going awry, however. The once great lake that surrounded Paseo had gone dry, the weather was changing dramatically, and Biosystems was producing aberrant creatures. "As it turned out," Demi explained, "Mother Brain was the cause of everything that was going wrong on Motavia, but she was not the only one to blame. A group of individuals who built Mother Brain was the ultimate cause. Mother Brain was destroyed by Rolf and his friends, but apparently the ones who built her had already began constructing another, perhaps a successor. Three years ago, Daughter was somehow reactivated, perhaps by environmental disturbances, perhaps by an outside influence. She started sending out drones to destroy any AI that was not registered though her. Well, it had been a thousand years since she was fully functional. Consequently, we had to travel to the Vahal fort and deactivate her."

"So you think that she's been reactivated again?" Jan questioned.

"I don't know, Jan. I guess we'd have to go there and find out."

"Take the hydrofoil," Chaz announced, "and whoever wants to go." Kyra, Gryz, and Nei volunteered their services. Jan stood up and confronted the Hunter.

"Chaz, can I go, too?" she asked, excitement bubbling insider her.

"Uhh," Chaz started, "I don't think so. You're already going to get in enough trouble for just being here this time of day. If your parents found out that I let you go somewhere that's almost a hundred miles away to a dangerous place, they'd have my head."

"Oh, come on," Jan begged, "pleeeeeeeease?"

"Wren, what do you think?"

"There is a ninety-eight point seven percent chance that we will find nothing there," Wren announced. "We will go and if there is activity, we will return and retrieve the rest of you. I see no reason why she should not be able to accompany us."

"Then I leave her to your care. Just be careful."

"Yay!" Jan shrieked.

Chaz was still a little concerned about send Jan with his friends, however. Even though he trusted them implicitly and Wren was rarely wrong with his calculations when he threw out numbers, there was also the nagging fact that Darkness did not follow percentiles. There was still three and a half hours before nightfall. The hydrofoil was capable of travelling at speeds well in excess of a hundred miles an hour. If they did not encounter any awkward circumstances, then they should be able to have her back in time.

This might turn out to be a good thing, Chaz thought. I was afraid to send her back in her condition and now she could go back more excited then ever. Give them a few supplies, talk a bit about danger, and she has the prospect for the most exciting adventure of her life. I know that my friends will watch out for her well-being and I'm confident that they will bring her back in one piece.

* * * * *

Wren, Demi, Gryz, Nei, Kyra, and Jan made their way to the spaceport where the hydrofoil was stowed. The two androids inspected all of is systems to make sure they were in working order. Jan watched everyone with an intense interest, never before witness to what could be history in the making. On their way there, Kyra explained to her the circumstances of their last meeting, a story which gripped the middle Nance like death itself, and the circumstances leading to their current situation. She learned much about history in school, but that was history long past. What the Esper Leader told her was something that would not be written about for many, many years to come.

Wars between races, Dark Force, the Profound Darkness -- all were subjects she could learn to like. Not that she would ever come to worship the Darkness, it was just that she could probably study it in school and excel at it. Her ambition was to go to Motavia Academy and become a scholar. Sure, all of this excitement was good for her, but it was probably not going to be her choice of careers. She boarded the hydrofoil with her companions and they were off.

As young as she was, Jan had an incredibly analytical mind for someone who was a mere eight years of age. She thought maybe she could be of some use to her new friends by figuring things out for them. So far, she heard about Wren and Demi's plight on their satellite and how they had to flee it, Raja and Kyra's battle with a resurrected sorcerer, and about the events leading up to Rika's death. Although she was loathe to talk about it, Jan coaxed her into telling her about Chaz's unborn child, how Lian stole her from the Numan's body. Oh, Jan thought, Chaz's sorrow was more deeply-rooted than she ever thought it could be.

So now there was this problem of a missing child. It was obvious to her that Lian would not take a child and deliver it to the Darkness without a specific plot in mind. What could it possibly want with Chaz's child? Was it going to hold her for ransom and demand an unconditional surrender? No, that would be too easy and such a being was beyond any materialistic needs like meseta or food. There was an obvious reason why it did what it did. She just had to figure that out.

Jan tried to put these questions out of her minds, but they ate at her insides like maggots on a rotting carcass. Eww, she thought, I can't believe I had that thought.

But they ate at her nonetheless, and she could do nothing to make them go away. Perhaps if she was older or if she had more experience in life she could do more, help more. It was obvious that this close-knit group of friends were willing to sacrifice their own lives so that countless millions of others could go on living theirs. The middle Nance felt so helpless when she saw the struggle within their eyes. She was but one person, and a child at that. Jan could never hope to aid them in their physical struggles, but maybe she could help them in another way. She felt the pouch attached to her belt, assured by its presence. If the right time arose, she would be able to help them any way she could.

As promised, the hydrofoil delivered all six of its passengers to the Vahal fort in under an hour. The Vahal fort was an extremely large, multi-leveled complex that used to be infested with hundreds of combat drones and guards. When the Silver Soldiers showed up mysteriously one day in Zema, it attacked Wren once it sensed his presence, but the android and his companions were able to destroy them before any irreversible damage was caused.

Now they were back at a places that gave both Demi and Wren the proverbial surges. The Vahal fort was a place where dysfunctional AI's were sent, where androids from wars long past resided, where the Motavian government sent their artificial hunters and sentries. One would not find an android medic there or something similar. Some of the AI's there were the same ones the government sent out to hunt down Rolf and his friends after they were blamed for shutting down Climatrol and nearly flooding Paseo.

Wren parked the hydrofoil near the Vahal fort's entrance and they disembarked. All the fort was now was essentially a warehouse, but a thousand years ago it was called Shure. When Rolf and Nei learned that there were terrorist attacks on Arima, the legendary Hunter Rudo's home town, they employed his help to end the attacks. They journeyed to Shure, but by the time they got there the terrorists had fled the lingering biohazard.

It was now a warehouse of sorts existed, a dumping ground for androids and warbots that were no longer needed. Wren and Demi were sure that the Vahal fort was the source of the humming noise. It was hard to hear over the hydrofoil's engine roar, so they could not detect anything earlier. Wren listened intently, his auditory sensors reaching out into the fort to find a source. "The sound comes from deep within this place," the big android announced. "I see no reason to travel deep within when there are still many dangerous AI's lurking about. We will find the nearest access panel, patch into the mainframe , and shut down whatever has reactivated. We will do this as quickly as possible and hopefully without incident." He looked to each member of his group and made sure they understood. "Come on, let us enter."

Wren took the lead as he forced open the double doors and left them wide open. Gryz hurried Jan inside who was touched by a bit of timidity at first, but overcame it. Her eyes opened wide when she saw the great metal hallways illuminated by circuitry and panel lights. Metal footsteps echoed throughout this place, sounds of androids busy at doing who knows what. She felt kind of creepy because the sounds of life reverberated everywhere when there was actually nothing living. From where she stood, she could look down and see several floors below. Jan counted three, but could not see any more beyond that. She wanted to explore more of this multi-leveled structure, but doubted that it would be possible.

Jan found a shiny panel in which she could see her own reflection. Her shoulder length blonde hair was a little disheveled from her ride, but none-the-worse-for-wear. A gleaming of light reflected off of the panel gave her aqua blue eyes a stunning appearance. She was lost in the panel's shining beauty when it suddenly opened up and a long metal arm reached out at her. Gryz was there in a fraction of a second, catching it before it planted its metal fingers in her forehead. Jan gasped and would have fell on her butt if Wren did not catch her. "Stay close," he told her, "even the most innocent looking things can house a hidden danger as you found out. Do not worry -- we will make sure nothing happens to you."

Jan was comforted by his words even though they did not take the edge of danger and excitement from their quest. Under her own will she followed him, being careful not to put herself in any unnecessary danger. Everything she saw opened her eyes wider, made her curiosity burn with an intense fire. If she was with anyone else, she would have been running rampant throughout the place looking, studying, learning. The middle Nance was almost sorry she went with them because to her, preventing such a young mind from broadening her knowledge was a crime in itself. Oh, well, she thought, this place will be standing for a long time so I'll be able to explore it later. Maybe Fenlye and Bjorn can come with me then.

Wren and his group walked only for a few minutes when they heard a crash come from behind them. They quickly ran back to the entrance and found the door closed and seemingly impassive. The big android tried to force the double doors apart again, but could not. "Demi," he called to his counterpart, "I require your assistance." Demi and her master managed to force their fingers between the doors and pull in opposite directions, but they still could not budge them. Wren released his grip and lowered his shoulder, ramming his body into them but causing no damage.

"Wr -- Wren?" Jan spoke timidly.

"Do not worry, Jan," he told her, "we will proceed into the Vahal fort and access the mainframe just as planned. Once we are there, we should be able to open these doors again."

Deja vu set in as Wren and his companions walked down the same corridor they did just a few minutes before. Travelling at a brisk pace, they were making good time, but Jan's shorter stature forced her to do double-time and she was tiring quickly. Kyra saw her dilemma and wondered how much longer she could keep up. "I think we should take a minute to rest," the Esper Leader announced.

"Kyra," Wren said as he turned to look back at her, "if we are expecting to make it back on time --" the big android stopped in mid-sentence when he saw Jan huffing and puffing, fighting to catch her breath, "that is, I think we should stop. We must not stay too long. The AI's in this place have surely been alerted to our presence."

"You mean we're being hunted?" Wren chose not to respond to the obvious and did not want to panic the youngest member of their party. His silence made her even more nervous, however.

"Wren," Jan asked, "is Kyra right? Are we being hunted?"

Wren faced Jan and dropped to one knee, bringing himself almost to her eye level. He had never before looked into a child's eyes, did not understand their innocence. In fact, he did not previously believe that any Palman, whether young or old, could be completely free of guile. Jan changed his opinion, though. When he looked into her eyes he saw for the first time why Palman parents considered their children so precious. He saw her helplessness, saw how she looked upon him for support and protection, and it endeared her to him.

Endearment -- a Palman emotion that Wren considered himself fortunate enough to not have experienced. Because of his thought processes, he thought of emotions as a sign of weakness, unfit for a true warrior. "Our emotions give us power," Rika once told him. "If we are emotionally attached to something, we fight harder to protect it, going as far as to put our own lives on the line. A mother bird will sometimes fake an injury to lead a predator away from its young. Similarly, parents of another creature will fight against impossible odds to drive a threat away from their young." The Numan tried to explain to him what it was like to feel these kind of emotions, but he could not understand. Now, only after she died, he did.

Wren extended his massive hand to Jan and she took it. Kyra stayed behind with them while they worked out their questions, but Gryz, Nei, and Demi deemed it necessary to scout ahead and make sure their path was clear. They were nearly out of earshot when Kyra heard Demi's weapon fire followed by the familiar scraping of claws scraping against metal. "What are those noises?" Jan asked.

"The sounds of battle," Kyra told her.

"But Nei, Gryz, and Demi --"

"Don't worry. They're more than capable of taking care of themselves."

"Nonetheless," Wren asserted, "we should get to them quickly in case they require our assistance."

Wren, Kyra, and Jan turned to join their friends, but before they could take more than a few steps, they found themselves surrounded by four massive weapons of destruction. Before them stood Broren 486, a bipedal android who stood at Wren's height and wielded the powerful plasma rifle. Hovering next to it was Jurafaduel, a cylinder-shaped AI which possessed debilitating weapons like the Stasis Beam and Burst Rockets.

Behind Wren and his companions hovered another droid, Goldine. With a solid Laconian claw and a Flare discharger, it was a formidable opponent. Sent to hunt down escaped prisoners, nothing could elude it for long for it was the fastest model of AI currently in function. Directly behind Wren, seeming to seek him out directly, stood the most dangerous AI ever built to serve the government -- Dominator. Unlike other androids, Dominator was programmed to think and learn. Next to Wren and Demi, it was probably the third most dangerous mechanism on the planet.

Jan frantically looked this way and that, desperately trying to determine which of these strange and dangerous machines posed the worst threat. Goldine moved and she nearly jumped out of her pants. Tears poured from her eyes and she found herself sandwiched between two bodies. Kyra took her Moon Slasher from its sheath and held it aloft, prepared to send it flying at a moment's notice. Wren kept a finger on the trigger on his weapon and clenched his other hand.

Broren attacked, its motion fluid and graceful. Wren moved to intercept it and Jan was left exposed. A child's scream filled the Vahal fort, a scream which told a story of unknown terror and profound loss. It echoed and reverberated, made every mechanism turn and take notice of what was happening within their fortress. The scream lasted for a few moments --

Then it stopped.

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