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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Thirty-One


Chaz Ashley, Rune Walsh, Hahn Larsson, and Nei arrived at Vahal a few hours before daybreak. They disembarked and entered the fort without hesitation. According to the Numan, Siren and Miun should have all the AI's in order by now. When they left this place a couple days before, they seemed adamant about doing whatever they could to put some order to the chaos that existed there. They did not know why they were there or even how they got there. Both explained their last clear memories, but nothing they said made sense. It was like they were from an entirely different society. How could they share such remarkable similarities to Nei and Wren if they were not created somewhere in Algo?

The four friends rounded the first corner and did not expect to encounter any resistance, but they did expect to see at least a few AI's busy with some work or standing at guard. What they did see was a complete absence of anything, and a strong metallic smell filled their nostrils. It was almost like they entered a molten metal factory where they poured the foundations for structures of iron and steel. Vahal was so vast and so hollow that one could hear the movement of an AI from all levels of the fort. There was no such movement, however, and the mixture of both silence and odor was both frightening and sobering.

Nei's memory of Vahal was more refreshed than any of her companions so she took the lead in guiding them to the first hydraulic lift which would take them down to the second level. Chaz became lost in his thoughts, delving into thoughts he did not know he possessed. Here were these two androids, Siren and Miun, who were inexplicably present, yet not supposed to be there. If they were always present on Motavia, then surely Wren and Demi would have detected them earlier. That was conclusion enough for the Hunter to believe that they were, in fact, not from Algo. Still, if what his friends' said about the two strangers and their appearances was true, and he did not doubt them, then there had to be some kind of connection that no one was aware of. There had to be a clue somewhere, perhaps embedded in his memories which were readily available, yet hidden from his eyes.

Somewhere on Motavia, in his recent past, he felt, was the answer -- the missing link. If the Darkness was somehow responsible for bringing them into the present time, then they must be here for some other purpose. Darkness was evil, not stupid. Surely it would have known about the androids' betrayal. Chaz was positive that it would not simply overlook that fact. It would not simply allow them to continue to exist without being subservient to it. Darkness was not benevolent, nor was it compassionate. Once its lackeys did what they were required to do, they either continued serving it or were simply annihilated. There was no reason why Miun and Siren should be any different.

Chaz did not believe that those they sought once again were created on the basis of committing great evil. Somewhere inside of them shone a light that was strong enough to override their rewritten primary programming and prevent them from destroying the lives of his friends. Their reasoning, their sensibility, also kept them from continuing into a battle which would have ended their lives eventually. Unlike people like Lassic and Zio, these two did not sell their souls to Darkness, but were enslaved by it. The Hunter guessed that somehow their original programming kicked in during their struggle, perhaps triggered by seeing his friends struggle so hard to preserve their lives and each other's lives.

Where did they come from? Where could Darkness have reached it greasy paws and drawn these two AI's into their world? To look to Algo's own distant past would be too easy an answer for there were over a thousand years to choose from assuming that Miun and Siren were created about the same time of Wren's creation and Nei's death. With the power that it had at its disposal, it could have simply snatched them away from Palma moments before the planet was destroyed. That kind of reasoning was faulty, however, because beings who have only been functioning for a little more than a few years would not possess the knowledge that Chaz was told they possessed. They had knowledge that reached beyond the boundaries of Algo, beyond even the brightest stars in their sky. But how could Algolian technology reach such a drastic distance from where it originated? How could two functioning relics of their distant past gain so much knowledge of people, of cultures, that were so different from their own.

Perhaps he and his companions were looking for answers in the wrong place. Perhaps the answer even lay on their own planet, right in front of their faces yet hidden from their sight. Chaz could not shake the feeling that, unlike looking to historical figures and events from their past for answers, they should be aiming their sights to their more recent past. The answer was there, the Hunter would bet his life on it. Based on Siren's design, Wren's age, Miun's similarity to Nei, and the time elapsed since her first death, the AI's had to be over a thousand years old. But how? The technology of their designs must have perished along with Palma since no record of them existed on either Motavia or Dezoris. Was there some lost fragment of Palman society floating around space somewhere?

"Hahn," Chaz called out to his companion, "do you remember that spacecraft wreckage we discovered near Nalya three years ago?"

"Of course I do," the Scholar replied. "Now there was an interesting part of Algolian history."

"Suppose that not all of those ships were destroyed and that maybe some of them are still out in space floating around even after a thousand years. How far away do you think they are from Algo?"

"I couldn't even make an educated guess on that now knowing the intricacies of space travel, but I would say that it's a greater distance than any of us can imagine. Who knows -- ancient Palman science might have even been able to find a way to travel at the speed of light, which means that they'd be over a thousand light-years away from us now."

"Now, suppose that the Darkness could reach across that distance --"

"Darkness, as the Light, knows no boundaries and its grasp is virtually infinite," Nei interjected.

"That's what I guessed. Anyway, let's say, for argument's sake, that there was at least one ship from Palma still sailing through the stars. The Darkness never would have forgotten about one of its greatest triumphs against its nemesis, the destruction of Palma, and would have kept tabs on those who were intelligent enough to leave their planet before its demise."

"So what are you saying?" Rune questioned.

"Don't you get it? The age of the crashed spaceship, the design and apparent age of Siren and Miun, the ability of Darkness to reach across space and time -- it all adds up. We know from the visual records left in the wreckage that hundreds of spacecraft left Palma. Don't you think that maybe a few of them survived even to this day? Yes, I think that them being here has to do with a great distance of space, but I don't think that time has a lot to do with it. I know that all of us must be thinking that because of their similarities to Wren and Nei that they must have been brought here from the past, but I think that time has nothing to do with it. I think that, somewhere out there, a Palman spacecraft with our people is still searching for a place to call home if it already hasn't found one."

"Hmm," the Scholar thought out loud, "you know, my friend, that actually makes sense."

"It would explain the sort of kinship I felt about those two," said Nei. "I realize that none of you, even you, Rune, can possibly know what it feels like to exist for over a thousand years, either as a spirit or a mechanism, but I sensed it within them. Something told me that they have existed almost as long as I have, but I couldn't put a finger on why I felt that way. Now, only after you've done a superb job at explaining the causality of their presence, can I begin to understand why."

"Maybe we can ask them some more about it when we get there," Rune offered. "I'm sure both would be willing to engage in some intelligent conversation."

"Intelligent conversation," the words echoed through Chaz's mind like scream of a slaughtered lamb. It was almost like he heard the words "intelligent buffoon" instead, because neither of the words were used in reference to him much; and just like those words, his life had been nothing short of an oxymoron. He never considered himself as intelligent as some of the people he chose to keep company with although he did have his moments. Also, he had never been much of a conversationalist, choosing to always take a backseat role and acting like an 'insert here' tab when he felt compelled to express his feelings or opinions.

Now the Hunter felt something different, like his companions were beginning to develop a newfound respect for his intelligence. Rarely did he ever have the time to ponder enough to form legible thoughts that he could express without feeling like he was being scoffed at, even around his friends. He put his mind to work and discovered that if he needed to, he could do more than hack and slash, become more than what he was brought up to do.

Nei continued in the lead and it seemed that she remembered every detail of her last visit, remembered every corner they rounded, every spot they stopped or battled -- even the places they fought for their lives. Her stern and calculating demeanor was unnerving at times. Still, they did not hear a sound except for their own footsteps. They were nearing the lift that would take them another level beneath the ground and already he could feel his excitement growing inside him. The Numan, however, was more reserved in her excitement.

Chaz, Nei, Hahn, and Rune emerged onto the bottom-most level of Vahal and stepped into a veritable scrap yard. Littered across almost every square foot of floor, as far as their eyes could see, were the remnants of every last mechanism which once inhabited the fort. Sparks fizzled, small fires burned everywhere, and failing CPU's struggled to continue fighting some unseen enemy.

Nei gasped. Never in her countless lifetimes did she ever imagine the destruction of life, either natural or artificial, in this manner. She pressed a silencing hand against her lips for she feared crying out in sorrow. She had feared these things when first she encountered them, but the Numan could not help feeling a grievance for their passage. In her eyes, they were no different than any of her friends were. They were a slave to their programming much like Palmans, Motavians, and Dezorians were slaves to their destinies. They, too, fought for what they believed in, or whatever 'belief' they were programmed to accept. Apparently, much like some unfortunate mortals, they also perished for that belief.

"By the Light!" was all Rune could manage.

"I'll say," Hahn added, "if Wren and Demi were here they'd both blow a few circuits."

Proceeding ahead carefully, Nei led her comrades through the maze of twisted scrap metal. The ambient light was dim and everyone but the Numan was having difficulty seeing. Some fragments, she observed, were sharp enough to pierce through even their boots. It would not do them any good to get Lockjaw or some other ailment.

Rune felt like he tread over graves in an eerie kind of cemetery. Massive metal heads lay scattered everywhere like melons across a field. The Reverent Fifth felt like eyes were watching his every step and even caught a glimpse of optic lights flaring out. Hundreds of chassis were piled on top of each other and the four friends found themselves moving into a clearing which appeared to have been left specifically for them. After his last visit to Vahal over three years ago, Rune never would have believed that any of these AI's could have been slaughtered so swiftly. Even the mighty Dominators lay broken and shattered, their cores extinguished. Bits and pieces of Broren were the most disconcerting for they closely resembled their own bodies. There was nothing more refreshing than a reminder of their own mortality.

Eventually, after moving very slowly, they finally reached the adjacent room where they expected to see Siren and Miun standing strong despite what they just walked through. What they saw, however, almost completely removed any hope of discovering the Darkness' plans.

At the center of the room lay two bodies side by side, nonmoving. It did not take more than a few moments for them to figure out who they were, not more than a few extra moments to figure out what happened to them. Whatever had destroyed the warbots of Vahal did not make an exception for them. Nei ran to them, able to do so now that the path was completely clear of debris. Chaz and the others followed, but were a little more reserved.

When the Hunter approached the fallen androids, the first thing he noticed was that they did bear a remarkable resemblance to his friends except that they were more damaged. Half of the synthetic, fire-red hair that Siren adorned was burned off. There were peculiar scratch marks across his face which lay bare some of his internal circuitry. One of his arms was missing; his weapon sat where his missing limb should have been, mocking him. Miun was in no better shape. Of the synthetic skin she had left on her face, over seventy percent of it was torn off. The same peculiar scratch marks on her companion's face covered almost her entire body. Nei fingered them, seemed almost loathe to touch them. Like Siren, her hair was blackened and charred. The once sturdy claws she wore on her arms were bent out of shape and some were even broken off.

"Miun," Nei whispered, "what happened."

"I do not think she can hear you," Siren said, startling the Numan. "She has not said a word in over half the day. My power reserves are failing as well. Soon, I will meet my creator."

"I . . . still . . . function," Miun spoke weakly, straining with the words.

"What happened here, Siren?" Nei redirected her question.

"The Child," he said. "It must have came back to check on our progress with Daughter. When she found that we had abandoned our efforts, she attacked without provocation." Siren paused, finding it difficult to speak. "We summoned every single AI in this fort, but she was merciless. Just when we were getting the upper hand, a portal opened up -- and it stepped out?"

"It?" Rune asked, his interest piqued.

"I never got a look at what it was because that was when the slaughter began. Between It and the Child, we did not stand a chance."

"The hands . . ." Miun chanted, "the hands . . . ."

"These hands larger than even my body appeared out of nowhere. Ghostly hands, they took out five, then ten, and our numbers were dwindling faster and faster. I felt the icy claws as they knocked me senseless, but Miun was quicker than I was. She managed to avoid the hands for a little while longer, but when It finally struck her, I had to watch as It tore her apart. Miun, my companion for over nine centuries, virtually destroyed right before my very optics."

"Forgive me, Siren," Chaz spoke up while at the same time kneeling next to the big android, "but I must know something. The Child, was it a girl?"

"Yes."

"How old? What did she look like?"

"She must have been about twelve or thirteen as mortals age. She is approximately one point five meters in height, has long, blonde hair, and possessed auditory units not unlike your friend, Nei's. "

The Hunter stood up and walked away. He hoped and prayed that somehow, someway, his daughter was not involved. He felt foolish having come to the conclusion that Darkness was creating an army of children earlier when he knew the truth in his heart. Ever since he witnessed Lian removing her and Rika died in his arms, Chaz foresaw that his own flesh and blood would one day grow into a servitor of that which enslaved her.

"Siren," Nei continued, "is there any information that you can provide us? We're stuck in a rut and we don't know what the Darkness has planned. It was our hope that you might be able to enlighten us."

"All I know is what was programmed into me. Even though Miun and I were able to override the programming, we are without knowledge as to what the Darkness has in store for you and your planet. I did overhear the Child speaking to its companion. Now that I think about it, I think she meant for me to hear them. It was almost like she knew that you would be returning."

"What did she say?"

"She said, 'When the Light is gone from Algo and its children are plunged into Darkness, the Master will return and the universe will fall under its shroud.' I do not know what she meant."

"Is there anything else?"

"No."

"Damn," the Numan swore, "there has to be a hidden message somewhere in that!"

"Siren," Miun's weak voice raised above all others, "Siren, my power source is fading . . . I need to feel your touch, Siren." Nei watched in sorrow as the two androids' hands struggled to find each other. Neither was able to move very well and Miun was getting weaker by the second. She reached down and guided their hands together.

"Our legacy and duties among the lives of mortals have come to an end, Miun," Siren said. "Let your processors deactivate. We are required here no more. To the Beyond, my counterpart. At long last, the struggle is over."

Nei watched, with tears in her eyes, the passing of a life which had existed for over a millennia. Miun's body became tense, then went limp. Like a child's doll laid upon the floor, her eyelids snapped shut and her CPU shut down for the last time. "Tell me," Siren continued weaker than before, turning his attention back to Nei, "do you think that androids have souls?" His grip on his deactivated companion's hand tightened. "Do you believe that there is a higher plane of existence for us?"

"As sure as my soul has lived for a thousand years in the Light, my friend," Nei told him.

"My time in this mortal world is growing short and . . . now, after a thousand years, I, too, feel mortal. I'm . . . regretful that we were could not be more useful to your cause. I know now that you are . . . noble . . . as is your cause."

"Let your processors deactivate, Siren," Nei spoke softly. "You are required here no more. To your Beyond, my friend. At long last, your struggle is over."

"I am . . . ready. Thank you . . . Nei."

Siren's hand squeezed Miun's for one last time. Nei and her companions heard his processors and actuators shut down. The clicking and hissing of micro-components and vacuum pumps ceased and like a with great sigh, his body shut down altogether. Unlike Miun's eyes, his did not close on their own. The Numan reached down and closed them for him.

Nei stood up and walked a few paces away from her companions, turning her back toward them. Chaz went to her while Rune and Hahn remained near the defunct androids. "Are you all right?" the Hunter asked.

"I will be," she replied. "Just give me a moment."

But Nei was not all right; in fact, she felt more fear now than at any time in her past two lives. Her eyes turned to Siren and Miun, their lifeless bodies, and to the battle wounds strewn across their mechanical bodies. The Numan's thoughts went to those of the androids' words: "The hands . . ." Miun had said. She felt a cold hand wrap around her heart and begin to squeeze away her life-blood. Her fear was not one of the unknown, but one of recognition. As much as she hated to admit it, Nei felt that the greatest sin of her past was about to be revisited on her and her friends.

Chaz returned to his friends' sides who were standing above Miun and Siren, lurking like death itself. He found it hard to look at them while they were in this state; he might as well have been staring at Wren and Demi. For some reason, he could never picture them in as nonfunctional. The Hunter just assumed that they would go on surviving with time. Wren, after all, had already lived for over a thousand years and there was no reason to think that Demi would not. The big android was showing no signs of deterioration or weakness. As long as he kept his systems tuned-up and in check, he could live indefinitely.

Now that he watched Siren and Miun die, he looked upon his android friends with a new light. They were as mortal as he was. Chaz never before looked at them as machines, but simply as his friends. When his friendships began, it seems that he and whoever he shared it with felt immortal, that they could live forever. He never even stopped to consider what it would be like for Wren and Demi to watch the people they grew so close to die one by one while at the same time knowing that they could do nothing about it. In an existence such as theirs, one might assume that avoiding friendships would be the most logical course to prevent heartbreak. How hard it would be to say good-bye to a new set of friends every fifty or sixty years. The Hunter had always assumed that his android friends would outlive him. Now, he was forced to see that their lives were just as fragile as his.

"What do you think it means to do?" Hahn asked aloud, bringing the Hunter out of his reverie.

"Well, I think it's pretty obvious," Chaz answered. "It's all about vengeance this time. Instead of trying to break the seal, its coming after us, the last people in Algo who can stop it." The Hunter stopped, letting his companions consider the weight of his words. "We have to think about protecting ourselves from now on. It's already taken one of numbers and I'd be willing to bet that it's not going to stop until every one of us has been destroyed."

"That would be the most logical reasoning," Rune agreed, "but I think that all of us have learned that logic has no place when it comes to the Darkness."

"Maybe we should think about this on a more global scale," the Scholar interjected. "Think about it -- it has been a thousand years since Palma was destroyed and that was possibly considered one of its greatest triumphs over the Light. Perhaps now it feels it needs to weaken the planetary seal again by destroying Motavia."

"Why not just destroy Dezoris instead?" Chaz challenged. "It certainly would be easier to do considering the planet's distance from Algo."

"The Espers' power and the Dezorians' religion probably has something to do with that," the Reverent Fifth pointed out.

"You're right," Nei jumped in, coming back to rejoin the group. "I agree only because I have seen for myself the light that shines from Dezoris. The Espers and the native Dezorians make their planet a difficult target to destroy despite their tainted past. The Palmans, however, have made Motavia into a logical choice for destruction with their warring ways. Much of their culture is divided in comparison to the other inhabitants of Algo and their minds are cesspools of unclean thoughts." Hahn and Chaz shot vicious glances at the Numan and even Rune added a disapproving stare. "Present company excluded, of course."

"'When the Light is gone from Algo and its children are plunged into Darkness, the Master will return and the universe will fall under its shroud.'" Hahn repeated Siren's words. "There has to be a message hidden in there. What is it?"

"The Light represents everything in the universe that is good," Rune offered. "When all the goodness is purged from Algo the seal will be broken. The Profound Darkness will enter our dimension and the age-old struggle will begin again. Based on the corruption that occurs in Algo, I could only guess that the same happens in any of the countless galaxies in the universe. Surely the Profound Darkness must be gaining strength from them as well."

"And because Algo sits upon the great seal which prevents Darkness from returning fully," the Numan added, "we not only serve as the Protector of Algo, but also of the universe as well."

"So when we, the Children of the Light are gone," Hahn mused, "or 'plunged into Darkness,' then the entire universe will fall under its malevolence?"

"I don't think we're thinking about this right," Chaz pointed out. He spent several minutes keeping to himself and was beginning to rethink things. "We are not the only Light that shines in this universe. We are not the seal which prevents it from returning. We are not the key to its return. The Darkness knows that we may be able to thwart its plans and I think that's why it sent the Child to stop us." The Hunter paused, shocked by his own words. It was the first time he referred to his daughter as "the Child" instead of "my child" or "my daughter" and the words stole his thoughts for a moment. His companions stood silent, patiently waiting for him to continue. "We can't be the Light that she was referring to."

"He's right," supported Hahn, "the Great Light would never place an onus like that on such a small group of people. While it depends on us because of the mortal struggle for survival against all odds, I don't think it would overwhelm us with more than it thinks we can handle. The plight of mortals to continue existing gives Light some of its strength, but it is not solely responsible for keeping seal shut."

"Yes -- it is Algo and its planets that keeps it shut."

"I would surmise that even if the Profound Darkness succeeded in destroying Motavia," Nei said, "the remaining planets of Dezoris and Rykros would be sufficient enough to prevent the seal from being shattered."

"Then why not destroy Rykros?" Rune questioned. "The planet is far removed enough from the rest of the system and no one would know that it had been destroyed or remember its passing."

"Because Rykros is a bastion of Light. LaRoof and everything that exists on that planet are pure beings and evil does not thrive there. Just as the Dezorians and Espers keep their planet from being destroyed, so does LaRoof and its comrades."

"Then how can the Profound Darkness possibly hope to destroy the seal?" asked Hahn, his turn to question the Numan. "It seems to me that even if it manages to destroy all life on Motavia and Dezoris, Rykros would continue to keep it sealed away for eternity. LaRoof is not mortal and has been existing on its planet ever since its creation. Would the Darkness then divert all of its effort into destroying it?"

"I think that because life itself is not the only factor concerning the strength of the seal, it would have to completely destroy the planets as well, just like it did with Palma. Once the difficult task of destroying both life and planets is complete, the seal will have weakened enough for it to reach its power into different parts of the universe and gain strength from outside sources. Once it is strong enough, it would probably just incorporate the planet as one of its conquests and remove the seal itself."

"So," Chaz spoke again, "this is what we have determined so far: The combination of both life and planets adds to the strength of the seal and that we are not the only targets. We're not getting anywhere, people. The answer has to be in what Siren repeated to us. Maybe we're overanalyzing."

"'When the Light is gone from Algo . . .'" the Reverent Fifth thought out loud. "Surely the Darkness would not expect us to simply lay down and die? It must know that we would fight to the very end."

"No! No! No!" the Hunter fumed, frustrated that they had not yet discovered the answer that they were searching for. "We are not the 'Light' that it's referring to! Damn, my head hurts!"

"Maybe we should return and discuss this with the others," suggested Nei. "Perhaps they can offer some insight on the subject that we do not have."

"I don't think so," Hahn disagreed. "By taking this back to them we only add five more opinions on the subject and it will be harder to sift through all of them. No, the answer lies here, with us. We're just not searching hard enough or, as Chaz suggested, we are searching too hard."

"You're right," Rune concurred, "the answer is here, just waiting to be found. Now, if only it would stop playing hide-and-seek with us . . . ."

"It will probably decide to try and destroy us first -- wait a second, Chaz, don't say anything. I'm just hypothesizing. Because we are considered to be the Protectors of Algo, it will be easier for it to target the rest of life on Motavia, then the planet itself. Once that part of the seal is broken, I would think that it would move on to Dezoris. Somehow, someway, it will try and annihilate all life there, perhaps with natural catastrophes. If not that, then maybe with pestilence or famine. When those Lights are gone from Algo, all of its children will be plunged into Darkness."

"It's so logical," commented Chaz, "and yet illogical. It's an answer, but not the answer. I'm beginning to talk like Wren."

"How can we expect do defend ourselves and everything else when we can't even figure out the meaning of a simple statement?"

The Hunter walked away from his companions and felt like pulling his hair out by the roots. The intelligence in these individuals was great and yet they could not put the pieces of a simple puzzle together. Hahn, Nei, and Rune continued to discuss among themselves and did not even seem aware of his departure. He was beginning to think that maybe their intelligence was too great to see what was plain as day. Chaz suggested before that he thought they were thinking too hard, that they were straining their minds too much. Nei, whose soul was over a thousand years-old, was just as confused as any of them and she was fighting for answers. Rune, through all his wisdom, could not offer a feasible thought. Hahn, educated Scholar of Motavia Academy, could not make sense of any of their questions.

So what if they were overanalyzing? What could the Child's statement possibly mean?

"It's too dark in here," the Scholar observed. "A little more light would be nice."

Something about what Hahn said made sense. It was the first thing anyone had said that did. Light, dark -- both were concepts and not literal terms. The answer had to be in that, Chaz hoped. Light and dark -- the difference between day and night. Both were a permanent part of everyday life just like eating, drinking, and sleeping. Take away eating, drinking, and sleeping and an individual dies. Take away light and darkness and . . . .

"Let's look at this in a more literal sense," the Hunter proposed.

"What do you mean by 'literal?'" asked Nei.

"Well, I was thinking that maybe there was no hidden message, that what she said was just a simple statement. Perhaps she knew that we would spend so much time mulling this over that our attention would be diverted from its true intentions."

"By taking a more literal look at her statement," Rune began, "one would tend to see the term 'light' as any visible electromagnetic radiation such as that which occurs when one lights a lantern or what Algo gives off. Darkness would simply be the absence of any visible light."

"'When the Light is gone from Algo and its children are plunged into Darkness, the Master will return and the universe will fall under its shroud,'" Hahn repeated again. "'When the Light is gone from Algo --' hmm. You don't think that it's planning to create some kind of massive solar eclipse or something?"

"See!" Chaz exclaimed, excited that he believed that they were starting to get somewhere. "Now we're beginning to make progress! That's probably the most reasonable suggestion I've heard since we began this discussion!"

"But how can the Profound Darkness create an eclipse for as long as it would require to make a significant impact on both planets?" Nei queried.

"Perhaps by placing itself between Algo and us;" suggested Rune, "or, perhaps, by consuming Algo itself." An uneasy silence inserted itself. They were now just beginning to realize that all their efforts to save the planets may have been in vain. "That's it, isn't it? We were so busy thinking about Algo as the planets that we failed to see that Algo, the star, was truly the target. I've been noticing how the past couple of day have been --"

"Then it's already begun," interjected the Numan. "The star, Algo, is essentially the source of all life in this system, and the 'plug' on the seal. It causes the seasons to change, warms and cools at its will. Without the light of Algo, nothing in this system can survive, not even Rykros. I don't know why I didn't see it earlier."

"Don't beat yourself over the head about it," said Chaz. "There's no way any of us could have known. Now, what can we do about it? There must be some way of preventing the Darkness from snuffing Algo out all together. If it is removed, then no amount of Esper power or Dezorian religion will be able to save us. Within a matter of weeks we will all have perished and it will have no opposition. The Profound Darkness will break the seal and all the universe will fall under its shroud.

"We have to return to Aiedo quickly and gather our friends. Only with them, working together as one, can we possibly hope to put a stop to this."

"Wait!" Nei hesitated, halting her companions who were already heading for the exit. "There is something else you must know. I've been doing some thinking on another subject and now I fear I must --"

"What is it?" Chaz, Hahn, and Rune waited patiently for her answer. Nei saw concern in their eyes plus a twinkling of triumph at having solved the riddle and had a change of heart.

"Perhaps I'll tell you later. Right now I think the important thing is to return to Aiedo and inform our friends of our discovery. Surely they'll want to know."

"Well of course they would want to know," Chaz said to himself. It was obvious that Nei knew something that they did not; her hesitation told him that much. In the time the Hunter knew her, he never knew her to hold back vital information or the truth from them, especially not from him. One of the things he respected most about her was that she always spoke her mind, no matter who's feelings she may hurt. The Numan was blunt to say the least, but she always found some way to soften the truth. Whatever the reason she had to keep information from them must have been good. Chaz would have to trust in the faith he had in her to keep the doubts locked tightly away.

Before they left to exit, Chaz and the others said their good-byes and their thanks to Siren and Miun. They would have been powerful allies had they not been murdered. The Hunter thought some things over on the way out. He missed his wife terribly and would have liked to have her by his side. Luckily for him, Nei was there. Lucky for all of them.

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