For actress Sigourney Weaver, whose character of Lt. Ellen Ripley in the 'Alien' movies

have made a very strong impression on female action characters since Wonder Woman.

For actor Lance Henriksen, whose character of Charles Weyland Bishop in 'Aliens',

'Alien 3', & 'AvP: Alien ' has become as essential to the franchise

as Sigourney Weaver's character of Ellen Ripley.

For H.R. Giger, the creator of the Alien creature, a movie monster which has infested

people's imaginations in film & other types of media since its debut in 1979.

For Randy Stradley & all the good people over at Dark Horse Comics, who have

intrigued us with numerous 'Aliens' comics & novels since receiving the license in 1988.

MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH VS. ALIENS:

LETHAL WARRIORS

2002, 2009 by Anthony Ogozalek

PROLOGUE

Somewhere in space:

Just like its namesake, the spacecraft The Comet races through the cold, merciless vacuum of space, its engines cooking at extreme temperatures to propel it forward at remarkable speeds. So hard were the engines pushing to keep it moving that smoke was beginning to pour out from the sides, almost covering them from view as the clouds grew thick in only seconds. There were no lights shining anywhere on the exterior, making it appear as if the craft was part of the vacuum itself.

Inside the ship was nearly as dark as it was on the outside; the only light currently shining was a low glow of white for illumination. One could barely make out one's own hand in front of his/her face, let alone recognize another person were they staring at one another. The low lighting wasn't the only thing aboard The Comet that made it errie & unpleasant.

It was deathly & unnaturally quiet throughout.

The only sounds which can be heard are those of footsteps & a lone man panting heavily as he races through the ship, keeping his sights ahead & daring not to look behind him even for the briefest of moments. He was a solid mass of muscle for a man who stood 6 foot 6 & a full head of hair. On the left side of his uniform was his name tag which read 'Quinn', his last name. His first is Stanton, & served as the Captain's personal bodyguard in times of trouble. Stanton is the best at what he does, & usually those who so much as look at him get the immediate message that you wouldn't want to be on his bad side. Of course, there had been those who called his bluff & tried going toe-to-toe with him—and lost. And he wasn't too shabby with a firearm either. But for the most part, Stanton prefers using his hands when he can, being a weightlifter & a one-time boxer & wrestler before landing his current job.

And now, he was running in utter terror like a lost & frightened child, his face reflecting the fear he felt. Aside from a few tears on his blue outfit & cuts from where they occurred, Quinn was basically unhurt by whatever he was running from. But he couldn't disguise his fear, as tough & stern as he is. In another circumstance, he'd be disgusted with himself: him being the toughest one aboard The Comet, & he's trembling in trepidation when he was about five years old, having been picked on by school bullies at that age.

If they could see him now, they'd tease him for the rest of his days & Stanton would never live it down.

But then again, if any of them had seen what it is he's currently running from, they wouldn't be so cocky either, & they'd be just as scared.

Stanton finally makes it to the cockpit entrance of the ship & types in the entry code with trembling fingers before the door slides open to allow him entry. He goes in even before the door opens fully & runs to the console, nervously pressing buttons with one hand while holding a radio with the other. Suddenly he hears a sound that sends a chill up & down his spine—a shriek which sounds like a piece of metal being scraped across another piece. But Stanton knows that isn't what it was. It was something more horrible, & it didn't sound far away from where he is.

Forcing himself to get under control, Quinn starts talking into the radio.

"Mayday! Mayday!", he begins in a panicked & rushed tone. "This is the space vessel The Comet! Stanton Quinn, personal bodyguard to Captain Marshall Wertz, reporting! To whomever is listening to this, I urge you to please listen very closely! Three days ago, we were on the mining planet of Vagar when we were suddenly attacked by these things! During a brutal battle, we lost half of our crew in under five minutes! The rest of us barely managed to escape with our lives, but we soon discovered that some had sneaked aboard our vessel & attacked us anew! As of now, I'm the last one left alive aboard the whole ship! If you are fortunate enough to hear this, I insist you do everything in your power to destroy this craft upon sight! Do not think of me or anyone else & do not hesitate to blow us out of space! Furthermore, do not allow this craft to set down on any inhabited world & allow these monsters to do the same there as they did to us back on Vagar! I'm not sure how much time I have left, but if you're fortunate to hear this even now as I speak, I beg of you to carry out this final request before it's…"

Stanton Quinn abruptly cuts his transmission short when he sees a thin stream of a clear but viscous fluid starts dripping down on the console from above. His heart racing, he slowly lifts his head up but sees a pair of inhuman hands reach down & grab his head with an iron grip before he gets lifted from overhead, his lungs letting out a petrified scream all the way. His cry gets cut off suddenly by a sickening crunch of flesh, bone, & blood which gets splattered all over the console of the cockpit. Combined by the viscous fluid, the substances seep into the console & begins to spark out of control, shorting out systems not only in the cockpit but everywhere else aboard The Comet. Unable to cope with the overload, a series of explosions occur in numerous places, setting whole areas on fire.

With no one at the controls to steer the ship & the craft inoperable, The Comet continues on its current course, heading towards a blue & green planet with few clouds covering it.

Fires continue to spontaneously combust as it heads directly for it.

CHAPTER I

Cephiro:

Master Mage Clef stood at the viewpoint of Cephiro Castle, located near the very top of the place. From here, dressed in his traditional white robe, wearing his crown with a blue horn in the middle & holding his staff that has what looks like the skull of an animal native to this world, he stares at the world which has been his home for centuries.

Even though he reaches only about three or four feet in height, Clef is a very powerful magician, never to be taken lightly. For as long as he can remember, Clef has held the title of Master Mage probably throughout his whole life, teaching others who were born with magical abilities how to wield such power carefully. Of all those he has taught over the years, possibly the only three who could ever hope to match Clef in raw power were Alcyone, High Priest Zagato & Princess Emeraude, all three of whom are now deceased.

Clef stares at the beautiful land & waters that is Cephiro & is still amazed that it could look as good as it does, especially considering the catastrophe it went through not too long ago. Clef's mind thinks back at the time when Cephiro was in chaos: from out of nowhere, monsters started appearing on Cephiro & began ravaging the planet & its populace. It happened when the pillar of Cephiro—Princess Emeraude—had been taken by High Priest Zagato & held captive. When that happened, Princess Emeraude's heart was filled with sadness & despair. Because of this, she was unable to keep the peace & stability of Cephiro, as the planet is supported solely by the pillar, & the planet reflects the feelings of the pillar's heart.

To help undo the damage caused to Cephiro, Princess Emeraude used her power to summon the legendary Magic Knights from another world—three teenage girls from the city of Tokyo on planet Earth, Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuuzaki, & Fuu Hououji—to rescue the Princess & restore the planet as it was before. But Clef never told them the full story about the Princess & never got the chance to; Alcyone had turned him to stone shortly after their arrival, keeping his connection to the Magic Knights limited. Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu later discovered that the reason that Cephiro was falling apart was because she & High Priest Zagato had fallen deeply in love with each other—something the pillar of Cephiro was absolutely forbidden to do under any circumstances. They learned that the pillar can only think of & pray for the peace of the planet itself, not the happiness he/she hopes to have for their own. But the worse news was yet to come: the girls were later told by Princess Emeraude that the reason they had been summoned to Cephiro was so that they can kill her. The girls at first refused to grant her her wish, but Princess Emeraude explained to them that because she & Zagato were hopelessly in love, there was no other alternative but to carry out her final request, especially since her hatred & anger for Zagato's death at their hands was taking over her. With a heavy heart in each of them, the Magic Knights (each donning the Rune Gods they revived—Rayearth, Selece, & Windam) combined as one & drove their sword into her. Their mission accomplished, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu were sent back to Earth with deep regret.

But Clef knew that Cephiro's troubles were far from over. Without a pillar to support it, the planet spawned more monsters & began to crumble slowly but surely. Its troubles kept piling up when parties from three other countries (planets)—Autozam, Chizeta, & Fahren—arrive, each one with the desire of becoming the next pillar for reasons of their own; Autozam's Eagle Vision seeked the pillar to help save his country's people from extinction; Chizeta's twin princesses Tarta & Tatra seeked it to make their own country bigger to help to resolve with an overflowing population; Fahren's young princess Lady Aska seeked the pillar for no more reason other than to be beautiful. Throughout the conflict, the two most likely candidates to become Cephiro's next pillar were Eagle Vision of Autozam & Magic Knight Hikaru Shidou after entering the pillar—a secluded room at the very top of the castle with a door that can only be opened by Clef, Zagato, or Lantis, Zagato's younger brother—and emerging alive. With this discovery, Eagle proposed to a term: if he became the pillar, he will stop his invasion of Cephiro in exchange for a complete readout of the pillar's data in order to save Autozam from extinction.

There was other danger that invaded Cephiro aside from the three countries. The entities called Lady Debonair & Nova had also arrived to wreak havoc. Lady Debonair was created from the fear of the people of Cephiro when it lost its pillar, while Nova was created from none other than Hikaru Shidou herself, feeding & growing upon all her feelings of regret, despair, anger, & sorrow for having to kill Princess Emeraude during her first time to Cephiro. In the end, Hikaru managed to convince Nova to return to her, & the people of Cephiro conquered their fears to help weaken Lady Debonair in order for the combined forces of Autozam, Chizeta, Fahren, & the Magic Knights themselves to defeat Lady Debonair once & for all, & restore peace to Cephiro as it was before.

Only one difference resided. Hikaru Shidou, the only remaining candidate to becoming the next pillar after Eagle Vision had perished in battle defending Cephiro, had fixed the pillar system so that no one would ever have to forsake their own happiness in order to keep Cephiro from going through such a terrible ordeal when Princess Emeraude was the pillar.

Despite the proof before him, Clef still found it hard to believe that Cephiro has now been returned to its former glory before all the trouble started taking place—and it was accomplished without a pillar.

Keeping that in mind, Master Mage Clef endlessly wonders if there were any way Princess Emeraude's death could've somehow been avoided; not a day goes by that he doesn't miss seeing her on her throne, serving her any way he can, along with High Priest Zagato. Was there someway Cephiro could've been spared all the danger it went through? Could Clef had possibly prevented it himself before things got way out of hand so that Princess Emeraude didn't have to summon the Magic Knights?

No, he realized. As hard as it was for him to accept, he couldn't deny the facts. What took place did, & no amount of magic will ever be able to change that, no matter how powerful he may be. He had to accept that Princess Emeraude was gone, even if she'd gotten what she had yearned for—to be with her beloved Zagato.

It didn't mean he had to like it, though.

Footsteps from behind him brought Clef's thoughts from the past back to the present. As he turns around, he sees two tall male individuals, both dressed in battle armor that covers nearly all of them completely. They each have a sword attached to their side, & a cape drapes from their shoulders down to the floor. One has a head of short-cut blonde hair, with armor a shade of bluish gray. The other has a head of jet black hair, & his armor is black with gray striped in places. The male with the blonde hair is Lafarga, a master swordsman who had once served as Princess Emeraude's guard (& minion of Zagato). The other male is Lantis, Zagato's younger brother, with a resemblance so uncanny in sight & sound that Alcyone once mistook Lantis as Zagato when she served Lady Debonair.

When Lafarga & Lantis stop eight feet from Clef, the Master Mage looks at them both for several moments before speaking.

"Are they ready?"

"They are, Master Mage Clef", said Lafarga. "Everything is all primed & set. The only thing they're waiting on is you."

Clef exhaled deeply & nods. "Very well then, Lafarga. Come, gentlemen. Let's not keep them waiting any longer."

The trio of warriors head down to ground level in complete silence, but when they reach it & walk down a bullet-shaped hallway, a thought enters Lafarga's mind & breaks the quiet.

"I still don't understand as to why they intends to do this, even now", he says.

Lantis looks at Lafarga without breaking stride. "It's because they must, Lafarga. This is very important to both Geo Metro & Zazu Torque."

"But why? They've been with us here on Cephiro for a year since the battle with Debonair ended & Eagle…"

"Exactly why they need to do this. As a result of Eagle Vision's death, Autozam has cut off any contact with Cephiro, as well as exiling Geo & Zazu from their home. Needless to say, their government blames us for Eagle's death—he was one of the highest ranking individuals in all of Autozam, as well as my friend. It was one of the reasons as to why he became the commander of the battleship NSX, their most prized possession."

"It's still no reason for them to kick Geo & Zazu out of the country they love so much."

"And that is why they need to go through with this, Lafarga", said Clef. "As grateful as they are to us for allowing them to remain here on Cephiro, Autozam is their true home, & they love it with all their hearts. It's why Eagle fought to defend us rather than attack us when the end came near. In return, I have allowed them to collect the data of the pillar in order to save Autozam from becoming a memory."

"And our reward is a rebuke—complete excommunication from Autozam. That's just like killing your king or queen after you've been knighted by them."

"Their grief & anger is understandable", said Lantis. "I've been in Autozam long enough to know how the people can be during certain circumstances. Many looked up to Eagle as a hero & a champion. His death hit the citizens hard, almost as much as it did their government."

"Hmph. I suppose you would know that", Lafarga said grumpily.

Lantis stops walking, followed by Clef & Lafarga as he eyes the latter. "Is there something you'd like to tell me, Lafarga?"

Lafarga's hard stare matched Lantis' own. "You've been in Autozam for almost all of your travels when you left Cephiro, Lantis. And let's not forget the fact that it was at the time when your brother Zagato kidnapped Princess Emeraude! I had to take your position as her bodyguard when you did, & I became your brother's servant against my free will! Had you been there, things might've turned out differently than as it did!"

"Are you saying that what happened to Princess Emeraude was my fault?", Lantis asks coldly.

"Who else is there to blame? The Princess?", Lafarga asked in the same tone.

Both swordsmen stared hard at each other before Clef stepped in to defuse the heated standoff. "That's enough, both of you!", he says firmly, waving his staff between them. "We're not about to debate this now! Let's not forget our current situation, shall we? We're here to try & do what we had gained from both Chizeta & Fahren—peace & an allegiance with Autozam. And I need to remind you both very quickly that nobody hereis to blame for what has happened to Princess Emeraude—not either of you, not myself, not even the Princess herself. Do you understand?"

Clef's words seemed to rapidly put out the fire caused between the two swordsmen, & when next they spoke, their voices were softer & calmer.

"Forgive my arrogance, Master Mage Clef", Lafarga said, bowing slightly to him. "I meant no offense."

"Same goes for me, Master Mage", Lantis says, also bowing. He turns to Lafarga again, but with no stern look this time. "I apologize, Lafarga. I had no right to…"

"No, Lantis. It is I who should be apologizing to you", Lafarga says. "It's just that I miss the Princess so much, & in my haste, I misjudged you when I shouldn't have. I suppose I ought to know by now that you mainly went to Autozam to try & fix the pillar system & help to save our beloved land."

"Apology accepted, Lafarga", Lantis said. "And although I was too late to save our Princess, I can take comfort in knowing that the pillar system actually has been fixed—by the Magic Knight Hikaru Shidou."

"And look at what it has done for our world—we turned it back into a paradise, as it was meant to be. Princess Emeraude would be quite happy."

Clef had to smile at that, along with their reconciliation. "I simply couldn't agree more with you, gentlemen. Now let us make Emeraude even more proud by fixing the friction between us & Autozam & form a bond like we did with Chizeta & Fahren."

"You always seem to find the right words for any situation, Master Mage Clef", Lafarga says.

"It would seem that none of us are as stubborn as our reputations say, are we?"

The three share a laugh together as they resume their walk to join the others, their laughter feeling quite good to each individual.

The Residential Quarters of the castle was packed to capacity with Cephiro's inhabitants of families. One of them happens to be the girl named Mira, whose life was saved by the Magic Knights when a monster attacked her home village, located near the Spring of Eterna in their quest to find the rare ore Escudo in order for Master Smith Presea to make the three Magic Knight's customized swords. Being here with her mother & father & everyone else was a comforting sight for Mira, having grown taller than she was when the Magic Knights had first come to Cephiro by just under a foot. Her feelings were shared by the other children & their parents, & like Mira herself, they revel in the presence of all.

Also attending this gathering are Cephiro's protectors & one-time enemies. Among them are Ferio, another of Cephiro's master swordsmen who met the Magic Knights in the Forest of Silence (& who was Princess Emeraude's younger brother, having his memory of that fact wiped from his mind before regaining it at a later time). So were dancer/illusionist Caldina & beast-summoner Ascot, both former foes who once served under Zagato; Master Smith Presea (whose real name is Sierra. She & Presea were twins: when Presea was making the Magic Knight's swords at her home in he Forest of Silence, she had been killed by one of Ascot's beasts. Sierra had taken her twin sister's name in order to spare the Magic Knight's grief, for they had adored & loved her twin very much. Only Alcyone was able to know the truth of the deception, after reading her mind); Lady Aska, the first Princess of Fahren, along with her chief advisors Sang-Yung & Elder Chang Ang, were also present. Both Lady Aska & Sang-Yung have each grown to about Zazu's height, becoming something of ten-year-olds or more (& much more mature than before!); Primera, the little fairy who always follows Lantis around after having her life saved from a monster by him, & Mokona, the mysterious little pink creature which somewhat resembles a burly rabbit with a magenta jewel on his forehead who had aided the Magic Knights in their quest, stood around the crowd & took in the sight of all the folks in the large place that has lovely grass & shrubs growing in beauty among the ground & walls.

But the most important attendees of course were Autozam's Geo Metro & Zazu Torque, the ones who served under Commander Eagle Vision until the final assault with Lady Debonair that had, sadly, claimed the commander's life. They sat in front of a large monitor which they had set up against one of the walls for all to see, sitting at the controls. The screen measured a good ten feet high & twelve feet long. Standing next to them are two individuals who reach Geo's height who are also from Autozam. The first was built just like Geo himself with the same hairstyle as him, but brown in color. The other, while not nearly as built, was fast on his feet & is a crackshot with the gun he keeps at his side—he can basically hit anything he could see. His dark shades & suave hairstyle, beige in color, only hides his true warrior spirit. One would never guess how fierce a fighter he actually is just by looking at him—until they see him in action.

"Seems we got ourselves a full house,don't we, Lady Aska?", Sang-Yung asks.

"Almost a full house, Sang-Yung", Aska says. "Those two princesses from Chizeta aren't here for this. I wish they were, though."

"Lady Aska", Chang Ang explains, "Tarta & Tatra couldn't make it to this meeting due to business they have with one of their own territorial countries, having to settle a dispute between two nations from it. They do send their sincerest apologies & best wishes, though."

"They've got nothing to apologize for, Elder", Aska assures him. "If by chance Fahren ran into the same problem with one of our own neighboring countries, we'd make it a top priority & rush to settle it in the best way we can. Wouldn't we?"

Beneath his long drooping white beard, Chang Ang gave himself a pleasing grin. In such a short time, he has seen Lady Aska transform from an immature brat to a mature young lady, even for her age & size. After the archery match she had aboard her dragonlike ship with the Magic Knight Fuu Hououji, Aska had learned a valuable lesson of not being greedy & getting what one desired all the time. When she seeked the pillar of Cephiro, she only thought of herself until Fuu explained that if she did become the new pillar, she couldn't think of her own happiness. She'd have lived a solitary & melancholy life, thinking only of the people of Cephiro & live in complete celibacy, unable to fall in love under any circumstance. Aska decided she couldn't live like that, & chose instead to defend Cephiro rather than attack it, as Chizeta & Autozam themselves did.

Chang Ang could not have been more proud of her if he tried.

"Absolutely, Lady Aska", he says, patting her head with his hand. "How happy I am to be at your side, as I've always been."

"Me too, my lady!", Sang-Yung added cheerfully.

Aska smiled, happy if a little embarrassed.

"Gee whiz, where the heck is Lantis?", Primera wondered as her wings flutter rapidly, with her arms crossed at her chest. "How long does it actually take for him to gather an old geezer like Clef anyway?"

Just then, Mokona begins chirping 'puu-puu' in rapid succession & shaking his head a few times, getting Primera's attention.

"What's with you all of a sudden, you ball of fluff?", she fumed. Mokona continued to shake his head & chirp, confusing the little fairy even more. Ugh, why do I even bother talking to this fluffball?, Primera thought, shaking her own head. I can never understand him!

Just then, Clef, Lafarga, & Lantis enter the Residential Quarters as all eyes gaze upon them & quiet down. Well, it's about time!, Primera thought.

It was Clef who began speaking.

"Thank you all for attending this meeting, everyone. As you all are well aware of, we here at Cephiro have had a not-so-good relationship with the country of Autozam which Zazu, Geo, his brother Bio & his friend Kaza Rosque come from since the battle with Lady Debonair occurred."

"They still hold us accountable for Eagle Vision's death, Clef?", Ferio asks. "That's unfair!"

"I agree with Ferio. It's utterly absurd!", said Presea. "None of us here on Cephiro ordered Eagle to defend what was left of our home any more than we did to Chizeta or Fahren. He did so because it was his decision, not ours. When will Autozam finally realize that?"

"Presea, please", Geo said. "Nobody wanted what happened to Eagle to take place like it did. Zazu & I even tried talking him out of going ahead in battle in his FTO, due to his declining health. Unfortunately, Eagle was the commander of the NSX, giving Zazu & I no choice but to follow his orders. Believe you me, had there been another way, we would've taken action & Eagle would still be with & would've formed a bond with Autozam as you did with Chizeta & Fahren."

"Even after we helped save the people of Autozam, they shut us out of their society along with you four?", Ferio says. "Like I said before, that's not right!"

"Actually, Ferio", Bio says, "Kaza & myself weren't exiled as Zazu & my brother were. We left Autozam because he's my brother. There wasn't any way we could let them face this on their own. Not to mention Kaza here is my best friend, & we do everything together, so when I left, he came with me."

"And you from Cephiro allowed us to remain here like you did for Geo & Zazu. We're all so grateful to you for it", Kaza said, bowing slightly.

"Hey, we had to help in some way, didn't we?", Ascot says.

"And why do this at all anyway?", Caldina asked. "Y'all have been stayin' with us for close to a year now. Ta us, y'all practically residents of Cephiro, so why bother to do this in the first place?"

"Because, Caldina", Zazu explains, "Autozam is our home. We just can't cease trying to get our government & Joint Chiefs of Staff to open their eyes about all this & reconsider bonding with Cephiro just because we've been exiled. If Eagle were still here, he'd be just as determined to go through with this as we are."

"In other words, you guys are homesick", Ascot said matter of factly.

The four Autozamians stare at each other for a moment before Geo speaks.

"That's…one way to put it", he says softly.

A heartbeat later, the big screen that Geo & company set up suddenly jumps to life, flashing green & displaying coded coordinates across it with a beep sounding every second as all pairs of eyes get fixed on it, wondering.

"Looks like we got ourselves something, Zazu!", Geo said.

"We sure do, Geo!", Zazu replied as he & Geo start turning knobs & pushing buttons.

"Young man, what is happening?", Chang Ang asks. "Are we by chance under attack?"

"Can't tell yet", Zazu says. "Our screens are set to go off like this whenever something comes into range of their scanners, kind of like an early warning device. Give us a few moments & we'll bring up a visual of what set it off."

All it took was exactly thirty seconds for a visual to appear as Geo counted down within his head.

"All right, we should be getting a visual of our intruder right about…now!"

The screen suddenly flashed a picture of whatever it was that tripped off the alarm. The image came in clear as a whistle, & everyone saw what it was: an object completely ablaze by a roaring fire, leaving a trail of thick smoke as it streaked across the clear, blue sky of Cephiro as the people uttered excited & nervous murmurs among each other.

"What is that?", Ascot wondered.

"Whatever it is, it's quite big", Kaza said. "The readout says it measures to about 70-75 feet in length!"

"Could it be an asteroid?", Sang-Yung wondered. Lady Aska took a closer look at the screen & studied it carefully. Then her eyes widened as she realized what it could possibly be.

"No, Sang-Yung", she says. "It looks more to me like…a spaceship!"

"Are you sure, my lady?", Chang Ang asked.

"I'm positive, Elder! I saw metal underneath the fire!"

"Ah believe you're right, Lady Aska!", Caldina says after taking a closer look for herself. "It is an oncoming craft! We'd better find out where it's gonna touch down at!"

"Agreed", Geo said. "Zazu?"

"Checking, Geo", the young Autozamian replied, bringing up the radar scanner which shows a digital map of the planet. A segmented red line indicates the ship's trajectory. Finally, it stops as a red dot at a secluded place.

"According to this", Zazu went on, "its current course will take the craft over to & crash down at…"

"The Forest of Silence!", Ferio finished, seeing the display for himself. "Or just right outside of it!" Ferio rushes over to where Clef is. "Master Mage Clef, I know that area like the back of my hand! Permit me to go & investigate that ship!"

Clef shook his head.

"Too dangerous", he said flatly. "We have no way of knowing who or what is on that ship. I cannot allow you to."

"Clef…"

"What if the inhabitants are hostile, & wish us harm?"

"Or what if it's people who are in trouble & need our help? Do we just allow them to die out there? What would that make us? We're not barbarians, Clef! You know that!"

Clef knew Ferio was right about what he said, & so he gives in. "Very well, Ferio. Plus, you happen to be more than correct about us not being savages. But I want Lafarga to accompany you on your trip. If there are hostiles onboard, you'll have him to cover your back."

"As you wish, Clef. Come, Lafarga."

"Right behind you, Ferio", Lafarga says, taking off behind his ally.

"While they head off, Zazu", Geo states, "we can monitor the ship from here & keep an eye out for anything…what?"

That's when the screen started sending off sparks of electricity all across. The electrical surge stopped as suddenly as it began, with streams of smoke rising in spots & the screen going blank.

"Dammit!", Geo cursed, slamming his fist onto the console.

"What just happened, Geo?", Ascot asks.

"I don't know, Ascot. The damn thing just shorted out for some reason! Without this, we won't be able to see what goes on with that ship!"

"That's impossible, brother", Bio said. "Autozamian technology doesn't just 'short out' like this. We four helped set this thing up."

"Maybe so, Bio, but this thing is out of commission for now until we can fix it", Zazu says.

"That will take a few days, Zazu", Kaza says. "For now, we should stay & await the return of Ferio & Lafarga after their investigation of that ship."

"Sorry, kiddo", Bio says apologetically. "It looks like contacting home will have to wait until our current matters here on Cephiro are dealt with."

Defeated, Zazu hangs his head. Like everyone else, he can only pray that whatever in on the falling craft is anything but a nasty surprise awaiting them.

The burning ship made a thunderous crash just outside the Forest of Silence, its impact kicking up dirt, rocks, & grass on either side. Its flames have all but died, & its momentum carries it sliding for 200 yards before crashing to a sudden halt between two large rock formations, the crash jarring the main entrance & flinging it away like tin foil. The bullet-shaped craft was still steaming hot when it stopped when a man & his dog run up to the entrance, minus its door, but stay at a safe distance of sixteen feet.

"Just look at it, boy!", the man said. "I didn't think it'd be this big, did you?"

The dog panted as its owner patted it on the head.

"Maybe we should wait until it cools off some more before we go inside", he continues.

Then his dog started growling, baring its teeth.

"What's wrong, boy? Do you see something?"

His dog growls more fiercely than before, & the man stares in the same direction that his dog does. He squints to try to get a better look, not seeing anything.

At first.

But then he does see what his dog is growling at: a pair of animal resembling hairless giant spiders in a pale yellow color with a tail that measured three times the length of their bodies suddenly start crawling out of the doorless entrance. The man stood in utter shock at the unusual lifeforms while his dog kept on growling, sensing them as a threat & even barking at them in an attempt to scare them off.

Neither one of the spiderlike things budged.

Both the man & his dog took a few steps forward towards the ship & life forms (the man in curiosity, the dog in defense) when, without warning, both creatures ran to & leaped at them both with inhuman speed. Before either of them can so much as utter a sound, the spider-creatures had wrapped their spindly legs around the faces & jaws, & their prehensile tails wrapped their throats like a snake would. The man & his dog dropped to the ground like stones, mumbling frantically, as they attempted to tear off the creatures with their hands & paws, but all their efforts were all but useless: they may as well be trying to pull their arm or leg out of their socket. After several moments, their movements have stopped entirely.

From inside the downed ship, sounds of hissing through clenched teeth occurred before a cadre of needle-like teeth appeared in the shadows of the entranceway.

A black, inhuman hand with six fingers & sharp claws gripped the side.

CHAPTER II

Earth. Tokyo, Japan:

The school gymnasium in Downtown Tokyo was holding its annual bazaar on this cool night in Japan's largest city. It is decorated by streamers & balloons placed all over, & numerous activities take place everywhere one looks, in chances of winning all kinds of prizes from stuffed animals to live goldfish, buying souvenirs & helium-filled balloons, eating all sorts of delicious foods, ranging from dishes like sushi, spaghetti, rice, & scrumptious desserts from ice cream to cakes. Sounds of music & happy people echo throughout the whole room, even reaching past its boundaries of the double doors that allow access to the room, & can possibly be heard from the outside of the building as well, albeit muffled.

In the midst of all the festivities, three young girls share food, prizes, laughs, & memories with one another. They all equal the same size in height, with differences in hair color & style. The first girl had long red hair that was braided & styled in an intertwining ponytail with a red bow at the end to keep it in place. She had brown eyes, & was dressed in a white shirt & black skirt with matching shoes. A golden pendant with a mirror hung around her neck. The second girl had long but unbraided blue hair that reached down her back to her upper legs; a plastic curved headband rests on top. She had the same colored eyes & also wore a shirt with a light orange tie at the collar, but was covered by a blue vest, & had on a matching skirt & shoes. The third & final girl of this trio of friends had short light brown hair that nearly touch her shoulders as an orange plastic headband rests there. Like the blue-haired girl, she wore a white shirt covered by a vest & had a dark orange bow, only it was green as is her skirt & shoes. A pair of glasses cover her green eyes.

These three girls are Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuuzaki, & Fuu Hououji—three different girls who attend three different schools, but share it all together when certain circumstances arise.

Like tonight's bazaar.

"Something like this bazaar we're having tonight always seems like such a long wait", Umi says, holding an ice cream cone in her hand & taking a lick. "But when it finally does arrive, you can't help but to confess that it's all worth the wait!"

"I agree with you, Miss Umi", Fuu tells her, placing a hand on her throat where a necklace is abound. "Like the old saying goes, 'Patience is a virtue, & virtue is its own reward'."

"The only downside about it is this", Hikaru points out, holding tight the stuffed T-Rex in her arms. "Once it does arrive, it goes by quite fast. Like another old saying goes, 'Time flies when you're having fun'."

Umi & Fuu nod in total agreement.

"We know exactly what you mean, Miss Hikaru", said Fuu. "With that in mind, you need to live up an event like this as best you can before it's all said & done so that one can truly enjoy it right up to the fullest. It's what makes good times good memories, & that especially goes for when you have family and/or friends to share it with. 'Life's too short', as they say."

"Too true", Umi said. "So why don't we stop standing here like statues & go give the games another go-round? Hopefully Fuu & I might win something this time as you did, Hikaru!"

Hikaru chuckled. "Just keep doing your best, you guys. I'm sure you'll win!", she urged.

"Okay!", Umi & Fuu said encouragingly.

An hour passes after the girls departed to engage in the festivities as the bazaar still went on strong, with everyone living it up as best they could, almost as if someone had heard the three's conversation without them knowing it. The girls went to just about every type of activity that required skill & steady hands—games like ring toss & other activities like pottery making are a few things the trio have given their shots at, each with a high degree of success. Hikaru having won a stuffed Velociraptor to go with her T-Rex, Umi winning a plush Pteranodon in the ring toss game, while Fuu tried her hand in the pottery area, having made a lovely vase with her hands.

Once they had their fill of activities, the girls felt as they were drained of all their energy, & Umi & Fuu retreat outside into the hallway for a rest from everything, both taking a breather from it all. While the music & noise can still be heard, it is muffled by the doors leading in.

"I wonder if Miss Hikaru will be joining us", Fuu says.

"Don't worry, Fuu", Umi said. "She said she'll join us momentarily, & you know she always keeps her promises."

"That's the truth, Umi!", Hikaru said, opening the doors to the gymnasium briefly to rejoin her two best friends, her T-Rex & Velociraptor underneath each arm.

"Hikaru!", Umi said.

"Miss Hikaru!", said Fuu.

"I see you two have scored quite amiably back there!", Hikaru commented.

"We weren't the only ones, Miss Hikaru. Looks like your T-Rex now has a companion."

Hikaru smiled brightly. "And it seems to me, Fuu, that you have a new item to place flowers into at home."

"Actually, I'm thinking of giving this to my older sister Kuu. She highly enjoys placing flowers in vases, & now she'll have one more to add to her collection."

"Too bad you didn't get any stuffed animals for yourself, Fuu", Umi says. "I'm sure either you or your sister would want one."

"Actually, Miss Umi, I did win a few, but seeing the faces of the young children here, I just had to give them away. They have as much right to enjoy the pleasure of a stuffed animal as we do, wouldn't you agree?"

"I certainly do, Fuu. But still…" Umi tosses her plush Pteranodon at Fuu, who catches it with ease in one hand while holding her vase in the other.

"What…no, Miss Umi, I can't accept this, I…"

"Go ahead, Fuu", Umi insisted. "We have a right to enjoy a plush toy's pleasure too."

"If you really insist, Miss Umi, but I feel kinda bad that you now have no stuffed critter to call your own."

"I wouldn't say that, Fuu", Hikaru says, tossing her plush Velociraptor to Umi, who catches it with both hands. "Now we each have one to bring home."

"Hikaru, are you sure you want to…", Umi started to say when Hikaru cut her off.

"Go ahead, Umi. That one's yours. Besides, nobody's going home without a stuffed animal—dinosaur or otherwise—to call her own. Share & share alike, as they say."

Given the good nature that is Hikaru Shidou, Umi & Fuu smile bright & warmly.

"Thank you kindly, Miss Hikaru", said Fuu. "You truly are a warmhearted person. Same goes for you, Miss Umi."

"Right back at you, Fuu", Umi said, cuddling her new toy. "Thanks, Hikaru. They are pretty cute, & much more so than the ones from the 'Jurassic Park' films."

Umi's comment got a heartfelt laugh from all three before gathering in a group hug that made them feel as secure as most anything they can think of, with the most likely exception of being with family. When they loosened up, Hikaru stares out one of the windows of the hallway intently, giving Umi & Fuu looks of concern. Before they could ask her if anything was wrong, the two look in the same direction Hikaru was, & that's when they realize just what it was she was staring so intently at.

It was Tokyo Tower.

Even at a distance, the city's most popular landmark was a beautiful sight to the girls as its lights shined & blinked brightly in the nighttime sky, looking somewhat like a giant needle—or even rocketship—fueled & ready to be launched upwards into the sky & into space. The tower stands a whopping 1,092 feet, more than a hundred feet taller than Paris' Eiffel Tower, despite the close resemblance. To most people, it's where several television stations are broadcasted from as well as a national monument; to Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuuzaki, & Fuu Hououji, however, it was something more.

It was the start of a destiny, one that was anything but forgotten.

"That was where it all started for the three of us", Hikaru said, breaking the silence. "I'll never forget it for as long as I live."

"Neither will I", Umi added. "I remember it vividly as if it were only yesterday: one day, all our schools were taking a field trip up there. We were all complete strangers one moment, & the next, the three of us were whisked away to a faraway world called Cephiro by some bright flash summoned by Princess Emeraude from that world. When we arrived, Master Mage Clef told us we were to become the legendary Magic Knights & save it from destruction."

"And despite all the tough battles & heartbreaking hardships thrown our way, we more than succeeded in our task—twice", Fuu concludes. "But sometimes, when I think about it, I often ponder on as to why it was us three who were summoned to Cephiro. After all, anyone could've been summoned just as easily as we were, & yet it had been us. But for the most part, I'm pretty much glad that we were. Truth be told, I don't know where I'd be at this very moment had I not met the two of you then."

"I couldn't agree with you more on that, Fuu", Umi added. "Although I was rather upset about it when we were first summoned, I'm most pleased it turned out that way. If I told either of you any differently, I'd be lying—something I'm clearly not in the habit of doing much, if at all."

"Same here, Miss Umi. But Miss Hikaru on the other hand—she practically took the chore of helping to save Cephiro like a fish to water, even if it was against her free will."

"There wasn't any way I could ignore people in trouble, Fuu", Hikaru says. "And it wouldn't matter if it was here in Tokyo or on another world."

"You're such a saint, Miss Hikaru."

"Or maybe it's that 'tomboy' personality in you!", Umi replied.

Hikaru smiled. "Guilty as charged, Umi!"

The trio share another heartfelt laugh, one that actually became louder than the noise of the bazaar for several moments.

The girls decided to call it quits at the bazaar at fifteen minutes to midnight, with most of the attendees doing the same at that hour of the evening. A few did remain to live it up a little bit more, but at 1:00 a.m., the gymnasium was totally quiet, devoid of any life save for the janitors to clean up the mess of spilled food, torn confetti & streamers, popped balloons, & other bits of trash left laying on the floor.

Like most of Tokyo, all was quiet at the Shidou School of Kendo at 2:00 a.m., the place that served as Hikaru's home with her three elder brothers—Kakeru, Masaru, & Satoru. Dressed in her pink pajamas, her newfound plush T-Rex in her arms & her faithful dog Hikari near her side, the one-time Magic Knight was fast asleep in her room on her mattress, peaceful as a baby. While she slept, her mind was wondering about what Fuu had said earlier. Why was itthe three of them who were chosen by Princess Emeraude to become the Magic Knights & help save Cephiro when it could've been anyone else? What if by chance three others were picked for that task instead of her, Umi, & Fuu? Would they had still become the good, close friends that they are now if they hadn't been in a different way, or at all?

But Hikaru just as soon stopped wondering about it as soon as she began: it was the three of them that got summoned to Cephiro to save it. They became the legendary Magic Knights, & no amount of wondering is ever going to change that, even now that they're back home & have been for just over a year since Lady Debonair was defeated.

A peculiar scent suddenly catches the nostrils of Hikari, & he was roused from his slumber & growling, baring his teeth & bringing Hikaru out of her own slumber.

"What is it, Hikari?", she asks her faithful dog. An immediate answer hits Hikaru, & she gets clearly awake in seconds.

There must be a prowler on the premises!, she thought, putting on her slippers & heading over to one wall where a cache of wooden bamboo swords are placed. Grabbing one, she follows Hikari over to where the training area is & approach with caution, not knowing if the intruder is armed with a gun or not.

Sliding the entrance open as stealthfully as she can, Hikaru wields her bamboo sword in a defensive position as Hikari stands by her side, growling menacingly.

"Who's in here?", Hikaru demanded, staring in the utter darkness of the place. She then sees the dark silhouette of a tall figure standing just behind a fixture of light which shined from one of the windows. "Whoever the hell you are, step into the light & save yourself any trouble! Believe me, you do not want to tango with me!"

Hikari backed her up by growling more fiercely, attempting to put a scare into whoever has intruded on their property. Amazingly, the intruder obligingly obeys her & steps into the light. The figure made Hikaru's eyes open wide as she saw a man dressed partially in battle armor with a cape draped over his shoulders. He had jet black hair & brown eyes, & the handle of a sword had hung from his side. His mouth formed a warm smile.

Hikaru just couldn't believe who it was—it was Lantis, the younger brother of the late High Priest Zagato!

"And why would I want to do that, Hikaru?", he asks warmly.

"Lantis!", she said, dropping her wooden sword & running to him with open arms. Sensing no danger from the man, Hikari ceased growling & sat on the floor.

Lantis got down on his knees & took Hikaru in his own arms, the two embracing like two lost lovers & held each other for several moments before pulling back slightly.

"Oh Lantis! It really is you!", Hikaru said, smiling passionately.

"Yes it is, Hikaru", Lantis replied back.

Her smile suddenly disappeared from her face, causing Lantis to be concerned.

"What's wrong, Hikaru?", he asks. "You seemed troubled by something."

"I just need to know", she says. "Is Cephiro in some kind of danger that Umi, Fuu, & myself doesn't know about? Is that why you're here with me now?"

Lantis shook his head. "No, not at all."

"Well then…what brings you here?", she wondered.

Lantis' smile returned. "I simply wanted to see you again, Hikaru. We've been apart from each other for more than a year in more ways than one, & for me, that's just too long a time."

Hikaru's smile also returned, with tears forming in her eyes. "I agree, Lantis. When I told you I loved you that last time before we left Cephiro, I meant every word I said."

"As did I."

Their faces were only a foot apart from each other, & they slowly but surely start drawing closer together with each passing second. Each was as happy to be in the other's presence at such close quarters, their hearts began palpitating madly with joy & excitement. Their eyes start closing slowly the closer they get to each other's lips, both ready & anticipating the inevitable kiss which awaits them.

They were now only an inch away from real bliss.

And that's when it happens.

Lantis suddenly coughs violently in Hikaru's face, forcing her to open her eyes. As soon as she does, she is horrified to see Lantis' lips & mouth stained with blood. She then puts a hand to her face, & finds that he coughed his blood on her.

"Lantis?", she whispered.

That's when the master swordsman grunted loudly & grabbed his chest with both hands, as Hikari began barking frantically.

"Lantis! What's wrong?", Hikaru shouted.

"Hikaru…help me…please!", Lantis said, gasping in between words & more blood dripping from his mouth with each syllable. He clutched his chest even tighter, feeling like it was on fire.

Hikaru was frightened & puzzled at the same time: Lantis was one of the toughest fighters in all of Cephiro & a master swordsman—close or equal to Lafarga himself—and yet he sounds like a child, cringing in complete trepidation as his chest pain gets even worse, & blood now drips from his nose.

What's going on? What could do this to Lantis?, she panickly thought, unsure in even the slightest way of how to help him.

As soon as Lantis took his hands away, Hikaru saw what it was that's causing him so much anguish: a bulging spot on his chest, his armor expanding outwards as if something was trying to push its way out.

Oh my god! Something's inside his chest!, Hikaru thought with a cold chill up her spine.

Blood began forming in the bulge on Lantis' chest, running down his stomach as he reached out in desperation to Hikaru with his right hand, only she couldn't move, being so terrified of the horror appearing before her & unable to look away.

Then, Lantis let out a roaring holler of deep agony as the bulge in his chest finally bursts like a balloon & sprays a gout of metal, fabric, flesh, bone, & blood onto Hikaru. Lantis' cries for help cease & desist altogether, & the master swordsman falls over backwards & hits the floor in a puddle of his blood, his eyes staring lifelessly up at the ceiling. Hikari stops barking, & Hikaru, her front covered in ichor, stares tearfully at the corpse of the one she loves with a hole the size of a man's fist in his chest, still oozing fresh blood.

"Lantis?", she whispered with a lump in her throat, stepping ever closer to his corpse. Her face gets to about a foot from where the hole in his chest is when she hears a low screech emit from within.

Without any warning, Hikaru was attacked by a shadow of a mouth of needlelike teeth that shoots out from within the gaping hole in Lantis' chest & rushes right at her face with lightning speed.

She had no time to scream.

Hikaru screamed as she rose from her mattress.

The top of her pajamas were wet with sweat, & she fought to keep her breathing under control as she placed a hand over her chest. She can feel her heart pounding,& fought to keep that under control as well. Woken by her yell, Hikari heads over to Hikaru & licks her face gently in an attempt to ease her pain. Hikaru gently caresses her dog on the head & back in return.

What a horrible dream!, she thought. It felt so real! But why did I have it? Is it a prediction of some kind? Is there really a danger on Cephiro that's going on that we don't know about yet? Is that what it's trying to tell me?

Hikaru lied back down on her sleeping mat as she tells Hikari to go back to sleep, & that she was all right. Pulling the covers up to her chest, she ponders on what it was she dreamt about just now. Why did she have this nightmare? What was that thing she saw which came out of Lantis' chest? How did it get there to begin with?

All these questions & no answers leave Hikaru eager to get them as soon as she can. She had thought of calling Umi & Fuu to tell her about it, but being late as it is, she couldn't disturb them, & she was pretty much drained herself.

No, let them sleep, she thought, trying desperately to get back into a state of slumber, forcing herself not to dream as best she can.

CHAPTER III

When morning broke, Hikaru got dressed immediately & headed for the phone. She wore her red uniform with a black skirt, white bow on her chest, white collar, & red shoes—just like she had on the first time she, Umi, & Fuu were first summoned to Cephiro. As fate would have it, the phone rang as she was about to reach for it & answered it.

She couldn't believe it—it was Umi!

The blue-haired girl tells Hikaru to meet her & Fuu at Tokyo Tower at the time it opens its doors to the public. Hikaru didn't press for a reason: she wanted to meet with them as badly as they wished to meet with her, & agrees to do so without giving it another thought. She was out of her house in moments after hanging up, & Hikaru rushed to the designated meeting place, making a stop just long enough to grab a quick bite to eat along the way.

At 10:20 in the clear sky morning, Hikaru, Umi,& Fuu all reach the tower's observation deck. Like Hikaru, Umi & Fuu were wearing the exact uniforms they wore during their first time to Cephiro. Hikaru wasted no time in telling her two best friends of the nightmare she had the other night of Lantis dying at the hands of some unknown & horrible entity. It shocked them, but what was really shocking (to Hikaru, anyway) was that both Umi & Fuu had uncannily similar nightmares.

"I don't believe it! You guys had them too?", she asked.

"Yes we did, Miss Hikaru", said Fuu. "Just the other night I dreamt that Ferio had come into my room to…catch up on old times with me, when all of a sudden he…that is, his chest…"

Fuu Hououji couldn't finish her statement, but she didn't have to: Hikaru knew exactly what she meant.

"My nightmare was most similar to yours in all aspects, Fuu", Umi says. "Me & Ascot were on Cephiro on a beach, enjoying the scenery when he was suddenly ill with a sharp pain in his chest, & then…well, you get the idea, Hikaru."

"I sure do, Umi", Hikaru said matter of factly.

"But it's all so strange. Why would the three of us have a nightmare that's nearly identical to one another in nature? It doesn't make any sense."

"No, maybe it does."

"How so?"

"Granted, I didn't get it at first, but I think somehow it's trying to tell us that Cephiro is in some kind of trouble again, & it could be a new enemy we—or even they—have never dealt with before."

Umi & Fuu thought about what Hikaru said in silence for a few moments before the former broke the quiet among them.

"You may have a good point about that, Hikaru", she says. "After all, I think it's hardly a mere coincidence that the three of us have nightmares in a near-identical fashion—and on the same night, no less."

"I agree, Miss Umi", said Fuu. "With our nightmares, we've gathered all the clues & evidence to decipher that Cephiro is in danger once more, & needs our help. And help them I must—there's no way I can abandon them just because Cephiro is a faraway land. Truth be told, it feels so much like a second home to me."

Hikaru nods. "You speak for all of us, Fuu", she says. "I believe it's settled. We leave for Cephiro immediately."

Umi & Fuu nod, then join Hikaru at one of the windows of the observation deck, standing alongside one another. Placing a clenched fist over each of their hearts, the girls say a silent prayer & wish with all their might. When they went back to Cephiro for the second time, they learned that they had done so upon their own free will, & the girls believe it will happen again.

"I want to go back once more—to Cephiro", said Hikaru.

"As do I", said Umi. "Take me back to the other land I love."

"Same here", said Fuu. "If there is danger there, I wish to go & protect it like before."

In answer to their prayers, a bright flash of light suddenly erupted, & Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu were magically transformed into three balls of colored light the size of a bowling ball—one that was red, blue, & green—that went through the window of the observation deck without so much as scratching it, & rose skyward.

The flash of light vanished as soon as it appeared, with nobody having a clue that it ever even happened.

As far as they were concerned, it was just a typical clear-sky day in Tokyo.

Cephiro:

Just like in Tokyo, the skies of Cephiro were crystal clear with minimal clouds. Far down below in the forests, birds chirped & flew about, enjoying the golden shine of the sun without any cares whatsoever.

A twinkle in the sky later, & three orbs of colored lights—red, blue, & green—appear out of the blue & head downward towards the castle of Cephiro, its towering spires standing tall in a scene of utter beauty. The three orbs float directly for the castle & enter through the wall, leaving no more as so much as a mark like when the girls had left Tokyo Tower to arrive on Cephiro.

Once they were inside, the trio of orbs suddenly took form & vanished as Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu reappeared in one of the castle's many hallways, rubbing their eyes to adjust to the sudden change of light.

"Seems to me we've arrived at Cephiro again", Umi said.

"Now that we have, we should go find the others &…", Fuu started to say but cut herself off.

Hikaru was about to ask what was wrong with her friend to make herself stop while in mid-sentence, but didn't need to.

"Oh my god", she whispered in terror, clearly seeing the reason plain & simple.

It was an eerie scenario: the floors & walls showed signs of a battle that happened recently within the castle. The girls can see signs of sword marks in various places, along with other signs of damage. Upon closer inspection, they can see whole sections of the walls with gaping holes in them—some by explosions, others by what appears to be burn marks. To add to the horror, some spots were spattered by splotches of red—blood. Glass was shattered at just about every window in the hallway, covering the floor in broken shards.

Fuu Hououji examines the broken glass scattered about.

"From the way the glass is scattered about", she explains, "I should be inclined to say that something—or rather, many somethings—forced their way into the castle from outside."

"Here's more", Umi said, examining one of the burn marks in the wall. "This particular hole wasn't made by a standard explosive like a grenade or such. It looks more like some kind of acid had been used!"

Fuu takes a closer look.

"I'd say you are correct, Miss Umi", she says. "The edges of this hole look to be melted!"

"That's not all, you guys", Hikaru says, signaling the others to gather round her where a set of six vertical marks in the wall are. "See these marks? No sword could've done this. From what I can tell, they more or less resemble something like claw marks!"

"Claw marks?", Umi & Fuu said in unison.

Hikaru nodded. "We don't know the full story of all this yet, you guys, but it looks to me like Cephiro's new enemies aren't human!"

"Then monsters have once again invaded this peaceful land—ones we haven't encountered before as you surmised, Miss Hikaru", Fuu said.

"But that just can't be, Fuu!", Hikaru said.

"What do you mean by 'can't be', Hikaru?", Umi asked.

"What I mean by that is…"

Hikaru was cut off by a trio of muffled voices coming from behind the doors just down the hallway, the three of them turning towards it. The voices got louder just before a powerful foot by a tall blonde-haired man with a sword entered the room, his weapon at the ready in front of him.

He wasn't alone. Two others accompanied him—a young man & a woman, each one also with a sword held out in front of them. The young man was about the same height as Fuu & the others, dressed in white. He had a head of green hair, & had a scar of a X on his left cheek. The woman was taller, dressed in light tan robes. She had long light brown hair that was fixed in a ponytail, & a tiara with a round jewel in the center. Each of them had tears in both their fabrics & armor, along with scarred cuts on their legs, arms, & chest.

The three lower their weapons when they suddenly realize who it is they've encountered, & Hikaru & company are relieved somewhat to see three familiar faces.

"Ferio!", said Fuu.

"Lafarga!", said Umi.

"Presea!", said Hikaru.

"Magic Knights!", Lafarga, Ferio, & Presea all say simultaneously. Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu ran to their friends as the latter engaged Ferio in a warm embrace, overjoyed to see him still among the land of the living, remembering the nightmare she had back home.

Ferio pulls her gently back a little bit.

"Hey Fuu", he says. "Not that I'm not glad to see you again & all, but what're you guys doin' back here anyway?"

"Simply put, we each sensed that Cephiro was in grave danger once more, & we came to offer our assistance again", Fuu said plainly.

"Lafarga, Presea, what happened here in the castle?", Umi asked gravely. "It looks like it's been through actual hell!"

"A nightmare—one we never anticipated", Presea said. "Come. Let's regroup with the others at Clef's chamber. Once we're there, we'll fill you three in on what we're up against."

Nodding, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu followed Presea & her group to where the others resided.

The RXT (the ship that carried Geo, Zazu, Bio, & Kaza from Autozam after the former two's exile) rested right outside the castle. It wasn't nearly as big as the NSX is, but it was no pee-wee craft either. The ship measured close to a hundred feet in length, with a width of twenty to twenty-five feet. Its front was shaped like a automobile's, & had a windshield to match it.

Inside the ship within the communications room, Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque (each of whom have had their share of torn clothing & battle scars on their person) were waiting around patiently, with the former in contact on the radio via headset.

"Look, what I told you just now is true, dammit!", Bio said into his headset, listening to the voice on the other side. "Hey, I understand what this all means, but you said that you'll…"

After hearing what his contact had to say, Bio finishes up. "All right, we'll get right on it as we discussed. Just make certain you hold up your end of the bargain. So we're agreed then? Glad to hear it. Bio out!"

He takes off his headset & tosses it aside before another sound could be uttered from it, just in case his contact was still on the line.

"Not good news, I presume?", Kaza wondered.

"It's really not that, Kaza. It's just that…"

Bio was interrupted when the door to the room swung open, revealing Zazu Torque, who enters.

"Sorry to intrude, Bio, but…", Zazu started.

Now it was Bio's turn to interrupt. "It's all right, Zazu. We were just finishing up here. What can I do for you, our young protégé?"

Zazu was slightly embarrassed, but pressed on. "I got word from Geo. He says that we have visitors here in the castle!"

"Visitors, you say?", Kaza says, hefting his gun. "Have more of those monsters shown up?"

Zazu shook his head with a smile. "These are rather special guests, Kaza!"

Bio & Kaza stare at each other in wonderment before turning back to the young Autozam mechanic.

"Well, don't keep us in suspense here, junior!", Bio says in a sarcastic tone. "Who are these 'special guests' you're referring to?"

"Bio, Kaza, I think it would be best if I simply just showed you who I mean!"

Seeing that they're not going to get any more out of him, Bio & Kaza nod.

"All right, Zazu. Lead the way", Kaza said.

Ferio, Lafarga, & Presea took the Magic Knights over to where the rest of their party are licking their wounds after the fierce battle with Cephiro's newest threat. They are taken to the room where one or more can enjoy a nice soothing bath (where the girls once did on the second visit by Hikaru & company), but this they knew was not to be any leisurely dip in the water. The door leading inside the room was battered & scorched severely, being just able to stay on its own hinges.

Lafarga pushes open the doors & lead the girls inside. When the Magic Knights go in, they see almost all the familiar faces they'd come to expect: Autozamian Geo Metro, beast summoner Ascot, illusionist Caldina, & master swordsman Lantis. Each one was tending to wounds he/she received. Oddly enough, despite the damage to the doors, the room was generally untouched—no claw marks, no acid burns, no blood, anything. Nobody resided inside the large pool in the middle of the room, as they were instead sitting down next to it or the walls.

For Hikaru, seeing Lantis alive gave her some comfort from the dream that she had before arriving on Cephiro, as it did for Fuu with Ferio. The same had went for Umi & her feelings for Ascot, who had loved her in a passion which was more than just friendship.

Thank God he's still alive!, Hikaru & Umi thought blissfully.

Hikaru, Lantis said to himself.

"Magic Knights!", Ascot & Caldina said together.

"You came back, just as Ferio said!", Geo said. "Even under these harsh circumstances, it's good to see you three here again!"

"Thanks, Geo", said Hikaru.

"Much obliged, Sir Geo", said Fuu.

"Same here, but at the risk of repeating myself, what happened here?", Umi asks.

"A horror", said a new but familiar voice coming from behind the girls. Everyone turned to the door to see Clef being balanced on his staff & by an elderly man with the long white beard, followed by a middle-aged man right behind them both.

"Clef!", the Magic Knights cried.

"Sir Chang Ang!", Fuu called out, recognizing the elderly man as Lady Aska's wise teacher & advisor.

"Hello again, my dear Magic Knight", Chang Ang says. "If our current situation were not so dire, I'd gladly invite you over for some tea aboard our vessel."

Fuu had to smile at that. Elder Chang Ang had always been quite kind to her, even when the invasion of Cephiro for the pillar system was in full bloom.

"But…business before pleasure, of course", Chang Ang added, putting Fuu & everyone else back to the matter at hand.

"What kind of horror, Sir Clef?", asked Fuu.

"It began the other day", Clef explains. "It started when we were attempting to 'patch things up' with Autozam. You see, what you three don't know is that, shortly after the battle with Lady Debonair, Geo & Zazu's homeworld have severed their ties with us due to the fact that Eagle Vision perished during that fight. Autozam was terribly shaken & hurt deeply by his loss that, despite being saved by the power of the pillar as we promised to do, they cut us off of their list of noble countries & have even exiled Geo & Zazu for not doing everything they could to prevent Eagle's death."

This bit of news caught the three girls from Tokyo off-guard.

"That's terrible, Clef!", said Umi. "We had no idea of such an atrocity between you two!"

"I can't believe they'd do such an ungrateful thing!", said Hikaru, her frustration made clear for all to see. "Especially after you helped save them from extinction, like Eagle wanted!"

"And exiling Sir Geo & Sir Zazu from their homeworld makes it worse!", Fuu said. "How could they do that to them for something which was never their fault to begin with, as we all know?"

"You need to understand, ladies", Lantis says, approaching them. "As I told Lafarga, Eagle Vision was more or less regarded as Autozam's hero, as well as one of their government's best ranking individuals, if not the best. When news of his death had hit, it hit them awfully hard—even worse than we expected it to. And because Geo Metro & Zazu Torque were his two most trusted advisors, their Joint Chiefs of Staff had banished them from Autozam as punishment, & the NSX was put in dock, never to be used again."

"But Eagle was still the commander of the NSX", Hikaru says. "Geo & Zazu didn't have a choice but to obey his orders, even if it meant fighting to his death! When will they realize that Eagle did what he did because he loved his country, just as Lady Aska & Tarta & Tatra love their own?"

"Your words are most wise, Magic Knight", Chang Ang says. "This is why Geo & Zazu have repeatedly tried to convince their government otherwise. While they've enjoyed the hospitality of Cephiro for nearly a year, there's no changing the fact that Autozam is their home, & must try to reconcile with it."

"We were all about to give negotiations with Autozam another try—until they came!", said Ascot, holding up his bandaged left arm.

"You're talking about the things that attacked you, right?", Umi asked, getting a nod from Ascot.

"What kind of things?", asked Fuu. "What could be so terrible to cause you people this kind of trouble?"

It was Ferio who filled them in on the real details.

"Just as we were about to get in contact with Autozam's leaders, we had a ship that came crashing down somewhere just outside the Forest of Silence. Lafarga & I went out there to check it out, when we saw a man & his dog lying unconsciously not too far from where it landed. Both of us were worried for their well-being, so we immediately brought them back here to the castle to see if we could treat them. What we didn't know is that there was something—and I certainly do mean something—within their chests: not long after we brought them in, their chests began to swell up & explode from inside as two snakelike creatures burst forth, killing the man & his pet instantly! We tried to capture them before they could escape, but they were too damn fast! In no time, they became even bigger & began killing a few of our castle guards. We managed to kill one of the two—and then more of them came!"

"More of them?", Umi asked. "How many more?"

"Dozens a' them, sugah!", said Caldina. "They were like a livin' swarm—they came at us like a tide from the ocean! Even with our magic, we had a helluva time defendin' ourselves from these beasts!"

"Not only were they vicious, these things got a sort of acid for blood!", Ascot says, raising his bandaged arm again. "I summoned one of my beasts to help protect us & the children, but like myself, I never anticipated on it & got a small splash of it on my arm. If not for Clef's magic, I might've lost it completely!"

"What about your beast, Ascot? Is it all right?", Umi beast summoner sunk his head to his chest, giving Umi all the answer she needs.

"What about the children? Are they okay?", Hikaru asked worriedly.

"We are, Hikaru!", said a young voice from the room's entrance. Everyone turned to see a pair of young girls, a lone boy, a little fairy, & a small pink creature enter, their faces instantly recognizable.

"Mira! Mokona!", Hikaru called out.

"Sang-Yung! Primera!", Umi called out.

"Lady Aska!", Fuu called out.

Each of the kids hugged the three girls from Tokyo in a tight embrace, giving the room a warm glow momentarily as Mokona snuggled up to Hikaru at the neck.

"Hey, don't forget about me, girls!"

Everyone saw Zazu Torque enter the room with Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque.

"Zazu!", Hikaru said happily as the kids step back a few feet to give the girls room.

"Boy, are we glad you three showed up in this time of need!", the young Autozamian says. "I take it Master Mage Clef & everyone else filled you in on all the details?"

The three girls nodded.

Umi takes notice of the two newcomers.

"Oh, I don't think we've met you two before", she says. "Are you new here?"

"Ah, where are my manners?", Zazu says, softly smacking his forehead. "Magic Knights, I'd like you three to meet Geo's brother Bio Metro & his good friend Kaza Rosque. Just like Geo & I, they're both from Autozam."

"Geo has a brother?", Hikaru wondered, turning to Geo himself. "I never knew you did."

"Considering we came to Cephiro to seize the pillar back then, it wasn't really the best time to bring up any family matters", Geo says jokingly, making Hikaru smile.

"I guess not", she says.

"So you three are the legendary Magic Knights from another world?", said Kaza. "Both Geo & Zazu have told us quite a lot about you girls."

"That's us. My name is Hikaru Shidou", she announces with a slight bow.

"My name is Umi Ryuuzaki", she says, also bowing.

"And mine is Fuu Hououji", she says, joining her friends in bowing before standing upright once more. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir Bio, Sir Kaza."

"As polite as I've been led to believe", Bio said, grinning. "I like that."

Hikaru turns to Mira. "Despite the attack, Mira, it's good to know that you & the rest of the children are safe, along with your parents."

Mira's facial expressions turn melancholy, as Mokona makes a sad 'puu-puu' noise, shaking his head. The girls needed no translation to decipher what that meant.

"They're not? Where are they then? What's happened to them?", Fuu asked desperately.

It was Lady Aska who provided with the details.

"They've been taken, Fuu—by the monsters who attacked the castle", she says with tears in her eyes.

"How many of them did they get, Lady Aska?"

"All except me & Elder Chang Ang", said the middle-aged man who helped Chang Ang get Clef into the room. "My name is Treece. I was the only one, aside from Chang, who managed to avoid getting captured by the monsters who invaded this place. We were placed inside the room where my daughter Tamara & the other children had stayed for safety as Ascot & Clef bravely fought for our survival. By the time the monsters all left with the unlucky parents who were taken away, Ascot's arm got badly burned & Clef was barely standing."

"'Barely standing'?", Umi asked. "I find that rather hard to believe, Treece. Clef is the most powerful sorcerer here on Cephiro. How could those monsters make him so weak like this?"

"Because, Umi", Clef explains, "just as the attack happened, I was suddenly struck by a fever which all but drained me of most of my power. Whether it was caused by the creatures or some other means, I cannot say. I've never even sensed it hitting me out of the blue as it did."

"About how long ago were the parents taken, Sir Clef?", Fuu asked.

"Hours ago. By then, we were all too battle-scarred & weak to go after them, & we dared not send Treece or Chang Ang to retrieve them, lest they suffer the same fate."

"But that's why we're here now, Clef!", Umi says. "It may seem strange, but the three of us each had a similar nightmare just the other night back on our world, especially on how Ferio had described the chest-bursting part! Somewhere deep in our hearts, we believed that Cephiro was in some terrible danger again, & from what we've seen & heard, it appears we were right!"

"So therefore you willed & wished yourselves to be brought here to assist us in this new battle", Presea says, getting three nods. "You serve & trust your instincts well."

"Thank you, Presea", said Hikaru. "Like last time, we know just what we're getting ourselves into. Besides, you people feel so much like family to us. There's no way we can abandon you in a time of need, especially in a situation like this."

"Just what we were to expect from the legendary Magic Knights", Lafarga said with a proud smile on his face.

"Ain't it the truth, y'all!", Caldina says proudly.

"True", said Lantis, rising up. "With you three by our side, we should now have a much better chance of rescuing all the children's parents before something horrible happens to them."

Lantis gets a few steps before being stopped by Primera, who flies right in his face.

"Hold it right there, Lantis!", the little fairy said, her right hand in a halting gesture.

"Primera, what are you…"

She cut him off. "You're going nowhere, fella! Like mostly everyone else here, you're too banged up from fighting with those living nightmares, despite what you believe yourself to be! If you go out there in your current condition, those things'll tear you limb from limb! No way am I gonna permit that!"

"Primera, while your compassion & concern for me is most touching, I'm afraid that we've no more time to waste if we are to…"

"No, Lantis. I'm afraid I have to agree with Primera", Hikaru steps in, taking both Primera and Lantis by surprise.

"Hikaru…"

"Lantis, please listen. The three of us—Umi, Fuu, & myself—are in the best condition to go after those monsters & rescue the parents. We need the rest of you to stay here & recouperate as much as you can. We also need for you to remain here just in case those creatures dare to come back & probably finish what they started, this time with the children. You people may be their last line of defense should they decide to."

"But just the three of you? That's suicide, Hikaru!", Geo said. "We all explained just how vicious those monsters can be! Who knows what else they may be capable of!"

"We know, Geo, but there's no choice. Not if we want to save who we can."

"Miss Hikaru does make sense", said Fuu. "Even if you were all in your peak condition, it would be unwise to send everyone out on a rescue mission. What if nobody was left alive before we even find the children's parents, or if they return to the castle & there's no one here to protect the children themselves?"

No one could argue with Fuu's words. Clef, Lantis, & everyone else in the castle had fought & battled hard against the new invaders, being barely able to keep the children safe. If they failed in keeping them the same way should the creatures come back, they'll never be able to live with themselves again.

That they will not allow.

"You girls speak wisely", Kaza says. "I guess that's why you three are the legendary Magic Knights."

The girls bow in respect to Kaza again.

"Above all else, they've made up their minds", said Presea. "All they need is their weapons & they can get started."

"How about it, Master Mage Clef?", Lantis asks Clef, turning to him. "Do you think you're able to conjur up their armament for them?"

"Even though I am weakened by some unknown flu, I believe I can grant the girls what they require for their mission", Clef says. "However, this may very well be the last spell I can conduct for a while until this sickness I have can either be treated or it wears off on its own."

Nevertheless, weak or not, Clef is already holding his hand out in front of his face, raising two fingers. "Bestow magic!", he calls out, his hand glowing white. Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu are bathed in an aura of white light, surrounding them from head to toe. Magically, the three are granted with armor that covers their chest & left shoulders, a metal gauntlet that covers their right forearms, & a fingerless glove with a colored jewel embedded into it. A colored jewel is also embedded on their chest armor, & white boots cover the legs of Hikaru & Umi up to their knees, while Fuu has a pair that only go up to her ankles; a pair of colored jewels rest atop each, one on each boot.

Everyone watches in amazement as Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu receive their armament, but when Clef abruptly collapses to the floor, their bewilderment turns to concern & fear.

"Clef!", everyone shouted as Chang Ang & Treece gather by his side & help him to his feet.

Using them & his staff for leverage, Clef slowly rises to his feet.

"Are you all right, Master Mage Clef?", Chang Ang asks.

"I'm…quite weak", he says softly. "With whatever is…ailing me, I can no longer…perform any magic…for the time being."

"Chang, Treece, get Clef to his quarters", Lantis says. "We can treat him once Geo & Zazu get a biological readout of his illness, & it's best to do that in his room."

"Allow me to assist you gentlemen", Kaza says as both men nod.

"Thank you, Autozamian", Chang Ang said, & the three of them take Clef away.

"What about the rest of us? What do we do?", Lady Aska asks.

"Listen to me carefully, Lady Aska", Fuu says. "We want you, Sang-Yung, Mira, & Primera to go back to where the children are. No doubt they're pretty shaken up about having their parents taken away by those monsters, so we need you four to help keep them calm. You are all their ring leaders from now until we return. That goes for you as well, Zazu. Got it?"

Lady Aska nods confidently. "You can count on us, Fuu!", she says with equal confidence.

Fuu smiles. "Thank you, Lady Aska. I know I can."

"Be careful out there, Miss Hououji", Sang-Yung pleads. "We want you to be successful."

"Don't worry, Sang-Yung", Aska assures him. "They're the Magic Knights. How could they not be?"

"That's right", Mira steps in. "Just like last time, if we believe in the Magic Knights, they'll be triumphant no matter what comes their way."

"Now that's the team spirit we want to hear! Go ahead now, kids", Umi says as the kids nod & Aska, Sang-Yung, Mira, Zazu, & Primera exit the room.

"Before you three go", Geo stepped in, "I have some armament of my own I think you girls will find to be most useful on your task. Come with me."

"Sure, Geo", Hikaru said, following the Autozamian with Umi & Fuu. With Mokona still on her neck, the little bunny-like creature goes along for the ride.

They stop at the doors & turn when Ascot addresses them.

"Please reach those people in time, Magic Knights. We're all counting on you."

Umi smiles. "Don't worry, Ascot. We won't let you or anyone else here down."

A smile from Hikaru & Fuu later, & the three girls were gone from sight, along with Geo.

Watching them leave was hard for everyone in the room, but there was nothing they could do about it. Time was short, & they were in no shape to run after acid-blooded nightmares from God-knows-where to rescue the children's parents. In their current state, they'll most likely get killed in the attempt, & the children will all be as good as dead.

Much as they loathe it, they need to stay behind.

But some feel more dread than others.

The pillar be with you, Fuu, Ferio thought.

Please stay safe, Umi, thought Ascot.

Hikaru, I pray that you make it back to us, & most importantly, to me, Lantis thought.

It was all they could do for now.

The rest was now up to them.

CHAPTER IV

The Forest of Silence:

Once Geo supplied the girls with certain equipment for their task, the three Magic Knights raced out to where the craft had crash-landed before the monitor which kept track of it shorted out. With Mokona as their guide, they will find the ship in no time at all, thanks to his knowledge of the forest—and the jewel on his forehead supplying a built-in map. For most of the day, the girls traveled through thick trees & brush—a much-vast improvement over the time when they first ventured into it, being filled with monsters.

The chilling fact was, it still is, but of a different breed.

It was deja-vu all over again.

Dusk was quickly approaching Cephiro, with the planet's sun supplying about only an hour or so of daylight. It would be getting tougher to find the children's parents, especially if they need to search in the dark. That will also make it harder to fight the beasts should they decide to attack at that time—from what they heard from Geo & the others, the monsters have black, steel-hard skin & would blend in with the night, making them even more efficient in an assault.

But the girls made a vow to bring the parents back safely if & when they can, & if it meant searching in total darkness & fighting hordes of these new creatures to ensure success, so be it.

"Puu Puu!", Mokona says excitedly, suddenly jumping up & down, pointing to his right.

"What is it, Sir Mokona?", Fuu asks. "Are we getting near to the downed ship?"

Her answer was more 'puu puu' cries from Mokona, & he takes off in the direction he just pointed to.

"Looks like there's your answer, Fuu", Umi said. "Let's keep moving!"

"Right!", Hikaru & Fuu said, running with Umi after Mokona down a dirt path. With the way Mokona was rushing down the road, the girls must assume that they were getting close to their destination. They can only hope that if they find the ship that crashed, they'll all find the abducted parents as well.

Feeling a sense of relief, the girls & Mokona run the path even faster.

After ten minutes at a run, they all stop when they see something from a distance: it was a large slab of metal laying in the ground just outside the Forest of Silence.

"It's the ship!", Fuu said.

"We've found it! Good job, Mokona!", Umi said. Mokona says 'Puu Puu!' in gratitude.

"Come on, you guys!", Hikaru said. "Let's get this done & go home!"

Umi & Fuu nod, & the quartet resume their run towards the ship. When they finally get to it just outside the forest, the four of them pause at the massive sight before them. It was exactly the same as when Ferio & Lafarga had left it, with no signs of any other signs of damage done to its exterior anywhere, other than the open doorway, minus the door itself which the girls are just feet away from.

Even after it was explained to them, the girls still couldn't get over how big it is.

"Unbelievable!", Umi said plainly.

"This is the spot where Ferio & Lafarga found that poor man & his dog", said Fuu. "I never would've suspected that they were carrying such awful things inside their chests."

"Neither did they, Fuu. Whatever those monsters did to those two, we'd better make sure the children's parents don't end up the same way."

"And since neither Ferio nor Lafarga had a chance to check out the ship themselves, it's time we did. If the parents have been taken in there…"

"Not so fast, Fuu", Hikaru interrupted.

"Huh?"

"Hikaru?", Umi wondered. "Hikaru, the parents could be in serious trouble as we speak in there! If we're to rescue them, we shouldn't waste a precious second!"

"I'm not saying we should, Umi", Hikaru explains. "I'm just saying that we shouldn't just go in there blindly. What if the parents aren't in there but those monsters who took them are? They could be waiting right this second, ready to ambush us if we just charge in there."

After a moment of thought, Umi & Fuu nod.

"Then how do you propose we do this, Hikaru?", Umi asks.

"Mokona & I will go in alone & give it a quick check", she says. "If we see the parents or any sign of those monsters, we'll call out to you. In the meantime, you both wait out here & keep a sharp eye out for anything. And remember—just because we haven't seen these creatures yet, it doesn't mean that they're not around somewhere."

"We understand, Hikaru", Umi said.

"Be careful in there, you two", Fuu pleads.

Hikaru nods reassuringly to her two best friends before instructing Mokona to go inside the ship with her. Once inside, the interior was almost pitch black, making it extremely difficult for Hikaru to see her hand in front of her face. Mokona was hit with the same problem, but one which was easily rectified for them both as the jewel on Mokona's forehead lit up in a cone-shaped beam of ruby light, giving the place a crimson illumination. The walls now showed signs of battle everywhere—burn marks, blood spatters, claws digging into steel, & so on.

This is just like back at the castle!, Hikaru thought eerily, remembering the condition of the hallway when she, Umi, & Fuu arrived. Even Mokona was feeling the jitters of seeing the carnage of what was undoubtedly a fierce battle, just like the attack at the castle must've been.

Shaking herself out of her trance, Hikaru heads for the cockpit of the craft as Mokona keeps the way lit with his beam. The door to the cockpit was left wide open for Hikaru & Mokona to enter, & they see the same kind of carnage as they did when they first stepped inside the craft, but with more blood & bile, especially at the front console. The red-haired Magic Knight took a closer inspection of the console to see if there could be anything that looked intact & ready for use, but she can tell that everything was either ripped, smashed, or too stained with gore to work properly.

All this blood, but no signs of life anywhere.

But Hikaru & Mokona have only begun to search the ship, & they exit the cockpit to head in the opposite direction to the more open spaces aboard. Along the way, the duo check & search every room they come across while heading in the south wing, with each one being empty & void of any signs of life, not even seeing one drop of blood in those rooms.

It was when they reached the far south of the ship that they see people aboard the craft, only it wasn't what either Hikaru or Mokona had come to expect. The Magic Knight's blood ran cold as she surveyed the room with utter horror, causing her to gasp. Mokona's light shined on what can only be described as something from a horror movie: dozens & dozens of people wearing blue uniforms were laying on the floor with their chests burst open & their rib cages exposed & bent outwards, their blood caked dry at the openings & their faces pale with terror, all jaws agape. Also lying on the floor next to the corpses were things like giant hairless spiders with long prehensile tails, all lying on their backs, all dead as far as Hikaru & Mokona can see. The Magic Knight picks one up by the tail & examines it to her face.

Are these the things that caused the demise of all these people?, Hikaru wonders. They don't look like anything as the monsters Geo & the others have told us of! How can this be?

Mokona emits a low, whimpering 'puu puu', clearly telling Hikaru that he's more than a little disturbed (& scared) at what the both of them have found.

Hikaru gently caresses his head.

"I don't blame you, Mokona", she tells him softly. "This place is getting to me too. I think it's safe to assume that the children's parents are not aboard this ship."

So where the hell are they?, she thought.

That's when she heard a low noise of clanking metal, but it was more than enough to put Hikaru on full alert. Immediately she sprang to her feet & willfully drew her weapon—a sword with a red handle & jewel embedded on it.

"Hello? Is anybody in here?", she shouted, listening intently for anything which may sound like a human voice. She deduced that maybe there is one or more of the children's parents hiding within the ship—possibly an escapee/escapees who sought the derelict craft as refuge & waited until help arrived. But after waiting a minute or two, she heard no more sounds.

She turned to Mokona.

"We'd better speed up the search, Mokona!", Hikaru said. "If some of the abducted parents are here, the sooner we get them out, the better!"

Mokona gives her a 'puu puu' of approval, & the both of them rush to check out the last several rooms.

Outside the ship, Umi & Fuu kept close watch on their surroundings while awaiting their friend's return. The sun was nearly set, & the area was getting darker by the moment. Even as they attempt to stay strong, Umi & Fuu couldn't help but worry for their missing comrades.

"It's been almost an hour already, Miss Umi, & we're losing daylight fast", Fuu says. "And in all this time, we haven't received any word from Miss Hikaru, let alone Sir Mokona."

"I know what you mean, Fuu", said Umi. "If only we brought some communicating devices with us, we can talk to Hikaru from here. Unfortunately, Geo says that none of those devices will work due to the fact that they shorted out somehow."

"It's probably because it may have something to do with their monitor doing the same. Do you remember what Sir Geo said about the monitor shorting out just before we left?"

"I do remember, Fuu. But it's kind of a weird coincidence to have their communications go on the brink just as this ship arrived. Call me crazy, but I think there's more to this than what's currently going on."

"How do you mean, Miss Umi?"

Before Umi could answer, she & Fuu saw two figures appear at the ship's entrance.

"Hikaru! Mokona!", they said, rushing up to greet them.

"Umi. Fuu", Hikaru said weakly, giving her friends a feeling of worry, her sword withdrawn.

"What's wrong, Hikaru? What did you & Mokona find in there?", Umi asks desperately.

"Did you see the children's parents inside?", asked Fuu.

Hikaru shook her head.

"No, you guys", she says. "We did see people inside, but they weren't the parents. They were no doubt the ones who crash-landed with the ship here to Cephiro."

"Any survivors?", Umi asks.

"No. We saw them all dead, with their chests burst from inside."

Fuu gasped. "Just like what Ferio said happened to the man & his dog he & Sir Lafarga had brought back to the castle!"

Hikaru was about to tell Umi & Fuu of the spider-like creatures she & Mokona found with the bodies, but she suddenly got weak-kneed & began to sink to the ground.

"Miss Hikaru?", Fuu said, helping to support her friend.

"Hikaru? You all right?", Umi asks.

"I'm fine", she says groggily. "It's just that…seeing all those people killed in such a horrible way…"

"We understand, Miss Hikaru", Fuu said, leading her away from the ship's opening as Umi watched them pass. "Why don't you take a few moments to get your bearings before we resume our search?"

Hikaru nods as Fuu places her down on the ground. Taking a few deep breaths of fresh air into her lungs, Hikaru looks up to where Umi & the ship's entrance is—and her eyes go wide with fright!

"UMI!", she shouted, rising to her feet in a flash, her grogginess all but gone in that single instant, pointing in the direction of the entrance.

The blue-haired Magic Knight turns to where Hikaru points to…

…& barely misses getting her head torn off her shoulders as a black, six-fingered hand with sharp, deadly claws takes a swipe at Umi, who puts distance between her & the inhuman hand that almost kills her!

The girls regroup & willfully draw their swords as what nearly killed Umi steps out of the ship's entrance in full view of the Magic Knights, staring at the monstrosity before them. The creature stood a nightmarish two meters tall with an elongated head. It stood on two legs, with feet that had four toes & sharp claws. Four tubular dorsal spines sprouted from its back, & it had a tail which ended in a very sharp point, no doubt most useful as a stabbing weapon. The monster's body was an external, silicon-sheathed black skeleton, & looked like a hybrid of insect & reptile rolled into one. At the end of its banana-shaped head, the creature had a mouth of thin, needlelike teeth, which made a hideous hissing noise when clenched. It had no visible eyes on the front of its face, but that didn't mean that it couldn't tell it had company.

It knew the Magic Knights were there!

Without warning, the creature shot itself with inhuman speed directly at Umi, who barely got her sword up in time but couldn't use it to cut the thing in half.

"Miss Umi!", Fuu shouted as both the Magic Knight & the black monster clashed & were knocked to the ground, with the thing on top & Umi using her sword to keep the beast's jaws at bay. She was pinned down by the creature's unbelieveable strength, & she could only stare at the deadly needle-teeth that were only inches from her face, the stench of its hideous breath filling her nostrils. The thing opened its mouth, & Umi was staring in shock to see a second pair of jaws from within, also equipped with those sharp, needle-teeth!

The second mouth sprang out at Umi, who only had a split-second to avoid the impact by the iner mouth by moving her head over to the right before it could make contact. But by the way the creature had her pinned, Umi knew she couldn't keep avoiding death forever, & it was bound to get her sooner or later.

But she has friends, & they step in to help her.

"Emerald Typhoon!", Fuu called out, summoning a stream of strong wind from her hand which knocks the monster off of Umi & throws it against the ground with a screech. The creature gets up almost instantly, but Hikaru rushes at it with her sword & takes a swipe at the head. In a moment, all movement has stopped, as the beast & the three Magic Knights stay very still like statues.

Then the whole front of the monster's head falls off & hits the ground with a hiss as its acid blood eats away at the dirt & rocks it touches. Its remaining body falls to the ground with it, the blood there doing the same. Hikaru looks at her sword which smokes, but not one part of it gets eaten away by the thing's deadly blood.

So Presea was right, Hikaru thought. Escudo is the hardest material in all of Cephiro. It's no wonder she made our swords from it!

"Miss Umi!", Fuu cried, running over to assist her friend. "Are you all right?"

"I'll live", she replied, getting up on her feet. She looks to where the thing now lay dead.

"So that must be the creature which attacked the castle & took the parents captive!", said Fuu.

"And there's going to be more of them!", Umi said. "I suggest we keep our swords drawn at all times from this point forth!"

Hikaru nods. "Good idea, Umi!", she says. "Considering how viciously they attack, we can't be caught off-guard for them to pick us off, or else we'll end up like those inside that ship!"

"But first we need to seal off that door to the ship. If any more of those monsters are inside that thing…"

"Permit me, Miss Umi", Fuu said, calling out 'Winds of Admonishment' & releasing tendrils of green from her hand. The tendrils wrap themselves around a trio of trees which Fuu uses to uproot them from the ground. Sending them to the direction of the ship, Fuu slams all three trees into the opening, causing pieces of wood to fly in many directions.

Then Umi goes one step further.

"Icicle blades!", she calls out, showering the edges with sticks of icicles from her palm that were pointed at both ends. The icicles create a thick seal all around, freezing upon contact both the metal & wood, making it close to petrified.

"That will keep any of those monsters inside or out!", Umi said.

"Good work, you two!", said Hikaru. "Once we're done rescuing the children's parents from those creatures, Lantis, Geo, & the rest of us can deal with the ship!"

"But where to now, Miss Hikaru?", Fuu wondered. "We know now that the parents are not inside the craft. Where do we begin to search for them again?"

Good question, Fuu, Hikaru thought. The girls planned to go to the ship first because it was where Geo & the others believed where the creatures took the parents, since they had arrived on Cephiro via the craft. But with the dead inside there not being the people they've been searching for, they've now reached a dead end.

And there are a lot of places for things like those beasts to hide on Cephiro.

A rustling in the bushes brought the girls in a fighting stance once more, their swords at the ready & their senses keen, poised for anything. The rustling sound originated at about sixteen feet from where Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu now stood as a group as Mokona stands behind them, prepared to strike at the first sight of one of the monsters that dare to set foot on the other land they love dearly, second only to Tokyo.

The rustling continued for another five seconds before the cause of the noise is revealed to be nothing more than a lone wolf pup as it steps out from the undergrowth into full view. Eyeing the Magic Knights, the wolf pup lets out a small soft yelp before running off into the forest.

Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu each take a deep breath & let it out, allowing themselves the chance to relax after a tense moment.

How do you like that?, Umi thought with sarcasm. The three legendary Magic Knights who lets a wolf pup of all things puts us in a somewhat paranoid state. How embarrassing!

But that moment comes to an end quickly: a heartbeat later, the three girls were attacked at all sides by a living tide of the monster they just fought & killed, jumping out from the trees & behind the ship they just sealed up. The Magic Knights were overtaken by the creatures before one of them can even bring her sword in motion or call out a magic spell to put distance between them.

More & more of the creatures came, & Hikaru, fighting & struggling within the living sea of black, claws, & teeth, barely sees Mokona in the distance.

"Go, Mokona! Run! Get out of here! Head back to the castle!", she managed to shout as more of the monsters closed in on her, Umi, & Fuu. Hikaru's sudden shout gave Mokona the urge to get himself moving, & not a moment too soon. One of the creatures has spotted the little pink animal & starts after him with lightning speed. But as fast as it was, Mokona was faster, if just by a hair.

Bouncing & calling out 'puu puu!' in a frightening manner, Mokona escapes the creature's grasp, who gives up on him & turns to its brethren.

Valiantly, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu fight & struggle with all their might, punching & kicking with their arms & legs, but it was futile: at close range, the monsters were physically a lot stronger & faster than anything that encountered them. All the girls could see was a swarm of claws & teeth in a sea of black.

It was the last thing they saw before all three girls slipped into a state of unconsciousness.

Hikaru didn't know how long she was out for as she slowly regained consciousness. She opens her eyes to a dark & secluded place, surrounded by rock. While she didn't know how much time has passed since losing consciousness, she does remember how it happened—she, Umi, & Fuu were all attacked by a swarm of black, steel-hard skinned monsters that kept crushing them under their tremendous weight & overwhelming them.

Umi! Fuu!, she recalls in her mind. Not knowing just how much danger they could currently be in at the moment, Hikaru gets herself going but suddenly discovers she can't go anywhere: she finds herself adhesively attached to the stone wall of what appears to be a cave or cavern of some kind by some epoxylike resin, translucent in color.

Those monsters must've done this to me!, she thought, & probably believed Umi & Fuu to be in the same kind of predicament. Unless I miss my guess, this place must be where those monsters have settled in, which means the children's parents must be here as well! I gotta get loose so that I can save them—and my friends!

Hikaru struggled fiercely in an attempt to get herself free, but she was stuck to the wall but good. The goo that held her had hardened like cement, & the only part of her body she can move is her head, along with her fingers. But Hikaru wasn't one to give up so easily, especially when the lives of innocent people & her friends were on the line. Closing her eyes, she concentrates on her inner strength, focusing on her power of fire. In moments, her body begins to glow a slight red all over, & the epoxyilke substance begins to smoke & bubble, turning it more fluidly rather than stiff material. With the stuff now weakened, Hikaru now uses her physical strength to pull herself free & off the wall, making a sound like bones cracking.

Now that she was free, Hikaru willed for her sword but discovered that her glove was gone from her hand. She needs to find it & fast, if she wishes to help her friends & everyone else who may very well be caught in this nightmare of a place. Seeing no one else in the space with her, she heads down a tunnel, trying to look everywhere at once for survivors, her friends, & any trouble which she knows is here.

For a full two minutes, Hikaru saw nothing, except the rock walls decorated by some strange formation that seemed organic & mechanical in nature.

But when she entered a larger room measuring a whopping sixty, sixty-five feet all around in diameter & twenty-five feet high, Hikaru's blood became like ice water & her eyes were agape with fright. There were people who were bound to the walls as Hikaru herself had been, but some of them were grotesquely twisted, their limbs bent in directions they weren't meant to. The color of their skins were pale, & each had the expression of dying in complete agony, their eyes wide & their mouths open as far as they could be. Most had a fist-sized hole in their chest, with the bones of their ribs bent outwards, caked with blood. On the floor were several oval-shaped objects a third of a meter high with three opened flaps & bodies of spiderlike creatures—the same ones Hikaru saw from inside the ship at the Forest of Silence!

But this isn't what disturbed the Magic Knight the most; she recognized a good number of the people bound to the wall, & the realization comes to her mind like a knife.

These people are the children's parents!, she thought unsteadily. We're too late!

Then she heard a person coughing not six feet from her. She turned to find a woman & ran to her,her face inches from the woman's.

"Hold on! I'm gonna get you out of here!", Hikaru says, grabbing a piece of the hardened substance & began pulling.

"You're one of the…Magic Knights, aren't you?", the woman wondered.

"Yes! Don't worry—I'm gonna help you & whoever's left alive & get you back home!"

"You can't. It's…too late for us. I'm the last one left alive."

That caused Hikaru to stop.

"Don't say that! I won't let you die by these monsters!"

"But I…already am dead."

"What do you mean?"

"When these things…attacked the castle, they took us here…so that they can breed. After placing us to the wall…they brought an egg in front of each of us…when they open up, things with…eight legs & a long tail leapt up & attached themselves…to our faces. Then they plant some kind of…embryo within our chests before dying shortly after, hence the…bodies you see on the ground. Not long after that…they begin to evolve, & when they're ready,they…"

That's when the woman started to groan loudly & coughed violently, spurting up blood.

"What is it?", Hikaru demanded, although she had a dreaded feeling she already knows. She stepped back as the woman now started to yell in pain & her chest bulged out from within, blood forming from it.

Oh god! This is just like in the dream I had of Lantis & me!, Hikaru thought with a chill as the woman's chest abruptly opened up, spraying the Magic Knight with flesh, bone, & blood. The woman's screams of pain was cut off as a new sound—a low screech coming from within the cavity of the woman's chest as a small head with no eyes & a mouth full of sharp teeth emerges & suddenly shoots itself out into the open. Hikaru tried to fry the thing with her 'Flame Arrow' attack, but the creature was gone in the blink of an eye, roasting some of the open eggs & dead spider creatures instead.

Is this the same fate that awaits Umi & Fuu?, she thought before shaking the terrible thought from her head. No! I can't believe that! I won't believe that! Hang on, you two! I'm coming!

Seeing she could do no more for the people here, Hikaru broke into a run, praying she isn't too late to save them, but not before dropping a small object the size & shape of a hockey puck onto the ground.

The red-haired Magic Knight ran down a tunnel at top speed, hoping it's the one that will lead her to Umi & Fuu, especially since she has no layout of the place she currently resides in. If she had to guess, she'd surmise that she's somewhere inside a mountain with numerous caverns like a labyrinth. But she concludes that the monsters themselves know the area, having the time to familiarize with their surroundings, & it's the only thing preventing Hikaru from yelling out their names. If they attack her now before she can reach her friends, they might kill her first before placing her back on the wall, & with no clue as to where she is, she daren't risk it.

In short, she puts one foot wrong in these caverns, she's as good as dead.

Five minutes later, Hikaru comes to another open area but smaller than the previous, about only half the width & height, if not less. Slowing herself when she enters, Hikaru takes a good look around—and immediately finds her friends clung to the wall & still out of it as she had been. An egg was placed near their feet, but it wasn't as bad as it seemed:neither one has opened yet, giving Hikaru time to save them.

Umi! Fuu!, she thought, going ahead towards them, pressing her back & staying close to the wall so as not to attract any unwanted attention. Step by step, she slides against the wall, keeping as silent as she could as she gets closer to her trapped friends. When she looks down, she sees one of the monsters on all fours & freezes completely. The thing was laid down like a dog & appears to be sleeping like one. But that gave Hikaru no comfort—it could wake up at any moment, & it will attack her on first sight, sending the others. Either that, or the eggs in front of her friends will open up & she'll be too late to save them like she was with the children's parents.

Stuck with a difficult dilemma, Hikaru didn't know what to do.

Then the dog-like creature suddenly woke up.

Surprisingly, it doesn't even register the Magic Knight's appearance in the place, looking straight ahead instead. But Hikaru knew better than to try & attack it: she stood perfectly still, not even daring to breathe. Her heart was pounding like a jackhammer in her chest, & the creature was on the move, going past the Magic Knight as its tail swished back & forth. The sharp tip of its tail struck against the wall at a spot only a fraction of an inch from Hikaru's face on the right. She watched as the creature stepped away from her & exit the way she had entered. Once it was out of sight, Hikaru checked on Umi & Fuu to see that the eggs in front of them still haven't hatched, & after waiting another minute or two, she ran to them while setting a small, low fire to burn the unopened eggs & killing the creatures within.

The heat from the flames began to revive the two captive Magic Knights.

"Umi! Fuu!", Hikaru said their names firm but soft.

Umi & Fuu opened their eyes fully to find their friend in front of them. Before either of them could speak, Hikaru placed a finger to her lips to silence them as she helped get Umi out, starting with her right arm. Once it was free, Umi willed for her sword & used it to cut the rest of herself free before working on getting Fuu loose from the wall.

Fuu wills for her sword as well.

"Glad to see you two are all right", Hikaru said.

"Same with you, Hikaru", said Umi. "How'd you manage to free yourself?"

"I simply heated the substance until it was loose enough for me to pull free."

"Brilliant, Miss Hikaru", said Fuu, noticing the missing glove from her hand. "Where's your glove? Shouldn't you be wearing it?"

"It must've dropped off my hand as these monsters brought us in here. I had no time to look for it."

"We should find it as soon as we can before we get surrounded by those things again", Umi says. "Then we'll search for the children's parents…"

"But I've already found them, Umi", Hikaru says solemnly.

"You did?", Fuu says. "That's wonderful, Miss Hikaru!"

"No it's not, Fuu."

"What are you talking about, Hikaru?", Umi wondered.

"Because…", Hikaru paused for a moment before telling them, a lump in her throat forming which made it somewhat difficult. "Because they're dead."

"Dead?", Umi said, disbelieving. "How many?"

Hikaru swallowed hard. "All of them", she says softly.

The news hit Umi & Fuu like a nasty slap in the face. They all cursed themselves mentally for not finding the captives in time. How could they not? And how are they going to explain to the children & everyone else who were all counting on them to bring them back safely when they had just failed in their task? How could they have let this happen?

Grief-stricken as they are, Hikaru knows they need to put it all aside for the time being: the girls have to get rid of the monsters responsible for their deaths, or else they'll be joining them shortly.

"Hey you guys, I'm as shaken up by this as either of you, but we've no time to grieve right now. If those monsters aren't stopped…"

"You're right", said Umi. "It hurts to know we failed to save the parents, but we need to put an end to these things, & right now!"

"I agree with you both", said Fuu. "Saddened as I am by their deaths, we can at least make sure that they will not have died in vain! I say that now is the time to use the devices Sir Geo has supplied us with!"

Fuu pulls out her device from her pocket, as does Umi.

"Where's yours, Hikaru?", asked the latter.

"I set it down where I found all the deceased parents", Hikaru explains, going into her own pocket to take out a different device. "Luckily I still have the remote which will set them all off at once at the push of a button."

"Good", said Fuu. "Once you do, all three of our devices will simultaneously release a gas that is highly flammable & will spread throughout this compound. Another press of a button will ignite the gas with explosive results."

"That's the plan, Fuu", Hikaru says. "But first I need to find my glove."

A shine catches the corner of Umi's eye, & she turns left to see a shining light of crimson at one of two entranceways of the room.

"I think that's it over there, Hikaru!", she says, pointing to show her friend where the red shine is coming from. The red-haired Magic Knight looks to where Umi points at & sees it for herself, feeling relieved.

"Good eye, Umi! Thanks!", Hikaru said, wasting no time to retrieve what was rightfully hers.

When she looks down to the floor, she saw exactly what it was she hoped for—it is her glove! She reaches down to pick it up, but when her fingers are only an inch away from it, she hears a skittering sound to her right. Taking a fast glance in that direction, she finds one of the spider creatures leaping straight for her at a fantastic speed.

Barely able to get her hands up to her face, both Hikaru & the creature crash to the ground.

"Hikaru!", Umi & Fuu cried, seeing their friend in danger. Their swords at the ready, they begin to rush to her aide, but are distracted by a sound that grows louder by the second—a chorus of screeching.

Turning, they find themselves staring at a dozen of the monsters, racing right for them.

Hikaru struggled against the thing which desperately wanted to attach itself to her face, its legs opening & closing like clawed fingers, its tail whipping around like a snake. It was now two or three inches away from her face, waving a tube underneath it, trying to force its way into her mouth.

Between the thing's legs & her own fingers, Hikaru can barely make out her glove to her left, only a few inches away. Using her right arm to keep the creature at bay, she pushes herself over towards it, reaching out with her left hand. The spider creature pushes itself towards Hikaru with more brute force, determined to plant itself onher face as she is to push it away.

She was now within reach of her glove.

It was only a slight touch, but it was all she needed: the glove magically & instantly became grafted onto her hand, & she was now able to draw her sword, appearing in her hand. Using it as a wedge between her & the thing, she uses her weapon to pry it off & away from her.

"Get the hell off me, you slimy thing!", Hikaru barked, getting to her feet. That same time, the creature launched itself at her again, but Hikaru swung her sword at it, slicing it in half as its two halves fall to the ground in different spots, both twittering & twitching before finally staying still.

She avoided the acid blood, & her sword was undamaged, even as it smoked.

"Emerald Typhoon!", Fuu called out, creating a powerful wind from her palm that pushes the monsters back as a group, tumbling over each other in a jumble of limbs. This did not deter them: in seconds, they were all after Umi & Fuu again just as they were before, ready to attack.

So were Umi & Fuu.

"Emerald Cyclone!", Fuu called out.

"Icicle Blades!", Umi called out.

A tide of green energy & double-pointed icicles rushed at the oncoming creatures, hitting the swarm with deadly accuracy. The girl's attacks punctured the monster's tough hides, causing acid to splash around everywhere & the creatures to screech out in pain. Not one of them was spared the deadly barrage, & in mere moments the monsters were all brought down, their hides smoking with their blood.

"Are you all right, Miss Umi?", Fuu asked.

"I'll live", Umi replied. "But we'd better plant Geo's devices & get out of this place! There's no telling just how many of those monsters are scurrying around!"

Fuu nodded, & she & Umi went over to where Hikaru was standing, who looked very much like a statue, staring directly into what lay beyond.

"Let's hurry, Hikaru! We need to…", Umi started to say, then stopped.

"Miss Hikaru?", Fuu said, wondering as to why she doesn't respond. The two look in the same direction Hikaru was, wondering what she was looking at which could make her so speechless & unresponsive.

Then it was their turn to do the same.

The room was massive in height & width, but that wasn't what the Magic Knights found so unbelievable—or terrifying. The ground was filled with the eggs that lay at the people's feet, & it was what was laying them that they found a very horrifying sight. It was suspended dead center in the room—a gigantic silhouette of a creature with a distended abdomen. The thing measured about twice or three times the size of the other creatures, & had two pairs of arms—a regular pair with six-fingered clawed hands, & a second smaller pair that jutted out from its midsection, having hands that only had three clawed fingers. Its head was also twice as large as the others, measuring close to its own body length. The back of it is shaped like a pointed comb, flat & flaring. A large tubular sac rested between its hind legs & long, pointed segmented tail that was suspended by the same epoxylike ichor that held the girls & the people in place on the wall, only on a much larger scale & thicker. It had six pointed dorsal spines on its back, & it made a deep sound, sounding like someone with a really bad case of asthma.

Another egg comes out of the large sac through a hole at the end with a sick slurping noise next to a pair already laid out.

So that's where all those eggs are coming from!, Hikaru thought. That big creature must be their queen!

This realization caused Hikaru's fear to sink like a ship & her anger & rage to rise like a balloon filled with helium. Her sword still in hand, she sliced through the nearest cluster of eggs which were nearest to her, killing each of the spider creatures from within. Seeing this atrocity to her unborn brethren, the queen screeched angrily but remained where she was. With literal fire burning through her eyes, Hikaru stared at the eyeless queen (& vice versa) as both ladies—human & monster—were developing a rapidly growing hatred for one another.

And that was only the beginning.

The thought of what the queen & her brood has done to Cephiro, its peaceful inhabitants & all the friends the Magic Knights have made here, along with the fact that they have been too late in saving the children's parents, only fueled Hikaru's literally burning hate for the monsters.

"Flame Arrow!", Hikaru shouts angrily, unable to control or even conceal the rage dwelling inside her as flames emit from the palm of her hand & roast the queen's eggs alive. All eggs that are within reach of the Magic Knight's attack are cooked to a black mass of scorched leather & flesh. Watching the young red-haired girl burn her unborn to death made the queen screech like a locomotive that's gone out of control and/or insane, & she starts moving around wildly in an effort to break free of her womb, enraged as hell like Hikaru herself.

The red-haired Magic Knight continued her flame attack on the queen's eggs relentlessly until Umi & Fuu caught her attention.

"Incoming!", they shouted, seeing even more of the monsters coming down the corridor in greater numbers than before, no doubt to help protect their queen as ants or bees would.

"Emerald Typhoon!", Fuu called out, creating a gust of wind that pushes the creatures back into each other. The light brown-haired Magic Knight kept her attack up, but it was a strenuous effort, for the monsters were pushing themselves against Fuu's powerful gust of wind, digging their clawed hands & feet into the ground & walls.

Dammit, these monsters just don't give up!, Fuu said to herself, unbelieving that anything could withstand her wind attack like this.

"Miss Hikaru! Miss Umi!", Fuu called to them. "My wind attack won't keep them at bay for much longer! If we're going to go with Geo's plan, now is the time!"

"I couldn't agree more, Fuu!", Umi said, taking out her disc-shaped device & throwing in right into the queen's chamber & at thye queen herself, who was still struggling to tear free from her egg sac, which had now caught fire.

"Done! Let's get out of here!"

"Let me lay down some cover fire first!", Hikaru said, calling out 'Ruby Lightning' as she forms a red ball of energy between her hands & shoots it skyward, hitting the ceiling. The blast was more than enough to cause large boulders to tumble down upon the creatures, forcing them to withdraw back to avoid being crushed from above, although one or two managed to get so.

"Run…now!", Hikaru shouted, & the three Magic Knights broke into a full-scale run out the exit near the queen's chamber. Another blast from Hikaru's 'Ruby Lightning' attack hits the ceiling of the new corridor, & a fresh batch of rocks fall down & block the entrance almost fully.

Already the monsters were clawing & pushing away at the boulders blocking the way, each of them screeching & hissing.

"That won't stop them for long!", Umi said. "We need to plant the last device & get out—fast!"

"Let's see where this corridor will take us!", said Fuu. "I have the final device—I'll place it at a suitable location, & then Miss Hikaru will set them all off once we're at a safe distance!"

Hikaru & Umi nod, & the trio head down their only path which wasn't infested with any monsters.

For three whole minutes (which felt like hours to the girls), Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu race through the cavern, trying to find an appropriate place to put the third & last device given to them by Geo before starting their mission—and to find a way out. So far, their luck has held, not running into any of the monsters which inhabit the place, but the girls knew not to push their luck too much—at any given second, they could be swamped by them, cutting their chances of success & survival literally in half.

Reaching an open area, the girls check it out really quick to make sure there are none of the creatures laying around, waiting to take them captive or outright kill them. They found no living things inside, but they do see lots of unopened eggs. It was the moment the Magic Knights waited for: Fuu wastes no time going into her pocket & taking out the third device, tossing it in as far as she could, which lands in the middle.

It was perfect. Now they just have to make it out alive to see their plan come to fruition.

Keeping their swords drawn for any trouble between now & their escape, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu reach a 'T' in the corridor, & pause.

Panting, the girls use this brief moment to catch their breath.

"Two ways to go", said Fuu. "Which path should we take?"

"Whichever way we go, we stay together", said Hikaru. "We get separated now, we'll be in it deep!"

"Agreed!", Umi & Fuu said in unison.

Hikaru looks down the corridor to her right, but all she can see is only more darkness—a possible dead end, & an even more likely death trap. She then looks to the left of the corridor, & from a far distance she could see something that resembles a beam of light, however faint it may be from where she stood.

From her point of view, it looked like a possible escape to the outside.

"This way, you guys!", Hikaru says, running towards what looked to be their way out with Umi & Fuu staying close behind. Before they could ask her anything, they too see the faint beam of light coming in through the crack in the rocks.

"Now we see why you chose this way, Hikaru!", Umi says. "That looks like moonlight up ahead!"

"It is moonlight, Miss Umi!", said Fuu. "It's becoming more apparent the closer we get to it! Good choice, Miss Hikaru!"

"Thanks, Fuu!", Hikaru praised. "Just a little further & I'll blast us a clearing out of here!"

Keeping their pace, the girls get within twenty feet of the blocked exit before coming to a dead stop when they see the silhouettes of half a dozen pairs of needle-toothed mouths in the darkness. The creatures rise to their full height & hiss threateningly at the Magic Knights, ready to rip them to pieces. From behind the girls, the screeching echoes of even more of the beasts hit the ears of the Magic Knights, a sound that never fails in making their blood run cold.

"Oh no you monsters don't!", Fuu said menacingly. "Not when we're this close!"

You got that right,Fuu!, Hikaru thought. "Ruby Lightning!", she calls out, summining forth another ball of crimson energy from her hands before driving forward at both the monsters & the blocked exit. The attack blew apart two of the beasts to pieces & did the same to the rocks which were lodged at the exit, blowing away a clear & wide escape route as the moonlight illuminated the four remaining creatures in their way.

"Icicle Blades!", Umi called out, shooting forth another volley of deadly icicles at one of the beasts, piercing its thick hide as it screeched its death throes & spasmed it hit the ground. At that same time, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu used their swords to make short work of the last three things as they rushed at each one, slicing off two at their heads & the last one right down the middle in half.

With no other obstacles in their way, the Magic Knights literally dive out of the opening & slide down the mountainside as Hikaru turns to the opening & launches another one of her 'Ruby Lightning' attacks above the exit, releasing a small avalanche of boulders down over it, sealing it up just as more of the monsters reach it,crushing two.

"Good job, Hikaru!", Umi said. "Now let's really give it to them!"

"Way ahead of you, Umi!", Hikaru replied back, reaching into her pocket & taking out the remote Geo handed her. Pressing the green button on it, the girls continue sliding on down the mountainside, picking up speed.

Inside the mountain, the three devices the girls have placed begin spreading an odorless, green gas which quickly spreads throughout. The monsters inside don't even acknowledge the gas, either because they sense it as no threat to them or because they're too concentrated on both finding & killing the three girls who have escaped their domain. In no time, the whole inside was filled to the brim with green gas, & two minutes afterwards, a small amount of another type of gas—a red kind—starts spilling out of the three devices the girls have placed within. That small spill was more than enough to ignite the chemicals in the green mist, & like a flash of lightning in a thunderstorm, scorching flames race throughout the inside of the mountain like some sort of otherworldly Indy 500 race. Everything within its reach was burned & incinerated—the eggs, the corpses, everything. When the flames reached the creatures themselves, they had released an ear-piercing screech in total agony before being melted and/or blown to pieces by the intense heat.

The Magic Knights had reached the ground & took off running for cover when the entire mountain suddenly shook from an explosion within it. Even though the mountain concealed the blast, the immediate area trembled from the aftershock, & the Magic Knights were knocked off of their feet & fell on their hands & knees. After the vibrations ceased, the girls got back to their feet & stared first at the mountain, then at each other. None of them could speak; it was a hollow victory—they killed the monsters, but couldn't save the children's parents.

It was Umi who broke the silence, a melancholy look on her face.

"Come on. Let's start heading back to the castle", she said softly as Hikaru & Fuu nodded solemnly. On their way back, they each knew they had to break the news to everyone once they arrive. As to how they were going to tell them, none had the slightest idea.

But at least they know one thing for certain.

This nightmare was over.

CHAPTER V

The journey going back took longer than the girls expected. It wasn't because they didn't know the way back, even without Mokona's guidance: they can see the tallest spire of the castle even from their point of view, which was quite the distance. The reason was because they had to give thought on how to explain to everyone on how they failed on saving the people they were intended to save. That was a tough enough task, almost as fighting the monsters were. To distract them from that rigorous chore, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu spent the good part of the night going over the characteristics of the creatures they fought, from the eggs the queen lays to the warriors they've battled against.

"Let me see if I got this straight, Miss Hikaru", Fuu says. "This queen we saw lays the eggs in her chamber, then her 'children', for use of a better word, places them in front of their intended victims after immobilizing them. When the eggs hatch or 'open up', this spiderlike creature which you've named the 'facehugger' attaches itself to the host, forces a tube down the throat, & plants an embryo within the host's chest. The facehugger then falls off the victim & dies, completing its primary function. Some time later, an eel-like creature you call the 'chestburster' grows inside the host & makes its way out, creating an instant death sentence for the host. The chestburster then grows to an adult at a remarkable rate."

"That about sums it up, Fuu", Hikaru says. "If one needs to make an assumption on their lifestyle & characteristics, I'd say that they live only to breed & kill. They don't seem intelligent in the sense that people are, but they're very cunning & relentless. But then, you guys don't need me to tell you that part."

"I suppose not, Hikaru", Umi said without sarcasm. "But I most agree with your assumptions on these things—and with Fuu's. 'Facehuggers', 'chestbursters'—these names you came up with fit their personalities to a 'T', Hikaru. I've never seen a species like this before anywhere. They all seem so…alien."

"Then that's what I believe we should call them from this point on, Miss Umi…Aliens", Fuu said. "Let us not forget that they were brought here to Cephiro via spacecraft. I guess the only consolation of them is that these beasts weren't created from the people's fears like the last times we were here."

"Even if they were, Fuu, they shouldn't even exist", Hikaru said.

"How so, Hikaru?", Umi asks.

The Magic Knights stop as a group as Hikaru explains. "At that moment when I became the new pillar of Cephiro, not only did I fix it so that it wouldn't need a pillar, but also so that new monsters wouldn't be created through the people's fears. Now that I've 'repaired' the pillar, no monsters would appear no matter how scared the people would get, & Cephiro wouldn't crumble like it did when Princess Emeraude was the pillar—or after we 'granted her final wish'."

That remark made the girls go silent for a moment. Their decision to kill Princess Emeraude at that crucial time still weighed on them; not as much as it did then, but it was enough. At times each one had hoped there was another way to save her without doing what they did. But they know not to dwell too much on the past. What's done was done, & going back into the past to undo something so terrible was one piece of magic the girls cannot perform any more than Master Mage Clef can.

That, & Hikaru doesn't want to create another being like Nova from her heart & begin to hurt those she loves most of all, like Umi & Fuu, or even Lantis.

Like the rest of Cephiro, it was time to move on.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to say that, or to bring up old wounds", Hikaru said.

"Think nothing of it, Miss Hikaru", said Fuu. "Some things are just too hard to forget, even if you try to."

"You're right, Fuu. Thanks. But if I may say, it's no consolation that these aliens came from space & not the people's fears. We may have wiped them from Cephiro, but we failed to save the children's parents like we said we would. As hard as it will be for us, they need to be told the truth."

Umi looks to the right. "Well, there's the castle just a hundred or so yards away", she says. "I guess if we're going to do this, now's the time. You guys ready?"

Hikaru & Fuu look in Umi's direction & see the castle themselves. It was kind of funny in a way: they've been walking a good portion of the night to get to the castle, & they never realized just how close they are to it now.

Hope Mokona made it back safely, Hikaru thought, wondering if their little companion is safe & alive when he bolted away from the aliens.

"No time like the present, Umi", she says, facing her & Fuu, who both nod, & the trio start heading the rest of the way to the castle.

Once they were inside, they were greeted by the man called Treece in the hallway—the last one they were in before taking off on their mission.

"Sir Treece", said Fuu.

"Magic Knights", Treece replied. "It's good to see you three made it back here alive."

"I only wish the same were true of all the abducted parents, Sir Treece. We…couldn't get to them in time."

Treece sagged his head. The thought of losing people he'd known for many years all in the course of a day or two hit him like a ton of bricks. It made it worse for him knowing that he was the only one who managed to escape abduction from the aliens & spared a horrible death. If he can exchange places with even one of them, he wouldn't hesitate.

"I'm sorry to hear that", Treece says, lifting his head. "It's most unfortunate. Those people meant everything to me."

"Please forgive us, Treece", Umi begged. "We did everything we could—everything."

"Please, Umi, don't you or your two companions blame yourselves for their demise. They may have been dead long before you even got to them. I only wished we could've went out to save them ourselves, but as you pointed out, we were in no condition to, & the children had to be safely guarded in case those monsters returned here."

"You are right about them being dead before we reached them, Treece", Hikaru said. "I was in the chamber where they were all adhered to the wall to be hosts for those aliens."

"'Aliens'?"

"It's the name of the monsters we gave them, considering they came from space."

"I see."

Umi looks around the hallway. "Treece, where is everybody?", she wondered. "I had thought there would be more than just you to await our return."

"They're all waiting for you three in one of the rooms down the hall", Treece explains. "Let me take you all to it, & then you can tell us just what happened out there in your battle with these 'aliens' you call them."

The Magic Knights nod.

Time to face the music, Fuu thought.

With Treece as their guide, the Magic Knights were led down the hall to where the others await the ir arrival, as Treece had said. Even now, the castle seemed empty & quiet—an eerie kind of quiet that made the hairs in the back of the girl's heads go on end. Neither Hikaru, Umi, or Fuu could explain it: was it because Clef & the rest would scold them for failing in their mission? Was it because of all the death the girls have seen in both the downed spacecraft & the mountain? Or was it because they were so close to death themselves tonight?

Whatever the reason, the Magic Knights felt it, which quickly spread throughout their bodies.

But they fought to keep it under control, not wanting Treece to worry for their well-being.

"And here we are, my dears", Treece said, gesturing with his hand to permit them to enter first. When Hikaru opens the door, they were met with an unexpected surprise: Clef & everyone else were at a rectangular table with rounded corners with a large screen at the far wall.

And they were all bound to hoverchairs by energy rings which circle their arms, legs, & torsos!

Only three of the chairs in the large room were empty.

"Magic Knights!", Presea, Caldina, Lafarga, Ferio, Lantis, Geo, Chang Ang, & Ascot say.

"Hikaru. Umi. Fuu", Clef says weakly.

Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu enter the room & head for their friends, but that's when they hear two sets of noises—the sounds of guns clicking, & a voice that was familiar.

"Ah, the Magic Knights! I see you all survived your encounter with those monsters! I must say I'm highly impressed—you girls are farstronger than we've been told!"

The Magic Knights turn to the voice, & just as they expected, it was Geo's brother Bio & his good friend Kaza Rosque. But what they didn't expect was the two Autozamians pointing their guns to their heads. Lantis' sword hung on Bio's belt.

"Bio! Kaza! What the hell do you two think you're doing?", Umi says in a state of shock.

"Patience, my dear", Bio says calmly as if nothing wrong was afoot. "All will be revealed to you once you three kindly take a seat."

"No! You will tell us what this is all about now, Sir Bio!", Fuu said firmly. "Sir Treece, tell them to lower their weapons &…"

Fuu was interrupted by another sound of a gun clicking, & the trio turn to him to see Treece himself holding & pointing a gun at them, surprising & shocking the girls even more.

"I'm terribly sorry, girls, but I'm afraid I can't do that!", he says.

"Treece? You too?", Umi says.

"Me too! Now do as they ask of you, please!"

The Magic Knights turn to Bio & Kaza with irate looks on their faces & clenched fists.

"No! Either you two let all our friends go, or so help me I'll…!", Hikaru started growling.

"No, girls, don't…!", Geo started to shout, but was cut off by three rapid shots from Kaza's gun. The shots struck the floor from where the Magic Knights were standing, each one missing their toes by a fraction of an inch. Even though they weren't hit, the girls felt the impact of each shot in their feet as if they had been, staring at the still-smoking gun Kaza wields.

The Magic Knights hardly saw him move the gun before it even went off.

"Don't try it, girls!", Geo says. "Kaza's a deadshot & an ace on the draw! Except for Eagle himself, there's no one who can match him on it!"

"I'd listen to my brother if I were you three", Bio said. "Those three shots were just a mere warning. The next ones, however, won't be. And just in case you're thinking of using magic to fend us off, you can't. You see, there's a barrier surrounding the castle that stretches out for several meters. When you girls came inside, you became affected by its spell, just like everybody else in here. Your swords, on the other hand, are a different matter for some reason. You can still draw them, but let's not be hasty, shall we? I'd really hate to have Kaza kill you three before you hear what's going on, so I'm going to have to insist that you hand them over. Hurry, please."

Hateful, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu obediently remove their gloves from their left hands & hand them over to Bio, who gleefully takes them with an evil smile on his face. As much as they want to, none of them dared make a move on Geo's traitorous brother; Kaza will take them down in the blink of an eye.

"Satisfied?", Hikaru growled.

"It's a start", Bio said, stuffing the gloves in his pocket. "Now, your seats, if you will."

Reluctantly, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu walk over to the three empty seats & sit. Immediately, rings of energy wrap them half a dozen times—two at their legs, arms, & torsos like everyone else.

When the girls were bound, Treece lowered his weapon & closed the door.

"Magic Knights", Clef says with more energy than he felt. "I take it the children's parents could not have be saved?"

"No, Clef", Umi said. "We arrived to them too late. Not one of them made it out alive—they had all become hosts for those aliens, just like that man & his dog you brung here."

They all bowed their heads in sorrow upon hearing the news.

"All those innocent people…dead", Ascot says with a low tone. "I can't believe it."

"Ah don't wanna believe it either,sugah", Caldina said. "But ah take the Magic Knights on their word."

"Words cannot describe how utterly terrible we feel for failing all of you", Fuu said. "None of us will blame you for loathing us because of it."

That made them raise their heads as Ferio spoke. "Loathe you three? Fuu, we'd sooner cut off our left foots! How can we possibly loathe you for something that's not your fault?"

"But we failed…", Hikaru started before she was cut off.

"So did we", said Lantis. "We couldn't prevent those 'aliens' as you call them from taking the parents in the first place."

"We also couldn't predict that this Bio gentleman & his friend Kaza to turn traitor on us & take us all captive like he did!", Chang Ang said bitterly. "The same goes for Treece!"

Treece just turned away.

"Aw, come now, elder", Bio said. "Treece is mearly seeing the bigger picture. He knows just what's at stake, so please don't blame him."

Umi turned angrily to Bio & Kaza. "Why, you two?", she barked. "Why turn stool pigeon on everyone & betray them like this?"

"I believe it best to simply show you, Umi", Bio continued, taking out a small box with a red button on it & presses it. The screen on the wall—thirty feet wide & half that distance tall—opens up in the middle & separate, revealing a hidden arboretum behind the glass that covers it.

"This arboretum was added by Geo, Zazu, Kaza, & myself shortly after arriving here on Cephiro", Bio explains. "Clef & the others thought it would be ideal to have some of Cephiro's wildlife & vegetation here at the castle & enjoy its wonders at close range. Recently, though, Kaza & I found better specimens to store within."

Even before the screen opened fully, the 'captive audience' stared in horror at what rested behind the glass: a whole area full of the aliens they've all fought. More than a dozen of them sat in a squatted position, looking ready to pounce on the first unsuspecting victim(s). One was larger than the others, & it set Hikaru's blood to a boil, despite her fear.

"A queen!", she said with undisguised hatred.

"Quite right, Hikaru", Bio said. "She's the one who lays the eggs that hatch the embryo-planting critters inside that give life to the warriors destined to be born."

"I hate to admit it, but he's right!", Umi said. "We named those critters facehuggers, for the most obvious of reason! They plant the embryo within their hosts, giving birth to the chestbursters that grow inside! When fully developed, their birth pangs are the death throes for the hosts!"

"Correct, Umi. I take it you had experienced a first-hand look at this little miracle?"

"I did, you son of a bitch!", Hikaru spat. "And it wasn't pretty!"

Bio just smiled.

"How did you & Kaza even get these aliens here?", Umi wondered. "The three of us wiped out those things in the mountain, where their lair was!"

"Shortly after the adults were abducted, Kaza & I sent out some collector scouts to go & retrieve some of those aliens while in the chestburster stage. There are associates Kaza & I know of who want these things alive for their own pourposes."

"You mean…you knew what was inside that ship that crashed here on Cephiro?", Lafarga asked angrily. "You knew, & you never bothered to tell us?"

"I get it now!", Ferio says. "It was you two who sabotaged the screen so that we couldn't see what lay inside that ship! And you both did something to Master Mage Clef to make him ill so that he'd be too weak to fight against those monsters!Right?"

"Master Mage Clef could not have been allowed to interfere with our plans for these things any more than the rest of you can", Bio explains. "That's why we had to give him a 'sickness' to make sure he was unable to use his most powerful magic. Even if we hadn't, the barrier that now surrounds the castle would have the same results on him."

"To reiterate Umi's question—why?", Ascot demanded. "What's in it for you & Kaza?"

"Just look at them!", Bio gestures with his hands at the aliens behind the glass. "They are the perfect killing machines! They attack swiftly & decisively without any kind of emotion clouding their judgement—feelings such as doubt, love, compassion, & so forth. When trained properly, they can become the ultimate in warfare! You're sure to win any kind of battle or war with them on your side! Our associates will pay a fortune for their safe return!"

"Hold on a second, busta!", Caldina snapped. "Y'all sacrifice all those innocent lives—ones who have children in their herd—just ta get your hands on money? Are ya mad?"

"Why, Caldina, I expected better from you", Bio went on. "You of all people here should know the true value of being paid quite a large sum for doing a job."

"She's not like that anymore, Bio!", Ascot snapped.

"Ascot's right!", Caldina went on. "Granted, ah did let money get the better of me once, but that was before ah met the Magic Knights! They taught me the value of something even better than the jingle of a few lousy coins—friendship! Ah realized that the road ta personal gain was a most lonely one! If not for the Magic Knights, ah would've traveled that path to nowhere, 'cause that's where you & Kaza'll end up if y'all choose ta go that way!"

"Speaking of friendship, does our kindness & hospitality mean nothing to you?", Presea asked. "When Geo & Zazu were exiled from Autozam & you joined them, we welcomed you both with open arms as we did them! You lived here with us on Cephiro for nearly a year now, & this is how you repay us—by betraying us for people you don't even know?"

"But you're wrong about that, my dear Presea", said Bio. "Our associates are very well known to us. And besides, this is all strictly business—nothing personal."

"It's personal to us!", Geo barked. "Goddammit, Bio, I'm your brother, for Autozam's sake! I take it that means nothing as well, huh? If this were Autozam, our government would have you hung or shot for this!"

Bio just laughed out loud, as Kaza smiled wickedly.

"What the hell's so damned funny?", Geo demanded to know.

"I suppose nobody on Autozam ever told you, Geo?", Kaza says.

"Told me what?"

"What Kaza means is that Autozam itself has known of these aliens for a good number of years, dear brother", Bio explains.

This brought a surprised reaction to not just Geo, but to Lantis as well.

"They have?", Lantis wondered. "I've been on Autozam for a good period of time, & in all of it, I've never realized they had the knowledge of these monsters!"

"Of course they have!", Bio continued. "Autozam's government was well aware of the near-limitless potential the aliens could give them, such as relentless troops in battle, as I explained before. The program was so top secret, that only very few knew of it, up to & including none other than Eagle Vision himself."

That got a rather strong reaction from everybody in the room, but it shocked Geo, Lantis, & even Hikaru the most.

"Eagle knew of these aliens?", Hikaru wondered. "I find that hard to believe!"

"Same here! That's bullshit, Bio!", Geo spat. "Eagle would've told me of something like this if he knew! I was his most trusted advisor!"

"And I was a good friend of his!", Lantis adds. "He shared mostly everything about his home with me when I visited there!"

"Ah, but 'mostly' doesn't really mean everything, does it, Lantis?", Bio said. "Like others who knew of the 'Xenomorph Project' as they call it, Eagle was given strict orders from Autozam's government to keep the project confidential, especially from neighboring countries, lest the whole project be compromised."

Eagle, did you really know about those monsters?, Geo thought, considering what his own brother just explained. And if you did, why haven't you told at least Zazu & I about it?

"And you plan to bring these aliens to Autozam for your reward, Bio?", Lantis asked coldly.

"More than just a reward, Lantis", Bio says. "Once the Autozamian government sees what Kaza & I have, they'll make us part of their government as their Presidents after the current members more or less 'retire' from office. Then we'll take our homeland to new heights which Autozam couldn't reach before, even when the power of the pillar had saved it from extinction."

"You plan on overthrowing its current members?", Geo says. "That's treason! They'll never allow you to do it, regardless of your good intentions for this 'Xenomorph Project'!"

"And you think you can stop me, dear brother? Even if you somehow manage to get loose & overcome me & Kaza, however slim a chance that will be, you're forgetting that you & Zazu have been exiled from our home! You'll both be lucky to be thrown in prison if they don't first shoot you out of the sky! But you & Zazu won't need to worry about all of this for much longer. At least he'll be of much more use that you'll be."

"What are you saying, Bio?", Lafarga asks before it hits him—hard. "No! You don't mean you're going to…!"

"You said that you would leave them out of this!", Chang Ang said. "Have you no leniency left within you? No mercy?"

"Elder, what does he mean? What's going on?", Umi demanded.

"What the old man means, my dear Magic Knight", Bio fills her in, "is that Zazu & all the other children will be 'impregnated' by the aliens. Once they're all carrying, Kaza & I will take them to our ship & frozen for the ride home—and it's gonna happen in Clef's own room."

"Bio, please don't do this!", Clef begs. "They're just kids!"

"I beg of you as well, Bio!", Lantis said. "Those kids have already lost their parents to those aliens, for Cephiro's sake! Must they lose their own lives as well?"

"Bio, do to us as you & Kaza will, but for the love of Princess Emeraude, leave the kids out of this!", Ferio says. "Impregnate us instead of them!"

"How noble of you, Ferio", Bio praised. "I have to admit I have thought of doing that to you all, including the Magic Knights from another world, but our minds are made up. And think of it like this: we're reuniting the children with their parents, so it won't be all that bad."

"And ah thought Zagato was a monster!", Caldina snaps before realizing what she said. "No offense, Lantis."

Lantis offered the smallest of smiles. "None taken, Caldina", he says before raising his voice & making it firm, staring at Bio, his smile totally gone. "But you're correct on both counts! Between the aliens & this traitor, it's hard to tell who's worse!"

"Do you really believe you can train those monsters to be obedient soldiers, Bio?", Presea asks. "They don't seem very much like the cooperative species! Trying to control or even to train them on an assumption is too great of a risk! Even worse, it's crazy!"

"Tell you what, Presea. Kaza & I will take that under advisement", Bio says. "As to exactly how to make them obedient, I'm sure the weapons division back at Autozam will figure out a plausible solution to that little problem. They work wonders over there."

Kaza taps his wrist, pretending to have a watch & reminding his friend.

"Ah yes. Thank you, Kaza."

"What now, traitor?", Lafarga growled. "Time to execute us in cold blood?"

"Afraid we don't have time, swordsman. We're on a really tight schedule, so we need to pick up the pace." Bio turns to Treece, & he & Kaza walk up to him. "Treece, you stand guard & watch over them. Here." Bio hands the man a red & yellow disc with a green light in the center. "Even though they're bound, should just one of them try anything to get free before our departure, you're to shoot them in the leg & plant this. Once we're gone, set the timer & leave this castle. This has enough explosives to level the whole place to its foundation. Understand?"

Reluctantly, Treece nods. "I understand", he says.

"Good boy", Bio finishes before leaning closer to his ear. "Just remember what you have at stake, old man."

Without another word, Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque exit the room as Treece placed the disc in his pocket. When the door closed, after a minute or two to ensure they were alone, all eyes were on the man, who mainly shrunk at the multitude of irises staring at him.

"Why, Treece? Why did you betray us like they did?", asked Lantis.

"You wouldn't understand", he said in a weak voice.

"You're wrong, sugah", Caldina said. "Somethin' tells me your dear heart isn't really in this game a' charades. Tell us, hon."

"Please, Sir Treece", Fuu pleads. "I promise on behalf of everyone here that we shall be most lenient. I, too, believe that you don't really want this in the slightest."

Scared as he was, Treece heard the sincerity in the light tan-haired Magic Knight, & seeing everyone nodding her approval, he couldn't deny that they spoke truthfully.

With tears in his eyes, he explains.

"Since I was the only parent who wasn't taken by those aliens, Bio & Kaza made a deal with me, one I dared not refuse—the life of my daughter be spared if I did what they told me to do. Don't you see? They would've killed her on the spot if I hadn't! I could not risk that for my daughter! It's no different that what they had done to you all: they would've killed the children and Master Mage Clef if you hadn't complied with their orders. There's no way you could've been abducted & entrapped in here otherwise."

The captive warriors take a moment to let that all sink in before Fuu finally speaks.

"Sir Treece, please believe when I say that we do understand why you did what you did earlier. But it's you who needs to understand something: Bio & Kaza are just using you for their own ambitions. And their promise to leave your daughter alone is as false as the words that came out of their mouth. Do you really believe them to keep their word on that? Think!"

"Treece, I'm very sure that right now your daughter is in danger of being impregnated by those aliens as we speak!", Ferio says. "Every second that we waste here waiting for you to make a decision to help us or not is one in favor to those creatures—and to Bio & Kaza!"

"Treece, as Master Mage of Cephiro", Clef says, "I guarantee that everyone will help you rescue your daughter & the other children before the worst happens. Please trust & believe in them—and in me."

Clef's words made Treece choose instantly.

"Very well", he says, convinced as he reaches into his pocket & takes out not the disc Bio had given him, but a metal stick—one Geo knows of.

"An energy disruption stick!", he says happily. "Nice work, Treece!"

"Thank you, Geo. I secretly stashed it on me when Bio & his friend weren't looking. This should disrupt the energy bonds which hold you down to your chairs."

"You remember how to use it?"

"Every little detail", Treece said, getting to work on setting everyone free, starting with the Autozamian. He presses a concealed button on the object, & a white beam of lightning emerges & strikes the energy rings that bind Geo. Three seconds later, the binds were gone.

"Good going, Treece!", Geo says, taking the object from him. "I can take it from here!"

Geo immediately gets to work on freeing the others, beginning with Lantis. In no time, all were free from their prison chairs, & Treece leads them to the door. Lantis takes Master Mage Clef in his arms with ease, as he is still weak from whatever Bio ailed him with.

"Easy, Master Mage. I've got you", Lantis says.

"Let us go now", Treece says. "Your weapons are all held in the room just down the hall to your right."

"We know just the room you speak of", Lafarga said. "Let's get going."

"Yes", said Chang Ang. "There's no telling what's occurring in the Master Mage's room at this moment, & I fear for all the young ones!"

Treece nods & opens the door, but when he does, he's met with a very nasty & unwelcome surprise—Bio's gun pointed at his head!

"I should've known you'd get all sappy on me like this, Treece!", Bio said as he entered the room with Treece facing the business end of Bio's weapon. "Looks like I'll have to go tie up this little loose end, won't I?"

"Not today you won't!", Geo shouted, lunging at his maniacal brother & grabbing his gun with his left & getting it out of Treece's face. The now-freed inhabitants stand aside to avoid getting hit by a possible stray shot from the gun as the two Autozamian brothers fight for the weapon. In the struggle, a stray shot does get fired, but thanks to the quick thinking of everyone in the room, no one gets hit. The only thing which does get struck by the shot is the glass at the far end of the room, making a deep hole in the thick glass that the aliens Bio captured remain behind.

Finally, Geo lands a right uppercut to his brother's chest, causing Bio to grunt in pain & let loose his grip on the gun, which Geo now possesses & brings to his sibling's face. At the same time, he also wrenches Lantis' sword from his belt & tosses it to its rightful owner, who catches it with one hand flawlessly, even with him holding Clef in both arms.

Although he knows it's useless for the time being, the sword felt good in Lantis' hands.

"Now let's see how you like having a gun pointed at you…brother!", Geo barked.

"What are you gonna do,Geo?", Bio says, grinning defiantly. "Splatter your own brother's brains all over the wall?"

"You have any reason as to why I shouldn't?", Geo spat.

"Why not just look behind you?"

Geo didn't fall for it any more than anyone else did, as he & they knew it was a ruse for his brother to make a quick getaway like the snake he's become, but when Geo & the rest had heard heavy breathing & hissing through clenched teeth from behind, they realize that they should look behind them.

When they do, they gasp in horror as the alien queen rises from her squatting position & throws herself at the window, making a slow but sure cracks in the glass as her warriors screech her approval. Bio used this moment to make good his escape as he bolted out of the room & ran down the hall.

As much as he didn't want to, Geo knew he had to let his brother go for now.

They got much bigger problems!

"Get out of this room, everyone! Now!", he yelled, & the room's inhabitants were already making their way out even as Geo spoke. Just as the last inhabitants in the room—Lafarga, taking Chang Ang in his powerful arms to get him out faster—exit, the queen finally manages to bust free from her holding pen, smashing the thick glass & sending pieces of it flying everywhere. The queen roard her defiance & began heading toward the escaping humans, with her brood trailing right behind. Geo shuts the door & reaches for his heel to pull out something the size & shape of his sole, sticking it to the door & presses a button. No sooner did he do this than when the queen & her brood slammed into it, driving Geo back several steps as it discharges an electrical current which causes the aliens on the other side to screech out in anguish. It didn't give them any reason to cease their attempt to get through: they kept on pounding & scratching both the door & wall, & each attempt gave the aliens a shock that made them screech their disapproval.

Thank Princess Emeraude Bio didn't check the soles of my boots!, Geo thought.

"Good work, Geo!", Ferio said. "That ought to slow them down for a time!"

"But only for a time, Ferio, & not much of it!", Geo says grimly. "The way they're pounding on that door & the wall, they'll get through in nothing flat!"

"Then let's use that time to arm ourselves!"

"You bet!"

Ferio & Geo break into a full run in order to catch up to their friends & put a good distance between them & the aliens, who continue their relentless assault on the temporarily electrified door & wall, causing cracks to spider-web in various places.

Whe Ferio & Geo catch up to their friends, they find they've been armed again with their weapons, from Lafarga to Presea. They mainly have hand-held weapons like knives & swords, but to them it was still better than facing the aliens unarmed, & no one was anxious in going hand-to-hand with them. Even Ascot was armed with a sword & one of Geo's firearms, needing them to make up for his temporal inability to summon any of his own monsters due to the burn he had received in the first battle on his arm.

"Here, take these!", Lafarga said to Ferio & Geo, tossing the former his personal weapon & the latter a bandolier full of clips & other supplies he'll need. Both men grab their offered gifts with one snatch of the hand.

"Thanks a lot! This will come in quite handy!", Geo praised, placing the bandolier onto his shoulder.

"Much obliged, Lafarga!", Ferio said. "Did everyone get their weapons?"

"Everyone but the Magic Knights!", Presea said. "With the inability to use magic, they're going to need them, & Bio's got them in his possession!"

"Then these will have to do for them in the meantime!", Chang Ang said, handing the three girls a trio of regular swords. Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu each take one in hand.

"They'll have to. Thank you, Sir Chang", Fuu said.

"You're welcome, young lady."

"Go now, girls!", said Treece. "Go stop Bio & Kaza before they can do any more harm to this castle or to us!"

"But the children…", Umi started to say.

"Leave them to us, Umi!", Ascot said. "We'll rescue the children while you three handle those two traitors!"

Hikaru nodded. "You're right, Ascot! Go! Save Zazu & the others! Don't let them end up like their parents! Come on Umi, Fuu!"

"Right!", they said in unison, taking off.

"Go, everyone!", Lantis said. "Head to Master Mage Clef's room immediately! I'll join you as soon as I can! Hurry!"

They all nodded & took off in a run, now armed, in the opposite direction the Magic Knights had gone. But when Chang Ang started going with them, he was stopped by Lantis.

"Hold on, Elder", he says. "I have a special task for you to perform."

Chang Ang turned to look at the master swordsman. "What kind, young man?"

"One that will be most beneficial to Master Mage Clef", he tells him with a smile.

Liking very much how that sounded, Chang Ang nodded.

The wall & door the aliens were pounding on were a display of utter ruin as battered holes were shown everywhere, spilling plaster & debris on the floor where each hole penetrated.

The only thing preventing them from escaping the room was Geo's electrical disc, which kept releasing a stunning discharge.

But now, the charge has died, & now the aliens were unperturbed in getting free. Now the pounding became more severe & brutal. In fact, it only took just a few hits to the already damaged wall & door for them to give way, & a shower of more debris scattered throughout the hallway as the aliens spilled out into it. The warriors spill out first, & while they're anxious to pursue the humans that escaped into the castle, a pheromone message from their queen keeps them still in their tracks. The queen herself emerges from the hole she & her brood have made, having stuck her enormous head out first, looking back & forth to survey her surroundings, her heavy breathing through her teeth being the loudest sound currently. She carefully deciphers which path to take for her & her brood to follow. She isn't the queen just because she was larger than any of her children—she also possessed a surprising intellect as well.

After close consideration, the queen has decided on the path that she—and her warriors—would take.

CHAPTER VI

Zazu Torque awoke with lightheadedness as he slowly but surely opened his eyes. He shook his head to clear it better & remember what had happened: at one moment, he & all the other kids with him—including Fahren's Lady Aska & Sang-Yung—were waiting in Master Mage Clef's room, staying quiet so as not to attract attention to the monsters that attacked the castle & keeping everyone else as calm as he, Sang-Yung, & Aska could manage them as the Magic Knight named Fuu Hououji had put them in charge of that, along with the girl named Mira & the fairy called Primera.

One moment he was with his partners, guarding the kids.

The next he was taking an instant slumber, as did the rest.

Wait, now I recall!, Zazu said to himself. Bio & Kaza said they were going to take Clef to one of the other rooms in the castle, but just when they closed the door, one of them dropped an ether capsule in the room, putting us all in a slumber! Why did they do that?

Zazu tried to move his arms but discovered he couldn't. When the fog in his vision cleared indefinitely, he saw he was shackled to the wall by curved pegs that pinned their wrists. He looked around the room to see the other children in the same predicament as he.

But that wasn't what made his heart beat hard. On the floor not too far off from where the kids & himself were bound, Zazu saw dozens of oval-shaped, leathery-looking objects scattered everywhere. Each one of them had a metal clamp with a small blinking green light resting atop.

Zazu didn't know what to make of these objects, but he had an eerie feeling in his gut that it wasn't anything good. That, & he doesn't see Primera anywhere inside the room.

He had to get out as soon as he can & help the others.

The young Autozamian struggled with his binds, but it only resulted in causing pain in his wrists. He tried pulling on them, hoping to get them dislodged, but the end result was the same as before. Ignoring the pain in his wrists, Zazu gives pulling another attempt when he suddenly hears a noise of hissing coming from just beyond the wall of the room. It was the same kind as those monsters make, & his blood ran cold.

But then he eased up a little when he saw a semi-circle in the wall the size of a full-grown watermelon being burned into it, leaving a red scar, coming from his left. Far as he can tell, the creatures don't have that kind of ability within them, at least not in that way.

When the circle was complete, the piece of the wall smoked & was pushed inwards from behind until it fell & hit the floor. Emerging from this newly formed hole was a plump pink beast with rabbit-like ears & ruby jewel on its forehead.

Zazu was too happy to see him.

"Mokona!", he says.

"So what am I…table scraps?", said a female voice from behind Mokona. The pink creature jumps down to the floor to reveal Primera fluttering about, holding a thin, smoking object in hand.

"Primera!"

"That's me, junior!", she says, flying down with the object & a small sack slinging over her shoulder. "Glad we got to you kids in time before any of these eggs hatched!"

"So that's what they are!"

"Yep! That traitorous Bio Metro told me what he was gonna do to you all while he held me in a cage aboard his ship like I was some pet of his! I'm nobody's pet! Not even…"

"What do you mean, Primera? What is Bio planning to do to us?"

"He explained to me that these eggs those monsters lay hatch to plant an embryo within everyone in here! That's how they reproduce, Zazu! Remember that man & his dog Lafarga & Ferio brought here to the castle after that craft came down?"

The young Autozamian's eyes go agape with shock & fright. He already figured out that Bio & his friend Kaza were traitors, but he never expected them to do such a barbarious act like this—and to him & the kids, no less!

"What else did you learn from those traitors, Primera?", Zazu pressed.

"That once you all were impregnated, they would put you in cold storage for the trip back to Autozam—and an anonymous associate! He's willing to pay those two handsomely for the safe return of those monsters! I'd be helpless to prevent it if it weren't for this ball of flu…uh, I mean Mokona…who helped spring me from my little prison, so that we could get to you tikes as fast as we could!"

"And you managed to get your hands on a cutting laser to set us free! Good Job!", Zazu had praised her.

"Not just a cutting laser, junior…several of them!", Primera said, dropping her sack to the floor where it spills its contents of multiple cutting tools. Mokona gives a 'puu puu' of approval & nods his head.

"Like I said before…good work!"

Primera nods. "Hold tight, & I'll get you free in a jiffy!", the fairy said, flying up to Zazu's binds & turns the tool on. A thin but powerful beam of energy emits from it & gets to work onto cutting Zazu loose by severing one of his binds in two places, & then the next. The Autozamian rubs his wrists to get the circulation back into them before picking up the cutting tools Primera dropped to the floor.

"Now, let's start getting the others free!", Zazu said as Primera nods again & Mokona says 'puu puu' in agreement, taking one of the lasers in his own hand. That's when they hear constant mumbles everywhere, as the rest of the kids start to awaken from their own state of slumber.

"It seems we're saved the trouble of having to get them awake ourselves", Primera said.

When they were all fully awake & the clouds in their heads have all but dissipated, the kids start struggling against their binds & begin to panic, realizing they can't move, & the sight of all the eggs in the room didn't help matters either. It was up to Zazu & even Primera to keep them calm before they really start to lose it.

"Hey, you kids! Keep it together…right now!", Primera shouted, getting their attention.

It the kids were silent, & Zazu began speaking.

"Listen up, everyone! We're in a dangerous situation as you can clearly see! But we mustn't panic or lose our heads over this if we want to make it out of here alive! These eggs all mean to hatch & get an embryo inside us, but we're going to get you loose as quick as we're able to! But in order for us to do that, we'll need your full cooperation! Agreed?"

Scared as they were, the kids nod, & Zazu, Primera, & Mokona get to work on cutting them free, beginning with Mira, Sang-Yung, & Lady Aska—the only three captives who didn't panic as they saw themselves binded, or the eggs.

"Nice going, Zazu", Mira said, getting her binds removed by the Autozamian. "I guess that's why the Magic Knight Fuu placed you as one of the ring leaders of this little group!"

"I wasn't the only one she put in charge, Mira!", Zazu says, giving her a wink that made her giggle.

"Are you all right, Sang-Yung?", Lady Aska asked her young page, both having been just freed by Primera & Mokona.

"A little short on circulation in the arm, my lady, but I'll live", he says, rubbing his wrists.

"It'll pass. Now let's get ourselves a cutting tool & set the rest free!"

Sang-Yung nodded.

"Here! I've got plenty to go around!", Zazu said, handing one to each Fahrener.

Instantly, Zazu, Primera, Mokona, Sang-Yung, Lady Aska, & Mira all set off in getting the rest of the captive children free before the eggs can open up. Each one was fred from their binds in just one minute, the lasers cutting the metal almost in the blink of an eye. They all worked quickly & quietly, so as not to attract any unwanted company like the monsters or even the two traitorous Autozamians, Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque. With each captive freed, he/she had taken a cutting laser from Zazu's supply until they were all used up & repeated the process.

In several minute's time, nearly all of the captives were free, & none of the eggs opened up in all that time, no doubt due to the clamps on top that prevent them from doing so.

If they somehow fell off now, they'd be in quite enough trouble.

But so far, their luck is holding out.

"Nice work, gang!", Mira says. "Now we only have four more captives left to get loose & out of here, so let's move it!"

The kids cheered in high praise at their accomplishment before quieting down & getting to work. But when the noise of cheers dissipated, a new sound took its place…one that was much less pleasant. All at once & all over, the green lights on the metal clamps atop the eggs changed from green to red with a beep, echoing the room. The prongs on each one then opened upwards & fell to the floor with loud clangs. One after the other, the eggs inside were opening up like some kind of ghastly flowers. Only seconds after they all opened, the legs of the facehuggers inside had wriggled like fingers on the edges of the eggs, ready to pounce out of their literal shells & throw themselves at their intended victims.

The horrible sight of the creatures within made even the five ring leaders' hearts pound like crazy, knowing there was no way to begin to stop even a fraction of them from doing their task of planting an embryo. The four still-captive children—most notably a young girl with long brown hair in a ponytail—couldn't contain their terror any longer, & they did what any child would do in a predicament like this.

They screamed.

Four of the facehuggers leapt from their eggs, heading right for the screaming kids.

The door to Clef's room then busted open by a well-placed kick by Lafarga, as Caldina then threw a volley of four little knives at the quartet of horrors, each one hitting their mark & sending them embedded to the wall. Not one drop of their acid blood had hit any of the kids, nor did it do any damage to the knives that impaled them, sans the smoke coming from the limp corpses.

"No y'all don't, bustas!", Caldina spat.

She had no time to savor her triumph: many more facehuggers were emerging from their eggs, just as she, Lafarga, Ferio, Ascot, Presea, & Geo started shooting & slicing away at the things in a frenzy, warning the children to stay clear & out of the crossfire. Both egg & facehugger met its bloodied, grisly demise as the six warriors kept their attack up on the embryo carriers, all very careful not to get any of their acidic blood on their person, or on the kids themselves.

But as rigorous as their assault was, a few—five in all—managed to escape the melee they were delivering, & were heading towards five unfortunate targets.

Those targets were the ponytailed girl, Zazu, Sang-Yung, Mira, & Lady Aska!

The latter four were barely able to get their hands up in time to prevent the facehuggers from clinging to them, while the ponytailed girl—still in her binds—could do nothing to stop what was coming her way.

Fortunately, she doesn't have to: from out of nowhere, Ascot dives in & grabs the creature in his hands as both crash to the ground, with the thing now trying to latch onto him.

Zazu, Sang-Yung, Mira, & Lady Aska have problems of their own; while they managed to keep the things at bay from their faces, they couldn't prevent their tails from wrapping around their throats & constricting them like snakes, cutting off their air. The remaining warriors rush to their aide—Geo with Zazu, Lafarga with Mira, Ferio with Sang-Yung, & both Caldina & Presea with Lady Aska—and pull with all their might while unraveling the tails around their throats before they choke/suffocate to death.

Good lord! Lady Aska's turning blue!, Presea thought with dread, seeing the face color on the young Fahren princess. More vigorously, she & Caldina fight to remove the creature from her face & neck, unwinding the tail in full, & finally Aska breathes a fresh gulp of air into her lungs.

"We got it, Caldina!", Presea says.

The same goes for Zazu, Mira, & Sang-Yung, all of whom have gotten their attackers taken off.

Now the facehuggers were trying to get on the warrior's faces, just like with Ascot!

Lafarga, Ferio, Geo, Presea, & Ascot were knocked to the floor when the facehuggers turned their attention to them, with amazing strength which nearly surpassed theirs. But 'nearly' doesn't mean officially: with every ounce of it, the five pull back the relentless creatures a good two inches from their faces. Presea gets hers away a plausible four, with Caldina assisting her. The illusionist looks around the room for a perfect ambush spot & finds one in a heartbeat.

"Hey y'all! Over there by that corner!", she shouts, pointing with one hand. The others take notice & nod their approval.

"Ready when you are, Caldina!", Lafarga said.

"Do it!"

In a simultaneous move, Lafarga, Ferio, Ascot, Geo, Caldina, & Presea toss the facehuggers at the exact spot where Caldina pointed to. The spiderlike critters crash in a jumble of legs & tails as they fight to get untangled, but the warriors give them not one second to gather their wits & renew their attack on anyone. Raising his weapon, Geo fires off a barrage of shots from his gun & hits the pile of flesh & acid, turning them into a smoking mess as their inner fluids eat away the floor & part of the wall.

"You all right, Zazu?", Geo asks,turning to him.

"I'm good, Geo", Zazu said, giving Geo his trademark thumbs-up.

Zazu's surrogate brother had to smile.

"Is everyone all right in here?", Ferio asked aloud for all to hear, getting nods from all the kids & putting the adults at ease.

"Tamara!", Treece cried out as he ran into the room & headed straight for the ponytailed girl whom Lafarga frees by simply pulling her binds right out of the wall. Both father & daughter embraced in a loving hug.

"Tamara, honey, I'm so sorry for putting you through all this!", Treece says with tears in his eyes. "Please forgive me!"

Tamara looks her father straight in the eye with the utmost compassion.

"You've nothing to apologize for, Dad", she says. "I know you were forcedby Bio & Kaza to do what they said, lest they kill me. If our roles were reversed, I would've done no differently."

"Thank you, sweetie."

"Didn't Master Mage Clef guarantee your daughter would be rescued?", Lantis says, coming in the door at Treece, who nods his gratitude.

"Looks like you were a tad late to crash this party, Lantis", Lafarga said.

"My apologies. I had to help Chang Ang in administering an antidote for Master Mage's condition—one supplied to me by Geo here."

The mentioning of Clef brought concerns to all.

"Is Clef gonna be all right?", Ferio wondered.

"He will be. He's been given the shot to counteract the effects of his sickness, but he needs to rest for it to take effect. Chang Ang is watching him now."

"How'd ya even get the antidote, Geo?", Caldina asked.

"When I had the gun on my brother", he explains, "I noticed he was carrying antidote shots on him. I managed to grab one before all hell broke loose back there & tossed it to Lantis while I supplied him with his sword."

"How did Bio even get Clef sick without him noticing?", Ascot wondered. "One would have to be invisible to accomplish such a feat."

Geo was thinking of how it was done when Mira suddenly spoke.

"Does anyone know where the Magic Knights went?", she asks. "I figured they'd be here to help us like you all did."

"They're all going after the two traitors responsible for this whole mess!", Presea said with undisguised hate before settling down some. "They left your rescue to us while they do so."

"Then I'm going to join them!", Treece said angrily as he heads out the door until he was stopped by Lantis, who stands in front of him.

"No, Treece. I can't let you do that", he tells him.

"What? You have no right to deny me of getting even with those two! They were going to kill my daughter, even as I did what they told me to by force! Just who are you to…"

"Treece, don't be a fool, please!", begs Presea.

"How do you mean, Master Smith?"

"Presea means that if you go against either Bio or Kaza on your own, you will be killed by them indefinitely. They're both very dangerous individuals, as I'm sure you know. And once they do kill you, what of your daughter? How can she bear the fact that she's lost both of her parents in this fiasco? Losing her mother was bad enough. Is that what you want for her?"

"You're the last parent left alive, Treece!", Ascot said. "Don't throw your life away on a fool's errand!"

Inhaling deeply & exhaling, Treece nodded. "Very well. I loathe to admit it, but you're right with what you've said."

"There's no shame in that, Treece", said Ferio. "And don't worry—the Magic Knights are in hot pursuit of those two traitors right now as we speak!"

Abrupt pounding on the wall grabs their attention, causing pieces of it to fly right off. A horrid chorus of screeching is heard from behind it. Ferio, Geo, Lafarga, Ascot, Caldina, Presea, & Lantis stand at the ready with their weapons drawn. Lantis activates the energy blade upon his makeshift weapon—one created & devised by Geo & Zazu should his magical one not work for some reason.

"Zazu, help Lady Aska & the others to get the kids outta here!", Geo said.

"Got it, Geo!", Zazu replied, getting to work right away with Aska, Mira, & Sang-Yung. Both Primera & Mokona accompany them, trailing behind the kids, who exit the room in a speedy but orderly fashion.

"Treece, go with them & leave this to us!", said Ascot. "Take them to where Clef is & stay there! Please—trust us!"

"I shall. And I do", he said, following the kids out & into the hall.

Good man, Treece!, Ferio said to himself, glad that he didn't give it another thought.

The alien's pounding took its toll on the wall, & it gave way, leaving a huge hole as dust & smoke filled the room. The seven warriors stood poised with their weapons, ready to take down the first alien they see. When the dust & smoke settled, however, they didn't see a single one of the acid-blooded nightmares in sight. All they do see is the room beyond it, the floor & walls with claw marks. Ferio & Ascot took a few steps forward to get a closer look, but Lafarga & Lantis put a hand up, signaling them to stop. The two master swordsmen take the task themselves, stepping up closer.

Where could they have gone ta?, Caldina wondered to herself.

We should be seeing them by now!, Geo thought.

Before Lafarga & Lantis could go any further, large chunks of the ceiling break off & fall down to where the warriors are as Ferio shouts for all to scatter. Falling with the debris were six of the aliens, & if that weren't enough, six more now enter the room from the large hole in the wall at a fantastic speed. The maneuver at both ends by the aliens have caught the warriors off-guard, & were now being attacked from above & to the side simultaneously.

What came at them were a mess of mouths of needle-teeth & razor-sharp claws & tails.

Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu raced down the hall in the direction of the Residential Quarters, where Bio & Kaza's ship rested nearby. Without the ability to use magic or even their swords via their missing gloves, the trio will have to be extra cautious in dealing with Geo's traitorous brother & his best friend; an attack by one or both could come at them at anytime, especially if they should be caught unawares.

"Are you sure you know where to go, Miss Hikaru?", asked Fuu.

"Trust me, Fuu!", Hikaru tells her. "Once we reach the Residential Quarters, it won't be too far off for us to get to Bio & Kaza's ship!"

"We'd better do it cautiously, Hikaru!", Umi warned her. "They could be expecting us to be approaching their ship even now!"

"Got it!", Hikaru & Fuu said together.

They reach the Residential Quarters finally, but when they get to about several steps inside of it, two well-placed bullets land at their feet, missing them by only a fraction of an inch, making them halt dead in their tracks. The girls then hear a gun cocking & turn to the source of the noise.

It hardly came as much of a surprise to them, for there was only one individual who had the capacity to shoot a firearm like that. Sure enough, it was Kaza Rosque, standing next to the wall with his back to it just sixteen feet away from the Magic Knights.

"Kaza!", Hikaru said coldly, scowling with the others.

"You were correct in your assumption, Umi!", Kaza says, his gun smoking. "Bio & I had been expecting some of you to try & intercept us! That's why he sent me to handle the problem!"

"We don't care how good a shot you are, Kaza!", Hikaru barked. "You & Bio are going to pay dearly for stabbing everyone in the back!"

"And we'll do it even without magic or our swords if we have to!", Fuu said.

"You mean these?", Kaza said with a sinister smile as he lifted his free hand that held the girl's gloves—all three of them!

"You think we'll shrivel in fear just because you're holding our primary weapons in your hand, Kaza?", Umi snapped,unperturbed. "You obviously don't know us very well!"

"I don't have to, Magic Knight!", Kaza replied, raising his gun & aiming at the three girls with it. "All I do need to know is that you three are about to die! My friend's brother Geo & the others have no doubt rescued the kids from their fate right about now, & if Bio & I can't have our specimens to take back, then Cephiro can't have its precious Magic Knights! Farewell, you three little bitches!"

Kaza doesn't shoot right away; he wishes to savor the moment of killing the three girls as much as he can & see them quiver in even the slightest way. But neither Hikaru, Umi, or Fuu have any distinction of giving the madman any such pleasure in seeing them grovel in fear. Even if they're staring death right in the face, the girls will stand defiantly to the end.

Finally, Kaza fires his weapon & blood is splattered.

Kaza's shot wasn't even close to hitting the girls, & the blood that sprayed didn't belong to any of them.

The blood was Kaza's own!

The master marksman from Autozam looked down to see a most unusual & horrible sight just as the girls were: a black, sharp & pointed object was rammed into Kaza from behind him & beyond the wall where he stood. Kaza couldn't yell in pain, as his mouth quickly filled with his blood that flowed out like a waterfall, same as where he was punctured from his back & through his chest. As he dropped his gun, the wall from behind him suddenly exploded in a shower of debris, revealing the alien queen from the arboretum. Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu watched in horror as the queen then grabbed Kaza with her six-fingered hands across his body, & with one effortless yank of her arms, ripped the helpless Autozamian in half. Both halves of him sprayed his blood all over the luscious grass of the Residential Quarters.

Even for a traitorous rat like Kaza Rosque, it was a horrible fate.

Stepping out of her hiding place, the queen now has her full attention on the Magic Knights themselves, stalking them upright & slowly like some mutant dinosaur, her huge size dwarfing the area even in this gigantic dome. Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu back away from the huge monstrosity which is before them. Daring a quick glance to her left, Hikaru spots their gloves still clutched in Kaza's grip where his upper half had been thrown to, just to the queen's right. It seemed impossible to attempt to distract the bitch long enough in order to get their hands on them—any attempt, & they may end up like Kaza did.

But they have to try. Going up against this hideous creature with just their bare hands did not suit their best interests. Without the use of their magic, their swords made of Escudo was most definitely better than nothing—and they didn't have much choice in the matter.

Up on the top of the dome just behind the girls, a hard pounding commenced once or twice before debris was knocked loose & falling, causing the Magic Knights to dive to the left to avoid being crushed from above. It caught the queen's attention as well, & for right now, she was paying the girls no mind. Falling with the debris was another object that was big & black & caused the ground to shake when it hit, leaving a crater. This new arrival then unfurled itself & stood upright on two strong legs.

The Magic Knights gasped when they saw what they were looking at.

Another alien queen!

This one had burn marks on its black, chitinous abdomen. Its long, segmented tail no longer had any sharp point on the end of it, plus the three-fingered hands on its two smaller pair of arms were gone, melted into stumps.

It's impossible!, Fuu thought.

It can't be her!, Umi thought.

The alien queen we saw in the mountain!, Hikaru thought, getting it right on the first guess.

Their troubles were doubled & they are left vulnerable, but right now the two queens were more interested in each other than in killing the Magic Knights. The queens come within close proximity of one another, with their snouts only inches apart. Using this to their advantage, the Magic Knights move slowly but surely toward Kaza's upper torn half where their gloves are still held at. Using hand signals, Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu stay as quiet as mice & creep toward their weapons, keeping the queens in sight by the corners of their eyes for any sudden moves.

When they get within halfway of their gloves, the two queens turn their attention back to the Magic Knights, letting out a hateful roar that echoes throughout the Residential Quarters.

Oh shit!, Hikaru thought, seeing that she & her friends have been made, & their advantage all but lost.

"Go!", she yelled, & the three literally dived for their gloves. But just as they get within inches of their possessions, the girls are snatched in mid-air by their legs as the queens moved at speeds that would be naturally impossible for anything of that size to match. The Magic Knights cursed themselves for underestimating the queens—they may look like lumbering giants, but they can move just as fast as any one of their 'children'.

The queen that killed Kaza grabs both Hikaru & Umi, while the queen from the mountain grabs Fuu. The first monster holds Hikaru & Umi in vice-like grips, holding them like a criminal would take children hostage, wrapping them in each arm. The red & blue haired Magic Knights fight & strain to get loose, but they may as well be trying to get free from a man whose arms are like tree trunks. Fuu was slammed down to the ground on her back by the other queen, the impact jarring her by the incredible strength of the creature. The light tan haired Magic Knight fought to rise, but even if she wasn't shaken from the impact, the burned queen held her down by her hands in a tight hold. It felt to Fuu like a marble statue had fallen on top, pinning her but good. Now she was staring up at the frightening maw of the monster she saw laying eggs inside the mountain, & a sense of dread overwhelmed her from head to toe. Hikaru & Umi can only watch as the queen opens her mouth to reveal her inner jaws. Knowing what comes next, Fuu still fights to get free from the living death that looms above her, hopeless as it may seem. The burned queen has yearned for revenge against these three girls for what they had done to her brood, & though Fuu wasn't the one who hurt her the most, she'll definitely settle for taking her life in retaliation.

Leaning closer to Fuu, the Magic Knight can smell the hideous breath from the beast, her eyes wide with fear.

Then the queen shot her inner jaws at Fuu, & she screamed as loud as she could.

"FUU!", Hikaru & Umi yelled, watching helplessly as the burned queen strikes their friend.

The queen's inner jaws struck & penetrated Fuu's left shoulder as it punctured her armor & drew up a small fountain of blood from the wound. At the last second, Fuu just barely moves herself over to her right to avoid the inner jaws from smashing into her head. Retracting her inner mouth, the queen drips Fuu's blood onto her & holds her firmer for another strike, this time for her head, & she won't be able to dodge it a second time due to blood loss.

As the queen's inner jaws were about to strike, the creature lifts her head & bellows out a screech of pain as a knife gets thrown & rammed into her right side, spewing her acid blood & releases her grip on Fuu.

"Let them go & get away from them, you alien bitches!", Ferio shouted, holding his sword firmly in his hands. He was accompanied by Ascot, Caldina, Lafarga, Lantis, Geo, & Presea, all of whom are armed with a sword, knives, and/or guns. Their persons & outfits show signs of wear & tear from their battle with the queen's brood, receiving cuts & such, but otherwise they're all in good condition—more than capable of taking on the new threat. The two queens now turn their attention to the newcomers as the one who killed Kaza absent-mindedly releases Hikaru & Umi from her grip. The two Magic Knights waste no time in getting their gloves from Kaza's dead upper half & place them on, summoning their swords. Knowing Fuu is in no condition to be able to use her own sword, Hikaru stuffs it in her pocket.

Now armed with their primary weapons, Hikaru & Umi use them to drive back the queen which held them in her grip as Lafarga & Lantis offer their assistance.

"We gotta get that other queen away from Fuu so that we can get her to safety!", Umi said.

"Umi's right!", said Hikaru. "With the wound that bitch gave her, she won't be any good in a fight, plus she'll bleed to death unless she gets help—fast!"

"We got that angle covered, Hikaru! Leave it to us!", Geo said.

Geo raises his rifle with Ascot, & together the two warriors fire shots at the burned queen to ward her off & away from Fuu, who laid bleeding on the ground. Their shots miss the alien by just inches: as much as they want to simply shoot & kill her on sight, they need to get Fuu to safety first, plus they dare not risk getting any if the creature's acid blood on her.

"Caldina, Presea, Ferio, get to Fuu—quickly!", Geo said. "Ascot & I will keep this bitch at bay, but we don't know just how long she'll be cooperative for!"

"Got it!", the ladies & Ferio say together, braving the queen's presence & rushing over to Fuu, their weapons drawn in one hand.

"Hold on, Fuu!", Ferio says, taking the fallen Magic Knight in his arms after sheathing his sword. "We're going to get you out of here! Just stay with us!"

"But…Miss Hikaru…Miss Umi…I need to…", Fuu says weakly.

"Ah'm terribly sorry, gal", Caldina says. "But ya in absolutely no condition ta go monsta huntin'! Ya only get yaself killed, & far too many good people have done that today!"

In no shape to resist or argue, Fuu allows herself to be taken away.

"We've got her, Lafarga!", Presea said, backing away from the queen with Caldina & Ferio.

"Good!", the blonde-haired swordsman said. "You five, take Fuu to where the kids are & remain there! The four of us will get to Bio & stop him once we take care of these two queens!"

"In dealing with my brother, you're going to need my help, Lafarga!", Geo said.

Lantis glances over his shoulder. "Geo, I promise you we'll see to it that Bio pays for the atrocities he's caused us all! But right now, Fuu needs medical help, & only you can give it to her since she can't perform her 'Winds of Healing' spell!"

"Please do this, Geo!", Hikaru begs. "Fuu may not have much time left!"

"You're right, both of you!", Geo says, giving in. "Just make sure he doesn't leave Cephiro!"

"He won't be going anywhere—not if we have anything to say about it!", Umi said.

"Let's go, gang!", Geo said, & he & his group exit the Residential Quarters with him & Ascot keeping their guns drawn at the burned queen. They wanted so badly to just blow the alien bitch into a bloody heap of swiss cheese & be done with it, but Fuu was hurt bad, & any second wasted—especially for personal pleasure—could cost the Magic Knight her life, something none of them were going to take chances on.

As Caldina said, too many good people have died on this day.

Reaching the hallway, Geo & his group break into a run, with Ferio cradling Fuu in his arms as the Magic Knight turns her head & watches the Residential Quarters (& her friends) getting smaller from view at a quick rate.

Please be very careful out there, Miss Hikaru, Miss Umi, Fuu said to herself before drifting off into slumber.

Hissing angrily, the queens regroup as a pair & crouch to half their height, staring at the four warriors with uncompromised loathing. Lafarga takes a glance past the creatures & takes notice of the hallway they need to enter.

"We need to get past these monsters & into the exit behind them!", he says. "That way will take us to where Bio's ship is at!"

"Then we should do it fast, Lafarga!", Hikaru said. "These queens look as if they're ready to attack us head-on, & they won't care if we're armed!"

"Hikaru's right!", Umi said. "We've been able to keep them at bay for this long, but I think their patience & tolerance for us has run fresh out!"

"Then get ready to run for it as soon as I give the word!", Lantis says, reaching into his pocket & taking out a small silver sphere.

Four things happen at once: Lantis shouts 'Now!' & tosses the sphere at the queens, who rush after them as it explodes in a bright flash of light, catching the aliens off temporarily. That's when the quartet make a break for it in between the queens & run like the wind, shielding their eyes so as not to get caught by the blinding flash themselves. The flash didn't perform as well as Lantis had hoped, though: because the aliens have no visible eyes, it lasted for only a second or two. Had they actually had eyes, the effects would last ten times longer or more.

As the old saying goes, 'You can't blind a blind man'.

The same goes for creatures without eyes.

Further enraged, the queens run after the fleeing quartet at full speed, screeching out their defiance & anger. At that rate, they'll catch & tear them apart like wet paper bags with ease.

"That didn't work too well as you hoped, Lantis!", Hikaru said.

"Don't worry, Hikaru!", Lantis says, going into his pocket again. "I've got another trick up my sleeve to keep them off!"

Lantis puts his trick to use when they reach the entrance of the hallway. He throws a silver disc to the wall which lands & adheres itself right at the edge. Upon attachment, the disc activates automatically & sets up an energy fence, covering the entrance with a protective barrier. When the alien queens touch it, a strong jolt of electricity runs through their bodies & they screech out in anguish. Unable to take the pain, they back away a few steps & watch as Hikaru & company take off with Lantis & Lafarga taking lead, disappearing out of sight shortly.

"Nice trick, Lantis!", Umi said after a minute or two. "That gave us the time we needed to put distance between us & those queens!"

"We'd better use the time we have, Umi!", Lantis says. "Eventually they'll find a way to either destroy it or search for another way to get to us!"

"It won't matter much anyway!", Lafarga said. "Bio's ship is just a few more minutes from where we are! Once we get there, we'll either damage it or blow it to bits, preventing him from leaving & have him pay dearly for what he's done!"

"Shortly afterwards, we'll find & kill those two queens first so they can't lay eggs anywhere in the castle!", Hikaru pointed out.

"Agreed!", Lantis says. "Anything that deadly should not be allowed to exist here on Cephiro or any other world!"

A couple more steps after Lantis spoke, & the wall on their right suddenly explodes with debris as one of the queens—the one who killed Kaza—grabs Lafarga & Lantis in each of her hands & rams them right into the wall. The unexpected appearance of the queen threw Hikaru & Umi off-balance, & they were knocked backwards, falling on the floor.

The alien queen screeched her hatred for the warrior humans, & strived to kill them both by driving her inner jaws into their brains. But although they were caught by surprise, Lafarga & Lantis adapted & reacted instantly, swinging their swords in killing strokes. Lafarga slices off the queen's left hand, but Lantis goes for a more deadly kill by slicing off the queen's entire face off & causing her to slump like so much dead weight.

It came with a price, however: so enraged were the master swordsmen that they didn't stop to think of the possible consequences—consequences like the acidic blood splashing onto them like it does.

"Lafarga!", Umi cried.

"Lantis!", Hikaru cried.

The two Magic Knights rush over to the swordsmen as the acid blood begins eating its way on their armor, smoking where the metal is dissolving. The girls help to remove the men's armor as Lafarga & Lantis began coughing from inhaling some of the acrid fumes. They got their armor off just before the acid can touch & eat their flesh. Freed of what could've been death garments for them both, Lafarga & Lantis were escorted by the girls away from the dead queen, whose blood ate at the floor & wall, creating more toxic smoke.

At a good twenty feet away, Lafarga & Lantis lay against a wall & slump to the floor, taking in fresh breaths of air, their coughing slowed.

"Some master swordsmen we turned out to be, eh?", Lafarga joked.

"I guess you should be thankful none of the queen's blood touched your skin anywhere, or you'd have real problems!", Umi said, half serious & half joking.

"Are you both all right?", Hikaru asked worriedly.

"We'll live", Lantis says with a cough. "However, we inhaled a bit too much of those acrid fumes back there, & it's making us dizzy & too weak to assist you."

"It's all up to the two of you now, ladies", Lafarga says. "Get to Bio's ship—don't let him leave Cephiro unpunished."

"We will, Lafarga! You have our word on that!", Hikaru said as Umi nodded.

"In the meantime, rest here for a bit", Umi said. "When you're able, head back to the others so Geo can treat you. And keep an eye out for that other alien queen!"

Lafarga & Lantis nodded, & Hikaru & Umi took off running down the hallway towards Bio's ship. The two master swordsmen watch them disappear from sight, saying silent prayers.

May Princess Emeraude be with you both, Lafarga thought.

Please be safe, Hikaru, Lantis thought, his feelings for more than just success on her part.

CHAPTER VII

Hikaru & Umi reach the RXT in just two to three minutes without any kind of further alien interference—or from Bio Metro himself. The girls stood at a distance, checking the traitor's craft for any mechanized sentries he may have placed on guard to prevent anyone trying to sneak in. If there's one thing the Magic Knights (particularly Hikaru) have learned of Autozam, it's that the people there are most resourceful, & their technology helps to make them that way.

"I don't see anything on the outside of his ship that looks like trouble, Hikaru", Umi says after a silent minute.

"Neither do I, Umi", Hikaru agreed. "But we shouldn't let our guard down just the same. It seemed almost too easy to get here, & Bio may be expecting us."

"Then let's carefully get on board that craft & put an end to this nightmare for good!"

Hikaru nodded.

Their swords still drawn, Hikaru & Umi use stealth, speed, & caution to approach the RXT's entrance. Running into no nasty surprises along the way, they stand on opposite sides of the door as Umi presses a button which makes the door slide horizontally. Pointing their swords in front of them, the girls step inside the ship & take a cautious look around. Inside was no more than an empty room, having hardly anything that resembled a threat; unless one counted cushioned seats & chairs & wall communicators hazardous & some loose cables, the girls were in no danger.

Yet.

"This is a large ship, Hikaru", Umi said. "Where do we even begin searching for Bio?"

Hikaru thought about it for a moment.

"Let's head for the cockpit first, Umi", she says. "Whether Bio's there or not, we can see to it that this craft doesn't leave Cephiro!"

"I get it—sabotage the controls!"

"Right!"

The girls run to the left, keeping their swords ready at all times.

Like before, Hikaru & Umi run into not one speck of trouble along their entire way to the cockpit of the ship, not even when they open the door. They find it completely empty of any signs of life, aside from the dozen live monitors near the empty captain's seat that show a good portion of the ship's interior. With Bio Metro nowhere in sight, the girls can't decide whether to be angry or relieved.

For the time being, though, it was the monitors that caught their attention, & as they come in closer for a better view, any thoughts of sabotage were absent from their minds for now. Both were thinking of maybe finding Bio on the monitors, & they should be able to find him here—this is the only place he could've gone to after everything that has happened today, for safety & escape.

It was Hikaru & Umi's job to make sure he can get neither.

The red-ahired Magic Knight started scanning the monitors upon the left, while the blue-haired Magic Knight began on the right side. Almost instantly Umi catches a sight on the upper-right monitor that she couldn't catch before, & she started to shiver as if she were standing in a blizzard.

"Hikaru", she said just above a whisper, but it was more than enough for her friend to hear.

When she did, Hikaru came to see what Umi was staring at, & she began to shiver too.

"Oh my god", she said in an even lower voice.

As if seeing two weren't bad enough for them, the Magic Knights were looking at a horrid sight they were not hoping to see on this day.

It was an alien queen—a third one! And she was surrounded by several of her warriors.

But unlike the others they saw & battled, this queen & her brood were shackled by their arms, legs, tail, & torsos by steel clamps attached to the walls of the large room, located in the rear of the ship, as the monitor says on the lower right—cargo bay.

"Now I see, Hikaru!", Umi said, her chill turning to boiling rage. "Whe Bio & Kaza went out to gather the aliens in their chestburster stage, they picked up two queen chestbursters—one for the arboretum in the castle, & one for right here! They've had this queen & her warriors all along,right under our noses for transport!"

"It's clear to me too, Umi!", Hikaru said, her tone no less angry. "Those two traitors planned to get Lady Aska, Mira, & all the other kids impregnated by the aliens to keep us busy while they were going to haul this third alien bitch to their associates! They never intended to put the kids in freezing stasis for the trip! Bastards!"

With that one word, Hikaru slammed her free hand as a fist into the console where the pilot's seat was, making a dent in it & activating the screen next to it on the right. The screen was black with green letters sprawled over it into two separate messages, one which had been sent & another which was received. The transference of these messages were hours ago, but the girls felt that it was more than worth reading anyway.

Hikaru & Umi read the messages on the screen, starting with the one that was sent:

To_our_mysterious_associate_known_as_'T'

Aliens have been captured & set in castle arboretum

as per requested.

Have captured second alien queen & is on our ship,

along with several warriors ready for transport.

Specimens are in excellent condition.

Will arrive at scheduled place in one week for delivery

before heading for Autozam.

Awaiting your decision on inhabitants of Cephiro.

The girls kept their anger in check long enough to read the received message preceding it:

To_Bio_Metro & Kaza_Rosque_from_associate_'T'

Message received.

Excellent work in gathering queen & alien specimens,

& in placing other aliens as discussed.

Rendezvous to scheduled meeting place ASAP.

Will pay very handsomely for specimen's safe delivery.

Inhabitants on Cephiro—including your brother Geo

Metro—expendable.

Deal with them to insure they cannot interfere.

END OF TRANSMISSION

Unable to keep their anger contained, Hikaru slammed her sword into the screen with a loud crash as glass gets shattered & the thing starts sputtering sparks & streams of smoke. Umi did the same to the row of monitors by slicing through them like a knife through warm butter. The girls expected the receiving message to say something like it did, but it still made no difference: they suspected that they, & everyone else on Cephiro, would be expendable to the eyes of Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque, along with their mysterious associate.

"Expendable my ass!", Hikaru spat.

"Unbelieveable, Hikaru!", Umi spat herself, sharing her friend's feelings. "All those innocent people dead, all the pain & suffering of the kids and their parents, & for what? So that two men can stab everybody in the back & make a profit? This was all for money? People like Bio & Kaza are no different—or better—than those back home!"

Ain't it the truth, Umi!, Hikaru thought. Even in a peaceful place like Tokyo, there are always people who'll get greedy & do anything for a buck! I just never thought it'd happen here on a place like Cephiro! Then again, Caldina was like that once, but at least she saw the light of things because of the three of us! But these two…!

"Hikaru!", Umi shouted. The red-haired Magic Knight looked up to see something she did not notice before—rotating guns attached to the walls, four in all, ready to fire.

And they had the two Magic Knights in their sights!

"Run, Umi!", Hikaru shouts back, & both girls ran straight for the door at the same time the wall-mounted guns began firing at them, spitting bullets that dot the floor with holes & barely miss the girls' feet. Thankfully, the door which lead into the cockpit was still wide open for them to exit through; had it not been, they'd be two bloodied corpses riddled with bullets.

Making it through, Umi presses the button that closes the door as the guns cease shooting now that their targets were gone from their sights. The room they were now in was some sort of recreation room, complete with food cabinets, tables, & something that resembled billiards at the end of the room. Despite its atmosphere of relaxation, the girls didn't pay much attention to it before when they passed this way to the cockpit, & it's the same way now.

They need to find Bio Metro as soon as they can.

"Even if it didn't show on the monitors, maybe Bio's down where the queen & her brood are", Umi raised.

"Good point, Umi", Hikaru said. "Let's check there!"

The girls begin heading down the room to where the door is when a sudden gunshot gets fired from behind them, the bullet deafening in the room as it hits just above their heads, missing by less than an inch. Hikaru & Umi stop in their tracks & turn to see the person they need to stop stepping out from a closet, pointing the gun directly at their chests.

"Bio!", the girls say in unison, saying his name like it was venom.

"It didn't have to go this way, girls!", the Autozamian said, approaching Hikaru & Umi with cautious steps. "You're just making things harder than they need to be!"

"'Harder', Bio?", Umi snapped. "Hikaru & I read those messages at the cockpit! You left the fate of Cephiro's inhabitants to a mystery man named 'T'! In fact, you let him pull yours & Kaza's strings for you—just so you both can make a goddamn profit!"

"I already told you people—it's much more than that! We're trying to change the future of warfare as we know it, & those aliens are the ticket to it! Why can't you two see that it was all just business & nothing personal?"

"Nothing personal, Bio?", Hikaru spat. "Sorry, but that particular card doesn't play well with me or my friends! When innocent lives are at stake, it's very personal to us, especially when those lives are those of kids & their parents! Because of you, they're all orphaned, mere victims of your damn tomfoolery & betrayal! Worse, you left them to get impregnated by the aliens so that we can deal with them as you make your getaway!"

"The only consolation to that is", Umi says, "they've been rescued before the worst could happen! Oh, & on a more positive note, your good friend Kaza is dead—ripped in half by the alien queen you left in the castle!"

"And guess who's going to join him!", Hikaru said as she readies her sword with Umi, not caring that a gun is pointed at them.

"I don't think so, my dear Magic Knight!", Bio said in defiance. "I'm on a schedule, & I'm more than a little late in keeping my appointment as it is! Now, if you'll excuse me…"

"If you think you're going to just leave Cephiro without paying for your crimes, Bio, then you're even more deranged than we first thought!", Umi says.

"My sanity is yet to be determined, Umi", Bio said, holding a metal box with a blue button in his left hand. "As for leaving Cephiro unscathed, that's exactly what I intend to do! If only the same can be said of you two!"

Bio presses the blue button, & almost instantly a group of mechanoids—six in all—appear out from the ceiling vents & storage closets. They were a meter tall in height, had an upper body which was humanoid, a face with a singular red eye, & scuttled around on eight spiderlike legs that clinked when they walked. Their arms were mini gatling guns, with ammo belts hanging out from underneath & attached to their torsos.

"Say hello to my Arachnid Sentries, Magic Knights!", Bio said, lowering his gun. "The latest in security defense! They're programmed to protect the property of their owners, not to mention the owners themselves! Their little guns can fire a hundred rounds per second, & they have the reflexes to use that firepower!" Bio turns to the closest sentry. "Sentries, these two girls threaten this ship & myself! Dispose of them!"

"Yes sir!", the sentries said as one. Immediately the robotic bodyguards began firing at Umi & Hikaru, both of whom dive for the ground & just missed being turned into swiss cheese. The rapid hail of bullets tore through the chairs & tables in record time, barely providing the girls with enough cover from the deadly barrage.

"Have fun, girls!", Bio shouted over the firing of bullets, laughing maniacally as he heads for the cockpit unobstructed. The sentries advance towards Hikaru & Umi, who are running out of breathing room & objects to hide behind. Unless they get to a more secure area, they'll be just as dead as all the kids' parents. Staying low, Hikaru crawls on the floor & uses her sword to hit the switch that opens the door to allow them an escape. Although the bullets strike her sword with great force, they don't even scratch the weapon & it reaches its destination.

The door swings open to the next room.

"In here—quick!", Hikaru says, & both of them scuttle on the floor to avoid the volley of bullets that wiz past their heads. When they reach the door, they turn right for the wall to give them shielding. Umi presses another button to close the door, shutting them off from the killer machines on the other side. Using her sword, she deactivates the mechanism to the door, sealing them—and Bio—inside.

"Sorry, Hikaru, but I had to think fast!", Umi said, feling somewhat bad about cutting off their only way back to Bio. "I had to make sure those sentries don't follow us until we can think of how to dispose of them properly without too much trouble!"

"No need for apologies, Umi", Hikaru assures her. "You did exactly what I would do, & if we have to, we'll find another way to get to Bio! I promised we'd make him pay, & I intend to live up to that promise!"

Umi nods. "Me too!"

A smell of scorched metal suddenly fills their nostrils, & the Magic Knights look down to see a torch of some kind burning & melting through the door with ease. Already the torch has made a half-circle with a height & width of three meters in the metal, & at the rate it's going, it'll make it all the way through in no time.

And they do: after the circle of metal falls to the floor with a clang, the circle spins for a few moments before finally laying still as two of the sentries exit the room through the circle, their gun arms poised & ready to fire.

But Hikaru & Umi were just as ready for them: in the blink of an eye, they slash at the sentries with their swords, slicing through what passes as their heads. The beheaded sentries start to sputter & spark uncontrollably before finally crashing to the ground, their legs spasming in a mechanical manner until they cease moving altogether.

Once the two deactivated sentries ceased moving, the other four began firing their weapons again where the twin ones fell, the bullets striking their downed companions.

"Come on, Hikaru!", Umi said. "They're not going to wait to get picked off by us in the same way as those two! We need a new tactic to take care of the rest!"

"You're right, Umi!", Hikaru said. "Let's get them to some other palce on this ship where we can deal with them more properly—and I think I know of just the place! Follow me!"

Umi nodded & ran with her friend leading the way. The sentries stopped firing as two of them stepped through the circle in the door & scanned the area for any sign of the girls. Finding no trace of them but listening to the sound of their footsteps, the sentries rush towards the sounds of their prey, their own legs making rapid metallic clicking on the floor.

The sentries traced the footsteps of their intended prey to close to where the entrance of the RXT is before the trail turns cold, as they could no longer hear their footsteps. Despite the lack of sound as their evidence, the four sentries turn their visions to infrared. Immediately they found the residue of the girls' footsteps & continue their search anew. With their infrared visions, they trace it to the ship's entrance, confirming the fact that the girls are either still on the ship or have escaped with their lives.

Whatever the case may be, the sentries will check it out as they're programmed to.

The two lead sentries entered first—and as luck would have it, they spot Hikaru & Umi just standing in the middle of the room, holding their swords in a showdown like they would do in a Western flick.

"Looking for us?", Hikaru & Umi say together.

"Targets in sight! Fire!", one of the sentries says. At that time, the two Magic Knights throw their weapons at some of the loose cables up on the ceiling, twirling like giant Chinese stars. Their swords slash through the overhead cables with ease which then fall down directly onto the lead sentries, their severed ends cackling with electricity. Before even a single bullet can be fired, the cables land on the sentries & immediately get roasted with the electric current. Almost instantly as they've been electrocuted, the sentries fall to the ground inert & out of commission.

Four down & now only two to go.

Hikaru & Umi will their swords back to them, but the last two sentries got the jump on them as they came around the corner after the last two went down & leapt at the Magic Knights like a pair of actual jumping spiders. The girls were caught off-guard by their sudden action, & both organic & mechanical bodies clash with one another as they all go down on the floor with the sentries on top. The Magic Knights snatch the deadly robot's gun arms & strain to prevent them from aiming them at their heads & blowing them off. Despite their relatively small size, they had formidable strength, & it will be only a matter of time before they get in position & fire.

Being occupied with their gun arms prevents Hikaru & Umi from drawing their swords; a slip-up or distraction of any kind could cost them.

The one on top of Umi almost has its gun arms in position of her head.

Abruptly, the entrance of the ship opens to reveal a pistol that gets aimed at the sentry who has Umi nearly lined up for execution. A shot to the red optic sensor on its robotic face causes it to flail around wildly & spark before falling to the ground. The sentry on top of Hikaru turns to the cause of its partner's demise but doesn't get the chance to reply. It gets the same treatment as its partner, & crashes to the floor next to the confused Magic Knight.

"Are you two all right?", said a male voice.

Hikaru & Umi look to where the voice came from, & are astounded to see who had just rescued the both of them.

"Treece!", the girls say unison.

Hikaru & Umi rise from the floor as Treece enters the ship, his pistol still raised in case of any further trouble.

"Nice save, Treece!", Umi said. "We'd probably be dead now if not for you!"

"Treece, not to sound ungrateful, but why are you here?", Hikaru wondered. "If Bio finds out you're here on his ship, he'll…"

"That's exactly what I want him to know, Hikaru!", Treece said firmly. "I'm here to help undo the damage I caused & settle the score with that backstabbing bastard!"

"But you can't stop Bio by yourself, armed or not!", Umi said. "Besides, Hikaru & I are quite sure that they rescued your daughter like they promised!"

"You're right on that, Umi. Tamara is safe along with the other kids whom Bio & Kaza had planned to impregnate with those creatures."

"Then go to her, Treece! You're the only parent left alive, & the only one Tamara has now! How could she bear the fact that her father got killed on a foolish suicide run?"

"My daughter understands what I'm doing, Umi!"

That gave a shock to the girls more so than anything that occurred in this nightmare of an adventure: it was bad enough that all the other parents were killed by merciless monsters from space, but now the last survivor wishes to give up his own life on an attempt to get revenge on the one who planned this from the start. Granted, the girls themselves want the same thing, but unlike Treece, they're more experienced with dealing in situations & people like Bio.

Hikaru stood in front of Treece.

"Listen to me, Treece, & listen good!", she says firmly, putting her foot down. "Umi & I will not let you do this! We are the ones who are going to stop Bio, not you! You're getting off this ship & back to where Tamara is, even if we have to render you unconscious!"

"We don't want to, Treece, but if you leave us no choice…", Umi steps in, giving her friend backup.

That's when the roar of the engines come to life & the craft shook with it, telling them time was short.

Damn!, Hikaru thought. I had hoped that cutting those cables back there would cripple the ship so that it couldn't take off!

"You need to go now, Treece!", Umi says.

Sighing, Treece gives in & speaks in a defeated tone.

"Very well, then. I'll follow you."

"That's a good man", Hikaru says with a smile as Umi does the same.

Leading Treece to the entrance, Hikaru & Umi stare down at the ground. Fortunately, they were only a few feet up from it, & making a jump now won't be a tad difficult, but they had to do it now; waiting any longer will become more treacherous with every passing second as the ship continues to rise.

With speed quite amazing for a man his age, Treece pushes Hikaru & Umi in the back, & the girls are falling out of the craft before they knew what happened, let alone prevent it. They had just enough time to perform a roll to help absorb the impact of hitting the ground. Getting to their feet, the Magic Knights watch as the ship rises up even further, too high for them to try & reach it by a leap.

"Treece!", the girls yelled.

"I'm sorry, Magic Knights, but for me it has to be this way!", Treece yelled down in order for his voice to be heard over the roar of the engines. "Forgive this foolish man's request of a final redemption! Don't worry—I'll see to it that Bio pays for his betrayal, & I have just the way to do it! Please tell Tamara that I love her very much with all my heart, & that I'll always watch over her! Farewell, Magic Knights! It has been an honor!"

Treece shuts the door to the ship, disappearing from the girls' view even as they shout his name again. Hikaru & Umi watch helplessly as the RXT rises away from Cephiro, the heat from the engines felt all over by the girls.

One instant they feel the heat, the next they feel the ground vibrate & hear a portion of the place crumble. Turning to the sound, they see a large chunk of the wall knocked down by a sight they were most unhappy to be seeing.

The alien queen. The one from the mountain.

Drawing their swords, Hikaru & Umi were more than anxious to slice & dice the alien bitch into itty bitty pieces, but feeling the intense heat just behind them, they get an even better idea, & both come up with it at the same time, nodding to each other.

"Over here, you alien bitch!", Hikaru shouted to the creature, hoping she'll pay attention to her & not her friend. "Remember me? I'm the one who torched your eggs in your lair & burned all your unborn brethren! Come & get me!"

The queen turned to Hikaru & let out her most loathing screech yet. The red-haired Magic Knight was right: the queen does remember Hikaru & what she'd done to her unborn children, & now she will make the girl pay by tearing her apart with her bare hands.

Hikaru's deduction was correct. Ignoring Umi completely, the queen rushes at the red-haired Magic Knight at a fantastic speed, eager to make her pay for the genocide of her eggs. Hikaru stays where she is as the worst thing on two legs since Tyrannosaurus Rex comes at her, showing no trepidation whatsoever. The alien queen reaches her in no time, & with only seconds to act, the red-haired Magic Knight dove underneath the monster's legs as the queen takes a killing swipe at Hikaru, who cuts the queen in the leg with her sword halfway, drawing her blood which doesn't get on the Magic Knight, thankfully.

"Now, Umi!", Hikaru yelled.

As the queen rushed at Hikaru, Umi ran behind the alien beast, & when her friend calls out her name, she breaks into a run directly at the queen at full speed & takes a mighty leap straight for her. Using all her strength & both legs, Umi rams her feet into the queen's side as she forces her into & underneath the ship's engines. The blue-haired Magic Knight ricochets herself off the alien queen's hide to safety while the bitch herself screeches in agony as the engine's intense heat sears even her hard exoskeleton of a skin. With each pasing second, the heat gets more intense & the queen's skin bubbles & melts under it, thrashing about wildly. With a final screech of pain & unable to take any more, the queen's enormous head explodes like an overripe melon that's been stepped on or shot at, its smoking pieces shattering everywhere. The rest of its body slumps to the ground & continues to get scorched & cooked underneath the ship, which is now twenty-four feet in the air.

Now the RXT was rising faster than before, gaining more altitude as Geo Metro, Presea, & a seemingly-well Master Mage Clef arrive, seeing they were too late.

"Dammit!", Geo said as he watches the RXT lift away from reach.

"We didn't make it in time!", Presea states the obvious.

"Clef!", Umi says. "Since you seem all better again, can't you bring that ship down?"

Clef shook his head. "Even though the illness I received from Bio has dissipated", he says, "I still cannot perform magic any more than you two or anyone else with the ability! Bio's barrier that surrounds the castle is still operational, & the main control for it is nowhere within these walls as we first thought!"

"That leaves only the RXT!", Geo said. "I should've thought of that in the first place!"

"That's not the worst of it, Geo!", Hikaru says.

"What do you mean, Hikaru?"

The red-haired Magic Knight took a deep breath before telling Geo & company.

"Treece is up in that ship!"

The news hit Geo, Clef, & Presea like a slap in the face.

"That's impossible, Hikaru!", Presea said. "We told him to stay with his daughter & the other children once they were rescued!"

"It's true, Presea!", said Umi. "He saved us from a few of his sentries, but just as we were escorting him off, he gave us the slip just as the ship was going up! And now he's alone up there with that madman!"

"That crazy fool!", Geo barked, more angry with himself than at Treece. "What the hell does he think he's doing? We even told him that my brother will killhim if he tried to pull a stunt like this! Doesn't he have any common sense?"

Geo didn't know what else to say, & neither Clef, Presea, or the two Magic Knights. Without the ability to use magic, there was no way to reach the RXT & rescue Treece. All they can do is that Treece exercises extreme caution when dealing with Bio & not do anything rash, especially an action which may cost him his life.

Bio Metro sat comfortably in the cockpit's pilot seat. The ship itself was on automatic pilot & gave him free reign of his hands. Despite the damage done to the monitors by the intruding Magic Knights, the RXT flew like a dream & continued rising high in the sky, not hampering its performance in any way. Now he was in the clouds of Cephiro & still rising; in no time, he'll reach space in moments & away from the reach of Master Mage Clef when he deactivates the barrier which prevents him & others from performing magic. By the time he does shut it down, they'll be much too late to stop him.

That alone gave Bio reason to smile.

But he had other reasons to smile & be happy. Aside from all the difficulties he faced—the interference of the Magic Knights, the semi-sabotage of the RXT, & the loss of his good friend Kaza Rosque—he accomplished what he had set out to do. Even though the planet's defenders had exterminated the aliens in the castle & elsewhere, he succeeded in capturing an alien queen & several of her brood for transport in the cargo bay to be delivered to his mysterious associate 'T' before heading to Autozam itself & deliver the rest of the package there. Once he arrives home in Autozam, he'll be granted with being made as one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff there (part of their government, at that), or even better, as ruler of his homeworld. Bio can see it in his mind now: the new ruler of his fully automated world for accomplishing what no one—not even Eagle Vision himself—could: retrieving the alien species for the strictly confidential 'Xenomorph Project', a project in the run for years on Autozam.

And Bio Metro was the one who will finally get that project off the ground.

With what awaits him back home, he will become a very rich & powerful man.

Or so he thinks.

The door of the cockpit opens, & Bio turns to it as his combat training kicks in & raises his gun. Standing at the entrance was a middle-aged man with a very dark & grim look on his face & holding a pistol in his right hand.

Bio couldn't believe who it was.

"Treece!", he says with a laugh, lowering his weapon. "I do have to admit—this is quite the surprise! I probably would've expected those two Magic Knights to still be aboard my ship after battling my sentries, but never in a million years would I thought of seeing you, of all people, come aboard to try & punish me for my treason! You are here to do that, I take it?"

Treece stayed silent & still, his facial features unwavering.

Bio took a deep breath before continuing. "I know what you're thinking: how could I go back on my word & put your daughter in jeopardy as I did the other kids? Shame on me, right? I'll tell you what, old man. With my longtime friend Kaza sadly departed, how would you like to take his place? With the reward I'm expecting for the delivery of the aliens, I'll split it 50-50 with you as I would have done with Kaza. I'll take you under my wing & train you to be just as good a soldier as Kaza was. I'll even make you my second-in-command when we reach Autozam. What do you say to that? Sound fair?"

Again, Treece stands still & quiet, & this time it was getting on Bio's nerves irritably.

"Well, say something!", he snapped. "Have you gone deaf? Answer me!"

This time Treece did speak up, & it wasn't something that Bio would approve of.

"Go to Hell!", he coldly said, plain & simple.

"No. You first!", Bio said back, raising his gun again & firing off a round. The shot hit Treece in his left kneecap, blowing it off & shattering into bloody chunks. The middle-aged man howled in pain as he collapsed to the floor like a house of cards, dropping his pistol & grabbing his knee which bled like a faucet. When he was down & unarmed, Bio went to Treece & grabbed him by his shirt before thrwing him further inside the cockpit at the center.

Standing over his fallen foe, Bio couldn't help but gloat.

"You damned fool!", he says. "You could've been wealthy beyond your wildest dreams & had a spot at great power in Autozam! It was a chance for you to leave your pathetic life on Cephiro behind for something far greater than what you had there! I offered you the keys to the kingdom, & instead you chose to enter the gutter! But then, I suppose it's quite fitting for such a rat like you!"

Treece suddenly begins to laugh out loud despite the agony of his shattered knee.

"What the hell's so funny, old man?", Bio wondered.

Treece looks up at him, a wicked smile on his face.

"You so foolishly call me a rat, Autozamian?", he says. "You should go see yourself in the mirror!" He holds up a disc in his hand, & Bio instantly cringes at the sight of it. The disc was red & yellow with a green light in the middle—it was the same one Bio himself had given to Treece back at the castle where the Magic Knights & the rest were held prisoner!

And its green light was blinking!

"Recognize this, backstabber?", he gloated. "You told me to use this on the castle should any of our prisoners try to escape, but I have a more fitting use for it right here!"

Enraged & scared, Bio raised his gun & aimed it at Treece's head.

"Deactivate it right now, Treece, or so help me I'll…!", Bio started as Treece cut him off.

"It would do you no good to shoot me, traitor! Even if you do deactivate this, I planted two more aboard this ship—one in the center & one at the cargo bay where your precious specimens are being held! I set them all shortly after you lifted off, & now they're bound to explode at any moment now!"

"You…!"

"This terror will go no further beyond Cephiro! It was the wish of the Magic Knights & all of their comrades, & I alone will see to it that their wish comes to fruition!"

"Goddamn you!", Bio screamed & threw himself at Treece, slapping the disc out of his hand & grabbing his throat with both hands, eager to strangle him to death before the disc goes off. But he was to get no satisfaction in killing Treece by his hand. The disc's green light started blinking more rapidly than before, giving the signal that it was scheduled to go off soon. Faster & faster it blinked until it became a steady noise, & Bio's heart froze with trepidation as he stared wide-eyed at the doomsday device, knowing there was nothing to prevent the inevitable.

Take care, Tamara. I love you, was what ran through Treece's head in the final moments of his life.

My hopes…my dreams…, were the very last thoughts to come into Bio's mind before the inevitable does happen.

The RXT got its first glimpse of space, but neither Bio Metro nor Treece could see or enjoy its beauty as the next—and last—thing they see is a bright flash of light as the entire ship goes up in a ball of debris & flame as it explodes in three different areas: the center, the cockpit, & the cargo bay located in the rear. The fiery holocaust lit up the Cephiro nighttime sky, claiming the lives of Bio Metro, Treece, & all the aliens aboard.

Everyone from inside & out of Cephiro castle saw the massive explosion that occurred from above past the clouds, but only Hikaru, Umi, Geo, Clef, & Presea know as to how it had occurred, at least at this moment. Tears filled the eyes of the former five, all deeply heart-wrenched for not being able to save the last surviving parent on Cephiro, having gone off to make the one who betrayed them all pay—a deed they all wanted to perform.

They never could've guessed that Treece would beat them to it—and succeed.

But it was a triumph that weighed heavy on their hearts.

Dammit, I knew I should've stayed with him!, Geo said to himself.

Why, Treece?, Presea thought with a lump in her throat. Why didn't you listen to or trust us?

"Treece", Hikaru & Umi said softly, their guilt similar to the way they felt when they were forced to make that fateful, heart-wrenching decision with Princess Emeraude.

All of them felt like they could shatter like Faberge eggs that have been squeezed inside someone's hand. Could Geo have really stopped Treece, even if he were right beside him? If he could give someone like Lafarga & Lantis the slip, would he have fared any better? Even if the sickness within Clef had dissipated in him from the antidote Chang Ang injected him with at a sooner time, could Clef had prevented the events which took place, despite the loss of his magic?

Probably not; Hikaru & Umi themselves were right next to Treece when they were on the RXT in order to get him off, & yet he still managed to dupe them like he did everyone else. Much as they don't want to confess to it, the outcome of what happened was unavoidable. Treece died making sure the aliens—and Bio—didn't go past Cephiro & unpunished.

No amount of magic could ever change that.

They had to accept that, no matter how hard it may be for them.

They also had to accept the fact that the others need to know of what happened. Keeping this to themselves was not an option, & the sooner it got done, the better.

When the fires in the sky finally die down, Clef suggested in heading inside the castle to do just that.

At least there was one thing they won't have any trouble confessing to.

Cephiro's nightmare with the aliens was finally over.

EPILOGUE

Putting aside the grief of Treece's death for the time being, the inhabitants of Cephiro had kept busy the next few days. Repairs were being made to all of the damaged areas caused by the aliens, & every injury each had received was healed by Fuu Hououji's 'Winds of Healing' spell which also included the Magic Knight herself, having received quite the nasty shoulder wound by one of the alien queens. It was fortunate that the barrier surrounding the castle was gone when the RXT was destroyed in order for magic to be used again: an hour or so later had the barrier not been lifted, & Fuu would've died from both the pain & blood loss.

With Hikaru, Fuu, Primera, & even Mokona acting as guides, Lantis & Ferio head over to the downed craft that have brought the aliens to Cephiro to begin with. The two Magic Knights were pleased to see that the trees Fuu had jammed the entrance with have remained exactly where they were when they left it. The ice that Umi placed there to give it a firmer hold may have melted away, but as far as they can tell, nothing was touched or hampered with. Fuu uses her 'Winds of Admonishment' spell to remove the trees like she used to plug the entrance & toss them aside. With their swords all drawn, Hikaru, Fuu, Ferio, & Lantis went inside the ship as Primera & Mokona waited outside, acting somewhat as guards. The quartet wanted to make sure that there were no aliens still inside the ship, lest this nightmare start all over again.

But after an extensive & thorough search of the ship, they saw no remaining aliens—only the bodies of the unfortunate people who were in the ship when it crashed. They took the bodies & buried them near the ship in an open space as mounds of dirt with no tombstones, saying a few prayers.

Even though the craft was in terrible shape & inoperable, there were still salvageable parts within it to help repair the monitor at the castle which, thankfully, didn't suffer any more damage when the aliens attacked (including the queens) aside from having it short out due to Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque's sabotage of it. Collecting what they seemed valuable, the group make their way back to the castle.

They reached the castle in just a day, & Lantis, Ferio, Hikaru, Fuu, Primera, & even Mokona handed Geo Metro & Zazu Torque all the spare parts over to the two Autozamians, who got to work on repairing the monitor immediately. A little different than what they were used to, but the parts did get the job done in making the monitor operational again.

And it was so in only one whole day rather than several, as they first surmised.

As before the whole mess started, everyone gathered round the now functional monitor as Geo Metro & Zazu Torque explained the situation to the Autozamian Joint Chiefs of Staff in every conceivable & truthful detail—the deaths caused by the aliens, the betrayal of Bio Metro & Kaza Rosque & their plans to take over their government & overthrow its current members once the aliens they so longed in receiving were handed to their Bio-Weapons division, their so-called 'Xenomorph Project'. The Joint Chiefs of Staff listened to every word Geo and/or Zazu said to them, & the stone looks on their faces were hard to read or decipher what they felt inside.

And it was all because Bio & Kaza got greedy—too greedy.

"And that's the whole story, gentlemen", Geo finishes. "Even though you exiled Zazu & me, I just thought you'd all want to know of what happened, not to mention of my brother's traitorous intentions."

Immediately the Chiefs of Staff began facing & speaking lowly to each other, keeping to themselves as those on Cephiro waited for their answer. They, too, started looking at one another & mumbled, hoping their final answer will be a good one.

"If this doesn't convince Autozam to join forces with Cephiro, Lady Aska, I don't know what will", Sang-Yung said to her lowly.

"I know what you mean, Sang-Yung", Lady Aska says back. "I'd hate to think that all of our efforts to collaborate with Autozam like Chizeta & us of Fahren had done will be all for naught, especially after what we'd been through with those creatures."

From behind them, Chang Ang placed a gentle hand upon their shoulders.

"I share your feelings, young ones", he says soothingly. "As much as I myself would want this petty dispute between Autozam & Cephiro to be overwith & done, I'm afraid that's not up to any of us here to decide."

Sang-Yung & Lady Aska look at each other again, this time at a loss for words.

What seemed like an eternity, one of the Autozamian Chiefs of Staff—a burly, well-built man with a G.I. haircut—addresses Geo & everyone else watching the screen.

"And to think", he started saying, "I was going to give Bio & his friend Kaza a spot here as one of our government operatives, regardless of whether he stayed or came back from Cephiro. I & the others here had absolutely no idea whatsoever that they were going to proclaim themselves rulers here at Autozam—and all because of our Xenomorph Project."

"Sir, if I may", Zazu stepped in, "those aliens are far too dangerous to have even as a science project. Needless to say, there are those who'd kill to get their hands on them & their biology—a fact more than proven by Bio & Kaza."

The man nodded. "As you & Geo have said, young man. It's ironic: we finally hear of some news that we've obtained something of great value to our Bio-weapons department after years of searching, only to have it nearly blown up in our faces, & by two of our own people no less."

Clef knows exactly how being betrayed by your own people feels like. High Priest Zagato & Alcyone are two perfect examples—once they were Clef's top students, then they had become Cephiro's greatest threats & came close to destroying his world & everyone in it. Had it not been for the three Magic Knights, they would've been successful.

Now Geo Metro & Zazu Torque of Autozam can share this uneasy feeling, along with the rest of Cephiro & its guests.

On the screen, a man with a suave crewcut speaks.

"Master Mage Clef?", he says, looking directly at him.

"Yes?", he says, approaching the screen.

"First, let us express our sympathies to your losses on Cephiro. We never wanted something of this magnitude to occur to your world, believe me. Second, we want to deeply apologize for the atrocities Bio & Kaza caused you in their betrayal. We were just as shocked to hear of it as you were: those were two of the best men Autozam ever had, & suddenly they allowed greed to get the better of them."

"No need for apologies", Clef said. "Greed, like anger & revenge, is a very strong emotion that can overcome even the strongest individuals when they're not careful. One must never be caught in its web, or they risk losing everything they should consider more precious, like friends & family."

"Truer words have never been spoken, Master Mage Clef. Considering the events that took place there & all the evidence on our steps, we have decided to reconsider bonding with Cephiro as Chizeta & Fahren have. People, say hello to your new friends & allies!"

Those words spoken, nearly everyone (the kids mostly) cheered happily, knowing they've accomplished what they set out to do before the aliens came. Some, like Clef, Lantis, & Lafarga just smiled, although no less happy with the outcome.

When the cheering died down, Zazu spoke to the Chiefs of Staff.

"Gentlemen, does this mean that Geo & I are…"

The G.I. haircut individual cut Zazu off. "Yes, Zazu Torque. Your exile from Autozam has been lifted indefinitely, both yours & Geo's. We'll send a ship to come retrieve & bring you back home. Also, as of this moment forth, the Xenomorph Project will be suspended & terminated but good. Creatures that dangerous shouldn't be collected & studied for one's pourpose, no matter how good their intentions are. I suppose we should've seen that before, but we were just as blind as Bio & Kaza were."

"Sir, at least you & the others saw the light before it was too late", Geo said. "In some other cases, it's not as fortunate. We're glad you did, & if I may say so, Eagle Vision would be so proud of this moment. I'm positive he would want a merger between Autozam & Cephiro."

"Not to mention the termination of the Xenomorph Project. I agree, Geo. Eagle was never one to put his people's lives in danger for Autozam's benefit. He was a humanitarian at heart, & he loved his country dearly. I guess we have been too stubborn, having taking his death too hard without fully acknowledging the reason."

"Look at it this way, sir: you've more than atoned for it, & helped to give Cephiro a strength it desperately needed by forming this bond with them. For the time Zazu & I were here, we shared many of our attributes with Cephiro, & it has vastly improved their way of life, just as they'd done for Autozam to save it from extinction by giving you the readings of the pillar."

"True. We never did got to thank you people properly for saving our country, Master Mage Clef. We'd like to do so now—were it not for your cooperation, Autozam would now be a dead world. Thank you very much."

"You are most welcome, gentlemen", said Clef. "It was Eagle's final wish before he perished in battle with Lady Debonair, & I gave my word that it would be fulfuilled."

"Master Mage Clef", said the man wth the crew cut. "Due to your loss of all the children's parents, we'd like to have several of our residents from Autozam head over there to make fine foster parents for them."

"Thank you, sir. But I have already given the notion thought by getting in touch with the people of Kietana, & will do so once we're done here. They are a most peaceful race & are non-aggressive unless attacked by enemies, & have been good friends with us for many years. They will make excellent foster parents for the kids. But we are grateful for your hospitality & offer to us. Thank you again."

"You're most welcome, Master Mage Clef", he said, turning to Geo & Zazu. "I take it you two wish to see this plan commenced & underway, yes?"

Both Geo & Zazu nodded, but it was the latter who spoke.

"We do, sir. I just can't abandon Cephiro in its time of need, & neither can Geo. These kids need parents to help take care of them, & Clef's plan sounds foolproof. But send the ship over anyway—once the task is done, Geo & I will come straight home."

"Sounds fair, young man. We'll send a ship to you as soon as we're able. Good luck in the endeavor, & we'll see you home soon. Autozam out."

The screen went black.

"We did it, Geo!", Zazu said proudly.

"We sure did, Zazu!", Geo replied. "After nearly a year of being outcasts, we're able to head home at last!" He looked at Clef & the others. "Uh, not that we're ungrateful to you for your…"

Lafarga chuckled. "Don't worry, Geo. You & Zazu were more than an inhabitant of Cephiro in the time you were here."

"Y'all were more like…family ta us", Caldina says. "So don't ya worry your pretty little heads ovah it in the slightest. We here at Cephiro take care o' our own. Plus, y'all taught us a most valuable lesson ta boot, or more precisely, your brother & Kaza did."

"They did?", Ascot wondered. "What kind of lesson, Caldina? I don't understand."

"Two o' them, Ascot. One, while our magics are a vital tool in battle, we should never take it for granted under any circumstance. Those two backstabbin' snakes showed us what can happen if we do—they severed our magics from us for a while, leaving us vulnerable. Sometimes we need ta use whatever skills we got ta fight the good fight when we need ta."

"Now I see what you mean, Caldina. When my arm got badly hurt by the alien's acid blood, I couldn't summon any of my monsters to help the children & save them from a horrible fate. That was when I had to resort to using traditional weapons in order to do that."

"And you were quite good at handling a gun & a sword back then when we were rescuing the kids, Ascot", Ferio praised him. "It seems you're quite the fast learner."

"I guess when you need to save lives, that kind of skill comes in quite handy."

"Quite, Ascot", Lantis said. "That's why Lafarga & I are master swordsmen. Should our magic somehow falter, we can still wield a blade around to defeat enemies. That's also why Geo made for me a sword with an energy blade that's identical to my own in every way, sans any magical properties."

"In short, it's best to have a contingency ready in hand", Lafarga says. "You'll never know just when you'll need to use it."

"And the other lesson, Caldina?", Presea asks.

"Although Clef already mentioned it before", Caldina says, "it's always worth repeatin'. One should never let greed get the better of ya. That's what ah learned from the Magic Knights, like ah mentioned when we were Bio's prisoners. There are things far more precious, & ta see exactly what ah mean, y'all just hafta look at the children themselves."

They did as Caldina suggested, watching the kids with Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu, & her words sink in like stones in a river.

"Well said, Caldina", said Presea, turning to Clef. "And speaking of the children, shouldn't we reach Kietana right about now, Master Mage Clef? I'd like to tell them of our current predicament & help them as soon as we can. Just knowing the kids have lost their parents is hard enough on us already."

"Fear not, Presea", Clef says. "Your feelings are understandable & shared by us all. But I'd like to offer a little feast in their parent's memory before we get underway with that."

"It's a good idea, Master Mage Clef", Lady Aska said. "I think we owe them that much at least. The three of us here", she gestured to Sang-Yung, Chang Ang, & herself, "can help set up the table if you'd like."

Clef smiled. "I would very much at that, Lady Aska. Come. I'll lead you three into the kitchen so that you may begin."

"Offering your assistance to others makes me so proud of you, Lady Aska, even with such mundane chores as setting a table & laying down food for a feast", Chang Ang says.

"I…had good teachers, Elder", Lady Aska says, referring to him & Sang-Yung. Smiles grew from their mouths, & the trio embraced in a group hug before following Clef into the castle.

Soon, Geo, Zazu, Caldina, Ferio, Ascot, Lafarga, Lantis, Primera, Mokona, & Presea went in the castle as well, leaving the children alone with the Magic Knights.

"Aside from the tragedy, it seems Cephiro has things to be proud of", Umi said.

"I agree, Miss Umi", Fuu said. "Not only did it prevent a horror from escaping this world, but it also stopped treason from happening on another. It had also set out to accomplish its original intention & succeeded in it."

"And the one who deserves that credit is Treece", Hikaru said. "He did what no one else here could—stop Bio & his mad plans with the aliens. Even we couldn't."

The girls stayed silent when Treece's daughter Tamara & Mira came up to them.

"Tamara…", Hikaru started to say.

"I know what you're going to say, Hikaru", Tamara cut her off. "Please don't any of you feel guilty about what happened to my father. He did what he did because he felt it was the right thing to do, making that traitor Bio Metro & his friend Kaza Rosque pay for turning on us."

"But don't you feel bad about losing your father, Tamara?", Umi asks.

"Sure she does, Umi", Mira said. "We all feel bad about losing our parents to those monsters the last few days ago, & we're always going to miss them terribly. But as we learned from the last encounter with that scary Debonair person, is that we need to be strong, especially when dealing with tragedy like the one we suffered."

"Did you learn that from us, might I ask?", Fuu says.

A smile from Mira's mouth forms & she nods. "How else?"

"There's something else we learned from you three", Tamara said.

"And what might that be, Tamara?"

"No one's ever really dead as long as they're remembered."

So impressed by Tamara & Mira's words that Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu feel a surprising surge of fresh energy flowing through them. These kids have come a long way since the very first time the girls were summoned to Cephiro to help save Princess Emeraude. It was because of them that the kids have learned to be strong, even in the face of immediate danger or even tragedy.

Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu couldn't be more proud of them if they tried.

"You know, one can learn a great deal from children about as much as they can learn from adults", Umi said. "They possess quite the intellect which is most vital to them & others."

"How true, Miss Umi", Fuu says. "If they can learn to be strong in times of tragedy, there's no reason as to why we three or any of our friends here on Cephiro can't do the same."

"Right as usual, Fuu", Hikaru said. "While I'll always miss Princess Emeraude, I know that she would want us to continue going on with life & not let her death get us down all the time."

Tamara nods. "Glad to hear it, Magic Knights. Care to help set up the feast with us?"

"Try & stop us!", Hikaru, Umi, & Fuu said playfully in unison, enticing giggles from the kids.

With that, they all headed into the castle to join the others.

The memorial feast went better than one would expect. Even though there was still grief in everyone's hearts for the deaths of the children's parents, it wasn't as melancholy as one would believe it to be. They all stayed firm & toasted in their honor & bravery (namely Treece for his bold deed) & chat about the good times once they had a moment of silence for them.

Later that evening, when the party died down, everyone retired to their rooms for some well-deserved sleep. Those who already have rooms went, while the children were set up with ones of their own with several boys & girls sharing a room that housed near to near twenty per room.

It wasn't so with the Magic Knights. Like last time, they were given their own private room the three of them shared, with a bed for each. Umi & Fuu were already dressed in their pajamas & sound asleep in their beds.

Hikaru, however, was not.

Instead, dressed in her own PJs, she stares out the window at the clear, star-filled sky with Mokona in her arms, her thoughts on the fight with the aliens—and something else.

With all that happened during that fight, she says to herself, it's kind of hard to tell just who the real enemy was. Sure, those aliens were nasty & vicious beyond anything any of us have ever encountered before, but then so are crocodiles & sharks in our world. No, I think the real enemy was one that I guess is custom to any world, not just on Earth or here on Cephiro—it's greed. It's like the old saying goes, 'Money is the root to all evil'. It's just as true here or anywhere else as it is back home. As usual, Clef was correct in his assumption: greed can get the best of anyone's judgement, causing them to go astray. I still find it hard to believe that Caldina was on that path once. Lucky for her, the three of us were able to put her on a better path than the one she lead. If only Bio & Kaza hadn't been led astray as they did by their mysterious associate 'T'. But I guess there's no point in wondering about it: they chose their path, & paid for it with their lives. As for the aliens themselves, they needed to be stopped, even if their relentlessness is their nature. Living creatures or not, they're a disease that had to be expunged before they can spread. I can only hope that Cephiro will never know their terror again. The life on this world is most precious, & like Umi & Fuu, I'll do whatever it takes to help preserve it.

Lookng down at Mokona, Hikaru smiles at her chubby pink friend.

"Come on, Mokona. Let's get some sleep", she says softly to him.

Hikaru climbs into bed & gets under her covers, keeping Mokona in her arms & by her side.

In no time, she was fast asleep, believeing it safe to dream.

THE END…FOR NOW

MEMORIALS

2002 Memorials:

Eileen Heckart, Television & Stage Actress, 82 (1919-2002)

Dave Thomas, Founder of 'Wendy's' Restaurant, 69 (1932-2002)

Ted Demme, Television & Film Director, 38 (1963-2002)

John Buscema, Comic Book Artist, 74 (1927-2002)

Carrie Hamilton, Daughter of Actress-Comedienne Carol Burnett, 38 (1963-2002)

Peggy Lee, Singer, 81 (1920-2002)

Bishop Johm McGan, 77 (1924-2002)

Dick 'Night Train' Lane, NFL All-Time Great, 73 (1928-2002)

Col. Francis Gabreski, WWII Flying Ace, 83 (1918-2002)

Otis Blackwell, Songwriter, 70 (1931-2002)

Dee Dee Ramone, Co-Founder of the Ramones, 49 (1952-2002)

2009 Memorials:

Danny Gans, Las Vegas Star, 52 (1956-2009)

Jack Kemp, Ex-Quarterback & Congressman, 73 (1936-2009)

John Wilke, Investigative Reporter for the Wall Street Journal, 54 (1955-2009)

Dom DeLuise, Actor-Comedian, 75 (1933-2009)

Martha Mason, Spent 61 Years In Iron Lung, 71 (1938-2009)

Marilyn French, Author & Feminist, 79 (1930-2009)

Valentin Varennikov, Russian General, 85 (1924-2009)

Sam Cohn, Hollywood & Broadway Talent Agent, 79 (1929-2009)

Danny Ozark, Ex-Phillies Manager, 85 (1924-2009)

Mickey Carroll, Actor, Played 'Town Crier' Munchkin in 'Wizard of Oz', 89 (1919-2009)

Dom DiMaggio, All-Star for Boston Red Sox & Brother of Joe, 92 (1917-2009)

Chuck Daly, Coach for the Detroit Pistons, 78 (1930-2009)

Col. Harold E. Fischer, Fighter Ace, POW, 83 (1925-2009)

John Furia, Hollywood Writer, 79 (1929-2009)

David Baker Sr., General Who Flew in Gulf War, POW in Cambodia, 62 (1947-2009)

Stephen Bruton, Musician, Played With Kris Kristofferson, 60 (1949-2009)

Julio Mazzei, Coached Pele in U.S. Soccer League, 78 (1931-2009)

Mark Landon, Son of Actor Michael Landon, 60 (1949-2009)

George Waldbusser, WW II Vet, Ex-Firefighter, 87 (1921-2009)

L. William Seidman, Ex-Chairman of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., 88 (1921-2009)

Mark Landau, Transplant Pioneer, 59 (1950-2009)

William A. Kerr, Leading Human Rights Activist, Counseled Ted Bundy, 68 (1941-2009)

Achille Compagnoni, Climbed Pakistan's K2, 94 (1915-2009)

Hugh Van Es, Photographer, 67 (1942-2009)

Bob Rosburg, Golfer & Sportscaster, 82 (1927-2009)

Wayman Tisdale, Ex-NBA All-Star, 44 (1965-2009)

Ted Sampley, Veterans Activist, Served in Vietnam War, 62 (1946-2009)

Frank Aletter, Character Actor, 83 (1926-2009)

Mario Benedetti, Uruguayan Writer, 88 (1920-2009)

Edwin Shneidman, Pioneered Suicide Study, 91 (1918-2009)

Si Frumkin, Activist for Soviet Jews, 78 (1930-2009)

Newt Heisley, Designed POW-MIA Flag, 88 (1921-2009)

Rodger McFarlane, Gay Rights Advocate, 54 (1955-2009)

David H. Donald, Lincoln Historian, 88 (1921-2009)

Wayne Allwine, Voice of Mickey Mouse, 62 (1947-2009)

Dr. Leonard Shlain, Author & Surgeon, 71 (1937-2009)

Herbert York, Worked on A-Bomb, 87 (1921-2009)

Clint Smith, Last of Rangers' 1940 Cup Champions, 95 (1914-2009)

Lucy Gordon, Actress, Appeared in 'Spider-Man 3', 28 (1980-2009)

Joan Alexander, Radio Actress, Voiced Lois Lane in 'Adventures of Superman', 94 (1915-2009)

Sam Maloof, Furniture Maker, 93 (1916-2009)

Roh Moo-Hyun, Former President of South Korea, 62 (1947-2009)

David Glenn Lunceford, Ex-Lineman for Chicago Cardinals, 75 (1934-2009)

Roberto Martinez, Migrants Advocate, 72 (1937-2009)

Yehoshua Zettler, Pre-State Jewish Leader, 91 (1918-2009)

Charles 'Buddy' Montgomery, Vibraphonist, 79 (1930-2009)

Jay Bennet,Ex-Wilco member, 45 (1964-2009)

Exodus Tyson, 4-Year-Old Daughter of Boxer Mike Tyson

Amos Elon, Israeli Author & Critic, 82 (1927-2009)

Leo Jackson, First Black Mayor in New England Region, 83 (1926-2009)

Maria A. Lopez, World's Oldest Blogger, 97 (1912-2009)

Peter Zezel, Had 15-Year NHL Career, 44 (1965-2009)

Robert Furchgott, Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist, 92 (1917-2009)

Marc Rocco, Filmmaker & Son of Actor Alex Rocco, 46 (1962-2009)

Jane Randolph, 1940s B-Movie Starlet, Starred in 'Cat People', 93 (1915-2009)

Rolf K. McPherson, Pentecostal Church Leader, 96 (1913-2009)

Rev. Jean-Juste, Advocate for Haiti's Poor, 62 (1947-2009)

Leroy Hoeck, Found Link in Newborn Blindness, 97 (1911-2009)

Karine Ruby, Snowboarding Champ, 31 (1978-2009)

John J. Hartmann, Former Newsday Pressman, 82 (1927-2009)

Ephraim Katzir, Former President of Israel, 93 (1916-2009)

Gaafar Numeiri, Former Sundanese President, 79 (1930-2009)

Bill Brannigan, Newsman, 73 (1936-2009)

Millvina Dean, Last Survivor of the Titanic, 97 (1912-2009)

Vincent O'Brien, Renowned Horse Racing Trainer, 92 (1917-2009)

Paul Haney, the 'Voice' of NASA's Early Days, 80 (1929-2009)

Ernest May, Former Dean at Harvard University, 80 (1929-2009)

Clive Granger, Won Nobel in Economics, 74 (1934-2009)

Koko Taylor, Legendary Blues Singer, 80 (1929-2009)

David Carradine, Famed Actor, 72 (1936-2009)

Charles Albury, Dropped A-Bomb on Nagasaki, 88 (1921-2009)

Shih Kien, Bruce Lee Co-Star, 96 (1913-2009)

Richard E. Jacobs, Owned Cleveland Indians, 83 (1926-2009)

Sam Butera, Saxophonist & Lounge Entertainer, Sang With Louis Prima, 81 (1928-2009)

Frederick Hammersley, Critically Acclaimed Painter, 90 (1919-2009)

Rajeev Motwani, Google Mentor, 47 (1962-2009)

Omar Bongo, Gabon Leader, 73 (1936-2009)

Jim Owens, Controversial UW Football Coach, 82 (1927-2009)

Kenny Rankin, Musician & Songwriter, 69 (1940-2009)

Norman Brinker, Restaurant Mogul, 78 (1931-2009)

Pio Sagapolutele, Ex-NFL Lineman for Cleveland & New England, 39 (1970-2009)

Luke Cole, Environmental Lawyer, 46 (1962-2009)

Robert Sprague, Savings & Loan Executive & Philanthropist, 92 (1917-2009)

Thyembi Ngubane, South African AIDS Activist, 24 (1985-2009)

Woodie Held, Played for 7 American League Teams, 77 (1932-2009)

Christian Albin, Four Seasons Chef, 61 (1948-2009)

Alexis Arguello, Managua Mayor & Three-Time World Boxing Champion, 57 (1952-2009)

Arturo Gotti, Former Boxing Champion, 37 (1972-2009)

John Callaway, Legendary Broadcaster, 72 (1937-2009)

James 'Dusty' Rhodes, Former NY Giants Outfielder, 82 (1927-2009)

Arthur Stein, Mechanic on the Enola Gay, 84 (1925-2009)

Roger Terry, Tuskegee Airman, 87 (1921-2009)

Philip Curtin, African Historian, 87 (1922-2009)

Bob Lawrence, Radio DJ for WGBB-AM, 70 (1939-2009)

Bob Bogle, Guitarist for The Ventures, 75 (1934-2009)

Marcella M. Meyer, Advocate for the Deaf, 84 (1925-2009)

George Belotti, USC Grid Star, 74 (1935-2009)

Jack Nimitz, Jazz Saxophonist, 79 (1930-2009)

Edith Ronne, First American Woman in Antarctica, 89 (1920-2009)

Nic Fiore, Yosemite Ski Instructor, 88 (1920-2009)

Joe Treen, Ex-Newsday Reporter, 66 (1942-2009)

Emma Daniel Gray, Cleaned White House, 95 (1914-2009)

John Houghtaling, Inventor of 'Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed', 92 (1917-2009)

Ed McMahon, Television's Greatest Sidekick, 86 (1923-2009)

Ali Khan, Indian Musician, 87 (1922-2009)

Rev. Tim Vakoc, Minnesota Priest Gravely Hurt in Iraq in 2004, 49 (1960-2009)

Jerri Fitzgerald, Doctor Who Treated Her Own Breast Cancer, 57 (1952-2009)

Michael Jackson, Worldwide Iconic Singer, the 'King of Pop', 50 (1958-2009)

Farrah Fawcett, Actress, Best Known As Jill on TV's 'Charlie's Angels', 62 (1947-2009)

Billy Mays, Pop-Culture Iconic Television Pitchman, 50 (1959-2009)

Gale Storm, Singer & Actress, Played Title Role in 'My Little Margie', 87 (1922-2009)

Fred Travalena, Impressionist, Dubbed 'Mr. Everybody', 66 (1943-2009)

Anthony Romano, WW II Veteran, 84 (1924-2009)

Pina Bausch, Dance pioneer, 68 (1940-2009)

Karl Malden, Oscar-Winning Actor, 97 (1912-2009)

Harve Presnell, Actor of Film & Theatre, 75 (1933-2009)

Herbert G. Klein, Aide to President Richard Nixon, 91 (1918-2009)

Anna Morrow, Actress, 94 (1915-2009)

Shi Pei Pu, Chinese Operatic Soprano, Basis of 'M. Butterfly', 70 (1939-2009)

Thomas Ford, Survived Pearl Harbor Attack, 91 (1918-2009)

Jean Esquerre, Tuskegee Airman, 85 (1924-2009)

Steve McNair, Former NFL Quarterback, 36 (1973-2009)

Allen Klein, Ex-Beatles Manager, 77 1932-2009)

Robert McNamara, Led Pentagon During Vietnam, 93 (1916-2009)

John Orman, Professor & Political Activist, 60 (1949-2009)

Drake Levin, Guitarist for The Raiders, 62 (1946-2009)

Vassily Aksyonov, Soviet-Era Writer & Literary Dissident, 76 (1933-2009)

Oscar G. Mayer, Hot Dog Scion, 95 (1914-2009)

Ray Watt, Pioneering Builder, 90 (1919-2009)

Bob Mitchell, Original Organist At Dodgers Stadium, 96 (1912-2009)

Mollie Sugden, British Comedy Actress, 86 (1922-2009)

Charles Eastman, Playwright & Screenwriter, 79 (1930-2009)

Robert Short, Wrote 'The Gospel According To Peanuts', 76 (1933-2009)

Tom Wilkes, Grammy-Winning Album Cover Designer, 69 (1940-2009)

Harold Snider, Advocate for the Blind, 61 (1947-2009)

Amin al-Hafez, Ex-Prime minister of Lebanon, 83 (1926-2009)

Jimi Flowers, Paralympic Swim Coach, 47 (1962-2009)

Edward Downes, Conductor, 85 (1924-2009) (His Wife, Joan, Died With Him—She Was 74)

Kenneth Stampp, Historian, 96 (1912-2009)

Jane Weinberger, Wife of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, 91 (1918-2009)

Dash Snow, Art photographer, 27 (1982-2009)

Earl Haig, Painter, Son of U.K. Marshal Douglas Haig, 91 (1918-2009)

Sam Church, Led Mine Workers Union, 72 (1937-2009)

Julius Shulman, Architectural Photographer, 98 (1910-2009)

Nelson Munsey, Ex-Colts Cornerback, 61 (1948-2009)

Judi Ann Mason, Award-Winning Playwright & Film/TV Writer, 54 (1955-2009)

Walter Cronkite, Iconic News Pioneer, 92 (1916-2009)

Beverly Roberts, Actress, 96 (1913-2009)

Rene-Marie A. Fiechter, Inventor & Socialite, 89 (1920-2009)

Henry Allingham, World's Oldest Man & British WW I Vet, 113 (1896-2009)

Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author, 78 (1930-2009)

Sue Burns, San Francisco Giants Owner, 58 (1951-2009)

Dallas McKennon, Voiced Many Cartoon Characters, 89 (1920-2009)

Robert Cushman, Photograph Curator for Hollywood, 62 (1946-2009)

Ed Rudolph, 3-Time Olympic Speedskater, 68 (1941-2009)

John Barry, Ex-Head of WD-40 Product, 84 (1925-2009)

Gordon Waller, Pop Star, One Half of Pop Duo Peter & Gordon, 64 (1945-2009)

Heinz Edelmann, Art Director on Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine', 75 (1934-2009)

Yuri Verlinsky, Medical Pioneer, 65 (1944-2009)

Carlton Willey, Ex-Pitcher for Mets, 78 (1931-2009)

Scott Kurtis, Son of TV Host Bill Kurtis, 38 (1971-2009)

Brenda Joyce, Actress, Played Jane in Five 'Tarzan' Movies, 92 (1917-2009)

William Pollitt, Athlete, Coach, & WW II Veteran, 82 (1926-2009)

Joel D. Weisman, Early AIDS Detection Doctor, 66 (1943-2009)

John Dawson, Longtime Collaborator of the Grateful Dead, 64 (1945-2009)

Ralph F. Hirschmann, Enzyme Research Pioneer, 87 (1922-2009)

E. Lynn Harris, Author, 54 (1955-2009)

Merce Cunningham, Famed Choreographer of Dance, 90 (1919-2009)

Jim King, Former Senator of Florida, 69 (1940-2009)

Bobby C. Wilks, First Black Coast Guard Flier & Captain, 78 (1931-2009)

George Russell, Jazz Composer, 86 (1923-2009)

Jim Johnson, Coach of Philadelphia Eagle's Defense, 68 (1941-2009)

Olga Mendez, Broke Latina Political Barrier, 84 (1925-2009)

Zhuo Lin, Widow of Chinese Leader & Ecenomic Reformer Deng Xiaoping, 93 (1916-2009)

Gayatri Devi, Former Indian Queen & Lawmaker, 90 (1919-2009)

Ernest W. Lefever, Think Tank Founder, 89 (1919-2009)

Reverend Ike, TV Evangelist, Preached Prosperity, 74 (1935-2009)

Steven Miessner, Devoted 'Keeper of the Oscars', 48 (1961-2009)

Billy Lee Riley, Rockabilly Pioneer, 75 (1933-2009)

Jim Ingram, FBI Agent Who Probed Civil Rights Era Slayings, 77 (1932-2009)

Sidney Zion, Journalist, Led Hospital Reform, 77 (1932-2009)

George Taylor Morris, Radio DJ Pioneer, 62 (1947-2009)

Charles Gwathmey, Famed Architect, 71 (1938-2009)

Naomi Sims, Modeling Pioneer, 61 (1948-2009)

Budd Schulberg, Oscar-Winning Screenwriter, Wrote 'On the Waterfront', 95 (1914-2009)

John Hughes, Iconic Filmmaker, 59 (1950-2009)

Marilyn Clement, Social Activist, 74 (1935-2009)

Amos Kenan, Writer, Promoted Israeli Identity Without Judaism, 82 (1927-2009)

Dick Holub, Hoop Star at LIU & Longtime Coach, 87 (1922-2009)

Wallace L. Pannier, Germ Warfare Scientist, 81 (1928-2009)

Willy DeVille, 1970s Punk Icon, 58 (1951-2009)

Lewis J. Harris, Ex-FDNY Chief & WW II Veteran, 87 (1922-2009)

Jimmy Bedford, Former Master Distiller of Jack Daniel's Whiskey, 69 (1940-2009)

John McNamara, Firefighter, 9/11 First Responder, 44 (1965-2009)

Mike Seeger, Folk Musician, Helped Revive Folk Sound in 1950s & 1960s, 75 (1933-2009)

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, JFK's Sister, Social Worker & Activist, 88 (1921-2009)

Bill Cahir, Former Marine Sergeant & Washington Reporter, 40 (1969-2009)

Kenneth Bacon, Pentagon Spokesman in Clinton Administration, 64 (1944-2009)

Les Paul, Innovative Rock Star & Guitar Virtuoso, 94 (1915-2009)

Jim Dickinson, Musician & Producer, 67 (1942-2009)

Anthony Voelker, Ex-NYPD Officer, 81 (1928-2009)

Francis R. Johnson, Former NYPD Detective & Deputy AG, 75 (1934-2009)

Joseph S.K.N. Maruge, World's Oldest Pupil, 89 (1920-2009)

Kim Dae-jung, Ex-South Korea President, 85 (1924-2009)

Robert Novak, Journalist, 78 (1931-2009)

Don Hewitt, Creator of Television's '60 Minutes', 86 (1922-2009)

Rose D. Friedman, Economist, 97 or 98

Hildegard Behrens, Opera Soprano, 72 (1937-2009)

Virginia Davis, Star of Disney's 'Alice' Movie Series, 90 (1919-2009)

Tullio Kezich, Film Critic, 80 (1929-2009)

Sherwood Cryer, Iconic Club Owner, 83 (1926-2009)

Ralph W. Cousins, Retired Navy Admiral, 94 (1915-2009)

Barbara Podoski, OSS Operative, 95 (1914-2009)

Parker Hayes, Exhibit Director for Smithsonian Institution, 36 (1973-2009)

Jonathan Byrd, Longtime Indy 500 Car Owner, 57 (1952-2009)

Larry Knechtel, Grammy Award-Winning Keyboard Artist, 69 (1940-2009)

Stanley Kaplan, Test-Prep Pioneer, 90 (1919-2009)

Gordon Woods, Worked on First Mule Cloning, 57 (1952-2009)

Karla Kuskin, Children's Author, 77 (1932-2009)

Ernest Brown, Vaudeville Tap Dancer, 93 (1916-2009)

Richard Hall, UFO Enthusiast, 78 (1931-2009)

William A. Emerson, Editor of The Saturday Evening Post, 86 (1923-2009)

Dominick Dunne, Columnist, Novelist & TV & Film Producer, 83 (1925-2009)

Edward M. Kennedy, Last of the Kennedys, 77 (1932-2009)

Ellie Greenwich, Songwriter of the 1960s, 68 (1941-2009)

Al-Hakim Shia, Politician Who Opposed Saddam Hussein, 59 (1950-2009)

Toni Sailer, Olympic Ski Champion, 73 (1936-2009)

Adam Goldstein, Celebrity Disc Jockey, 36 (1973-2009)

Sergei Mikhalkov, Wrote Russian National Anthem, 96 (1913-2009)

Alex Grass, Founder of Rite Aid Corporation, 82 (1927-2009)

Lindsay Patterson, Author, 75 (1934-2009)

Robert W. Rexer, Child Actor & Talent Agent, 87 (1922-2009)

David Metz, Teacher & World War II Veteran, 91 (1917-2009)

Sheila Lukins, Store Owner, Cook, & Writer, 66 (1943-2009)

Joseph Governale, Noted for Role in 1957's 'Miracle of Manorville', 86 (1923-2009)

Marie Knight, Gospel Singing Legend, 84 (1925-2009)

Chris Connor, 'Cool Jazz' Singer, 81 (1927-2009)

Edward Ryan, Retired CIA Station Chief & WW II Veteran, 90 (1919-2009)

Nancy Talbot, Co-Founder of Talbot Women's Clothing Company, 89 (1920-2009)