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Chapter One

Space Century 361.98

"C'mon, Alys," the trainee (er, make that, as of today, full-fledged) Hunter Chaz Ashley called over his shoulder to his partner and mentor, Alys Brangwin. "Let's take a look at all these books."

Chaz and Alys were in the Motavia Academy, located in Piata, the Town of Learning. The awesome feelings Chaz felt at finally being a full-scale Hunter were overshadowed only by his feelings of wonder as he gazed around him at the Academy itself: the books, the rooms, the desks, the telescope he'd seen down the hall, and even the students themselves.

He had been raised on the streets, and so as much as he wanted to, there was no way he'd ever had the Meseta necessary to attend the Academy. But now, today, he was beginning a new life -- the life of a Hunter. The extremely high-paying life of a Hunter, that is. Maybe I can do this Hunter stuff for a few years, save up some Meseta, Chaz thought, and then come here and attend the Academy. I think I'm smart enough to make it.

"There's so many of them in this place!" Chaz exclaimed as he stepped into a small study room. The room itself housed a few tables and three book racks, each crammed with thick volumes. "Have you ever seen this many books in one place before?" he asked. When he received no answer, he turned around to see Alys leaning against the room's doorway, arms folded across her chest, her eyes boring into him with a look of total disapproval.

"We have work to do here, Chaz," she grumbled softly. "We don't have time to sit around and gawk and dusty, moldy old... books." She spoke the last part of her sentence as if the word itself was as dusty and moldy as the works on the shelves. All she cares about is her weapons, Chaz shook his head before promptly stepping further into the room, ignoring Alys's words and the exasperated sigh his new action prompted.

"Hello, sir," Chaz smiled to a hunched-over, white-haired old man who peered at the text of a book through his bifocal lenses. "What are you reading?"

"Oh!" the man jumped upon hearing Chaz's greeting. "You startled me, young man. As for your question, I'm reading about our planet's history."

"What kind of history?" Chaz asked, excited at the prospect of learning. "Stuff about what Motavia was like when I was born?"

"Oh no, much farther back than that," the professor smiled, removing his bifocals. "You look to be no more than 15--"

"I'm 16!" Chaz replied harshly.

"Nevertheless," the professor continued, "I'm reading about events which took place on Motavia between the years AW 1286 and 1288, though in some places they call this period, err..." He replaced his glasses and checked his text, then again lowered his lenses from his eyes. "Space Century 352.00 through 352.02."

"AW 1286?" Chaz repeated. "That's almost 1,000 years ago!"

"Indeed," the professor nodded. "Nine-hundred ninety-eight, to be precise."

"Chaz..." Alys called from the doorway. Her tone was not getting any more pleasant.

Chaz dismissed her with a wave, then returned to his conversation with the professor. "So what was life like 1,000 years ago?" the young Hunter asked. "Was it pretty much like life today?"

"Oh no, not at all!" the professor exclaimed, slamming his book shut and replacing it on the shelf. As he dived into his speech about Motavia's history, the professor's tone quickly grew more and more jovial. The subject matter obviously excited him. "Civilization was highly advanced back then! We know very little about the time, but we do know that there were many electronic devices called computers, and they were all linked together somehow by a giant computer that controlled every aspect of our lives. Through Mother Brain, as it was called, miraculous things were made very possible. Tell me something, mister...?"

"Ashley. Chaz Ashley."

"Mister Ashley, how would you like to be able to travel half-way across Motavia--" He snapped his fingers. "--in the blink of an eye?"

"That's impossible!"

"Not with Mother Brain, it wasn't. With Mother Brain, we could even travel amongst the stars, and visit the distant Dezolis, as well as the sparkling jewel Parma!"

"P...Parma?" Chaz repeated, trying out the unfamilar word.

"Chaz Ashley?" Alys called from gritted teeth. "Or should I say, former Hunter Chaz Ashley?"

"In a minute," Chaz called to her.

"Parma was another planet here in the Algo system," the professor explained. "It floated in space between Motavia and Dezolis."

"Wow," was all Chaz could manage to whisper. Then, the big question came to mind. If all this magic really existed... "What happened?"

The professor shook his head. "We don't know very much. All we do know is that a thousand years ago, our society was thrown into confusion by the destruction of Mother Brain. After that, Motavia sustained a direct hit by a fragment of the exploding planet Parma."

"It exploded?" Chaz asked, stunned.

"Yes, but we don't know why!" the professor answered. "And from all that we can tell, the fragment which collided with Motavia did not strike until about two years after the planet's explosion! When that happened, our civilization was almost destroyed. We lost everything. This entire chain of events -- the explosion of Parma, the destruction of Mother Brain, and finally, Motavia's collision with the fragment of Parma... We call this 'The Great Collapse.'"

Again, Chaz found that all he could say was, "Wow..." Then, after a pause. "Wait a minute. Why did it take two years for the fragment to strike Motavia?"

"You mean what ultimately brought about the Great Collapse?" the professor asked.

"Yeah," Chaz nodded. He wasn't finished, either. "And if Parma was between Motavia and Dezolis, well then... when the planet exploded, why wasn't Dezolis hit, too?"

"Mister Ashley, historians such as myself have been asking each other those questions and many others for a long time. We don't have any answers, but we will, however, be discussing theories in class near the middle of the semester."

"Oh, well," Chaz shrugged, "I don't go to the Academy."

"Oh," the professor replied, as if suddenly embarrassed that he had gone on at such lengths. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you weren't students."

Plural? "Students?" Chaz repeated. It was then that he felt the tap on his shoulder.

He turned around to see Alys standing right behind him. Again folding her arms across her chest, one look at her face told Chaz that she was not in a very happy mood. "Uhh, Alys..."

"Don't 'Uhh Alys' me," the elder Hunter mocked, grabbing Chaz by the neck of his shirt. "First you get lost, then you start having conversations with old geezers who don't have anything better to do than sit around and think all day. Meanwhile, we have work to do. We have to go see the principal. Besides, you spend too much time in here with these books, your brain's liable to turn into mush."

As they reached the doorway, Chaz turned to wave good-bye to the history professor, but before he could, Alys, who still gripped his shirt, tossed him playfully out into the hall. He almost tripped but quickly he regained his footing and fell into step beside her. "Alys," he asked seriously, "do you ever wonder what could have brought about the Great Collapse?"

Alys shot him a harsh look. "Oh yeah, all the time," she replied sarcastically. "Tell me, genius, how is thinking about that going to help you to take down a sandworm, huh?"

"I was just wondering, that's all," Chaz shrugged. "We used to be able to fly amongst the stars."

"Well I suggest you get your head out of the stars and back down to Motavia. We have an assignment to take care of."

With that, the issue was dropped and the two of them proceeded to the principal's office, and Chaz's question remained unanswered. It was not an easy question, at that; as the professor had said, a definitive answer eluded all historians. In fact, there was probably only one person -- no, one being -- in all of Algo who could have effectively answered it.

Chaz Ashley would be meeting him soon enough, but if Le Roof had been there at Motavia Academy rather than on the distant planet Rykros at that moment, he might have said, "What ultimately brought about the Great Collapse? It is a long story, but it began when a very old man--

- - - - - - - - - -

Space Century 352.01

--stared out the window of his castle at the asteroid field that surrounded his home, and farther than that, into outer space, in which the castle floated. Far in the distance, he saw an explosion he still considered large, despite the fact that it had occurred across the solar system. The man did not care that the explosion was actually the final, complete destruction of the starship Noah, which, until recently, had been used by the "religious" aliens who had visi ted Algo, and even more recently, by some Dezorian (as green as the others) to serve as the headquarters ship for something he called a New Order. And the man who stood in the castle, completely devoid of all life save for himself, did not so much as flinch, despite the explosion's size.

For he was Lassic, King of Algo, and he was afraid of nothing.

He watched as the massive explosion quickly died out, the oxygen needed to fuel its fire disappearing into the vacuum of space. A pity, Lassic thought to himself. I almost wish it would have lasted longer. It would at least serve as a distraction from this tedium. With a sigh, he instead turned from the window and started to walk across his large, elegant throne room towards the throne itself, which sat across the room on a high platform with a few short marble steps leading up to it. After but a few seconds, however, Lassic stopped, staring at the two torches which burned on either side of the throne. He didn't quite know what it was... but something...

With a shrug, he started to walk again, but after two more steps, he again paused. What is that noise? he questioned himself. It was something that sounded distant, hollow, and it stopped every time he stopped walking. It was nothing like the usual noise that haunted him--

(Pplunnnk!)

--but this noise disturbed him, nonetheless. For the third time, Lassic started towards his throne, and this time, he pinpointed the noise immediately.

It was the sound of his own footsteps on the floor of the throne room. The emptiness of the castle reverberated the sound over and over.

It was yet another reminder to Lassic that he was alone, that he had been alone for what seemed to him like a decade now. The empty castle, completely devoid of all life save himself (Not even Lusar is here to keep me company!), which was now, for some reason, floating in the middle of an asteroid field... it got to him. And the pain--

True, Lassic was not a man who was easily frightened. However, he was very easily annoyed. He was also a man filled with intense rage, and right now, he knew exactly who to direct that rage towards.

"This is your doing, isn't it?" he screamed aloud, hating the way his voice echoed and reechoed off the walls of the castle. The question reverberated until it was no more, and Lassic still had not received an answer. So, he screamed a demand. "Answer me!"

"It's what you wanted, Lassic, isn't it?" came a deep, raspy, grumbling voice from behind him. He turned around and there, floating near the window, was an apparition of some sort. It had a bony blue body (which was quite muscular in places), two yellow dots for eyes which glowed in the middle of deep black chasms, and, most notably, two enormous blue arms which seemed to reach out for him. "Wasn't that our deal?"

"Dark Force..." the awestruck king whispered.

"No," the apparition answered. "Your god is dead, Lassic. Meet your god."

"I... I don't understand," said Lassic hesitantly.

"I can not enter your dimension," "Dark Force" explained. "But since you live through my power, I can enter your mind, and I appear to you in this form because this is the easiest way for your mind to comprehend me."

"Who are you?" Lassic asked. "You say I live through your power, yet you tell me my god Dark Force is dead."

The ghost of the demon actually smiled at that. "You wouldn't understand, would you?" it grunted. "Dark Force is, was, and always shall be but a physical manifestation of a part of me, of my personality -- the only aspect of myself I am able to send into your dimension. I, King Lassic, am the Profound Darkness."

"And you say," Lassic continued after a beat, "that you are the one responsible for my return here to this empty castle... what... five years ago? Ten?"

"It has been only one," the Profound Darkness explained. "One year ago, the aliens who introduced me to you betrayed Dark Force -- betrayed me -- as I always thought they might. No matter. Soon afterwards, they were eliminated, though not nearly as slowly as I'd hoped they would be."

"It has been only one year since those four barged into my throne room with talk of the Triumvirate Pact?" Lassic whispered, trying to comprehend.

"No, you misunderstand," the Profound Darkness said impatiently. "It has been one year since you were brought back to life, one year since the dimensional seal was at its weakest. It has been one thousand one years since the incident you speak of."

Lassic doubled over as if he'd been hit in the stomach. It took a moment, but finally, he regained enough composure to start shaking his head and pacing his throne room. "That can't be..." he said softly. "I remember itall. One minute I was fighting them -- and I was winning -- and the next... there was--"

(Pplunnnk!)

"--a sound. A sound and... and pain, in my back. The next thing I knew, the castle was empty, it was floating in space, and I could not see Palma anywhere." He stopped pacing, spun on his heels, and again faced the Profound Darkness. "I have been alone ever since."

"You have been enjoying your reward for serving me well during the time of the last Opening, a millennium ago," the Profound Darkness nodded. "So tell me, how do you enjoy immortality?"

"This?" Lassic pointed at himself. "This is immortality?"

The Profound Darkness narrowed its eyes but did not say a word, so Lassic continued. "Oh no," he chuckled. "This is not immortality. This is torture!" Slowly, he began stepping towards the apparition, raising his hand to point an accusing finger at the demon. "You, Dark Force, or whoever the hell you are -- you screwed this up. I was supposed to receive immortal life, not unlimited pain."

"You have experienced some discomfort?" the Profound Darkness mocked.

The king stopped walking and stared at the Profound Darkness in disbelief. "Discomfort?" Lassic repeated. He paused for a moment...

And then he exploded.

"I can still feel the damn axe in my back! Every time I blink my eyes, I hear that noise--"

(Pplunnnk!)

"--and feel the blade cutting through my flesh from behind. I see that twit in front of me wailing about her dead brother! I see that damn cat leaping at my face, and that damn Esper waving his wand! I am all alone in this castle, and yet when I walk out the front door in search of company, I instantly find myself right here in my throne room. I can't leave! Oh yes," he growled, "I fulfilled my part of the bargain, but don't even try to suggest you've fulfilledyours, not until you take away this pain!"

"Pain?" the Profound Darkness muttered softly. Then, it clenched its fist, and when it did, Lassic learned a new meaning of the word.

He threw his head back and screamed at the ceiling high above, bellowing as a fist reached right inside his heart and squeezed it with all its massive strength. The king's arms and legs went numb instantly, and he fell to his knees, still screaming. His entire body shook with agony, and then, the force that felt like a fist around his heart started to turn, and he felt all his insides being twisted and pulled and oh god the agony!

After what seemed like an eternity, the pain disappeared, and Lassic collapsed. His face fell flat onto the throne room floor. He was breathing heavily, but he didn't want to, because his chest still hurt like hell and it was nothing but torment every time he inhaled or exhaled. And once the world returned to normal enough for him to realize what was going on around him, he looked up and saw the apparition was staring directly at him with pure evil in its glowing yellow eyes.

"I trust we are now clear as to who is in charge here, aren't we, Lassic?"

"Perfectly," he managed to spit out. After that, still gasping, he somehow managed to get to his feet.

"Good. Now, you were saying something about the price of immortality being too high for you, weren't you? You were saying you wanted to be free of this pain?"

"Yes."

Apparently, the apparition found that funny, as it started to laugh. "Lassic?" the Profound Darkness mocked. "Lassic, the man who fears nothing -- except death, of course -- actually rejecting immortality?"

"I am not rejecting immortality," Lassic clarified, doing his best to keep his impatience hidden. "I am merely rejecting the pain."

This drew another chuckle from the Profound Darkness. "They are one and the same."

"There must be a way," Lassic insisted.

At that, the Profound Darkness nodded. "All right, Lassic. Very well. I suppose we can make another deal. I will grant you immortality without the pain."

"What do I have to do?" Lassic asked with a sigh. He knew it would not come without a price.

"It's very simple, Lassic. You see, you're my 'Plan B,' if you will. As I said, I suspected the men from Earth might betray me, and so during the last Opening, when I sent a Dark Force into your dimension, I resurrected you, as well. You, Lassic, are my ticket out of my interdimensional prison."

"You speak of other dimensions," Lassic said. "You are trapped in one."

"Ah, the specimen shows some intelligence after all," the Profound Darkness smiled.

"How do I get you out?" Lassic went on, doing his best to ignore the insult (because he knew he could not ignore the pain if he didn't.)

"You don't get me anything," the Profound Darkness clarified. "What you do is destroy things for me. Three things, actually. First, there is a sword hidden somewhere deep within the place called Esper Mansion on Dezoris. You have seen the blade before. Alis Landale brought it with her the day she came into your throne room with Myau, Odin, and Noah."

"What of it?" Lassic grumbled, not wishing to relive the memory again.

"It is called Elsydeon. After Landale used it in her battle with you, she used it to slay one of my Dark Forces. During that battle, it took on magical properties. Somehow, it became capable of killing me. It is the only weapon which can kill me. It also now houses the souls of those they call 'Protectors.' That is, those who have been thorns in my side for far too long."

"You want me to destroy a sword which houses the soul of Alis Landale?" Lassic laughed. "That shall not be a mission, that shall be a pleasure."

"I'm glad you think so. Next, I want you to destroy another object that has been in your presence before. When Landale and her friends entered your throne room, they carried a small crystal known as the aero-prism. I want it destroyed. With it gone, much of the Protectors' magic will vanish, as well."

"What makes it so special?" Lassic asked.

"It is a piece of Rykros," the Profound Darkness replied, "the fourth planet of the Algo solar system."

"Fourth planet?"

The Profound Darkness nodded. "It was created by my mortal enemy, the Great Light, as a warning sign to the Protectors that the seal on my prison was growing weak. He gave a piece of the planet to each group of Desans, his hand-picked 'defenders of righteousness' to show them the way to Rykros, where they would battle with my Dark Forces.

"Two thousand years ago, however," the Profound Darkness began to grin, "we wiped out the Desans. The Motavian and Dezorian prisms were destroyed, but the Palman one remains. Take it into your fist and crush it."

Lassic nodded. "It will be done. And the final thing you want me to destroy?"

With a wide grin, the Profound Darkness answered, "Motavia itself."

Stunned, the king could not reply for a moment. Then, "The entire planet?"

"The Algo system itself is the seal on my prison," the Profound Darkness explained. "One year ago, the men you knew as alien priests destroyed Palma. Though they had already betrayed me, they had no idea how great a service they did me by turning the planet into the asteroid field your castle now resides in. During the next Opening, with Palma gone, I shall be able to send myself through and into your dimension, not just Dark Forces.

"But..." it continued, "if you destroy Motavia as well, I will not have to wait 1,000 years for the next Opening, I shall be able to free myself within a century. And if you can go on to destroy Dezoris..." The apparition smiled and laughed. "Then, my dear Lassic, the seal will be broken completely, and I will enter your dimension immediately and personally crush Rykros in the palm of my hand."

Lassic rubbed his chin as the Profound Darkness continued to laugh its evil laugh. When it finally stopped, he asked his question. "How am I to do all this by myself, especially considering I can not leave this castle?"

"A problem I have already solved. Step closer." The apparition beckoned him to approach. As he did so, its long, blue arms seemed to grow longer as it reached out towards him, as if it were going to meet him halfway.

Then, when Lassic was still several feet from the apparition, its hands were suddenly on the side of his head. Though it had no mass to its body, the demon's ghost-like hands managed to knock Lassic's helmet from his head and place its palms on either side of the dark king's face.

More pain then erupted through Lassic as the demon's claws -- despite being intangible -- managed to puncture his skull and dig directly into his brain.

The king roared in agony, though through his screams he sensed massive amounts of energy -- pure black energy -- pouring from the form of the Profound Darkness, into his skull, and then out into the throne room. The energy did not come in one steady stream but rather in a series of pulses, about one per second, and before long, Lassic found he could somehow sense that he was no longer alone in the throne room.

The energy transference went on for perhaps five minutes (to Lassic it seemed much longer) and when it was over, the Profound Darkness simply removed its hands from Lassic's head. The king instantly fell backwards to the floor, flat onto his back. In the process, he cracked his already agonized head hard on the marble floor. It took several minutes for Lassic to regain consciousness enough to open his eyes. After another handful of minutes, when Lassic finally climbed to his feet, he reached for his helmet and scepter... and that's when he saw the new arrivals.

Monsters -- hundreds of monsters, just standing at attention in his throne room, ready to act upon his every command. There were winged beasts which floated near the throne room's ceiling, and small scaly creatures which slid across the floor. There were insectoid creatures which snapped their pincers in anticipation of combat, and there were armored half-man half-horse beasts which stood at attention with glowing spears ready.

And at the front of the crowd stood three humanoid (or perhaps humanesque would be a better term) monsters with long bony arms, their bodies wrapped in flowing red robes. "Meet your army, Lassic," the Profound Darkness said from behind him. "And meet your lieutenants, as well. They are called Xe-A-Thouls. Give your orders to them, and they will see to it that your army carries them out."

"I am Xanon," the first X-A-Thoul addressed Lassic. Its voice was hollow and distant, yet unmistakably evil.

"I am Xarxas," the second spoke up. Its voice differed very little from Xanon's.

"And I am Xerik," the third answered. "We will command your army well, lord Lassic, and we will not fail you."

"Failure is a word unknown to Xe-A-Thouls," Xanon nodded.

"That's good to hear," Lassic nodded, pacing before the three monsters, all of whom stood in a line next to one another. "But there is one small problem." Without warning, Lassic swung his scepter around in an arc, connecting it squarely with Xerik's abdomen. The wizard grunted and bent over in pain, and when it did, Lassic grabbed it by the collar and hissed into its face. "I and no one else commands my army."

"I only meant--" Xerik started.

"You are not above my army, Xe-A-Thoul, you are a part of it. Do not so much as imply otherwise, is that understood?"

"Yes, my lord," Xerik agreed. With that, Lassic released him from his grasp.

When he heard a chuckling behind him, Lassic turned to see the Profound Darkness had folded its arms across its chest and was smiling at him. "Very good, Lassic. But make no mistake, the Xe-A-Thouls shall be your most valuable asset. You see, Alis Landale may be gone... but her legacy continues. In order to accomplish your goals you will no doubt have to encounter a man named Rolf."

"Who is he?" Lassic asked.

"He is an Agent of the Palman government on Motavia and part Esper. He is also the current 'Protector.'"

"He's an insignificant roach as far as I'm concerned," Lassic said flatly. "He will not be a problem."

"And to see that he isn't," the Profound Darkness smiled, "I have given the Xe-A-Thouls the knowledge of a secret weapon which will bring Rolf to his knees."

Lassic turned his head around to look upon the Xe-A-Thouls. He nodded at them, then returned his gaze to the image of the Profound Darkness, which ever-so-slowly was beginning to vanish. "You understand your mission?" it asked.

"Destroy Elsydeon, destroy the aero-prism, and destroy Motavia," Lassic nodded. "And in return, I expect to be freed of the pain."

"Oh, you will be freed, Lassic," the Profound Darkness laughed. "I promise you, if you do not fail me, you will be freed of all the pain, permanently. Now rest. Prepare your army. Prepare the secret weapon. And then, as soon as it is ready... attack and destroy."

With that, the image was gone, and with this "Profound Darkness" gone, he, the great King Lassic, was once again in charge. He folded his arms across his chest, still holding his scepter, and gazed across the monstrous horde with whom he now shared his castle. With a nod of approval, he turned his gaze out his window and at the distant planet Motavia. Sirus's world. With Palma gone, the only Palmans that were left resided there. A pity for them, for it was they who would pay the price.

The four had plotted against him, had barged into his throne room wailing about dead brothers and the Triumvirate Pact. The had dared to attack him, and then, one of them planted an axe in his back.

Amazingly enough considering what he was thinking about, King Lassic started to laugh, because now, it was payback time. So what if the twit Landale and her twit friends were dead? They had fought for their people, hadn't they?

Well now it was time for the people to pay the price, because King Lassic was back and soon, he would again be their king in more than just name.

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