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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Thirty-Five

Ladea Tower.

It was three years ago that Chaz, Rika, Gryz, and Demi journeyed there to find Rune and retrieve the Psycho Wand. The Reverent Fifth made the trip earlier with Dorin but was unsuccessful in getting it himself. The Psycho Wand was needed to negate Zio's Magic Barrier, a all-powerful shield which granted him near invulnerability. Although he never admitted to as much, Chaz thought that Rune might have been planning to return to Dezoris and would have if he and his friends had not arrived when they did. During their ascent to the top, Rune revealed to him the true power and purpose of the Tower. Through use of powerful magic, it served as a bridge between Motavia and Dezoris. The Child and the mysterious stranger who looked like Nei undoubtedly were planning to use that bridge to begin their invasion of the Dezorian and Espers' home world.

The Hunter remembered how difficult it was to reach Ladea's apex. The Psycho Wand itself was protected by a barrier that only Rune was able to breach. Moments later, a creature sent by Zio to steal it away from them materialized. It was a fight for their lives, but by working together as a team, they were able to defeat it and emerged triumphant. Rune took the magical tool into his possession and felt its power. That was when he and Rika somehow sensed that Alys' condition took a turn for the worse and they rushed back to Krup to be by her side when she died.

Now they were back and circumstances were different. The Protectors were on a hunt in which the hunted could easily become the hunters. It was all too possible for the Child and her companion to turn the tables on them. The enemy was but two and they were nine strong, determined individuals who were prepared to sacrifice everything so that their galaxy might survive. The only way they were going to survive was to work together as a team.

The bottom floor of Ladea was just a vast room of sorts and reminded Chaz of the caves they just left. Everything echoed, including their footsteps, and it gave an impression that there were dozens of individuals walking instead of nine. Across the floor nearly a thousand feet away was a single staircase leading to the second level. It was this floor which allowed a true sense of how large the tower actually was. Being completely cylindrical, the upper levels were just as large, but because of walls and such, they did not look it. Rune and Kyra could feel the structure's energies pulsate through them.

Demi walked between Wren and Gryz. She turned her head to the side and saw Chaz and Nei walking side-by-side and wondered if the Hunter accomplished what he set out to do. Judging on their body language she guessed that he did not. The android noticed that when Palmans express their true emotions to each other, it brings them closer not only mentally, but physically as well. Had Chaz expressed his, they might be walking hand-in-hand. For the most part, he was like Wren in that way. Even though he possessed emotions, the big android was not good at letting them be known in a constructive way. Frankly, she was surprised that he found the courage to let Rika know although it did not sadden her in any way. If he was not going to tell her -- well, then she would have to step in before it was too late.

Reaching the staircase, Chaz unsheathed his Guard Sword and motioned to his companions to be quick. He placed a finger across his lips and slowly made his ascent. Nei slipped on her claws and followed closely behind. Kyra went next, a slight wavering in her stature. She was about ninety five percent recovered, but the emotional scars left by her experience would take more time to mend. Hahn was right behind her and touched her shoulder in a supportive gesture. Rune magically pulled the Guard Staff from his robes and hurried after the Scholar. Next was Demi who was ready to fire her weapon at a moment's notice. Gryz still carried his Defeat Axe because he felt more secure with a large weapon than with the Esper magic he now possessed. The Motavian did not believe he would ever give up using it. Finally, Wren brought up the rear, his sensors ever-alert. If something was to attack the party from behind, he would be the first to meet it. With one last look behind him, the big android charged up the Photon Eraser and climbed upward.

Everything was deathly silent. Even Nei with her finely honed senses could not hear a single sound aside from her companions' breathing and heartbeats. Over the years some unknown magic managed to keep Ladea in tip-top shape; consequently, it was nearly completely free of dust, debris, and no vermin crawled within its walls. To the casual observer this place might look like a hallowed sanctuary. Rune and the others knew better than to think that way, however, because they also knew it as a place where Darkness existed -- and she probably left a guardian or two to watch her back.

Chaz and company made a couple of left turns and emerged in a wide open area. At the other side of the room standing adjacent to the corridor leading toward their destination stood two massive statues. Dressed in warrior's garb, they stood over twenty feet tall and word helmets over their heads that masked their faces. One statue held an enormous sword while the other carried a spiked mace and chain. "I don't remember those being there before," said Gryz.

"I know," Rune returned, "that's what worries me."

The Protectors proceeded ahead slowly, weary of the lurking giants awaiting their passage. Each had his weapon drawn and ready because no one knew when they would suddenly spring to life, or even if that was a possibility. The slow movement made them tense and they would have been content to simply run and be facing their backs, but no one wanted to be so foolish.

Nei looked up into their darkened countenances and thought she saw a hint of red, glowing eyes. Raising her line of sight, the Numan observed as the helmets began to glimmer. "Look!" she called everyone's attention. The Protectors stopped in their tracks and took a defensive stance. Flaring to life, the statues' helmets emitted an unnatural light which completely filled their metal bodies with dark sorcery. Like an invention switched on for its first time, their eyes lit up with a blinding red glow. "Kyra! Quickly!" Rune shouted. "Before they have a chance to fully come to life!" The Esper Leader stepped up and along with Rune she cast Tandle and sent millions of volts of electricity surging through their metal bodies, but it was too late. Fully alive and ready to crush their opposition, the Laconian Sentinels took their first step forward. The Protectors took a few steps back.

With stiff joints, the Sentinels loosened up with each step they took, every movement they made. The Sentinel Swordsman swung its massive weapon but fortunately Chaz and Rune were able to parry its blow. Rune cast Hewn, which turned out to be a futile maneuver. Their bodies probably weighed several thousand pounds and even that powerful Esper spell did not have an effect on them. It swung again and the Hunter brought his own sword down from over his head, Rayblade proving to be an adequate defense. The Sentinel's weapon went flying away and it hurried to retrieve it.

Hahn leapt into action, striking at the Sentinel Barbarian. He slashed at its legs with his Mahlay Dagger. Sparks flew everywhere, momentarily blinding the Scholar. His target kicked him out of the way and began swinging its mace. Kyra, Demi, and Raja dove for cover as the massive spiked ball crashed down only inches from where they were standing. Bringing it back up for a second attack, it was met by a discharge from Wren's Photon Eraser. While the big android's weapon was powerful enough to prevent his adversary from doing further damage, it was not able to destroy its mace. The Barbarian recovered quickly and closed in on its enemies.

Nei sprung into the air and raised both claws. Taking advantage of her enemy's languidness, she used Double Slash on the way down. Sparks erupted like miniature volcanoes with each motion. Below her at approximately the same time, Gryz heaved his axe and struck with all his strength. The Motavian Esper managed to leave a small dent in the Swordsman's knee, but nothing else. He managed to get out of the way before Nei landed on his head. Both felt Wren's strong arms pull them out of danger before their enemy decapitated them.

Demi held both arms out in front of her and ran at the Barbarian. Her android legs carrying her faster than any biological life form, she was successful in avoiding its mace and hit its left leg like a missile. The Sentinel lost its balance and tumbled over, breaking stone tiles and creating an uneasy rumble in Ladea. In the meantime, the android failed to see the other Sentinel encroaching on her position and found herself actually having to hurry to get away from it. She pulled out her Sonic Buster and fired several times, aiming at its sword in hopes of knocking it away. Its grip was like that of death's and this time it was determined not to be caught off guard. Chaz was fortunate enough to surprise it with Rayblade's suddenness. After finding it next to impossible to disarm it, Demi shifted her legs into overdrive and high-tailed it out of harm's way.

"Hahn!" Chaz shouted, "help me!" The Scholar, still dazed from being kicked, made his way over to his companion. To the best of his ability, Hahn discharged Astral while the Hunter used Rayblade again. The brute force of Paladin Blow completely propelled the Barbarian across the entire room, crashing through a wall. It lay still for a moment, then stirred slowly and got up. The instant it did, Conductive Thunder struck it down again, courtesy of Kyra and Rune. The Sentinel merely shrugged off the attack and the Espers only succeeded in enraging it further.

Without warning Hahn fell unconscious, obviously a result of his injury. Raja rushed over to help his fallen friend and heard the loud clanking of metal. The Archbishop turned around to see what was happening. The two Sentinels joined hands and aimed their weapons at the Protectors. There was a blinding flash and an eerie green glow surrounded them. Raja tried to get back to Hahn, but found that his entire body was paralyzed! His eyes sought out his companions and discovered that they were paralyzed as well. Only Demi and Wren who seemed immune to the effects of whatever kind of magic the Sentinels used were still mobile. While she frantically ran from person to person to try and shake off the paralysis, he launched Burst Rockets to try and halt their enemies' advance.

The Laconian Sentinels approached and did not give the androids much time to react. Somehow they were going to have to stop them and bring their companions around at the same time. To do that, they needed to buy some time. It was their hope that eventually the paralysis would wear off for between them they did not have a means to do so. Calculating the precise moment in which they could effectively hold off their pursuers. Wren raised an arm and used Barrier; Demi fired the Phonomezer. The sound waves scattered the ionic field and created a Sound Barrier. Waves of energy stretched from floor to ceiling in a temporarily impenetrable wall. Sound Barrier was only used as a last resort because by using it they trapped themselves as well. Backed against a wall, once their defense failed, they would be sitting ducks.

Demi ran around frantically using Medic Power on everyone in hope that it could free one of them from the paralyzing effect of the Sentinels' assault. Wren chose to stand guard with his weapon ready. Swordsman and Barbarian were violently delivering blow after blow to the shield, each one weakening it. At long last, Raja began to regain the use of his facilities and fell flat on his face. "On your feet, Archbishop!" Demi commanded. "You have to bring the others around! Start with Rune -- he'll be able to help you!"

Demi pulled Raja to a standing position. He immediately used the Rimpa Technique, which neutralized any kind of paralysis, on himself to purge what was left of it. Next, he used it on Rune who already knew what he had to do the instant he was freed. While he went ahead with that, the Archbishop went to his unconscious friend and used Arows on him. The Technique had the same results as if one used smelling salts on someone who passed out. Hahn began to stir while the Archbishop healed his wounds. By that time Rune already freed the other Protectors from their predicaments and they were ready to fight. "Prepare yourselves!" Wren called out.

The Sentinels hit the wall simultaneously and it appeared to crack. The rupture spread across its length causing to fade completely. Gryz stepped up and thrust his hands forward. Esper magic swirled around him as he used the Patarus Skill. Waves of energy manifested itself into a single, powerful concussive blast which could be used as either an offensive attack or as a defensive maneuver. Aiming at the legs, the Motavian Esper toppled the Swordsman. A second Patarus did the same to its companion.

While they were down, Chaz and Nei decided to take advantage of the situation. Jumping onto the Sentinels' backs, the Hunter thrust downward with his sword while she slashed ferociously at her opponent. As valiant as their efforts were they went unrewarded for both Protectors were thrown off of their enemies as they returned to their feet. Swordsman and Barbarian turned to be rid of the minor annoyances when they felt Burst Rockets explode on their backs. Moments later, Legeon's bursts forced them to turn back around and face the threat coming from behind. Hahn and Demi moved swiftly to retrieve their friends from the path of destruction that the Sentinels were leaving.

The Swordsman swung its weapon, barely missing Wren. The big android noted that he would have been sliced in half if it was not for his luck and retreated a few steps. When it swung a second time, it impacted Blessing's mystical shield. The Barbarian, however, was able to attack from above the shield and practically threw its mace at its prey. Wren and company were propelled forcefully into a wall, free for the taking.

Chaz, Demi, Hahn, and Nei worked quickly to save the lives of their friends. The Scholar attacked first, using Nawat in an attempt to immobilize his foes. Next was Nei, her Disrupt Skill proving to be an efficient attention-getter. Demi and Chaz were last to attack, Silent Wave forcing them forward a few steps which did not fare well with their companions who were in their direct line of fire.

Wren fired twice and was immediately followed up by Kyra and Raja's Holy Thunder. The Sentinels covered their heads and shied away from the celestial assault. Rune noticed their moment of weakness and cast Legeon again. Beside him, the Motavian Esper thrust his arms forward, Patarus passing through Legeon's energy bursts and incorporating them into its own power. The power of Savage Strike was like that of a hundred men converging their swords on a single target. The force completely ripped off the Swordsman's hand and his weapon went sliding across the room. The Barbarian retrieved it and, tossing the defunct hand aside, handed the sword back to its companion.

"Our best attacks don't even phase them!" Nei observed.

"They're made of pure Laconia," Hahn told her. "It's going to take a lot more than we have to stop them!"

"Did you see how they protected their heads when Kyra and Raja used Holy Thunder on them?" Rune asked.

"Yeah," Gryz answered, "so what?"

"So, why would they have to protect their heads when their bodies are nearly invincible? I think their weakness is there, if not in their heads, then perhaps in the helmets."

"Yes," Wren added. "If I remember correctly, it was the helmets which alerted us to their sentience."

"Then it's settled," concluded the Hunter. "The helmets are our targets." He turned and faced the Sentinels who were already closing in. "We must concentrate all of our strength on attacking their helmets!" Chaz pointed his sword in their direction, indicating a challenge. "There lies our only hope in defeating these giants!"

"Right!" Nei exclaimed and charged into battle.

Nei ran right at the Barbarian who swung its mace right at her. Using her animal-like reflexes, she avoided it deftly. The Numan leapt into the air and slashed at its helmet, leaving visibly deep scratches. She landed on both feet and was about to attack again when she looked up and saw the mace coming down on her. Kyra let her Moon Slasher fly, hurling it at the Sentinel. The weapon sped on its way and sliced through the mace's chain, freeing it from its base. Nei ducked out of its path before it crashed into the floor. Jumping back up onto the Sentinel's shoulder, Nei buried both claws deeply into its head. The Barbarian reached back and threw her off. Luckily for her, Wren jumped up and caught her before she collided with a wall. Everyone watched as their enemy's helmet sparked, its magic fading. The Sentinel fell like a dead tree and lay still.

Together, Rune, Chaz, and Raja managed to parry a blow delivered by the Swordsman. Using Crosscut, the Hunter broke off the end of its weapon but continued its attack. Gryz used Patarus again for it was quickly becoming his favorite offense. His enemy flew backward and brought down yet another wall. It got back up quickly and charged into battle.

The Reverent Fifth's cape flew around his body as he and Chaz prepared to combine their strengths. Efess' blue light filled the room, sparked to life the moment it incorporated its power with Crosscut. Grandcross burst onto the Swordsman with so much force that it cracked the Laconian body and the giant toppled over. "Hahn!" the Hunter yelled. "Over here!" Throwing sensibility aside, he jumped on his enemy's body and placed himself above its head. With the Scholar's assistance, Paladin Blow completely shattered the Swordsman's helmet and whatever may have been inside of it.

"Wahoo!" Gryz exclaimed. "That's the way to kick some major butt!"

Chaz jumped down and exchanged hugs and high-fives with his friends. Nei took advantage of their close proximity and used Nasar to replenish their strength. Wren and Demi took a moment to repair their bodies with Recover. Nei and Chaz hugged, the first time they showed any kind of intimacy toward each other. The Hunter could not help but feel like it was natural, like they had been doing it for years. He would have taken her in his arms and kissed her had he not been aware of his companions watching them. They broke their embrace and Chaz felt his face flush. "We did well," he said, trying to draw the attention away from him.

"We did," Kyra added, "because we were prepared. We must not ever let our guard down. It's obvious that she has been expecting us."

"Then we proceed with caution," Wren advised.

All agreed that they would take no chances. They could not afford to lose one of their numbers to fate or to another one of the Child's welcoming gifts. As they moved off, Chaz noticed that Nei was becoming increasingly edgy. For some reason he believed that she already knew what they would find at Ladea's apex. If it was not that then there was definitely something else that she was holding back from them. He would have to find some time to pull her away from the others and ask her about it.

* * * * *

The Protectors moved up to Ladea's second level which was more complex than the first. They made their way through a series of corridors -- first left, then right, then straight, right, straight, left, and so on. Rune mentioned that he did not remember any part of the tower being this complex; in fact, each level was nearly identical. The Reverent Fifth surmised that it was within the Child's power to physically alter structures to become what she willed them to. It was a useful tool as she could slow those who were following her down or simply stop them. She would not do the latter because that would defeat the purpose. No, she wanted to destroy her enemies herself and nothing would deprive her of that privilege.

Gryz moved along steadily, moving with the flow of traffic so-to-speak. He thought sorrowfully of Pana, Dorin and the rest of Molcum, how they did not stand a chance against their attackers. He also wondered if some of them might have survived had he not set fire to part of town in a blind rage. There was no way he could have know that his Telemental powers would react that way. He did not even know the full extent of them for he was still discovering Skills and Techniques that Kyra and Rune had not even seen before. The Motavian wondered if he was prudent in making his decision about accompanying Rune back to Esper Mansion. Hurt was speaking for him at that time and he did not think about his best friend who would live his life without his loving wife. That could change in the near future though. It appeared that he and Nei were on their way to developing a lasting relationship.

Kyra's thoughts totally consumed her. While she desperately longed to return to action after more than a day's rest, she also missed Esper Mansion and the administrative duties which came with her title of Esper Leader. There was an unmistakable fear inside that she could not shake. She dreaded facing the Child again, but knew that a confrontation was inevitable. Kyra feared that she would let her friends down, that she would become so paralyzed with fear that their lives would be in jeopardy. She had never in her lifetime hesitated to do anything, especially where the people she cared most about were involved. Their last conflict gave her some measure of her confidence back because it turned out positively. The Esper Leader could not take the chance that her courage would fail her. No matter her personal fears or doubt, she would never let her friends down.

Oh, how free Wren would feel just to tear down the walls that surrounded him and rip through the one who caused his friends' so much pain. He could not pretend to know how Chaz or Gryz were feeling about their losses, but he was consciously aware of the rage inside which slowly grew with every step he took. It would have been so easy to simply annihilate the Child with the massive firepower he possessed, but he did not feel that the Hunter would forgive him for that. He, like all mortals whether they were Palman, Motavian, or Dezorian, had emotional issues to work through and his friends were no exception. There were issues that the Hunter needed to work out before it was too late and as his friend Wren would never deny him that opportunity. Even though he could not admit to them his own fears and insecurities, he could never jeopardize their friendship like that.

Hahn was not worried about friendship. Frankly, he was enraged and only wanted to get his hands on the ones who destroyed Gryz's people and his own home. Sure, he was worried about Chaz's reaction to all of this, but there was no way that the Hunter could deny that the Child needed to be eliminated at all costs. There was no way he could let her live after she had caused everyone so much pain. It was pure luck that Saya and his parents did not die in the attack. He had a feeling that they were the targets all along. If it was not for the man he and Rune met on their trip back to Aiedo, they surely would have perished. The Scholar felt guilty for not having learned his name, but if they came back alive, he would be sure to make time to get to know him. That was providing that the man and his family stayed around long enough. He would try his hardest to make sure that he and his friends returned in one piece.

Raja was just one with the herd, moving along like a bovine creature with no mind of its own. He could not shake the thoughts of his first encounter with the Child. Never in his eighty-eight years had he encountered an evil that so closely matched that of the Profound Darkness itself. Even the Dark Force could not hold a candle to her. At least those manifestations of its parent followed rules of some sort. As far as the Child was concerned, there were no boundaries.

Still, the Archbishop was trying to figure out where he found the courage to stay on this journey considering what he just went through. He never considered himself as courageous as his companions, just that he always did what was right when it really counted. In fact, there were times when he considered himself a downright coward. The only reason Raja could figure out why he had the courage that he did was because he drew upon it from his friends. He would stick by their side until the end because they were the key to saving his own planet. If fate took them back to Dezoris, then so be it. It would be great to have another chance to see Jaerli again.

Demi's legs worked double-time to keep up with her companions. She did not understand why Wren built her with such a short stature. She did not think poorly of him, however, because it was his own hands that allowed her to be functioning. All that almost changed when they faced their ultimate foe back in Molcum. She remembered standing next to Wren in the heat of battle. Hearing his Burst Rockets launch, the android carefully aimed her weapon and fired at the Child. Intense sound waves which would have normally caused an organism to explode from the inside out merely bounced off like a stone skipping off the surface of a pond. Wren's rockets found their mark, but had little or no effect. Seconds later, a blur passed before her eyes and a creature possessing super strength tackled and nearly dismembered her master. Reaching into his circuitry, it pulled out some of his "vitals," deactivating the big android. Demi screamed and the creature turned to face her. What she saw would have turned her blood to ice had it been flowing through her body. A face which looked like Nei's looked directly into her mechanical soul. If Demi did not trust the Numan implicitly, she would have sworn that it was her. Quicker than even her enhanced optics could see, the thing that looked like Nei struck, and that was her last memory before Rune reactivated her. It was the first time she had ever been deactivated by someone else's will. She was determined to never let it happen to her or Wren again.

The Reverent Fifth could have sworn that he and his companions were walking in circles, but he had a gut feeling that they were not. It was apparent that the Child was not concerned with attacking them again. She was hiding something up her sleeve and it probably spelled their doom. If he did not know her better, Rune would have guessed that Nei was bothered by all of their excitement than all of them combined. She was not one to keep secrets from them, especially not when their lives were at stake. For the first time since they began travelling together, he was beginning to distrust the Numan. She risked her life many a time during their battles to ensure their survival. That was not entirely true, however, because she was immortal and could not be killed by normal methods. The Child's companion looked remarkably like her, but it was within her power to alter the appearance of anything. There was a memory lodged deep within his mind that ate away at his insides that he could not resurface -- one of Lutz's memories. Nei had a secret all right. The problem was getting her to tell them what it was.

Chaz walked next to the person he was falling in love with and yet it felt like they were a million miles away. Nei was as aloof now as she ever was. When they first met she was puzzling and hard to figure out, even copping a pious attitude which was annoying. Since then, she dropped that defense mechanism and opened herself up. The Hunter was dubious about sharing room with someone that could turn out to be a know-it-all, but fortunately she did not turn out like that. She never once used the intelligence she possessed to belittle them, only to advance their cause. Nei quickly became an asset to them, one that he was not willing to trade for anything.

Chaz had so many feelings he needed to work out about Nei. He definitely felt love for her, but also hesitation. The love did not blind the fact that she could possibly have to return to the Light once her mission was complete. She promised him that she would do everything in her power to stay within him, but he knew that it was most likely not within her power. What he would not do to get inside of her thoughts and see if she shared the same feelings for him as he did for her. The Hunter desperately wanted to tell her his feelings, his emotions, but was so afraid that she would rebuke them. Nei was not so easily clouded by such frivolous things. Still, if an opportunity presented itself, he would have to come clean about everything.

Of the nine individuals who walked in the company of each other, Nei was the most troubled. Already she could sense the presence of her evil half lurking somewhere within Ladea. There was no denying that their paths would cross. Her greatest fear was that she would not be able to stand up to Neifirst. Looming above her head like a dark cloud was a distinct possibility that like the Great Light had provided her with certain other abilities, the Profound Darkness probably did the same for its minion.

An icy-cold hand gripped Nei's heart with fear, but it was not for her own sake. She knew exactly what Neifirst was capable of doing and the thought of her ripping through her friends like paper dolls was one she did not want to dwell upon because she knew that it was within her power. Neifirst was merciless killing machine with a high level of intelligence to complement it. A darkness began to settle in and she was unsure of how to face it. Part of that darkness was the fact that she still had not settled her feelings for Chaz. How could she pretend to take the place of his deceased wife? Could he ever love her as much as he loved Rika? But the hardest question she had to answer was if she was willing to take that chance. If she told Chaz and he rebuked her, then she would simply return to the Light and nothing will have been lost on her side. He showed signs of affection toward her, but she was not sure if it was because of love or because, as Kyra once suggested, that he felt a closeness to her because of her similarity to Rika. Would he ever truly love her as Nei or only a vision of Rika? Would he be kissing her or only a fantasy? There were so many questions she needed answered and time was running out. Algo's time in eternity was about to be cut short.

Chaz, Wren, and the others eventually found their way up to Ladea's next level and found themselves submerged in blackness. Raja stepped forward and immediately turned to look behind him but saw nothing but dark. Stepping backward, the Archbishop emerged back into the light where his friends still stood. "What is it?" Demi asked.

"Why didn't you follow me?" he asked.

"We stopped and you kept on going. You were gone for almost five minutes."

"Impossible! I stepped forward only a few seconds ago! How can this be?" Raja looked to his friends to offer an answer, but they could not provide him with one. "Well, I went in and could not see anything so I turned around and you were gone. There was nothing inside but blackness."

"I sense a dimensional disturbance," Wren said. "Demi, assist me in scanning this phenomenon." The two androids moved to the head of the group and began to evaluate the source of whatever they were staring into. Both walked along what appeared to be a veritable wall of blackness sensing everything about it. This went on for several minutes before they met to compare what their individual scans revealed. The big android faced his friends. "This phenomenon has no mass," he announced, "no width, no length, and yet it exists here."

"What do you think it is?" Hahn queried.

"A dimensional portal," Demi told him.

"To what dimension?"

"Most portals lead do dimensions which are similar to our own. Once a person steps through it he normally notices that his surroundings are very much like the ones he just left. Our universe exists in three dimensions which allows us to see width and length, depth, and height. Time is believed to be the fourth dimension and is what keeps all events from happening at once. There is, however, a universe in which there exists a fourth dimension in which time and space play no role."

"Are you saying that this portal leads to that fourth dimension?" Rune asked.

"Portals like this one are not supposed to exist in our universe," Wren explained. "We have no explanation of why this one is here besides that the Child must have created it."

"Those Dimension Worms we encountered in The Edge --" Chaz began, "they were from this fourth dimension, right?"

"Precisely. Without the presence of time and space, every possibility imaginable collides and chaos reigns. The Great Light has no dominion there. Similarly, there is a dimension in which the Profound Darkness has no dominion. We are merely stuck in between them. I do not believe that the Child placed this portal here with the intention of stopping us. Like it was mentioned before, she would get more satisfaction out of finishing us off herself. I suspect that this is only a minor portal designed only to slow us down like the labyrinthine corridors we just emerged from. Because of the discontinuities with time, however, when we come out on the other side, it could be minutes, hours, or even days later than where we are now, depending on how long she needs to activate the magic contained within this structure. I would suggest that we join hands so we do not lose each other in the blackness."

"What are the chances that we'll encounter resistence inside there?" asked Nei.

"I would say about ninety-nine point five percent."

"I don't like those figures."

"Shall we proceed?" Chaz prompted.

"Very well. Chaz we would do best if you took the lead while I bring up the rear. If for some reason our Techniques and Skills fail us, you and I must do all the fighting. We must never break our link to each other. If one person wanders astray, he or she may be lost forever."

Everyone understood even though the prospect of lost in the fourth dimension was frightening enough to prevent them from ever entering. Chaz and Nei joined hands followed by Hahn, Kyra, Gryz, Demi, Raja, Rune, and finally Wren. The Hunter entered the portal and was immediately enveloped by blackness. It felt almost fluid and his body seemed to be working in slow motion. The first step he completed felt like it took an eternity and he began to realize that they could very well walk forever before reaching the other side, assuming that there was one.

Chaz opened his mouth to speak Nei's name, but heard nothing. It appeared that they could not communicate with each other. He felt the Numan's reassuring touch and welcomed it. He was becoming more and more frightened with each step he was not able to take. "Nei," he heard a familiar voice call out, but it sounded like a recording that was slowed down many times. The Hunter realized that it was, in fact, his own voice. Apparently this dimension not only physically slowed them down, but it also slowed sound as well and the delivery of sound. Chaz completed his second step and heard the voice again.

"Chaz," the same slowed-down voice said, "this is Nei. Keep on walking. We must not stop at any point."

The Hunter continued on, his movement languid half way through his third step, he heard one of his companions scream and knew that, much to his dismay, he or she was probably attacked several seconds before he heard it. He could not tell which of his friends was attacked because everyone's voices sounded the same or even what attacked him or her.

Suddenly, there was a brief flash of light and Chaz was barely able to turn his head in enough time to see what it was before it disappeared. A horrible tubular body or indiscernible color and size loomed over Kyra and struck her with one of its many tentacles which stuck out from all parts of its body. Red eyes pierced through their blackened environment like lasers. It vanished, leaving him and his companions in blackness again. Several seconds later, he felt Nei tug on his hand as the impact of the attack on Kyra finally reached him. "Run, Chaz!" a slowed-down voice called out. "Kyra's hurt! We have to get out of here!"

Chaz completed his third step and continued on with the fourth in what he thought was going to be a faster pace, but discovered otherwise. He and all of his friends were in grave danger, but he could not do anything to quicken their journey. Feeling some kind of movement in the fluid-like blackness, the Hunter raised his sword and sluggishly turned around to strike at something that was not there. Time passed and the bright flash returned. Chaz saw his sword strike at what he believed to be a dimension worm attacking Nei, severing one of its tentacles. He could not figure out how it was able to strike before they saw it since everything else was moving in the opposite direction. He guessed that the worm must possess the power of paradox. How else was it able to attack before they saw it when their own bodies and actions were slowed down many times? If anything, they should have been able to see its attack before actually feeling it. The Hunter also could not figure out how he was able to successfully fend off its last strike. It must have been pure luck.

Five steps and Chaz did not feel that they were any closer to their destination. He heard strange sounds coming from ahead, from both sides, and from behind and knew that whatever was there probably moved on since it made a sound. He was getting more and more frightened the longer they were in that horrible place. The Hunter sensed the same kind of movement within the blackness he felt just before Nei was attacked and brought his sword up to protect himself. He held the sword up for what seemed like an eternity before something hit it and nearly ripped it from his hands. Several seconds later, the flash returned and he saw that he was somehow able to parry a blow that could have been fatal.

Six steps. Chaz heard a low rumbling followed by what sounded like a discharge from Wren's weapon. Half way into what was to be the beginning of his seventh step, two flashes appeared, one created by the dimension worm, the other by the android's Photon Eraser. The two flashes collided and Wren averted its attack on Rune who was beneath its body and was about to be crushed. The Hunter must have not been the only one who figured out how the creature attacked. They were in the worm's element and could not possibly defeat it. Their only hope was to get out of there as quickly as possible. Now that Wren also learned how to defend against it, that possibility looked a little better.

On Chaz's seventh step he felt his muscles begin to strain against the fluid blackness. Never had he moved so slowly while wanting to move so fast. It was like one of those dreams where he could run as fast as he could and get absolutely nowhere, except this was not a dream. It was as real as the hand that held his and trusted him to lead it out of danger. He felt Nei's grip begin to weaken and guessed that she was beginning to tire. The Hunter wondered about his other friends, particularly Kyra who was injured. Hopefully Wren and Demi, who were stronger than any of them, could manage to keep them going.

Eight steps and the Hunter began to lose control of his senses. His head pounded with a pain like no other and he could no longer hear anything besides the pulsing of blood through his ears. Spots and little dancing lights appeared before his eyes. Something struck his chest but he could not hold the wound. To do so would mean he would either have to drop his sword or break the chain and risk losing his friends forever. A burning sensation began to slowly spread out and his step began to falter. In the next instant, the flash returned and so did the dimension worm. A tentacle reached out and struck him. It was odd to feel it happen before seeing it, but the effect was the same, nonetheless. He felt Nei's reassuring touch and it encouraged him to continue onward.

It was the most difficult nine steps that Chaz ever took and it was not over yet. He tried to calm himself down and not let panic take over and the Numan's touch give him the extra clout he needed to do that. The Hunter felt the impact of another attack and knew that another one of his companions had fallen victim to the worm. He anxiously awaited the flash that would inevitably follow and feared seeing who it was. When it appeared, he saw that a tentacle hammered into Demi's back. Luckily the android possessed great stamina and took the blow without severe damage.

Chaz concentrated and tried to use Nathu but to no avail. It became painfully obvious that the sluggishness of this dimension was beginning to effect his thought processes as well. Wren warned them that they might not be able to use any Techniques or Skills and it appeared that his assumption was correct. As slow as they were moving, it was incredible that they could think at all. Without a mind clear of clutter, the use of those special maneuvers was almost impossible. No matter what, they needed to keep their heads screwed on straight if they were going to make it out alive. There was no telling how many more steps they needed to take before making it out of the fourth dimension.

Ten steps and the Hunter would have been content with dropping to his knees and giving up if it would have not taken ten minutes to hit the ground. There was simply no way he could stop moving. If he stopped, then the nine bodies behind him would stop as well because they would just assume that he did so for good reason.

Chaz suddenly felt himself back in the body of a babe taking its first steps. His difficulty in walking reminded him of an infant thrusting itself forward into a bipedal world. So many times it tried to put one foot in front of the other, to imitate its parents and go running into their arms. It was a journey which every Palman, Motavian, and Dezorian must take in their lives. To do so signified growth and movement toward the future. In the case of a plant, it was growth toward the light from darkness, which was exactly what they were doing. Chaz was the tip of the shoot that would eventually break through the wall of soil where they would enter the light and continue to grow toward it.

The Hunter's eleventh step was accompanied by a wave of power which he never felt before and did not think was possible in this dimension. An enormous pulse like a tidal wave propelled them forward far enough to cover at least ten more steps. Chaz felt the air knocked out of him and he could not inspire another breath fast enough. A flash brighter than any of the previous ones lit up what seemed like the entire fourth dimension. There, standing before the one dimension worm that was attacking them plus three others they were unaware of, stood the most unlikely of saviors.

The Child, her hands raised, cast the worms away with her dark power.

That same power was obviously responsible for hurtling them forward in what surely would have been a lethal assault. Chaz was pleased that his daughter came to his rescue and nearly broke into a smile. Wren's words intruded into his thoughts and he was reminded that she was purely and evil being and that her sole purpose in saving them from the dimension worms was probably to finish them off herself. While his heart was romanticizing the whole situation like in some fairy tale, that she had some shred of love for him and that he could rescue her from the way of Darkness, his android friend's logic burned into his mind like a branding iron.

Another flash drew the Hunter's attention from his twelfth step to where the Child was still battling the dimension worms. One of them completely wrapped its body around her, oblivious to the power she possessed. The flash occurred when she used it to completely annihilate the creature leaving no trace of it having been there -- no blood, no carcass -- nothing. The remaining two worms gathered themselves for a collective attack, one that would spell their doom. Chaz kept his gaze toward that battle, waiting for another flash to reveal what was happening while at the same time continuing to inch onward to freedom.

Thirteen steps and Chaz felt a renewed vigor for removing his friends and himself from their fourth dimension hell. A long period of time passed since the last flash occurred and he found himself becoming strangely worried. True, the Child was a being of utter Darkness, but he could not put the fact that she saved their lives out of his mind. The Hunter often fantasized about his child or children coming to his rescue one day. Now, the was fulfilled, but he wished it was under different circumstances. He regretted that he had no part in the Child's upbringing and that she probably did not consider him an important part of her life. A peculiar type of sadness settled in and he heard her voice again in his mind: "Oh, father, dear. . . ." Chaz felt like his heart was weighted with a ton of lead.

The Hunter lifted his leg to start on his fourteenth step and half way into another flash from the battling Child and dimension worms, he fell forward into an intrusion of light. His eyes adjusted after a few moments and was pleasantly surprised to find himself back in his own dimension. It took several seconds, but, one by one, all eight of his companions fell through the doorway as well. Chaz grasped at the stinging in his chest and used Gires to alleviate some of his pain. Raja did the same for the Esper Leader who suffered more debilitating injuries. Looking behind him, he saw the black portal still there and resisted an urge to go back in to see how the Child fared. Only now did he realize that the route they travelled only took them less than a millimeter further from where they began.

"Did you see what happened in there before you came out, Wren?" Chaz asked as he approached the big android.

"No," he returned. "I was out of the dimension before anything else happened." Wren took a cursory look at his friends. "I would suggest that we rest for a short while before continuing. There is only one floor left inside of Ladea and it would be prudent to conclude that the Child and her companion is there."

"So," Kyra interjected, recovering quickly from her injuries, "the final conflict begins."

"Yes, it does," Nei said, "but it does not have to be that way for you. Chaz, there is something that I need to tell you. Will you walk with me?" The Hunter exchanged puzzled glances with Kyra and Wren who did not offer any suggestions. Shrugging his shoulders, he hurried to Nei's side who already walked off.

Nei was concerned about getting too far from safety and did not wander off too far. She dreaded this time, when she would have to tell Chaz the identity of the Child's champion. Unsure of how he would react to her deceit, the Numan walked in silence for what seemed like hours. She occasionally glanced in his direction to see if he was looking at her and saw that he was not. He trusted her so much that he was oblivious to her deceit, to what she was about to reveal to him. This was something she had to do, however, because she could not live with herself if she did not.

"Chaz," Nei spoke, "I have to tell you something and I'm not sure how to do it without you thinking that I have deceived you because the truth is I have. Ever since we left Vahal, something has been bothering me but I've been afraid to tell you and the others."

"You, afraid?" Chaz replied. "I find that a little hard to swallow."

"Nonetheless, it is true. I have selfishly been hiding the identity of the Child's companion because of my own fear. If something happens between now and our journey to the fourth level, it is imperative that you let the others know."

"Know what?"

"That the Child's companion is me." Nei waited for a response from the Hunter, but got nothing. "Or, more appropriately, a part of me. Chaz, the identity of the stranger is none other than Neifirst."

Chaz gasped although he was not aware of it. Neifirst -- the person responsible for killing the person he was growing to love so much -- was now wandering free on his planet again. He was suddenly gripped with an unparalleled fear, but not for himself. The Hunter's fear was for Nei, that she would to face her evil other-half and face the possibility of death at her hands again. She was correct in assuming that he would be bereft of any opinion of her hiding this secret from him and the Hunter suddenly became very angry and upset about it. Casting a baleful glance in her direction, he stormed off in the direction of his other friends. Nei ran after him.

"Please, Chaz!" the Numan called, "wait!"

"Why should I?" the Hunter questioned vehemently while turning to face her. "You've been lying to me, Nei, and even worse -- you've been lying to all of us! How could you do that and keep a clear conscience?" Offering no answer or even an indication of a reply from her, Chaz continued on his return to the others. Feeling chastised, Nei took a moment to regain her composure, then hurried after him.

The Hunter, in the meantime, walked briskly and inwardly fumed. Never in his life had he felt so betrayed by someone he loved. Alys was fond of making examples of his actions so he would learn from them and that hurt. What she never did, however, was lie to or deceive him. That was something that he hoped he would never have to experience from someone he trusted and loved as a friend or more. All of his friends knew everything about his life, including Nei. There was not anything that he did not share with them and he expected nothing less in return. If there was an issue that was bothering him, Chaz was sure to talk it out with someone. He just did not understand why Nei let this one get away from her.

Chaz entered his friends' makeshift camp and gained their attention immediately without saying a word. Gesturing with his hands and arms, he beckoned his friends to return to their feet. "What's going on?" Gryz asked.

"We need to get going before we lose our element of surprise," the Hunter said. "I have a feeling that she is expecting us to rest. We need to get moving so we can take them before they know what's happening."

"Chaz," Rune said, "we were expecting to rest before continuing on. This isn't a question of whether or not we want to -- this is something we're doing out of necessity. "

"Fine," he remarked while grabbing his sword, "I'll do it myself." The Hunter turned on his heel and aimed his sights on what fate had in store for him.

"Chaz," Kyra called out, "what's going on?" The voice caught him off guard and he stopped dead in his tracks. Chaz breathed heavily and felt his heart racing as it pumped harder and harder to keep enough oxygenated blood flowing through his arteries. He began to feel light-headed and leaned on the hilt of his sword for support. It was obvious that he let his anger get out of control because he never experienced the type that hurt him inside as well. Taking a few deep breaths to regain some amount of self-control, he was finally able to tell them what was on his mind.

"We've been deceived," he said.

"What? By who?"

"By me," Nei announced, arriving, like always, at precisely the right time. Chaz felt his entire body become rigid at the sound of her voice. He did not need to turn for already he could feel the Numan's penetrating eyes burning into the back of his head.

"I don't understand," the Esper Leader admitted. "How have you deceived us." A long, uneasy silence passed between all of them as someone was expected to build up enough courage to speak.

"Would you like to tell them or should I?" Nei asked, but the question was a simple one and not spoken out of malice.

Another uneasy silence.

"The Child's companion is Nei's other half -- the wicked she-demon, Neifirst," Chaz blurted out with little tact. He knew that the words probably stung pretty bad and almost instantly regretted saying them in such a manner. "All of our lives are in even more danger now because of her," he continued without remorse.

"Please, let me explain!" Nei begged of her friends, but Kyra raised a silencing hand. At that moment, the Esper Leader commanded all actions, all words said and unsaid. Lowering her gaze, she shook her head in disgust. Rune wondered what she had up her sleeve. He, as well as everyone else, knew that it was times like this that she was at her best. It seemed like every time there was a dispute between them, she played the role of the arbitrator.

"I refuse to believe what my ears are forced into hearing," she finally blurted out. Nei took a precautionary step backward. "How can you do this to us now?" The Numan opened her mouth to speak, but did not find the courage to do so. Rune, Gryz, and the others stayed completely still almost as if any movement would shatter a mold built around their bodies. "You need to stop this right now, Chaz."

"Me?" the Hunter questioned and was genuinely surprised. He was expecting Kyra to really lay it on the Numan, but found that her distaste was not with Nei. For some reason unknown to him, he was the source of it. "Why me? I'm not the one who lied to all of us."

"Wake up, Chaz. Nei didn't lie to us. It's apparent now that she did not volunteer some vital information, but we never asked her if she knew who the Child's companion is. Despite what you may think of your flawlessly honest world, there are those among us who have secrets and good reasons for keeping them that way. We've all known Nei as long as you have and you don't see any of us flying off the handle because she's come out with some information that might give us a fighting chance for survival, even if it is at the last moment." Kyra took a moment to collect her thoughts and decide how to move on.

"Fighting is the last thing we need to do. Right now, the most important thing is that we remain a team and a family. That is what will get us through this. I think that maybe you're a little confused and upset about our purpose here after seeing the Child save our lives. For a second there I was having second thoughts about her. Nei is here to help us and we have to trust her no matter what."

"Easy for you to say." Chaz sheathed his sword and walked off without another word. Nei moved to intercept him, but Kyra blocked her path.

"Just let him go, Nei. He needs to blow off some steam for awhile. Don't worry, he won't go off and do anything without us. He may be angry right now, but he's not that foolish." Nei nodded and understood. She was surprised that her other friends were not questioning her about Neifirst and why she did not tell them of her. There was a certain amount of trust gained between friends and she guessed that they did not need an explanation. If one of them should need one, though, she would not hesitate to answer.

Chaz rounded the first corner he came to and slid down the wall into a sitting position. He was so mad at Kyra for being right he could not even defend his own statement from her scrutiny. And how could she turn on him like that? She was supposed to be like an older sister to him and she discounted his feelings and opinions like they did not even matter. The Esper Leader was right about how he reacted, though, and that is what made him so angry. He hated being psychoanalyzed by an Esper, but that was part of being one's friend. All kidding aside, he felt that he was going to reconcile the situation with Nei, but he needed to be alone for a little while more.

* * * * *

Over an hour passed before the Protectors were rested enough to continue on. Wren led the way and discovered Chaz resting within earshot of the rest of them. The Hunter saw that everyone was ready and joined them without a word, taking care to keep his distance from Nei. She felt his cold shoulder as surely as if it was an arctic wind and it did nothing for her feelings. Dejected, the Numan drifted to the rear and remained there.

The fourth level of Ladea was completely devoid of walls which was not how Rune or any of the others who previously visited the tower remembered it. An irritating hum filled the entire area and a magical column of bluish-white light radiated from its nucleus. Wren stopped short and halted his companions' advance. Rune looked around at the transformation that took place and was not pleased. In fact, he seemed more troubled than anything. "She's activated the bridge," he said solemnly. "We might be too late."

"Maybe," the Child said as she stepped out of thin air, "maybe not." All nine Protectors immediately drew their weapons and readied themselves. "You scar me with your assumptions," she added. "Why waste my precious energy on you when I know another who would enjoy the challenge." The Child turned her head and looked over her left shoulder. A horrible shriek reverberated within the walls of Ladea and sent shivers down the spines of those unfortunate enough to hear it. There was nowhere for anyone to hide and they were puzzled as to where it was coming from.

Then they had their answer.

From the same thin air that the Child appeared from came a flash of reddish-lavender. Somersaulting forward like a cannon ball, Neifirst landed squarely on her feet and even though she was several yards away from her enemies, she reached forward and grasped at them. In that instant, five enormous ghost-like hands appeared above their heads and delivered a blow which equaled that of what five full-grown sandworms were capable of. Like trees standing in the path of a massive avalanche, eight Protectors were bowled over and remained flattened -- all except one.

"Greetings, sister," said Neifirst in a voice that was eerily similar to Nei's. "We meet again."

"Yes," Nei returned, crossing her claws before her face, legs shoulder-length apart, prepared to defend herself and her comrades, "and this time I am stronger."

"As am I." Neifirst reached down to her belt and drew forth her light blade, glowing in a whitish-red tinge. Looking across the room at her other half, she could see its light reflecting off of Nei's eyes, but did not see the fear in them that she did when they last met. In fact, she was experiencing a certain amount of trepidation in her presence. Deep within the Numan's soul shone a light like no other.

"Prepare to meet your fate again," Neifirst announced.

"I sense your fear, Neifirst. You can see for yourself the power the Great Light has instilled in me. While you have been summoned for the sole purpose of serving the Darkness, I am the Light's messenger, its Champion."

"So you are," the Child cut in, "but I am the Darkness', and Neifirst is mine. And because she is, she will defeat you. Prepare to face oblivion."

"You should have chosen better travelling companions, sister," Neifirst observed. "These ones fell with one swipe."

"Don't count us out yet," Chaz said, picking himself off of the floor. He held his Guard Sword and aimed it at Nei's double. Keeping his gaze steady, the Hunter stood to Nei's right side. "You might find that getting rid of us is harder than you think.." The Numan smiled inwardly, if not outwardly. Nothing meant more to her than to know that he would stand by her side.

Slowly, one by one, the seven remaining Protectors recovered from the blow dealt to them, joining Nei and Chaz in their preparedness. Kyra took her Moon Slasher from her belt while standing just to Nei's left, the light from the bridge shining brilliantly off of its sharply honed blades. Gryz stood next to the Esper Leader, his Defeat Axe held threateningly, hands glowing with Esper power. Demi took a position next to Chaz, her face molded into that of a statue, the Sonic Buster aimed and ready to fire. Beside her was Rune, wisest of any mortal creature in Algo, his weaponless hands pulsating with Telemental energies, ready to cast powerful spells in a moment's notice.

Raja silently said a word of prayer to Tak'khan and joined his friends by standing beside Rune, his mystic powers blanketing them in a protective shield, the Nares Staff prepared to fight to the death if it came to that. Choosing a spot next to Gryz, Hahn unsheathed his Mahlay Dagger which pulsed with its strange but comforting ebullience and held it before his face. His father told him that the metal would protect him if the need arose; he, in turn, would protect his friends and if he could not, he would die trying. Wren was the last to join, taking his place next to the Scholar, and Neifirst took special notice of him. The big android held the barrel of his Photon Eraser upright with both hands and stared at the Champion of Darkness with malicious intent. Besides her sister, Wren appeared to be her most formidable opponent.

Neifirst turned to the Child and appeared perturbed. "I thought you said I would only have to deal with my sister."

"Ah, well," she returned, "the more the merrier."

"No matter," Neifirst's light blade began glowing with more intensity, "they will suffer the same fate as Nei!"

Quicker than the eye could see, Neifirst swung her weapon, discharging a burst of energy. Nei uncrossed her arms and slashed, dissipating it before it did any damage. "Everyone, hit the ground!" the Numan roared.

Trusting her implicitly, eight bodies dove head-first onto the floor. Seconds later, Neifirst grasped at them and the ghostly hands appeared only inches above their heads. The Numan did not evade them, did not even attempt to do so. She understood that they would not stop their downward progression unless one of the hands came in contact with something, so she acted as the doorstop, so to speak. Nei practically flew backward from the impact and collided with the far wall. Chaz howled in anger, returned to his feet in a split-second and attacked.

Neifirst managed to sidestep and the swing of the Hunter's sword missed its mark. Seizing Chaz by the skin of his back, she lifted him completely off of the ground, causing excruciating pain. Wren fired, using his uncanny android targeting system to aim precisely. The shot was met with a swipe of a ghostly hand which rendered it harmless. Kyra, in the meantime, saw an opportunity in her companion's distraction to engage the Dark Emissary.

With her arm cocked, the Esper Leader let fly her Moon Slasher. Neifirst saw it out of the corner of her eye but it was too late to avoid the deadly weapon. Grazing the arm holding Chaz suspended in the air, she was forced to drop him and temporarily nurse the resulting wound. Kyra caught the slasher and continued on with her double-fisted assault by casting Hewn. A gusting vortex of wind bypassed the Hunter and caught his attacker in a swirling maelstrom. Hahn joined in, using Nawat to hopefully cause more damage. Ladea's entire fourth floor became illuminated by Blizzard's raging power.

Neifirst's tireless extremities appeared out of nowhere and knocked Kyra away, disrupting Blizzard. But where she left off, Gryz was able to take over for, using his newly discovered Esper Skills to cast Hewn in her absence. Blizzard continued, swinging the phantom hand around and around at a dizzying rate. All of the sudden, the Protectors heard something crash against a wall and noticed that it seized a hold of one of the walls. Demi fired at it and Rune tried to dislodge it by using Nagra, but since it had no substance, their efforts were futile.

The Dark Emissary pulled with all her strength and successfully extricated herself from Blizzard's vacuum. Although the Child was no where to be seen, she felt her presence by the warmth flowing through her veins and arteries, dispelling the cold caused by her opponents. She saw them confused by her sudden exit, saw Blizzard fade into nothingness. Never before had she ever underestimated her foes, but this time she did. There were much more capable than she gave them credit and as a result she was caught off guard. That would not happen again.

Chaz still lay unmoving on the floor, paralyzed by the injury inflicted to him by Neifirst. She noticed his inability to move and quickly moved in to finish the job she did not have the opportunity to complete. With the speed of an animal in pursuit, the Dark Emissary appeared above him with her light blade in hand. Before she knew it, Nei was on top of her, almost fully recovered from her injuries. She was just barely able to roll her body sideways before her sister's Guard Claws were implanted firmly in her cranium. While the Numan was temporarily incapacitated due to the immobility of her weapons, the Dark Emissary placed her legs under Nei's stomach and thrust her away. Nei flipped and twisted with a cat's litheness and landed on her feet. Neifirst rolled her body backward and, using her arms, sprung up into a standing position.

Nei raised her arm and swung at her other half who anticipated her move and deftly moved out of her path. Spinning around, Neifirst attacked, discharging a burst of energy from her light blade. The Numan felt it rip through her insides as it entered her body while at the same time seeing a shimmering aura of light surround her. Risking a look over her shoulder, Nei saw Raja weaving his mystic powers in the form of Nasar to counteract any damage her sister might have caused her. Chaz, having to deal with his own injuries, also recovered.

Flipping out of the way, the Numan made room for her friends to join in the battle. Demi, Hahn, and Chaz stepped forward. Together, they cast Cosmic Boom and the Dark Emissary was inundated with sound, light, and power. Neifirst never experienced anything like it before and did not know how to defend against it. She felt herself being torn apart, forced against her will into the Astral plane. With three carefully aimed shots, she was able to take out all three of her foes and prevent her body from exploding under the duress.

Gryz, Chaz, and Nei attacked simultaneously, their weapons converging at a single point. Neifirst raised a bare hand and caught the claw, sword, and axe without so much as a flinch. Pushing them away, she side-kicked her sister, then spun around and caught the Motavian across his face in a roundhouse. Chaz blocked a punch that would have been delivered right to his face and swung his sword at the Dark Emissary. Using her forearm, she blocked the blow with no apparent damage to herself and used her own blade in an attempt to eviscerate her opponent. Fortunately for the Hunter he was able to counter her move with Rayblade, saving himself from death.

A whistle from Hahn caught Chaz's attention and in the next instant the two friends combined their Skills together to form Paladin Blow. Neifirst did little more than flinch at their assault, much to their dismay. She moved in to take them both and found herself engulfed in bolts of Conductive Thunder. Rune and Kyra compounded their strengths to bring the Dark Emissary down, but somehow she deflected the bolts and turned them on their creators who were forced to disengage before causing major harm to themselves.

Neifirst caught sight of Gryz and Demi standing together and knew that something was afoot. Using her telepathic prowess, the Dark Emissary created two phantom hands and cupped them together to form a U-shape just prior to being attacked with Silent Wave. Not expecting such a defense, Demi quickly set up an Energy Barrier to lessen the effects of the force turned against them. Even so, both she and the Motavian Esper were forced to curl up in a ball to escape Silent Wave's impact.

Wren fired but Neifirst was able to raise the light blade an absorb the shot. Using the power enhancement to her advantage, she released a flurry of energy bolts. The big android was not able to move out of the way and was caught in the middle of the fire. Several of the bolts hit him squarely in his chest causing a blowout of major circuitry. Wren lurched forward and for a few moments appeared to be immobile. The next four swings of Neifirst's blade were aimed at his extremities. The first two struck his arms and completely ripped his left out of its shoulder joint while his right, still holding his weapon, remained intact. Two other bolts struck his legs and felled the big android in a split-second. Wren lay unmoving, either unable to move or because his body was already effecting repairs.

The Dark Emissary moved in to finish Wren before any of his companions realized the enormity of his situation. Fortunately for the big android, Hahn was already en route to intercept her. "Protect us!" he spoke to his Mahlay Dagger. "Father said that you would protect whoever wielded you," he added, almost in disbelief. Positioning himself between his friend and Neifirst, the Scholar menaced his weapon threateningly. She laughed out loud which caused a certain amount of embarrassment to him, but he remained determined to protect his fallen companion. The Dark Emissary swung her blade and he closed his eyes, prepared to feel its impact.

The Scholar's hand moved under its own volition which caught him by surprise and his eyelids fluttered open. His Mahlay Dagger pulsated with unrealized power, its blade splitting the energy bolt into two halves, sending them to either side of him. Stunned, pleasantly surprised that he was still alive, Hahn did the first thing that came to mind. As an expert knife thrower, he could accurately hit a small animal from twenty feet away, and Neifirst was bigger and closer than that. The Scholar hurled his dagger in the Dark Emissary's direction and it passed through another one of her energy bolts along the way. Had she not stepped to her left, the weapon would have lodged itself into her chest, but as it was, it went into her left shoulder.

Neifirst did not even cry out in pain, merely reached up to extricate Hahn's weapon. Upon touching it, however, electricity sparked and jolted through her entire body. Screaming in frustration rather than pain, she pulled and pulled, but could not remove it. The Protectors smelled ozone in the air from the electrical sparks.

Suddenly, the Child appeared again and reached over to her companion's shoulder. Taking hold of the dagger's hilt, she easily took it out and the wound healed almost immediately. In the next instant, the Child veered around and hurled it back at its possessor. Hahn's Mahlay Dagger inserted its blade into its wielder's stomach and he stood there for what felt like minutes, his mouth open wide as he was trying to scream out loud but the breath was taken from him. Hahn brought his hand up from where it had been near his injury and saw it coated with his own blood. Shaking his head, the Scholar doubled over and lay still.

"NO!!" the Reverent Fifth roared, images of his journey to Krup with Hahn swirling vividly around his mind. Wren, incapacitated, his legs paralyzed for the time being, found the strength to prop himself up on one arm. Before him lay his friend's broken body and he was shocked into the realization that the Scholar had given his life to protect him. Hahn had his back toward him, but he could see the blood trickling out of his wound, staining the floor. Neifirst laughed out loud.

With strength born of anger, Wren launched Burst Rockets into the air. Gryz stepped next to the big android and cast Flaeli. Shooting Star's explosions would have normally incinerated anything unfortunate enough to be standing beneath them, but Neifirst emerged from them unscathed. Wren collapsed again and Gryz dove out of the way just before the phantom hands grasped at him.

Raja cast Blessing and lessened the impact of the Dark Emissary's succeeding attack on Gryz with her blade. He spoke the Holyword, hoping that somehow it would have an effect on her, but it did not. The Archbishop's Nares Staff absorbed her next strike with the light blade, but at great cost. He felt his stamina slowly draining away. Raising a hand, Raja quickly cast Saint Fire before collapsing. Anticipating his comrade's action, Rune cast Tandle and Holy Thunder rained down on Neifirst with a startling intensity. Neifirst shielded herself with a ghostly hand, but appeared somewhat weakened by the assault.

Demi saw her momentary lapse and charged in. Throwing herself bodily onto the Dark Emissary, the android managed to knock her flat on her back. Neifirst screamed like a thing possessed and returned to her feet without so much as a flinch. Her enemy successfully evaded two bolts from her weapon and was getting dangerously close to her again. Demi fired a Stasis Beam, but it had no effect. With a clenched fist and the super strength possessed by almost all androids, she struck at Neifirst. The Dark Emissary caught her fist in mid-strike and crushed it in her grasp. Demi watched in horror as her hand was crushed by her foe. Neifirst thrust her out of the way and she landed near Wren. Chaz and Kyra used Fire Bolt, but it seemed that she was beginning to adapt against their most powerful attacks. An outstretched phantom hand sent Hunter and Esper Leader diving in two separate directions.

"Fight me, damn you!" Nei screamed while charging into the fray. Standing before her other half, she executed Double Slash, but she deftly avoided all four swipes of her claw. Nei used Illusion and several false images of herself surrounded Neifirst, throwing her into confusion. The Dark Emissary swung her blade at a few of them, the energy bolts passing harmlessly through their bodies. She felt intense pain as her sister's claws tore at her back and she swung around with her weapon, but saw only several of her ghostly images.

Creating the phantom hand, Neifirst swung it around in a circular motion and passed through several of Nei's images before finding the real one. Trapped in its grasp, the Numan struggled valiantly, but could not break free. "Die, sister!" the Dark Emissary shrieked, then delivered a blow to Nei at point-blank. She screamed in tortuous agony before going limp in the phantom hand. Satisfied, Neifirst merely threw her sister over her shoulder like refuse and resumed her onslaught.

"NEI!!" Chaz hollered and ran to intercept the Dark Emissary. Rune, who was previously tending to Kyra, sensed his comrade's intention and quickly worked to reinforce his efforts. Grandcross exploded onto Neifirst with so much force that she was propelled backward about a hundred feet and did not immediately get up. When she did, though, she quickly slashed savagely at the Hunter with her own hands, then moved to finish off Rune. The Reverent Fifth took Kyra by the arm and pulled her backward where Gryz stood protectively before them.

"Demi!" Wren called to his counterpart, some of his strength returning to him after successfully using Recover. "The Sound Barrier!"

"But Chaz and Nei will be trapped outside!" she protested and pointed behind the advancing Neifirst to where the Hunter knelt next to Nei's broken body.

"Then at least they will be able to escape while we are trapped here!" Demi nodded, understood.

While Wren used Barrier, she fired her Phonomezer and an impenetrable Sound Barrier sprung into existence. Neifirst used the light blade in an attempt to breach their defense, but the bolts were absorbed into the barrier. She struck violently at it and all of her efforts were wasted. In her frustration, the Dark Emissary completely forgot about her sister and the remaining Protector behind her.

Chaz cradled Nei's lifeless body and rocked her gently. She told him before that she would be there with him and his friends until the very end. Never did he imagine that all of their ends would come so soon. The Hunter looked to his friends of over three years behind Wren and Demi's Sound Barrier. Wren, an arm missing, his legs paralyzed, still managed to prop himself up to face his end with dignity. He had lived for over a thousand years, but only in the past three did he finally discover his true purpose in life. Demi stood by his side and could do nothing and meet her fate with the pride of knowing that she served her friends well and that her death, much like her life, had meaning to it. She knelt down next to her master and put an arm around his shoulder, pulling him close.

Raja was unconscious but still managed to look dignified, like he was satisfied that he did what he could and even though he failed, he did not regret trying. The Archbishop's hand somehow found Hahn's and even though both were not conscious, neither of them would die alone. Hahn lay unmoving in a fetal position, the same position he was in when he fell. The Scholar's dreams of reaching the ranks of Professor and having a family were shattered. At least he reconciled his differences with his father before meeting this untimely demise.

Rune and Kyra consoled each other. They were leaving their people leaderless and without the wisdom of the ages. The Reverent Fifth hoped that the Telepathy Ball would receive his memories and knowledge in the event of his death so that the next Lutz could take his place. He regretted that he could not have served his people better. Kyra thought the same and was saddened to think that she was about to leave the mortal world after living for only twenty-one years. She wept uncontrollably. Looking out past Neifirst, she caught Chaz's gaze on her, felt the connection. Her sobs stopped. Even in death, she had to be strong for her little brother.

Gryz stood right behind the Sound Barrier and anticipated the moment when their defense would fall. He would take the brunt of Neifirst's attack in the hopes that his friends could retaliate in some way. Perhaps his death would give them the extra boost they needed to turn the tables on her like the death of his family did for him. It seemed like only yesterday that he discovered his Esper powers and was glad that they helped them get this far. He would not die a happy Motavian, but at least he would die a proud one.

When Chaz saw Kyra dry her tears after their eyes met, he felt that he also needed to be strong for her, for all of his friends, and choked back the tears that were already on the way. Nei's body relaxed in his arms, the life drained from it. "I'm sorry I yelled at you before," he apologized, hoping that somehow, somewhere, she could hear him. "I also regret that I didn't get a chance to tell you that I l --" A sudden jolt of movement stopped the Hunter in mid-sentence. "Nei?" he asked excitedly. The Numan's eyes suddenly fluttered open and she sat bolt-upright.

"What happened?" she demanded.

"You --" Chaz stuttered, "you died!" Nei was silent for a few fleeting moments, thoughtful.

"It's apparent that Neifirst cannot kill me in which case, I'm afraid, we cannot kill her, either. This calls for some drastic measures that I hoped it would not boil down to."

"What are you talking about? If we can't kill Neifirst, how are we going to save our friends and then save Algo." Nei smiled sadly, ran her fingers fondly through Chaz's blond hair.

"We may not be able to stop Neifirst, but I believe there is a way that you can." The Hunter noticed the emphases made in her statement and did not like the sound of them.

"How can I?"

"With Elsydeon."

Chaz felt the thoughts contained within his mind swirl around in a chaotic tempest.

"But --" he started, his throat suddenly becoming hot and dry, "but Elsydeon resides inside you!"

"Yes," the Numan conceded sadly. "In order for you to obtain it, I must leave your mortal world." Chaz was aghast, stunned, and appalled all at the same time. At the time he did not know how it was that he was supposed to take Elsydeon from Nei's body and imagined himself having to reach into her bloody carcass to get it. A nagging memory burned in him, but he could not place it.

"I --" Chaz started to say, "I can't," but his words failed him.

"I love you, Chaz," Nei stated matter-of-factly.

"What?" The Hunter pulled away and both of them returned to their feet.

"Do you love me?"

It was then that the burning memory returned to him, clear and unadulterated. He briefly went back into time, back to when she was first resurrected and Hahn commented about her immortality. "That is true;" she had said, "I cannot die by conventional means. My death can only be brought about by someone whose feelings for me mirrors my own." Chaz suddenly felt sick to his stomach and could wretch at any moment.

"Do you love me?" Nei demanded again.

"No," he returned.

"Chaz, why do you deny it? In order for this to work, you must not deny your feelings for me!"

"If it means that you will stay here with us, then you're damn right I'll deny it!" The Hunter turned his back on her, could not look into her penetrating eyes. "You promised me that I wouldn't have to face my daughter alone."

"I never promised anything," she replied, her tone soft, gentle, understanding. "I said that if it was within my power, you would not have to strike her down. It is not within my power, Chaz." The Hunter said nothing, stared at Neifirst fomenting destruction before his eyes. "Chaz," Nei continued, "I love you more than anything else in this world and maybe even in the afterworld. I was afraid to admit as much, but now I'm not -- not when the balance of the entire universe is at hand. What you have to do goes beyond your courage, beyond your love for me. This has to do with your love for your friends and for life." Chaz said nothing, continued staring at nothing. "It may pain you to hear this, but you must be the one to strike me down."

"I WILL NOT!!" the Hunter roared while turning to face her, eyes wide, faced flushed with anger. Seeing the look in Nei's eyes, however, he softened immediately. A loud thud brought their attention back to where their friends anxiously awaited their ends. Gryz was smashed against the barrier. His body slid down slowly and he was out for the count.

"Look," said the Numan, "Neifirst is already finding a way to break through their defenses. She may not physically be able to penetrate the Sound Barrier, but she can project her mind, and therefore the phantom hands, inside of it." What Nei said was true for Chaz saw the hands grasp at Demi, Rune, and Kyra with his own eyes. "She and I are bound by body and spirit though not by mind. The only reason the Profound Darkness was able to bring her back was because I returned. She cannot live too long in my absence and vice versa." The Numan was silent for only a few seconds. "Chaz, it's important that you speak your feelings for me out loud before you strike me down. It's the only way that this can work."

"I -- I can't!"

"Damn it!" Nei swore. "This isn't about us, Chaz! It's not about our feelings for each other! It's about preventing the Profound Darkness from reentering your world! We all have to die sometime whether it's sooner or later! I am choosing to give my life so that you and the rest of our friends can keep the Darkness away! Besides," she added somewhat grievously, "I'm already dead. I have been for over a thousand years."

"Not to me you're not," the Hunter whispered, but Nei heard it, anyway. She embraced him, tightly, ardently, not wanting to let go. He buried his face in her hair and inspired deeply, taking her in. He clutched to her every essence with his dear life and refused to let go.

"Do this for our friends," the Numan continued, "do it for all the people of Algo. Do this for me, Chaz. Most importantly, do this for yourself. You are still young and have a long life ahead of you."

"A life without you."

"Not true. As long as you hold my memory close, I will always be with you. Tell Kyra that I'm glad I got to know her and thank her for being my friend. Also, try to explain to her my decision, and tell her that I love her. Tell all of them that I love them."

They released their embrace and saw the severity of the situation concerning their friends, and yet Chaz still lacked the energy or emotion to retrieve his sword quickly. Nei stood alone, an unwavering pillar of courage and strength. The Hunter picked up his sword which felt heavy, leaden. He looked at it and almost regretted the day he chose to pick its kind up. He turned to Nei, standing alone, trying to appear composed, but the tears streaming down her face gave her away. She smiled at him sadly, looked at him with fondness. Chaz raised his sword and she closed her eyes.

Though wracked with pain, Kyra watched the events transpire between Chaz and Nei. At first she was pleased to see that the Numan had survived, but then was saddened to read the emotions on both of their faces. She saw him pick up his sword and raise it to Nei. "Chaz!" she screamed, horrified at what he was about to do, "don't!!"

The Hunter heard his big sister's plea. He swung the sword and dropped it in mid-strike. Nei opened her eyes and suddenly he was on her, holding her close. They kissed passionately, feverishly, and then he retrieved his weapon again before he had a chance to have a second thought. Nei stood tall, her composure regained. She had wanted to kiss him like that ever since she first realized her feelings for him and it gave her a small amount of satisfaction. Chaz closed his eyes, held the sword over his right shoulder with both hands. Behind him, he heard the Sound Barrier fail, heard Neifirst move in for the kill.

"In the Light," the Hunter heard Nei's voice not with his ears, but with his mind and heart, "The one you love most will be returned to you. We will meet again, Chaz . . . someday. Until that time, I will always be with you."

"I LOVE YOU, NEI!!" Chaz declared in a roar and swung his sword. "AARRRGHH!!!!"

Chaz stumbled and fell, the Guard Sword having vanished from his hands. For a brief moment, there was a deafening silence and not even a breath of air moved through. Then, a loud clank as something metal struck Ladea's stone floor. Behind him, he heard a body fall. The Hunter opened his eyes and discovered that Nei was gone, returned to the Light. Before him lay a pile of body armor, two claws, and a glimmering sword of remarkable craftsmanship -- Elsydeon. He gingerly picked it up and listened to it hum, felt its power.

Standing up, Chaz heard movement from the area his friends were in and turned quickly. There, dragging herself across the floor, was Neifirst. She had no visible wounds or injuries, but she was incapacitated, nonetheless. The Dark Emissary was crawling toward the magical bridge between Motavia and Dezoris where the Child was probably waiting. "Help me!" she was pleading. "Help me!" The Hunter walked over and stared down at her with compassionate eyes, but the compassion was not for her, it was for his friends and Nei. Now that he got to see her up close, he could not help but notice how two people who looked so much alike could be so different.

"Go back to the Darkness where you came from," he told Neifirst, holding Elsydeon high above her head. "May your soul never find peace." Driving it downward, Chaz drove his weapon through the Dark Emissary's back. There was a clap of thunder from somewhere outside of Ladea, then Neifirst's body went limp.

A laugh, the Child's laugh, reverberated through the fourth floor, but Chaz was too tired, too emotionally drained to care. He knew that she was escaping to Dezoris, but he and his friends would inevitably follow. She was directly and indirectly responsible for causing the deaths of two of the people he loved most in life. There was no way that he could let her live now, not after losing Nei.

The bridge's light scintillated and went out all together. Ladea began to shake and rumble -- an obvious sign of its demise. The Child needed to get to Dezoris with enough time to foment chaos before the Protectors arrived to try and stop her. The only way she could insure that was to force them to make the trip by space, not by instant teleportation.

Gryz and Demi recovered their senses enough to help Chaz gather their friends together. Using Hinas, he transported all seven of his companions to Ladea's first floor and he, Demi, and Gryz carried their fallen companions out before the entire tower collapsed on them. The Hunter watched as Ladea fell in on itself, raising sand high into the air. It was morning, just before sunrise, and a cool breeze caressed the land. It could not, however, blow away his troubles. He wondered how bright the star, Algo, would be this day.

The hydrofoil was still nearby and it was fortunate that no one decided to steal it. There would be one empty seat on the way back. Chaz was not looking forward for the trip back to Aiedo that would take them to almost midday. Once again he was returning without the woman he loved.

Chaz took Elsydeon from his sheath and regarded it reverently. It was this sword which allowed him and his friends to thwart the Profound Darkness' plans before. Hopefully, it would allow them to repeat that.

The Hunter held Elsydeon to the sky and heard the words he kept close to his heart:

"I will always be with you."

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