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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Seven


It had been nearly a day and a half since Chaz and Gryz left Aiedo, both carrying supplies enough to last them only three or four days. If they rationed, the supplies could be made to span five or six days, but one thing was certain -- if they did not find the Nance's children in the next two days, they would have to return without them. The children had already been missing for three days and after each day's passing, their parents' hope of having them return alive and safe was slowly dwindling. An aspect they did not care to think about, yes, but in all reality, the children might already be dead.

While Chaz carried a titanium sword strapped to his back, Gryz held his titanium axe and walked with it, both weapons forged in Motavian smithies in Tonoe. They were sturdy, durable, and able to hold an edge well. Being less dense than iron, titanium was easier to handle and increased its wielder's dexterity. Because of its high tensile strength, however, it was vulnerable to shattering when exposed to extremely stressful conditions.

Gryz, being better suited to Motavia's harsh conditions, took the lead. If a sand storm happened to appear out of nowhere, he could use his largish body to protect Chaz from its stinging effects. Motavians are genetically equipped with a translucent third eyelid, a nictitating membrane which protects the eyes from harmful intrusions, namely sand. He could walk through the fiercest sandstorm without stopping, and because of his thick fur, would not be affected by its painful bite.

Sandworms were a crafty lot, lying in wait until an unfortunate passerby stumbled across its path, then springing upward to snatch its prey. Once in its grasp, the sandworm would then disappear underneath Motavia's sands, pulling its meal under as well. They devour everything but hair and bones, which are later excreted above the surface as a pellet.

Those were the infants.

Larger adult sandworms have been known to swallow expeditions of ten Palmans or more in a single attack. These attacks are rare; only one or two are reported per year. But then again, no one has been known to survive an attack, so there could be many that go unreported.

So here was Chaz and Gryz -- two individuals going up against an entire nest of sandworms. Nests are said to have anywhere from seven to ten infants and one or more adults, normally two. There were instances, however, when sandworms formed pods of four to six adults and over fifty infants.

Needless to say, Chaz and Gryz hoped this was not one of those instances.

As the Hunter walked, he took a look down at his clothing. It had been a long time since he wore his uniform. It fit a little more snugly than he remembered, due to gaining weight, but still loose enough to allow him a full range of motion. The red body suit was designed to hang loosely about his body to catch any breeze and acted as a cooler of sorts by readily evaporating any bodily perspiration. The shoulder plates, foot, shin, and knee guards were made of a titanium/plastic amalgamate as were the wrist and arm guards. Long ago, Palman scientists discovered to combine a strong specie of plastic with titanium on a molecular level, resulting in an extremely durable, lightweight material with many uses. It quickly became popular with the Hunters, and the Guild even hired a few scientists to create the material exclusively for them. Only one specie of plastic was successfully combined with metal, and soon after, scientists were able to combine it with every metal known to exist -- all except Laconia.

Gryz wore a green body suit similar to his companion's plus a green cape draped over his back. On his oversized Motavian feet, he wore largish boots which protected his feet from the burning sands. Around his waste, Gryz strapped on a utility belt which carried several pouches, some containing an occasional Monomate or Dimate, others containing trinkets which he considered good luck. On his wrists, he donned metal guards to give him extra support when swinging his massive weapon.

Chaz and Gryz travelled for what seemed like days. In all actuality, it was only about four or five hours, but in Motavia's intense heat, it felt that long. There was no breeze at all, making it especially difficult for them to cool off even in clothing designed to make desert travel less noisome. There was no cover anywhere within eyesight for them to take refuge, so their only hope for rest was to keep on the path and hope to reach the caves within a few more hours.

Both companions had been entirely silent during their entire trip, but Chaz got more and more edgy the closer they got to their destination. "Gryz, there's something I need to tell you," he disclosed, almost afraid to go on.

"Uh, oh," the Motavian returned, "you didn't spot a sandworm back there and not tell me, did you?"

"No, no, it's nothing like that. It's --"

"I told you to take care of that before we left this morning!"

"Gryz, I'm serious! Will you just shut up and listen for once!"

The Motavian was taken aback by his friend's outburst. They used to always joke around with each other, endlessly, mercilessly. But now Chaz was more withdrawn, and every teasing word that came out of Gryz's beaky mouth seemed to crush his confidence. Despite Chaz's effort at secrecy, he already knew what was about to be said.

"I'm sorry, Gryz," the Hunter apologized. "I've been under a lot of stress lately."

"Oh?"

"Gryz, my friend, I am loathe to say this but I think you have a right to know, being a close friend. When we reach the sandworms' nest and if a confrontation arises, I'm not going to be too much help. In fact, I may have to totally rely on you for my survival. You see, over the course of the past few months, I have been slowly deteriorating."

"Deteriorating?" Gryz stopped dead in his tracks, forcing Chaz to halt as well. "In what way?"

"Uh, well, you see --" the Hunter turned his back, hoping to hide some of the shame he felt in himself, "I've been deteriorating mentally. I didn't realize it at first, but Rika made me accept the reality of my situation and I came to grips with it just a few weeks ago. When the Hunter's Guild was still open, we had everything we needed and then some. Work wasn't hard to come by; I could find a new job practically every day. But you know, it's like ever since we sent the Profound Darkness back into whatever hell it came out of, the biomonster populations have dropped like a lead brick. I'm beginning to think that the two were somehow interconnected.

"Anyway, when the Guild closed its doors, I was forced to find another profession. Rika and I scrounged up every last meseta and bought a small plot of land to cultivate and sell some of its products for profit. Gryz, it was like turning my back on my mother and walking so far away I couldn't recognize her anymore. I tried -- we both did. But you know that since Motavia began its reversion, the soil isn't as arable as it used to be. Needless to say, our little farm failed and we decided to move back into Aiedo.

"I think that's when it started, my condition. With the Guild closing and losing our farm one right after the other, I couldn't deal with it. My mind was . . . is going right into the dumps. I'm forgetting things I never would have forgotten in my right state of mind. Gryz, I even forgot that you and Pana came to our wedding. Some friend, huh?"

"The circumstances were extraordinary," Gryz simply stated.

"Yes, but there is more. I -- I've lost use of all my Skills."

"Say what?"

"This is no time for jokes, Gryz. I'm in a total state of panic. Sometimes I can't sleep at night knowing I'll have to wake up in the morning without the use of my Skills. It's terrifying me." The Motavian placed a comforting hand on his distressed friend's shoulder. "You know, I had little time to practice what with the farming and everything. At first I thought maybe I just forgot how to do them, but that wasn't the case. I still know how to perform the actions of my Skills, but there's something missing, something I could not figure out for myself. Rika offered an explanation, but I didn't believe her at first. Now I think I am.

"She said that what was missing was half of what was required to successfully execute my Skills, or any Skill anyone can execute for that matter. Half is contributed to strength and ability, half is contributed entirely by the psyche, by the mind. In my crisis, I am unable to make that second contribution because I've lost my mind, in a manner of speaking. Don't even ask me about my Techniques. It's like they've been totally wiped out of my head since their usage depends entirely on mind power.

"But that's not all, my friend. A few months back, I lost myself while I was doing something I -- I can't quite remember what. What I do remember is being extremely depressed about everything, particularly the deal about my Skills. I remember working on our dying crops, then moving on to something else. Then, my mind went totally blank. The next thing I knew, I was fighting with Rika. I saw a dagger in my palm and at first I thought I was attacking her, which made me panic. But then I saw that the blade was pointed toward me, not her, and I immediately thought she was attacking me with it. I realized then that she wasn't forcing it back at me, she was pulling my arm away. Gryz, I -- I was about to kill myself!

"I couldn't believe it! I never even had thoughts of ending my life, yet there I was, dagger in hand ready to go at it. I love Rika too much to leave her alone, but I was about to do it. It -- it was like instinct. That's the only way I can describe it. Some innate thing told me to end my life, and I was oblivious to it. If Rika hadn't been there . . . . That's what scares me the most, that it could happen again, at any time, and I wouldn't even know it. I'm not ready to leave yet, Gryz, not for a long, long time."

"I've heard of Hunters who had situations similar to yours," Gryz began, "and a lot of them took their lives. Do you think that what happened to you might have happened to them?"

"Yes, that's what I believe. In fact, I know an instance which supports my belief. Do you remember Gerl? Well, after he recovered from his amnesia, he had no recollection of any of his Skills, yet he was determined to go on with his life. He found a good-paying job at the trans-communication center which was more than enough to support his wife and two children.

"They found him dead a few days after he received his second paycheck. In its aqueous form, Trimate can be highly toxic in biological systems. The post-mortem report said that Trimate levels in his body were twenty times higher than a normal dosage. He had everything to live for and nobody told him otherwise. No one knew why he overdosed, it just kinda happened."

"I see the connection you're making. Don't give it a second thought, Chaz. You're so full of self-doubt right now you think you're liable to do anything, but I know you better than that. Pana, Rika, and I won't let it happen, that I promise you."

* * * * *

Chaz and Gryz were nearing their destination and it was a good thing because abnormally high temperatures wore them down quickly. Off in the distance through streamers of heat rising off of Motavia's surface, they could see beginnings of a small mountain range where the caves was located.

The caves were the only connection between Aiedo and Kadary, a town located near Nurvus and Motavia's only spaceport. Chaz himself had travelled through it, as treacherous as it was. Once, biomonsters infested and at that same time, Chaz's party had to go cave exploring to reach Kadary. They traversed it, but not without difficulty.

That was then, this was now.

Chaz and Gryz had no intention of even entering those caves. Their primary objective was to determine whether or not the Nance's children were alive or not, rescue them if possible, and then determine if the sandworms' nest was large enough to be concerned about. As it neared, they became more and more nervous, wondering why and how they could be so close to their nest and still confront a single sandworm. If their numbers were large, many of the infant sandworms would have attacked already, the lure of two meals too great to ignore. Chaz was beginning to wonder if the children were kidnapped and if there was a nest at all.

His answer came to him, but not in any way he expected.

A shuffling of sand drew his attention to his feet. Before he could react, Chaz felt Gryz's strong hand thrust him backward, and an infant sandworm sprung out from where he previously stood. It stood upright and seemed to scan the immediate area like it was rudely awakened from its slumber. Sandworms were known to estivate, but only under extreme conditions when heat waves lasted for more than a few months. Motavia's current heat wave started only weeks ago.

The infant worm regained its senses, blindly "smelling" its way around as their species did, searching for whatever wakened it. It found Chaz within a matter of seconds, almost flat against the sand -- easy prey. What it did not see was a lumbering Motavian behind it, axe poised to strike at the slightest indication of movement. In the instant the infant worm moved, Gryz swung his massive axe, dissecting it into two halves. Blood spewed, staining everything within a few feet in a sickly brownish color, and its lifeless body dropped dead. "Well," Gryz said in a nonchalant tone, "I guess that's that."

"Yeah," Chaz rebuffed, "for all the good I was. I told you I wouldn't be much help."

"Relax, Buddy, you've just been missing in action for a while. It'll all come back to you eventually. Have a little faith."

"Faith, like meseta, is a little hard to come by these days. I wish I had your confidence in me."

"Let's not talk about that now. What's important is that we find those children, hopefully alive, and take them safely back to Aiedo."

"Agreed."

Chaz and Gryz approached the caves with caution, not wanting to cause any unnecessary commotion. Whether or not they could do that remained to be seen, but they had only encountered a single infant which did not pose much of a threat. Sandworms were known to be very intelligent creatures, often sending scouts to survey their hunting grounds for sustenance. The single infant Chaz and Gryz encountered could have been a scout in which case there could be more, several more, lying in wait. It was only a matter of time before they found out.

At the caves' entrance, they found nothing save for a few pellets that were probably more than a few months old. Chaz was puzzled that there no new pellets anywhere to be found. That, at least, was indication that if Jan, Fenlye, and Bjorn were indeed playing around this area, they were not devoured by sandworms. They did not have a way of tracking them; had they been out a day before, there might have been remnants of footprints or some other sign that would indicate a possible area to begin searching. As it was, however, blowing sand would have already covered up any tracks made by any creature travelling through.

Motavian and Hunter split up, going two separate directions to search for some indication of life. It seemed a hopeless task because there was no refuge for Palman children anywhere in sight. Again, Chaz pondered the possibility that the Nance's children were not anywhere around, that a kidnapping occurred and somebody took them to another town. Hopelessness filled him, a feeling he was not accustomed to but appropriate given his situation.

"Chaz!" Gryz called out, "come quickly!"

With a swiftness he had not displayed in over half a year, Chaz sped over to where his companion kneeled. Once there, Gryz invited him to join in exhuming an object just barely jutting upward from the sand. Frantically they dug, sand caving back into their hole making it difficult, until enough of the object was exposed. Chaz reached in and pulled it from its sandy grave. As it turned out, the object was a shoe --

A child's shoe.

"We're too late!" the Hunter gasped. Despite all their concern, all the effort they put into this journey, everything seemed to end in tragedy. "Damn it all!" Gryz stood up and beckoned Chaz to do the same.

"Come on," he spoke softly, "I guess we should head back now. There's not much more we can do here." Reluctantly, Chaz nodded, conceding to Gryz's request.

"Chaz?" a voice called out.

"What is it, Gryz?" he asked of his companion.

"I didn't say anything."

"Chaz, is that you?" the voice asked. It was a very familiar voice, one that Chaz heard many times before, yet he struggled to recognize it. Then it hit him . . . .

"Fenlye? Is that you?"

"Um, yes, as far as I know."

"Where are you?"

"Up here." Chaz and Gryz craned their necks upward toward the caves' entrance, far enough above the sand to be out of reach of any infant worm that decided to make an appearance topside. There, hanging onto the rock face with every last ounce of strength, were three children, obviously in distress.

At ten, Fenlye was eldest of Karl and Lily Nance's children, which often put him in charge of his younger sister and brother and was supposed to set a good example for them. Jan, eight, was the second oldest, assumed the responsibility and burden of being the middle child. She hated being left out of anything and desperately tried to win her older brother's favor. Bjorn, five, was old enough to follow his siblings on their outings, but not to make decisions for himself, making him sort of a tag-along.

Chaz was puzzled at how the children were able to stay on the mountainside for so long without tiring, but guessed that they found strength born of fear. Tiny fingers struggled to gain purchase on the rocky face, their strength slowly dwindling. "What are you doing up there?" the Hunter called out. "More importantly, how did you get up there?"

"Shh," Fenlye hushed, "quiet . . . they're all around."

"What's all around?"

"The sandworms. Chaz, I've never seen so many of them in one place at one time, not even in the books I read in my studies."

"Well, hurry up and get down from there so we can take you back to your parents before the sandworms find us. Your parents are worried --"

"Chaz!" Jan shrieked. "Behind you, Chaz!"

The Hunter and Gryz veered around, determined to not be caught from behind. There, already in mid-strike, was a large infant worm. Chaz quickly unsheathed his sword, an action that felt like instinct to him, sidestepped, and the worm's momentum carried it right into the blade. "Good show!" Gryz exclaimed.

Those were the only words anyone got to say.

Infant worms emerged from beneath the sand all around them, about twenty in number, strangely reminiscent of an evil jack-in-the-box. Though only their anterior "head" ends were visible, each was easily fifteen feet long with bodies three feet in diameter. Eyeless, they turned this way and that searching for their targets, relying on movement to detect them. Any vibration, even a heartbeat, was detectable by the worms, which basically meant that nothing could escape.

Gryz raised his arms and let out a high-pitched scream, a word which was actually spoken in his own language. Chaz did not understand what it meant, but recognized it as his War Cry which endowed him with indomitable strength.

The infant worms located their targets and began moving in. Chaz felt hopelessly overwhelmed against these odds; a year ago, he would have welcomed them. He held his sword defensively, ready to take any blow dealt to him. For the first time in a long time, fear grasped him in its icy grasp and he found difficulty in swallowing. It had been so long since he held a sword in battle, it felt awkward despite how he handled it earlier. He realized that because he handled it so well, not every memory of being a Hunter was lost. Instinct was still there, somewhere in his mind, which meant that everything else was, also -- he only to tap into it.

Chaz and Gryz engaged in a battle unlike any they had seen in the past three years. Infant worms closed in from all sides with lightning-fact speed and precision, some feints, others actual attacks. Worms harrowed them from their left, right, front, behind, and below, forcing them to watch their feet as well as their backs. The two companions were trying to be separated, but that would have to be prevented at any cost. Their advantage was in staying together; their interest was in staying alive.

Gryz jumped to the front line of battle and held his axe menacingly before five infants. Furrowing his brow in concentration, he swept his axe from left to right, executing the Sweeping Skill, a devastating attack which creates a dense vacuum pocket visible to the naked eye, causing massive damage to anything in its wake.

Chaz looked on in obvious admiration, for his very own Airslash Skill was very similar to what he just saw. Both Skills used a weapon's sharpness to slice through air. The quickness of the motion created a vacuum behind the slash, sucking air into it. Anything caught in its path was subjected to extremely powerful pressures which, when spread out about a small area, can rip through flesh, sinew, and bone.

Five of their members decimated in one blow, the infant worms fell back to regroup. Even though he did not even strain a muscle, Chaz was sweating profusely, his nerves frayed almost beyond repair. About fifteen still remained, and they still had not seen hide nor hair of the adults, which worried them more than any number of infants they may encounter. Infants were an extremely poor example of their adult counterparts being that a full-grown adult could reach a towering height of thirty feet and a length of twice that.

Again the infant worms attacked, this time in sequence, hoping to wear their prey down enough to devour them. One after another they struck, Chaz deflecting their attacks with his sword, Gryz with his axe. When an opportunity arose, both would strike at their foes, occasionally bringing one down. Before long, four more fell before their blades, dropping at their feet on command. All the time, Chaz felt something inside of him changing, vague memories coming back to him in such a rush they were almost overwhelming. He did not know what they were exactly and needed time to sort and decipher them. Time, however, was a commodity he did not have.

Gryz saw another opportunity to further reduce his enemy's numbers and performed Sweeping, taking out six worms this time. Chaz, who began to feel more comfortable with his sword, dealt three deadly blows to his opponents leaving only two more. Foolishly, perhaps valiantly, one struck out in anger at the Motavian who, without much effort, ended its existence. The remaining infant dove beneath the sand and disappeared from sight.

"Wahooooo!!!" an ecstatic Gryz bellowed, "we did it!" He smacked Chaz across his back and managed to get a wide smile out of him. He looked up to where Fenlye, Jan, and Bjorn hung diligently to their perches and saw them smiling down at him. Everything seemed to be falling into place perfectly. Now, Chaz could sort through those memories --

"Gryz!" the Hunter exclaimed, "aren't we forgetting something?"

"What?"

Suddenly, grains of sand began to displace beneath their feet and immense vibrations caused them to lose balance. They made every attempt to stand, but were unable to because quakes whose epicenters were unknown. Chaz glanced upward at the children and watched in horror as they lost grip and fell. "What's going on!" Jan shrieked. Hunter and Motavian exchanged glances, confirming their worst fear

The lone infant worm that escaped had returned -- with reinforcements.

One adult sandworm was bad enough, but two cut the chances of victory down substantially. From the moment Chaz saw the first sandworm, he felt the very blood in his veins turn to ice. He remembered when he encountered his first one, in the town of Mile. A local farmer there decided to try and domesticate sandworms, but his situation soon got out of hand and he employed Chaz's assistance. Although that one was not a full-grown adult, it was very difficult to defeat. They needed to use the sandworm's lumbering and bulky body to their advantage, but not get too overzealous. Despite the size of their bodies, they were deceptively quick.

Gryz jumped to his feat and screamed another War Cry. Power surging through his veins, the Motavian struck at the enemy, axe biting deeply into its flesh. The sandworm bellowed in pain and instantly, tentacles shot out from its "head" at him. Chaz rushed in with agility he had not demonstrated in a long while and used his sword to cut them down. More tentacles came at them from the other sandworm, striking the warriors. Chaz and Gryz flew nearly twenty feet over the Motavian desert and landed with a thud. Chaz picked himself up, helping Gryz to his feet as well.

"Fenlye!" he shouted, "take your brother and sister into the cave and wait for us. You'll be safe from the sandworms there!" Fenlye herded his siblings together and quickly did as Chaz instructed, removing themselves from harm's way. "Now," the Hunter spoke to his companion, placing a hand on his shoulder, "let's lead the worms away from here and double back." Gryz nodded, still a little stunned by their foe's sudden attack. "Let's go!" And with that, they took off running.

The sandworms were in close pursuit, still above ground, which gave Chaz and Gryz a small advantage. Sandworms were not as fast while travelling above ground compared to travelling beneath it. They did not know why, but chose not to complain. Like serpents that swam in a sea of water, they swam fluidly through a sea of sand. Chaz was having difficulty keeping enough distance between them, but as he ran he was given an opportunity, albeit a brief one, to mull through those strange memories that came to him in a rush earlier.

Chaz and Gryz ran til their legs could barely carry them, and then ran still. The Hunter began to wonder if his plan to double back was feasible because at that point, it did not seem so at all. Fatigue began to hinder their progress; Chaz was on the verge of collapse. His eyes began playing tricks on him, or so it seemed. Off in the distance he saw a faint outline of something large heading toward them, but it too vague to actually be something other than a mirage. Still, it did not fade as time went by and they got closer to it. Gryz, his eyes more accustomed to Motavia's bright sunlight, saw that it was, indeed, something of importance.

"Landrover!"

Chaz's head perked up as did his spirits. There was still a chance, if they could get to it. He was sure the operators would be more than happy to use the landrover's weapons against two sandworms. That was, of course, given they could reach it before the sandworms reached them. Even though each step strained every muscle, they could not stop -- the Nance children's lives depended on their success.

One sandworm disappeared beneath the sand where it could not be seen. Gryz glanced over his shoulder and noticed its absence. "Chaz!" the Motavian huffed, "b -- brace yourself!" Not knowing why but implicitly trusting his friend, Chaz did as he was told and prepared to take a defensive posture. Without warning, the sandworm struck, coming up from underneath their feet. Chaz and Gryz cried out in horror as they were thrown over fifty feet into the air, tumbling head-over-heals. They both landed safely enough without injury and immediately continued on their predetermined path.

Hunter and Motavian finally reached the landrover, or rather it reached them. Stopping practically at their feet, they began pounding on its hull, yelling, begging to be let inside. Only one sandworm remained above ground which meant the other was probably lurking somewhere under their feet. Looking to each other and seeing that same thought reflected in the other's eyes, they began pounding even harder. Fate was staring deeply into the back of their heads so they turned to face it. Chaz saw the one remaining infant worm from their previous battle leap out of its element, intent on throwing itself bodily onto them.

Then he saw it, a phenomenon unlike no other but one extremely familiar to him. Before his eyes, Chaz saw the air between him and the infant compress, becoming extremely dense and forming a protective shield. The infant worm collided with it, and bounced back, stunned. Chaz recognized this peculiar phenomenon as the Deban Technique, and knew of only one person on Motavia who was capable of using it.

"Rika!"

A hatch atop the landrover popped open and Rika's familiar pointy ears and smile emerged. "Hi, Honey!" Chaz gladly returned her smile and waved violently at her. "You'll never guess who stopped in!"

"Later, Dear," her husband requested, "right now, could you use the landrover's cannons to take care of our little problem?" Rika lifted her gaze and panicked as she saw a sandworm closing in on them fast. She disappeared for a moment, then several rounds of concussive blasts fired out of her vehicle's turrets. They found their mark with deadly accuracy, penetrating the worm's thick hide and exploding within. It dropped dead, a lifeless husk.

Rika reappeared at the hatch and was about to disembark when Chaz stopped her. "Wait!" he ordered, "there's still that infant and another adult out there somewhere!" Then, as if it knew it was being spoken about, the second worm emerged from its sandy depths. It could not see its companion, but was completely aware of its demise, and was prepared to vent its fury. Chaz could have sworn that it was lamenting over the loss of its companion and almost felt guilty for having been the cause. His survival was at stake, too, but took little comfort in that fact.

Their mortal enemy bellowed hideously, frightening everyone within its presence. Tentacles struck out at the landrover, creating massive dents in its hull, knocking Rika clear out of the porthole. She righted herself, then gasped in terror as the sandworm began to slowly sink back into its element, spraying sand upward in a glorious fountain. "No!" the Numan screamed, "it's going to create a landquake! Everybody back inside the rover!"

But Chaz knew as well as his wife did that the landrover would provide little protection against a quake of immense magnitude that a sandworm could generate. The Hunter realized that their lives were in his hands, as was their blood if he failed. Those memories, those painful, yet wonderful memories which assaulted him earlier came to him again, this time more clearly, more succinct. Raising a hand, Chaz felt a spark generated somewhere within his mind travel into his body, collect strength directly from his soul, and shoot up his arm. A brief, ephemeral swirling of white light projected from his hand and within a fraction of a second, manifested itself physically in the form of a writhing column of wind.

Chaz's Nazan Technique used the incredible crushing power of centrifugal forces contained within a funnel as a weapon, or to simply displace objects such as water or in this case, sand. By mentally placing the vortex directly over his target, he was able to suck sand out from beneath the sandworm faster than it could descend, but only to a certain point. His strength was already deteriorating and the sandworm was not about to give up anytime soon. Every muscle in his body began to ache, the extended use of Nazan calling upon reserves he did not know he had.

With his last ounce of strength, Chaz closed his eyes and concentrated intensely on keeping his foe from descending. Gryz saw creases of strain emerge on the Hunter's face along with beads of sweat that streamed down it. Never before had he seen Chaz maintain a single Technique for so long and admired his tenacity.

All of the sudden, something changed. Gryz noticed that the air all around him began to cool, the temperature dropping rapidly. Chaz's vortex took on a light blue tinge and began spewing out orbs of blue light along with snow and ice. The Motavian knew that Blizzard was a combination of two Techniques -- Nazan and Nawat -- but Chaz was incapable of using any of the Wat Techniques, which rapidly cooled air with mystical arcs of energy. Gryz veered around to face the landrover, hoping to discover the source. There, with her head sticking out of the hatch, was Pana, her Motavian eyes fixated on the spectacle before her.

Pana? he thought.

But then he saw someone else, a man with short brown hair standing above her with his arm extended. When Gryz saw his hand enveloped in an eerie blue aura, he knew the man as the source. Upon further examination, the Motavian realized that he knew the man as well.

"Hahn!"

Gryz knew Hahn Larsson almost as well as his own sister, having travelled with him for a time, developing a close relationship. He was well versed in Technique usage and had an impressive arsenal of Skills as well. What made Hahn most valuable was his knowledge of Algolian history and beyond that, his devotion as a friend.

Ice and wind continued to swirl around, dropping the ambient temperature. Since it was not homeothermic and was not accustomed to such cold extremes, the sandworm was unable to function and collapsed. Chaz and Hahn maintained their attack for a few seconds longer, then stopped. Chaz, exhausted beyond words, collapsed just as his foe did. Rika rushed to her husband's side, gently cradling his head in her arms. "Oh, Chaz, I'm so proud of you!" she whispered softly in his ear, running her fingers through his blond hair. Gryz helped Pana from the landrover and together they approached Husband and Wife.

"I'm impressed," Gryz said. "I knew you still had it in you, Buddy!" The Hunter opened his eyes and smiled weakly. Had he been around strangers, he would never have been caught lying helplessly, but since he was among his best friends, it mattered little. Considering what happened, he was just glad to be alive.

"H -- Hahn," Chaz breathed. Instantly, the scholar was at his side.

Hahn was dressed in a white overcoat and looked like he should be working out of a laboratory. He wore black trousers and boots that came almost to his knees. Although he was twenty-seven, there was youth in his visage and he did not look a day over twenty-one. As a scholar, he possessed extensive knowledge of many things, but nothing more so than biological life forms. Many of his Techniques were based on that knowledge, their effects ranging anywhere from paralysis to death. Vol and its counterpart, Savol, for example, destroyed an organism's central nervous system, causing instantaneous death. Hahn was invaluable when confronting Motavia's many dangerous forms of life.

Chaz weakly raised a hand to Hahn who clasped his hands tightly around his friend's. Thank you, he mouthed. This one motion said more than any amount of words could and not just between them, but to everybody looking on as well. As they gazed deeply into one another's eyes, they exchanged a lifetime of experiences reflected in them -- their meeting at Motavia Academy in Piata, saving Hahn's friend and mentor Professor Holt in Zema, battling Zio, the loss of a common friend -- but what cinched their friendship was how Hahn cared for Alys in her final hours. Had she not been made comfortable then Chaz would never have gone and found Rune in Ladea Tower and finished his quest. The Hunter trusted his friend, however, and he did not betray his trust. Alys passed on in the company of friends and with minimal amount of discomfort.

Rika and Hahn carefully lifted Chaz up and walked him over to the landrover where they could take refuge in its shadow. Pana scurried back into the vehicle and retrieved two canteens, handing one to her brother, the other to Chaz, and both gulped their contents down feverishly. Thirst quenched, the Hunter felt his voice begin to return. "Fenlye, Jan, and Bjorn," he spoke hoarsely, "we left them in the caves. We have to go back and get them."

"We will, Chaz," said Rika, "but first you have to rest."

"No!" her husband protested, struggling to return to his feet, "I don't know if it's safe in there for them! We have to go -- now!" Reluctantly, Rika conceded, giving in to her husband's wish. With Gryz and Hahn's assistance, she managed to lift him into the landrover and strap him securely into a seat. Once everybody was inside, she put the landrover into gear and headed toward their destination.

Fenlye, Jan, and Bjorn heard Chaz and Rika's landrover approaching from almost half a mile away, though they did not know who was driving it. Any vehicular sounds meant safety from the wilderness and they could not risk missing anyone who happened to be passing by. Fenlye would not allow his siblings to venture too far out from their refuge for fear of more sandworms lurking around. As it got closer, he began to notice distinguishing markings, markings that helped identify who the vehicle belonged to. Also, there was a figure standing out of the hatch apparently searching for something or somebody. The man had short brown hair and wore a white overcoat and was shouting out some names.

Their names!

Excited beyond words that their rescue was finally at hand, Fenlye led his brother and sister out into the burning desert. Unbeknownst to them, however, there was an infant worm lying in wait for an opportunity to strike. Once the children left their refuge, it sprung its trap, leaping out of the sand. Luckily for them, their would-be saviors were near enough to see this event unfold. Hahn, seeing the children's dangerous situation, raised a hand and concentrated. A strange light seemed to swirl into his hand and then shot out at the infant worm. It dropped lifelessly as soon as Hahn's Vol Technique entered its body, totally annihilating the nervous system.

When Rika reached the children, she parked her landrover and Hahn disembarked. He hopped out and handed Fenlye, Jan, and Bjorn to Gryz who lowered them inside. Once they were secure and the scholar returned, Rika shifted her vehicle into overdrive and they headed back to Aiedo.

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