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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Thirty-Four

The Protectors spent the remainder of the day in the caves north of Krup to give both Kyra and Rune enough time to recover from their injuries. Despite the tremendous loss of life over half of Krup's residents managed to escape with only minimal injuries. Luckily the caves were large enough to house all of them because that was where they would be staying until they felt it was safe to return to Krup and attempt to rebuild it. That could be anywhere from as little as a week to a couple of months. Who knew, perhaps because of the inviting natural coolness the caves offered, they might take up permanent residency there.

Rune and Kyra slept peacefully in an area designated specifically for them so they would not be disturbed. In the meantime, Chaz walked outside the hustle and bustle of activity, his external wounds dressed, his internal ones still being nursed. He and his remaining friends volunteered to patrol the borders of camp to make sure the cave's present occupants did not decide to take shots at the townsfolk.

The inevitable occurred -- he met the Child face-to-face and the outcome was not a positive one. There was a small part of him that hoped that she would accept that he was his father and her emotions would sway her from any wrongdoing, but it was obvious now that she was beyond reason, beyond compassion. The Hunter felt foolish for thinking that she might actually consider his own sacrifice over his friends' when all life in Algo was about to be sacrificed.

"Chaz!" Demi called out, "Chaz, wait up!" The android hurried her short legs to catch up with the Hunter. "How are you doing?"

"As well as can be expected," he replied. Demi patted him on the back and it offered him a small amount of comfort. She was itching to ask him what he was feeling, but did not want to intrude. Instead, she walked and kept him company, observing their surroundings. The stalactite and stalagmite formations in the caverns were beautiful and intriguing. Some of them were almost five feet long, formed when there was still plenty of groundwater to help form the calcium and other mineral deposits. She would have to warn the townspeople to stay clear of them. Too loud of a sound could cause the stalactites to break off and fall.

"Chaz," the android spoke again, "forgive me for being blunt --"

"You? Blunt?" the Hunter joked. "Naa . . . ."

"Ha, ha, very funny."

"I've been giving that some thought as well."

"Giving what some thought?"

"Her. The Child. The first thing she did when she saw me back in Krup was call me father. That really threw me for a loss. Never in my life did I think I would ever hear someone call me that. Now, I think I'm beginning to regret hearing those words. The Darkness never ceases to amaze me, Demi. It must have known that if she didn't kill me, I would be wandering around a cave delving into my doubts, questioning my worth. Tell me, Demi, do you think I would have made a good father?"

For the first time in a long time, Demi did not know what to say. Chaz had obviously been thinking about the subject for much longer than she and she could not offer an immediate answer. Truth was, she never pictured him as a father, never thought his life would take that road. But now that observed first-hand the compassion he possessed, the kind, caring part of his nature and not just his warrior side, she surmised that he would make a great parent. He was still young and could start another family if he wished. That all depended on whether or not Motavia could survive the latest threat to its existence.

"You would have made a great father," said Demi. "And you will someday."

"Thanks," the Hunter returned, "I think I needed to hear that."

"Why all the soul-searching?"

"I was just wondering what kind of father would desire to kill his own daughter."

"Chaz, you're not being fair to yourself. There's no way you could have known."

"Isn't there? I could have not fallen in love with Rika."

"Chaz Ashley, I've heard enough of that kind of talk! Would you have me believe that you would just give up the years you spent with Rika because of your own insecurities?"

"If it means having her here today, that only being her friend would have spared her life -- then yes."

"I don't believe you."

"Yeah," the Hunter agreed, "neither do I."

Hunter and android continued their rounds and were actually surprised they did not cross paths with their other friends. Many of Krup's residents were either pacing or completely gave up to despair. Chaz guessed that of those that were lost, almost all of the remaining ones either knew or related a great many of them. Hahn told him once that his town prided itself on the closeness of its citizens, how everyone worked together to achieve a common goal. The Scholar felt that Krup gave new meaning to the phrase, "One for all and all for one."

"So what happened at Vahal?" Demi asked.

In all the confusion, Chaz realized that he never told the rest of his friends what occurred at the fort. As they walked, he explained to Demi what happened, how all the AI's were destroyed. When he began to tell her of Siren and Miun's deaths, she seemed to shudder a little. The Hunter must have hit a sensitive spot in her because he never saw her as reserved as she became from that point on. He would have to make a point not to bring up the topic again.

Continuing on with his story, Chaz told Demi of his revelation about where Siren and Miun came from. She took an interest in his theory and her spirit perked up. When he was done with that, he moved on to their discussion about the Profound Darkness' plans. The Hunter remembered their discussion to the most minute detail and practically recited it to his companion. Demi listened and wondered if she would have came up with the same conclusion. "I'm sure Wren will be interested in knowing this," she said.

"When I confronted her in Krup," he continued, "she all but confirmed that our theory was right unless, of course, she was deceiving me. I see no reason why she would have to at this point. She and her 'Master' must be pretty confident that they will be successful or else we would have not met when we did. Revealing one's strengths too early in a confrontation can almost be as bad as revealing one's weaknesses."

Chaz became silent, his thoughts consuming him. Although he walked steadily, Demi felt that he did not have purpose in his steps. It was like he was sleep walking, not having a particular direction he wanted to follow, not really wanting one. Truth was that the Hunter was not thinking about the pressing issue of confronting the Child again -- he was wondering about where his relationship with Nei was going. He worried about the Numan, especially after seeing how withdrawn she became after being thrashed by the mysterious stranger. Her demeanor changed after she helped Rune recover, too. He would have given anything to hear the words they exchanged and found himself feeling a bit jealous of his friend. Chaz thought that he and Nei were beginning to bond and he was comfortable with that. Based on this assumption, they should have been able to tell each other their feelings. He would have to speak to her.

"What are you thinking about?" Demi interrupted her companion's train of thought.

"Nei --" the Hunter blurted out, "I mean -- uh -- well, I guess it's too late to pull out of this one." Demi waited for Chaz to continue which made him nervous. Under normal circumstances he would have simply changed the subject, but he knew that she must have guessed that he had many unresolved issues on his mind and was prepared to lend him an auditory unit to get them off his back. "You know, back at home before we left for Vahal, she and I sat down and had a pretty intense conversation. We touched and I felt a connection, but I don't think either of us was ready to start a relationship. I have feelings for her, Demi, but I don't know if I should pursue them, not this soon. Some might say that I'm moving too fast, that I let go of Rika too easily. How can I face what people will think of me?"

"I think that you should stop worrying about what other people think and follow your heart. If you truly believe that you should pursue Nei's affections, then nothing should stop you. Chaz, you don't have to worry about what any of us thinks because we are all growing to love her.

"Don't forget that we, Wren included," Demi added with a smirk, "are all having to deal with feelings of guilt. I mean, who is this person who just waltzes into our lives a little over a month ago and presumes to take over the life of someone we loved so much? We know so little about her besides what she tells us and what we know from our history lessons. But now -- now we see that she's not here to replace Rika, only to help out in any way that she can. If anything, what's unexpected is that we've grown so close to her. That, my friend, is a decision I believe we can all live with."

Demi was right, of course. Her mind, being able to process thousands of independent thoughts at times, probably donated considerably more time to the subject than Chaz's had. It was at times like this that he envied the android's multifaceted abilities. Both Demi and Wren were expert as simulating how Palmans constantly vie between thoughts, but he often wondered if they truly had to deal with issues like that or if their thought processes allowed them to simply choose the best decision. To think of them like that would take away their "Palman" characteristics and he did not want to do that. "Do you think she loves me?"

"I think that you're asking the wrong person," Demi returned, but it was not an attack, merely an observation. Ask an android a hypothetical question, he thought, and you'll the most logical answer. Who has use for logic, anyway, especially now? We might as well throw it out the window for all the good it's been doing us lately. "If you truly want to know how she feels about you, I think you should give her the benefit of the doubt and ask her directly. If she sees how honest you're being, she might return your affection. Right now, I see that she respects you too much to make the first move. She's not going to know that you want a relationship. She's pretty amazing, but I don't know if she can read minds that well."

"But I don't know if I want a relationship right now."

"Then I think you owe her an explanation for that as well. Chaz, I may be an android, but I'm not ignorant to how Palman emotions work. I've seen young females pine over their young beaus only to have their feelings hurt when they discover that they don't share the same feelings for them."

"Are you saying that I might unintentionally hurt Nei's feelings?"

"No, not at all. What I am saying is that I think she'll respect you a lot more if you're truthful about your feelings -- and your doubts."

"And what happens when she has to return to the Light? What of my feelings then?"

"That's something you'll have to deal with when the time comes. With the future as uncertain as it seems now, all I know is that you should seize the time, Chaz; live now. Make now always the most precious time to you. Now will never come again."

"Thanks, Demi. You've given me a lot to think about." Demi smiled. It was not too often that she got to offer useful advice to anybody since she had been isolated on Zelan with Wren for so long.

"Oh!" she said. "I'll catch you later. I think I'll go and check up on how Kyra and Rune are doing. Whatever you choose to do, I wish you luck. See ya!"

Demi hurried off and left Chaz standing alone, a move that was simplicity itself. She left the Hunter with burning questions he needed to ask of himself, and of someone else. There were times when his friends' actions stood out more than others. This was one of those times. She could have hung around him pointlessly and allowed him to ramble, but it would have not done any good because there was another who should hear those ramblings. Chaz shook his head and laughed at Demi's ingenuity. Scanning the area, the Hunter moved off to find who he decided he was seeking all along.

* * * * *

Nei sat alone in part of the caves which had yet to be discovered by the Krupians. Not really fearing the caves' natural inhabitants, she penetrated deeper into it to be away from her friends so she could sort through her thoughts and her feelings. The Numan's body still ached from the stranger's unprovoked attack. She could have used a Technique to ease her physical pain, but it had been a long time since she felt its presence and welcomed it. The physical pain was nothing compared to the others she felt -- the pain of fear, the pain of emotion, and the pain of memory.

Sitting at the foot of an underground lake whose waters were beginning to recede, Nei ran her fingers through its cool waters. She watched a few crustaceans scatter beneath the surface. If only she could escape her problems so easily . . . . A lone, blind fish, curious as to where the vibrations were coming from, swam near the shore. The Numan tapped at the water surface and it swam nearer. She wondered how such a creature could survive for so long without ever seeing the light of Algo. The longer it stayed near her, the more she grew envious of it. It did not know emotion or memory or fear. It lived its entire life without seeing, without fearing. And why should it fear? The fish did not have any natural enemies and was not being hunted. It was born, would live, and would die all in the absence of fear. Nei picked up a small stone and angrily threw it into the water, skipping it across the surface. If the blind fish did not know fear before, it did at that moment and swam out of the Numan's sight.

A thousand years ago when she was created, Nei felt a different kind of pain. The anguish she felt while being a part of Neifirst was partially because she could do nothing to stop her. She always maintained that she separated from her twin because of that reason, but that was not the whole truth. Neifirst was such a malevolent being, so uncompassionate, that she could not stand to have another consciousness inside of her that she had to constantly battle. Nei feared her and in her twin's eyes that was a cardinal sin. How could she go about destroying the ones who so foolishly tampered with life, her life, when part of her was living in fear of herself? The truth was harsh, but Nei had to face it or it would never be conquered. She did not estrange herself from Neifirst by choice --

She was kicked out.

"Coward," Neifirst called her when they went their separate ways for the first time.

And that word stuck with her all through her first life, a shadow which never left her side. Nei lived vicariously through the courage of those who surrounded her because that was the only way she felt she could. She did not know what courage was, never had to face it thanks to her twin. Neifirst was right about her, though. She lived in fear that one day, when she least expected it, she would have to meet her again and this time she would not be so merciful as to merely walk away. The Numan lived in fear of the Palmans who scorned her, afraid to attempt to embrace them instead of running away. Outside of Rolf and the others, she did not know how truly generous some Palmans could be because of her fear. If only she had tried, then things might have turned out differently. There was no use in crying over spilt milk now. What was done was done. What was important was that she did not regret her choices. In the end, she found her courage, and saved the lives of those she loved.

Now, a thousand years later, Nei had to face the inevitability of facing her twin again. There was absolutely no reason not to believe that it would not happen. As sure as the Motavian winds would erase any trace of life that trekked across its deserts, she and Neifirst were destined to cross paths again. The Numan still could not get over the shock of seeing her again after so long, but she did not know why. From the moment she entered the world, she knew that it was a possibility. She and Neifirst were two parts of a whole and where one went the other was sure to follow. Once again nature was working to correct the balance of good and evil. The Great Light created a tremendous imbalance by returning her to the world of the living. It was only logical that Darkness would react to correct that imbalance. It was too bad that the people she was growing to love would be the ones to suffer most.

Nei looked across the surface of the underground lake and found comfort in its serenity. Closing her eyes, she imagined herself as a tiny insect soaring across it, feeling its coolness, taken in by its simple beauty. Looking down, she saw every living thing, from the tiny crustaceans picking at decaying matter to the blind fish who found its way around expertly. At that moment, she would have been content with living the rest of her second life that way for the insect's life was so simple. All it had to do was survive.

All of the sudden, Nei's blind friend leapt out of its element and swallowed a winged insect that she failed to notice before. Snapped out of her reverie, the Numan decided that even a simple existence had its challenges. She decided that life as an insect probably would have not been to her liking because every hour of every day would be a struggle to survive. Basically, it would not be any different from the life she was living now, except that she would not have seven close friends plus one she cared so much for. Nei made a promise to him that if it was within her power, he would not be the one who would have to strike the Child down. With Neifirst in the picture, that promise might turn out to have been made in vain. There was only one way her twin could die and it was a subject she did not wish to dwell on. Still, if there was a chance that she could be defeated without the tremendous personal loss, she would find a way to do it. There was simply no way she was going to cop out on her friends. The Numan would fight her hardest to make sure she saw their journey to the end, no matter how it turned out.

Dipping her hand into the water, lost in her thoughts, Nei did not hear Chaz approach her until it was too late. Startled by his seemingly sudden appearance, she nearly jumped out of her skin when he touched her shoulder to let her know he was present. Laying on her right side, she looked up and smiled fondly at him, then returned her gaze to the lake. The Hunter stared hard at its waters and failed to see what held her in thrall, but guessed that she was just thinking about important issues. His hand sought her remaining dry one and just before they touched, Nei decided to strike up a conversation. "What are we doing?" she asked. Denied his goal, Chaz sat back and sighed.

"We're fighting for our world and for all of Algo," he replied. Nei laughed, the first time the Hunter could remember hearing her do so. It was hearty and jovial -- the kind of laugh one enjoyed listening to unlike those nasal laughs or silly giggles. He was pleased that she found his answer amusing, but was a little disconcerted that he was the object of her amusement. She stood up and faced him.

"I was talking about us, Chaz -- me and you. Should we be doing this?"

"Doing what? Developing a strong friendship in which one respects the other, values his opinions, and supports him no matter what? Yeah, I think we should be doing that, and so should a lot of other people."

"Don't play coy with me, Chaz. You know exactly what I'm talking about."

He did, of course, but was not really prepared to admit as much. Nei made a talent of making him feel uncomfortable if only to prove a point. There were times, more frequently lately, that he did not donate enough time to consider what he was doing. This was one of those times. Upon Demi's urging, he rushed off to tell her what was in his heart, but before doing that he had to deal with the nagging guilt he would feel after doing so. He had not healed fully from his wife's death.

"So, what do you think we should do now?" the Numan questioned.

"I -- I don't know. Admit our feelings to each other?"

"I'm sorry, Chaz, I didn't mean to do that to you. I was talking about our next move after Kyra and Rune recovers. The Child and its companion could be anywhere."

"Just before they disappeared, I saw her point eastward. I think she wanted me to see where she was going. There's the possibility that we'll follow her to our deaths."

"What's east of here?"

"Well, there's Monsen, Termi, and Torinco. If you keep going east you'll eventually run into Uzo. There are a lot of lives in those towns and it would seem logical that both she and the strange woman would take the path that we first did to attack something that we hold so dear -- our memories. So far, the Child has managed to completely destroy almost everything important in Gryz's life and nearly succeeding in doing the same to Hahn's. Stopping them is only half our concern, though. We still have to deal with the destruction of Algo and I don't know how we're going to stop that. We can deal with any threat on the planets, but in space it's a totally different situation."

"I agree," Nei conceded, "but I think there also might be a glimmer of hope. Right now, the Profound Darkness cannot enter our dimension because the seal prevents it. Have you noticed how much its power has grown since it took the Child under its wing? I'm beginning to believe that she is not only serving as its champion -- she is the gateway through which it is effecting the destruction of Algo as well. If we find a way to destroy her, then there is a chance that the Profound Darkness' power in our dimension will fade as well."

Chaz was relieved. If what Nei said had just a hint of the truth in it, then their task of saving Algo did not seem so overwhelming. Of course he and his friends would fight to the very end, but getting to that end was not necessarily going to mean their lives. The Hunter thought selfishly about what his life was going to be like with Nei. Now that there was a possible answer to their immediate problems, he gave himself a little slack in thinking about the future. For the past few weeks, he was not even sure there was going to be one for himself much less everyone else in Algo.

"Chaz," Nei said, "have you given any thought to where the Child will go once it is done here? It's obvious that she is out to destroy everything that is important to us. I'm afraid that she might decide to move on to Dezoris, to the Dezorians and the Espers. First it was you then Gryz and then Hahn. On Dezoris, she can destroy what's important to Raja, Rune, and Kyra. Your lives are what are most important to Demi and Wren --"

"Our lives," Chaz inserted. "All our lives."

"Our lives," Nei let her words hang in the air. "If the Child and her companion succeed in destroying our families, I suspect that they'll go after us afterward. She gave us a big scare with what she did with Kyra, but now that I think about it, I don't think she really meant to kill her. She could have completely taken her aura and killed her outright. Instead, the Child left it in tact, knowing that we would find a way to heal her. Believe me, she will get much more enjoyment from watching all of us suffer before she kills us."

Chaz stared at the Numan while at the same time smiling like an idiot. Nei stared back, her brow raised in curiosity. For some reason or another, he chose not to hear any of her last few thoughts. If he could have said anything to her at that moment, he would have told her that he loved her. Chaz was still caught up in his emotion. He was elated that there was a glimmer of hope in the future and clung to it like life itself. Nei snapped her fingers and brought him out of his trance.

"Nei," he started after recovering from embarrassment, "what will happen to you when all this is over?"

The Numan took a step back for the question caught her off guard. She feared the day that he asked that question because she did not know the answer. When she first arrived, her purpose was predetermined and she was adamant about carrying out her orders. She never expected that those she kept company with would cloud her vision. Never did she expect that one man would cause her to lose sight of her goal.

"I suppose that I will simply return to the Light." Nei could have tried to explain to him the intricacies of why she had to return. It would have been useless, though, because the words would fall on deaf ears. Chaz lowered his gaze and became melancholy. "Chaz, please don't do this to me. When I first met all of you I told you up-front that my time here is finite. I could tell you that I will be able to stay after my job is done but I could be lying to you. I don't know what the Light has in store for me." She sighed, almost despairing. Clenching her fists to her heart, she continued.

"Despite all the knowledge you think I possess, I don't have the answer to that. Nothing would make me happier than to stay here with all of you, the people I care about more than anything else. Nothing would make me happier than living out the rest of the life I didn't have with you. If I promise you that I'll stay then it will be an empty promise because I not the one to make that decision. I will, however, promise you that when the time comes, I'll try my hardest to stay."

In the span of a mere minute or two, Chaz's world was built up into a mighty tower then torn down into its basic building components. He felt like crying again, something he had done far too much of lately. The Hunter began to miss Alys' firm hand, how she was always so tough on him. At least she would have knocked some sense into him and told him that crying did not solve anything. "Nei," he said sheepishly, "I l -- I mean, I care for you," he stumbled, his courage failing him, "and your staying with us would mean the world to me."

"And I care about you," Nei returned, "so much that it hurts me more to not tell you how much I love you instead of saying it aloud." The latter went unspoken, however, for they were a forbidden fruit that Chaz should not bite into. An uneasy silence passed in between the two. Both wanted desperately to speak the words that could possibly tear down their walls, but right now those walls were impenetrable.

"Ladea Tower," Chaz blurted out.


"Ladea Tower. That's where she's heading."

"How can you be sure?"

"Rune told me once that it was through Ladea Tower he was able to travel from planet to planet without the use of spacecraft. Apparently the tower serves as some kind of bridge between Motavia and Dezoris that only those gifted with enough power can utilize. You're right, Nei. She is planning to go to Dezoris and sooner than we think."

Chaz grabbed Nei's hand without thinking and pulled her to her feet. At that moment, he felt the electricity between them and nearly stopped in his tracks. They both knew what was at stake, though, and put aside their personal feelings. It was hard for them to continue on like that, to constantly hold back the feelings that they already knew was there and yet never consummated by words. Even through a simple touch of the hands they could sense the tension between them.

They had to tell the others of what Chaz believed to be the Child's destination. That took precedence over all other things. To stop her from leaving Motavia meant they could give themselves more time to prepare for what was surely going to be the final confrontation. There was more at stake than just their lives of the lives of their loved ones. Their star would most likely die before they would. None of them, even Wren or Nei, the oldest among them, had ever seen a star die, but it was a sure bet that it was not a pretty sight. The Child and its master were about to commit the most heinous act in the history of Algo. Only they had the strength, the courage, and the faith in each other to throw a monkey wrench in their plans. Time was all they needed to succeed and it was running out on them rapidly.

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