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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Forty-One


The Edge.

Chaz and the rest of the Protectors had openly hoped never to see this damned place again. Gone were the dizzying array of colors that were confusing to the eye. They were replaced by blackness with small specks of light which twinkled much like stars. In fact, the first impression they got was that they were walking in the depths of space. What was more disconcerting was that there appeared to be no way to traverse it and get to their destination, wherever that may be. They basically needed to get from here to there by any means possible, but currently their many means was reduced to one -- none.

Then, as if someone or something was listening to their thoughts, a pathway appeared, leading them straight ahead into the blackness. There was no telling where it led. "Well," Chaz announced, "only one way to find out."

Cautiously, the Hunter guided his friends out onto the pathway, unsure of whether or not they could trust it to remain under their feet. It was glossy and transparent like glass. If they did not watch their step carefully, they might step off and fall to who knows where. Rune mentioned that he still felt that she wanted to dispose of them herself. Being that they were so close to thwarting her plans, Demi pointed out, she could very easily change her mind.

Chaz could not shake the feeling that Rika was walking by his side. Perhaps, he thought, because he was focused on freeing her soul from the Darkness' grasp. Now that he thought about it, he guessed that she had been on his mind for quite awhile. While the Numan's soul was held captive, her spirit would never die. Rika walked with him and his friends in spirit as surely as if she was there in body. Her intelligence, her strength, her courage, and her devotion were forever a part of them. They would carry those virtues with them until the day they died.

The Protectors walked for what seemed like hours. They had no idea how far they actually traversed being that their surroundings did not change, gave no indication of doing so anytime soon. From where they stood, there was no beginning, no end. Before them lay the vastness of space; not outer space, seemingly, but inner space. They did not even know if time mattered in this place. In short, they were not sure about anything and it was one of the most helpless feelings they ever encountered.

The Protectors felt everyone find each other's hands, the omnipresent blackness forcing them to find comfort within themselves. Hahn felt a reassuring squeeze from Demi who was walking behind him. She must have somehow sensed his trepidation, probably because he was now aware that he was trembling. And why should he be not? The Scholar, like his companions, risked everything by attempting to save Algo. He left Saya and his life with her and his newly-formed relationship with his father, a relationship he wished for all his life. He wanted so much for his parents to live out their lives and he had the opportunity to ensure that they would. Saya would find another. She was strong, a fighter with heart and determination.

Gryz, on the other hand, felt he had nothing to lose. The Child, the Profound Darkness, took everything from him - his family, his friends, and his home. For him, he felt the presence of two others, namely Pana and Dorin. Their lives were cut short and like his parents before him, he was bound and determined to avenge their deaths. But unlike before, he fully realized that he was incapable of accomplishing his goal himself. Ahead of him lay the greatest threat to Algo and all of its inhabitants. His own life meant little to him now. The Motavian had to fight for his friends. He would use every last bit of power flowing through his veins to defend them. They were his family now and he love them more than life itself.

Kyra was also prepared to defend. If ever there was a point in her life she was thankful for her Esper powers it was now. This ragtag group of individuals was more of a family to her than any of the other Espers ever were. The blood between her and her friends ran thicker than in her own relatives. She thought that once they banished the Profound Darkness into its hellish dimension, they would never again have to see it rear its ugly head, not in their lifetimes at least. She and her friends went far beyond their call of duty. The first time it nearly cost them their lives. This time there was no telling what the cost would be; their souls, perhaps. Both their lives and their afterlives were in jeopardy, but she did not care. As long as she died alongside them, she was content and had no regrets. The Esper Leader's passage between life and death would somehow be made easier knowing that she was in the company of those she loved most.

Although Demi tried to add a bit of assurance to Hahn, she, too, felt fear well up inside her like a pond in a heavy downpour. The fear she felt before going up against the Profound Darkness was dwarfed compared to what she was feeling now. It seemed that her mechanical heart was connected directly to her legs and because of her quickened pace, beat so rapidly that it threatened to leap right out of her chest. That was a statistical impossibility, but she had been in the company of mortals long enough to recognize that her fear was almost to the point of becoming a paralyzing one. When the time came, though, she would have to bury her fear and stare her fate directly in the face. The android was glad that her companions would be there with her, especially Wren. Her master was the epitome of strength and devotion. He would surely instill in her the courage she needed to continue on. All of her friends would. Demi hoped that she would do the same for them.

Raja had hoped that Jaerli would not create a scene when he left. It was hard enough leaving her behind when he knew that the possibility that he would not return was greater then the possibility that he would. The Archbishop silently reflected on his life during the past three years. He and Jaerli barely knew each other back then. Their friendship quickly blossomed into love, but he gained the title of Archbishop and they could go no further -- in public, at least. He loved her every day of his life and longed for the companionship only a wife could offer.

Raja's devotion as a friend and to his role as a Protector, however, surpassed matters of the heart. He felt guilty for feeling that way, but by first working for the betterment of all, he could preserve his own future with Jaerli. She was his one and only true love. Chaz and the others saved his life before and there was no way he was about to let them down.

Rune was possibly the only one among his companions who was satisfied with his life and how he lived it. Sure, there were regrets, but making so many truly devoted friends made them easier to bear. He lived a long, productive life, was chosen out of a few past Lutz's to become a Protector of Light. The Reverent Fifth fulfilled his duties to the best of his ability and accomplished much more then he ever hoped he would.

He remembered how he and Chaz did not get along at first and laughed in spite of himself. Who would have known that they would become such close friends. And, Rune was surprised to hear himself admit, there was a certain amount of a father/son relationship between them as well. That, at least, offered a little peace of mind to him for he never procreated. It pained him to know that he would have to tell the Hunter that if he did not return to the Hibernation Chamber in the next few days . . . but that did not matter. He taught him all that he needed to know and it was time for him to sever that cord and set him free to be on his own.

Wren feared for his friends' lives more than he feared for his own. Unbeknownst to Rune, he was also satisfied with his existence. "Life," Chaz would have told him. "You don't simply exist, Wren, you live, and all of us live with you." He remembered his first conversation with him when he and Demi arrived on Motavia. It was the Hunter who helped him overcome his loss. It was kind of ironic that after living nearly a thousand years he found his first true friends. Not only that, but he felt short-changed for only having known them for less than four years. Wren remembered hearing an old Palman adage which said that true friends only come around once in a lifetime. For him, it was a hundred lifetimes before he found his. Still, even though he found them in what felt like only yesterday to him, they truly helped him find who he was, and rounded out his life. No, he did not have a problem with perishing now. As long as one of them kept his memory alive he would live another forever.

* * * * *

The "stars" in the background grew brighter and suddenly Chaz and company found themselves entering a platform of sorts in their path. The size of the floor of s medium-sized gymnasium, the Hunter led his companions forward cautiously. A hideous scream which sounded like it came from a creature ten times their size reverberated through their surroundings and chilled them to the bone. A rank smell, that which spoke of death and decay, wafted to their nostrils, spreading a wave on nausea in those who could experience it.

Chaz peered into the blackness and saw a faint blue glimmering like a dim light off of glass. From below the platform, two enormous clawed hands reached up and grabbed a firm hold of it and began pulling. The Protectors felt the fine line between life and oblivion become more defined. Backing away, they stared in horror as a ghastly face looked up at them, yellow pupils glowing like tiny torches. Before long, the demon-thing pulled itself completely pulled itself onto the platform and roared.

"Wren!" Demi hollered to him. "Could it be the Metamorph again?"

"No," came Rune's answer. "This creature is far more dangerous."

"What is it?"

"Darkfalz."

Darkfalz, the aberration which plagued Alis Landale at the end of her quest to free Algo from King Lassic's tyranny, was seemingly resurrected by the Profound Darkness to once again do its bidding. In their last visit to The Edge, they had seen a facsimile of it called Prophallus, but this one was much larger, and looked much more powerful. Floating like a specter, it was over fifteen feet tall and its enormously oversized hands grasped at them with a bloodthirsty anxiety.

"It's obvious that the Child was prepared," offered Raja.

The Protectors spread out before Darkfalz, their weapons drawn. Sensing that it was about to attack, Wren fired. The power of his Photon Eraser was only like that of a breath of air against a brick wall. Roaring again, the demon-thing released four streamers of energy from its gaping maw. The streamers converged at a single point before the Protectors and detonated scattering them.

Wren stumbled and fell off of the platform, barely able to grab hold of it with one hand before he fell to his death. Chaz and Raja were above him in an instant attempting to pull him up, but the big android was too heavy for them to pull to safety. Demi could had she not been engaged in battle with their enemy. With nothing more than a smooth surface to hold on to, Wren's grip was slipping.

Chaz instructed Raja to stay with him and went to find Demi. She somehow made it behind Darkfalz and was firing her weapon at it. The Hunter needed to get to her and make it back to Wren before he fell. With the demon-thing in between them that would prove to be a difficult task. "Demi!" he yelled, but the sounds of battle drowned out his voice.

Bolts of Conductive Thunder momentarily drew the beasts attention to Rune and Hahn and Chaz saw his opportunity to move. Sprinting quickly across the platform, he seized Demi's arm and began pulling her in the direction he desperately wanted her to go. A look at his panic-stricken face was all she needed to know that something was wrong.

Behind them, Gryz threw himself onto Darkfalz and buried his axe into its bluish skin. The beast reached up with one of its great hands and flung him off. Luckily for the Motavian, Kyra was able to cushion his landing with a burst of Hewn. Landing on his feet, he immediately turned and faced his enemy and he and Kyra combined their efforts, throwing a Fire Storm on top of it. Darkfalz rushed through it, unaffected by their attack.

Chaz and Demi reached Raja and Wren and found the Archbishop teetering precariously at the platform's edge desperately trying to keep his friend from falling. The big android dared not move because his grip on the smooth surface was not firm and he could end up putting himself in a worse predicament.

Demi squatted down next to Raja. Reaching down, she grabbed hold of his arm and began pulling him up. Chaz heard a cracking noise. The edge of the platform was giving way!

"Demi!" he heard Wren calling up to her, "let go!"

"I'll never let go!" she said to him. "I almost have you . . . just a little more --"

Crack!

Whatever transparent material the platform was made of suddenly gave way and both androids began to fall into the vast blackness beneath them. Chaz and Raja watched in silent horror as their friends tumbled head-over-heels to a rapidly encroaching demise. "NO!!!" the Hunter bellowed and began to lean over the edge. Raja tried to catch him, but it was too late. Having leaned over too far, Chaz fell, his android companions about a hundred feet below.

Chaz dove in head-first, his hands outstretched. Concentrating on what he could still see of his friends, he put his trust in Nazan. A brief, ephemeral swirling of white light appeared from his hands and all of the sudden a gust of wind caught him in the face and his descent slowed. Below him he saw Wren and Demi spinning around in the vortex which had apparently sucked them into it. A few seconds later, they were near enough to him to grab his arms and take him with them in their rapid ascent.

Raja was thrown back from the vortex as it gently deposited its three passengers back onto the platform. Chaz tried to stand immediately but collapsed into Demi's arms. The overexertion of energy weakened him and he was unfit to enter battle so soon.

Raja placed his hands over the Hunter's chest and used Nares. A silvery aura enveloped him and he felt his strength renewed, his weariness dissipated. Wren had already left to join in the battle, launching Burst Rockets at their attacker. Across from him Chaz saw that Kyra fell victim to Darkfalz's assaults and Hahn was trying to heal her with Nares just as Raja did for him. Another flurry of Burst Rockets were met by Nafoi from Rune and Shooting Star exploded onto its target.

Chaz, Raja, and Demi were about to rush into the fray when Elsydeon began to glow and hum. "What's going on?" the Hunter questioned.

"I don't know," Raja told him. "I have a feeling, though, that our attacks on this creature aren't having much effect because it's only half alive! Part of it seems to be a ghostly apparition of some sort!"

"Chaz!" the Reverent Fifth yelled to him. "Call upon the spirits of Elsydeon!"

"What?" he questioned. "Why!"

"Just do it!"

Chaz held Elsydeon with both hands and concentrated. He did not quite know what he was supposed to do, just did the first thing that came to his mind. "Spirits of Elsydeon . . . help us!"

Elsydeon vibrated and felt like it was about to be ripped from his hands. Suddenly, three concussive blasts of air shot forth from its tip and struck Darkfalz from behind. The demon-thing turned to face this new threat, floating directly at Chaz.

A man in familiar white robes appeared out of nowhere. Nearly transparent, he said not a word, merely nodded his head at the Hunter, then turned to face the immediate threat. Thrusting his hands forward, the man sent three more blasts into Darkfalz, appearing to weaken it. Chaz, Demi, and Raja began to work their way over to where the others stood in amazement.

In the next instant, a catlike creature seemingly leapt forth from Elsydeon and landed on its four feet. Orange-yellow in color, it had booted paws carried and a sinister looking weapon in its jaws. Turning to look at Chaz, it winked, then joined its companion in battle. "That's Myau!" Demi exclaimed. "Then that must mean that his companion is --"

"The reverent Noah." Kyra finished her sentence.

It was then that a third figure appeared. A handsome man, blond-haired and extremely large in stature, stepped out of thin air, but instead of joining his comrades, he walked directly over to Gryz. Rune recognized him immediately as the mighty warrior, Odin. He looked the big Motavian over carefully as if to measure his worth, then nodded.

"Take this," Odin said, handing his ghostly axe to Gryz. Upon taking it, however, it turned solid. The Mighty Warrior, in turn, took his Defeat Axe. "You will need my Laconian Axe for what lies ahead. Don't worry," he added, seeing the sour look on the Motavian's face, "it will be returned to you soon."

Odin turned to face Darkfalz. "Now, go," he said, "all of you. We will cover your backs."Without another word, the Mighty Warrior turned and joined his companions in battle.

The Protectors stood in place dumbfounded. For what seemed like minutes, they stared at the spectacular sight before them. Myau slashed wildly at his opponent while Noah inundated it with his Wind magic. Odin swung the massive Defeat Axe several times like he was chopping a tree, weakening Darkfalz with every strike.

Finally aware that they were gawking, the Protectors moved on quickly, not risking a look back. Chaz found their path almost immediately and began traversing it as he did before. Elsydeon still glowed eerily, a phenomenon the Hunter could not explain. Only a few minutes passed when an explosion erupted behind them and they turned to see what happened. Darkfalz was gone, but so was Myau, Odin, and Noah. Elsydeon's eerie glow intensified, then stopped altogether. The Hunter guessed that their spirits must have returned to their eternal rest.

Turning to resume their journey, Chaz and company found themselves staring in the faces of the three deceased Protectors they just left to battle their first foe. Noah was dressed in a white mantle, his eyes glowed brilliantly with an inner light. Odin's hair was cut short and spiked. He stood at eye-level with Wren and adorned heavy armor. Lastly, there was Myau whose familiar orange-yellow coat brought back fond memories of his stay with the Old Man.

"We wish you luck," said Myau. "Rune, it's great to see you again."

"My thoughts are the same, my friend," the Reverent Fifth replied.

"I trust you'll put my axe to good use, Gryz," Odin told the Motavian Esper. "We have done all we can for now. Good luck."

"Lutz," Noah spoke to Rune who kneeled at his ghostly feet. Kyra joined him by his side and strangely enough, Gryz felt compelled to do the same. "Please stand, my brothers and sister." Rune, Kyra, and Gryz did as he asked. "Lutz, you have not brought shame to your title. Rune, your devotion to your friends and your cause is an inspiration even to me. Kyra, you have been an outstanding Esper Leader and will continue to be." Kyra was puzzled by Noah's statement, but dared not question him about it. "Gryz -- your journey has just begun. I know of your recent losses. Do not despair. Stay with the Espers and they will help you heal." Gryz was touched by his benevolence. He would consider heavily his words. Motavia was full of bad memories for him. "To the rest of you -- may the Light carry you in its graces and speed you on your way. Farewell . . . ." Myau, Odin, and Noah faded out of sight, returned to Elsydeon and eternal vigilance.

Chaz was grateful for their assistance. Alone, he and his friends would not have been able to defeat Darkfalz. Despite all the power they had, there was still some situations they could not overcome. With a certain amount of luck, there would be no similar obstacles in their path ahead. The closer they got, the more desperate the Child would become and then she would undoubtedly use her trump card against them. Chaz shuddered at the thought.

* * * * *

There was an air of serenity within The Edge unlike when the Protectors' first visited this place. All around was Darkness and its power and yet the feeling was unmistakable. Perhaps, Chaz thought, it was because somehow its blackness was comforting, the "stars" relaxing. The Hunter and his companions almost felt like putting their weapons away, but as Wren pointed out, that was inadvisable. What was more likely was that their enemy was attempting to lull them into a false sense of security. All weapons were to stay drawn and reflexes ready for action.

Chaz was curious about how Elsydeon reacted to his plea for help. He certainly expected some kind of super-power blast from it to help defeat Darkfalz, but never did he expect it to summon the spirits of those who first battled it over two thousand years ago. Myau, recently departed, fought alongside his friends who, according to Nei, were beckoning him to join them in the Light. He was as vicious a fighter as history recorded him to be. Noah, arguably the greatest Esper who ever lived, was there as well. He, with the help of Master Tajim, was the Esper responsible for freeing Algo from Lassic's tyranny. Odin, the great warrior, second to join Alis Landale in avenging the death of her brother, Nero. Odin wielded the incredibly powerful Laconian Axe, a weapon in which there had never been an equal, and gave it to Gryz to carry.

Now that puzzled Chaz. Why would Odin appear and give his axe to Gryz, take the Motavian's Defeat Axe, then use it to fight Darkfalz? He told him that he would need it for what lay ahead, but what was that exactly? The Child? What also puzzled him was that Alis was not there. She alone was one of the most integral parts of Algolian history and was responsible for bringing together the first Protectors in recorded history to battle the Darkness. Why would she not join her comrades in battle? Was there some reason why Elsydeon did not allow her to return?

Chaz had many unanswered questions that would stay that way unless the sword itself answered them. He considered asking Rune about it, but the Reverent Fifth admitted to not knowing Elsydeon's intentions. He did know, however, that the sword would do everything in its power to ensure their success and their survival. The Hunter remembered how after they defeated the Profound Darkness, Elsydeon burst into a brilliant light which protected them from The Edge's collapse. He was not sure how it would protect them this time. It could potentially defend all of them from physical attacks, but it could not defend him from emotional ones. That was something he needed to overcome himself.

Minutes turned into hours, or else it only seemed that way. The Protectors, save Wren and Demi, were beginning to tire of walking. Nerves were tense, feet were sore, and patience was growing short. They were beginning to believe that they would welcome whatever fate the Child had in store for them if only she could take them away from their endless monotony. This journey into their enemy's dimension was turning out to be a lot longer than any of them expected.. If the Child was not going to show herself, it was totally possible that she would simply bore them to death.

Ahead of the Protectors stood an unidentified figure on the path. Despite their distance from it, Chaz could tell from its silhouette who it was, but he could not believe what his eyes were seeing. Much to the dissatisfaction of his friends, the Hunter dashed forward, forgetting the all-too-obvious danger of falling to his death. They pursued him quickly, cautiously, and the closer they got to the figure, the more they recognized it as well.

"Rika!" Chaz exclaimed while taking her hand and kneeling before her.

The remaining Protectors gasped at the sight of the previously-deceased Numan. Chaz wept at her feet shaking his head, disbelieving that she was even there, trusting in his sense of touch and his emotion. There was something not right about her presence, though. Rika had yet to speak a single word and all the rest of the Protectors could hear were Chaz's soft sobs. Rune raised a hand and illuminated their immediate area. The Numan's hair, her figure, even her body armor were just as they were when they sealed her body in Lutz's --

"By the Light!" the Reverent Fifth gasped.

There were definite changes in this Rika, changes which went unnoticed to the bereaved Hunter. The first change Rune noticed were the shadows around her eyes, eyes which were unmoving and reminded him of a death-stare. Also, her skin contained an unnatural pallor. It was a sickly whitish color and extremely corpse-like. The Reverent Fifth guessed that Rika's skin must have been cold to the touch -- another change Chaz had not noticed. The Numan failed to breathe or else her inspirations and exhalations escaped Rune's scrutiny. "Chaz," he said calmly, though there was a hint of mania in his voice, "stand up and back away from it."

"What?!" the Hunter returned.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" Rika laughed. "Look at how pathetic you've become, my husband," she sneered at the last word. "Crying like a little sissy." Chaz's head jerked up in response to her words and the tears stopped. He tried to look her in the eyes, but she stared blankly ahead. She was still as beautiful as he remembered her.

"I'm sorry, honey," he said to her softly, "I -- I promise I'll stop."

"Chaz!" Kyra shouted, "don't listen to her. That's not Rika!"

"I can't believe I ever loved you," the Rika-thing continued. "You're not even worth my pity. How could anyone expect me to love someone who couldn't even hold a job. I waited on you for all those long months praying that you would somehow improve, but what a waste of time that turned out to be." The Hunter listened to her words despite their painful, biting edge, refusing to believe that she could be so cruel. He had not seen the real monster this creature truly was.

Chaz must have felt her cold skin for he began to rub her hand as if to return circulation to it. Rune and the others knew it to be a futile effort for its blood already ran cold and nothing could change that. There was a appalling snap and suddenly the Hunter was holding her hand in his . . . and nothing else! He heard Kyra shriek in horror and looked up. Finally, he saw the Rika-thing for the abhorrence it was and fell backward, letting out his own shout of disgust. Realizing he still held her severed hand, he tossed it into the blackness below.

"I was always supportive of you, Chaz," she resumed her harsh words. "I gave and gave and gave and you took and took and took, never giving anything back to me. How did you expect me to live like that? I would have been better off staying with Seed and perishing with it. Another few months with you and I would have died by my own hands." Chaz was beyond feeling sorrow for this creature. Her words were exactly those that he feared hearing the most. No, he was beyond feeling sad. In fact, he was down-right livid.

"It's not to late for us. I can learn to love you again and we can be together forever. Come with me, Chaz. Come with me, my husband." The Rika-thing held her arm out to the Hunter, the arm with no hand. Chaz looked at her unmoving eyes, no soul behind them. He felt her cold, clammy skin against his, saw its corpse-like color.

Repulsed, his heart beating wildly, Chaz kicked at it. "NO!!"

The Rika-thing stumbled and fell. Chaz peered over the edge of his pathway and watched it tumbled, screaming wildly. "Chaz!" it screamed, "I love you!" Tears burned in his eyes and he felt like his head might explode.

"RIKA!!!" he yelled and his voice echoed a hundred times over, each driving a spear into his already-wounded heart.

Kyra rushed to her little brother and put an arm around his shoulder. He was thankful that her skin was warm to the touch and shuddered at having touched that creature's skin. Chaz was weeping, trembling uncontrollably, and the Esper Leader was unsure of how to comfort him. "Chaz," she said softly, "are you all right?"

"I --" he stuttered, "I can't go on."

Suddenly, Rune was on his other side and lifted him up by his shoulders, began shaking him. "Snap out of it, Chaz!" he roared. "That was not the Rika that we knew! It's the Darkness that did this! It still holds her soul in thrall and it must have somehow accessed her dark side to use against you! You cannot believe a single word that it said because they were words that came from a being which only knows hatred, deceit, anger, and indifference! That is not the Rika that we knew and loved!"

Rune's words made sense, spoken for his benefit. Chaz realized that the Reverent Fifth knew that if he heard the truth from someone close that all of the Rika-thing's lies would wash away like footprints on a beach. He found himself put abruptly into Rune's embrace, a place he would have never expected to be after hearing his harsh, but honest, words. "You have to continue on," Rune was saying to him. "We need you, Chaz. I need you. We can't do this without you."

"You give us the strength and the will to do what we all know we have to do," Gryz said. "I'm sure that more than one of us has considered giving up before now, especially me. But you refuse to let me go, and for that I am eternally grateful. You're our inspiration, my friend."

"That's right," Raja added. "What we do is not only for our people and our planets. We're doing this for you and Rika as well, Chaz. We all want the knowledge that her soul will be at peace and will do everything within our power to see that to fruition."

"Rika would want you to be strong," Demi told him, "and never let go. She was a fighter in the best sense. Her tenacity and devotion was truly awe-inspiring. From her you learned those traits. From you we have learned the same."

"Do not despair, my friend," said Wren. "You, alone, have done more for me than any other mortal who has ever existed, including Zelan's creators. They may have ultimately been responsible for my construction, essentially gave me my sentience, but you helped me find my purpose in life, and that is something I can never repay. We will set Rika's soul free."

"Wren's right," Hahn acknowledged. "I am confident that we possess the will and the means to emerge victorious. I have obligations I must fulfill back on Motavia, but right here, right now my obligation is to you, Chaz, and to deliver all of Algo from Darkness. You have been more than a friend to me; you have been my brother. That, I will never forget."

Rune released his embrace and to the Hunter's surprise he was able to stand under his own volition. Kyra walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. "We're all here for you, Chaz. We always have been and we always will. The same is true with Rika. She may not be here physically, but you carry a part of her everywhere inside you, the best part. Never forget that."

Chaz stood in place for several minutes, a little embarrassed at the emotion shown toward him. He would embrace them fully rather than not have them at all. It was then that as much as he hated to realize it, he was almost like a fulcrum for all their efforts, carefully balancing necessity and want. What many of his friends wanted to do and needed to do were completely separate things. The same instance held true for him as well. He wanted to get revenge for Rika's death. He needed to help save Algo from the same fate. Chaz never lost sight of what was needed and it kept his friends' vision clear of debris, too.

The Hunter regained his composure and stood tall. He thanked all of them for their support and friendship. "This instance," he said, "among others, has proven to me that without my friends, I would not have the strength to carry on. You are my inspiration. I love you all."

* * * * *

The Protectors pushed onward, the obstacle in their path quickly becoming a distant memory. Chaz could not help but feel the love shared between them. Even in the blackness of The Edge, it shone brightly. It could very well turn out that love was their most potent weapon, their most powerful defense. Each would sacrifice his or her own life to protect another. That was a quality the Darkness did not have at its disposal.

Chaz led his party into an enormous room positioned in the center of their path. It did not take a genius to figure out that something was afoot, so they proceeded with caution. Upon entering, the Hunter discovered that it had no ceiling; "stars" were visible as far as the eye could see. The room had four walls, three transparent, one behind them and one to their left and right, and gave an impression that they never really entered it. A wall straight ahead standing almost thirty feet high was dark and strangely opalescent.

Electricity sizzled and the room was instantly thrust forth into a world of computers and circuitry. The very floor Chaz and his friends stood upon transformed into a grid of lines lit up in an eerie blue tinge, giving it a checkerboard appearance. There was a horrible roar like the crack of thunder and suddenly all eight Protectors found themselves flying backward against the wall. Raja opened his eyes and witnessed several electrical charges emerge from the wall's base before him and travel up it in sequence, activating circuitry, breathing artificial life into an unknown terror.

A woman's figure, made of nothing more than light and electrical surges, appeared on the wall. Completely two-dimensional, she had four arms and was tied into who-knows-what with wires leading outward from her head. At the center of her chest, where her heart might be had she actually had one, was an orb of light. Imprinted on her body were four spherical objects which rotated around her in orbits which mocked those of Algo's own planets. Her eyes fixated on all eight Protectors and glowed with electrical fury.

"Mother Brain!" Wren half-shouted, half-gasped, truly in awe.

Mother Brain attacked again, sending forth an enormous surge of electrical energy. Her attack, aimed at the floor beneath their feet, travelled along the grid lines with the speed of light toward their targets. Raja barely had time to cast Blessing before it hit, lessening the impact. Chaz raised a hand and Nathu shot forth from it. Mother Brain merely attacked with a single surge and negated. The Hunter fired again, this time joined with Rune's Nafoi, creating Fire Bolt. Their combined effort broke through her second attack, but did little more than singe a few circuits.

Demi fired her Phonomezer. Soundwaves burst onto Mother Brain with a startling intensity. The android's attack was short-lived, however, for the supercomputer had a Hijammer at her disposal. Demi felt her circuitry begin to short out and completely shut down any of her internal weaponry. She would have to rely on her hand-held weapon for this fight.

Seizing an opportunity, Chaz and Raja rushed forward and began to slash barbarously at the base of their enemy's body. Sparks flew upward in a glorious fountain. Hunter and Archbishop struck in unison, their blows carefully executed. Chaz chanced a glance upward and saw a Moon Slasher strike Mother Brain, then a burst from Wren's Photon Eraser, and was somewhat comforted by knowing he and Raja were not working alone.

On their next strike, Chaz and Raja found themselves being electrocuted. Their bodies convulsed uncontrollably and yet they still did not release their weapons. Hahn saw their situation and quickly cast Zan. A gust of wind caught his friends within it and lifted them up and away from Mother Brain, weapons still in their grasp. Gryz left forth in a furor like no other and delivered a shocking blow to the supercomputer with his newly acquired Laconian Axe. The wall which supported his enemy split under the axe's blade and part of it went dark, but Mother Brain's emergency circuitry repaired the damage that he caused. Backing away, he called Rune's attention and they unleashed Savage Strike's brutality. Their foe met the attack with a super-charged power surge and negated it before it caused damage to her.

Demi and Kyra rushed forward and grabbed the bodies of their fallen friends, pulling them out of the immediate line of fire. A roar, then a surge of energy felled the rest of them almost instantly. Kyra cast Medice and healed Raja enough to bring him around. Immediately aware of their situation, the Archbishop used Nasar to restore his companions to health. The androids utilized Recover to deal with any damage inflicted to their bodies. Moments later, another surge blasted forth and the Protectors found themselves against the back wall again.

"I'm sick of this!" Chaz declared and used Megid. The Technique's eruptions would have incapacitated a normal enemy, but Mother Brain was not the average foe. Seconds later, Shooting Star exploded onto her compliments of Wren and Rune. Even that attack seemed to have little or no effect on her.

Lightning shot down from above and was met by Hahn's Nawat. Conductive Thunder seemed to give Mother Brain a taste of her own medicine, sending surges into her circuitry. Wren and Demi fired continuous rounds from their weapons. When they disengaged, the supercomputer released another surge and temporarily paralyzed any effort for another assault.

"We're not having much luck with this one!" Hahn yelled. "I'm not sure if we're going to be able to be her!"

"We have to, Hahn!" Chaz told the Scholar while hearing the thud of Wren's body as he met one of Mother's surges head-on. "For the sake of Algo we have to continue on!"

The Hunter returned to his feet and raised Elsydeon above his head. Hahn instinctively knew what he wanted to do and prepared to use Astral, but the supercomputer cut them down before they could even attempt to do so.

"Were expending too much energy!" Kyra screamed. Down on her hands and feet, she hurled her Moon Slasher. Flying through the air, it merely bounced off its target and did little if any damage. She caught it, then lowered her head, panting. "If this keeps up for much longer we're not even going to have the strength to spank the Child!"

"Leave it to Kyra to turn a phrase," Hahn joked sardonically.

"I will not give up!" Chaz shouted at the top of his lungs while jumping to his feet.

A single surge from Mother caught the Hunter off guard as he was struck so hard on his chest plate that Elsydeon went flying from his hands. The sword twirled in mid-air before lodging its blade into the floor. Nursing his wound, barely able to move, Chaz tried his hardest to retrieve it, but to no avail. The Hunter looked up into Mother's eyes, saw the surge that spelled instant death for him and his companions, then saw Elsydeon's light.

From out of the core of the magical sword came seven heavenly figures. The first one leapt ahead of the others and slashed at Mother Brain with battle claws, then dove out of the way. The remaining six attacked simultaneously, their weapons and Techniques converging at a single point. Their enemy did not attack and seemed to be effecting repairs to her circuitry.

A female Palman with fiery red hair and wearing a yellow suit threw her hand forth and formed the Deban shield. Turning around, she faced the eight fallen Protectors and Chaz noticed her strikingly charming features. Using Nasar, she restored most of them to health. Wren and Demi, not affected by the Technique, healed themselves by their own means.

"On your feet!" an attractive blonde-haired Palman female ordered as she and her other companions helped the Protectors up. In her right hand she carried a massive slasher with double serrated edges. Chaz was pleasantly surprised to find Nei helping him up.

"Nei!" he exclaimed

"Not now, Chaz!" she told him. "We have more serious issues at hand!"

"Who are these people, Nei?"

The Numan sighed, saw little point in explaining who they were when Mother Brain was close to repairing herself fully. Looking at the faces of those she previously travelled with, however, she knew that they would be thrown into total confusion if some kind of identification was not offered. She turned to her companions, nodded slightly. A large blond-haired man holding a massive gun stepped forward. Wearing a black suit, Chaz recognized the insignia he adorned as that of the Hunters.

"Rudolph Steiner, Hunter of biomonsters. Just call on me to dispose of any problems you may have."

"I am Anna Zirski," Anna said, holding her Slasher threateningly, "Guardian of the innocent. Let us dispense with formalities and get back to work."

"My name is Amy Sage and I'm a Doctor." Amy twirled a staff in her hand. "I'm happy to finally meet you."

"Josh Kain's the name." Kain wore a red mechanic's suit. His purplish hair was short and spiked. "I be lovin' to work with machines. I done bust 'em up real good for ya."

"Hugh Thompson, Biologist." Hugh was dress in a plain green suit. Standing about Hahn's height, his hair was purple and neatly combed. "I'd be happy to dispose of any biomonster problems you may be having that Rudo can't get rid of."

"Shir Gold at your service. I'm a Thief by nature but I also like to run away with mens' hearts," she added with a wink at Chaz which made him uncomfortable. Shir's skimpy dress and lackadaisical ways made him wonder why she decided to join Rolf's party in the first place.

The Hunter retrieved Elsydeon from the floor. "Let's do it," he said.

Mother Brain, fully healed, attacked before the fifteen Protectors had a chance to. Lessened by Amy's Deban, they were able to charge back into action without delay. The Edge's blackness lit up with the dazzling show of Technique and Skill. Fire Storm and Blizzard swirled around each other like cobras in a hypnotic trance. Demi, Rudo, and Wren fired their weapons into the tempests, their combined firepower definitely a force to be reckoned with. Amy attacked with her Fire Staff, shooting even more flames in Mother's direction. Anna and Kyra let fly their Slashers, causing further damage to her circuitry. While Hugh used Gigra's gravitational waves to attack, Raja used the mystic power of Saint Fire and Kain utilized a Technique called Nagaj which worked to destroy any machine's inner workings.

"Come on, Chaz!" Nei pulled him along. Together, they ran to Mother Brain's base and attacked her savagely. By that time she was in such a weakened state that she was not able to retaliate.

"Now, Gryz!" Rudo yelled. "Use the Laconian Axe to pluck out her evil heart!"

Not knowing exactly what to do, Gryz heaved the heavy axe over his head and aimed carefully. With a grunt and a quick burst of strength, the Motavian sent it hurtling through the air at its target. The blade bit deeply into what was supposed to be Algo imprinted on Mother Brain's chest, then broke completely through the wall and disappeared on the other side. The wall, nearly ten feet thick, could not have been penetrated by any other weapon. The other attacks weakened her defenses enough, allowing Gryz to deliver the final blow with Odin's axe. It was, seemingly, now lost forever.

"Our time here is short," Anna stated. "We must now return to the Light. Nei, say your good-byes. Kyra," she said, turning her attention toward the Esper Leader, "take care of your Slasher for it may one day save your life as mine did for me. As for the rest of you -- may fate see you through your ultimate endeavor." After saying this, the Guardian disappeared.

Hugh coughed. "Well, I'm sorry we didn't get to know each other better, especially you, Hahn." He shook the Scholar's hand, then stepped away. "I would have like to compare notes with you. Ah, well. I'll just have to wait another fifty years or so. I wish you all the success in the world." Like his companion did before him, Hugh vanished into thin air.

"Well, I ain't much fer good-byes an' all," Kain said. "Just bust 'em up good for me, will ya?" The Wrecker turned to leave, but disappeared instead.

"He's a real doll, Nei," Shir said as she approached Chaz and gave him a kiss on the lips. "I can see why you didn't want to let go of him. I'll be seeing you!"

"Shir," Nei stopped her, "give it back." The Thief giggled, then handed a bottle of Trimate back to Chaz.

"A girl's got to have some fun," she said, then was returned to the Light.

"Please take good care of yourselves," Amy told the Protectors. "You are Algo's last hope. Remember that good health is the sure way to emerge victorious from any battle. If you should ever need me, just call my name . . . ." The Doctor disappeared.

Rudo held his hand to the sky and suddenly an axe appeared. The Defeat Axe! "Odin wanted to return this to you," he said, handing it to Gryz who eyed it reverently. "It's a fine weapon." The Hunter turned, approached Chaz and extended a hand. "From one Hunter to another, I wish you the best of luck." Chaz shook his hand, then watched as he slowly vanished.

"We never got to thank you for saving us," Kyra said, speaking to the Numan. "We do miss you, Nei."

"And I miss all of you as well," Nei hugged Kyra. "Do me one favor, okay? Stay alive; all of you. No matter how the odds look, stay alive, not only for me, but for each other."

"So I guess this is good-bye again, huh?" Chaz said.

"I'm afraid so. But we're never that far apart. I will always be with you."

"I know," and the Hunter smiled.

"May the Light watch over and protect you until we meet again . . . ." Nei faded away, her image still imprinted freshly in their minds.

"Well, that was certainly an unexpected turn of events," Hahn commented. "Don't you think?"

"C'mon," said Chaz, "let's get going before anything else unexpected happens ."

On the far right-hand corner of the wall where Mother Brain once existed, there was a doorway leading out. Sword in hand, Chaz led his party through it and emerged on the other side. There was no path leading away from the room, only a clear staircase spiraling downward. Insisting that caution need not be thrown to the wind, Raja, Kyra, and Demi healed the members of their group. Wren took an opportunity to repair Demi's circuits damaged by Mother Brain's Hijammer. The Archbishop cast Ataraxia to replenish his comrades' inner strength needed to perform certain Techniques. Fully healed, the Protectors turned to Chaz and he gazed down at the staircase.

With a sigh, the Hunter summoned his courage and proceeded to make the trek, his friends in close tow.

* * * * *

Chaz stepped off of the final step of the long, spiraling staircase and heard a crunch beneath his feet as he walked onto fresh soil. A low, dull drumming sound filled this place with a heartbeat and gave him the impression that they were inside the chest of some massive animal. Elsydeon was glowing brightly, perhaps in response to the evil that surrounded all of them. The Child was nowhere in sight, but that did not mean she was nowhere in their vicinity.

Kyra and Rune were jumpy, their fists clenched and radiating Telemental power. Through their unique bond with all things natural, they sensed Darkness surrounding them as surely as it was a part of them. Even Gryz could sense something and did not know how to interpret it, the sensation both new and foreign. It was not so much that they were consciously aware of what was happening, more that their bodies and powers were reacting to it, warning them that danger was imminent.

Raja's body reacted similarly, though in a different way. His mysticism was in tune with the spiritual realm and what he sensed here was truly unholy. The Archbishop chanted beneath his breath, reciting a little-known prayer to Tak'khan to watch over and protect him and his friends. He swallowed a lump in his throat. Never in his eighty-eight years had he ever been so afraid, not only for his own life, but for his friends' lives as well.

Demi, Wren, and Hahn did not need any special senses to know that all was not right. They could tell with their eyes and ears that their true enemy and the greatest threat to their existence lurked somewhere nearby. The Scholar felt a little more vulnerable than his comrades for his only weapon was his Mahlay Dagger. He trusted in his abilities, though, and knew that his training and experience would prevail.

Wren and Demi shared each other's thoughts though neither was telepathic. For androids whose lifespans were undetermined, the thought of perishing was truly a frightening one. Neither had a problem with giving his or her life for their friends. These individuals were the closest thing they ever had to family. To them, friends and family were synonymous and if the need arose, they would put their lives on the line for them.

"You've made it this far," a voice spoke. "Here is where you shall die."

A wall sprouted up from the ground behind them, sealing the Protectors off from their only means of retreat -- the staircase. The Child stepped out into their field of vision. She was fully grown and near Chaz's age when he first embarked on his quest with Alys, but no more than eighteen years-old. Her long, blonde hair was nearly waist-length and neatly groomed. Her once blue eyes now glowed red and looked as evil as this place. Her black cloak blended in well with her surroundings and gave her enemies an uneasy impression that her head was floating.

The Protectors readied their weapons and took a defensive stance. In the next instant, several projectiles fired out from behind her, finding wrists and ankles, pinning all eight of them to the wall. Struggled as they did, they were not able to free themselves. Unable to hold their weapons, they dropped to their feet.

"Don't worry," the Child said, "I'll deal with you soon. First, you must witness my father's rebirth." She stared hard at Chaz, hoping to get some kind of reaction from him, but not receiving one. She saw in his eyes an enmity which paralleled her own and was moderately surprised at it. He no longer saw her as his daughter, only as she suggested to him -- the Daughter of Darkness.

The Child turned her back toward the Protectors, no longer considered them a threat. Weaving her arms in a bewitching incantation, she brought her hands together in a prayer-like manner, elbows jutting out to the side. Chaz and friends watched dark energy enter her body, filling it with power. The Child wove her arms around again, this time aiming her hands into the ground. "Father!" she shouted and a rumbling became audible. "The time is now!" She continually raised the volume of her voice if only for her captives' benefit. "Throw off your restraints and enter this dimension so that you may deliver it! Father! I summon you now!"

The Child unleashed her pent-up energy into the ground. Dirt and debris shot upward and the rumblings became almost deafening. Darkness' Daughter laughed hysterically.

"NO!!!" Chaz heard Wren yell and turned his head to his right to where the big android was pinned to the wall. He saw him struggling against his restraints, his face clearly strained. One last burst of energy and one of them gave way, freeing his right arm.

"We will not allow it!" Rune and Kyra shouted in unison, drawing the Hunter's attention to his left. The Espers' bodies lit up in an orange blaze and Tandle enveloped them. The restraints binding them dissolved and they were freed. Wren removed the restraint on his other wrist and struck one of Hahn's to his left, one of Demi's to his right. The Scholar, Mahlay Dagger still in hand, struck his other restraint with it and freed his other hand. Demi pulled at hers, freeing first her arm, then her legs while Wren did the same. Kyra and Rune cast Tandle again simultaneously and dissolved Chaz, Gryz, and the rest of Hahn's restraints and suddenly the Protectors were free.

Wren grabbed his weapon and unloaded it, sending a barrage of firepower into the Darkness encroaching on their dimension. The Child turned to face them, screaming so loud that soundwaves completely lifted the Protectors' bodies up and slammed them against the wall.

"AAAIIEEE!" Kyra screamed, throwing her Moon Slasher. It spun through the air like it never had before. Concentrating, the Esper Leader cast Tandle again, propelling her weapon forward at lightning speed. Thunderslash thrust itself onto the Child knocking her onto her backside.

Chaz and Hahn stepped up, the Hunter practically standing above their enemy. A blast from Astral and he swept downward with Paladin Blow. The Child caught his sword, an unprecedented move which caught Chaz completely off guard. She swept his legs out from underneath him and returned to her feet. Fist clenched, she struck at her biological father who managed to roll out of the way before she left a six-inch imprint in the ground.

Celestial flames arose, engulfing Darkness' Daughter who did not even flinch at the attack. Raja held his Nares Staff before him and imbued it with the power of Holyword. The Black Energy Wave streamed out from his foe's fingertips. The Archbishop twirled his weapon and it absorbed the power, then turned it against her. She was not phased by it, however, and despite that the Black Energy Wave contained a portion of his mysticism, she was unaffected.

Gryz rushed forward in a mad campaign. Swinging his axe like a thing possessed, he was determined that no amount of power would stop him. Bolts of lightning assaulted the Motavian, but he became a juggernaut determined to keep his target in sight. When he finally hovered over her, his axe poised to strike, the Child kicked him in the gut, a strike that sent him reeling through the air before crashing to the ground.

The Motavian Esper heard Demi's weapon fire and sensed that he was in danger. Chaz ran and jumped over his body, shouting the entire way. With Rune as his backup, Hunter and Esper combined their Skills, a quick strike by Grandcross knocking her over.

"It's coming!" Hahn alerted his friends to the Darkness' emergence. Raja turned his head and saw enormous black hand reach up from a seemingly subterranean realm. Forgetting the danger to his own life, the Archbishop ran to the edge of whatever it was pulling itself up onto and called to Tak'khan to reinforce his strength. Kyra also heard the Scholar's warning and met her friend near the hand. Another hand reached up, causing the ground to quake.

Raja and Kyra unleashed the power of Holy Thunder and its bolts struck the hands of Darkness. A roar drew its Child's attention and she sent a dozen magical daggers soaring in their direction. Demi's Phonomezer fired, met by Gryz's Sweeping Skill. Silent Wave completely changed the daggers' path of destruction enough to narrowly miss hitting their intended targets. The Esper Leader threw her arm across Raja's back and they dove to the ground.

Using her command of telekinesis, Darkness' Daughter lifted both Archbishop and Esper and hurled them into the pit behind her. Wren used his android speed and strength to leap upward and intercept them before it was too late. Fingertips held tenaciously to the ground, but a well-aimed shot from Gryz sent waves of tremors from the Motavian Esper as he used Gilan to shake its hold free.

Sensing an attack from behind, the Child reeled around just in time to see Hahn closing in on her. His dagger contained a power that she heeded and quickly sidestepped, the Scholar passing harmlessly. Not to be denied, Hahn blindly slashed backward, leaving a deep tear in her cloak less than an inch from her skin. She seized him by his neck and thrust him back toward his friends, bowling Rune and Gryz over.

Chaz was instantly on top of the Child. Throwing himself bodily at her, the Hunter managed to knock her over and rolled in the dirt. Throwing Elsydeon aside, he assaulted her with fists powered by blood, sweat, and tears. She saw the fury in his eyes, witnessed first-hand the pain of loss, the fire of retribution. Darkness' Daughter tossed him to the side and he rolled over Elsydeon, protecting the holy sword from the enemy.

"Get away from him!" Kyra screamed and used Nagra's powerful gravitational waves to propel her away from Chaz. The Hunter stood up and dove out of the way. Darkness' Daughter faced the threat behind her, but was caught in the line of fire as Gryz thrust his arms forward and the Reverent Fifth cast Legeon. Savage Strike caught her squarely across the face and she somersaulted three or four times before landing flat on her back.

Screaming wildly, the Child brought her hand down onto the ground with such force that the resulting tremors toppled all eight Protectors. An all-encompassing swipe of her hand picked them up and delivered them back to where they started with a thundering crash. Bodies littered the area near the wall, only a few of them moving at all. Darkness' Daughter shied away as Raja's Miracle cause silvery bursts of light to appear and invigorate all of his comrades. She quickly turned and sent more of the Black Energy Wave into the ground, empowering her father, giving it the strength to break through the galactic seal which imprisoned it for so long.

The hands of Darkness reached up once again, providing amusement to the Child who laughed maniacally. All eight Protectors rushed in to deliver what they hoped to be a fatal blow, but she waved her hand, her power absolute. They were propelled away from her and was unable to do anything to prevent her father from entering their dimension. Gigantic horns arose from the chasm followed by a head of enormous proportions. Glowing yellow eyes the size of small moons peered over the edge at the Child and sought out the Protectors who recoiled in fear. A horrible, ear-piercing roar which spoke of death and destruction caused their world to shake and tremor and probably did the same for the whole of Algo. Dezoris was about to become the egg from which Darkness would inevitably hatch!

"Chaz," Rune said, an uneasy calmness in his voice, "it's time."

"Let's do it," the Hunter replied. Gryz stood back to marvel at the sight he was about to behold.

Hahn took a position behind everyone and raised his hands, preparing his Astral Skill. To his right was Raja, Rune, Demi, and Kyra who was furthest from him. Wren and Chaz stood to his left. Kyra cast Warla while Raja did the same with Blessing. A small cannon-like object emerged from Demi's arm and caused free-floating ions to converge on a single point. Barrier acted like an energy collector and the instant Chaz used Megid, Wren fired his Positron Bolt Emitter, and Rune cast Legeon, the energies were trapped within it.

"Nova is our only hope," Rune said solemnly.

Hahn released Astral into Blessing which, like a gigantic lens, magnified its power. Bursting through the other side, it then detonated the energy collected by Barrier and sent it streaming through Warla, amplifying its power even further.

The Nova Cannon was a weapon of sheer might and was hypothetically capable of destroying stars by causing cascading nuclear explosions. Its power struck the Profound Darkness with a force previously unknown to it and it fell back into the depths of whatever hell it was emerging from.

"Quickly!" Rune ordered. "Again! At the Child!"

The Protectors readied another shot of Nova to use against Darkness' Daughter. Unlike her father before her, she was ready. Crossing her arms, she met Nova head-on and actually absorbed most of its power. The Child uncrossed her arm soon after and the attack was redirected at its creators. Chaz quickly raised Elsydeon and was protected by it. His friends were not, however, and all seven of them slammed against the wall to their backs and dropped lifelessly to the ground.

The Hunter chanced a glance behind him to see what had become of his comrades. Seven broken bodies littered the area and blood stained the very soil he stood upon. He heard Wren and Demi's bodies arc electricity from their circuitry, then go silent.

"Aww," the Child mocked, "the poor little man is all alone now. Don't worry, you will suffer their same fate!"

Darkness' Daughter fired the Black Energy Wave directly at Chaz who still held Elsydeon in a deathlike grip. The sword emitted a bright blaze which protected him, but the light was already beginning to fade.

I will not give up! he thought to himself. My friends believe in me!

Elsydeon's power faded even more.

Images of his life flashed before Chaz's eyes:

"Remember, Chaz," Hahn said, "don't fight your destiny, whatever it may be. You didn't fight it when you made the decision to become a Protector of Light when LeRoof asked you to be so. I know you told me that you did almost turn your back, but deep within you knew it to be true. Such is the case with all things. Such is the case now."

"We are your friends, Chaz --" Gryz had said, "never forget that. Even in death we will never leave your side."

"Chaz," Kyra said, " I just wanted you to know that sometimes I feel like you are the closest thing I have to family, that is, you and Rika and the rest of our friends. I may be with my people, the Espers, but sometimes I feel so alone. It's like I'm a stranger among my people. If I had a choice, I would leave them and come live here in Aiedo with you and Rika, but that's not possible now. I don't think it was ever possible."

"You, alone, have done more for me than any other mortal who has ever existed, including Zelan's creators," Wren told him. "They may have ultimately been responsible for my construction, essentially gave me my sentience, but you helped me find my purpose in life, and that is something I can never repay."

"What we do is not only for our people and our planets," said Raja. "We're doing this for you and Rika as well, Chaz. We all want the knowledge that her soul will be at peace and will do everything within our power to see that to fruition."

"With the future as uncertain as it seems now," Demi said, "all I know is that you should seize the time, Chaz; live now. Make now always the most precious time to you. Now will never come again."

"You see, Chaz Ashley," Rune's pious voice rang through his head, "every time you were met with opposition in life, you have rebounded without difficulty. You never forget those who have helped you become who you are today, and when those people pass on, you become stronger."

"As long as you hold my memory close," Nei told him, "I will always be with you."

"Remember . . ." Rika spoke again, her voice fading rapidly, "put your sword away . . . ."

I can't do this alone, Chaz thought, suddenly feeling alone and empty inside. I need all of you by my side. You are my friends and I love you more than life itself. I am now facing my greatest fear, that you're not here when I need you most and I will fail. Please, someone, give me the strength to overcome. Give me what I need to save millions of lives. Give me the means to protect our future. Give me the courage to survive.

Had Chaz been watching the bodies of his fallen friends, he would have seen the seven celestial lights rise from them. They floated over to Elsydeon and entered the holy sword, imbuing it with even more power. Elsydeon's light intensified, but Chaz dared not look into it, swiftly remembering Nei's words of caution. The Child screamed and the holy sword exploded into a brilliantly shining flame.

Seventeen ghostly figures emerged from Elsydeon and surrounded Darkness' Daughter. One by one, each of the Protectors attacked her, each blow weakening her further. She tried to defend herself from them, but to no avail. The power of the Spirits of Elsydeon was greater than anything she could ever hope to muster. Eyes closed, Chaz listened as every strike found its mark, every spell hit its target. When it was all over, he heard the Child fall to the ground.

Rushing forward blindly, the Hunter sought to deliver the final blow, but could not find the Child. Fearing the loss of his eyesight, he searched on his hands and knees for her. Time was of the essence and if he did not destroy her quickly she might recover and then he truly would be dead.

Finally, in desperation, Chaz opened his eyes, beheld Elsydeon's Elysian light. There, right in front of him, lay the body of the Child of Darkness. He looked at her, so innocent in an unconscious state. She looked so much like Rika in the face and ears, but he noticed before that she had his eyes, and she had his blonde hair. Tears burned in his eyes again. He regretted that seeing her was the last thing that he would ever see.

The Hunter felt two sets of hands clasp over his. He turned to his left, saw the ghostly image of a young, attractive female. To his right was a handsome man. "You don't have to do this alone, Chaz Ashley," Alis told him.

"We are here with you," Rolf added.

Together, the three Protectors lifted Elsydeon over their heads and swung downward.

The final blow was delivered.

An explosion erupted from the chasm as the tether which bound the Profound Darkness and its minion was severed. Without that link to bind it to their dimension, it fell back into its prison, hopefully never to again emerge within his lifetime. Alis and Rolf faded away, their purpose served. Chaz was pleased that they were there for him. At least now he understood why they did not encounter them on their way to the final battle. Alis and Rolf were needed for a higher purpose. They needed to be with him in the end.

"Go to the Light, my beloved Rika. Your soul is free."

* * * * *

The Edge dissolved around Chaz and suddenly the Hunter found himself standing in a bank of snow. He looked overhead and knew that Algo was shining again, felt its warmth radiate on his face. He could barely make out images, but his eyesight was already failing him. The thunderous roar of hundreds of Espers and Dezorians filled his ears he was assaulted with cheers and congratulatory pats. His victory felt meaningless, though, because his closest friends were not there to celebrate it with him.

"Chaz!" a voice called out through the tumult, "Chaz Ashley!"

"Kyra?" the Hunter began pushing his way through masses of individuals who looked like nothing more than blurs to him. "Kyra! Kyra! I'm over here!" Suddenly, someone collided with him and knocked him to the ground.

"Chaz!" Kyra screamed in excitement. "You did it, Chaz! You did it!"

"Kyra!" the Hunter was still in shock, "I -- I can't believe you're alive! Please tell me this isn't a dream!" The Esper Leader kissed him on the cheek.

"Does that feel like a dream?"

"Kyra!" Chaz embraced her, never wanted to let go. Tears flowed freely from his eyes and moistened Kyra's shoulder. "I thought I lost you."

"I thought you would have figured it out by now. You're big sister will always be here for you."

"We all will," several voices added, and even though he could not see them, he knew exactly who they belonged to.

"My friends!"

The Hunter turned toward them and they met in a collision of hugs. He tried to encompass all of them in his arms at the same time, but could not. He wept uncontrollably, his voice rising up and above the bedlam. Chaz did not recall when he cried so much, perhaps when Rika died. Those tears, however, were tears of grief. These were ones which spoke of joy and relief.

"Please, Chaz," Wren pleaded, "this is highly irregular."

"Shut up, Wren," Demi told him. "Just enjoy the moment."

"Looks like you did it all by yourself, my friend," Gryz said, patting him on the shoulder.

"No," he disagreed, "we did it. I couldn't have done it without you." Chaz reached over to pat the Motavian's arm and ended up missing his target completely.

Hahn immediately noticed that something was wrong. "Chaz," he said, "what is it? What's wrong?"

Espers and Dezorian steadily moved through, each offering words of congratulations and thanks, but the Protectors heard none of them, ignored the pats and shakes. There was something seriously wrong with Chaz that they did not know about and fear all but took the breath from them.

"I'm losing my eyesight," he finally stated matter-of-factly, but there was not any hint of regret, only that of satisfaction.

"You looked upon Elsydeon's holy light, didn't you?" Rune asked. Chaz nodded, and the Reverent Fifth sighed. The rest of them did not need an explanation. They knew that their friend would soon be blind and nothing in their power could save his eyesight.

"One request, guys," the Hunter spoke again, "please."

"Anything," Raja told him.

"Will you all take me back to Esper Mansion? Take me back to the Hibernation Chamber so that I may look upon Rika's face one last time before I go blind?"

"Of course we will," Kyra assured. She took his right hand into hers and squeezed it tightly.

Rune threw his cape around his companions and used Ryuka. Within seconds the eight Protectors vanished, but it went unnoticed by Espers and Dezorians alike. They were caught up in their own happiness. There would be plenty reasons to celebrate tonight.

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