1. Belly of the Beast

.

The viscous sphere rippled in perpetual motion, as if it were continuously collapsing inward on itself. Light reflections danced momentarily across colorless waves before falling into the infinity of the massive orb's core. Strangely, there was no source of this light within the bland, cylindrical room. Still, the shifting mass still wrung any trace of energy out of the very atmosphere, absorbing all with an insatiable hunger.

A young boy's fascination was hardly a match against this hypnotic call. He gazed with longing into the abyss, his obsidian eyes often reflecting its glimmers. For so long he had yearned to reach out and touch its slimy, shivering skin. He wanted to sink into its emptiness, to submerge his hand and hold the raw nothing of its power. His fingers twitched as he imagined himself doing just that, replaying the glorious dream over and over in his mind. Just one hand, that's all. I just want to try once…

"Boy?" A demonic howl snapped him from his reverie. "What are you doing here?"

The child went stiff as a corpse, and he slowly turned to face his father. The hulking figure loomed over him, an unproportional nightmare of fangs and fur. A dim, gold-weave crown was barely visible beneath his wild mane. His shadowed eyes were likewise hidden, yet simmering rage shone through clearly. The boy was stricken silent as his fascination collapsed into fear.

The long-limbed monstrosity hunched closer, rumbling with a cavernous sound. He towered over his offspring, nearly five times in size. "Gotoutenrin," the bestial giant growled, "I asked you a question."

The young prince stammered desperately for an answer. "Ah… fath… Emperor…" He turned to the ground as he felt his pale face flush. "I… don't know…"

The Emperor Asura stared with empty eyes, no emotion crossing his blackened face. Slowly, his lips peeled back, baring uneven fangs.

"Yes, you do."

The behemoth suddenly lurched forward, causing his son to flinch away; Asura strode past him, however. The Emperor planted himself before the shimmering orb, inspecting it with furious scrutiny. "You didn't go near it, did you?" he barked.

"No!" Gotoutenrin exclaimed eagerly, finally letting out his breath. "I swear I didn't..."

"You know what will happen if you do."

The boy nodded hesitantly. "I'll get lost. Inside it. I won't come back out."

The Emperor made no move, no reply. He stared into the dark well of power wordlessly, as if he himself were becoming lost in its deadly current. "Yes..." he eventually spoke, his misshapen jaw hanging limply. "The Source will take you, and it will never let go. You must respect the greatness that made us, and fear it. Whatever dreams it may conjure within you are false. Believe me. What it makes you feel, makes you think... it is not real, my son. The Source thinks nothing of us. That is all."

Asura turned slowly, and his son trembled. The boy nodded vigorously, hoping to appease the grisly beast, but those abyssal eyes still terrified him. "You are not to come back again until you're ready," the Emperor grated, making sure every word stuck. "Do not return until the ceremony. Your coronation will require the strength of the whole family to keep you alive. If you bathe in the Source alone, it will erase you, and you will never become Emperor. You are not strong enough to do it on your own. Nothing is. Do you understand me, boy?"

"Yes..." Gotoutenrin answered weakly.

"Then you will heed my words, and this time, you will remember them."

The boy clenched his eyes shut, preparing for the pain that would shortly follow. "Yes, my Emperor."

.


.

"Emperor?"

Gotoutenrin raised his blackened stare, showing no signs of the painful memories. A Da-Ku commander had addressed him, drawing his focus back to the present. They were standing on the desolate landing field before the Emperor's Palace, preparing to welcome Lord Byodou home from his excruciating task. After nearly three eras, their efforts had finally proven successful.

The Source had been recovered from that ancient, fateful accident.

Emperor Gotoutenrin barred those thoughts away, keeping his attention on the massive fleet that had entered the planet's orbit. A single, massive Da-Ku cruiser was lowering itself towards the surface, finding no resistance from its lack of atmosphere. The spiky vessel settled itself on the rocky, lifeless planet, and the rows of soldiers and commanders fell into line, preparing to properly greet their Lord. They all wore their appropriate life-support suits, keeping them sustained in the otherwise lifeless conditions.

The Emperor marched forward, his stone gaze fixed upon the cruiser. He wore his ornamental robes and crown, and nothing more. He had long ago forsaken such simple functions as breathing and circulation.

From between the jagged structures that jutted from the vessel, a pair of bay doors hissed open, a glimmering force field protecting its contents. The soldiers stepped back unanimously as something emerged from inside. A spherical shape bubbled forth from the shield, causing the flawless technology to stutter momentarily. The Emperor's frozen visage softened despite himself; his mouth parted, and his eyes widened ever so slightly. He had anticipated this moment for so long, but even now, he could not believe it had come.

Once the imposing sphere had fully exited the cruiser, some of the soldiers fell to their knees despite themselves, crying out from within their sealed helmets. More followed shortly, some lying down completely on the planet's barren land. For the first time, they were witnessing the Da-Ku's deity. They were seeing the Source.

The Emperor stared reverently at the abomination, and moved towards it in an unsteady gait. His concierge meanwhile had collapsed into a wailing heap, some of them curled into fetal balls, others screaming towards the sky. One of them, reservedly quiet, wept as he felt compelled to remove his helmet, and gaze upon the Source directly. His face crumpled into hopeless terror moments before the vessels in his eyes ruptured. His helmet fell to the ground as the vacuum of space continued its damage.

From behind the shadowy globe, a frail figure came into view. The Da-Ku Lord Byodou levitated from the docking bay, his bony fingers straining towards the Source. The ancient figure floated down with his precious charge, delicately placing the orb just above the planet's surface. When he finally relaxed his shaking limbs, Byodou doubled forward, nearly collapsing onto the ground from exhaustion.

A chilling hand rested upon his shoulder, steadying him. The Da-Ku Lord looked up to see his brother, the only one older than himself. "My Emperor," Byodou struggled to speak. "It is done."

"I know, brother," the Emperor's gravelly tone quivered with an uncharacteristic emotion. "We've done it."

Without looking at his younger sibling, the Emperor stepped towards the sphere, halting a step before its shivering layers. He gazed into it, feeling a sensation he had not experienced since he was very young. "The blood of our Dynasty," he whispered, drawing a single fingertip along its surface, creating electric ripples across its currents. "The Source... At long last, we are whole again."

.


.

By the Emperor's guiding hand, their deific artifact was finally coaxed back to the pedestal where it once rested eras ago. It had been exhilarating to be so close again, to feel its fluctuations struggling against his power. After a patient game of tug and war, Gotoutenrin stepped back to marvel at his accomplishment. Now, he thought feverishly, Now there is nothing to stop us. The Da-Ku have regained their birthright. No longer will we be a broken, weakened family. We will be strong once again... the strongest...

"I never thought we'd see it again," Lord Byodou interrupted his brother's thoughts. "Ever since it left us, I struggled to accept the absence, the knowledge that I would never experience it for myself. Now, though, I can finally stop struggling."

The Emperor studied his brother with slight disdain. It had been many cycles since they had last met, but already he was growing weary. The Da-Ku Lord stood straight and stiff now, having recovered from his battle of restraining the Source. His emaciated frame was draped in ceremonial robes, runic inscriptions running along their embroidered seams. His facial features were quite similar to Henjyou's, as they were born at nearly the same time, but slight ridges protruded along his jaw and forehead, giving him a feral appearance. His skin was also tinted with a dark pall, void of any complexion. The Emperor took note of this feature scathingly, remembering how their father had roared in pride upon Byodou's birth. These features were proof of his potent blood, true royalty of the Da-Ku Dynasty.

Lord Byodou deliberately stroked his sleek, black beard, studying the glistening ball of darkness before them. "You must have much on your mind, Emperor. It must be intimidating to consider all the possibilities that lay before us now."

Gotoutenrin's withered skin tightened around his eyes. "It is... invigorating, brother. I am eager to see what awaits us all."

"As am I." Byodou eyed his eldest sibling with a clever glint. "What awaits our Lords, I wonder, after their devout patience and dedication to the Dynasty? Do you know when we will commence the rite of passage once again? I'm sure word has reached the others, and they will be wondering the same. Perhaps Shokou would be a good candidate to try..."

"Shokou is dead," Gotoutenrin informed him flatly, "As is the rest of his family. Even Shinkou has perished."

"Ah," Lord Byodou nodded, unmoved. "There had been rumors, but I didn't have time to validate them. If our numbers are dwindling, that may be all the more reason to hasten the rites. The sooner we—"

"I know your game, Byodou." The Emperor turned towards his brother, fastening him with a deadly, unblinking stare. "You will get whatever I see fit to give you. As for the rite, I believe we will wait before attempting such a feat. With our numbers weakened, and our blood thinned, we might not be able to sustain a family member through the process. The Source could overpower any one of them easily. Would you suggest risking the precious remaining lives of our family?"

Lord Byodou bowed his bulbous head complacently. "Forgive me. I did not mean to anger you, Emperor. The strenuous journey has taken its toll on my manners, apparently. I do not question your plan. We will follow you, as we always have. After all, you of all people understand the Source the best."

As his brother excused himself, the Emperor did not flinch, even as the haunting memories returned to him. He stared into the Source, recalling the moment of sheer terror he felt right before plunging into it. He could still feel its numbing vortex washing away his weakness, its frozen liquid pumping through his veins. The essence that remained within him stirred restlessly, as if it strained to return to its origin.

The Emperor had learned a great deal since his childhood, though. He remained unmoved, staring down the omniscient orb with confident control. Soon, we will be reunited, Gotoutenrin promised his writhing blood. Once you have had your fill of sacrifices, we shall become one... Until then, we have much work to do.

.


.

On another remote planet, a single towering shaft extended from the desolate wastelands. The fortified structure was a Da-Ku prison, drifting in isolation deep within the Dynasty's territory. The minuscule rock it floated on seemed too small in diameter to possibly maintain the erect fortress's frame; this was a deliberate design in the prison's construction. The highest levels were so elevated that the planet's gravity and rotation influenced them differently. Most organic creatures become prone to an utter lack of balance and coordination, as well as incapacitating sickness. Some have been known to collapse and die before the torture even began.

The worst prisoners and offenders of the Dynasty were kept at these highest levels. As the Da-Ku rarely take prisoners, there was more than enough space to hold the captured crew of the Kon-Rensa. The guards had even found enough space to spread the group out completely. Adjacent to each of their cells was an empty one; they had not seen each other for some time. It was only when one was taken out for questioning did they have a chance at sharing glances. When they did, they found themselves gazing into a reflection of their own despair. They found no comfort in being together in this nightmare.

Demetri heard a noise from his end of the hall. He recognized voices, and knew one of the crewmembers had survived another round of suffering, at least for now. The Solari Prince was lying on his stomach, spread flat against the uncomfortable metal floor. He was doing everything he could to lessen the sickening effects of their elevation. He had been dry-heaving for what seemed like eternity, and he was unsure if his legs could ever support him again. There was little hope of being able to walk, much less escape from this prison.

Demetri refused to think of those things. He focused on his pain, ironically, to keep himself from wishful thinking. Don't think ahead, he cried out in his spiraling mind. Don't think ahead, and don't think behind. Right now, that's all there is. Make it through right now, and you'll be okay. Think of right now... or you'll go insane... Stop! Now! Right now!

At the other end of the hall, the guards carelessly threw Ryu to the floor of his cell, smirking as the force field reactivated between them. They left the mighty warrior lying immobile, stripped of his weapons and clothes. The raw skin on his torso was exposed, lacerated and bleeding. A web of wounds crisscrossed his muscled body, many of them appearing infected; the veins were turning black in many areas. A thread of consciousness still tied him to this world, for throughout his torture he had regretfully not passed out once. At least I didn't talk, he thought amidst the searing pain. You'd be proud, kid. He tried to smile to himself, but couldn't find the strength. At least…

Tanshin remained hunched in his solitary cell as the guards exited the cellblock. The wolf-man mourned silently for his comrade's pain, but he knew he was powerless to help. He gazed mournfully at the broken figure; he could see Ryu through the prison walls with his mechanical eye, and noted in despair every detail of the Phanorian's deteriorating condition. Even a warrior such as he would not survive this agony for much longer.

"Hey..." came a feeble sound from one of the cells. Demetri cleared his parched throat and tried to call louder. "Hey. Listen to me… Don't give up. We're still here… with you..." his labored breathing overpowered his words. "You aren't alone..."

"It's best to spare your energy," Tanshin solemnly replied. "Ryu can't hear you, he's finally unconscious."

"Please," Demetri ignored his advice, "Please... talk to me. Say anything. I need to... to hear something... something other than this throbbing... my ears are going to burst..."

"It won't help," the wolf-man sighed, lowering his muzzle in shame. "Just relax."

"Tanshin..." came another faint voice from another direction. "Please... how is Ryu? I need to know..."

Kaze wept through her questions, even though the Da-Ku had left her alone entirely, at least thus far. The Syretta lay in the middle of her cell, her amorphous body flattened by the pressure. She struggled from being drawn to any one side; if she fell into a corner, she found she would be squeezed painfully into the edges. It was excruciating enough to simply lie there, her molecules threatening to separate at any moment. The only upside was that it was nearly impossible to move her, and the guards found it to be more trouble than it was worth. They decided to leave her in a puddle of perpetual torment instead for their amusement.

"He is wounded, but there is still strength within him," Tanshin lied. "He will live." He spared Kaze as much sympathy as he could, but even that was scarce.

"Please..." Demetri moaned again. "Don't stop... talking..."

Tanshin laid his good ear back and covered it with a robotic hand, trying to block out the frustrating sounds. He repressed the swelling sensation of uselessness; he couldn't afford to let himself get angry. His energy was literally leaking from his mechanical parts, rendering him unable to act. He could barely move his metallic frame; the guards had tried transporting him once before they left him alone. When they did decide to torture the wolf-man, they often did it in the cell, and only for a short duration. In this sense, he and Kaze had been lucky.

Ryu was one of the unlucky ones. The Captain was the other.

Gama knew that his first-mate was thinking of him. The psychic alien could sense each of his crewmembers' pain, equally aware of theirs as he was his own. At first, he had visited them in their heads, projecting comfort to them, giving support in any way he could. Eventually, though, as the Da-Ku focused their anguishing techniques on him, the Captain had simply cut off contact, realizing he would need all of his strength just to keep from breaking. He could sense their abandonment, their despair and loneliness. He could also feel the small amount of trust and faith that remained. He steeled his mind against reality, and silently promised his crew he would not relent. He had endured torture from the Da-Ku before; for them, he would endure it a thousand more times. A thousand more times... Dear stars, when will this end?

"Please, tell me..." Demetri continued to gasp against his pain, even though nobody would answer. "Tell me you're still there... I need to know... I need to believe you're still there..."

.


.

The sound that echoed down the unlit hallway wasn't the kind of sound a space station usually made, and the guard on patrol knew it. She just didn't feel like entering the pitch black by herself. She didn't want to signal the other guards on duty either. If it turned out to be nothing, she would certainly be punished. The Da-Ku commanders had no tolerance for that sort of cowardice. She looked around fretfully, wishing someone else would appear. I could just walk away... But, what if it really is something? They'd find out it was me on patrol, and... Oh, why did I have to get picked for this shift?

The sound abruptly stopped. In creeping fear, the guard's brows wound together, and she stared into the darkness reluctantly. She took a deep breath and, with quick resolve, pulled out a light-stick, which she flicked on and rolled across the metal floor. It traveled without fear down the hall, casting a pale-blue across the confined space. An object entered the glow, and gradually a mangled shape was revealed. It was dark in color, and the light glistened off its slimy texture. The guard squinted at the bizarre form, feeling a slight revulsion rising in her. As she recognized a limb- then a hand, then the side of a face- the feeling expanded in her stomach until she felt like she would vomit.

A perfectly straight line, no wider than a hair, shot out of the darkness and through the guard's forehead. Her terror suddenly ceased, and she looked only slightly confused as she slumped to the ground. From the shadows, a bloody figure stepped forward. It was a male, half-dressed in another guard uniform, his skin hanging off in tatters. He studied the dead woman curiously, a smirk spreading over his gruesome face.

"Poor child," cooed a frail, feminine voice from the man's throat. "You weren't supposed to see me like this. Still, it is fortunate for me. I would much prefer your flesh over this one's..."

The gory mess moved towards the body, shedding its skin with each step.

.


.

"It's curious," Lord Henjyou mused to himself. "Out of your crewmembers, you are the one best equipped to handle my torture methods, yet you are the one I enjoy interrogating the most, Captain."

Gama opened one eye; the other was swollen shut, nearly all its blood vessels burst. Still, he stared defiantly at the pair of Da-Ku Lords before him. Taizan stood to the side, the towering metal monster remaining silent. Henjyou leered down upon Gama, restrained against a metal table, and spewed enough senseless garbage for the both of them.

The froggish captain shook his head in mock despair. "None of us are equipped to handle hearing you talk, believe me," he moaned. "I'll tell you whatever you want, as long as you shut up."

Henjyou smiled dangerously through the insult. "That's what I like about you, Gama. Even after all this time, you still got some fight left in you. At least enough to insult the very people who hold your fate in their hands." He maneuvered his hover-chair closer to the table, levitating mere inches from Gama's face. "It's a rather unnecessary jest, though. If you'd rather we have another mental chat, you could have just asked."

Gama's sarcasm vanished, and he suddenly stared straight ahead, as if a troubling thought had entered his mind. Henjyou smiled softly, his black eyes boring into his captive with dangerous intent. The muscles on the green alien's face began to twitch, and he closed his one eye tightly, head bowed under an invisible burden. His small frame began to shake, and a low noise crawled out from his throat. As Henjyou continued to glare, Gama's mouth parted, and then noise grew into a scream of frustration. The Captain's good eye flew open, and he stared at his right arm in sudden alarm. The scream turned from one of frustration to pain as the muscles and tendons contracted unnaturally.

His arm twisted itself against the restraints, turning almost a full rotation. Bones snapped as it bent too far, and the joints popped out of their sockets. Gama cried out with a shrill, terrible sound that reverberated against the very walls. As much as he tried to regain control of his body, he could not overpower the Da-Ku Lord. Only when the arm had rendered itself completely useless did Henjyou release him, and Gama slumped into a tearful heap against the table.

"Ah, how exhilarating!" his tormentor clapped his hands together. "That Phanorian is nowhere near as resilient as you. Quite a cat and mouse game you put up there, I haven't had to strain myself like this in eons." The captain made no smart reply. He ground his toothless jaw together and squinted through the tears, muffled moans making their way out of his closed mouth.

"Now, perhaps we could talk civilly, without your jests." Lord Henjyou leaned back comfortably on his hovering throne, and crossed his ancient hands together peacefully. "I mean, we both know where this is going. Why won't you just tell me?"

Gama continued to shiver in agony, barely drawing breath. He was allowed a moment to regain himself, as the cynical torturer studied his suffering with interest. He finally managed to open his single eye again, and he stared dismally at the Da-Ku Lord. As the moments dragged on in silence, Henjyou let out a rattling sigh. "Do I really have to do it again? Tell me, Gama."

"I've told you," the Captain struggled to speak. "I've told you... a hundred times. We don't know... where he is..."

"I don't believe you. You're hiding him. Where is the Symbion?"

"It's gone!" Gama cried. "Don't you understand? None of us were controlling it!" He had to pause as he shifted accidentally, and searing pain shot up his mangled arm. He gasped in wordless agony.

"Yet it fought for you. It fought against us. It killed four of our family!" Henjyou's pale face grew tinted with outrage. "Why would it do such things, only to vanish from the universe? How do you explain that!"

"You..." Gama groaned. "You don't... understand it... You can't..."

"And I suppose you do?"

"No! That's what I've been telling you! No one... no one knows but Trey... and Aiya... and Trey is gone. Aiya said so herself. Just... just ask her..."

Taizan turned to his father, his creaking armor making the motion audibly obvious. Lord Henjyou turned away in disdain as Gama began to laugh. "Don't tell me... You still can't figure out how to hack into her head? After all this time... not even the mighty Henjyou... some 'black dragon' you..."

"Silence!" The Da-Ku Lord backhanded Gama as hard as he could, feeling his frail hand sting with the strike. He ignored it and thrust a fist into his captive's nose, drawing dark green blood. The impact cracked his knuckles, and Henjyou retreated while cradling his throbbing fingers. Gama's head rolled on his shoulders, but soon the feeble chuckles continued.

"Stick with using your brain," he spat through bloodied lips. "You're not too good... with your hands..."

Henjyou narrowed his eyes, but did not attack again. "You're right," he finally admitted with a sigh. "My son is much more suitable for that line of work." He turned to Taizan with a nod. "See to it, just remember to leave him alive."

The mechanical suit of armor nodded obediently, and turned to the small captive. Gama eyed the brute warily as Lord Henjyou exited the room, determined to give Aiya another try. The screams that echoed after him brought a smile to his withered face.

.


.

The sound of footsteps woke Demetri from his troubled sleep. He raised a heavy head to see two guards dragging a limp Gama to his cell. The exiled Prince tried to lift his hand, not quite sure of the purpose behind the gesture. He managed to get a few fingers off the ground before Gama was out of sight, and thrown loudly into his cell. The guards left without giving any of the other prisoners a glance.

Demetri let his eyelids slam shut, fighting to suppress his hopelessness. The empty moments that followed a fellow prisoners' torture were the worst part of his imprisonment. He wished he could say something to them, give them an uplifting speech and rally their spirits. He wished his mind would procure the words to magically mend all of this. Even his thoughts, however, were weighed down in that dismal cell. His throat was slowly caving in, and his tongue was made of lead. He was useless.

Now... now is the time to save... The words ground against his skull as a painful reminder. I know it is... My will is there, but... I cannot act. I can't do anything, anymore... I've failed you, my friend... I'm not who you thought I was...

A soft noise came from the cell down the hall. "Tanshin?" Kaze rasped faintly, unable to finish the rest of her question.

The wolf-man steeled himself, making certain his voice was steadfast before he attempted to answer. "Gama's... alive," he replied without emotion, refusing to indulge any more information for everyone's sake. Despite his best efforts, Kaze succumbed to weeping. Hearing her gentle sobs nearly broke the cyborg's heart, and he could barely maintain his composure. His long, rabbit-like ear quivered, and he felt an unwelcomed whimper fighting to escape his muzzle.

"I wish..." Kaze whispered, "I wish Trey... were here..."

"He's not!" Tanshin barked viciously, his outburst ricocheting against the metal walls. "He's gone, he's fucking gone! He's not... he's never..." The words echoed back, and he slowly realized what he was doing. A long, mournful peal finally broke through, and Tanshin's stoic composure crumbled.

As their cries of mercy collided into one, Demetri continued to struggle with speaking. The remaining shreds of his soul clawed at his prison, but there were still no words. He listened helplessly while the crew turned on each other, and he scratched at the floor to no avail. He grit his teeth so hard that his gums began to bleed. There was nothing to be done.

No, Demetri refused to give up. There must be something... anything... He could not bear the sounds of their suffering anymore. He would not lay there while such horrors were inflicted upon these people. They meant so much to you, Trey. You cared about them as you would your family. They do not deserve this... this damnation...

A terrifying revelation snaked into his head, and suddenly Demetri knew what he had to do. The final thread of hope unraveled, and he stopped resisting gravity. But if... if I cannot save... there's nothing else to be done but... sacrifice...

As if answering his prayers at last, the door to their cell block buzzed open, followed shortly by the heavy footsteps of an armored guard. Already? Demetri wondered. It's too soon... Ryu must still be unconscious... They aren't torturing them for answers. They're doing it for fun... Tapping into some forgotten reservoir of strength, the Prince managed to push himself a few inches off the floor. Not... anymore...

"Hey," the word left his parched mouth with surprising ease, and it strengthened his resolve. "Over here, you sons... of bitches. Take me, they're useless to you. I know the Symbion, I know... where he is..."

A pair of black boots clamped down in front of his cell. Demetri stared at them in grim victory. "That's it," he chuckled mirthlessly. "Take me... I can handle it..." He raised his cumbersome head, determined to prove his worth. "You want answers? Well I... got them... come and take them..."

As his eyes traveled up the armored figure, the woman's face finally came into view. She studied him as a hint of amusement lifted her pale lips. "Dear, you couldn't handle me right now, much less Henjyou. That sick bastard would have your mind twisted around his fingers before you even laid eyes on him."

"No," Demetri groaned. "I want to go... Take me, damnit! I have... the answers you seek!"

"The answers?" The woman broke into an odd cackle that didn't suit her age. "You poor, pathetic child. Don't waste your breath with lies. You don't have a clue."

"Neither do they!" Demetri cried out. With a powerful thrust, he pushed himself onto his knees. His head swam, and for a moment he began to dry heave, but he ignored his symptoms. "It doesn't matter which of us you take... You will learn nothing!"

"That's the first sensible thing you've said," the guard admitted mockingly. "Now calm yourself. I'm not taking anyone."

"Wh...what?" the Prince stared up at her dubiously. "What... do you want, then?"

"I want to offer a proposition," she continued. "Your freedom, in return for a personal favor."

After a long moment of disbelief, Demetri had to laugh. "This is a joke, right? Psychological torture now?"

Despite his jest, the guard held his stare with dead seriousness. "I do not play games, Demetri. I am offering you your only chance to escape, and to be reunited with him."

His brows furrowed as her words sunk in. "What are you saying? You can't..."

"You want to save everyone don't you? Gama, his crew? And Trey?"

The prisoner froze. "How do you know his name?"

"Because I hold the answers you claim to possess. I am most aware of our fading chances, and I would not see them vanish along with all hope. You can still make this right, Demetri."

The forlorn captive stared at the guard, confusion flooding his judgment. "Who are you?"

The woman raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "I suppose I can trust you with the truth. It is only fair, since I ask you to trust in me."

As the Prince watched in rising horror, the guard raised a sharp fingernail to her forehead and dug the point deep under the skin, drawing a stream of dark blood. She slid the nail down the bridge of her nose, then under. Without flinching, she gruesomely split her top lip, and with blood trickling down her skin, gripped the corners of the cut and pulled. Her lips peeled back to either side of her head, taking her entire face with them.

Demetri stared aghast at the bloody muscles underneath them, dark red wrinkles etched across the cavernous surface. As he looked closer, though, he found that they were not muscles at all. Underneath the woman's face was another one, yet this one was aged beyond time itself. In a single motion, she wiped a swathe of blood from her face, and looked down proudly upon the Solari Prince.

"I am Datsueba," the crone confided, "And I am the only person alive who knows where the Symbion is... along with your precious friend."