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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-Six

Broren attacked and was met by the full force of Wren's fist. The android fell backward against his assault and pulled out its plasma rifle, but the weapon was knocked from its grasp by a flying Moon Slasher. Kyra caught the slasher and strategically placed herself between their enemy and Jan who stopped screaming for almost a minute due to shock, but was doing it again, this time at the top of her lungs. "Shh," the Esper leader tried to hush, "you have to be quiet, Jan."

Suddenly, she heard a whooshing of air and turned to see Goldine closing in on her. The Esper Leader quickly threw her cape around her and cast Warla. A magical barrier appeared just as Goldine slashed at her with its single Laconian claw. Jan continued to scream while the massive, legless AI continued to scrape and wear down Kyra's defense. Angered, the Esper Leader grabbed the middle Nance's shoulders and shook her violently. "Jan! Be quiet!" she ordered. Jan stifled her cries, biting her lip to keep quiet. Kyra felt guilty for being so rough on the girl, but she needed to aid Wren in this battle for their lives without having to worry about her.

Goldine's persistence finally paid off and Kyra's defensive spell broke under the duress. The Esper Leader cast Hewn, taking advantage of it not being anchored to the ground, and blew it backward into Dominator which merely brushed it aside. Seeing the massive Dominator turn its attention from Wren, Kyra hurled her weapon, but it raised its arm and deflected her attack. She caught her weapon and heard metal striking metal. Before she knew what was happening, Wren slid back into her and bowled her over. A floating cylinder-shaped mechanism appeared and rotated a few times, then fired several rounds of Burst Rockets. Wren reached up and pushed Jan out of danger, hurtling the girl nearly fifty feet. Jan watched in horror as flames and explosions rained down on him and Kyra. "Wren!" she screamed, "Kyra!" Jan saw both of them turn and look in her direction just before the flames rose and consumed them.

Just as Wren's body armor protected him from the flames, Kyra's Esper magic protected her. Taking advantage of the already available overabundance of fire, Kyra cast Hewn and created a minor Fire Storm, mentally projecting it over their enemies. The spell did little to damage the mechanisms, but it did wear down their armor ever so slightly.

Dominator stepped forward and a panel opened up in its chest. Wren immediately recognized the weapon as the same one that Demi adorned and quickly used Barrier to protect Kyra and himself. Phonomezer fired and struck the Barrier at which point its effect was lessened, but still potent. Kyra covered her ears and screamed as she thought her head would explode. Her companion braced himself against its force, activating tiny defenses within his body to prevent any rupture of circuitry. Part of that defense was an automatic activation of the Hyper-jammer. Wren's shoulder plates opened up and emitted frequency-jamming waves which sought out Dominator's Phonomezer and deactivated it.

Broren moved in again and kicked Wren while he was down. Taking aim with its plasma rifle, it fired a single shot at the android who managed to roll out of the way just in time. Just as Wren was about to fire his Photon Eraser, Jurafaduel stepped in and used a Stasis Beam to paralyze the big android. Wren became frozen in time, his finger half way from firing the Photon Eraser.

Kyra gasped as she realized the task before her. The Stasis Beam would last anywhere from a few moments to several minutes. During that time, she had to protect herself, Wren, and Jan, a task that seemed overwhelming and nearly impossible against such powerful foes. She looked to where Nei, Gryz, and Demi went for help, but the sounds of battle raged from their direction as well. With a sigh and a look of grim determination imprinted on her face, the Esper Leader leapt to her feet and prepared to fight to her death.

Kyra concentrated and used her Nagra Technique. Powerful gravitational waves attacked all four of her mechanical enemies, smashing them together. Goldine discharged a Flare, forcing the Esper Leader to dive out of the way.

Reaching down to her belt, Kyra retrieved her Moon Slasher and flung it. The instant it whirled near its target, she cast Tandle. The electrical surge of her spell propelled the slasher forward, charged with power.

Jurafaduel was first to feel the brunt force of Thunderslash, the super-charged weapon passing completely through its body, destroying the mechanism. Broren and Goldine suffered massive damage and even Dominator did not go unscathed. Despite the fact that its armor was three times as thick as Broren and Goldine's, Thunderslash managed to pierce it and send an electrical surge into its internal systems, forcing it to take a moment to initiate repair sequences. The Moon Slasher completed its purpose then returned to its master's grasp.

Goldine feinted a slashing attack, but discharged a Flare in Kyra's direction. Barely missing it before, the Esper Leader was not able to avoid this one and it burned into her chest plate. She grabbed at it and quickly cast Medice to prevent her skin from burning. Broren fired its plasma rifle, its aim true. Kyra could not avoid it and fell when the shot passed through her body. Dominator moved in to deliver the final blow.

Jan watched everything develop from afar and felt hopeless. Still hurting from when Wren flung her away, she kept quiet to draw any attention away from her. The middle Nance saw the android frozen, his body like a statue. Kyra was doing a superb job at holding the machines at bay, but could not do it for much longer. When she saw the Esper finally fall, she knew that all of their lives were in danger and there was no one left to protect them.

It was then that something clicked within Jan, maybe out of fear, maybe out of rage, or maybe both. She saw Dominator approaching the ones who fought so desperately to protect her and knew that she needed to do something. Jan looked toward Wren, frozen and impassive, and her eyes focused on his weapon, its trigger slightly depressed. Summoning all of her courage, Jan ran out of her hiding place toward the big android, screaming the entire way. "No, Jan!" Kyra shouted, "don't!" It was too late for her to turn back, though, and the enemy mechanisms turned their attention toward her.

Jan reached Wren and, reaching upward, she put her tiny finger over his and began unloading several blasts from his Photon Eraser at their enemies while continuing her screaming. Massive explosions filled the room with light and Goldine dropped from its hovering position, its CPU rendered defunct by Wren's weapon and Jan's effort. The explosions had little effect on Dominator, however, and it moved in to put an end to them. The Esper Leader, though injured, managed to throw herself on the girl just before Dominator executed a Double Slash Skill. Kyra felt cold metal bite into her back and pain so intense that she nearly lost consciousness.

All of the sudden, Wren's weapon fired again as the Stasis Beam finally wore off. Wren shook off its effects and tackled Dominator, an AI that was nearly twice his size in bulk. Broren raised its weapon and was about to deactivate its nemesis permanently when it suddenly stopped and fell to the ground in two pieces.

Jan peered over Kyra's shoulder and saw Gryz standing where Broren once was holding his massive Defeat Axe threateningly. Beside him were Demi and Nei who obviously emerged victorious in their battle. Demi saw Dominator on top of her master who was struggling to keep it from ripping his head unit from his chassis. She took off in a fast sprint, then slammed her tiny body against that of the giant mechanism's, knocking it completely off of Wren. She quickly helped him to his feet and they retreated back a few paces.

Nei noticed some movement on the floor and her eyes focused in on it. She saw a body lying face-down and arms flailing from beneath it. Jan struggled to push the body off of her, but lacked the strength to do so. It was then that Nei realized who the body was, recognized the familiar white cape and a hint of blue hair. She was struck from behind, the Numan observed, for there was a hint of blood on her cape where she was struck.

Nei was suddenly filled with feelings of sorrow as she stared at her friend, perhaps her only true friend at that time, lying lifelessly on the floor. She thought back to the past few days, how the two had shared almost their entire lives with each other, told each other secrets that no one else knew. The Esper Leader admitted that she was not very fond of her at first, but was mature enough to overcome that and now they were truly friends.

A spark inside Nei was fanned by anger and became a raging inferno. She cast of the restraints she placed over her animalistic behavior and prepared to assault the object of her aggression. The Numan tore a path through Demi and Wren like a bat out of hell, throwing them aside like rag dolls, and leapt high into the air, her Guard claws extended out before her. Like fingernails being scratched across a blackboard, Nei's claws bit deeply into Dominator's armor as gravity brought her to the ground. Then, turning the claws over, she make an upward strike with them, causing further damage.

Almost immediately, wave rings spread out across Dominator's body as it used Recover to repair the damage afflicted to its body. The deep scratch marks left by Nei's attack reverted to an undamaged state and the massive mechanism struck at its attacker. Nei avoided it deftly, but was caught on its backstroke. She twisted her body like a cat and landed on her feet, then ran back in for a second round. Her claws scraped across the tremendously thick plating of Dominator's arms and did absolutely no damage. The mechanism struck her again, sending the Numan sliding across the cold metal floor near where Kyra lay.

Instantly, Gryz came to their aid and Dominator found itself fending off the powerful blows from the Motavian's Defeat Axe. Every time he swung the weapon, the air seemed to howl. Gryz attacked over and over again, showing how deftly he could use the axe. Most of his strikes did not find their mark as Dominator was able to avoid them despite its large stature and bulk. It fought back against the rampaging Motavian, but he was able to parry the blows with his axe's handle and blade. Though valiant in his efforts, Dominator was eventually able to overpower Gryz and struck him down. Demi and Wren drew their weapons and began firing at their foe to give their friend enough time to recover.

Nei got back up and, seeing Kyra nearby, ran over to her. "Help me!" Jan pleaded, barely able to breathe. The Numan gently rolled the Esper off of Jan and saw her eyelids flutter briefly.

"Kyra?" she gasped. "Kyra, speak to me!" Her eyes fluttered open again, then her face contorted in pain. "Don't worry, Kyra, I will try and heal your wounds!" Nei concentrated, summoning knowledge of a Technique which would heal her fallen friend. In her previous life, the Numan was never able to use the Nares Technique, but through the Great Light's graces, she obtained all the Skills and Techniques that Rika had at her disposal. Tiny starbursts encircled Kyra in a dazzling halo while Nares worked to heal her body. Jan watched intensely while at the same time feeling helpless. Nei's Technique lessened the burning sensation in her friend's chest, mended her broken bones, and renewed her torn flesh. Kyra's contorted facial expression eased as her pain lessened. Finally, the Esper opened her eyes and sat up.

"Nei, what happened?" she asked.

"You'll be fine, Kyra, just stay here and stay still. I have to go and help the others."

"Wait! I want to help!" The Esper tried to move but her body told her otherwise. She felt small hands lock around her arms and began to drag her away from the battle. "Let go of me, Jan! They need my help!" Despite her protestations, Jan did not heed her pleas and she was still too weak from her injuries to resist her. Kyra had saved her life and she was going to do the same for her by keeping her out of danger.

Wren and Demi's relentless assault managed to knock Dominator off of its oversized feet, giving everyone a brief and much needed respite. Nei rejoined the group, as did Gryz. "How do we defeat this thing, Wren?" the Motavian questioned.

"Dominator is nearly invulnerable due to its armor," Wren said. "Our only hope is to get inside of it and destroy it from the inside."

"Gryz and I have the only weapons that can penetrate its armor," Nei offered. "He and I will lay bare its internal circuitry, then it's up to you and Demi to do the rest." Everyone agreed, turning to face the enemy as one.

Dominator took a few steps forward and Gryz and Nei leapt into action. The Motavian raised his axe and swept diagonally across its chest. Metal seemed to scream as it parted in two directions. Then, out of nowhere, Nei appeared before Dominator and used Double Slash to further penetrate its defenses, bounding out of the way afterward. Wiring and circuitry panels were clearly visible as were the wave rings of Recover which already worked to counteract the damage. Wren and Demi were about to fire when their enemy launched Burst Rockets in their direction, knocking the androids over.

"Damn!" Gryz swore. "We lost our chance!" The Motavian ran back out to hold off Dominator to give Wren and Demi time to get back on their feet. He held his axe out in front of him and felt something begin to grow within him. Not having the time to consider what was happening, he tried to execute his Sweeping Skill, but nothing happened. Concentrating intensely, he swept his axe from left to right, but instead of seeing the visible separation of air which normally accompanied Sweeping, the entire Vahal fort began to shake and tremor. An enormous lump appeared in the floor just before Gryz and sped toward Dominator who was caught off guard by the quaking. Then, right before everyone's eyes, the floor split open, revealing a previously unknown chasm beneath it. Dominator fell inside, swallowed whole by the chasm, then it closed up and the floor of Vahal mended itself, leaving no trace of ever having been split.

All eyes turned to Gryz who was just as shocked as the rest of them were. At that moment, one could have heard a pin drop and it would have sounded like a thunderclap. "By the Light," Kyra finally managed to say. The Motavian saw her and Jan away from where the battle occurred and ran over to them, dropping his axe along the way. He stopped in front of the Esper Leader and fell to his knees, bowing his head low.

"Kyra," he whispered, frightened, "what's happening to me?"

"That --" she started, but had to swallow, "that was the Lan Technique! The Lost Technique of the Espers! We must still be under solid ground or else it would have never worked. But the last person known to use that Technique was Zarah --"

"You said that Zarah was Motavian, didn't you?" Gryz asked, lifting his head to look her in the eyes.

"By the Light!"

"Will you stop saying that!"

"All this time I kept sensing a weak Esper aura and I couldn't shake the feeling that another Esper was somewhere around us. Gryz, you have the aura!" Kyra shook her head in disbelief, not knowing how to explain what was happening. "This can't be!"

"You're telling me!"

"What is going on over here?" Wren questioned as he, Nei, and Demi approached.

"Oh, nothing," Gryz laughed hysterically, then stood up and started walking away, "nothing at all, really. I'm just an Esper."

"You're a what?" Demi and Nei asked simultaneously.

"He has the aura," Kyra explained. "All Espers possess an aura that is unique to him. Although Gryz's is very weak at present, it's definitely there." The Esper Leader struggled to her feet, Jan assisting her. "Oh, boy, is this ever going to start rumors flying in Esper Mansion. There hasn't been a Motavian Esper in over a thousand years!"

"Are you able to travel?" Wren asked. "I am not hurrying you, it is just that we would be safer if we keep moving."

"It'll be slow-going for awhile, but I think I can manage."

"I'll help her," Jan said.

"Good," the big android replied and patted her on the back.

Together the group moved forward, deeper into the heart of Vahal where they hoped to find out what was going on. They moved slowly to accommodate Kyra's injuries, but she assured them that she could keep up. Demi ran ahead to retrieve Gryz before he walked into trouble. Having only been in the fort for a short time and already encountering stiff resistance, they dreaded what lay ahead. Jan was sure now that she would never get back before her parents woke up and would have to face their wrath, but first she would have to get out of there alive.

* * * * *

With each step she took, Kyra regained her strength. Within ten minutes, she was walking twice as fast as she was. In fifteen minutes, Jan no longer needed to assist her steps. Twenty minutes went by and she was walking well on her own, though only at half her normal speed. Gryz walked with them as well, brought back by Demi, but he walked near the back so he could be alone with his thoughts. Finding a hydraulic lift, Wren led his party down to the next level.

The second level of Vahal was inundated with numerous conveyor belts leading in several different directions. The trick in getting around was to find the correct conveyor control that moved the belt in the direction that one wanted to go. Fortunately for them, Wren's memory banks were still in top working condition and he remembered exactly the pattern of conveyors they used to get to the third level. Walking down a long corridor, they approached the lift that would take them closer to their destination.

Jan had not said a word since they left the scene of their last battle. She seemed sullen, but the fear she displayed earlier was no longer present. "What's the matter, Jan," Kyra asked.

"I think my life is going to end," she replied.

"Don't worry, we won't let anything happen to you."

"I'm not worried about that. My parents are going to kill me."

"Oh, yeah, I sort of forgot about that. Parents' anger can be something to be reckoned with. Don't worry, though. I'll have a talk with them when we get back. Maybe we can work out a little white lie so you won't get in trouble," Kyra added with a wink.

"Really?" Jan's spirit perked up. "You'd do that for me?"

"Jan, what you did back there took a lot of courage. You may have very well saved our lives. I owe you a favor and I think bailing you out of trouble will probably be that favor."

"Thank you, Kyra! Thank you!" Jan jumped a few times in excitement, drawing the attention of another walking in front of them. Nei fell back into stride with Kyra and Jan. She was quiet for a few moments to make sure she was not breaking into any conversation they might have been having.

"So, what are you ladies talking about?" she inquired.

"Oh, nothing," Kyra told her, "just talking about getting Jan out of trouble."

"Who are you in trouble with, Jan?"

"No one, yet, but she was concerned about dealing with her parents when we get back to Aiedo."

"I see. You're not planning to lie to them, are you? You should never lie under any circumstances." Jan's face became long and sullen. "But I think in this case we can make any exception." Kyra laughed.

"Oh, you!" Jan playfully hit Nei on her arm.

"By the way, Nei," Kyra interjected, "I owe you a debt of my gratitude as well. If you hadn't been there I'm afraid I would have expired before my time."

"You didn't see the half of it, Kyra," Nei told her. "When I saw you laying there I thought you were dead. I haven't felt anger like that in such a long time. If that thing had been a living creature, it would have been dead before it could take its next breath. I attacked without thinking and it clouded my judgement. I could have fought smartly and I would have been able to get more strikes in, but I could only think about you lying there -- dead. My less desirable half kicked in and I lost control. I thought we had lost you."

"Well, I'm alive and kicking, thanks to you."

"So, what's with Gryz? I don't think I caught all of what you were talking about earlier."

"The Technique that Gryz used was one that my people lost knowledge of a very long time ago," Kyra explained. "The Lan Technique was known as the Lost Technique of the Espers. Whoever used it could manipulate the ground or land to do his or her bidding, but only within the limits of the Technique. While Lan causes the ground to open up and swallow the target of the Technique, as we all saw, and Gilan was said to cause the ground to attack its victim. I have no knowledge of what Nalan is capable of doing," she added, "or even if such a Technique exists. As for Gryz -- well, that's another mystery. Something happened to him when Balor died. There has never been an incidence of an Esper transferring his aura to another individual so such an occurrence would be unprecedented. If any of my people walked by him on the street they would perceive him as another Esper, although I'm not sure if that's what he is yet." Kyra stopped speaking for a moment to consider her thoughts. "I doubt Gryz truly understands what kind of profound impact this is going to have on Esper culture. The last Motavian Esper died approximately seven hundred years ago."

"Yes," Nei said. "In fact, it was six hundred ninety-seven years ago. I remember talking to Zarah once, but there is so many souls in the Light that there is never a lack of conversation."

"Eww, Nei, could you please not talk about your, um, afterlife. It gives me the creeps."

"Sorry about that Kyra. Sometimes I forget."

"No prob."

Kyra, Nei, and Jan eventually caught up to their companions who had moved far ahead of them. Gryz had way too much on his mind to be worried about what they were talking about and Wren and Demi's minds were set on reaching their destination. It was not that they did not care about their friends, it was just that they were so focused on the task ahead of them that they could not afford to deviate from their set path. Demi and Wren were alike in that aspect. Their devotion to a specific objective was truly inspiring.

After walking for several minutes, Wren, Nei, and the others reached another door which would lead them down to the third and lowest level of Vahal. They exchanged a few nervous glances, uncertain of what lay ahead. They finally reached their goal, finally was going to get to the bottom of the strange humming noise emanating from the fortress, but a certain amount of trepidation remained. Their last battle left them shaken, weary of this place which nearly took their lives. Even Wren felt it; the very thought of possibly seeing Daughter again gave him the surges. The supercomputer was too nostalgic for his liking, a project that was never brought to fruition and somehow reactivated when Darkness spread across the land. Both he and Demi thought of Daughter as the mechanical equivalent to a zombie. No need to explain how Wren felt when he was near it the last time.

Timidly, almost loathsomely, everyone boarded the hydraulic lift and it sank at a moderate speed to the next level. A door opened, offering them egress. The great unknown lay ahead and its mystery was fueled by a strange hum whose source was somewhere nearby. There was no turning back now -- they were at the point of no return. Jan approached Wren and peered ahead from behind him and found herself slipping her tiny hand into his. The big android was somewhat disconcerted at this, but gave her a reassuring squeeze. Although he was paralyzed at the time, he had seen her save his and Kyra's lives, saw the courage that he never knew Palman children possessed. After a thousand years of life, Wren was finally beginning to realize that courage was something only adults or Protectors had -- courage belonged to anyone willing enough to find it within himself. The android discovered a newfound respect for these organic beings and suddenly he did not mind holding the girl's hand.

Nei's thought went to the last time she journeyed within this fortress, when she, Rolf, and Rudo went to put a stop to the bombings that were plaguing Rudo's home town of Arima. Down here, on the lowest level of what was known then as Shure, they discovered that the biohazard had invaded this place as well. They found a couple of the Vandals dead, killed by the hazard because they refused to leave their loot. It was not a pretty sight seeing the condition of their bodies -- skin burnt, tongues swollen and sticking out of their mouths, blood dripping from various orifices in their heads. By that time, Nei had done her fair share of killing, but they were mere biomonsters. That was the first time she had seen a dead Palman and it was something she would not soon forget. Till the day she died she never forgot how those Palmans looked, or the terror she felt in her heart.

During their last battle with Vahal's inhabitants, Nei totally forgot that she could not die again until the time was right. The Numan had told her friends that she could not die by conventional means which essentially meant that she was invincible in battle and that no weapon, no matter how sharp or how powerful, could kill her. When she saw Gryz come to her protection after she was felled and how Wren and Demi used every means possible to keep Dominator at bay, she felt like she was one of them, and all memories of being invincible were wiped clean. Nei could, however, feel pain as she was struck or sliced at or fired at. She even hypothesized that it was possible to feel the pain of death again, only to be brought back to life immediately afterward. Based on that hypothesis, she hoped she did not ever have the chance to prove it true.

Moving ahead slowly, Wren led his group of friends deeper into the heart of Vahal. The humming, whatever it was, got progressively louder and more annoying the farther they went. There was another sound audible now, the sound of hammering and drilling and of metal sliding against metal. Busy footsteps accompanied every sound, steps that sounded more artificial than organic. The one thing that was absent that really added to the spookiness of the whole situation was that no one talked or even seemed to breathe. Not that anyone expected to actually hear any living, breathing creatures in this hall of artificial souls, it was just that these footsteps, no matter how fake, were very lifelike.

Wren and party rounded a few more corners, bring them nearer their destination. Jan had long since moved back away from the front with him. She was now strategically placed in between Demi and Kyra, right in the middle, where she would be protected and safe. Rounding one last corner, they emerged into a vast inner chamber.

At the back of this chamber, many lights flickered, dancing like tiny ballerinas across a stage. The humming was louder than ever now and it appeared that the console behind the lights was the source. Two shadows, one very large, one smaller and more swift, moved back and forth at an incredible pace and appeared to be busily at work. When Wren, Gryz, and the others entered and their presence was felt, the large shadow went to a panel and quickly entered some kind of code into a keypad and the humming stopped. The shadows approached each other and held some kind of unheard conference amongst themselves.

Gryz fought an urge to eavesdrop on them realizing that to do so would have been pointless. The shadows were not speaking in any language that he could have understood. All he could discern was a series of clicks and an occasional blip. Demi was listening intently, though, and so was Wren. Several times they exchanged puzzled glances like they understood what the shadows were saying but their words did not make sense. The androids had become so accustomed to speaking the Palman tongue that Gryz thought that maybe they forgot how to understand the binary language used by other AI's. Wren turned and faced his companions.

"Under normal circumstances Demi and I would have no difficulty in understanding these AI's," he explained. "However, there is something puzzling about the dialect they are using. It is an archaic dialect and probably has not been used by AI's since before I was created. Although there are many elements that we can understand, we have agreed that our 'hosts' are trying to decide whether we are friends or enemies. I believe that our presence, meaning mine and Demi's, are confusing them. It is not often that AI's such as ourselves are seen in the company of organic beings."

Well, that cinched it, Gryz thought. He felt like a total foreigner in that place and now he truly understood the true meaning of 'alien.'

A sense of uneasiness came over Nei and she found herself reaching back to keep Jan from getting any closer to the unknown before them. The two shadows finally finished their conference and appeared to turn and face them, but nothing was certain because it was hard to see in the dim light. "Identify yourselves!" a clearly male voice spoke out, sounding more like the automatic response voice a console spoke with. "What is your designation?"

"My name is Wren."

"I asked for your designation not you model type."

"I am known only as Wren."

"Who is your counterpart," a female voice asked. "We are not familiar with her model."

"I am called Demi," Demi answered for herself, a little annoyed that she was not addressed directly. "Wren and I are completely independent of each other. We are in no way linked by programming."

"The organics you travel with -- they are Technique users?"

"Filthy Layans!" the male-type android exclaimed.

"Siren, we do not know that yet."

"You saw what they did to designants 147, 384, 676, and 712, Miun! There is no doubt that the organics are the enemy!" The larger AI entered a key sequence and the large room became flooded with lights. Kyra gasped as she finally saw the true identity of their hosts.

The male AI was almost an exact replica of Wren except that he did not don the more Palman-like skin grafts that Kyra's android friend did. He had fiery red hair and looked like a veritable machine of destruction. No softening of his appearance like Wren, he was meant to instill fear in the hearts of whoever he faced. Strapped across his back was an enormous weapon of some sort and was probably capable of bringing down a small ship from a great distance.

The female AI did have the skin grafts, or did at one time. She also had red hair and looked like a mechanical version of Nei. The left half of her face was damaged, obviously damaged in a battle unknown to any of them. Her mechanical eye socket moved around as she observed each of them, the artificial pupil acting to focus. Attached to her wrists, almost like they were an extension of her arms, were ferocious-looking battle claws that could tear through the strongest metal.

Siren stepped forward, much to his companion's grim consternation. Gryz felt threatened and stood protectively before his friends. "Don't worry, guys," he told them, "I'll take care of this reject from the past."

"What manner of creature are you?" Siren asked with gall. "What kind of dark Layan sorcery conjured up your ghastly countenance?"

"Why you son of a --" Gryz raised his axe and was about to attack but fell suddenly against a shot from Siren's weapon. Angered, irate that he was caught off guard, the Motavian called upon his instinctive knowledge of the Lan Technique and prepared to unleash its power.

"No, Gryz!" Kyra protested, "you haven't mastered it yet!"

The Motavian Esper did not heed her warning, however, and the fortress began shaking under Lan's might. Being on the lowest level of Vahal they were once again standing on solid ground. Had they not, the Technique's power would have been rendered useless. As it was, an enormous, gaping hole opened up beneath Siren's feet and he began to fall into it.

"Layans!" Miun roared, then, with a running start, grabbed Siren's hand in a forward somersault and pulled him out of danger just before the hole closed up on him. The larger android was flipped over his companion's head with the grace of a ballerina, landing perfectly on two feet. Bringing Miun up and over his head, she went into a tuck position, flipping a few more times, and landed with the litheness of a cat.

Quicker than the blink of an eye, Miun attacked, slashing wildly at her targets. Demi took the brunt of the attack, feeling just how apt the android was with her weapons of choice. Pulling away, she saw deep slash marks all across the front of her body and internal wiring was left exposed. Miun went in for the kill and Kyra moved to intercept her, drawing her cape tightly around her body. The android's claws scraped across the cape, doing little damage. The fibers of her protective wear were strengthened by Esper magic and offered superb protection. Swinging it back around, her hands wove the Hewn magic and Miun flew backward.

Shots were fired and the Esper Leader felt a fiery pain in her chest as she fell over Jan who was standing behind her. More shots were fired, but this time they were met by explosions fired from Wren's Photon Eraser. A sound like knives scraping together drew Kyra's attention and she turned to see Miun in mid-flight coming right for her. A reddish-lavender haze passed quickly before her eyes and suddenly Nei and the android were rolling on the ground.

A rush of wind blew the Esper's hair into her face. Brushing it aside, she saw Wren and Siren in a struggle -- might against might, wit against wit. The sounds of battle from Kyra's right alerted her to the struggle taking place there. Nei and Miun were equally matched, both slicing at each other with their claws, both evading each other's attack. It was like they were shadow boxing where one could not get the better of the other.

Though engaged in battle, Miun seemed surprised that anything organic could move as swiftly as her. Ever since she first lay her eyes on them, she knew there was a resemblance between herself and Siren and two of the visitors. Lost in her thoughts, the android briefly let her guard down and Nei delivered a blow across her face. Though painful, it did not cause much damage. Instead, it seemed to enrage her and she submerged herself into battle with the organic who resembled her so much.

Wren, on the other hand, found a worthy opponent in Siren. The almost exact duplicate of him possessed immense strength equal to his own. They swung each other around while at the same time countering the other's moves. It was a stalemate and Wren began to wonder if this struggle was necessary since it appeared that no one would win. They would continue to fight until one of them ripped of an arm, kicked off a leg, or decapitated an opponent. It was a ceaseless struggle and one of them would have to give soon.

Kyra felt strong hands lift her up and help her stand. Gryz recovered from his blunder and was beginning to realize the enormity of the situation. Demi used Recover to repair her damage and went to stand by Kyra's side. Jan stood behind all of them, taking a few moments to peer between them out of curiosity. "Wow," the Motavian commented morosely, "it's sort of like watching identical twins fight each other."

The Esper Leader agreed, although she did not acknowledge it. She was dumbfounded by what was happening before her eyes. The possibility that they would encounter AI's that were almost the spitting image of Wren and Nei were almost a billion to one, but there they were. Chance could not have played a part in this; there was obviously a higher power at work. Kyra surmised that if Rika was created in Nei's image, the only way that Miun could have possibly assumed an identity so similar to Nei's was if she was created about the same time.

It was the same situation with Wren, too. From what she knew of her friend's past, Kyra guessed that more than one model of his type of android was built at that time. She had heard him mention at one time that this was so, that another model, built even before him but identical, was destroyed with the passing of Palma. Could there have been another Wren-type android built that no one knew about, she asked herself. Maybe a copy of his original schematics survived the destruction of Palma somehow and Siren was built. The Esper Leader's conclusions made sense to her even though they did not explain what Siren and Miun were doing there.

Nei fought valiantly for her life and for the lives of her friends, but despite her best efforts mortal musculature could not stand up to the metal joints and the seemingly ceaseless reservoir of energy that Miun possessed. Each slash was becoming weaker and because she was slowing down, her opponent appeared to speed up. Miun slashed her across the chest but luckily she took the precaution of putting on some of Rika's old protective clothing and her injuries were minimal. The Numan tried to deliver a counter attack, but her opponent was quicker. Miun's Claw allowed her to perform incredible feats of strength and agility. Faster than even Nei's eyes could see, she slashed an innumerable amount of times in no more than a few seconds and the next thing the Numan saw was the floor.

Wren's struggle was no less valiant even though it was more evenly matched. Both he and Siren stared into each other's eyes, searching for a weakness or at least an opportunity. Siren pushed off of his opponent, propelling himself away from his enemy. Wren saw his mechanical twin draw his weapon and he did the same but came to really appreciate the value of a few milliseconds. Fast on the draw, Siren fired first and Wren felt for the first time the power of his weapon. Siren's Shot was more than just a weapon -- it was more like a living being who could sense the precise way to bring an opponent down. Whether organic or mechanical, it was truly one of the most dangerous firearm ever created. It adjusted itself to bring Siren's enemy to a halt and Wren felt his entire body being electrocuted. Knowing that such an immense power surge would irrevocably damage his system, the android reacted quickly and deactivated everything. Like a marionette who had its strings severed, he fell into a heap.

Confident that he was defeated, Siren approached the now defunct Wren to make sure he was deactivated. He kicked his opponent's body and it rolled over lifelessly, causing grief in an unseen person. Jan screamed and wailed like a child who had just lost her parents in a tragic accident. Gryz, Kyra, and a repaired Demi jumped at the shrillness of her scream and none of them could grab the middle Nance before she managed to run out to Wren. Siren watched the young girl intently as she knelt next to him and wept. "Only a true Orakian would ever weep over the loss of a battle android," he said. "Come with us, girl, Miun and I will take you away from those Layans." Jan looked up and glared at the android who was reaching down to take her arm.

"Stay away from me!" she screamed, "and stay away from Wren!"

Jan reached down and removed the pouch hanging from her waist. Reaching into it, she brought out a handful of the magical "Wish Dust" and, with a clumsy turn, flung it at Siren. The strange substance dispersed in the air and adhered to the android who expected something to happen, but was pleasantly surprised to find that nothing did. "I see your mind has been warped by the enemy. You are probably too far gone to be salvaged so I will spare you the pain of spending the rest of your life poisoned by their lies. Be brave, young one. Your pain will be over quickly." Siren aimed his weapon at the young girl who seemed to be stunned, not by the fact that her life was about to end, but by something else. The android hesitated, seeing the confusion in her eyes. Tears began streaming down her eyes and she stood up to Siren with courage worthy of the greatest warrior.

"Rika!" she screamed. "You said that the Dust would protect me! I needed you, Rika, and you lied to me!"

It was then that Jan discovered that Rika did not lie to her. The particles of "Wish Dust" suddenly flared to life, sprouting blue flames from his body. Siren took a step and it was his only one as the substance sprouted like vines and entombed him in a crystalline sarcophagus.

"Siren!" Miun shrieked.

The android rushed over to her companion and eyed him carefully to determine the extent and seriousness of Siren's condition. Jan trembled in anger and fear, her hand reaching back into her pouch just as Miun turned around to face her. "Why you little --" Jan tried to jump out of her path, but Miun, being ten times quicker than her, slashed at her back and the girl landed limply on top of Wren.

The sudden movement caused some of Wren's systems to reactivate which eventually led to a spontaneous activation of Recover. All of his systems came online and he was instantly aware of everything around of him, including the small body lying on top of him. Rolling over, it slid off of him and he saw the bloody wounds stretching from Jan's right shoulder all the way down to her left hip. "Jan!!!" a voice screamed.

Flames shot forth in rage from Kyra's fingertips and somehow Miun managed to get out of the way before she was incinerated. Wren felt the fire inside as well, Jan's small, broken body serving as the tinder to fuel his flame. Seeing Miun go after his other friends, he was instantly pushed over the edge.

The big android leapt into action, blind siding Miun before she had time to react. Striking her across the face with a blow that could have penetrated solid steel armor three inches thick, she reeled backward and hit the floor with a thud. Now it was time for Nei to vent her anger, appearing out of nowhere to deliver the final blow against their foe. Thrusting her claws downward, one of them fell short of its mark, but the other was true, driving deeply into her left shoulder. Feet kicked up and struck Nei's head and she keeled over.

Miun dislodged Nei's claw and stood up. A rush of wind alerted her to Gryz's strike, his large axe making as much sound as a screaming banshee. She slashed at him, but the Motavian found speed and strength born of anger and expertly blocked all of her attempts to end his life. Metal scratched against metal; how Gryz was able to move his axe as fast as he did was a wonder in itself. Miun eventually got a hit in and kicked him in the gut, forcing him to recoil.

Like a bolt of lightning, Demi appeared out of nowhere just before Miun attacked Gryz. She hit the other android across her face with the butt of her Sonic Buster then turned around and swept her feet out from under her. Seeing her red-haired adversary down, she fired her Phonomezer.

Miun managed to return to her feet and was instantly exposed to an attack of intense sound. Her body shook and vibrated, her internal circuitry trembling with strain. She looked to her companion who was encased in crystal and noticed that a crack had appeared in it. Straining against Phonomezer's might, she stumbled over to Siren and drove her claws into his sarcophagus, shattering the perfect crystalline structure.

The moment Siren emerged from his prison he fired on Demi, forcing her to disengage the Phonomezer. He was aware of everything happening around him even though he was incapacitated. Utterly helpless, he watched Miun get pummeled by their foes. Now that he was free, Siren was determined to destroy each and every one of them.

Siren's Shot sensed many enemies and converted its attacking method to one that would encompassed all of them. Its master fired and a pulse of energy emerged in a vulcan-style method. Wren was hit first, the pulse travelling through his body, then, like a possessed frog, jumped to the bodies of his companions. All five of them doubled over in pain as they felt like their insides were being crushed by gigantic hands. Reaching his hand out to Miun who recovered from her wounds quickly, he extended an invitation to her to end their enemies' existence.

Kyra turned to face Miun and Siren and watched their plan develop. Miun stood before the five of them, one claw held aloft while her companion took careful aim with his weapon. Siren fired and charged Miun's Claw with raw, untamed energy. With the last burst of her waning strength, Kyra managed to use her Esper magic to physically lift her and her friends out of harm's way just as Miun delivered Deathstrike. The Esper Leader watched four bright-red slash marks light up the air, their presence both frightening and sobering. The marks remained for about five seconds, then faded.

Their plans foiled, Siren and Miun switched to a backup. Threads of energy shot out from their fingertips and intermingled, forming a web-like net which they threw over their soon-to-be captives. Wren had a different idea, however, and fired the Photon Eraser at the webbing, causing it to disintegrate. Then, upon his Esper friend's urging, he launched Burst Rockets into the air.

Using Nafoi, Kyra detonated Wren's Burst Rockets and Shooting Star rained down on their targets. Siren appeared to be stunned by their surprising combination of android Skill and "Layan" Technique. Fiery explosions blocked their view of the two androids briefly and five pairs of eyes watched anxiously to see whether or not Miun and Siren would emerge still functional if they emerged at all. When the smoke finally cleared, both were on their hands and knees, their energy spent.

Having defeated their enemy for the time being, Demi led her companions to where Jan's fragile little body still lay. Kneeling next to her, Demi put her hands on her wounds and called upon her Medic Power to heal them. Electrical pulses entered Jan's body and she flinched, but the action seemed more like a reflex than a conscious reaction. The middle Nance began to breathe slowly, then regularly. Demi and her companions breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Wren lifted Jan from the cold metal floor and carried her gently, following the path already set by Kyra and Nei. The two already walked toward Miun and Siren, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of foolishness. "Why are you here?" the Esper Leader asked. "What is your purpose."

Siren looked up at them, looming above him. "I remember battling a Layan called Ayn and losing to him. Everything is a blur from that point on."

"My last clear thought was seeing my Master, Orakio's, sword again," Miun added. "The only thing I remember before that is wandering around a desert for what seemed like days."

"Then, we were here, our primary programs altered. We were to repair this old mainframe called 'Daughter,' so that it might breathe life into this planet again."

"Only it would not have breathed life into it," Nei told them. "Daughter would have wreaked havoc here and killed off every living organism on this planet."

"We did not know this, please believe us," Miun pleaded. "Had we known, we would have deactivated ourselves. There was a darkness inside us --"

"Say no more," Kyra said. "Wherever Darkness is concerned, no one can be responsible for his or her actions."

"What will you do now that you have failed your directive?" Wren queried.

"Who knows?" Miun replied. "Perhaps we'll just stay here and live out the rest of our existence. We might still do some good. Maybe we'll straighten out these old Warbots."

"Just a word of advice --" Demi interjected, "don't try and repair Daughter. Not only will it destroy Motavia, but it will most likely destroy you and Siren as well. Daughter had a thing about non-registered AI's."

"Return to the entrance of this fortress," said Siren. "You will have safe passage out and the exit will be open."

After saying good-bye to Siren and Miun, Gryz led his companions out of the room and back toward their freedom from the place which held them captive for what felt like an eternity. No one knew where these androids came from, but they turned out to be decent in the end. They spouted out words that sounded so foreign to them. Whatever their true identities, they were true to their words, and not a single AI attacked them so far.

Carrying Jan's still unconscious body, Wren was silent, thoughtful. Lodged deep within his memories was the knowledge of creation, his creation, and the creation of two others. But the memories were not his own; no, they were most likely implanted by Zelan itself during Wren's creation. Seeing Siren, an AI almost completely identical to himself and yet entirely different, he began to wonder if he was, indeed, one of those other androids that preceded him. If he was, where was the other. Wren became a mindless automaton, following like an obedient puppy wherever his companions led him. The big android had much to mull through, and it would have to wait until he and his friends were safe.

They eventually made it to Vahal's exit and just like Siren promised, the door stood wide open. Walking out, each and every one of them welcomed Algo's searing heat because it was a change from the cold, lifeless insides of the fortress. It was while walking back out to the hydrofoil that both Kyra and Nei felt a disturbance undetectable by their friends. Kyra was unable to interpret it, but Nei could. She knew all too well what just occurred over a hundred miles away from them.

"What is it?" Gryz questioned.

"A confrontation just took place --" Nei returned, "the confrontation I feared and hoped would never happened. I have had my suspicions about the child that attacked us on Dezoris, but never had support them. Now, I'm afraid I do. Come, we must return quickly to Aiedo. I'm afraid what we'll find there is not good."

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