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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chaz Ashley blacked out momentarily as something large hit him from the side. Seconds later, Gi-Le-Farg unleashed a spell that surely would have killed the Hunter instantly. Chaz rolled over and over again on Aiedo's streets with the large object that saved his life, eventually coming to a stop. His eyes fluttered open to see Karl Nance on top of him. Chaz and his friends had saved his children's lives before and now he saved his. Karl was a capable man, strong and confident, and only a knee injury kept him from being a brother Hunter in his profession.

An eerie blue light filled the area with a strobe effect. Karl lifted himself off of Chaz and the Hunter saw Legeon's supernatural explosions fight to keep Gi-Le-Farg at bay, but even that powerful spell had little effect on them. Raja quickly put himself between his friends and the three sorcerers, casting Blessing as a defense. A jagged bolt of energy shot through the mystical shield and the Archbishop was propelled backward at a high rate of speed. Rune and Hahn tried to stop him safely, but were bowled over in the process.

Chaz jumped into action, raising his Guard sword high above his head. With one swift motion he managed to encompass Gi-Le-Farg with Airslash. What normally would have been a lethal strike became nothing more than a minor annoyance to the sorcerers. Their bodies split in half, then like gelatin, fused together, making them whole. "Chaz!" Hahn shouted. "Get ready to receive!"

"I'm ready, Hahn!"

Like a match lighting up a pitch-black room, Astral ignited all of Hahn's surroundings in a brilliant orange haze. Chaz's sword became a torch, collecting all of it's power, concentrating into the single, powerful assault known as Paradin Blow. Under normal circumstances, one of the sorcerers would have died right there on the spot. Granted some unnatural power, Gi-Le-Farg placed three bony hands together and caught the energy collected from Paradin Blow and turned it on their foes.

All of Aiedo shook under Gi-Le-Farg's might. As a single entity, they possessed the ability to become an energy collector of sorts, drawing in offensive power and using it against their enemies. Buildings trembled and the sky suddenly darkened over in ominous waves of grayish-black clouds. "What's going on?" Hahn shouted over the roar of a wind which appeared out of nowhere.

"Armageddon!" Rune shouted back.

"I don't get it! Gi-Le-Farg was never this powerful in 'The Edge!' Why has their power grown so much?"

"I might surmise it's because in 'The Edge,' its power was limited! That place belonged to the Profound Darkness and its strength was absolute there!" A bolt of lightning streamed down from the clouds and forced Rune and Hahn to dive for cover. "I do admit that this seems to be a little over exaggerated, though!"

Karl Nance grabbed Chaz's arm and jerked him around. "Are you all right, Chaz?" he asked gruffly.

"I'm fine, Karl," the Hunter replied, "thanks to you. Where did you come from?"

"My kids snuck out again and I came out looking for them. I happened to catch you and your friends in the heat of battle here and knew I could do something if the chance arose."

The Hunter's head snapped around as Tandle exploded from the sky, its unbridled power strengthened by Nawat. Conductive Thunder's jagged, razor-edged sound effects was like the howling of a dozen wolves closing in on its prey. Hahn and Rune used their abilities to hold the sorcerers at bay, not having much effect on them at all. Suddenly, celestial flames appeared out of nowhere and Gi-Le-Farg reeled back from the holy attack. Raja cast Saint Fire again and for the first time since their appearance, the sorcerers retreated.

Rune's cape flew while his hands wove the strands of the Esper Skill Efess while Raja's prepared to speak the words of his native tongue that could kill instantly. Their minds in sync, Esper and Archbishop were barely able to cast Purify Light just before a gust of wind caught them. Fortunately for Gi-Le-Farg, the suddenness of it was able to disrupt what possibly could have been a fatal blow to them.

Sand began to blow in from all around Aiedo with the unnatural winds created by Gi-Le-Farg's display of power. They seemed to be able to control everything in their surroundings, even to control their surroundings, much like a powerful Telemental can manipulate the forces of nature. "I must go to the aid of my friends," Chaz told Karl. "I won't keep you from joining us, but the decision is up to you."

"I've done my part here, Chaz," the eldest Nance said. "You and your friends are our only hope now and I'd only get in the way. Now, go out there and get to work."

The two men clasped hands, Karl seeming to want to lend all his strength to the Hunter. The eldest Nance felt, however, in their joining, a noticeable weakness in Chaz, one that should not have been there. The Hunter was too caught up in his actions to take notice and Karl almost held him back which would have not taken much effort. It was his hope that despite any loss of strength he was experiencing, he could still make the difference in their struggle.

Raja's Nares Staff lit up like a torch while he swung it at one of the sorcerers. As big and bulky as it was, towering at nearly eleven feet, it was incredibly agile. The air hummed with Raja's mystical prowess, his distinction as both an Archbishop and a warrior of reputable skill evident. By his side was an unlikely, yet equally skilled person who disguised himself under the role of a Scholar. Hahn's competence with his Mahlay Dagger was unparalleled despite how easily Gi-Le-Farg avoided his attacks. Any other person would not have gotten close, yet each of Hahn's blows fell nearer his mark.

Rune was determined not to be left out. Even though he clearly made his presence known through purely Esper methods, the Reverent Fifth was not without a certain amount of dexterity with a staff. Although rarely used, the Guard Staff was always somewhere on his body, hidden from sight, should he should ever have to abandon his Esper skills for a more crude method of warfare.

Now was one of those times.

Forged from the same strange metal as Chaz's sword and Nei's claws, Rune's Guard Staff was imbued with a strange power only known to exist on the planet of Rykros. The metal protected its wielder from extraordinarily powerful attacks, actually redirecting the physical exertion back onto itself. Often times what should have been a lethal blow ended up nothing more that a stiff breeze. Plus, as an added feature, anyone who was fortunate to be standing near one who used the metal fell under its graces as well.

Gi-Le-Farg continued its onslaught, apparently not phased by their enemies retaliation. Deadly, merciless, they were content with toying with them, letting them believe that their actions were wearing them down when in fact they were not even straining. Chaz ran toward them as fast as his feet could carry him, but each step he took was becoming more labored, more difficult. It was as if his life drained from his body and could not be replenished. It suddenly struck the Hunter that when the Child fired on him, like when it attacked the Icedigger, it had a hidden effect. Whatever sorcery it used was gradually draining his strength, making him more and more helpless. Chaz realized that she did not want to kill him; watching his friends die first would be tremendously more painful.

Rune suddenly felt faint during the heat of battle for no apparent reason. No reason, as far as anyone could see, because what caused the Reverent Fifth to collapse was on a psychic level. A long, bony arm struck him across the head and sent him reeling. Rune's world tumbled head over heels and he occasionally saw a figure pass across his line of sight. When he was done rolling and the spinning stopped, he realized that while Raja and Hahn still battled Gi-Le-Farg to his left, to his right Chaz struggled to come to his friends' aid despite some debilitating injury he must have sustained.

Oh, no! Rune thought. I forgot that we still share a telepathic bridge! If something happens to Chaz it will happen to me, too!

"Rune?" a friendly but insistent voice asked. "Are you all right?" The Reverent Fifth felt Raja's hands touch his shoulders in an attempt to get him on his feet. The Archbishop's gaze turned toward Chaz and he instinctively knew that they were connected.

"Chaz was --" Rune managed, "in need . . . ."

"Why did you do it, Rune? You're always trying to help; I know that, but you should have realized that Chaz needed to get over this on his own, without your help. You of all people should have known that."

Raja glanced over his shoulder to check on how Hahn was doing. The Scholar was masterfully leading Gi-Le-Farg farther away from his friends, using Nawat to occasionally bring their attention back to him. He felt guilty for not being at his side at this particular moment, but Hahn knew the importance of having all of them in battle and urged him to go. The Archbishop could heal many conditions, but where Esper magic was involved he did not have any domain.

Seeing Rune's Guard Staff near him, Raja picked it up and shouted to his friend. "Hahn!" he threw the staff to him, knowing that it would protect him from any major blow Gi-Le-Farg might deal, "use this!" The Guard Staff whirled through the air and landed just before Hahn's feet who eagerly seized it and held it aloft. Magic within the metal flared to life as his foes attacked him with blazing bolts of Tandle. Unscathed, Hahn managed to gasp with surprise, then re-engaged his opponents.

"Rune," the Archbishop turned his attention to the dilemma before him, "you must sever this cord you have drawn around Chaz."

"I will not!"

"You fool! It won't do you or anyone else good if both of you die! I'm worried about him, too, but there are other lives at stake here, not just ours!"

Raja was, of course, right, and it pained Rune to come to admit that. The Reverent Fifth was so adamant about keeping Chaz mentally fit that he lost sight of his true intention which was merely to ease his pain, not to completely repress it like he had been attempting to do. He was, after all, Rune Walsh, Esper extra ordinaire, scion of the Reverent Lutz, Protector of Algo, and Possessor of the Telepathy Ball. There was nothing that he was not capable of doing for himself or others.

"I must have at least a few minutes with Chaz . . ." Rune struggled to speak, "to break our psychic link."

"I don't know if we have a few minutes, Rune! Those sorcerers are dogging our every move!"

"Go assist Hahn and leave us here. I will join you shortly."

Raja turned to leave but felt hesitant given the circumstances. He could go and help his Scholar friend who was beginning to drown and throw him a life jacket, but then Rune and Chaz would be left vulnerable until the Esper could break his spell. Not going to Hahn's aid would almost certainly spell his doom. The Archbishop vacillated between scenarios, then finally decided to place his trust in Rune's powers which had never failed him before. "Hey!" he shouted, bringing Gi-Le-Farg's attention to him, "you sorry wastes of perfectly good cloak! Why don't you come over here and say 'hi' to my Nares Staff."

* * * * *

With the last ounce of his waning strength, Rune managed to pull Chaz close to him. The Hunter was mildly delusional and did not quite know what was going on. The Reverent Fifth agonized over having to sever their connection. He did not want him to ever feel that he abandoned him in any way even if it was for the best. If one good thing could possibly come out of this it was that he never knew of what Rune did. "Rune?" the Hunter asked. "What are you doing?"

"I must cast a spell, Chaz," he spoke softly, "and you might die because of it. But if I don't cast it, then we'll both die."

"I understand." A solid Laconian dagger drove deeply into the Reverent Fifth's heart. Although he never admitted as much, he thought of Chaz as a friend, a brother, and a son. Despite his youthful visage, he was, in fact, over a century old. Rune never fathered any children in all that time, so when he and Chaz first met (which was not under the best circumstances), he found someone to attach himself to.

The Esper Council had begged him for an heir, even going as far as to offer a lottery of eligible women. The Reverent Fifth would not have it, though, saying that such a blatant display of chauvinism was disgusting and disrespectful. The truth was that Rune had never been in love with another Esper enough to even consider giving her the responsibility of raising their future leader, the Reverent Sixth. She would have to raise the child in his absence since he would most likely return to the Hibernation Chamber, returning once every ten years to check on him. Upon returning on the child's twentieth birthday, he would relinquish his responsibility as Protector of Algo to his son or daughter and live out the rest of his existence which would be a matter of months to a couple of years. Outside of the effects of the Hibernation Chamber, he would age rapidly, hence the quick, often merciful, death.

Rune was not, and had never been, one who followed the masses, much to his people's dislike. He had a way of doing things on his own which was unorthodox for a Lutz to do, but he managed to get things accomplished nonetheless. He hated feeling obligated to have a child when he had never experienced love in its truest sense. The Reverent Fifth saw how young people in love acted, wanted to feel what they felt. It was not as if Rune had never been with a female, that happened in his days as a youth, before his twentieth birthday. In his advanced age, he began to wonder if it would ever happen and decided to give the Council what they desired -- an heir.

That was when he met Chaz on his fateful quest to Tonoe with Alys and Hahn. Sure, they quarreled plenty of times at first, but after Alys died and he saw just how devoted the Hunter was to her and her quest, his opinion of him changed. By the time their journey was completed and the Profound Darkness was seemingly vanquished, he had bonded with Chaz like he had with no one else. They went their separate ways, but Rune never forgot about his young friend, about the bond they shared.

For almost a year he watched Chaz blossom into an adult and for him that year was nearly a lifetime. He imagined that it was, in fact, just that, and found himself prided by the young Hunter's accomplishments. Seeing all that was satisfaction enough to fill the void of missing his own child grow into an adult. As far as he was concerned, Chaz was his son, and no one, not even the Darkness itself, could ever take that from him. The problem was that Chaz was not of pure Esper blood and would never be accepted as one of Lutz's generation. No father would ever wish that kind of responsibility onto his child with a clear conscience, anyway.

Now Rune was faced with the possibility that his 'son' would die at his hands. Better, he thought, by his hands then by the hand of Darkness. Still, he could not bring himself to do it. Chaz risked everything, lost almost everything important to him in life, and someone owed him a favor.

That was why Rune so desperately wanted to extend his hand in support of his friend. Fate took so much from Chaz that the Reverent Fifth's primary concern was to give, give, give. To give back at least a portion of what the Hunter had given would only satiate his need to be his father figure. Was it not the goal of every father to give his child more than he had in life at the same age? He tried to think of some way to improve the situation, but time was short and he did not have more than maybe a minute. Rune gave all he had to offer to the Hunter. Now, he was forced to take it away.

"Why did you do it, Rune?" Chaz asked, the words seeming to come of their own volition. The Reverent Fifth was shocked into speechlessness. "Why couldn't you let me deal with this myself?" Rune spoke the words of the spell which would magically link their minds again, then sever the connection they shared. A blue aura surrounded Esper and Hunter in a protective blanket. For a brief moment, they were facing each other on a separate, but parallel, plane of existence.

"I only wanted to help, Chaz," Rune explained, "please believe me. Of all the people that I have cared about in my long life, you would be the first I would help, and the last I'd hurt."

"I'm not angry with you, my friend," Chaz's voice was filled with benevolence and nearly brought the Reverent Fifth to tears. "I admit that I needed help pulling through this, but you could have lent me that help by being my friend. You have so much power that you've lost touch with the real person inside of you, the real Rune Walsh, the one who can heal with friendship and love, not with Techniques or Skills."

"I couldn't bear to see you suffer, Chaz. I knew it was within my power to help you."

"For which I am grateful, but the consequences of your actions are as plain as day now. What will you do, Rune Walsh? Will you stay here and perish with me or will you rejoin the world of the living and give Raja and Hahn a fighting chance at survival, not to mention all of the people in Aiedo?"

Rune was quiet and suddenly felt awkward. Even though he had his head bowed, he could still feel the Hunter's eyes burning into him, searching out his soul. I have all these powers, he thought, and I couldn't save Rika. I failed her by not even being there. Now, Chaz is dying and I am helpless. Some Lutz I turned out to be. I can't even save the lives of those closest to me. This is the turning point of my life as I'm concerned. If I strengthen the connection between our minds perhaps both of us will pull through. If I sever our link, Chaz will most likely die, but Hahn, Raja, and the people of Aiedo will live. After everything I have done wrong for Chaz, maybe letting him wait for his wife's return in the Light is the most merciful act I can bestow on him.

"What will you do, Rune Walsh." The Reverent Fifth's eyes filled with tears.

"I will let you die."

* * * * *

Raja and Hahn fought valiantly against impossible odds. They held their ground for as long as they could, but found themselves giving up more than gaining. Gi-Le-Farg did not have to do much because the Scholar and his Archbishop companion's strength was waning with each failed attack. Like the feline who chooses to play with its prey, waiting until it dies to feast on it, the sorcerers would wait until their charges no longer amused them, then finish them off.

Winds continued to blow sand through Aiedo unabated. While Raja's scaly, thicker skin protected him from the continuous sand blasting, Hahn was not so fortunate. His face burned with an unnatural fire, his hands felt raw and were beginning to bleed, and the moisture seemed to be sucked from his mouth. His body ached so much that he could no longer concentrate enough to use Techniques or Skills. Raja tried to cast Blessing to take away the sting, but his opponents negated the shield the moment it was cast.

A gust of wind caught Gi-Le-Farg off guard and all three tumbled head-first. Hahn peered through half-closed eyelids and saw Rune reborn, whatever condition that struck him earlier purged. The Scholar had seen him display his Esper prowess before, but he was really going all out this time. Winds created by Gi-Le-Farg swirled under the Reverent Fifth's command and his body glowed in an aura of blue light. Lightning burst from dark clouds, striking him yet having no visible effect. Then, like the magnifying glass that intensifies light, Rune's body discharged all of the collected energy at the sorcerers. Hahn and Raja were barely able to dive for cover before it struck, scattering Gi-Le-Farg in three directions.

Targeting one of his red-cloaked enemies, Rune used Hewn to put some distance between it and its other two companions. The Reverent Fifth's hand snapped forward, releasing a spheroid of black death. Diem impacted its target and like a moon eclipsing a sun, a shadow enveloped the sorcerer. It fought and struggled against the powerful Esper spell, but could do nothing to fight it. When it finally dropped lifeless, part of the magic that wove itself around all of Aiedo faded and the winds lessened ever so slightly. The other two sorcerers' magic worked to correct for their loss, but could not replenish it fully.

Gi-Le-Farg raised their bony, corpse-like arms and their blood-red cloaks flared to life. A sound like the screaming of a thousand dying children reverberated through the city. Rays of light burst forth from the sorcerer's clothing and Rune was barely able to wrap his cape protectively around his body before the strange light passed over him. The Reverent Fifth was instantly overwhelmed by incessant, bone-chilling sound of the screams and could not block it out of his mind. Like a balloon he felt pressure build up within his head and knew that it would surely explode if he did not react quickly. Concentrating the best he could, Rune called upon the spell which would summon the power of otherworldly creatures to come to his aid. In an awesome explosion, Efess erupted, but its target was not the ones who assaulted the Reverent Fifth. Instead, Rune used its power to counteract whatever sorcery Gi-Le-Farg was using against him. The screaming stopped, replaced by the soothing, hushed words of creatures who lent Rune their strength.

Falling to his knees, Rune was pleasantly surprised to find that his enemies terminated their assault. He felt strong arms lift and aid him away from the remaining two sorcerers. Looking to his left, he saw Raja, steady, firm, his mind set on where they were going. To his right he saw Hahn, trembling, injured by the blowing sand, almost ready to collapse. He and his friends were in a poor state of health. He had thought that he could make all the difference in the world, that he alone would prevail and carry his friends to safety. Now, there he was being carried by his friends. It seemed that he brought himself back from the brink of death only to perish anyway.

Raja and Hahn aided Rune's faltering footsteps until they reached Chaz who lay face down on the street. After a stern protestation, they finally let him walk under his own power. Tired, withdrawn, Hahn placed his hands under Chaz's arms and began dragging what was all but dead weight away from their pursuers. Raja somehow remained the healthiest of the four and put himself between them and danger. Gi-Le-Farg pursued at a slow pace, feeding off their fear, forcing them back into a virtual wall where they would fight pitiably for their lives.

"Ahhhhhhhh!" came a shout.

From out of nowhere, Fenlye appeared like a madness-stricken berserker. He thrust his short sword at Gi-Le-Farg who was caught off guard by the oldest Nance. The two sorcerers reeled back for a moment, startled by his gall and unsure if this young one possessed some unknown power. "Fenlye!" Raja yelled, "get away from there!" The oldest Nance was either ignoring the Archbishop or could not hear him over the roar of the storm. Surprisingly enough, he showed his dexterity with a sword by managing to rip into one of the sorcerer's cloaks. A long, bony finger knocked his weapon away, then struck him across his chest. Fenlye found himself flying backward and did not land softly. Raja grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "What are you doing here?" the Archbishop demanded.

"I --" he began, but the desert air acted as a desiccant and he had to swallow to moisten his mouth, "I saw what was happening. You four are Aiedo's last hope and if you fail then we're all dead anyway, so I wanted to help." Fenlye averted his gaze. "I'm not afraid to die."

"It's not whether or not you die that matters," Raja said gravely, "it's how you die."

Hahn continued to pull Chaz's defunct body backward followed by a limping Rune, then Fenlye and Raja. They managed to put a considerable amount of distance between themselves and Gi-Le-Farg who did not seem concerned at all. Why waste time and energy chasing after prey who have already been bitten and are waiting for the poison to take effect?

Hahn felt a weak struggle from Chaz and stopped briefly. Everyone turned around to see what was happening. The Hunter's eyes fluttered open briefly and his lips parted in a single, silent word: "Fenlye." The oldest Nance hurried to his hero's side and knelt next to him, putting his ears as close to Chaz's mouth as possible to hear his failing words. "Take my sword . . ." he told him, "help my friends . . . ."

"How can I help?" Fenlye pleaded. "I -- I don't know how to do anything right! All I ever seem to do is get myself and my sister and brother in trouble!"

"Be brave, Fenlye, and remember the lessons I taught you . . . ."

Fenlye reached down and took the Guard sword from Chaz's hand. Despite its large size, it felt amazingly light to him, like it adjusted its weight to match the strength of whoever wielded it. He swung it deftly, then turned to face the enemy. "What can you do with it?" Raja queried.

"I don't know yet," came his honest response. "I think I know what Chaz is talking about, but I've never actually done it before. He's only given me a few lessons."

"What lesson is that?"

"He was trying to teach me how to execute Crosscut."

"Well," Rune spoke up, "if Chaz has that much faith in you, then we must, too." The Reverent Fifth straightened himself. "Fenlye, you and I have the only chance of ending this positively."

"Oh, yea, that's right," Hahn commented, "just put the weight of the world on his shoulders, Rune." The Reverent Fifth hated hearing Hahn's remark but realized, as the Scholar suggested in so many words, that placing such an onus on one so young was not the correct path to take.

"Clear your mind;" Rune chose his words carefully, "when you feel our thoughts synchronize, you will know when to perform the Crosscut Skill."

"I -- I understand," a nervous Fenlye stuttered.

"There must not be any trace of doubt in your mind or this will not work."

Fenlye nodded and gulped. Like he mentioned before, the oldest Nance never actually executed a perfect Crosscut although he had thought he came close. There was too much pressure on him. Never in his life did he ever imagine that he would take the place of his hero in a life and death struggle. Fenlye envied everything about the Hunter. Now, he realized that being a hero and an idol was not all it was cut out to be.

Fenlye swung his sword, his first attempt at Crosscut a pathetic failure. "Concentrate," Rune advised, "it's all right if you don't succeed at first, but determination is only the first step to executing a Skill." The youngest Nance nodded, his forehead moist with nervous perspiration. He swung again -- another failed attempt. "You must also have the courage to face your enemy, and faith in that you can defeat it." Fenlye heeded Rune's words and fought an urge to make another attempt, choosing to concentrate on the Reverent Fifth's advice. "Finally, you must have the wisdom to believe in yourself, to purge all trace of failure from your mind. When these three elements come together, the Skill will be complete."

Fenlye swept the Guard sword from left to right, then lifted it high and thrust downward quickly, but still nothing happened. The oldest Nance was getting frustrated and did not know how much longer he could stand the pressure. His entire body was wet with sweat and his heart felt like it pumped the entire volume of blood in his veins every ten seconds. He felt Raja's reassuring touch on his shoulder, but it was more of a way of letting him know it was all right that he tried than a supportive touch. At that moment, Fenlye could have curled up in a ball and cried.

Movement caught the oldest Nance's eye and his head snapped to his right. There, protected from the wind by a house, stood his younger brother, Bjorn. Despite the distance between them, he could see Bjorn's bright eyes looking upon him fondly. In reality, the youngest Nance looked to him just as he looked to Chaz. He saw the innocence in his brother's eyes, saw the admiration and pride that was always there, yet not noticed until now. But most of all, Fenlye saw the love, felt the love, and knew that there was much more to fight for.

A larger figure moved toward Bjorn and Fenlye saw his father put a hand on his shoulder. Bjorn looked up and they joined hands. Karl looked at his son, angry that he had once again snuck out of his room, but proud that his son was doing his best to defend what he loved most in his life. Raja's hand slipped from his shoulder, his faith failing him. "Be brave, Fenlye . . ." he heard Chaz's words again. ". . . have the wisdom to believe in yourself . . ." Rune's words echoed.

Then it happened.

Fenlye felt the presence of another mind as they met on a psychic plane. It was like his body reacted instinctively and his arms moved under their own volition. He swept from left to right, then, in a split-second, raised the Guard sword high and thrust downward. At that moment, Rune cast Efess, and Grandcross ignited Aiedo's darkened streets.

Efess' otherworldly power actively sought out the impression left by Crosscut and inserted itself into it. The aftereffect was an explosion of immense proportions, the small cross-shaped insignia becoming an immense cross of blue light whose strength was three times that of its predecessor. Gi-Le-Farg fell back from the attack, their concentration and spells disrupted. The sand storm fell apart and clouds began to part, revealing blue sky. The fading light of day shined down on Aiedo.

Fenlye executed Crosscut again, the Skill's ability to leave a visible impression of a cross in thin air, intensified by Efess' supernatural power. The second Grandcross was enough to finally bring Gi-Le-Farg down and the remaining two sorcerers' bodies dropped lifelessly.

Fenlye dropped the sword due to a temporary lightheadedness. Adrenalin pumped through his veins at a high volume. He had never in his ten years experienced such power, never killed anything more than common vermin, and the gravity of what just happened was beginning to sink in. The oldest Nance stumbled but luckily Rune was there to catch him. "Well done, Fenlye!" the Reverent Fifth told him. "I believe you're on your way to becoming a fine Hunter!"

"I --" Fenlye began but did not get much farther then that. Out of nowhere a small figure ran out and latched itself onto his waist.

"Fenlye!" Bjorn exclaimed, excitement in his voice. "That was so cool!" Karl Nance walked out of the shadows and approached his son. Rune steadied the young, aspiring Hunter, then stepped away. Karl dropped to his knees and held out his arms into which his oldest son ran into their embrace.

"Fenlye," the elder Nance breathed, "my son. I am so proud of you. Already you have achieved what I strived many years to achieve but never did." Karl let go of his son and roughly grabbed his arms. "Still, I cannot begin to tell you how foolish that was!" Fenlye's father suddenly became angry and his grip tightened. "How could you sneak out after all you put your brother and sister before?" The oldest Nance began to squirm under his father's scrutiny who realized that he was inadvertently hurting him. "Fortunately, you weren't hurt this time, but one day your luck may run out on you. Fenlye, you must learn to carefully weigh the pros and cons of your decisions and take responsibility for them. You are grounded, young man, until I say you're not."

"But dad --" Karl's son began to protest, but then heard his father's words again.

"Young man," he said. Never before had he referred to his son as a 'man' and not just a 'boy' as he was fond of calling him. When a boy becomes a man in his father's eyes, it is a time in his eyes when the world opens up to new possibilities. It would be a long time before Karl truly saw his son as an equal, but Fenlye knew he took one giant step toward manhood.

"Yes, father," he said meekly, the first time he could remember taking responsibility for his actions. "Dad! We have to help Chaz!"

"It may already be too late for that," Raja said gravely. The Archbishop held Chaz's limp body in his arms, the Hunter's seemingly last breaths coming with great difficulty. "I've tried over and over again to heal him, but it is the Darkness which has brought on his condition and I cannot overcome it."

"Do not fear," Chaz spoked in a hush, "soon I will be one with the Light."

"But it's not your time," a voice spoke out. "I, of all people, should know that." All eyes turned in the direction of the voice which came from somewhere behind them.

Out of the shadows stepped six figures and the smallest of them immediately ran toward Karl and Fenlye. Jan ran into the embrace of her father and brother, any traces that she had a brush with death erased. She, too, played an important role in the lives of those she was with. Almost like instinct, she sensed that her brother changed in some way, knew that it was not merely a coincidence that he was with Chaz and his friends. Looking around, she saw the bodies of Gi-Le-Farg. "Fenlye," she began, "did you --" Fenlye did not have to answer because she could read it in his eyes.

Jan turned and embraced her brother. It was the first time she could remember actually wanting to. Fenlye, in return, sensed a change in his sister, felt the emotion pour from her. It was as if she experienced something so profound that only now did she realize the importance of those closest to her. Only after Jan told him of her harrowing experiences would he know how close he was to the truth at that time. "I love you, Fenlye," she said. The oldest Nance did not have to answer for their cheeks pressed against each other and she felt their tears intermingle. He was planning to tell her the very same thing, made a promise to himself that he would. Leave it to a girl to spoil his plans. Fenlye tightened his embrace and did not want to let go.

Nei and her companions approached Raja who was on his knees holding Chaz. "Nei," he said, a desperate plea in his voice, "help him. We can't lose Chaz, too, not him. I cannot heal him." The Archbishop's friends gathered around him. "I couldn't help Rika, either." The Numan crouched and took Chaz's hand into hers.

"The Darkness," she said. Raja nodded. "There is nothing that I can do."

"What?" Hahn questioned.

"But, Nei," Kyra spoke while realizing the enormity of the situation and began to weep, "you said that it was not his time!"

"Yes," Wren added, "if it is within your power to help Chaz, then please do it."

"It is not within my power," Nei returned coolly. Kyra was livid.

"Nei, how can you just let him --"

"Wait," Nei interrupted, "I said it was not within my power. I did not say that it could not be done."

"When Alys was struck by the Black Energy Wave," said Hahn, "no medicine, Technique, or Skill could heal her." The Numan put a hand on Chaz's forehead and closed her eyes. Concentrating intensely, she explored his being, determining the extent of his injuries.

"His soul is strong," she announced, "as is his will. The Darkness has a firm grasp of him, however, and will not let go. Although it may pain you to hear this now, I have to tell you that Chaz must die."

"NO!" Kyra roared, her voice strengthened by all of her friends.

"He must die. Only when life has left his body will the Darkness' grip on him lessen. Then, if all goes well, we can bring him back and purge its remnants."

"I will bring him back from death," Rune announced. "It's because of me that he is in this predicament, anyway."

"You were only doing what you thought was right," Nei told him like she knew of his actions all along. "Mortal folly is important in the aspect that we can learn from it." A choking gasp drew their attention back to Chaz. His eyelids fluttered wildly as his body began to convulse. Nei and Gryz moved to restrain his arms to keep him from striking Raja. The convulsions stopped almost immediately, but his body continued to tremble like a leaf on a tree. Everyone heard him gasp, a long, tortuous, inhalation. They waited for him to exhale, but it never happened.

Chaz was dead.

Kyra screamed, her sorrow like a ten-inch spike hammered into her heart. She ran toward her 'little brother', but was halted by Demi. "Kyra!" she pleaded. "Trust in Nei! You must have faith in that she knows what she is doing!"

"Can I do it now?" Rune asked, anxiety and despair present. "I will use the Rever Technique to revive him."

"Not yet," the Numan told him. "We must let as much time as possible to pass to weaken the Darkness' hold on him, but not too much time or else we'll never be able to revive him." Rune nodded although he was not comfortable about all of this. He overheard Demi telling Kyra to have faith in Nei and began questioning his own faith in her. Doubt was like an infected wound that poisoned the body it inhabited. Asking all of them to stay calm after one of their closest friends died was a lot to ask. "Do it now," she ordered.

The Reverent Fifth laid a hand on Chaz chest and used Rever. The Technique acted as a defibrillator of sorts, electrical shocks stimulating not only the heart into an active state, but also many of the body's other anatomical functions as well. Fortunately, much to everyone's relief, Chaz began to breathe again. Rune was able to resurrect him.

"You learn much in the Light," Nei spoke, her eyes closed. "While I was there, knowledge was abundant, and there was nothing that was not available to me. Souls talked about unrealized theories that were never proven, unfinished business with people or other things. I saw loved ones reunited, others who were torn from those they loved. Chaz, the person you loved most in life was taken from you, but you shall not suffer the same fate. There are still people here who love you and need you, but Darkness still holds you." Nei opened her eyes and her gaze went to three of her companions. "One of the theories that I overheard in the Light spoke of a way of combining Technique and Skill in such a way that it can purge Darkness from an individual. It involved using four different healing methods to revive the body, the mind, the heart, and the soul. In the presence of these four healing elements, Darkness cannot survive. Demi, Kyra, and Raja -- you and I possess the elements necessary to achieve what we desire. Join me."

Android, Esper, and Archbishop knelt down next to Chaz, forming a circle around him. They joined hands and waited in anticipation for Nei to tell them what to do. "We must do this in order of body, mind, heart, and soul. I will go first, then Demi, then Kyra, and finally Raja. Concentrate on the task before you. I'm not sure, but we may feel the Darkness enter our bodies temporarily as it is being purged, but hopefully it will be driven out completely. Hear us, Chaz, and come back to us."

Nei closed her eyes again and her friends did the same. The Numan used Nares, but it did not have an immediate effect, instead manifesting itself as a sphere of light which hovered above the Hunter's body. Demi used her Medic Power, the Skill lending its restorative power to that of Nares, causing the sphere to enlarge and become brighter. When Kyra cast Medice, the sphere began to pulsate with unused power. Raja was the last to contribute to their effort, casting the mystic spell, Miracle, and like an overfilled balloon, the sphere exploded, and Panacea immediately went to work.

The combination spell, Panacea, was only spoken about in furtive whispers, no one ever willing to become a test subject and exposing himself to Darkness. It was a theory passed down for over two thousand years, but never in that time were there ever four different restorative methods available. The amount of time that passed allowed for the development of new Techniques and Skills. Only after Nei's miraculous return with the knowledge that evaded her friends was the theory being put to the test.

Light as bright as Algo illuminated all of Aiedo, yet those fortunate enough to be observers did not shy away from it. It was an Elysian light working to drive all traces of Darkness from Chaz. Like Nei said, they felt the Darkness enter their bodies briefly as it was being removed from Chaz's. The feeling was unmistakable and inexplicable. Raja, Demi, and Kyra felt their bodies become cold and a pain like a giant hand grabbed and lifted them by their insides. Chill hands like those belonging to dead caressed them, tried to make them break free of each other. Their common love for Chaz bound them strongly together, though, and feeling what he was feeling strengthened their determination.

The light faded and Aiedo was plunged into night's shroud, but it was a comforting darkness. Nei, Demi, Raja, and Kyra separated and observed that Chaz still lay flat on the ground, but his breathing was noticeably at ease. The Numan placed a hand on his chest like she did before and another on his forehead. She concentrated and listened to make sure nothing was askew, then, after a few tense moments, spoke. "We did it. The Darkness is gone. Chaz will make a full recovery." The Hunter's friends breathed a collective sigh of relief. "Come on, let's get back to the house. We will all rest better there."

Wren gently lifted Chaz and they headed back to his home. Karl and his children accompanied them most of the way up until their paths parted. Bidding a fond farewell, the Nance's took the road that would lead them home. Nei led her companions to Chaz's house and went inside, leaving the terrors of the day's events behind.

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