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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Wren brought the Landale down to the spaceport near Tyler. One of the first things he noticed upon entering Dezoris' lower atmosphere was the disappearance of the snowstorms which were plaguing the planet last time they were there. Dark clouds completely occupied its atmosphere and with Algo's light dying, it seemed almost like night on the surface. Wren had no immediate explanation for why the storms suddenly abate when they gave no indication of doing so. The big android decided that he would need to consult his companions about it.

Having left the Icedigger at Tyler's spaceport, the Protectors immediately disembarked and boarded their land vehicle. Chaz and Kyra walked out together which pleased their friends. Seeing them like they were when they left Motavia was hard enough for them. Just the thought of Kyra blaming him for Nei's death was like salt on a wound. After having to face the Numan's departure, having to deal with two of their numbers not getting along was almost too much for them to bear. Luckily they were able to work out their differences before it got out of hand. Rune had attempted to use Ryuka to teleport them directly to Esper Mansion, but some unseen force blocked his Technique. Better to make the journey by land, he thought. It would give them enough time to think things over.

The Child of Darkness was lurking somewhere on Dezoris and their immediate issue was where to find her. She would likely leave a path of destruction for them to follow. Raja and Rune cringed to think of what she was capable of doing on their planet. They could not bear to see the scattered Palman and Dezorian villages burned to the ground, utterly devastated. Because of their isolation, there was no conceivable way that they could band together for protection and support. The Reverent Fifth and the Archbishop hoped that there was still enough time to prevent the slaughter of innocent life.

Their first order of business was to get in contact with the Espers and Dezorians. Kyra would not have a difficult time of explaining their absence, especially after the circumstances following what happened with Lian and the rest of the Esper Council. Raja, on the other hand, probably faced more severe consequences for leaving his duties. Nyr would have been the most logical choice to succeed the position as Archbishop in his absence. That was, of course, assuming that they did not already write him off as dead. Raja did not even inform them of his intention to leave with Kyra. He just left, no explanations, no reasons he could justify to them. Nyr had already been disappointed with him for allowing Kyra to stay in Gumbian as long as she did. There was no doubt in his mind that Jaerli told her peers the truth about Kyra's visit. She would have also told them of how she saved both of their lives. That would not matter, though, because in the eyes of the Dezorian Bishops, she was responsible for bringing that evil upon them, and for their Archbishop's ensuing disappearance.

Rune would most likely face a few questions from his own people. He was, after all, not in their presence for three years and some of them would want an explanation. He was not overly concerned about it, though. The Espers were faithful to whoever carried the title of Lutz and would except his words as the truth, not that he was planning to lie to them. To deny them the truth now would almost certainly spell their doom. What they needed now was knowledge, not ignorance. Rune hoped that they would somehow be able to aid him and his friends.

Wren put the Icedigger in gear and sped away from Tyler's spaceport. Chaz sat next to him and caught some of its citizens staring after them in curiosity. He wondered if they somehow blamed the Protectors for the storm that ravaged for so long and if they now were trying to thank them for ending them. No matter. What he and his friends brought with them was far worse than any storm could ever have been. The Hunter almost felt like apologizing for bringing all of this upon these people. He could not, though. There was not much use in blaming himself for what could not have been prevented.

"Why have the storms ceased," Wren asked aloud, breaking their uneasy silence.

"As strange as it may seem," said Raja, "I think that, perhaps, the Child figured that she could carry out her evil intentions easier without the storms around."

"So what do we do first," Hahn questioned. "We're once again charging in to the rescue without a plan of action."

"Elsydeon may provide some answers," Rune said. Chaz turned in his seat.

"How?" he asked.

"Ask it?" The Hunter looked genuinely puzzled. Rune smiled. "The spirits of the Protectors contained within Elsydeon posses a vast amount of knowledge. You'd be surprised at how differently a person's spirit behaves after he or she has left its mortal body. They are sometimes coy and offer little more than riddles, sometimes nothing at all. Remember that it was Elsydeon itself which summoned us to the cave to discover Nei. As Lutz I have come to never question the gifts or advice that it offers. I just go with it."

Chaz took the Blessed Sword from its sheath which was strapped to his shoulder, being careful as to not strike their vehicle's roof. He eyed it with suspicion, saw his reflection in its shiny blade. For the first time he took a hard look at himself, and even though two of the people he cared most for in his life were recently removed, he seemed almost whole.

"So you think I should ask it?"

"I don't see any harm in it." The Hunter studied his weapon for a few seconds longer, then nodded as if he was finally committing himself to the task. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the question he needed to ask. Instead of asking Elsydeon directly, however, he chose to ask someone else, which caught everyone by surprise.

"Nei, if you're really in there, we need help. What should we do next?"

All eight Protectors sat still and held their breaths; only the roar of their vehicle's engine could be heard. None of them, not even Rune, knew what to expect. Anything could happen whether it was a manifestation of a spirit that they all could see or Chaz being pulled into Elsydeon itself to obtain the answer he sought. Wherever the powers of Light was concerned, nothing was certain. Unfortunately, he did not get an answer.

"I feel like an idiot talking to Elsydeon like this. It seems like the spirits don't want to talk to me."

"That's because you truly don't believe that they will," the Reverent Fifth said. "You have to believe, Chaz." The Hunter sighed.

Closing his eyes tightly, Chaz concentrated again, but this time he tried to let go of his doubt and fully embrace the possibility that Elsydeon's spirits would speak to them. Rune decided that he should aid him with his endeavor by lending his Telemental abilities to bridge the gap between him and the sword.

Chaz felt the exact moment his friend's powers enveloped him. He did what Rune told him to do and believed that Elsydeon was able to communicate with him and offer them advice as to what their next move should be. The Hunter felt his mind join with the Blessed Sword, become one with its spiritual powers. In that moment, he left the physical world and his friends behind, delved deep into that of the supernatural.

* * * * *

Chaz found himself all along among the midst of a swirling chaos. While he remained sedentary, his surroundings did not. He heard voices, numerous, supporting, each calling out to him to defend the world he loved, the only one he had. While the theme of their chants was all the same, their words went unheard. They were so many that the voices drowned each other out, leaving only a tangled mass of sounds.

The Hunter placed his hands over his ears and began to walk even though he did not know where he was going or even if he would move at all. With his environment the unstable vastness it was, he felt like he was standing still even though he watched himself put one foot in front of the other. Chaz felt so alone in there despite the fact that he was not, that the souls of Protectors who lived long before his time surrounded him, caressed him, shrouded him in a protective blanket of knowledge and power.

Numerous voices clouded his mind and Chaz was beginning to lose sight in why he was there. Colors swirled before his eyes and he found them strangely comforting. Shades of lavender and blue, then greenish-teal and magenta, pastels, primary colors -- all added to the illusion that he was safe and in no danger at all. He would have been content to just lay down and let it swallow him wholly, to be taken in and live with the illusion forever. Chaz could live out his life in this utopia and not care about anything at all.

But the voice of reason called out to him, begging him to return from his reverie, to face the reason he was there. Chaz heard Rune's voice, small and almost insignificant, but he refused to ignore it. It was the one thing from his real world that he could grab hold of, cling to tenaciously. He focused as hard as he could, remembering all of Rune's lessons about concentration and thoughts. The Hunter listened intently for in the confusion caused by Elsydeon's comforting chaos, he lost his way. Rune was saying something about asking a question, an important question that he must have somehow forgotten.

What was it that he was supposed to ask? Who was he supposed to ask?

The Reverent Fifth changed his words and began chanting a single one. Like the heartbeat of a large organism, Chaz heard this word over and over again and it slowly brought him back to where he was supposed to be. "Nei . . . Nei . . . Nei . . . ." Rune's words repeated in a haunting litany. For an instant, the Hunter remembered what it was he was going to ask and he did so before he lost the thought again.

"Nei!" Chaz cried out, "if you're in here somewhere we need your help!" He paused, waited for an answer. All of Elsydeon's voices had since died out and there was only a blowing, windy kind of silence. "Nei! What do we do next? What do we need to do?"

The voices began again, countless, confusing, all of them offering suggestions but drowning each other out at the same time. Rune warned Chaz that spirits were fond of riddles and that there was a chance that they would not respond. His problem was not that they did not want to offer advice -- it was that they were all trying to.

Chaz concentrated again in an attempt to block out as many voices as he could and focus on a couple, maybe even one. He heard a familiar voice call out to him through the camaraderie and it drew him in. The more he focused, the more the swirling chaos surrounding him tamed, became less confusing.

Then, all of the sudden, everything stopped, and the familiar voice he heard before was the only one he heard.

"Chaz," it said, "open your eyes."

The Hunter did what he was told. There, standing before him, was Nei -- whole -- seemingly as real as she was before he struck her down. She gently touched his face and he grabbed her hand, kissed it. For several long moments, Chaz stood there, dumbfounded, almost disbelieving that Nei was there. She did not speak a word, only stood smiling at him. She, too, did not think that she would be able to see him again so soon.

"I have some information for you, Chaz," Nei spoke tenderly to him.

"Oh!" the Hunter snapped out of his trance. "What is it that we need to do next?"

"I have been chosen by Elsydeon's spirits to speak for them because of the personal bond I share with you," she explained. "I have been instructed to tell you that it is imperative that you bring two disputing peoples together."

"The Espers and Dezorians," Chaz concluded. "I felt as much." He paused for a moment to consider the weight of her words. "How do we do this? What purpose will it serve?"

"A great seal must be broken and only their combined strengths can make that possible."

"Seal? What seal? Are you talking about the 'Great Seal' of Algo?"

"I'm sorry, Chaz, but I cannot say more than that. I've been sanctioned only to say the words I've already spoken. I wish I could tell you more, but to do so is to defy the spirits' good graces and I can't risk that since I'll be spending the rest of eternity with them." She stopped and waited for him to say something, but it seemed that he would not. "There's simply nothing more for me to say."

"Isn't there?" the Hunter tested.

"What else would you have me tell you?"

"It's not everyone who gets a second chance to say what's in his or her heart. I was hoping that if I saw you here we would get that second chance. There was so much left unsaid in the way we parted."

"You love me; you proved that. I could never have asked for a greater way to prove your love. I'm sorry that it had to be that way."

The Hunter approached Nei, tried to reach out and take her in his arms, but an unseen force prevented him from doing so. He tried over and over to get to her, each attempt falling short. "We are of two different worlds now, Chaz, and our bodies cannot touch. I wish it was not so. While we are here, though, we can speak. I don't know how much longer the spell will last."

Chaz's body relaxed and his head dropped. For so long he dreamt of the day when he could find the courage to tell Nei what was in his heart. He did not get that chance before what occurred at Ladea and was not sure if he would take his chance now. There was no way he could face her now without feeling guilty for what he did -- even if it was at her request. What he did may very well turn out to be the one turning point that saved their world. His guilt, on the other hand, could tear that wall down in the blink of an eye.

"I told you before," Nei spoke again, "and I will tell you again. I love you, Chaz. As much as I've loved Rolf all of these years in the Light, it pains me to admit as much. I still love him, but I found a love like no other during my second life. I found you, Chaz."

"Rika was my first love," said Chaz following a long silence, "and she will always be the one who set the example for anyone I love after her. She was the only star I followed and her light guided my way. Before Rika and I met, I was afraid to love, thought only that love was a trick that life played on mortals. I found through her and now through you that love is not a trick at all. Love is life, and I pity those unfortunate enough not to have experienced it.

"Now," he added, "I have found that I am still afraid to love and it cost me my second love. I can't help thinking that if I told you, if I had found the courage to let you know what was in my heart, then maybe I could have prevented what happened."

Nei shook her head in disagreement. "There is no need to blame yourself. What happened was already predestined and you could have not foreseen it. Perhaps I am the one who should feel guilty. After all, I was the one who allowed you to fall in love with me when I knew that it would only lead you to heartbreak."

"And who are you to say whether or not I should love or be loved?" the Hunter returned gently. "No one can determine how or when true love will strike. I heard someone say once that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I never understood that until after Rika died. Now that I've lost you as well, my belief in love only grows stronger."

"But you haven't lost Rika," Nei said, reaching her hand out, unable to touch him, "nor have you lost me. The funny thing about those words is that once you have loved, there is no way that you can ever lose. Those you have shared your life with are part of you forever." There was a brief shudder in their surroundings and Nei craned her head as if someone was calling to her. "It's Elsydeon -- it's summoning back now. The spell is ending. I must go. One more thing, though. When you strike down the Child, do not look directly into Elsydeon's light. The light is so divine that it is said that whoever beholds it will never see its equal."

Nei began to slowly float away from Chaz like her body was the seed of a dandelion carried by the wind. The Hunter watched helplessly as she faded into the background. "I love you!" he was saying.

"And I love you," she returned. "I will always be with you, even if it is on the edge of a dream . . . ."

* * * * *

Chaz woke from his trance, Elsydeon tightly gripped in one hand. His other hand instinctively went to his chest where he placed it over his heart. It beat wildly and seemed and seemed hesitant to stop, but eventually returned to normal, bringing his blood pressure down as well. The Hunter's face was red, his eyes burned with tears. He had just experienced one of the most emotional encounters of his lifetime and it left him a little scarred, a little more at peace. He wanted to tell Nei how he felt about it and was fortunate enough to get another chance at it. While it was said that those who passed into the Light were able to hear the thoughts of those who loved them, the chance to tell them face-to-face was not too commonplace.

Seven sets of eyes focused their entire attention on Chaz who was still groggy from his otherworldly journey. He shook his head like he was shaking off a bad dream, a dream that was not as bad as he thought it could have been. Because he was able to express what he did not get a chance to before Nei departed, he felt like a great weight was lifted from his back. Thankful for what he was given, he glanced fondly to his friends who were more than willing to return the look.

"It seems that my first impulse was correct," Chaz said. "I didn't say anything to any of you besides Kyra because I knew that your first impulse would be to tell me that while there is many a thing we can accomplish together, we cannot work the impossible."

"Then we have to find a way to bring the Dezorians and Espers together?" questioned Kyra.

"I don't pretend to know about what the Espers and Dezorians have been through," Hahn spoke, "but I know when something doesn't sound kosher."

"My people and the Espers have been disputing for almost two millennia," the Archbishop explained. "There were periods in our histories when we were bitter enemies. Today, we share an uneasy peace, but there are strong opinions on both sides. The collaboration between Rune, Kyra, and I is the first of its kind and it has ended up positive."

Chaz sheathed Elsydeon and gazed out the Icedigger's window. What Raja said was true -- the two peoples were bitter enemies at one time and erasing the memory of that was not going to be an easy task. The Archbishop's friendship with two Espers, two or the highest-ranking Espers, was a step in the right direction. It was as if they needed to take hundreds more steps before reaching their goal.

So the Protectors sat in silence, each consumed in his or her own thoughts. They needed to come up with a foolproof plan to unite the disputing peoples at all costs. The enormity of the task at hand was so great it threatened to overwhelm them. No one had a clue as where to even begin. There had to be a way to convince them that working together would benefit both races in the long run. They could work together for a greater good, to achieve a common goal, but hatred and distrust flows deeply within one's veins and is not so easily overcome.

Wren sped along while his companions worked to figure out their current situation. Everyone seemed to be at a loss of words and sat in his seat dejectedly. "We need to find a mutual goal or ideal to begin with," the big android offered. "If we can demonstrate to both sides that their needs will be satisfied by cooperation, then they might be willing to participate."

"That would seem like the best way to go about all of this," said Kyra, "except that there are Espers who would sever an arm or leg before helping the Dezorians, even if their own lives were at stake."

"An there are those among my people who would do the same," Raja added.

"That is illogical," commented Wren.

"That is what makes us mortal, my friend," Kyra told him.

"Well, let's just see what they have in common," Hahn said. "They are both fiercely loyal to their people and they both believe that a higher power governs their existence; both are loath to let Darkness grab a firm hold of their planet, but I believe that the most important factor here is that both the Dezorians and Espers are willing to fight for their lives. There are probably more qualities that I don't know about, but there has to be something here to use to our advantage."

The Protectors plunged themselves into silence once more, their thoughts consuming them wholly. Every second they spent on thinking brought them closer to their destination and even though Esper Mansion was half a day away from where they were, it did not like there was enough time to devise a feasible plan. Chaz was tired and could not think straight. He managed to get some sleep while they travelled between planets, but it did not seem like it was enough. They had more than sufficient time enough to rest for a complete eight hours or more. Perhaps they should rest and then tackle the problem with a fresh mind. No, he thought, we should do this while it is still fresh in our thoughts.

Despite his efforts to stay awake, Chaz began to succumb to his fatigue. The Icedigger's engine roared softly and drew him into its comforting presence. The Hunter figured that he would drift off into his dreams where he would envision life with both Rika and with Nei. He frequented those types of dreams even before Nei departed. It was as if his conscience was trying to weigh the happiness he shared with his wife against the happiness he could have had with Nei. Chaz kept trying to tell himself that he was happier with Rika. Something inside of him kept saying that he could have been just as happy with the other Numan.

Kyra read Chaz's thoughts as plainly as if they were written in a book. Rika was like a sister and a friend to the Esper Leader and nothing could take that away. Nei, on the other hand, was like a best friend to her and that was something she never had before. As much as she hated to admit it, she would have been content with the Hunter spending his life with Nei as well. She would never forget Rika; not in life, not in death. Rika would not want her friends and loved ones to spend the rest of their lives in misery, though. She would want them to find happiness again, even if it was not in her presence. If anything, Kyra drew upon that to keep her mind at ease.

"Hmm," Gryz thought out loud, waking Chaz from half-sleep.

"What is it?" inquired the Hunter.

"I was just thinking about what Hahn said earlier. I believe there is one quality about the Espers and Dezorians he didn't mention that we could build on."

"What's that?"

"Their devotion to their leaders."

"Yes!" Raja agreed, excited, "I think I see what you mean!"

"What do you propose?" Rune asked.

"Well," the Motavian Esper continued, "all it would involve is to convince both sides that their leaders are in peril. I would think that both would try to save them."

"So what do we do?" Demi questioned. "Have Raja, Rune, and Kyra sit around while we try to convince both sides?"

"No, I was thinking more on the lines of Raja showing up at Esper Mansion and Rune and Kyra at Gumbian. Darkness would be the common foe here, not each other."

"It could very well work," the Reverent Fifth said, "provided that Kyra and I aren't attacked at Gumbian and Raja at Esper Mansion."

"We won't be, Rune," Kyra said. "I have a friend there who will help us." Raja smiled because he knew that she was referring to Jaerli. He would prefer to go to his temple and see her again, see if she changed any over the months he was gone. There was no possible way he could indulge that fantasy in the immediate future and was content with Gryz's idea.

"And I will ensure Raja's safety at Esper Mansion," declared Chaz.

"As will I," Demi agreed.

"Me, too," Gryz said. "After all, I should get to know my new people."

"Good," Wren jumped in. "Then Hahn and I will accompany Rune and Kyra to Gumbian." He stopped for a second, then continued. "Now, the rest of you need to get some rest. We have a full day of activity coming at us and no one can be certain when we will get to rest again." He punched in a key sequence into the Icedigger's control panel and its dome light went out.

The Protectors positioned themselves as comfortably as they could in their seats. Chaz looked outside into the vast expanse of snow, at the dark clouds looming overhead.. Their immediate goal was in their sights. It was one more step toward achieving their ultimate goal. "Rika," he said softly, "soon your soul will be free from its prison and we will be together in the Light." Accepting that he and his friends might not come out of this confrontation alive, the Hunter closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

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