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Child Of Darkness

Chapter Eight

"Fenlye, Jan, Bjorn!" Karl Nance cried the moment his children ran through the door of his home, tears streaming down his face. He gathered them in his arms and held them tightly.

"Karl?" a voice called out from the kitchen, "Karl? What's going on out --" Lily gasped as she walked in, dropping the two glasses of water she carried. "Oh, Jan, Bjorn, Fenlye! My children!" The children's mother rushed in and embraced each and every one. "Who --" At that moment, Chaz, Rika, and their companions entered Karl and Lily Nance's home. "Chaz! Chaz Ashley! Do we have you to thank for returning our young ones?"

Modestly, Chaz nodded. "With the help of my friends."

Karl stood from where he was holding his children and walked over to Chaz, clutching the Hunter's hands in his and shaking it eagerly. "I --" he stuttered, "I don't know how to thank you for what you've done. All of you." He continued down the line of people and shook all of their hands, giving Rika and Pana an extra hug. "What you've given, or rather, given back to me, is the greatest gift anyone could have given anyone. Words cannot express my gratitude." Karl was a thirty-three year-old man who lived in Aiedo ever since he and Lily married almost fifteen years ago. He had black hair with a moustache and beard to match it, all perfectly groomed. When he was younger, he had wished to be a Hunter and almost went under Alys' tutelage, but an injury to his knee prevented it and shattered his dream. Now, he worked as a cook in one of Aiedo's few restaurants.

Lily also worked at that same restaurant, but as a waitress. There, she and her husband worked side-by-side, partners in both work and life. She was originally from the small community located on the island of Uzo where she lived a silent, if somewhat sheltered life. She had long brown hair which she wore up in a bun at times and beautiful blue eyes which were the envy of many of Aiedo's female population. Her three children were her most precious possessions. Like any parent, Lily would give her life for them.

"Please wait here while I go and get something," Karl said as he left the room.

"He's a very proud man," Lily spoke to her guests. "Please don't take his abruptness as being rude, it's just that he was upset because he wasn't able to go out and find our young ones for himself. Ever since his knee injury -- well, he hasn't made as much as he originally planned to as a Hunter. Not that it matters now, as you know very well, Chaz."

Karl returned to his living quarters carrying a piece of paper. He took one last look at it, making sure nothing was out of order, and presented it to Chaz. "Please accept this . . . it's a debit. Take it to the repository and they will withdraw the amount I've indicated. I -- I know that we offered twenty thousand meseta for our children's return, but five thousand is all we can give right now. We'll make payments, that I promise you." Chaz took the debit from Karl and quickly turned to leave. He looked at it, fingered Karl's writing which was rough, written in haste.

"Karl," Chaz addressed him as he turned around, "I . . . we can't accept this." The Hunter handed his debit back to Karl, who looked puzzled.

"But, Chaz, you have to! It's the least we can do to repay your kindness. If you don't take it, I'll feel indebted to you, and -- well, I can't pay off debts as easily as I used to."

"Don't sweat it, my friend," Chaz placed a hand on Karl's shoulder, "think of bringing your children home as my repayment to you. This opportunity to once again leave Aiedo's boundaries has given my more than you'll ever know." The Hunter saw Fenlye approaching out of the corner of his eye. "Now, Fenlye, don't forget to practice that Crosscut Skill I've been trying to teach you." Fenlye smiled and nodded, running into his bedroom. "I've regained so much of what I've lost over the past few months," Chaz spoke to Karl again, "and for that I owe you my gratitude. You have your children back, I have part of my life back. I'd say that's a fair exchange."

Lily approached Chaz and kissed him softly on his cheek, then took him in a warm embrace. "You are truly a gift from the Light itself. Bless you, Chaz Ashley. Bless you."

Chaz, Rika, and the others made their way back to the Ashley's residence and entered quietly. As he usually did, the Hunter threw his pack on the floor and leaned his sword against the wall. He sat on a large piece of furniture and sank into its comfort, inviting everyone to do the same, all but his wife who stood in vile defiance of his actions. "Chaz, dear," Rika spoke with scorn, "if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times -- put your sword away!" Reluctantly, Chaz did as he was told, not wanting to get on his wife's nerves. The Hunter retrieved his weapon and left the room. Rika took his place on the furniture. Pana and Hahn sat on either side of her while Gryz took a seat adjacent to them.

"So," Gryz spoke, "what made you decide to come out looking for us?"

"Well," answered Rika, "Hahn arrived in Aiedo just half a day after you and Chaz left."

"Yes," Hahn jumped in, wanting to explain his arrival for himself. "Actually, I was on my way to visit you and Pana and I wired Molcum to see if you would be there. I got a response saying that you had already left to visit Chaz and Rika here, so I thought, 'What the hey -- I might as well visit them, too. That way, I'd kill two monster flies with one stone, since my next trip was planned for Aiedo anyway."

"So, what have you been up to lately?" Just then, Chaz reentered the room, disconcerted that his wife took his seat on the more comfortable piece of furniture. He sat next to Gryz who was engaged in conversation with Hahn.

"Not much," the scholar returned, taking notice of Chaz's entry, nodding his head slightly. "My fiancee and I continue to teach school in Krup. We still aren't married, though I thought we'd follow in Chaz and Rika's footsteps. I got a letter from the Academy offering me a position there as an assistant professor and I'm seriously considering taking it. Lately, we've run into sort of a financial crisis --"

"Haven't we all?" commented Chaz.

"My point exactly. You see, it's not that Krup doesn't have citizens, it's just that they're not having children anymore. With the climate the way it is, it's getting harder and harder to provide, no matter how much meseta you make. People are starting to fear that their children will grow up without food. The situation is getting dire, indeed." Everyone sat silent for a few moments, exchanging glances with each other, some puzzled, others understanding.

"Now that you mention it," Chaz said, "I have noticed a considerable decline in the number of newborns even here in Aiedo. I don't think it's isolated to Krup alone. I'm willing to bet that it's happening everywhere." Pana and Gryz shrugged their shoulders, their thoughts one and the same.

"That's funny," Gryz interjected, "in Molcum and Tonoe, there has been an increase in new births. We're not experiencing any hardships at all."

"Yeah, but Gryz," the Hunter spoke again, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder, "the Motavians are genetically adapted to thrive in a hot climate and have been for countless millennia. Of course your people would prosper in having Motavia revert to its original climate."

"When Mother Brain came into power," added Rika, "she transformed this planet into a habitable place for Palmans, but fortunately you and your people were able to adapt. Somewhere in your genes, and trust me, I know about genetics," she added with a smile, "lies a dormant code that is waiting for the climate to revert to its original state. Once it does, as it is doing now, I suspect that the code will become active again. You see, just because you adapted didn't mean you lost the innate ability to flourish under extreme environmental conditions. Now, had Mother Brain modified the climate to one like Dezoris', I'm sure you would have perished, just as we would have."

"Only now we will survive," Pana said with emphasis, "and the Palmans who live here will perish since they no longer have a planet to return to."

"That's about the size of it."

"It seems so unfair, especially since our people's relations have improved so much over the past century. Do you think the authorities know what's happening?"

"Oh, I have no doubt in my mind that they do. But what can they do about it? It would only cause panic and hopelessness among the people over something nobody can change. The extinction of the Palman race is inevitable."

"That's a sobering thought," Hahn commented.

"Do we have to talk about this now?" Chaz protested. "Come on, if we're all going to die soon, why don't we make the most of our time together. It's been almost a year since we've talked and all we can talk about now is death and destruction. Let's celebrate life, not condone it."

"Speaking of life," Rika said, "I'm very proud of what you did at the Nance's, how you didn't accept their meseta. It would have been all too easy to just walk out and not turn back, but you didn't. We really could have used it, but it was better off in someone else's hands, especially since they have three children to provide for and we have none. It's times like that when I feel privileged to be married to you." Chaz felt blood rush into his face and realized he was flushed. He really hated when Rika made mushy sentiments around his friends because it made him feel vulnerable. Hahn saw his friend in distress and came to his rescue.

"You know, if I take that position at the Academy, it'll open entirely new doors for me. Up until now I've only taught on a primary level of education and haven't been able to truly exploit my knowledge. At a University level, though, I'll be faced with new challenges that will push me to my limits. That is the opportunity I've been waiting for, to go beyond just being Hahn Larsson and really make a difference. I don't know how Saya will take it, though. I haven't told her yet because I know how much she loves life in a small town, how much she loves Krup and especially her school children. I don't want to break her heart, but if this is my big chance I have to take it. Part of the reason I left Krup for the Academy to study under Professor Holt in the first place was because I was tired of small-town life. There's just no room to expand my knowledge there and I wanted to get away from my parents and our family business."

"Don't burn all your bridges, Hahn," Pana advised. "One of these days you'll long for the comfort that family can offer."

"That's all fine and dandy, Pana, but I have two families -- one in Krup, and the other right here in this room. It's all the family anyone could ever want."

* * * * *

Two days passed since Chaz, Gryz, and company rescued the Nance children from their fate. Gryz, Pana, and Hahn were welcomed guests at the Ashley's home for they provided much needed conversation, lightening spirits. Pana and Rika enjoyed staying at home conversing about life and such things. Chaz, Gryz, and Hahn, on the other hand, liked to roam around Aiedo in search of anything that would keep them occupied.

What they found themselves doing was odd jobs for neighbors ranging from helping the elderly to the market to locating and retrieving lost children who had wandered off somewhere into town. Making profit from these small jobs was not their primary concern, they were just happy to spend time with each other.

When there was time to rest, Chaz led his companions to the local tavern where they could kick back and drink down a few refreshments. Aiedo's tavern was a local gathering area, where adults of all races and creeds could meet with friends and forget all of life's worries. Lately it had been emptier than normal, no one able to spare any time to relax. The once bubbling atmosphere was reduced to one that was desperately drowning.

The three friends entered the establishment and seated themselves, not a single employee offering to do so. It was apparent that there was a substantial lacking in hired help, a lone bartender and waitress working up front, a single cook working in back. Only two other tables were occupied compared to the dozens that would be in prosperous times and a single man sat alone at the bar. The waitress finally approached them, taking an order for three glasses of water. She seemed offended they did not order more and turned her back quickly, heading for the bar. Two men stood up from their table and exited the establishment, not bothering to leave a gratuity.

"That was rude," Hahn observed. Their waitress returned and served three glasses as ordered, sloppily placing them before her customers, spilling a portion of their contents and leaving them at that. "That was rude, too." The scholar lifted his glass and took a long drink. "I remember when this place was teeming with activity; there was never a dull moment. Now look at it -- barren as Motavia's deserts. I suppose it may have something to do with the fact that our evaporative cooling systems aren't working as efficiently as they used to. It's hard to cool buildings when there's no water to do it with."

"I feel so bad," Gryz said, "I know you two are suffering from this heat, but I'm honestly not bothered by it."

"Don't feel guilty, there's nothing you can do about it. It's not your fault we were born naked." Gryz chuckled, as did Chaz.

"Yes, but I stand to lose two of my best friends."

"Not in any of our lifetimes," Chaz commented as he finished a drink.

"Aren't we being a little narrowminded. If not for us, what about our children? Surely you've considered what condition our world will be in by the time they're our ages." Hahn and Chaz shot troubled glances at each other and saw the same answer reflected in the other's eyes.

"I'm not having children."

"Neither am I," Hahn agreed.

"How can you say that?" Gryz questioned, surprised at his friends' responses. Have you discussed this with Rika and Saya? What do they have to say?" Feeling ashamed, Hahn and Chaz shrugged their shoulders and averted their gaze from the Motavian's. "That's what I thought. When I find someone who is right for me, I'll definitely want to have children. I was hoping all of our children would have an opportunity to grow up together. I don't understand how can you make such a decision without discussing it with them first? That's about the most selfish thing you can do to them."

"Look, Gryz," said Chaz, irritation in his voice, "first you point out that our children and our children's children are going to be left in a barren world with nothing left for them, then you condemn us for not wanting to procreate? It's not your people who are facing extinction within the next fifty years or so."

"I -- I apologize," Gryz stuttered, "I should have thought about what I was going to say before I said it." Chaz reached over and patted the back of his hand.

"Don't worry about it. That's a part of you we've all learned to like, you just have to work on your tact."

"Besides," Hahn interjected, "you're right, we should discuss this with Rika and Saya before any concrete decisions are made. After all, it does normally take two people to make a baby, right? It's only fair that the decision be made by those two people." The waitress came back to their table and refilled their glasses, spilling more of the precious liquid in the process, then left. "I'm really getting sick of her attitude." Chaz tore off a piece of the paper tablecloth and rolled it into a ball. Placing it between his thumb and index finger, he aimed carefully and flicked it at Hahn, hitting him squarely across his forehead. The scholar was startled, looking around for the source of whatever hit him, which caused Chaz to break out in a giggle. Half-peeved, half-amused, Hahn stood up and glared threateningly at the person seated across from him.

"I think we should go back and hang out with ladies for awhile," suggested Gryz, "there's not much happening here anyway." Chaz reached into his pocket and took out a few meseta to pay for their drinks.

"I agree," the Hunter chuckled, holding Hahn's glare, then bolted outside, the scholar in close tow. Gryz shook his head and chuckled himself, picked up the gratuity for their ruthless waitress, then ran out after his friends.

Rika and Pana travelled up and down Aiedo's streets near the Ashley's home in deep thought. Having grown tired of staying inside, they decided to get out and enjoy a brisk walk. They walked by the old Hunter's Guild buildings which were enclosed by walls, making it sort of a city within a city. There was nothing for vandals to take left, so the Guild's founders left every door open, a reminder to anyone who wandered in of its former greatness. They wanted to let the people remember that their doors were always open to those who were willing -- willing to sacrifice their life in the public's interest. Many considered Hunters leaches of society, but most knew they were performing a public service. Just because they profited from their efforts did not make them malicious.

Rika led Pana into the main building where they each took a seat at a table. Rika brushed dust off of it, which put her in respiratory distress, making her sneeze and cough. Pana was unaffected by it. "I can't believe that just a year ago this was the busiest place in Aiedo," Rika said to her Motavian friend. "I guess now only vermin inhabit this place." Pana took a moment to observe her surroundings. They were in an area of the guild which served as sort of a restaurant/tavern for Hunters in-between jobs. There they could relax for a bit and exchange stories and compliments with fellow Hunters while enjoying a hot meal. Located in the southeast corner of the building, it was the largest room and could accommodate approximately thirty individuals.

"I've never actually been inside this building," Pana said, "but I can see by the size of this dining hall that it was probably just the way you described it."

"It was grand, indeed, Pana. I admit that I don't know many people, but of those I do, I've never known such a closely knit sect as the Hunters. I would even go as far as to say that it was a brotherhood/sisterhood type of bonding."

"Tell me a little about them, Rika."

"Well, there's so much to tell. Outside of Chaz, I really only knew a few because of my short time on this planet. What I can tell you is that they were a fiercely devoted people, devoted to their people as well as their profession. As leaders go, they really didn't have any. Sure, the more accomplished Hunters were looked upon fondly and with reverence, just as Alys was, but nobody ever dictated how a Hunter should act or set guidelines or laws. There was a common knowledge shared between each and every one of them that became a universally accepted etiquette.

"For example: If a Hunter accepted a particularly difficult job, no one offered to help him or her unless that Hunter asked for it. To do otherwise would suggest that the Hunter was weak and incapable of accomplishing a task himself. If the Hunter asked for help, however, it became an honor and unless the other had a previous obligation, he had to accept, and all profits were evenly dispersed. Another more extreme example would be in the case of a Hunter stealing another's assignment for personal profit. Hunters were never, under any circumstances, allowed to take another's job unless he or she was asked to because of an injury or death. To do so would mean the thief's life would be under the jurisdiction of whoever he stole an assignment from. In the event of a death, a replacement Hunter was obliged to give half of his profit to the decedent's family."

"And there was absolutely no one person or governing group of individuals that enforced these ideals?" Pana inquired.

"None. It was an honor system; they were all bound by honor to live and abide by a code. To make a long story short, it was that code which prevented antisocial behavior and kept them in line. Anyone foolish enough to break the code was subject to banishment from the Guild and was lucky if he or she stayed alive. I guess in a way they were governed, not by a single person, but by a single ideal." Pana tapped her beak in deep thought, her eyes wandering in all directions.

"The Hunter's Guild was open to all people, right?" Pana queried. "Regardless of race or species?" Rika seemed puzzled by her question and was in a quandary for an instant.

"Of course, Pana. The Hunter's Guild was completely indiscriminate."

"I know not a single Motavian has ever approached the Guild for membership, but I think Gryz would have made a good Hunter. He always admired Chaz for the status he possessed within their ranks. He often talked about moving up here and getting a job as one, but he was afraid he'd be rejected. Gryz didn't want to be the first Motavian to possess Hunter status because he said he'd feel like a laboratory animal being observed by an entire planet. Can't say I blame him, but I would have been very proud if he did end up a Hunter.

"I agree completely," Rika told her friend. "Gryz possesses four of the most important qualities essential to a Hunter -- he's honest, he's devoted, he's good with a weapon, but most of all, he has a heart of gold. There's no doubt in my mind that he would have excelled at the profession, and Chaz would've been ecstatic to have him around."

"Chaz -- he's quite a guy. I know he loves you, I can see it in his eyes. The way he dotes on you is endearing. It's the kind of love I've always dreamed of having with someone, but never had. You're lucky you have him."

"Oh, Pana, don't despair! Trust me, if there's a Chaz out there for me, there's definitely one out there for you, too! And besides, you're still very young. You have plenty of time to find the right person." Rika reached over and patted Pana on her hand. She smiled weakly at her friend, failing to make eye contact. It was no secret that Pana had many loves in her life, but very few were Motavian, and they were more crushes than actual loves. Most of her crushes were on Palman men who unintentionally broke her heart when they expressed that they did not want to have an inter-specie relationship. Rika also was very much aware that Pana had an bad crush on her husband, but she did not mind. Chaz was the only Palman man that had ever treated her like an individual instead of just another Motavian, and she appreciated him because of it. Deep down inside Pana was a marvelous soul who yearned to be loved. Whoever was lucky enough to delve deep enough and find it for himself would discover a great treasure, indeed.

"Come on," Rika announced, "let's get back to the house."

"Do you think the guys have made it back yet?" inquired her friend. "I think I'd like to go back now anyways. This place is beginning to give me the creeps."

"Well, there's only one way to find out." Rika and Pana stood from their seats and made their way to the nearest exit. The Numan could not help but feel bad for her companion. Still so young and already she worried about love, so much that she let it bring her down. Rika never experienced adolescence in the manner that others did; consequently, she was unable to provide Pana the comfort she needed because she could not empathize. What Pana was looking for was exactly that -- someone who went through what she was currently experiencing. But Rika could only imagine what it felt like to love so many and be rejected by all, for she married her first and only love. There was really nothing she could do to mend her broken heart, a heart that had been shattered many times. Rika thought talking to Gryz might help, but then thought better of it. Pana reached out to her for a reason, probably because she felt comfortable around her. She sensed trust emanating in her direction, and she was not going to betray that trust.

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