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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Thirty-Three


With Algo rising rapidly, Chaz, Nei, and the others wasted no time in speeding to Krup. Hahn was antsy the entire time, shaking his legs and clasping at absolutely nothing. When he left Krup only the day before, he was saying goodbye to those he loved because he thought there was going to be a chance that he would not return. Never in his wildest imagination did he ever think that he would say goodbye because their lives were to be sacrificed. The Scholar suddenly became very afraid and his heart sank. It was then that he felt a hand clasp around his and he was aware that Nei was trying to comfort him. He squeezed harder, thankful for the support.

Smoke obscured sight of Krup which worried Hahn even further. When he decided to accompany his friends for a third time, he quickly discovered that he was a target. Now, because of his outstanding status with Darkness, his family was a target as well. The Scholar did not regret his friendship with Chaz, but he might have chosen to rewrite the terms of it. No, he thought, I can't start second-guessing myself. I can't have any trace of doubt in my mind. It is not their fault this is happening, nor is it mine. This is the Darkness' doing. If it is within my power to stop it, I will. If I die trying, then so be it.

The hydrofoil pulled up to Krup and set down. All around, Hahn and the others could hear the screams of its citizens -- bellowing roars from men rushing to calling everyone to arms, high pitched shrieks from women protecting their families, and the scream of a single child cut short. "Mother!" the Scholar yelled, "Father! I'm coming!" Hahn started to run into his burning hometown when Wren seized and restrained him. He did not say a word or even offer an explanation which infuriated his friend.

"Do not be so hasty as to run blindly into what you cannot see or understand," the big android said. "Four of us did not have a chance against the Child and her companion. I fail to see your logic in thinking that you can handle this alone. Do not go without us. We will go together, but slowly."

"Yes," Chaz agreed, "but first let's extinguish these fires and clear the air. Hahn, if you'll assist me."

Together, Chaz and Hahn cast Blizzard. A writhing funnel of ice and snow appeared before them and swept through town, snuffing out the fires which raged within. It suddenly dawned on the Scholar that they could be freezing the bodies of the townspeople, that they should do this as quickly as possible to prevent further damage. A frozen body would be much more merciful than the death the Child probably had in store for them, however.

When it seemed that the last of the fires were put out, Rune lent a hand in clearing the remaining smoke. Using Hewn, the Reverent Fifth created a gust of wind which cleared the air almost immediately. Krup was revealed to its would-be saviors and it was not a pretty sight. Gleaming under a sheet of ice left by Blizzard, over half of the homes and buildings were completely destroyed. The screams stopped for the moment and the silence which followed was nearly as frightening.

The Protectors tread carefully into town, weapons drawn, nerves frayed. Raja was a nervous wreck for he had to deal with his fears of facing the enemy again so soon after suffering a humbling defeat. Even Wren and Demi who were better at suppressing fear displayed some amount of apprehension. Their concern for Kyra and the people of Krup kept them going.

Despite Wren's words of caution, Hahn took the lead and proceeded ahead quickly. An explosion and scream sounded out behind them, but while everyone else turned to see what happened, the Scholar continued forward. He already had his destination in mind and nothing was going to sway him from his path. When Wren grabbed his arm again he almost struck the android, but a split-second later, an enormous ball of fire sped by him and struck a building. Hahn felt his skin burn and quickly used Nares to alleviate the pain.

Then the explosions began, coming from all sides of the Protectors. Streams of fire rained down from the sky, forcing them to dive for cover. "Demi!" Wren shouted.

"I've got this side!" Demi barked back. Together, the two androids activated their Energy Barriers and created an instant defense against magical or any other energy-utilizing assault. The flames continued, but were deflected and their fervor lessened. Nevertheless, the attacks continued unabated, occasionally followed by concussive blasts which the Energy Barriers could not protect against. Screams rang out from all around them, hauntingly, teasingly. While they were pinned down and could do nothing, Krup was being torn down around them.

"We have to get out of the open!" observed Raja.

"I agree," said Chaz, "but how?"

"Wren!" Rune hollered while pointing to an area just behind him, "aim your Positron Bolt-Emitter in that direction and fire!"

"But, Rune!" the Hunter protested, "if he fires Posibolt in town he could wipe out hundreds of people!"

"If he doesn't then everyone will die! Including us!"

Against his better judgement, Wren activated Posibolt and fired. Powerful anti-electron particles burst forward and destroyed everything in their wake. Rune had to use Hewn again to clear the smoke resulting from the destruction. Wren's efforts did not go unrewarded and the attacks on them subsided for the moment.

"I can't stand it!" Hahn panicked. "I have to find my parents and Saya!"

"No, Hahn!" Nei warned, but it was too late. The Scholar took off running in the direction of his parents' home. Troubled but understanding, the rest of them followed in his footsteps.

Hahn turned a corner where a childhood friend's house once was and expected to see his parents' home. What he saw, however, was the charred remains of the structure he grew up in. Another explosion erupted only a hundred feet away but the Scholar failed to take notice. Some of the debris struck him, scarred parts of his flesh and yet he stood there and did nothing about it. The pain he felt in his heart and soul was far greater than any physical pain inflicted on him. Hahn fell to his knees in despair.

Moments later, the remaining Protectors found their grief-stricken companion and their hearts went out to him. "Oh, no," Nei gasped, "we're too late."

Gryz walked to his friend while the others drew their weapons and prepared for another attack. Fires burned again around town and still they had yet to see the ones responsible for them. The Motavian Esper intended to gently persuade Hahn to return to his feet so they could move on and make sure the rest of Krup did not suffer the same fate, but he would be talking until he was green in the face. He remembered how much he despaired when his parents were killed, how he did not want to get up and face a reality without them in it. The only thing that motivated him back into action was a burning desire for vengeance. If anything, Gryz would have to rely on that to return his friend to his senses.

"Hahn?" a familiar voice questioned. The Scholar perked up immediately and began surveying the area.

"Saya!" he called out. "Saya, is that you?" From out of nowhere the young teacher ran to her fiancee and wrapped her arms around his neck. He pulled her close, not wanting to ever let go. Saya's hair was soiled and disheveled, her clothes torn and ragged. Hahn could barely stand to see her in such a condition. Speaking the soothing words of Nares, he healed his fiancee's cuts and bruises, but nothing could heal her emotional wounds. "Saya, are you all right? Where are my parents?" The young teacher tried her best to answer, but she was incoherent. "Shh," he hushed, relieved that at least she was safe.

"You there," said a man's voice. Hahn's friends encircled him and his fiancee protectively, unsure of who or what was approaching. A single man appeared carrying a sword whose craftsmanship was one he recognized easily as his fathers. The Scholar looked at him and sensed familiarity from him. "I would imagine you remember me since I was so thankful that you and your friend came to my family's rescue."

"You!" Hahn exclaimed. "How is it that you're still here?"

"I came to see your father as you instructed. As luck would have it, the attack on Krup began only moments later."

"And my parents?"

"Are fine, thanks to this fine, young man," Thom Larsson said while emerging from the shadows with his wife.

"Father! Mother!" The Scholar dragged Saya along with him as he ran to his parents. Together, the four of them embraced. Gryz was happy to see that his friend did not have to suffer the same loss that he did. With luck, Hahn's parents would live their lives to the fullest and die content. He intended to use vengeance as a means to motivate him into action but now that was irrelevant. It pleased the Motavian that he did not have to because he of all people knew how it tended to become blind hatred.

"You don't know how much this means to me," Hahn told the man. "I don't know how I can ever repay you."

"It probably means as much to you as my family's lives meant to me," he simply stated. "I didn't know how I was going to repay you for that, but I think I found my way."

"That you have, my friend," the Scholar reached out his hand and the other took it, "that you have." Hahn released his loved ones and took another look around. "No one is safe here. I have one more request of you and I hope to repay you someday for it. To the north of here are some caves that I think you will be safe in. Try and find as many people as you can and take them there. My friends and I have a little extermination job to do."

The man agreed, stating that the sooner he removed his own family from Krup, the better. Hahn bade a tearful farewell to Saya and his parents again. The explosions ringing through town had in no way subsided and before long it would be flattened just like Molcum. The Scholar rediscovered his purpose in fighting Darkness. His determination inspired his companions and reaffirmed their devotion to defending the Light. Somewhere within Krup's walls were their enemies. Hopefully they would be able to find them before the opposite happened. Still, they were not whole because the hole left by Kyra's absence was wide and gaping. Hopefully they would be able to save her life as well.

* * * * *

Weapons drawn, the Protectors proceeded with caution deeper into the heart of Krup. In their minds, they had to ignore the remaining screams of fear and death, had to shut them out of their hearts for if they abandoned all caution they would surely perish. The number of screams lessened, an indication that their friend was keeping his word and moving people out. There was no telling how many lives were lost already, but at least a moderate amount of them would be saved.

Wren fired, his reasons unknown. Seconds later, it collided with a burst of energy generated by someone else. The big android prepared to fire again, but this time several bursts headed toward them. Chaz deflected one with his Guard sword while Rune simply negated another with a wave of his hand. Nei crossed her claws and slashed one out of existence before it had a chance to cause any damage. The remaining bursts sped by and hit already-demolished buildings.

Raja felt the ground beneath his feet begin to tremble, but it was not a precursor to a quake. Somehow he felt that it was different because it came with the unmistakable presence of Darkness. An eerie green light emerged and seemed to charge their surroundings with power. Nothing happened at first, but it soon became apparent what it was intended for. From underneath destroyed buildings and debris, the residents of Krup were called to arms. Hahn gasped in terror as he watched people he once lived with rise from the dead, their once beautiful lives corrupted to the core by evil. Their bodies dilapidating and eyes as black as soot, hundreds of Krupians began their toilsome trek toward their targets.

"We can't let them get to us!" shouted Chaz as he hacked off the arm of an approaching zombie. Although slow and lumbering, she reached around and scratched at the Hunter, barely grazing his arm. In that instant, the poisonous touch of dead flesh entered his body and his arm began to burn like fire. Chaz cried out and drew the attention of his companions. Keeping his cool, he managed to use his Anti Technique, purging the poison from his veins.

"Ha!" Gryz hollered, jumping into the fray. The Motavian Esper held his Defeat Axe threateningly and executed a flawless Sweeping Skill, damaging at least five of the undead's numbers.

"Stop!" Hahn protested while placing himself between his friends and the encroaching enemy. "You can't do this! These are my people, my friends!"

"These are not your people!" Gryz roared. "They are corrupt vessels, instruments of Darkness -- nothing else! Believe me, when they reach to strike us down, they will not be doing any of the soul-searching you're apparently doing now!" The Scholar was hurt by his friend's words. Despite the sting of them, however, he knew that he was right. He could not bear to see his people die untimely, but he also could not bear to see their deaths perverted in this manner.

Hahn heard Wren's Burst Rockets launch, immediately followed by Rune's Nafoi Technique. Shooting Star rained down on several zombies, completely incinerating some, setting others nearby ablaze. Raja and Nei joined hands and together they used Blessing and Deban to prevent the zombies from entering their immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, by doing so they limited the amount of room they had to battle the undead. Judging by their numbers, the defense would not last long, anyway.

Gryz had never been able to use one of his Skills for a combination attack before, but since the emergence of his Esper power, he felt differently. Calling Demi's attention, the Motavian Esper used Sweeping again and successfully executed Silent Wave. Undead bodies exploded under the duress of the assault and sent bloody fragments flying everywhere. For every zombie that was destroyed, though, there was another there to take its place. Raja kept a group of six at bay with Saint Fire's celestial flames. Nei used Rika's Disrupt skill effectively and sent five of her enemy into oblivion.

In the meantime, Algo was still rising. Hahn could feel its heat, but noticed a marked change in its intensity. He raised a hand and used Nawat to cool the air around him and his companions, doing so more out of consciousness than need. What was more was that the light seemed diffuse, like it was shining through translucent plastic or some other barrier. It was like the Scholar could already hear Algo's death song.

"Snap out of it!" Chaz barked.

Hahn suddenly became aware of the battle that escalated around him during his reverie. Taking a cursory glance at his surroundings, the Scholar raised his arms and sent a bolt of Astral energy flying into three zombies before being absorbed by a forth. The undead detonated and were no longer a threat. "Over here, Rune!" he called the Reverent Fifth's attention. Instantly, Rune was by his side and together they used bolts of Conductive Thunder to cause heavy damage among the ranks of marauding zombies.

"Quickly, Rune!" Chaz hollered. "Over here!" The Hunter was already in position when the Reverent Fifth cast Efess. Grandcross exploded onto at least eight of their enemy and consumed all of them.

"Rune," Wren spoke in a loud voice, "I require your assistance here!" It was a good thing that they were confined in a limited amount of space or else the Esper would have been physically exhausted. The big android fired more Burst Rockets while he used Nafoi to once again cause Shooting Star to fall. The repeated use of both Technique and Skill was beginning to have an effect on him and his strength was starting to fail.

"Rune!" the Archbishop shouted, "we must purge the Darkness from them with Light!" The Reverent Fifth joined his friend in casting Purify Light, taking out at least a dozen more zombies.

Rune collapsed, going unnoticed by his companions for a few moments while they continued to fight for their lives. He heard them call out his name again and again to assist them, but he could barely move. The Reverent Fifth knew that using Technique and Skill was not without consequence and they drew upon the user's physical as well as mental stamina. "Rune," Chaz said, urging his friend to return to his feet, "you have to get up. Without you, we're as good as gone."

"My strength is spent, Chaz," he tried to explain, "I need a few minutes to recover or I will die."

"Raja!" the Hunter summoned the Archbishop who was there in seconds. "Stay with him and see what you do to speed his recovery!" Raja nodded and began searching his thoughts for a spell that might help his weakened companion.

"Tell Gryz to help Wren. As an Esper, he commands the Flaeli Skill. It's not as strong as Nafoi, but it will have the same effect." The Hunter relayed his words to Gryz who understood what he had to do. Sure enough, the moment Wren launched more Burst Rockets, the Motavian Esper was successful in casting Flaeli, resulting in a more temperate version of Shooting Star that still destroyed four zombies. "We could really use Kyra right about now!"

Chaz raised his sword and ran into the fray. His companions, seeing his example, disengaged their attacks of Skill and Technique and readied their weapons. They were beginning to wear down from the exertion and would have to use more crude methods to fight their opponents. The Hunter hacked at Krup's citizens, severing limbs and heads. It would have been a very painful way to die had they not already died a violent death. Hahn used well-aimed strikes to the neck with the Mahlay dagger to ensure that the bodies would never again walk their world. Demi and Wren merely stood away and fired at will since their targets made no efforts to move out of the way. "It's not taking them down that's hard!" Nei shouted while slashing at two zombies which had came after her. "It's just that there's so many of them!" Gryz pummeled a few with the blade of his axe and sent them back from where they came.

"Ha!" Chaz heard Raja cry out as he struck down a small zombie child which snuck up on him and Rune. The Reverent Fifth used Foi and set it ablaze, delivering it from its tortured agony.

This is really gross, the Hunter thought.

Suddenly, the zombies stopped attacking and held their distance. Their numbers decimated, it appeared that they were regrouping for an all-out assault. The Darkness which thrived within their bodies knew that the Protectors were weaker now than they ever were before and that another relentless attack would surely spell their doom. There were still over a hundred zombies left against eight individuals who had nothing more than their combat weapons.

Chaz took an opportunity to regroup his friends back to where Rune and Raja still were recovering. He walked straight up to the Reverent Fifth and knelt next to him. The Hunter did not speak any words because his friend of many years already knew what he was about to ask. "We need to knock out about ninety percent of those zombies right now or we're not going to live to see the end of life as we know it," Chaz stated.

"What do you have in mind?" asked Rune

"Destruction."

"Can we afford to do that?" Nei questioned. "I mean here?"

"Can we afford not to?" the Hunter returned.

"Are you crazy, Chaz?" Hahn said with a touch of hysteria in his voice. "If you use Destruction here it would wipe out over half of Krup!"

"Krup is gone, Hahn! Can't you see that? The only way we're going to be able to give its survivors a chance to rebuild is to end this now any way we can! If we fall here, than it won't matter because the Profound Darkness will have won! I'm not ready to give up that fight! Let go, Hahn, and take from this what you've already saved -- your family and your future wife!"

The Scholar cringed at his friend's harsh words, but once again he was right. It was funny how he did not find it difficult at all to leave his hometown when he left for Motavia Academy. He guessed it was because he knew that it would always be there no matter what. Now, faced with its destruction, he was not prepared to let it go. Memories were always the hardest to give up, much harder than anything material. "Do it."

Wren and Chaz pulled Rune to his feet and steadied him while Nei prepared to begin the fist step of Destruction. The zombies, having re-evaluated their situation were beginning to move languidly toward what the Protectors hoped would be their annihilation. The Numan sensed an urgency within her companions and quickly used Deban, the compression of air in a small area acting as a focal point for energy. Chaz mustered up his remaining strength and channeled his anger into Megid. Wren's shoulder plates opened up and fired the Positron Bolt-Emitter. Rune, sensing that it was his turn, cast Legeon.

Like a nuclear explosion, the energy collected by the Deban shield thrust itself onto the undead of Krup. In only a few moments, Destruction succeeded in completely obliterating most of the town, but more importantly, it gave them the upper hand they needed. When the light of Destruction subsided, only about a dozen zombies remained. Gryz, Hahn, Demi, and Nei quickly moved in and finished them off before they could pose a threat.

Just as relief from their victory began to settle in, a stentorian laugh echoed horrifically. It came from all around them and seemed godly to those whom it was directed at. "Kyra!" Demi screamed. "No!"

The remaining Protectors turned to see the object of Demi's attention and got more than they bargained for. The first thing Chaz saw was a hint of blonde hair and that was all he needed to see. He averted his gaze as quickly as he could, grasping his sword tightly. "Oh, father, dear," an adolescent voice spoke out, "I have a present for you." The Hunter swallowed a lump developing in his throat and turned to face her.

The Child stood almost five hundred feet away from him. Even at that distance Chaz could see that she was a virtual carbon copy of her mother save the hair color. Just as Siren had told him before he deactivated, she was about thirteen years-old. Positioned in front of her in a crumpled heap was Kyra, held up by her hair. The Esper Leader looked barely conscious and was fading rapidly. "Let her go," The Hunter ordered.

"Or what? You'll punish me? Forgive me if I seem unimpressed by your impudence."

"If it's me you want then take me! Just leave my friends alone!"

"Ha, ha, ha! You and your friends are superfluous; expendable! I don't want or need any of your pathetic carcasses!"

"Then it is Algo you're after. You plan to break the seal by destroying the heart of it."

"Hrmph! I see no need to respond to the obvious. Frankly, I'm surprised that your minuscule little minds figured that out. No matter. I am here now to return to you what I have taken."

The Child pulled Kyra head near hers and placed a hand over her heart. Black light flared from her hand and began to envelop the Esper leader. "Stop!" Rune protested. "You'll kill her!"

"Get away from her, you bitch!" Nei roared and ran toward her with her claws outstretched. Gryz and Chaz took after her example and raised their weapons to join her. The Child seemed relatively unconcerned. Nei abandoned all caution and with the speed of an animal closing in on its prey, closed ranks on her target. There was no possible way the Hunter and Motavian could catch up with her and they feared that she would have to face the first moments alone.

She was right, Chaz thought. Nei told me that if she could help it I would not have to deliver the blow that would kill my daughter. Nevertheless, here I am, rushing after her, still uncertain if I can even raise my sword against her. What's wrong with me? I came to save Kyra and the people of Krup, but now it seems I'm not going to be able to do either. So why am I hesitating to do what I know I need to do? What's stopping me?

A flash of movement caught Chaz's attention as he watched a figure intercept Nei in mid-stride and hurl her through the single wall of a house which somehow escaped being destroyed. In the next instant, enormous phantom-like hands struck him and his companion down. The Hunter lifted his head to see what was becoming of Kyra. What he saw was a Numan, obviously different from the one he preferred to keep company with, but unmistakably the same, standing triumphantly above him. The woman did not adorn battle claws like Nei did. Instead, the weapon she wielded was some sort of light blade which she could manipulate into energy projectiles. Her ability to use the phantom hands was probably a result of tremendous mind power and telekinetic prowess.

The Child leached as much energy as she could from the Esper Leader and attacked with her power. Bolts of Tandle showered the remaining Protectors who were rushing to their friends' aid. The mysterious stranger added to the destruction by attacking with the hands again. Laughing, the Child sent a beam of the Black Energy Wave streaming in between them for no apparent reason. She tossed Kyra's defunct body aside and recalled her counterpart to her side. With a final, mocking laugh and an indication of the direction they were heading, they vanished into thin air.

Chaz managed to recover quickly and rushed to help Nei from the rubble. She insisted she was not injured badly and the two of them went to Kyra whose wounds went far deeper than anything superficial. Rune, Demi, and the others joined them soon after. Fortunately, the stranger's attack on them was not as severe as it apparently was on Siren and Miun.

Chaz pulled Kyra close and began rocking her in his arms. "Come on, Kyra," he spoke gently, "it wasn't that bad. Wake up, Kyra. Wake up." The Hunter patted her face, hoping that she would come around. "No!" he anguished. "Don't die on me, Kyra! Don't die!" The Hunter shook his friend's body violently, but she was non-responsive.

"She is gone, my friend," Wren said in a low voice. "Let her go."

"Shut up, Wren! Just shut up! She is not gone! Come on, Kyra! Show them how tough you are! I know you can do it! You're -- you're my big sister!"

Wren and the others knew the truth. Unlike the Hunter, though, many of them sensed an urgency to continue on despite their personal loss. Chaz needed to realize that there was nothing more they could do for the Esper Leader, but he had lost so much before that he could not begin to let go of another person he loved so easily. Rune stood back from all of them, his soul wounded deeply and his heart broken. He could have told his friend that there still was a small trace of aura left in Kyra despite the Child's effort to remove it and use it against them. Often times, however, the aura can be sensed even several hours after the Esper's body has gone without life.

"Nei . . . ." the Esper Leader's lips barely parted in speaking the word. Chaz's spirits perked up and he pulled her into a sitting position. The Numan was by her side instantly. Kyra reached out her hand, but could not make the effort so Nei gave it to her. Slowly, she moved her hand close to Chaz's and touched them together. "Take . . . care of him . . . for . . . me, please . . . ."

"No!" Chaz roared. "No! I want you to take care of me like you always have! Just like my big sister! Fight, damn you! Fight! Don't leave me, too! I need you, Kyra! I can't to this without you! We all need you!"

"Yes," Rune suddenly inserted, "we do need you, and as long as there is just a hint of life flowing through your veins, I will not let you die!" The Reverent Fifth went to Kyra and took her hands into his. "Raja, be prepared to heal her. You'll know when to do it." The Archbishop nodded for he already knew what Rune was going to attempt to do.

An Esper's life force was bound together by both vigor and aura. As long as a trace of both remains, it was entirely possible that he or she could recover from any extent of injury just as long as sufficient healing methods were applied. Rune concentrated his powers into tapping into his own aura, a feat that only the most powerful Telementals could accomplish. The Reverent Fifth created a mental bridge between his mind and Kyra's on which he could speak to her directly. "Take my aura, Kyra," he told her. "Let it heal you."

Rune felt Kyra respond almost immediately for her will to continue living was great. He felt her being come into his and latch onto the aura like a thirst-stricken animal, imbibing it like it would to a glass of water. The Reverent Fifth prepared himself for this, but he had no idea how painful it was to have one's aura ripped from his body. He cried out in pain and Wren nearly separated them, but Nei intervened. The Esper Leader must have been conscious of how much she was taking and decreased her intake and even sent some of it back. Rune eventually pulled free and fell backward, his body convulsing.

Raja knew at that point that he needed to do as Rune instructed. Motioning the Nares staff in a circular pattern, the Dezorian Archbishop cast Miracle. Mystical energies at his command came to his aid and a shimmering, silvery burst of light enveloped the Esper Leader. Chaz, still holding her, felt how puissant Miracle was for it restored his lost vigor as well. In fact, everyone present felt its effects, even the androids who had never received such a gift from a mortal before. The Hunter directed his gaze at the Archbishop who stood with his eyes closed and noticed how pious he looked, weaving the mystic power into his friends' life forces, repairing and restoring. Finally, the spell ended and Kyra slept. Chaz cradled her and cried. She would live, but now he had someone else to worry about.

Rune still lay flat on his back convulsing. Raja could not understand why Miracle did not put an end to them, but then realized that the pure shock of an Esper having his aura, even part of it, ripped from him must wreak havoc on his nervous system. The Archbishop was about to cast another spell to see if he could alleviate it when Nei raised a negating hand.

Moving from Kyra's side who was on the way to making a complete recovery, Nei seated herself next to Rune and, reaching behind his back, pulled the Reverent Fifth close to her body and held him there. His convulsions were violent, almost thrashing at the Numan, but she pressed him tightly against her own body and would not let go. Demi, Hahn, and the rest of the Protectors watched inquisitively, unsure of what she intended to accomplish by her actions. They knew better than to question her motives, however, because she usually had more than sufficient reasoning.

A few moments later, it happened. There was a brief intermission in Rune's convulsions and their intensity lessened. Everyone managed to breathe a collective sigh of relief after holding their breaths for so long. Wren and Demi powered down their systems and began effecting minor repairs now that they could manage to divert their attention. Nei still held the Reverent Fifth tightly and continued to do so even when the convulsions were only coming in brief spurts. If Hahn would have known better, he would have sworn that she was reluctant to let him go.

Rune suddenly became aware of what was going on around him after losing consciousness and who was holding him. "Is she --" he began.

"She will live," Nei cut him short. "As will you. You had all of us worrying about you for a few minutes there." Rune smiled. His entire body still ached and the brief occurrences of convulsions he could not control was disconcerting, but he felt comfortable in the Numan's embrace, so he went with it.

"Rune," Nei spoke again, a hint of seriousness in her inflection, "I just wanted to tell you that you have given me a gift so precious that I cannot possibly repay."

"What is that?" Rune asked, his interest piqued.

"The life of the person I consider to be my best friend. You've given Kyra back to me. You gave her back to all of us." The Reverent Fifth reached his own hands around the Numan's back and embraced her, for now it was she who was trembling, not him. "I respect and love you more now than I ever have before. You're benevolence makes you truly worthy of your title. Thank you, Rune. Thank you."

In all the time he spent with her, he never realized that she developed such a strong emotional attachment to her companions. Of all of the Protectors, he alone knew her purpose for being there or, perhaps, was the only one who accepted her purpose. There was a great chance that the Light would recall her soul once her duties were fulfilled and there was nothing any of them could do about it. The Reverent Fifth's heart went out to her.

Nei continued to hold her embrace to Rune not out of necessity, but because of selfish reasons. With her back toward Chaz, he could not see the tears in her eyes. She could not put into words how happy she was that Kyra would live, but asked herself why she allowed herself to get so close to the Protectors. Logic sat at the back of her mind and ate away like a parasite. The Numan should not have abused the Light's gift of life to her. She was living her second coming like it was her own to live when it was, in fact, not. Nei's thoughts went to those of the mysterious stranger they encountered and her probable purpose for being resurrected. At least she would never deviate from her path. There was, however, one consolation -- the woman's second life would not be as fulfilling or as long as her's. There was only one way that the Numan's doppleganger could die and she shuddered to think about it, but she had to tell her friends at one point or another. They were not going to like the answer.

Nei buried her face in Rune's shoulder who did not mind at all, her tears flowing freely into his cape.

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