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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chaz and his remaining companions sat restless and alert. It had been nearly an hour since Wren took Jan and the others on a journey to investigate the Vahal fort and no one was worried about them except Fenlye. He paced back and forth in thought and was beginning to make Chaz nervous. Bjorn and Raja entertained each other in the extra bedroom -- one easy to amuse because he was young, the other because he was old. Rune took over the job of cooling Chaz's home, so Hahn curled up and went to sleep.

Chaz's home felt so cold to him, but it was not because of magic. It felt empty to him even though his friends filled almost every room. It was then that he realized that despite the fact that he had lived in this house for over six years, it would never feel the same again. Time eventually heals all wounds, but this one would take an inordinate amount of time to recover from. He hated dwelling on the subject so much but it occupied a good portion of his thoughts. As long as no one was invading his thoughts, he was free to think what he wanted to.

But his thoughts were not his alone, and as much as he would have liked to have thought that he was dealing with it well on his own, there was another who begged to differ. Through a discrete spell cast on him during an earlier circumstance, Rune was able to keep the Hunter's emotions at a livable level. When he started dwelling on them again, the rush of emotions hit him like a ton of lead bricks. The Reverent Fifth's power was strong, but against such an onslaught of emotions it paled in comparison. He felt guilty for not warning the Hunter about it, but he might have resented being under another's power. If Chaz wished to have the spell removed, they might not have survived their previous battle.

Be that as it may, Rune would have to either remove his spell or tell Chaz exactly what was going on. It may have been small and discrete, but he thought that his power would be sufficient enough to mellow the emotions of one man. It was not, however, and that was becoming painfully obvious. He should have learned his lesson the last time when he tried to help a friend deal with her grief. Her emotions were too much for him to bear, but he was weaker then, less experienced. The Reverent Fifth was finally starting to realize that no amount of power could match the strength of one man's grief.

Fenlye finally gave up pacing and sat down on a chair across from Chaz. He noticed how the Hunter just sat there, apparently daydreaming or catatonic. If his eyes were not open and his chest not rising and falling he would have thought the Hunter dead. The oldest Nance waved his hand before Chaz's face but he was non-responsive. He considered waking Hahn, but then thought differently. Rune was in some kind of trance while at the same time keeping their environment cool. There was absolutely no way the was going to disturb the Reverent Fifth.

So, Fenlye decided to sit next to his hero and wait for him to come out of his state of catatonia. He was beginning to worry, not about Chaz, but about his sister. He loved her so much that sometimes he did outrageous things to try and impress her. He could not recall the last time he told her that he loved her. It was hard to do when she was constantly being a pest. Fenlye did not care -- when she got back, he was going to tell her that he was glad she was his sister.

The oldest Nance began to wonder how much Chaz told those he was close to that he loved them. The Hunter explained to him once that friends and family are what keeps a warrior strong and that showing emotions was in no way a sign of weakness. Although he was too macho to admit it openly, Chaz was not ashamed to tell his friends exactly how much they meant to him. Fenlye began to think and it became painfully obvious that he had not expressed his emotions to anyone lately, not even his parents, not even after his ordeal with the sandworms. How callous everyone must have seen him. His hero was a person with an unmistakable reputation as a mighty warrior, but his little known reputation as a compassionate man stood out to those who knew him. Fenlye would have to strive harder to emulate him.

Chaz eventually started to come out of his trance, very slowly at first, then steadily. Fenlye could not figure out why he went into this state without warning. He also noted that Rune was coming around at exactly the same time. The oldest Nance was curious as to why Chaz's Esper friend came out of his trance in an identical manner when the whole time he appeared to be at least half conscious. Could Rune be having an unseen influence on Chaz? Fenlye mused. If he was, could Chaz be aware of it? The oldest Nance searched his soul, trying to decide to let the Hunter know of his observations or to mind his own business. For now he would do the latter. Whatever Rune was doing had to be in his best intentions.

Raja came out from the back bedroom looking haggard and worn like a shirt someone lost in a sandstorm. Bjorn bounded out behind him, eyes bright, full of excitement. Chaz took one look at his friend and leapt to his feet, ready to fight off whatever attacked him. "Raja!" he shouted in concern. "Are you okay? How big was it?" The Archbishop sighed.

"Well," Raja explained, "it stood about this high," he placed his hand on Bjorn's head, "weighed about fifty pounds and fought with the strength of ten Palmans ." Rune laughed out loud.

"Looks like you managed to fight him off yourself, old friend," the Reverent Fifth joked.

Hahn rolled over and glared at everyone with laser eyes. He was exhausted and fell asleep only about twenty minutes before and being rudely awakened did nothing for his demeanor. He sat up and appeared to doze off again, then stood up and stretched. The Scholar gave everyone a dirty look and walked into Chaz's bedroom to try and get some sleep. "Geez," Rune commented, "I guess we know better than to wake him unexpectedly."

Still, Fenlye was happy that most of them were up and running. Ever since the others left, things began to feel lifeless. Minutes were like hours and an hour like a day. The oldest Nance guessed that he was feeling a bit jealous that his sister got to go on an exciting trip and he did not. There was really nothing for him to do there but sit around and talk. He could never figure out why adults enjoyed spending time together like that. In his opinion, time spent with his friends should be going out and doing fun things like hide and go hunt or Hunters in the woods (a game popular with children in which they used buildings for trees since none of them had probably ever seen a tree).

Fenlye had never seen this side of his hero and did not know it he was impressed by it. It seemed like the more time they spent together, the less he saw him as an idol and more as an ordinary adult. Chaz warned him once about placing people on high pedestals, how high expectations only meant disappointment in the end unless the person truly deserved them. Well, Fenlye thought that of all the people in his life, Chaz was the one to place high expectations on. If the Hunter knew of it, he would have told him to take him off that pedestal. How ironic it was, Fenlye thought, that seeing his idol show emotion and cry like a little girl would did not shatter his reverence of Chaz. Seeing him just as an ordinary person did not, but it sure made him take a second look.

Raja watched how Fenlye doted on Chaz like just being near him was a dream come true. Dezorian children did not idolize, at least, he did not think they did. They were brought up under strict religious rules, taught that the only people that should be admired is their parents or relatives. Idolizing anything but Tak'khan was punishable by law and the accused were cleansed of their thoughts. Needless to say, most Dezorians adhered to their laws.

Rune did not recall a time when he idolized anyone even though he was admired by hundreds of his people. He knew that an idol's task was truly a great one. Constantly scrutinized, anyone placed in a position higher than everyone else in society could eventually fall victim to those who placed them there. Any ordinary person making the same mistakes would not be exposed to judgement by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. The Reverent Fifth was in that position before and it pained him to see Chaz going through it. There was no way he could help him cope, but he could offer advice if he wanted it.

Bjorn did not know what it was like, did not really care who was idolizing who. He was blissfully ignorant and damn proud of it. No one expected anything from him so he lived up to their expectations, but Bjorn secretly knew more about what was happening around him than he led everyone to believe. He was five, almost six, and his desire to tag along with his older siblings was not without reason. The youngest Nance was extremely curious about everything and loved to learn. The more, the better, he thought. He knew that Fenlye and Jan looked at him like he was a nuisance because he made the mistake of tattling on them once when they did not take him with them. Bjorn knew that the only reason they took him places now was because they thought he would tell on them. Little did they know that he had covered for them a few times when they did leave him. That would all change soon, he hoped.

Chaz and company fell into another frustrating silence that was too obvious to escape their notice. Fenlye was the reflection of all their feelings. He paced, kept looking outside to track the path of Algo across the sky. Dusk would be upon them in a couple of hours and if Jan was not back, they would be in big trouble with their parents. The Hunter regretted ever sending his companions off without them. When they left, he did not feel up to the journey. Now, he longed for some excitement and needed to blow off some steam.

Instead, he was forced into inactivity which was sometimes good for him. It was not too often that he got to sit down and contemplate the directions his life was taking him without interruption. Often times he could only takes brief periods to reflect on such things and even then it was not nearly enough time. Only during times like these could he do that. Frankly, he was a man of action and not of thought. He never thought of himself as an intellectual like Hahn or even Rika. Although he was no idiot, he usually left the thinking up to them. When faced with a situation alone, however, he was more than capable of making his own decisions.

Now that he thought about it, he realized that he was a fighter and a thinker. How else would he have survived for so long if he was not intelligent enough to survive. Alys could not stress enough how important a good education was to a Hunter's longevity. She schooled him herself, but he often wondered how she came to be so intelligent. It mattered little because he was thankful for everything she did for him. Chaz would have nothing if not for her.

So it was up to him to try and figure out why the Darkness took Rika from him and why it wanted his daughter. He gave the subject more thought than anything else concerning him at the moment and sometimes, he felt, a bit too much. His mind ached with web of endless possibilities, none of them making much sense. Chaz wanted to discuss it with his friends, but he knew they had other things on their minds and did not want to bother them with his problems. Hahn, for example, longed to see Saya again, but felt that if he returned to Krup to see her, she would forbid him from leaving again. He would, of course, feel bound to his commitment to his friends and return and risk losing his future wife. No, in this case, what she did not know would not hurt her.

Chaz found himself dwelling on subjects he should not have been dwelling on. His daughter, known only as the Ashley girl -- what was her name? He had given thought to it some time back, when he and Rika were married, but not since then. Alys was a nice name -- he often wondered if Rika would object to naming their child after the person who was responsible for bringing them together. He would have like to think not, but she might have had a different name in mind. If they had a son, Todd would be a nice name, or perhaps Taylor. Both were suitable names unless, of course, Rika had ideas for other names.

But they did not have a son, nor did they have a daughter. Whatever it was that Lian took from Rika's womb did not belong to them. It was a product of dark sorcery and nothing more. According to Demi, their child was damaged in its mother's womb and would not have been brought to term. Had either of them known of Rika's pregnancy, she would have not accompanied them to Dezoris and met her creator there. Chaz cursed himself for being so ignorant to her condition. Granted, she probably was only a few weeks pregnant, but her changing hormones could have been a reason they were quarreling so much. If only he knew, things would have turned out differently.

Why would Darkness, in all of its malevolence, seek out the child of a former Protector? Chaz realized that he would never become a 'former' Protector, not until the day of his death, but he sort of understood the Darkness' desire for revenge on him and his friends, in a wicked sort of way. If he has spent countless eons in a prison and managed to break out three times only to be thwarted by three groups of special mortals, he would be pretty pissed off , too. The Hunter thought of the child they encountered on Dezoris -- it was about three or four years of age. His daughter would only be hours old at that time. Then the answer came to him, clear and unadulterated.

Of course! he thought. My daughter was not the first. The Darkness must have been collecting children for awhile now, perhaps even before we banished it. It must be planning to build an army of children to send into battle. Their unassuming guise will take everyone by surprise and they will take over quickly. I wonder how many more children it has collected. It must be an innumerable amount. Perhaps it aged them to a certain age and place them in a parallel dimension where they would not age. I've got to tell the others of my revelation, but not now. Maybe later when Wren gets back.

Everything made perfect sense to Chaz now. He was confident that he figured out the Darkness' evil plot. His thoughts went back to his daughter. If she was aged by it, how many years would she have aged? Would he be able to recognize her if they crossed paths in the battlefield? And, as much as was loathe to consider it, would he have the strength to kill her? Was the death of a single child worth more than the fate of an entire galaxy?

The Hunter would have like to think that it was not. He could look upon everything logically, but where affairs of the heart was concerned, logic had no place. If a confrontation with her was imminent, Chaz knew he would have to rely on his friends for support. He prayed that he would not have to face such a thing, but knew that the Darkness was without pity and would pit brother against brother, sister against sister -- and father against daughter. Oh, Rika, Chaz thought, I wish you were here to guide me.

* * * * *

It was nearly two and a half hours since Wren's departure and Chaz still had not heard any word from them. They had a mere hour and a half to return, but an uneasy anticipation was growing. Rune and Raja felt it, and so did Chaz. Hahn might have had he been awake. A sort of sixth sense told them that something was afoot, not only with their friends, but with their city. A disturbance of immense proportions was sensed by all who were sensitive to such changes. For those who were not, it was manifested by a cold chill which, in the Motavian heat, would be noticeable.

A muffled scream in the distance caught everyone by surprise. It lasted a few moments, the was drowned out of existence. Hahn, woken from his slumber, rushed out of the bedroom and looked like he had seen a ghost. "Did --" he stuttered , "did you hear that or was I dreaming?"

"I'm afraid you weren't dreaming," Rune told him solemnly.

"Do you guys feel that? What's going on?"

"I don't know quite what it is, but it feels like a dimensional portal opened up somewhere near here. I think we should go and investigate."

"Rune, my friend," said Chaz, "that's the best idea I've heard all day."

"Great!" Fenlye exclaimed, grabbing his short sword, "let's go!"

"Hold on there, buckaroo," Chaz grabbed hold of the oldest Nance's collar, "you're staying here. You have to watch your little brother."

"Aw, come on, Chaz, you can't possibly be serious."

"Don't start this with me, Fenlye. You know I told you that I couldn't make any promises about taking you with me. Besides, we don't know what we're getting into here. I don't want to take responsibility if you get hurt, so I want you to stay here where you'll be safe. Aw, don't make that face. You'll be a better help if you stay here and protect Bjorn. That way I know he'll be safe."

Fenlye's spirit perked up instantly once he heard that he was needed. "We'll be fine," he announced and swung his sword. "Come on, Bjorn." The oldest Nance grabbed his brother's arm and pulled him into the back bedroom. Chaz exchanged glances with his companions, then hurried out the door before Fenlye changed his mind about things.

Chaz, Raja, Hahn and Rune walked side-by-side down Aiedo's streets, aware of everything before, behind, and beside them. The light of day was starting to fade, but it was still hot. The streets were devoid of life as was the case at this hour. Besides the ever-blowing Motavian winds, they could only hear their footsteps. Almost every square foot of Aiedo had either a building or some type of pavement on it and alleys were narrow. Most streets were wide enough for foot traffic, but not much more. There were only a few corridors wide enough to move large carts down and vehicles were absolutely not permitted within the city limits.

So finding whatever entered Aiedo would be like finding a needle in a haystack. That was unless, of course, it was searching for them, which was entirely possible considering their current circumstance. Rune began to wonder if their search was even necessary. Evil always seemed to hunt them out like a heat-seeking missile. They were constant targets and anyone near them was a risk of losing his life. Everyone in Aiedo was in danger now; thousands of people's lives were on the line and only four individuals were capable of saving them.

No sounds escaped the four Protectors and they pounced on anything that sounded out of the ordinary. Once a dog ran across their path and Chaz nearly incinerated it. They laughed at him, but the truth was that all of them felt like doing the same. None of them knew what was lurking about in the streets, but they needed to find out quickly. The longer it remained, the more chance of it causing more destruction. Nothing happened as of yet -- that was not saying much in the grand scheme of things.

Then it happened -- a figment of their imagination appeared briefly and then disappeared. An image of a sorcerer cloaked in black robes faded in and out of existence several times, its countenance hidden by shadows even in the bright daylight. The images faded in and out more quickly until it appeared to be on all sides of the Protectors. Then, for a brief instant, it was. Rune tried to use his Esper magic to protect them, but the sorcerer and its bodily images launched a series of magical spheres which exploded with discharges of light and concussive blasts. Bodies went flying in four directions and did not land softly. Five images of the sorcerer surrounded them, each an exact facsimile of the original.

"Imagiomage!" Rune shouted while holding a wounded arm.

A being of pure evil, Imagiomage used the dark sorcery which created it as an instrument of destruction. A master of illusion, it could create any number of images at a single time, but usually preferred not to make such a vulgar display of power. In addition to its images, the sorcerer could generate powerful concussive explosions and possessed the Force Flash spell which could kill in little more than a few seconds.

Chaz leapt into action, bringing his Guard sword high above his head in what was supposed to be a fatal strike. Imagiomage coiled its robe tightly around itself and appeared to prepare for him. Thinking that it was solid, the Hunter nearly snapped his arms when he struck the pavement. Another explosion of light and he was sliding on his stomach away from his companions. Even Rune was tricked, feeling foolish when he used Nafoi and nearly set an entire block of buildings ablaze.

Raja closed his eyes and concentrated. Raising his Nares Staff, he twirled it like a baton and when he reopened his eyes, he struck at an image, but it hit something solid and Imagiomage fell back from his attack. "How did you do that?" Hahn questioned.

"I see only one enemy," the Archbishop told him, readying his staff for another strike. "Tak'khanhas opened my eyes to this dark magic and now I can see right through it."

As if their enemy heard his boast, Archbishop and Scholar felt the full force of its attack burn into their backs like phosphorus on fire. Had they been facing the sorcerer, their eyes would have been burned out of their sockets. Force Flash did not do much on a physical level, but it generated a burst of light so intense it could burn any creature's retina out in a fraction of a second. If exposed to it too long, death normally occurred. Fortunately, Raja and Hahn were not facing Imagiomage at the time and escaped serious injury, but they would have burn scars left on their backs.

Hahn recovered quickly and used Nawat, his body erupting in a brilliant blue haze. Cold winds swirled around and soon ten-inch ice spikes rained down over the area where Imagiomage and its illusions stood. Several of them missed their mark, but a few did manage to find the correct enemy. The sorcerer's body flamed up and cleared all obstructions from its path.

Suddenly, Imagiomage disappeared and the street was left empty save the four Protectors who watched over it. Voices came from all around them as people in their homes became aware of the battle raging outside. Chaz wiped the sweat from his brow. Nightfall would come soon and would take the heat of day with it, but that time could not come fast enough for him.

The Hunter turned to have a few words with Rune who was standing beside him, but found himself looking into the eyes of another Chaz Ashley! "What the --" he started to say, but was thrown backward by a concussive blast. He returned to his feet swiftly and struck at the imposter. It was gone, however, and with it any trace that it had been there.

"Over there!" Rune called his friends' attention. An imposter Hahn stood next to the real Hahn, but both looked identical and at first glance, no one could tell the difference.

"Destroy him!" one Hahn said. "He's the imposter!" The Reverent Fifth took aim and was about to incinerate the fake, but Raja stepped in.

"Wait!" the Archbishop warned. "Would you attack and kill our friend?" Rune looked at him quizzically. "That one is the imposter," he pointed at the other Hahn. "That one is our enemy." The fake Hahn hissed and spat and disappeared just before Rune cast Tandle.

"Damn!" Rune swore.

The Reverent Fifth cracked his knuckles and wiped some of the sweat off of his head with his cape. It was too hot to be doing anything right now much less engaging in a struggle between life and death. All of the sudden, he was attacked from behind, never given the chance to see his attacker. They rolled over and over again, kicking up a lot of dust in the process. His opponent held on tightly with unnatural strength, but Rune was not going to be detained. Using Esper magic, the Reverent Fifth generated an electrical spark which would have knocked anyone unconscious. His opponent was strong, though, and it only forced it off of him.

Rune faced what he thought was going to be Imagiomage, but found that it had changed itself into an exact replica of him. The imposter was about to launch another attack when it was struck from behind. Raja stood above it holding his Nares Staff threateningly, prepared to strike it again if it so much as flinched. Imagiomage changed back into its true form, then into Raja. It leapt at the Archbishop and tumbled like it did with Rune. His friends, not possessing the insight the he did, became immediately confused to which one was their real friend.

"Enough!" Rune roared. The Reverent Fifth brought his arms together then threw them apart and the two Rajas flew apart from each other.

"Hurry, Rune!" one Archbishop shouted, "destroy him! He's the imposter!"

"Don't listen to him!" the other protested, "I'm the one and only Raja!"

"There's only one way to be sure," Rune announced. "The real Raja will combine his power with mine to vanquish the imposter."

"And that Raja is me!" one of them insisted. "Come on, Rune! Let's destroy him!"

Great Light, Rune thought, guide my thoughts!

The Reverent Fifth's cape flew about his body as he summoned lightning down from a crystal-clear sky. "Wait!" the insistent Raja hollered. "I'm not ready!" The Archbishop across him raised his arms and spoke the words that would summon power from the Eclipse Torch to come to his aid. The fake Raja shed his guise and tried to escape its encroaching demise, but it was too late.

Celestial flames combined with the raw power of lightning and Holy Thunder rained down upon its target, engulfing it wholly. It screamed wildly until the attack ended, but it did not destroy it like the casters wanted it to. Imagiomage fell to one knee and appeared to be breathing heavily. Chaz, Rune, and the others watched patiently to see if it would make another move.

Suddenly, it was gone, leaving absolutely no trace that it was ever there. "Where did it go?" Hahn questioned. As if it heard him, Imagiomage returned, once again strong. From nowhere, a laugh filled the area with an evil ambiance. Chaz reeled around to look behind him and saw a child, cloaked in black and about eight years of age, standing about thirty feet away from them. The Hunter raised his sword and was about to run after it when he took a good look at what was before him.

The child was obviously female; her blonde hair was smooth and fell past her shoulders. Stunning, electric-blue eyes, glinting red in the diminishing daylight, stared directly into his soul and beyond. This child could have been any child except that Chaz noticed something that might have escaped his companions -- the ears. This little girl had pointed ears not unlike Nei's but that was not the first thought that entered the Hunter's mind. The girl had Rika's ears!

"NO!!" Chaz wailed and his companions heads' snapped back in his direction. The Hunter dropped his sword and fell to his knees, burying his face in his hands. The Child fired some kind of energy beam at Chaz which passed through him harmlessly, then it vanished. Raja, Hahn, and Rune felt themselves being propelled forward toward their friend as Imagiomage attacked them from behind. The sorcerer used its powers to create illusions of various familiar enemies which surrounded the Protectors. Chaz snapped out of his sorrow and lifted his sword to come to his friends' aid. The illusions threatened their charges who had their backs to each other. "They're only illusions!" Hahn assured his comrades. "Only one of them is real!"

But that was when the Scholar discovered that he was wrong, dead wrong, and felt the effects of Tandle as it was unleashed upon him and his friends. They fell, nearly thrown back ten feet. The illusions disappeared and Imagiomage reappeared before them. Enraged, Rune threw his hand forward in an attempt to cast a spell which would instantly destroy his enemy, but another bolt of Tandle appeared out of nowhere and struck down the Reverent Fifth.

Raja lifted his head and looked ahead. The air before him appeared to waiver, become solid, then turn blood-red. It was then that the Archbishop discovered that he was looking directly into a cloak of some kind. He took a closer look and saw a bony, almost corpse-like arm. Scanning right, Raja saw two more cloaks then, looking upward, saw the true identity of what they were now facing. Gi-Le-Farg, the unholy trinity of sorcerers which operated as a single identity, towered over its counterpart. Standing nearly eleven feet tall, the sorcerers intimidated anything they faced with their height, but even more with their magical prowess. Chaz unexpectedly leapt to his feet and charged. Gi-Le-Farg raised their arms. Hahn roared, Raja roared, and Rune hollered at the top of his lungs. The sorcerers cast their spell and Chaz felt something hit him.

Everything went black.

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