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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Three


Gryz and Pana entered Aiedo early in the morning, their journey long and tiring but not tumultuous. Had they made it only a year before, it would have taken almost twice the amount of time, having to constantly guard against Biomonster attacks. Also, Gryz would have made it by himself, not wanting to endanger his sister's life. As it was, though, both of them made it without so much as a skirmish. Recalling where Chaz and Rika's home was, he led Pana deeper into the heart of Aiedo.

Walking its streets, Gryz began to remember his first visit, the first time he had ever seen the Hunter's Guild. It all seemed so magnificent, an entire class of Palmans who competed with each other for profit, yet came together to form a society of sorts based on an honor system and on status. Everything was so organized and logical, made possible because of the Guild's hierarchical structure. There was not a single member who did not possess rank; even apprentice Hunters held some sort of standing among the others. It was truly a society within a society, one that would certainly remain strong.

But in order for a profession to keep its success, there must be a demand for the service. Once Biomonster populations began to dwindle, there was less demand for Hunters and their service. People began to fend for themselves, and soon many Hunters were put out of jobs. Aiedo's once strong and proud Hunter's Guild ebbed and faded away in a period of less than six months.

Gryz still respected the Hunters, no matter how fast they disappeared. It was not just anybody that could establish their society as they had, and turn a profit in the process. Some looked upon them poorly because they felt that they were taking advantage of people's misfortunes, but he knew that any service had its price, just as a person might charge an arthritic old woman to tend her garden. Hunters were entrepreneurs, seeing a chance to make money and taking it. Their services were vital to Motavia's survival.

Just like any typical desert climate, the early morning hours just before sunrise were the coolest. It was not uncommon to see hordes of people travelling at those times, men, women, and children alike. Native Motavians knew when to travel and their Palman neighbors quickly learned from them, as they learned many things.

The Motavian siblings moved silently past every house and building, including a fenced structure which formerly housed several buildings which Hunters occupied, until they came upon one that Gryz recognized from memory. He approached its door and rapped silently. Within a few moments, he heard locks opening and it opened, revealing Rika's smiling face. She was dressed in a flowing blue gown and looked as if she had just woken.

Gryz smiled back, or mimicked to the best of his ability, being that his Motavian mouth was beak-like in both shape and appearance. "Gryz," Rika said silently, a touch of emotion in her voice.

"Rika," her Motavian friend returned, moving forward to take her in a warm embrace.

"It's so good to see you again, my friend." They broke apart and Rika turned to his companion and embraced her as well. "Pana, you're looking well." Without further ado, Rika motioned them inside and closed the door behind them.

As hostess, Rika took Gryz and Pana's green capes and hung them on a rack. She had woken only a few minutes before their arrival and prepared some tea for herself. Luckily, she anticipated their arrival sometime that morning and made enough tea for all of them. Each took a moment to settle himself, then engaged in conversation. "How was your journey?" inquired Rika.

"Long and tiring," Pana returned. At sixteen, this was Pana's first real outing she ever took with her brother. "We stopped in Zema and Nalya along the way. Besides decreasing crop sizes and a water shortage, everything seems to be okay." Rika took a sip of her tea and sat silent for a moment, thoughtful.

"I haven't been outside Aiedo in a long time --" another sip, "I was beginning to wonder if this city was the only one suffering. I'm almost relieved that we're not." She paused again, taking time to consider her words, looking to her friends sitting opposite from her.

As native Motavians, Gryz and Pana shared characteristics distinguished by their species. When Rika first saw Gryz, she did not know what to make of him. His entire body was covered by a thick blue fur that offered protection from Motavia's burning sun. (As an added feature, underneath the blue fur was a layer of an oily substance secreted by glands in epidermal pores. This substance, along with Motavia's constantly blowing winds, acted as a bodily air conditioner, keeping his homeothermic temperature at a comfortable level.) A beak-like mouth protruded outward from where a Palman's mouth should have been. Elongated ears, similar to Rika's own, jutted upward from both sides of his head. His eyes, lacking pupils and irises, were a reddish-mahogany color and were small and beady, preventing a large absorption of sunlight. It was not until later that she discovered that Gryz was considered very handsome by his people, and laughed in spite of herself (she had always just thought of him as a cute, fuzzy guy).

Motavians were inherently strong, and though most were small in size and stature, it was made up for in strength. Gryz was the exception, not the rule. While his sister stood only about four feet tall, he stood at Rika's height, making him awkward to behold. Some of his people thought of him as an aberration, and went out of their way to avoid him as such. He had a heart of gold, though, and fought to protect his people who so foolishly spurned him.

Gryz and Pana graciously finished off their cups of tea and their hostess refilled them. It had been a while since the Motavians last visited, and Gryz took a second to make a cursory evaluation of his surroundings.

Not much has changed, he thought, at least not on the surface. Rika and Chaz always kept their home clean and organized, not wanting to live in either a dirty or disheveled house. Across from him in an adjacent room, Gryz saw their living-seats, elongated pieces of furniture designed for either sitting or laying on, and an end table on which a fire lamp sat upon. Their wooden floors were a deep, brownish color and floored every room in the two-bedroom home. A simple partition separated kitchen and living space, and a large stone and mortar stove sat near the rear entrance. Cabinets hung over a wash basin and were used for storage of foodstuffs and other things. They had indoor plumbing, which became somewhat a commodity during recent times. A simple faucet hung over the basin.

Noticing Chaz's sword leaning against the stove, Gryz stood up from his seat and retrieved it. He picked it up and swung it a few times, then held it threateningly as if to fend off some terrible beast. "I see Chaz had kept this sword finely honed," he commented, taking another swing. Rika went and took it from him.

"I always tell him," she began, "'Chaz, put your sword away when you're done with it.' He's been getting more and more absentminded lately." Rika left her company for a moment with Chaz's sword, returning quickly. "We still have your old Titanium axe, you know. You never did come back for it." She smiled, but it did not hide a touch of melancholy present in her voice.

"Rika, what is it?" Pana queried, concerned. "What's been happening since we last spoke?"

"Yes, Rika," Gryz added, returning to his seat, "what's the matter? I've never known you to be in such low spirits. Chaz hasn't been --"

"No, no," Rika assured them, "it's nothing like that." She regained her composure, then spoke again. "You see, ever since the Hunter's Guild closed its doors, Chaz has been losing -- well, let's just say he's not like he used to be, mentally that is." Gryz and Pana exchanged surprised glances, patiently waiting for their hostess to continue. "We've gone through some tough times in the last six months and I'm afraid it's finally gotten to him. His memory is failing him, and he's lost use of all of his Skills as a Hunter." Gryz's heart was suddenly gripped with an incredible sadness. In his time spent with Chaz, he learned that nothing worse could happen to a Hunter than losing Skills. Frequently, when a Hunter was brought back wounded in battle and there was either a loss of a limb or memory from amnesia, he often took his own life. Chaz was a true Hunter in the strictest regard, and Gryz suspected that if he had not married Rika who was obviously holding him together, he would have taken his long ago.

"Rika," Gryz spoke softly, "how are you holding up?" Rika walked over and kissed him on his head.

"Your concern is greatly appreciated, my friend, but unfounded. I've been holding up fine, despite that everything's been getting more and more complicated as of late. Besides, have you ever known anything to bring me down?" Gryz and Pana chuckled, but it was as counterfeit as a three meseta coin. "Truth is that I, too, have been slowly getting worse. I almost lost it when our farm went under, since we had spent so much time and effort getting it off to a good start. That's also when Chaz first started to get worse. He hasn't been able to keep a job since then, not that I blame him. Employment is hard to come by these days." The Motavians were speechless, knowing both that nothing they could say would put her mind at ease or erase the hardships she had experienced recently.

"I don't know it he can pull out of it, Gryz," Rika continued, misty-eyed. "He's a good, good man and a good husband. He's never once done anything to intentionally hurt me, but he knows he's doing just that in his current state. It's tearing him apart with guilt. At night when we're sleeping, I sometimes hear him say, 'Rika, I'm sorry,' and I don't know if he's saying that in his sleep, or if he's awake and thinks I'm asleep. I love him, and I won't leave him -- no matter how bad it gets."

"No one's asking you to, dear," said Pana, better at expressing her thoughts than her older brother, though he was thinking exactly the same thing. "You're obviously a devoted wife. Chaz is lucky to have you, and vice versa, I'm sure. When things get tough, you must always remember your love for him because that is what will keep you going. And hope -- you must never give up hope. Now, hope may fail sometimes, but it is the one thing that will always be there, through thick and thin. Hold on to it, Rika, and hold onto it tenaciously, for it will be your lifeline."

Pana moved forward and took Rika in a warm embrace. It felt like an eternity for the Numan since she had sincere friends to share her feelings with, and Gryz and Pana provided a much needed outlet. She felt like she was going to cry, but fought back her tears because she did not want to be a poor host.

"Is there anything we can do?" Gryz asked sheepishly. Rika broke her embrace with Pana and wiped her eyes.

"Actually," she said, "there is something you can do."

"Name it." Rika launched into an explanation of Aiedo's current events and told him of the Nance family's crisis. Gryz listened intently to his friend as she told him of how some people saw their children playing near the caves north of Aiedo, and how on that very same day some others discovered a nest of sandworms in the very same area.

"Their children never came home that night, and their desperate for someone to go out and find them. When I told Chaz, he was ecstatic and couldn't wait to get going, but I don't want him to go alone."

"Say no more," Gryz announced with enthusiasm, "I'd be more than happy to accompany my old bud!" Now, it was the Motavian's turn to bubble with excitement. "This is going to be great! Just like the old days!"

"I'm hoping that this activity might be therapeutic for him and restore some of his lost vigor. Just promise me that both of you will be careful. And please, don't mention any of what I've told you to him. Chaz is very proud, and for him to know that you know his weakness would be like losing face."

"Don't worry, Rika, I won't say a word. Chaz is like a little brother to me, a strange-looking little brother, but a brother just the same. I'd never let anything happen to him." If anyone else had said it, Rika would not have believed him. But Gryz was a Motavian of his word, proven time after time during their adventures, and she knew that she was entrusting her husband's safety to capable hands.

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